Flesh Guitar

Flesh Guitar

by Geoff Nicholson

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Guitar players change lives. Everybody knows that. Geoff Nicholson's deliriously funny Flesh Guitar is an overstimulated love letter to the guitar, complete with feedback, reverb, and special guest appearances, with a lead player the likes of whom has not been seen since Hendrix departed this earth.

Into the Havoc Bar and Grill, an end-of-the-world


Guitar players change lives. Everybody knows that. Geoff Nicholson's deliriously funny Flesh Guitar is an overstimulated love letter to the guitar, complete with feedback, reverb, and special guest appearances, with a lead player the likes of whom has not been seen since Hendrix departed this earth.

Into the Havoc Bar and Grill, an end-of-the-world watering hole on the outer fringes of the metropolis, walks the entertainment, Jenny Slade. She has the look down: beat-up leather jacket, motorcycle boots, cheekbones, and wild hair. But she's no ordinary guitar heroine. Her guitar is like none her audience has ever seen, part deadly weapon, part creature from some alien lagoon. Is that hair? Are those nipples? Is it flesh? Where does Jenny Slade come from? Where does she go? Geoff Nicholson fans know that wherever that is, the ride will be like no other.

"The electric guitar is Nicholson's latest test case and he nails it. Flesh Guitar is brilliant and clever beyond your wildest dreams." --Newsday

"A blackly comic homage to Western culture's obsessive love affair with the electric guitar . . . always clever."--The New York Times Book Review

"[Flesh Guitar] should prove, once and for all, that Nicholson is incomparable."--Independent on Sunday

Geoff Nicholson is the author of twelve novels, including Bleeding London, shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize. His short stories are widely published, and four of his novels have been optioned for film.

Editorial Reviews

Stephanie Zacharek

For such a short book, Geoff Nicholson's Flesh Guitar represents a pretty ambitious undertaking. Half sprawling, witty novel, half primer on the physical appeal and spiritual inexplicabilities of the guitar, it tries to do far too much at once -- and ultimately comes off as just so much noodling. Nicholson has built a sturdy career out of writing pleasingly wild books (like Footsucker in 1996); Flesh Guitar is probably just an instance of a hugely inventive novelist grabbing the chance to write about something he feels passionately toward and ultimately writing too much around it.

Of course, it could happen to anyone, especially with a subject this luscious. A guitar is an enigmatic and wonderful thing -- "a sexy instrument to touch and to look at, being simultaneously curvy and phallic," as Nicholson writes. But he's more in tune with the instrument than he is with his lead character, a guitar hero named Jenny Slade, who in the opening sequence wrenches such ungodly sounds out of her instrument that she makes it bleed. And no wonder: In a former life, her guitar -- which looks as if it's made of flesh, with knots in the wood that resemble nipples and pickups that "look like three parallel bands of livid scar tissue" -- was an actual human being, some poor sod who worked in a guitar store and woke up one day with strings stretched against his torso. There's much more craziness, too. We meet a bitter former guitar genius who lost his left arm in a freak chain saw accident, travel with Slade through time as she appears to famous guitarists (Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Robert Johnson) just before their deaths and eavesdrop on her encounters with a haughty downtown composer and scenester known as Tom Scorn (rhymes with Zorn).

Intertwined with all this fun and frolic are chapters in which a bright but annoying guitar wanker named Bob, who is Jenny Slade's No. 1 fan, tutors a woman bartender in the lore and mystery of the instrument and of Slade; we also get selections from his fanzine, the Journal of Sladean Studies. Nicholson has dry cleverness to burn, enough to make even this formless heap of a novel mildly entertaining. (A review in Bob's fanzine of a movie that traces the history of one guitar pick from ancient times to the present includes the line "The casting of Sappho was always going to be tricky, and Helen Mirren battles gamely with the role without being utterly convincing.") But there's an overactive feverishness to Nicholson's sense of invention. Flesh Guitar is less a novel than a novelty act, a sprawling, shapeless solo from a performer who usually seems to know what he's doing. Could be he just had an off night. -- Salon

...[S]tartling and fiendishly funny....It's a surprisingly intoxicating literary trip.
Kirkus Reviews
The wildly inventive Nicholson (Bleeding London, 1997, etc.) exuberantly lives up to his reputation with this witty, ingenious fable about a rock-and-roll guitarist. Many writers have come to grief trying to create with words an approximation of music's content and texture. Nicholson wisely sidesteps the issue by concentrating instead on the impact of the young and mysterious Jenny Slade's music on her audiences. Jenny, bright (it's rumored she studied at the Sorbonne, or Oxford), a loner, either bored or uninterested by most things not having to do with music, wants to be something other than a mere virtuoso. While she is, by all accounts, a phenomenally gifted guitarist, she's constantly driven to push the boundaries: much of what she creates (performed solo on guitar) sounds more like noise than melody. Yet it has a deep, unsettling, almost addictive effect on her audiences. Part of her ability to mesmerize may come from the peculiar guitar she travels with: it's shaped vaguely like a human torso and seems, at the climax of her concerts, to bleed. While the story follows, ironically, the outlines of a quest narrative (with Jenny as a dedicated seeker, searching to unlock the riddles at "the heart of the universe" with her music), Nicholson can't resist embroidering the tale with some typically witty and idiosyncratic touches. There is, for instance, Jenny's near-lethal encounter with Freddie Terrano, the legendary one-armed guitarist. And sprinkled throughout are excerpts from articles in the Journal of Sladean Studies, devoted to explicating her life and art, and forming a wonderful parody of academic dissections of pop culture. Then there's the language:Nicholson's characters are invariably gifted with a line of bright, sardonic chat. Jenny's quest leads her eventually to a kind of revelation, and, in an end both droll and moving, to silence. A deft entertainment, bright, surprising, and, in its consideration of the impact of popular music on our imaginations, quite penetrating.

Product Details

Overlook Press, The
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.38(w) x 9.34(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


She throws open the door and walks into an end-of-the-world watering hole called the Havoc Bar and Grill, a converted research laboratory somewhere on the outer fringes of the metropolis. She is carrying a guitar. Its case looks ordinary enough. It is scuffed and well-travelled, her name -- JENNY SLADE -- is stencilled on the side, and it has a few old stickers for amp and effects manufacturers, but there is nothing about the case that gives any hint of what's inside.

    The bar's decor is early post-nuclear holocaust; exposed pipes and ducting, mutilated concrete, buckled metal furniture. The customers might have been specially designed to match. The crowd is male, drunk, aggressive, misogynistic, and adolescent in mind, if not in age. They all lack a certain something: good looks, teeth, fingers, brain cells. Undifferentiated hostility hangs over them like a cloud of swamp gas. Behind the bar a waif-like barmaid does her best to keep the rabble in check, at least while they're ordering their drinks. The badge on her white T-shirt says she's called Kate.

    One of the drinkers looks at Jenny Slade and says, `Hey, the stripper's arrived,' but even he knows it's not a good joke. She doesn't look at all like a stripper. She doesn't look much like a guitar player either. Oh sure, she has the beat-up leather jacket and the motorcycle boots. And she has the cheekbones and the mess of wild hair, but she isn't posing as some kind of guitar heroine. She isn't playing at being tough. She looks strong but not hard-bitten. She looks self-possessed and able to take care of herself, but that hasn't destroyed an essential sensitivity and vulnerability, even a fragility. Jenny looks over her feral audience and smiles. She's played far more difficult rooms than this one.

    She can't remember a time when she didn't play the guitar. She was the kind of kid who sat alone in Dad's garage, yanking weird noise out of a plywood cheese-grater guitar. That might have been considered a strange thing for a good-looking teenage girl to be doing, but she had always been far beyond that kind of suburban nonsense.

    Even back then she liked to think of herself as a relentless experimentalist. She employed what she only learned later was called `extended technique'. She could play conventionally enough when the gig required it, but at other times she attacked the guitar with hammers, box spanners, nail guns, adzes, spokeshaves. She would dangle house keys, six-inch nails, rusty razor blades, spark plugs, nipple clamps, from the strings. She loved feedback, distortion, sheer noise. She liked to abuse both guitar and equipment. She knew this wasn't going to get her into the charts but it made her happy, and if it didn't always make her audiences happy that was OK, since for a long time she seldom had an audience.

    She orders a beer from the barmaid and props the guitar case against the bar. The manager of the Havoc, a bald, bearded ex-biker, comes over and asks, `What kind of axe you got in there?'

    `It's custom made.'

    `Yeah? Can you play it?'

    `Yes, thanks,' she says.

    `Tell you what,' he says, with what he takes to be a devilish glint in his eyes, `the beer's on the house if you can get up on the stage and keep my customers entertained for a couple of numbers.'

    `Oh, I can do that,' she says, and her face says that she can do a lot more besides.

    The barman tells her she can plug into an old Brand X ten-watt amplifier, miked into the house PA. He admits it isn't an ideal arrangement, but it's fine by her. She knows that in the end it isn't a matter of equipment.

    By now the crowd is taking quite an interest. They're too hip in their malevolence actively to taunt her, but they leave their seats and the pool table, and they crowd in around the bar's tiny stage, their body language challenging her to impress them.

    She stands on the stage, looking suddenly much smaller and younger. She still hasn't taken the guitar out of its case, but now she snaps open the clasps. There's a noise like a sigh, and a wisp of what looks like steam, or maybe even hot breath, billows from the case.

    She reaches inside and takes out this thing. Well yes, you'd have to admit it was a guitar, but none of these drinkers, these lovers of good ol' rock and roll, has ever seen one like this before. The neck is made out of some kind of unnaturally lustrous metal, so shiny it almost has a glow to it. It is long and thick, and convincingly phallic. The strings run along its length, ultra light, ultra malleable, and end at the machine heads in a lethal-looking tangle of spikes and cogs and chains.

    But this is the orthodox bit of the guitar. It's the body that defies belief. It is shaped like an amoeba, which is to say that it's curvy but essentially shapeless; and it appears at first glance to be made out of some sort of tan-coloured plastic. But the more you look, the less it appears to be plastic at all. In fact it looks more like a piece of soft, private flesh, and in places there are growths of hair bursting out in thick, black, irregular tufts. There are blemishes that on a piece of wood might look like knots, but here they look disturbingly like nipples, and the pickups look like three parallel bands of livid scar tissue.

    `Hey, what do you call that sucker?' someone yells.

    `I call it a guitar,' Jenny Slade answers quietly.

    She straps it on, this instrument that looks part deadly weapon and part creature from some alien lagoon. She plugs a lead into a deep orifice in the thing's surface, and the bar manager takes the other end of the lead and runs it into the amp.

    Without tuning up she grabs the neck at the seventh fret, holds down a fairly straightforward-looking chord, and picks out a lazy arpeggio with her plectrum hand. Well, the guitar isn't in standard tuning, that's for sure. The chord contains all kinds of weird harmonies, unisons, octaves, diminished sevenths, augmented fourths, suspended ninths. In fact it sounds like the richest, most complicated chord anyone has ever heard. And that guitar has absolutely incredible sustain. She's barely touched the strings and yet the whole room is filled with that dense, ringing, fluid sound. It's not so very loud, yet it demands absolute attention. It isn't a sound you could dance to exactly but it sure keeps you on your feet.

    And as the music hangs in the air the guitar tone is not a wholly pleasant sound. It has elements of feedback in it, elements of white noise, of grunge and skronk. And yet it remains listenable and utterly compelling. Nobody's walking out of this performance.

    It is a truth universally acknowledged that when somebody comes on stage and makes horrible noise with, say, a saxophone, the audience tends to dismiss the performance as `just a load of fucking about'. Whereas when somebody comes on stage and makes horrible noise with an electric guitar, the audience is far more likely to say, `Holy moly! Ruined cities of sonic mayhem! Give me more!' One day Jenny thinks she may come to understand the reason for this, but for now she's happy just to take advantage of the fact.

    She might have stayed a bedroom guitarist all her life if it hadn't been for a dream she had. It was the last of a series. Often these dreams were full of frustration; she would be on stage playing an electric guitar in front of an audience and something would always be wrong. Sometimes she couldn't get the guitar in tune, sometimes it was too quiet to be heard, sometimes the lead from the guitar to the amplifier was too short to be usable.

    But this final dream was different in several ways. In this one she didn't even get as far as going on stage, and yet there was no frustration. She simply arrived at a strange hall in a strange town and outside was a poster advertising her presence. The poster said, `The Flesh Guitar of Jenny Slade', and there was a crowd of thousands trying to get into the hall.

    She liked the name. Even in the dream it seemed kind of absurd and funny, and she knew how important a catchy name is for entry-level rock musicians. Next day she set about forming a band, Jenny Slade and the Flesh Guitars; and sure enough she did eventually see her name on a poster, and even occasionally saw crowds of people going into a hall.

    It was not in the strictest sense a prophetic dream. Yes, it did forecast what was to happen, but only because Jenny made it happen. But if she hadn't had the dream perhaps it would never have happened at all.

    Mostly her early fantasy life didn't come so directly from the unconscious. Some of it was just playing around in front of a mirror, some of it was just rock and roll teen dreams. She imagined performing under the name of Juanita and Her Musical Snakes. She would come on stage with a Gibson Moderne and half a dozen boa constrictors of various ages, lengths and diameters. The more sedate of these would grip themselves around the guitar neck and hold down unresolved chord shapes, while the younger more slender critters would squirm across the strings creating wild atonal arpeggios. The liveliest snake, whom she nicknamed Fidel, would curl himself around the tremolo arm and create a profound and unworldly vibrato. The audience would love it. But even in the fantasy Jenny was aware that this was just a novelty act, and she wanted more than that.

    Another fantasy: If a guitar is cranked up high enough, with the amp, and pickups and fuzz box all sex on maximum, even the slightest vibration, a knock on the body, the mere act of picking up the instrument will produce noise. In one of her earliest, most radical pieces Jenny's playing consisted of no more than blowing on her guitar strings.

    In the fantasy she imagines she is in an empty, desolate landscape, strapped into a kind of wheeled electric chair. The wheels fit on to railway tracks, and there is a powerful engine attached to the back of the chair. She is holding a guitar, and it is cranked up so that every breath of wind sets the strings roaring. A wireless transmitter sends signals from the pickups to a mountainous wall of amps and speakers set up some distance away.

    When the moment comes, the engine will propel the chair along the railway track, and the rush of air will make the guitar whine; then, when the track runs out, like in some Roadrunner cartoon, she will be propelled into space, into a vast, deep canyon, still strapped to the chair, still clutching the guitar. And as she falls through the air the guitar screams and sings, and she knows that when she and guitar eventually hit the ground, the most wild, eloquent and destructive music will issue from the speakers.

    And finally there is the fantasy of playing to a crowd of fierce, low-brow, blue-collar yobs; but the Havoc Bar and Grill is all too real, no fantasy at all.

    Jenny's guitar continues to fill the place. Her playing remains simple and unostentatious. She hardly seems to be doing anything, scarcely playing at all, and yet this strange, wonderful music continues to spill from the guitar. The music gets ever more complex and darker, gets louder and louder, and before long it seems to be the sound of planets melting, of death factories imploding, of mythical beasts being slaughtered, the sound of air moving and valves dying. It goes on and on, timelessly, constant, yet ever changing.

    And as the crowd watches, increasingly spellbound, the guitar seems to develop a life of its own. It seems to be breathing, to be pulsing with its own heartbeat. And then the finale. Just when you can't imagine how Jenny Slade can possibly embellish or prolong the music, and when you can't see how she's ever going to bring it to a conclusion, the guitar starts to bleed. Thick warm blood starts to ooze from the scar tissue of the pickups, trickles down the guitar's body, makes dark, scattered blots on the stage.

    It's a hard act to follow. The audience is silent, but gives Jenny what she wants and needs; unqualified, undivided attention. And she takes certain energies away from them. But that's OK, it's not as if they were using those energies for anything much. As forms of vampirism go, this one is relatively benevolent. She brings the music to an end, a long diminuendo, a series of descending melancholy minor chords.

    Jenny would always claim that guitar playing has something in common with chaos theory. A simple movement of her plectrum, a pluck of a string, a movement no greater or more dramatic than that of a butterfly's wing, would create a signal which could sound as loud, as complex, as elaborate as the sounds that might accompany the end of the world.

    The music starts to evaporate. Smoke and decay and a new silence hang in the air. The customers in the bar are not quite sure what they've heard or seen, but they're suddenly in need, acutely aware that they're dying for a drink. They huddle around the bar, and the barmaid has a hard time coping with their urgent demands for more booze.

    Nobody applauds Jenny Slade. It wasn't that kind of performance, but she's well contented with the audience response. She sits down at a corner table and the manager sends over a beer. The crowd are in awe of her, deferential and too shy to approach her. Jenny slips her guitar into its case and snaps its lid shut with a bold, decisive gesture. Done it. It's finished.

    Nearby is a young kid, not more than seventeen years old, all Celtic tattoos, multiple piercings, blond hair and dirty denim, a tough cherub. He's alone at a table full of empty beer bottles lined up like ten pins, but he appears sober. When Jenny looks towards him he turns his gaze aside, but he can't ignore her when she says, `You're a guitar player, aren't you?'

    `That's right,' he admits. `How could you tell?'

    `The way you watched me play. The way you twitched your fingers.'

    He grins shyly. `Yeah, I should stop playing air guitar, shouldn't I?'

    `I've got something I want to give you,' Jenny says.

    He blushes, aware of the sexual innuendo, but he can't respond, and his embarrassment turns to dumb amazement as Jenny Slade hands him her guitar.

    `It's all yours,' she says, and she drains her beer and heads for the exit.

    `Hey, hey,' the boy says, and he gets up and pursues her out on to the street. All eyes from the bar turn and look out through the grey mottled windows to watch the dumbshow that now takes place; his mimed reluctance to accept the gift, Jenny Slade's absolute refusal to take no for an answer. They watch as finally Jenny walks away and the boy doesn't follow her. The guitar is his, though he has no idea what future comes with it. He is too stunned to return to the bar, and he too wanders off into the night, guitar in hand, but in the opposite direction from Jenny.

    `What was that all about?' Kate the barmaid asks. `Of all the juke joints in all the world, why here? What did she want?'

    None of the drinkers offers an answer; they've already got enough to think about. That was quite some cabaret turn they just witnessed. They finish their beers and slowly start to drift away. The manager talks of closing early, and Kate begins cleaning up the bar and stacking some of the chairs.

    At which point the door of the bar is thrown open again. This time it's a plump, uncool lad in a tangle of thick, ill-fitting clothes, laden down with several carrier bags, a briefcase, a rucksack. Greasy hair is tucked in behind his ears and his face shows the trouble he's having breathing. He's panting like a greyhound and the sweat pours down the sides of his nose, letting his horn-rims slip so that he peers over the top of them. He's exactly the kind of nerd the bar's clientele would normally have a lot of fun taking apart. He speaks only with great effort.

    `Am I too late?' he asks of the almost empty room.

    Nobody responds and he hustles up to the bar. The manager ignores him completely and the barmaid carries on with her stacking, but eventually she calls across the room to ask what he wants.

    `Did I miss Jenny Slade?' he asks, but something in his voice shows that he already knows the answer.

    `Was that her name?' Kate replies. `Yeah, you missed a good show.'

    `A good show,' he repeats bleakly.

    `Actually,' she says, `it was more than a good show. It was a great show, totally cool. I was completely blown away.'

    He slams his fist down on the bar and for a moment it looks as though he's going to do the same thing with his head. There are tears in his eyes, tears of pain and absolute despair.

    `Can I get you a drink?' Kate asks sympathetically.

    `Yes, whisky, lots of it.'

    She eyes him uncertainly. He's young, doesn't look as though he's much of a drinker, but he definitely needs something to sustain and console him.

    `Water with that?' she enquires.

    He doesn't reply so she dilutes the whisky with a good splash of water. She doesn't know why she should care. She sees young men drink themselves into oblivion every night of the week, but there does seem to be something uniquely vulnerable about this guy.

    `Come far?' she asks.

    `From the ends of the earth.'

    `Yeah, you really missed something special,' Kate says.

    `I know,' he yells. `I KNOW THAT!'

    The manager glances over, wondering if the guy's a troublemaker in need of bouncing, but he seems harmless enough and Kate is a much tougher cookie than she looks. The new arrival takes off his spectacles and lets the sweat and tears run freely down his wide, rounded cheeks.

    `Please tell me about it,' he sobs.


    `Describe Jenny Slade's performance to me. Please.'

    The barmaid tries but it isn't easy. She can't put her enthusiasm into words, can't begin to express the excitement of it. Besides, he wants masses of detail, more than she can provide. She wasn't all that aware, for instance, of how Jenny Slade was dressed or how she stood or what the piece of music was, or what gauge of string she was using. Kate just knows that she loved it. Her account is lively but it does nothing to enliven the new customer. The more she enthuses, the more miserable he becomes.

    `What's your name anyway?' she asks.

    `Bob,' he says. `Bob Arnold, and I'm Jenny Slade's number one fan.'

    `Is that right?'

    `Yes, it is.'

    `Well, you have very good taste. So how come I never heard of her before?'

    `Because she's a cult,' Bob says shortly.

    `Tell me more.'

    `How long have you got?'

    Kate thinks of the cheap, cold, low-ceilinged room that she calls home, a place she doesn't want to return to. Then she contemplates a bar full of drink, the offer of company and the chance to hear more about Jenny Slade, though admittedly from a guy who looks like a nerd, and she replies encouragingly, `I've got as long as it takes.'

Meet the Author

Geoff Nicholson is the author of twenty books, including Sex Collectors, Hunters and Gatherers, The Food Chain, and Bleeding London, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize. He divides his time between Los Angeles and London

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