Strike a Minor Chord

By C.W. Blackwell

I was thirteen when I strummed my first guitar chord—a G major—on my father’s 12-string Epiphone acoustic. He’d started over with a new family in Santa Rosa just a few hours north of where I grew up, and I was visiting for summer break when he suggested I learn a few chords. He and my stepmother worked day shifts, and with my new little brothers at daycare, I didn’t have much to do but sit around and learn something new. Sometimes I wondered why I had come to visit at all. There were already signs of discord in the marriage, and one more body in the small apartment seemed to tip the scales the wrong direction. Some couples fight quietly, and some are like two raccoons trying to bite each other’s tits off. You might guess which one is more apt for the purposes of this story.

The thing about major chords is they sound very happy, almost triumphant. All the lyric sheets in my father’s guitar case were in major keys—in fact, all were kitschy Jimmy Buffet songs with the emotional resonance of a tropical sunburn. I don’t mean to sully Uncle Jimmy’s reputation as a songwriter—he cornered the market on male boomer escapist music and did quite well for himself. But we were still a few months from the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind and an entire generation was yearning for the kind of gritty catharsis that none of the 1980s hair metal bands could deliver. Likewise, no major chord could ever adequately capture the frustration of having parents from the “Me Generation.” Or the eerie isolation of being a “latch-key kid.”

So I learned the minor chords.

And I played until my fingers bled.

The minor chords have a blue-sounding, smoky vibe. They contain within their pearly clutch of notes a strong dissonance that wants to be resolved. And if you are someone like me who has struggled with way-down rock-bottom depression, there’s a comforting recognition in minor chords that is hard to find anywhere else. At the risk of sounding New Age, there is a vibration at work that seems to match the frequencies of someone who also wants to be resolved. And you can find it outside of music, too—in the paintings of Edward Hopper, the poems of Louise Glück or Lynda Hull, the photography of Dorothea Lange. You know it resonates when you can feel it in your marrow, and that, of course, is the great universality of art.

When you’re a kid and you develop an interest, there is always a reaction that maybe you like it too much and need to find something else to do. So it was decided that instead of playing the guitar all summer, I would take the city bus to the Santa Rosa YMCA where other latch-keys played checkers with minimal supervision. Here, I met a kid named Sergio whose father was a bus mechanic and mother was a florist. His parents had split, and both had started new families just like mine. He told me he’d also seen his share of broken furniture and fist-sized holes in the sheetrock. We shot pool like a couple of slick barflies, and they even had an old classical acoustic with a missing string that I’d tinker around with. Sergio showed me how to put backspin on a cue ball so it wouldn’t drop in the pocket, and I taught him how to play an A minor chord, even though it was just an A5 because of the missing string. Once, he stole a half-pack of cigarettes from the glovebox of his father’s car and we smoked behind the Arco station on Fourth Street until we got sick.

Later that week, my father told me he was proud of me for the first time.

It wasn’t because of the guitar playing, or because I’d been leaving the house like he wanted, but because I had made a friend in a new city. My stepmother even invited him over for dinner if I wanted. I brought it up to Sergio a few times, but he always shrugged it off. Once he said he was visiting a cousin in Reno, and another time he said his father had won tickets to a baseball game. He had a list of regrets at the ready—family tragedies, fishing trips, a secret girlfriend. For the rest of the summer, I kept Sergio’s excuses ready whenever it was suggested he come to visit. I memorized them all by heart. Because the truth is—and this is a difficult thing to admit—Sergio wasn’t real. Maybe he was an alter ego, or maybe I was just a lonely kid with a big imagination. But when your father tells you he’s proud of you for making a new friend, it’s hard to come clean about it. So I kept going to the YMCA and shooting pool by myself, tuning up the old nylon string they kept in the water heater closet. I’d study the people on the city bus and wonder about their lives. Most days, mine was the only name on the YMCA sign-in sheet. It all felt pointless, but I was beginning to embrace a certain brand of nihilism that would later become a major obsession in my noir stories.

When I went home at the end of the summer, I swapped the acoustic guitar for a Fender Stratocaster and an amp with a decent distortion channel. By the end of ‘91, it was clear that whatever had broken loose from the Seattle music scene wasn’t soon going away. I started a band and wrote most of the songs, and music became my entire identity. Playing lead guitar, I wasn’t limited to strumming minor chords, but I could use bends and slides and hammer-ons and tremolo to better broadcast my own frequency. Soon we were playing shows, parties, nightclubs. We recorded in the studio. It was exhilarating to focus all my energy on creative expression and to have a talent admired by my peers.

But things have a way of crashing down.

I failed out of high school, and soon after my eighteenth birthday, my parents kicked me out. I couch-surfed for a while, worked as much as I could to stay afloat. Night shifts at the gas station, janitorial work, fixing flat tires. I collected odd jobs like bottle caps. I tried to keep my guitar within reach, but it grew more and more distant. The mundane crept in and the magic slipped out. And what happens to all of us happened to me, too—the years piled on. By my mid-thirties I was commuting three hours a day in Bay Area traffic in a beat-up car with no air conditioning and a busted stereo. Aside from a few halfhearted attempts at returning to the music scene, my time on stage was largely over. Eventually, I stopped chasing dreams and I started chasing paychecks.

Sometimes, while sitting in heavy traffic on HWY 880 in triple-digit weather, sweat dripping down the back of my neck, I wondered what my buddy Sergio would have been up to had he somehow entered our mortal plane. Maybe he would have become a professional pool player, working the Reno circuits, shacked up with an exotic dancer named Raylene or Cayenne. Or maybe his father would have set him up with his own SNAP-ON tool box, and he’d gotten his ASE certification to work heavy equipment gigs to support his growing family. But why not both? He could have spent years punching a clock at the bus yard to make his family proud but got mixed up with Raylene after stopping to fix her car in a 7-Eleven parking lot at the end of his shift, and now he was about to make a decision that would change his life forever.

You can see where this is going.

The music was coming back, but it wasn’t music anymore, it was something else. The minor chords had become tone and tenor, and the chord progression was plot. The lyrics were dialogue and the rhythm was sentence length and pacing. And the big tremolo bends at the twelfth fret were the wails of a fictional character at the nadir of their story arc, facing a dark midnight of the soul. Somewhere in the deep recesses of my psyche, a musician was on his deathbed and a writer was getting his wings.

Writing suits me. I can make it do things I could never do with a four-minute song. I can take my time with character development and create sprawling conversations about the effects of gonzo capitalism, broken rental markets, and rising inequality on working class Americans. I can wonder about the vastness of the universe, or better yet, create characters who can do the wondering for me. Music can accomplish this too, but with writing I can do it more slowly, introducing different conflicts and revealing complex hidden truths from different perspectives over hundreds of pages. I can write at night without waking my family, or on my lunch break, sitting in the parking lot with a deli sandwich. But most importantly, I can reveal parts of myself that are difficult to explain in casual conversations—like, for example, my fascination with why and how we choose to persist in a universe that seemingly has no cosmic meaning. People tell me they like my writing, and for the most part, I trust them when they tell me. But sometimes it’s followed up with I just don’t know what it means. It’s hard for me to say that my stories don’t mean anything, because they do—in a way. There’s no denying that emotional pain is real, and it means something when you feel it, and when you long for it to ease. Joy is real and it means something, too. Recognizing pain and joy in others is perhaps the most meaningful connection with reality. But I truly believe that’s where it begins and ends, so that’s where I write from—characters who experience profound pain and joy before being shunted into a cosmic void and forgotten.

I love writing crime noir because it’s always been the minor chords that have fascinated me the most, the discord that wants to be resolved, the recognition of that same yearning in others, and ultimately, the slow but persistent annihilation of everything.

Editor’s note: I asked CW to create a playlist for his column and, damn, did he ever! We are excited to share Reckon Review’s debut playlist on Spotify:   CW Blackwell: Strike a Minor Chord

author C.W. Blackwell
C.W. Blackwell

C.W. Blackwell is an American author from the Central Coast of California. His recent short stories have appeared with Shotgun Honey, Reckon Review, Tough Magazine, Rock and a Hard Place Magazine, and Mystery Magazine. He is a 2021 Derringer award winner and four-time Derringer finalist. His fiction novellas Song of the Red Squire and Hard Mountain Clay are available where books are sold.