The Guitars in My Life

It must have been obvious, even to my grandmother, that I was fond of music.

My grandparents had been fond of music, too. They always listened to the radio, the pop music of their day, and they watched music-related TV shows along with the westerns that were popular in the 60s.

My grandfather loved Liberace’s show and they always watched all the variety shows with Perry Como, Dean Martin, Dinah Shore, etc. Later, as they grew older, the Lawrence Welk Show was a staple of their cultural diet.

My grandmother worked at the local Goodwill store for a spell. She processed the donated goods, priced them, got them ready to go out onto the floor.

The Goodwill in Santa Ana was humongous. This was Goodwill central. The large trucks went out and picked up goods and brought them back. Through this conglomeration of buildings at First and Fairview (I think) — offices, a processing plant, a big store and a covered outdoor yard with bins full of things too raggedy to be sold in the store — flowed most of the rejected goods of Orange County.

One day, in 1968 or ’69, I came home from school to find a Silvertone nylon string acoustic guitar laying on my bed. The finish was darker than the one pictured here. The pegs that held the strings in place were black instead of white and I seem to recall the scratch protector panel was dark too, if it even had one. It seemed to have a very glossy finish. The body was this wide shape which made a wonderful sound with the nylon strings.

I had to learn a few chords. My friends Randy Kemp and Larry Rigali helped me out. These boys loved  Jeff Beck, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin and especially the Stones. It was through them that I first heard “England’s Newest Hitmakers” and  “12 x 5.”

I had a crush on Larry. Can you tell?

I had happened on to a cheat sheet book of tunes allegedly related to Woodstock. The only thing I was remotely interested in even looking at were the songs by the Band. Were the Band even at Woodstock? I guess they lived there, didn’t they. I don’t remember where I got this book or why I bought it. It did me no good. I took the few chords that the boys taught me and eventually managed to figure out “Down By the River” by Neil Young. That satisfied me.

If you look carefully at this picture you will see that it is me with a camera over my face snapping a picture of my friends and I in this rear view mirror. This is the closest thing remaining to a picture of the elusive Randy Lee Kemp. He would have been the figure to the left of me and that means his face was obscured by the bump in the arm that connects the mirror to the van.

Harold was to the right in the mirror pic. This was his primo Huntington Beach VW surfer-dude van. Harold was married to Randy sister, Sherry. All of this, though, is a very strange story for another day.

Back to the guitars.

When I was 18 I got a job at a sporting goods warehouse in Costa Mesa. I’d taken leave from my commune-dwelling and come back to Orange County.

I was making pretty good money and I decided to buy myself a new guitar.

I fell in love with an old Gibson acoustic that must have been from the 40s. It had f-holes and an arch top. The wood was a medium natural shade, not blond. I found it in a little guitar shop in Newport Beach that my friend Michael Sokolis used to frequent. It was beautiful, cost $300 and the shop owner let me buy it on a payment plan.

Sokolis, a working musician, questioned my choice. Why did I want that guitar? It was a heavy jazz model probably suited to somebody who already knew that Dan Hicks had been thoroughly influenced by Django Reinhardt and the early hot-jazz version of the Sons of the Pioneers (check out their stuff from the 30s, I dare you).

I had no rational. I just wanted that guitar!

The one pictured is nowhere near as primo as the guitar by which I had become transfixed. The guitar shop guy was no doubt a luthier. He loved these guitars, too, and this baby had been beautifully restored to its natural wood finish, oiled up and was just a jewel.

I was floating through life, blissfully ignorant of many things. I knew the music of Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks but not it’s precursors. I didn’t think about how that guitar would sound. I didn’t pick it up in the shop and play it. Like most girls way back then I lacked the ego and confidence to put my hands on a guitar in a shop run by older guys who could probably drop some serious tunage on the strings.

That guitar was probably completely impractical for anything I would want to play at that point. My musical know-how was limited but suitable for writing the occasional lilting, philosophical love song.

I’d performed those songs for gatherings at the desert “Farm” commune. They were made of chords that had sounded interesting to me. I’d kind of changed up the standard A and D positions leaving off one finger postion or another. I’m sure the chord structures had names, probably “suspended” this or that. I wasn’t interested in the names, just the sounds.

This all traveled back to me this morning as I lay in bed. Awake before 5 a.m., trying to remember what became of the Silvertone.

An ex-boyfriend from long ago hocked the Gibson that I left in his care.

I had this sweet bass to help me get over the Gibson.

Frank and I found it in a cool pawn shop on State Street in Santa Barbara back in the late 70s. That’s a real live picture of John Doe to my left with his gorgeous bass. And those are the Ruby Slippers dangling over my head.

Frank, with a blond streak in his hair, is in the photo below. That’s the side of the refrigerator in our last Redding apartment. It was gob-smacked loaded with pix.

I think I had a few forgetable but often played yard-sale acoustics over the last decade. I figured out the chords to Van Morrison’s “The Way Young Lovers Do” on one of them when the kids were young and we lived on “A” Street. About a year after I spent hours getting lost in it’s rhythms I began listening to Jeff Buckley. He did that Van song over and over and he just blew it up. It was the sexiest thing I’d ever heard. I’ve got at least 25 of his versions of it on data discs.

These are my beloved guitars now. The Gibson is a dream.

The Dan Electro, which my son calls the banjo, has frets like back yard fences but it’s pretty cool.

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One Response to “The Guitars in My Life”

  1. I am Patti, I was married to Randy’s brother Jim, I am very interested in anything else you may have written about Randy and Larry..we were family of sorts. Thank you.

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