"Perfection is realized only in the moment.
The past tugs, the future holds.
In the moment, no resistance"
Best Buy during the holidays is a special kind of hell. Swarms of soccer moms trailing toddlers, looking for the new game of the year. Overweight dads butt-glued into recliners in front of NASA-style walls of aggressive televisions, commenting on the silent football games arrayed before them. Hordes of middle aged couples making dreadfully misguided computer purchases.
But the best part of the Best Buy holiday extravaganza are the demo kids. And it was one of these kids who showed me something I will never see again.
Guitar Hero 3. "Through the Fire and the Flames." Expert.
This is a good year for Demo kids. At our local (meaning a half-hour drive) Best Buy there are several honey-pots distributed. Each is well placed in order to siphon off parental traffic towards easy-to-purchase, high-margin merchandise. Along one aisle, a big screen TV is set in a small 12 by 12 carpet square, with a 5.1 sound system (the rear speakers on mic stands) and a handful of low-to-the-ground "gaming chairs."
In the cabinet under the TV sits an Xbox 360. In the chairs sit - perpetually - three teenage boys, their eyes intent on game-du-jour. This Sunday, it was Halo 3 splitscreen. Nobody was deluding themselves that this was any kind of demo - these kids were settling a score, and they were there for the duration.
At the main entrance, a much larger setup is dedicated to Rock Band. Tellingly, the guitars are both Guitar Hero 2 era wired Explorers, the workhorse standard in the guitar game universe. The drum kit features duct tape in several places. As I walk by, 4 teenage boys are playing "Maps" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a choice not only unlikely due to the song's laconic and decidedly non-hardcore tone, but also due to the fact that one of the boys is actually singing, amplified, and doing it quite well. That Rock Band has brought baggy-trousered boys out of their basements to actually sing in public is a testament to the game's power. That my four year old son Jake is also singing every word with perfect diction and not-half-bad tone is a testament to how many hours I've played it, not any expression of talent on his part.
And then there's the Guitar Hero setup. Let's face it, if there was a battle going on between Rock Band and Guitar Hero 3, GH3 not only lost, it packed up its marbles and went home. An entertaining extension of the franchise to be sure, it is been relegated to a mid-aisle station in the PC gaming ghetto, not even worthy of console-land real estate. The Xbox 360 is perched atop the shelves connected to a paltry 20-something standard-definition screen. One heavily abused wired Gibson guitar hangs by its strap, calling out to me even though I know I have the game at home, can't play anything particularly impressive, and have no time to waste as we press through the herd.
As I stare wistfully down the PC game aisle, the posse approaches. Four teenage boys (it always seems to be boys), not so much walking, but dancing, like poised ballerinas. Their torsos are almost entirely motionless as their legs slide along the floor. Their pants are ridiculous: large enough for two and beltless, each clearly a plumber's apprentice. They wear unmatching zip hoodies. The tallest of the boys is perhaps 6 feet. His skin is pasty white and pimpled, with what might pass for baby-soft stubble. His hair is a mass of center-parted brown grease. I feel a deep sympathy for him.
As one and with purpose, they stop in front of the GH3 shrine. Choreographed in their movements, the smallest of the clan hands the well-used Gibson Les Paul reverently to the leader.
"OK Kyle, here you go."
Kyle takes the guitar from him. Jake is getting antsy.
"Ratatouille! Daddy we haven't even seen Ratatouille!"
I lose my focus on Kyle as I negotiate the non-purchase of Pixar's ratmovie. Uncurling from the bent over toddler-discussion Yoga pose, I see Kyle move through the selection screens, and my heart jumps to my throat.
"Through the Fire and the Flames" on Expert.
The inclusion of Fire and the Flames in Guitar Hero 3 always struck me as something of a cruel joke. Upon beating the game, Fire and the Flames plays as the credits roll. It plays in a kind of practice mode, so that you have the opportunity to flail on the ridiculous note chart. The song itself is classic hair-guitar, and while watching the original guitarist play it is a jaw dropping "holy-Jesus-on-a-popsicle-stick" experience, as music goes it's not the kind of thing I put on my iPod for casual listening. It exists purely as an expression of guitar hubris.
As the stage swirls on the screen, a calm comes over Kyle. His face slackens a bit. He closes his eyes. His lieutenants absorb his tension, shuffling their feet, biting their nails. The highway of the fret board starts rolling, and as the first note falls, Kyle's eyes open.
The entire intro of Fire is hammer-ons. There's no preamble. There's no warm up. It starts hard and it stays hard. Both of Kyle's hands are poised over the fret buttons as he taps out the notes. He is not looking at the screen. He is looking at his fingers. His long neck and arms make the guitar controller look even more diminutive than it is. He is curled over it, completely motionless but for his fingers. I look at the screen as he passes "200 note streak."
The second half of the intro starts at about 30 seconds in and moves from hammer-ons to a rapidfire staccato. I've seen this on YouTube ego-clips, so I'm expecting the sharp jackhammer of the strum bar as he approaches what must be 20 notes per second. But instead of loud and frantic flailing, his face slackens, his lips parting slightly, and he is nearly silent. Instead of slamming the strumbar with mechanical arrogance, he holds it between two fingers as if plucking petals off a rose, each stroke a delicate whisper.
300 note streak.
400 note streak.
500 note streak.
At about one minute in there is a pause, perhaps five seconds where the band's singer mumbles some 1980's era lyrics into a microphone. I've never particularly cared what he had to say. Kyle is absolutely motionless. There's no shaking out of hands, no turning to make knowing glances at his audience or worry about his hair.
The song enters another manic section. Occasionally he shifts his right hand up from the strum bar to tap out a hammer-on section. His face continues to soften. He has lost at least an inch of height as his spine and knees succumb to gravity. A minute and a half into the song, I see him falter, missing a note for the first time and resetting his multiplier to zero. It's not clear that Kyle has noticed. The shortest of his kinsmen, the one who had so reverently handed him the guitar, sends a glance my way, then down towards my knees to the eyes of my 4 year old. I bend over and pick him up.
"Can we go?" Jake asks.
A reasonable question for which there is no reasonable answer. "Just a minute, I need to see this." I point at the screen.
3, 4, 5 minutes into the song. Kyle slips deeper into what is clearly a state of Samadhi; He no longer perceives a space between himself and the game. There is no him. There is no song. There is no guitar.
At 6 minutes in, a small crowd has formed, perhaps 15 of us. His sravaka - his disciples - look nervously at us, absorbing the distractions, protecting him a bubble of calm. There is complete silence. Even my son is staring slackjawed, like he does in church during communion, not understanding the content of the ritual but understanding the tone and sacredness of the space.
At just over 6 minutes, the song becomes even more ludicrous. While actually playing it will ever remain for me an uncrossable gap, I am enough a student of the form to recognize the crux. He is Lance Armstrong approaching the bottom of Alpe D'Huez: Will he attack? Kyle has yet to use the Star Power crutch he has carried throughout his meditation.
He continues to ignore it.
His posse is immobile now: brows furrowed in tension, fingers white and digging into palms. I realize I haven't blinked in too long and force myself. My palms are sweating, my left hand cramped in sympathy. As the song comes to it's unrelenting conclusion, I can only stare at Kyle's face. His eyelids have dropped, half covering his irises.
He hits the last orange note. He lets the guitar fall from his hands onto the floor. It's not an act of disdain or bravado, his hands simply open and then there is no guitar. I look at the screen. "You Rock!" Jake echoes with the screen. 500,000 points. Kyle isn't looking. The small crowd claps for a second, then starts to disperse.
I try to catch his eyes, to make some feeble 40-year-old-dad gesture: maybe a nod, or a humble utterance of "nice." But, his sutra complete, his eyes have gone to his shoes. His companions pat him on the back, not with a juvenile high-five, but with an almost loving touch, they way you'd touch an aging parent on the back when asking if they're pneumonia was getting better. They turn away from us and walk back down the aisle in the direction they had come.
Jake squirms. I put him down and take his hand.
It's warm and soft and surprisingly strong as he squeezes mine. As we walk out of the store, I have the odd sense of being aware of my breathing. For a moment at least, it becomes a conscious act.