August 24, 2007
The phrase "breaking the guitar" may not mean what you think it does.
I had it explained to me on a lovely spring evening at Michael Rosenthal's apartment on West 4th Street in New York in the 1960's. From Michael's front window was a perfect view of the apartment across the street.
"Used to be a couple of English girls who shared that apartment," Michael said to me. "I'd see them coming and going, and I'd think about what they must be like, what their lives were. I ached to meet them.
"Then one day I was at the deli when I saw one of them come in. I invited them both over for drinks. They came, I gave them some nice wine, we talked a little. Very little. It was boring. They were ordinary. I really had nothing to say to them; they weren't what I expected. I had broken the guitar."
I told him I had never heard the expression "breaking the guitar."
"Well, I used to have this guitar. It was my life. I worked at it. Tried to learn how to really play it. It was a shining symbol to me -- my life as a guitar player. Man, I loved that guitar.
"I loved it so much when I got really mad at the way things were going I would say, 'I'm gonna break that guitar!'"
"The day came when I could control my rage no longer -- rage at something relatively insignificant, I might add. I said, 'I'm gonna break that guitar!' and I did it. I smashed it.
"Trouble was, then I had no guitar. It wasn't satisfying to break it either. The reality of a broken guitar was that I now had a useless guitar. No point."
For years I used the expression "breaking the guitar" to describe a dramatic action that disappoints. A big, longed-for gesture that brings no satisfaction except in the fantasy before it happens. But whenever I talked about breaking the guitar, I had to tell the Michael Rosenthal story, and then explain it. Nobody ever seemed to understand. I gave it up until now.
If you've broken the guitar, or been tempted to, maybe you'll get it. I don't use the expression much, but I would if it had caught on, or if my listeners had. I offer it to you to see if its time has come. Otherwise, I've just broken the guitar by telling the story.