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.