THE MODERATELY FED ARTIST
By AUSTIN WHITELY
“Daddy never played it like that.” That’s how a man who almost became kin by marriage described my musical style. After finishing a side job with him, my paint stained, calloused hands had found their way around the neck of the Alvarez 5021 12-string acoustic. My near-kin had last glimpsed the guitar 30-plus years earlier to the likes of his dad strumming away John Denver hits. “Rocky Mountain High” was nothing like what I was playing. His father would softly float through the popular, easy-on-the-ears acoustic ballads of his time, giving a much needed human characteristic to his brash, militant bravado, while I, on the other hand, eject violent chords and scream whatever affects me, curtailing my reservedness and allowing for a deeper look into myself.
First Sergeant David Henry, black belt Hapkido artist and all around badass, bought the acoustic without ever knowing it would land in my hands. The stamp through the soundhole reads “Made in Korea,” and, coincidentally, that was where David Henry was made into the infamous military man he became known as.
He is said to have been a man of few words, strong and stout. A man’s man. “Rambo ain’t got shit on him,” his offspring have touted. They tell stories about him going to bars to start fights, simply because he was trained to kill and knew he could dismantle any attempts to thwart his attack. Yet he would go home quietly afterward and play bluegrass stylings and folk renditions. Apart from the nights when he would brutalize unsuspecting souls, he would sit around his house and strum, mesmerizing his children. The same dad who ordered commands, yelled expletives, and demanded excellence would put a filter on his default nature and wear a mask of sensitivity and compassion through his music; at a glance, his acoustic made him seem like a normal human being.
My relationship with his guitar began when, all bridges burnt and at the mercy of the Commonwealth courts, I “volunteered” myself for rehab. Court ordered, with my mind disenthralled from pharmaceutical grips, my life had no direction. My words had no voice. Although surrounded by crowds of people, I felt lonely. In regulated amounts, I found that isolation can be a healthy retreat, and I found solace there. In the ways in which I’ve abused everything in life, mainly drugs and family ties, treating my unimpassioned life with yet more isolation only allowed the levees to hold back the tides. Eventually, the barrier would break, and I would crumple. I needed an outlet. Where was my escape?
David Henry’s daughter, the one who rescued the instrument from family inheritance moneygrubbers, gave me the Alvarez as a fostering of the arts, as a sign of being proud of my actions, and to have her dad’s wishes remain intact. “He would want it played,” she said. She would digress at my attempts to give back the loaned guitar, which became my one true antidote while I was institutionalized.
Watch the writer perform “Soothsaid,” one of the songs he wrote while in rehab.
It’s just metal strings strung across a wooden box, but the emotions that can be released and the stories it can tell are limitless. The First Sergeant’s unaware actions put a weapon in my hands, a way to emote—a way to annihilate my past without repercussions. Like a phoenix from the ashes, I was empowered to be able to create from past destruction. All memories, or life experiences, good or bad, are now building blocks for songs. Strap them to a melody, and propel them with rhythm. Angst-filled yells don’t hurt either.
Even after I lied to and stole from his daughter, the acoustic was passed to me, after I’d sorted through past wreckage and mended my ways; it was a sign of redemption, of things to come, and of hope and faith. No matter how epic a song I construct, it always starts with two pieces: the 12-string and my unadulterated experiences.
Two months out of rehab, I was able to call Sergeant Henry’s daughter and tell her that her daddy’s guitar was on the radio. It had given me a purpose, a reason to be. Even after death, a trained war machine gave me life.