Saturday, January 28, 2012

My Axes pt. 2

Before any of us knew you don’t buy new musical instruments, there was a guitar shop on the border of Overland and University City named Silver Strings.

We heard the owner drove through the south buying up guitars from out of the way little pawn shops. He’d bring them back to St. Louis, fix ‘em up and sell them for almost nothing.

I saw my first National Steel there for $150.00. I thought it was a novelty item. I also saw my first Gibson Firebird and Melody Maker. The Melody Maker was $125.00. It was a late 50s model and we called it a baby Les Paul.

I had my eyes on a beautiful, red, ’62 Les Paul that looked like an SG. There was a white ’63 that had 3 gold pickups. The one I liked had 2 silver pickups. I thought the white one was a bit ostentatious. Of course, that one is highly prized by collectors today.

The owner told me Martin Barr, the guitarist for Jethro Tull was looking at it. I never knew if he was just trying to get me to grab it, but when I saw Jethro Tull’s Passion Play tour at Kiel Auditorium, Martin Barr was playing the exact model.

I can’t remember what I paid for it, but it couldn’t have been much considering my salary as a dishwasher at Duff’s Restaurant.

That guitar will always be my favorite. I can’t even remember who I sold it to, although it was probably stolen.

Not too long after I got it, my girlfriend Lora bought an Alvarez acoustic at Music Folk in Webster Groves. I couldn’t believe how great it sounded. I had to get one, too. I spent $100.00 more than she did, but mine never sounded as good.

I used Lora’s on all our records. Mine was stolen.

Years later, when I was working at Wuxtry Records in the West End, as pay I took an Alvarez Yari 12 string acoustic, a flute and an alto sax. I’m pretty sure I got my first black Les Paul Black Beauty that way too. I told everyone it was from 1958, but I never really knew. I had to be from at least the early 60s. It was beautiful but someone ruined it with white Dimarzio pickups.

One night, while Lora and I were sleeping in my first floor West End apartment, someone broke in and stole my 12 string, my flute and sax. We were in the next room.

During this same time, the band was rehearsing in the basement of a Fraternal Order of Eagle’ hall on the south side. Someone broke in and stole my guitar and our P.A. mixer.

Local detectives got right on it. One of them told me his buddy said they shouldn’t waste their time on us hippies. He told him my guitar was probably worth more than he made in a year. I doubt that was true, but I loved the story.

They found the equipment on a roof less than a block away. They were able to identify the guitar by a leather strap that had Earwacks stamped on it. Lora’s dad made it for me.

I never thought I’d get it back so I bought a ’66 Black Beauty. When the old one was recovered, I sold it to my boss at Wuxtry. He sent me an email recently that it was in Hawaii.

I never was happy with the sound I got from the Black Beauties. By the time the band broke up, I realized it was my amp. I had a vintage Ampeg VT-22 with really expensive Altec speakers. It was so heavy, it took two of us to carry it. To get a good sound out of it, you had to turn it up so loud your ears bled.

I rented it to Keith Richards or Chuck Berry for the Hail, Hail Rock and Roll movie they made for Chuck’s 65th birthday. They used it during rehearsals at Chuck’s farm, but no one plugged into it on stage. They hated it too!

Pics are: My first black Beauty on the promo shot that would become the cover of my band Delay Tactics' album Any Questions? - it's the one on the left, My second Black Beauty at some VFW post in the late 70s, Dominic playing that same guitar at a Euclid Jubilee, my Alvarez acoustic, and 3 pics of my SG-looking Les Paul—The most recent in our LaSalle Park attic, a fund raiser for Eugene McCarthy mid 70s (my first Presidential vote), and the oldest one is our band playing at Kirkwood Park which feature my red Les Paul and the acoustic.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Happy Birthday to Me!

“Women keep busy in towns like this. In the cities it's different. The cities are full of women, middle-aged widows, husbands dead, husbands who've spent their lives making fortunes, working and working. Then they die and leave their money to their wives. Their silly wives. And what do the wives do, these useless women? You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands. Drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night. Smelling of money. Proud of their jewelry but of nothing else. Horrible, faded, fat, greedy women.”

Joseph Cotton gave this speech in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. For me, Hitchcock seemed to have two different kinds of films. Incredibly personal, dark introspection and pure escapism. I love them all.

I think I’ve seen every one that’s available, including the silent ones. Hitchcock made England’s first talkie. He had almost finished shooting Blackmail, when he talked the studio into adding sound. He ended up slapping audio onto the silent stuff. He knew sound was bringing us into a new age of film, so as a joke he used the shadow cast from a lamp to look like a mustache across the lip of the bad guy. Kind of an homage to vaudeville bad guys ala Snidely Whiplash.

Shadow of a Doubt has always been my favorite. Joseph Cotton was so hip with his matching white shoes and hat. I learned it was Hitchcock’s favorite too.

For sheer escape, you can’t beat his “running man” films though. They were a great roller coaster ride across some continent. North by Northwest, Foreign Correspondent, and Saboteur come to mind. They were probably all the same film but they never got boring.

Valerie knows how much I enjoy this stuff and used North by Northwest as the theme for my birthday card this year. What she didn’t know was Cary Grant’s birthday is January 18th, same as mine. It seems like everyone I know shares a birthday with Elvis, Hitler or Martin Luther King. I get Cary Grant!

Dylan almost brought up another coincidence. He said, “Wasn’t that film made in 1958, the same year you were born?” I was thinking, “Wow!” Turns out it was made in 1959.

My buddy (and old boss) Dan Holt turned me onto the composer Bernard Herrmann. North by Northwest was one of his best soundtracks.

Another film in this category was Torn Curtain with Paul Newman and Julie Andrews. An odd combination, but it worked for me. Herrmann’s original soundtrack for it was just too dark for the studio execs. Hitchcock was forced to use another composer.

In the 80s Hermann’s was finally released on vinyl. I’ll never forget Dan editing it back into the movie. I wonder if he still has it?

Dan, a friend of ours named Mark, and I used to dub our own voices onto TV shows using Dan’s VCR. They were pretty new and expensive at the time. This was years before Mystery Science Theater 3000. I remember them being hysterical. I’m hoping Dan puts them on YouTube one of these days.

Dan was a fellow Hitchcock fan. The films I didn’t watch with him, I watched with my buddy Tracy who was also a big fan.

I was going to add the second installment of My Axes, but I have to show off my card.

It took a day and a half to go through my FaceBook birthday well wishers. I never go on FB, but the birthday messages were forwarded to my email.

Thanks everybody!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

My Axes pt. 1

I guess I’ll eventually get around to my exes but this morning I began to think about all the guitars I’ve owned.

I grew up with a huge acoustic guitar in the house. My dad got it for my mom when we lived in Laclede town in the mid 60s.

When Channel Nine, St. Louis’ public station, first appeared on our TVs it was pretty primitive. It was actually kinda hard to watch. There was a woman named Laura Weber who taught folk guitar. I think she was in her garage. I remember a lot of bricks. We ended up buying her instructional record and book. I think I learned a few chords in it before I got the Mel Bay books at the library.

Anyway, my mom tried to learn from Ms. Weber but quickly lost interest.

I didn’t think there was anything strange about the guitar because I didn’t know any better. I later realized it was like trying to play a tree trunk strung with barbed wire. The neck was as wide as an adult’s leg.

To make matters worse, I thought nylon strings were uncool, so I strung it with steel strings. My fingers were black with bruises and bloody. I thought it was because my fingers hadn’t built up the necessary calluses yet.

In 8th grade I lived in the country with my dad for a while. We were given 2 weeks to complete a project of our own in shop class. It didn’t seem beyond my reach to build an electric guitar. The other kids watched its development with interest.

My dad helped me find the materials. He had a band saw he inherited from his new wife’s deceased ex. (Were you able to follow that?)

We found a piece of hardwood in the driveway that was perfect for the neck and a flat piece of pine at a saw mill for the body. I was able to buy a completed rosewood fret board, acoustic guitar bridge, and tuning gear at a local music shop. Finding the fret board made it suddenly seem like this was going to happen. I wasn’t sure how I could build one.

I think I stole the body design from Paul McCartney’s guitar on the Ram cover.

Maybe my dad had a jigsaw because I was able to cut into the body for its electronics. I assembled the whole thing with Elmer’s Glue and painted it black. Even though it was glossy paint, it certainly didn’t look like a real guitar paint job.

I actually learned all my Mel Bay guitar chords on that thing. The glue eventually softened and the neck bowed. I think the strings were an inch and a half from the neck when I finally gave up on it.

My first real guitar was the one I got from the Mel Bay grab bag box for $25.00. We were living in the attic of a mansion in Gaslight Square on Westminster Place. It was owned by Richard Hirschfeld who was an antiques dealer in Gaslight Square. I grew up believing Richard was the famous caricaturist Al Hirschfeld’s brother. My mom told me she was watching a documentary about Al and there was no mention of a brother in St. Louis. After a bit of detective work, I learned Richard was Al’s cousin.

As usual, I digress. When I was going through the box at Mel Bay, I found a guitar with a body made out of Formica. I laughed at its ugliness. It occurs to me now that it was probably a vintage Sears Silvertone classic.

The beauty I picked out had 5 pickups, a series of rectangular plastic toggle switches, and a huge round knob that looked like one of those rheostat dimmer switches you use for overhead lighting. It was green sunburst and had a strange odor. It was hideous and I loved it. I can’t believe I never got a picture of it. It looked a lot like the iconic Regent guitar Hound Dog Taylor played, except for all the knobs.

My favorite activity in those days was catching the Bi-State bus downtown to buy strings at Ludwig Aeolian Music. Ludwig’s was a piano store but they had a guitar and drum shop in the basement called “The Cave”. It was run by a great guy named Bob Powell, who must have loved kids.

One day when I was down there he showed me a Crown Les Paul knockoff. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. He showed me a Wurlitzer keyboard amp and told me I could have both for $200.00!

I was obsessed; I couldn’t rest until I had them. I figured out I could make payments with my school lunch money if I could just find someone to cosign for the loan. My dad came through again.

I guess this is going to be a multi-parter again. I didn’t think I’d have so much to say and I haven’t even gotten to the good guitars yet!

I think the pics speak for themselves. If you imagine the Hound Dog Taylor guitar with a lot more knobs and green you'll get the idea of my Mel Bay guitar. john Steffen is playing my Crown Les Paul. I think I had my first real Gibson by then. I'll get to that in the next post.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

For Auld Lang Syne or In Defense of Static Line Training

Valerie, Dylan and I went to the annual New Years Day party at the home of our friends Noel and Dennis. It’s a beautiful farm out in wine country. There’s always great food and live music.

They always have a crowd, and the house is tiny, so we spend a lot of time outside.

We were out there when my friend William Stage told me my buddy Kent was a scuba instructor.

I need to mention that William has a new book of short stories. He recently had a book of old ghost ad paintings he did with his daughter Margaret.

We live in a historical part of St. Louis, and there are a lot of old buildings with faint images of old ads painted on the side. Apparently, the lead paint soaked into the bricks. Margaret and William turned their photos into post cards and had them bound together in a book.

Just before that, he published a semi-autobiographical novel called Fool for Life. Get it, it’s funny as Hell!

Anyway, I asked William if Kent was a PADI or NAUI instructor. He said PADI.

The only reason I even know the difference is because my old girlfriend Lora was NAUI certified.

Lora got me to try a lot of things. She turned me onto Rollerblading. At first, she wouldn’t skate with me. While I was learning, I was too slow. I used to ride my bike along side of her until I was fast enough. She was right up front about everything, never even tried to spare my feelings. I really appreciated it.

It reminds me of when I played racquet ball with my buddy Rib Tip. He was so good he would play hand ball while I played back with a racquet. I used to play racquet ball with Lora too.

Lora followed me around the country when I was obsessed with Sky Diving. On one of these trips, she taught me how to sail. It was only a Hobie Cat, but it was incredible. She taught me how to operate the jib (the front sail).

You have to lean back on the side of the boat to keep it from tipping into the water. I swear we got better than 50 mph riding the wind across that lake. The whole time, the lake itself was about a foot away from my back. It was almost as exhilarating as skydiving.

She almost got me to go scuba diving. I really wanted to, but I just never got around to it.

She told me the NAUI method was more conservative but more thorough. PADI was for the more adventurous. I immediately related that to the difference between AFF (accelerated freefall) skydiving instruction and static line.

I did a little tandem mastering, but for almost ten years I was a static line instructor.

I started jumping at an interesting time in the history of the sport. Square canopies had only recently been introduced. My first rig had a round reserve.

Tandem jumping soon became an option.

You had to sign a waver that you were flying an experimental aircraft to jump tandems. The law was; every jumper had a reserve. With tandems two jumpers have one main and one reserve. They’re totally legal now.

During my time in the sport, canopies got smaller and faster. Jumpers built larger and larger formations. The emphasis moved away from flying a canopy to freefall.

Students didn’t want to spend as much time under canopy. They wanted to go to freefall altitude immediately. AFF training has the student jumping freefall on the first jump. Two jump masters hold on and put the student through training paces. They learn body control faster, but there are advantages to the static line method.

Defending static line training puts me in the old-timer category, but here’s my argument.

Before you get to freefall, if you progress sufficiently, you jump 5 times attached to a static line that automatically deploys your canopy. You concentrate on a stable exit and canopy control. You exit the aircraft at 3000 ft, and you’re acutely aware of the ground below you. When I was trained, we weren’t even given an altimeter, but we knew we exited at 3 grand.

AFF students deploy their canopy at 5000 ft to give them more reaction time in an emergency.

I’ve spent many days at airports that were socked in with cloud cover at 5000 ft. Static line graduates did hop and pops and had accuracy landing contests. A hop and pop is when you deploy your canopy as soon as you exit.

AFF graduates think any jump without freefall is a waste of time. I think they’re missing a lot of fun, not to mention, landings can be a blast too.

I’ve always thought, if you put a static line trained jumper out of a plane at 10,000 ft without an altimeter, they’ll deploy their parachute at 3000 ft and know what altitude they’re at. I think AFF trained jumpers would get nervous and open from 5000 to 7000 ft and still not be sure of their altitude.

The sport is drying up at the moment. Fuel costs have made it more expensive. It’s certainly gotten too expensive for me. I’m trying to focus on music anyway.

I never did get Lora to jump, but I would still like to go scuba diving.

Pics are of Lora at the gates of Graceland when I was jumping in Tennessee ( I scratched some great graffiti on the brick wall), William and Dylan at Dennis’ New Years party, and Dylan learning to shuck an oyster at the same party.