Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Storyteller Awakens

Well, here we are on the cusp of a new series of Star Wars movies and I find myself once again deeply nostalgic. As most people of my age group (41), Star Wars had an indelible effect on my youth. I was not fortunate enough to have seen the premiere in 1977, however, the movie was re-released sometime in either late 1979, or early 1980, to drum up the numbers for The Empire Strikes Back. Starting with The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, I have never missed an opening day of any Star Wars movie. I won't be starting anytime soon as my wife and I helped crash the Internet by buying tickets the very second they went on sale.

After what most would agree as a lackluster showing with the prequels, the questions is why do I still care? I've thought about that answer a lot over the years and thought that I might take a minute to write my thoughts on the subject while they are again fresh in my mind. In the late 1970's my folks were going through their divorce which was a tense time in our little trailer in Natchez, Mississippi. Not that the years leading up to the divorce were great times. Most of my memories of that time are of yelling, fighting, and an overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia brought on by the tension between my parents.

When I discovered Star Wars, the movies took on a new meaning for me. I had seen other movies before that, but none of them transported me out of my world to the extent of Star Wars. For a small boy who desperately needed an escape from the day-to-day grind of his household, the movies became my second home. I think my mom took me to see The Empire Strikes Back around twenty times during the summer of 1980. And, with the dawn of the 1980's it was a great time to be in the movie theatre. There was no end to the classics that came out one after another in those years. But, none of them held a candle to the original Star Wars trilogy.

Seeing an unassuming Luke Skywalker follow his destiny out of the desert of his childhood to being the hero of the galaxy was intoxicating, especially for a child with an active imagination. I played with my toys and dreamed of a similar destiny coming to sweep me away to a distant land where my life held more promise than an eventual job in a factory or driving a truck. And, though I never wielded a "real" lightsaber, blew up a Death Star, or developed any abilities through The Force, a destiny did come for me, but not in the way I expected.

My "destiny", such as it has been, has been predominantly self-made. Whether through impatience, or a just a need to prove something to myself, I've wound up creating a lot of great opportunities for myself over the years, but it all started with my mind being blown open to an idea of endless possibilities due to the revolution that was Star Wars. I've made a life for myself which, for the better part of the last 25 years, has revolved around delivering escapism to people through performing music and, as of late, by self-publishing my written works. I find it incredibly healthy and helpful for me to create. And, if I can help others by taking them out of a nasty situation for a few minutes, then I'm re-paying the debt that I owe to George Lucas and the creative team he put together to enable his vision to come to life.

Finally, the real pay off will come when I take my 7 year old daughter to her first Star Wars movie. My mind will be wandering the whole time wondering what she will take away from the experience. Maybe it will have some long-standing effect on her imagination. Perhaps it will just be another movie with the old man. Or, it could be something wholly unexpected causes some brand new idea  to take shape underneath those blond locks which will carry her forward into her own unknown destiny. Only time will tell...

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Tiger and The Steward

In my life, I consider myself to be luckier than most. It usually comes with a price, but more often than not, the price is worth paying for the experience. And, if that experience teaches me something important, so much the better. In the case of June 1st, 2015, it was banner day on all fronts.

First, let's step back a bit. If you know me, you know that I'm a huge Dead Head having even spent several years playing in a Grateful Dead tribute band. Also, if you've read my previous blog, you'll know that I also spent time as a luthier in the employment of Gibson Guitars where I repaired guitars for their warranty repair division. I tell you this because I've spent more than my fair share of time obsessing over some of my musical heroes instruments, particularly Jerry Garcia's guitar Tiger.

Tiger represents one of the first famous custom-made guitars of the modern era. Throughout the 1970's there was a movement, by more forward thinking musicians, toward specialized instruments to realize their sound. The first company to begin catering to this new niche market were the guys at Alembic in San Francisco. Ron Wickersham, Rick Turner, and a handful of crazies created what would become the modern custom guitar industry. They were pioneers in build concepts, electronics, and in getting in touch with exactly what their client was looking for, no matter how ludicrous the request might be (if you're interested, pull up Phil Lesh's Godfather Bass and check out his electronics).

Jerry Garcia saw a guitar in a shop window in San Francisco and found the design unique. He went inside and asked to play the instrument. He purchased it on the spot and asked if the shop owner knew the builder. It turned out to be Doug Irwin whom they had just hired as their new shop repairman. Irwin had apprenticed at Alembic and had carried some of their design concepts over to his own line of instruments. The two men struck up a friendship that would last the rest of Garcia's life. Their relationship would produce several incredible custom guitars, including Tiger which was Jerry's main guitar for 11 years.

After Jerry died, his two most famous guitars wound up on the auction block. Both guitars, Tiger and Wolf respectively, were made by Doug Irwin. It was pretty easy to keep track of Wolf because it showed up periodically and the gentleman who owns the instrument made no real secret about it. Tiger was a different matter. It just vanished and did not resurface for years. I often wondered if the instrument would make an appearance at some Grateful Dead related event, but it never turned up. I always figured it was in some vault and wouldn't be seen again for a hundred years.

Then, out of the blue, I read a story a few years back about a guys' girlfriend who had tracked down the guitar. Tiger had made it's way into the private collection of Inidianapolis Colts owner, Jim Irsay. She had written Jim Irsay a letter asking if her husband, a huge Dead Head, could spend a few minutes with the instrument. Low and behold, the bastard got to do it! I was astonished. I saw pictures of the guy in Irsay's office holding Tiger and all I could do was shake my head in wonder. The seed was planted that I would have to find a way to play that guitar. But, the question in my mind was "how in the hell do you go about contacting the owner of the Colts? And, even if you do, how do you ask to play his one-of-a kind guitar which he payed just shy of $1 million dollars to own?"

I stewed on this for a while, knowing that I would likely only get one chance and it had to be a home run. One afternoon while reading an article in Guitar Aficionado, I happened across the name of the curator of Jim Irsay's collection and, wouldn't you know it, he worked for Gibson! I had my in. I found the man on facebook and friended him with a message about the guitar and my intentions. We struck up a friendship based on our love of guitars and our shared displeasure with having worked for Gibson (there's a large community in the music industry of disgruntled ex-Gibson employees. Nothing builds friendships like shared suffering.)

It took close to a year to get Jim Irsay to agree to give me an audience with Tiger. I won't bore you with the details of that year-long struggle suffice to say it was worth it. I was to be given one hour with the guitar on June 1, 2015. My wife and I could not afford the round-trip flight at the time, so like the trooper she is, she agreed to drive all the way to Indiana and back with me in two days. It was twelve hours up and twelve hours back with just enough time to sleep, drink coffee, and visit the guitar.

We arrived at the Colts training facility fifteen minutes early on June 1. Stopping at the guard station, I couldn't help but chuckle when I told the guard my name and that I had an appointment with the curator of Jim Irsay's guitar collection. Entering the Colts facility, we stopped at the receptionist desk to sign in for our visit. Members of the Colts staff came and went during our wait and I noticed a curious thing. No one referred to the team owner as "Mr. Irsay," everyone just called him "Jim." I thought that was a nice touch, all things considered. When my contact, Chris, showed up we were ushered down a long hallway where all the office doors had signs on them bearing the last name "Irsay." I had not known how much of a family business it was until that moment.

When we arrived at Jim Irsay's office, we were told that Jim would not be joining us, but that we had free run of his office for the next hour under Chris' supervision. There was a small waiting room with a pool table and some original paintings from Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane. On the other side of the room were two large wooden doors with round Colts emblems for handles. Chris opened the doors for us and welcomed us inside.

The room was long with the far wall made entirely of glass. It looked out onto a porch surrounded by evergreens to give privacy to anyone lucky enough to find themselves invited out for a relaxed hang. To my left were the helmets of the Colts offensive line from their last Super Bowl, to my right was Jim Irsay's desk. And there, in an ornate wooden/glass cabinet above the desk, hung Tiger. Inside the office were several other items which could be considered just as incredible as Tiger; items from other musicians, literature, American history, football history, etc. I promised to keep those items out of the public record, so I can't list all that I saw here. However, I will tell you that the collection was incredible enough for me to put Tiger down so I could take it all in.

As I was gawking at several items in the collection, I completely missed Chris removing Tiger from its' cabinet. Rebecca had to pull me away from another display case to tell me that Chris was bringing me the guitar. I pulled a chair out from underneath a long, boardroom table in front of the Colts helmet display. Chris gently placed Tiger on a rubber mat, easing its neck into a neck rest. He took a cloth from his kit bag and wiped off the guitar, gave it a quick strum to check the tuning, then brought it over to me.

The instant I took the guitar is burned into my mind. Even as it was happening, there was a surreal quality to the moment. From my research, I knew the guitar weighed a whopping thirteen pounds, but in that moment, it was weightless. My hands were shaking as I tried to settle in with the instrument. It's tougher than you think when you realize that you're holding an item someone paid close to a million bucks to own which had once belonged to one of your greatest artistic influences. I strummed a chord and listened to it resonate, feeling the strings move under my fingers. Chris told me that the strings on the guitar, sans one, were the strings on Tiger when Irsay had purchased it. As it was the guitar used by Jerry Garcia for the last song during the last performance of the Grateful Dead, it was highly likely that these were his strings.

I looked down and marveled at the sight. It was like I was seeing Tiger through the eyes of Garcia. I could see every little imperfection in the instrument, every ding that only he would have ever seen. My hands moved around the neck of the guitar playing the signature licks and chord progressions of her former master. Amazingly, Chris still had another surprise up his sleeve. He asked me if I wanted to plug Tiger into Jim's Vox amp.

I had been told from the outset that there would be no peeking inside at the electronics and no playing it through an amp. Within moments, both of those caveats were null and void. I handed Tiger back to Chris who once again placed it on the mat. He retrieved a screw driver and removed the ebony plate behind the bridge; a plate with an pearl-inlaid Tiger which gave the instrument its name. He handed me the plate as he grabbed a 9 volt battery to power Tiger's active circuitry. Rebecca managed to catch a picture of me holding the plate which I'm sure was difficult because I couldn't stop staring at the piece of ebony cradled in my hands. I thought about the millions of people who had seen this little piece of art and the joy it had brought to them.

Chris took the plate and screwed it back down to the body to cover part of Tiger's electronics. I sat down on a stool in front of a stock Vox AC-15 (much like my own) and placed the guitar on my lap, tucking its upper bout underneath my right arm. In front of me was a music stand with a songbook on it. I don't remember the artist, maybe it was the Beatles or The Who (both whom Jim Irsay has great affinity for). There was also a stock Les Paul custom on a stand to my left. But, in that moment, there was only Tiger. And, she lived up to her name.

The guitar came to life when from the moment I rolled up the volume knob. The controls and switches, a bit intimidating from the outset, were very intuitive and easy to work with. Once I was able to get around the fact that it was Jerry's guitar, I found it to be a stunning piece of craftsmanship. Each voicing was distinctive. Having played a handful of famous instruments over the years, I've noticed that only a small percentage actually sound like the person who made them famous. Most are just normal instruments who respond to each individuals own touch. Tiger, however, was one of the few that truly was so linked with Garcia's sound that it was impossible to tune him out. The instrument had been built for the express purpose of channeling everything Garcia saw as unique in his style. And, in that task, Doug Irwin had gone above and beyond the call of duty. Somewhere inside that beautiful combination of brass, wood, and circuitry he had captured a piece of Jerry Garcia's soul which spoke with a clarity unhindered by the mortal coil.

For most of that hour, Rebecca and Chris wandered the office and took in all of the sights (and there were many) leaving me free to have my moment. I would play for a minute, stare for a minute, chuckle, and shake my head at the absurdity of it all. During the time I was playing, a thought kept coming back to me; a quote I had read in the Guitar Aficionado article where Jim Irsay had referred to himself as a "steward" of these instruments. Sometimes, people say things such as that just to give the impression that they are not dragons simply sitting on their hoard of gold. Yet, here I was holding this instrument. I had been invited into the man's private office to see some of the most amazing things I have ever seen in my entire life. And, at that moment, Rebecca called my attention to the last piece of the puzzle which made it all fall into place.

As my time ran short, I placed Tiger on the mat Chris had laid on the boardroom table. Rebecca asked me to come take a look at a display. There, to the right of Jim Irsay's desk, was a wall of pictures dedicated to his grandchildren. I noticed that on his desk, and behind it, were pictures of his family. The family names on the doors in the hallway fell into line with all of these images. His father's jacket from when he owned the Colts hung on a hangar nearby. In that moment, I felt I understood something about this man whom I've never met. A strong sense of family, a knowledge that all things are transitory, and a love of seeing the greatness of the human spirit on display. I understood that Jim Irsay truly is the  steward he claimed to be in that article; one that cares enough about history to share these important pieces so they can continue to inspire people to strive for the individual greatness in themselves.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Beauty of the Bengal

In 2002, I lost my job. Mars Music in Nashville had been closing for months, but late that year it went down for the count. I was one of the last people out the door as I waited for my new job to fall into place. I wasn't truly qualified for the job, but I was marginally trainable. I had been apprenticing as a luthier in the repair department when Mars finally tanked. Needing a steady paycheck and knowing I was not ready for an unsupervised repair position, I sent my resume to the head of Gibson Guitars Warranty Repair Division and began to wait.

I waited. Then waited some more. Gibson is notoriously slow in the hiring department. I watched the bills pile up as the days passed with no word from on high. I bit my nails and drank the cheap stuff as I contemplated working at Subway slinging sandwiches. Finally, the word came down. I had an interview. It turned out to be three interviews in all. I felt like I did well enough on the first two. The last, however, was brutal.

My third and final interview was with one-time head of warranty repair, Charlie Derrington, who is now unfortunately deceased. At that time, Charlie was world-renowned (and, still is) for his excellent craftsmanship. He was most famous for having restored Bill Monroe's mandolin after a girlfriend had found him "playing the field" and smashed it. Charlie had taken that instrument from a pile of rubble back to its former glory where it served Monroe until his passing. Sitting across from Charlie, I realized just how little I knew about anything and everything. That being said, after slinking out of what I thought had been the worst interview of my life, I was offered the job the following day. To this day, I'm not sure what it was Charlie saw. Maybe he saw a desperate kid who was trainable an hungry. More likely, he saw a kid whose balls were bigger than his brains. Whatever the case, I got the gig.

I'll skip the gory details of my first year of working in warranty repair because, frankly, I botched more than my share of jobs and had to be bailed out by my co-workers seemingly on a daily basis. That's the name of the game in the repair business. It's one of the great trades where knowledge is still passed from master to apprentice; one where success builds on a slow timeline coupled with tons of failure. But, the perks were better-than-average pay, playing with guitars all day, and genuinely liking my job. For a musician, you could do a lot worse for  day job, and believe me, I have.

One of the greatest perks, though, was the "scrap guitar." Let me explain. From time-to-time, a repair would come in which our manager would deem cheaper for Gibson to replace than repair. If the customer was agreeable to this deal, their guitar would go on our scrap rack and a replacement would be sent from the appropriate division. Over time, the rack would grow full of these instruments and we would be forced to strip them for parts then cut up the bodies on the band saw. A terrible job. It was a mixture of executioner and the guy who hauls off the dead.

But, before wood met saw, we were all given our choice of one scrap guitar to fix and keep. It was sort of Gibson's annual bonus. All-in-all, not a bad bonus. The choice of instrument was determined by seniority. Of course, once everyone was into the fray, all manner of horse-trading began. After the dust settled, most everyone had what they wanted, or at least more than they started with. During the course of my time there, I earned two Les Paul's: one was a black Gibson Custom, the other a 2002 Les Paul Standard. I was never really attached to the Custom and eventually sold it to pay for a move. No regrets. The Les Paul Standard. . . that was a different story.

Having grown up in guitar stores, I lusted after the flame-top standard; the chosen instrument of some of the most prestigious players on the planet--Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Duane Allman, Eric Clapton, Joe Perry, Slash, Keith Richards...the list is extraordinarily long. However, even in the 1980's, those things came with a price tag far beyond the means of my fifteen year old hands. That didn't stop me from obsessing over it. And, when the 2002 standard appeared in the scrap rack, I earmarked it for the next round of picking. Thankfully, most of the staff had already gotten a standard, so the 2002 went to me.

The guitar was wicked. The flame maple used for its top was highly three-dimensional and moved like fire over water any way you turned the body. The neck had been installed incorrectly with the treble side too high causing notes to "choke" out. The only fix was a neck replacement. Luckily, we had the ability to run over the the Gibson USA plant and grab things such as Les Paul neck blanks. In the repair business, that's more than a luxury.

One afternoon, I picked up a 50's style neck blank while on another errand for the shop. Back at Warranty Repair, I began the process of turning my 2002 Les Paul Standard into 1959 Les Paul knock off. I stripped the body of hardware and paint, down to raw wood. Using Yashuiko Iwanade's classic book, The Beauty of the Burst, I began experimenting with paints to find the right mixture to achieve the "Burst" I was after. The color on my Les Paul can be defined as an "Un-Burst." This is a case where the red paint of the burst has almost completely faded. The yellow paint of the burst and the top coat of clear lacquer both amber with age leaving a honey color with just a hint of red at the edge of the body.

Over the course of nine months, I would do a little work in between my regular scheduled repairs. Working on these personal instruments was encouraged because it was a great way to practice techniques. I chiseled the old neck out of its' pocket, shaped the new neck by hand, and mated it with the body. After that, it was the long road of painting, screwing up the paint job, stripping it, and starting again until I got it right. It was arduous but worth it. The final stage was acquiring the period correct parts from the Custom Shop which, with the help of a friend, I was able to lay hands on for my project. Everything was set.

I'll never forget the first time I plugged the "Bengal" into an amplifier. She had earned her name from a fellow co-worker who likened the flames on her top to the stripes on a Bengal tiger. The only thing I could find in our upstairs showroom was a Gibson 112 amp. I wound out the gain and eased the master volume up. She responded by roaring to life with unexpected edge and snarl. Having completely gutted the instrument from its previous incarnation, I had only an idea of what I thought it would sound like. Needless to say, it exceeded my expectations. It was like no other instrument because I had used my own hands to shape her and mold her into the instrument I heard in my head. And, after nine months of struggle, she was born of fire.

But, as with many great things, it was not meant to last. In 2004, my first wife and I decided to make a move back to Gulf Shores, Alabama. It was a pretty spur of the moment decision that neither of us really thought through. I had good job, but I had become increasingly disinterested in how much the corporate suits were getting involved in our division. They had turned the job into a "job" which had become a drag.  I wanted out and so did my wife. Having left a great teaching position to marry me, and move to Nashville, had landed her squarely in a teller position at a bank in the Franklin Publix. It goes without saying that this was not her chosen career path. So, we sold my first Les Paul Custom to pay for the move, rented a truck, and headed south with almost no money and no jobs.

Now, we should step back a bit. When my first wife and I got married, I neglected to tell her until two weeks before the wedding that I was hiding a substantial student loan debt that, by marrying me she would, at least partially, inherit. I had also racked up a debt with the IRS for having ditched on my quarterly taxes from back when I was an independant contractor with Mars Music. A terrible move on my part? You bet your ass.  It nearly cost me that marriage before it ever started. And, having moved to Gulf Shores with no jobs, we were now in a bind. You can screw with a lot of people in this world. None of them work for the Internal Revenue Service. They want their money and they will get it even if they suck the marrow from your dry, brittle bones. Looking at my assets, which were zero, there was only one choice. The Bengal would have to be sacrificed.

I took her to a shop in Pensacola, Florida, called Blues Angels. I made a deal with the owner for an amount which would square my debt with the IRS. Sadly, I eased the Bengal into her case, shut the lid, and locked the locks. I placed it on their counter and walked away before I could change my mind.

Years passed. Things changed. Life moved forward. My first wife and I divorced and I remarried one of my oldest friends who was my first serious relationship out of high school. One evening while flipping through some pictures on facebook, I ran across a folder of pics of the Bengal so I thought I would show it to her. I told her the whole story of its scrapping, rebirth, and subsequent loss to pay my debt with the IRS. She asked if I knew where it was and I told her the little that I knew.

The guitar had hung in Blues Angles for only a short time when a man named, Steve Guffey, happened upon it. He fell in love with the instrument and wanted it terribly. However, he had been diagnosed with liver disease and exhausted all of his money on treatment. As luck would have it, he was accompanied that day by his brother who must have seen a special connection between Steve and the Bengal. He came back the following day and purchased the guitar for Steve. It stayed in Steve Guffey's possession until he died about six months later.

For years, that was all the information I had. No one at Blues Angels could find Steve's brother's name and, as far as searching out any known friends or relations, it was a dead end. The man was truly a ghost. A month or so after my wife and had decided to try to find the guitar, I ran across a site on Facebook which was dedicated to Pensacola area musicians. I looked at some of the pictures and, from what the guys at Blues Angles had told me, these musicians looked to be in his age group; mid-fifties to early sixties. On a hunch, I contacted the administrator of the page who answered almost immediately. As it turned out, she not only had known Steve Guffey, but she knew his family.

After a few phone calls and some pleasant interactions on facebook, we were put in contact with Martin Guffey who not only had the guitar, but was kind enough to send me a few pictures. Yeah, I was misty. I broached the idea of Martin selling it back to me and it went around the bush a couple of times. Eventually, he decided that the instrument was a family heirloom because it had belonged to his brother. He would take it out now and again to show people, but it mainly lived in its case tucked away under a bed.

I tried a few more times, but was never able to convince Martin Guffey to budge. Finally, I had to give it up. I had no leverage to hold against a family connection to the instrument. So, I made peace with the fact that it had brought Steve Guffey joy in those final days of his life and had enabled his brother, Martin, to do something special for his brother. In hindsight, it's amazing at how many lives that guitar has touched in a significant way.

Then, in November of 2014, I woke up one morning to my wife saying, "you are going to be so pissed at me." Now, I had only been awake for fifteen to twenty seconds. I felt reasonably assured she couldn't have done much in that span of time that would be that terrible. Barely able to contain her smile, she told me that she had convinced Martin Guffey to sell the Bengal back to us. for one of the few times in my life, I was speechless (which for people who know me is saying somethign). My recollection of that moment is almost nothing more than a hazy bright light. My mind was locked up like brakes on skidding motorcycle.

The guitar arrived at our house one November afternoon in 2014. Rebecca made me promise to wait for her to arrive home from work to open it. I sat on our couch and stared at the box as a man who waits to meet an old girlfriend he hasn't seen in years. He wonders what she'll look like, if her voice will still sound familiar? When she walked into the living room after work, Rebecca was beaming. It was a special moment for our family. We were bringing home something which, due to my addictions, I thought had been lost forever. I will always believe that my recovery and my many deposits in the Karma Bank made this possible (and, an exceptional wife who went above and beyond to make it happen, but she's a gift of my recovery as well).

I opened her case and she was just like I left her. The only difference is the strings had rusted over the years of sitting in the case. I threw on a new set in a hurried fit, then sat down on the couch with Rebecca to strum the instrument. Tears were shed that evening, but tears of joy and thankfullness for all the incredible blessings life has chosen to bestow upon me. We removed the electronics cavity cover and inside, written in black sharpie, was my signature and the date I completed the Bengal. I ran a finger across the signature as if I could almost reach back through time to touch the moment she was born. I thought about my daughter, Cameron, and wondered if one day many years from now, she would run her finger across that signature and think of me. The Bengal is now an heirloom of my family. One day Cameron will inherit the guitar. She will be the caretaker of the instrument, as well as the story of its' travels and its' singular ability to bring joy everywhere it goes.