Glues I use in lutherie, where I use them, and a bit about why.
Hot Hide Glue
This is the traditional glue used for centuries, and it is still a favorite for many lutherie jobs. Hot hide glue may have tonal benefits largely because of how hard it cures, and because it pulls the glue joint together as it cures. It has better heat resistance than Titebond and other “carpenters’ glues” as per tests done by luthier Frank Ford. It has very low cold creep, and so a properly fitted joint will not move over time due to stress. It is only good for well fit joints. Hot hide glue joints are reversible with moist heat, and some grades can be shocked apart; both of these qualities make it a must for violin construction and repair. New glue reconstitutes old so it is good in repairs of older glue joints without the necessity of cleaning off all the old glue…an issue with carpenter’s glue. A major plus in production is that HHG sands to powder, and thus not loading up gunk on our wide belt sander belts when we use the glue for center seams on book matched guitar tops and backs. Also, when used in repairs, HHG can make a very strong and nearly invisible glue line; I’ve done major repairs where after finish touchup, I cannot see the glue line. Hot hide glue comes in a range of gram strengths, we generally use the 192. For a great treatise on HHG, see: http://www.frets.com/FretsPages/Luthier/Data/Materials/hideglue.html
* Center seams for tops and backs
* Gluing braces to tops and backs
* Bridges on acoustic instruments
* Kerfing for acoustic guitars
* Tops to sides on acoustic guitars
This is another traditional protein based glue but one which doesn’t need to be heated. The best fish glue is “isinglass” made from the air bladders of Russian sturgeon; it’s getting hard to find; Kremer Pigments is a source. It is good for most places you’d use HHG. Fish glue has a long “open time” making it easy to align joints and allowing plenty of clamping time, but it does take a long time to cure. Fish glue can also be made from other fish…cod was a major one, and it’s a favorite of some classical guitar builders like Jose Romanillos. If you remember Le Page’s glue with the funny bottle and rubber applicator top, you know fish glue!
Caveat: Fish glue is more hygroscopic than hot hide glue, and thus it is not good in high humidity conditions. The sturgeon isinglass is the most humidity-resistant type.
• Pretty much any wood to wood glue joint in a guitar and anywhere you might use Hot Hide Glue
LMI “Luthier’s Glue” from Luthier’s Mercantile
This glue (I believe it to be a polyvinyl acetate..PVA) has the convenience of Franklin Titebond and other “carpenters’ glues”, yet cures much harder and seems to have some of the favorable qualities of hot hide glue. It is known for low “cold creep”, a possible real factor with regard to tone and the need for neck resets on acoustic guitars.
* Peghead scarf joint
* Most assembly of semi-hollow guitar bodies in my shop
* Some less sonically important joints in acoustic instruments
WEST epoxy was developed initially for the purpose of making cold molded yachts using the :Wood Epoxy Saturation Technique”. WEST epoxy cures hard and very clear; it’s great for bonding difficult to glue woods; does not introduce water into the glue line; joints can be taken apart with heat if need be. There are two versions of the hardener that we use…fast and slow, and there are a number of additives to alter the viscosity of the epoxy for use more as a putty, this being more useful in boat building. One of the great things about the WEST system is their metering pumps for the quart and gallon cans. One pump stroke of epoxy to one pump stroke of hardener.
* Laminating necks
* Fingerboard to neck joints
* Laminating fancy wood skins and veneers to guitar bodies
* Gluing on “back strap overlays” on the back of pegheads
* Potting pickup coils in the shells
Smith & Co. CPES ( Clear Penetrating Epoxy Sealer )
Another great epoxy often used to stabilize woods like rosewood to prevent cracking. It’s nearly water thin and so it penetrates well into wood. Often used to stabilize rotting wood on boats or buildings.
* Primer for wood finishing…pre-sealer
* Rot and spalting stabilizing
* Toughening wood
Franklin Polyurethane Glue
This is glue is catalyzed by moisture; for fast cure, it’s recommended that you mist dampen one side of the glue joint, but I generally do not use any water with it; we allow the ambient moisture content of the wood to do the job. With our semi-hollow Renaissance instruments it’s great for gluing the centerblocks onto cedar, spruce, or other wood tops as the glue line does not telegraph through to the top like it would with a water born glue. With peghead overlays, again, the lack of water makes for a stable layup without subsequent shrinkage as you’d get with the LMI white glue, fish glue, or HHG.
* Center block to tops on semi hollow Renaissance guitars
* Laminating layered “skate boards” for “back strap” peghead overlays
Cyanoacrylate, aka CA or Superglue
Gear Up has a range of cyanoacrylate “super glues” and their “Glue Boost” is the best of all the accelerators to speed up cure. The glue also works well with baking soda as a temporary nut slot filler when the slots are too deep.
Uses, thin superglue:
* Gluing and stabilizing frets
* Inlay dots
* Some polyester finish repair. Gear Up’s “Fill and Finish” is formuated for this application
* Some binding work
* Some quick repairs
Uses, thick superglue:
* Some binding work
* Quick repairs
* Making jigs and fixtures
* Bonding carbon fiber to wood
We just keep coming back to Duco for binding. We’ve tried the rest, Duco’s the best! If you built balsa or plastic models as a kid…or do now…you know Duco! Do not huff the product!
* Binding (plastic/celluloid)
* Laminating celluloid
Melted Celluloid or ABS
You can make your own colored glue for celluloid or ABS bindings by melting down scraps of binding in acetone.
* For dealing with gaps and joints in celluloid binding
In 1976 I got a call at Alembic from John McVie of Fleetwood Mac. The band was ensconced at the Record Plant in Sausalito to record their second album, to be known as “Rumours,” with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, and John invited me down to meet them all, check out the setup on his early Alembic bass, and also see to anything that Lindsey’s Les Paul and Strat might need. Visit I did, and I quickly became very at home with the band and their studio crew of Ken Caillat, Richard Dashut, and Rick Sanchez, as well as guitar tech Ray Lindsey. I visited frequently, partaking in the crazy hospitality, and found that I had a lot in common with Lindsey when it came to musical influences. It might have helped that we were all in a similar state of personal disarray; I, too, was going through a major marital breakup with my wife, Gail, at that point. At least I wasn’t trying to make an album with her at the time!
On one of the funnier nights there in Sausalito, we were all sitting in the control room when in came an excited Richard Dashut with the latest copy of Billboard. “Number one! We’re number one!!” “What?” was the general response. The band’s previous album, “Fleetwood Mac,” their first with Stevie and Lindsey, had been released a year before this, and the band had pretty much forgotten about it, with all the drama and creativity flowing at the Record Plant. Also, at that time, if an album didn’t really take off in six weeks or so, it was destined for failure. The band had written it off, but suddenly they had the hottest selling album on the charts.
This happened the same month Mick and John’s lawsuit against their former manager was settled in their favor. A couple of years before this, at a point when there was barely a band, it being down to Mick, John, and Christine, their manager had hired a bogus bunch of musicians and put them out on the road as “Fleetwood Mac.” Mick and John sued, but in a countersuit, all of their recording royalties from Warner Brothers wound up in an escrow account. The band had to scramble and try to survive on live gigs with a succession of guitar players. When Lindsey and Stevie joined the band, they were doing a lot of covers of earlier iterations of Fleetwood Mac’s material. The new songs that Lindsey and Stevie brought to the “Fleetwood Mac” album changed the direction of the band, but the real impact didn’t hit until they were in Sausalito recording Rumours. Suddenly they were the number one band in the world, and a couple of years worth of royalties broke loose.
John started buying Alembic basses that I’d bring to the studio, and they included the very first carbon fiber necked instrument, a short scale bass in the shape now made famous by Stanley Clarke, and a long scale fretless with a stainless steel fingerboard which can be heard on “The Chain” from Rumours. It’s the one used in the bass intro to the song outro—bum, ba ba bum ba ba ba ba ba booooommmmm before Lindsey’s screaming Strat comes in.
For Lindsey, my main contribution during Rumours was installing an Alembic “Stratoblaster” in his Strat exactly like the one I’d put in Lowell George’s guitar, the one you hear on Little Feat’s live album, “Waiting for Columbus.” For Lindsey, the sound of the electric on Rumours is his guitar with the ‘Blaster gain all the way up, basically destroying a succession of HiWatt amps. Evidently, the HiWatts did not have adequate current protection; they were fine with normal electric guitar output levels, but when we boosted that by nearly 12 dB, the amplifier just tried to pull more and more current through the power transformer, and after about 20 or 30 minutes of high gain sustaining guitar solo, the transformers would literally go up in smoke. Luckily, they had three of them, and every day one would go off to Prune Music to be repaired.
I had started to confront the flaws in the Alembic guitars after meeting Lindsey; we talked guitars a lot, and I built him an Alembic—a beauty—all white with black chrome hardware. But I had known for some time that there was something fundamental in the design that made the Alembic design great for bass but not friendly for guitar players; this was painfully evidenced by our 20-to-1 ratio of bass to guitar production. Most people I discussed this with thought it was inherent in the low impedance pickup and active electronics design; they thought the sound was just too clean for the average rock’n’roll guitar player. While I thought that this theory might have some merit, I still saw the problem as being deeper than that. After all, with the Alembic variable tone control filter it was possible to kind of superimpose the frequency response of a Strat, Tele, or Gibson humbucker over the wide band response of the Alembic pickup, yet that still didn’t sound right. I came to believe that the strings just weren’t moving the right way, being coupled as they were to a heavy bridge set on a sustain block and then to the stiff and high-frequency resonant neck laminate that went through the body from the peghead to the butt. The very construction feature that made Alembics stand out visually and aurally in a positive way was working against us when it came to making a warm and seductive guitar. Further discussions with Lindsey who had purchased an Alembic guitar confirmed my feelings, and I set out to design a completely new instrument.
The trick in a game like this—designing from scratch—is to climb down off the particular design tree you’ve been exploring and go find a new tree. You have to really get back down to the very ground and try to a) forget everything you’ve been doing, and b) don’t forget anything because it might be useful. It requires that you logically justify each and every little decision, and that you do nothing just because “that’s how it’s done” or because “that’s what I know how to do.” It means that you have to start with the results you hope to achieve and work backward, always keeping an open mind, but also trying to work with what you know and what you’ve learned from other people, other instruments, and of things completely outside the musical instrument world.
For me it meant wanting to make a guitar that would combine the warmth I liked in Les Pauls and SGs with the clarity that comes from a Strat, and then I wanted to put a kind of acoustic overlay on that sound as well as the look. I wanted to make an electric guitar that would appeal to an acoustic guitarist used to fine old Martins, Larsons, and Gibsons, and yet would be capable of the kind of full bore electric tones that players like Peter Green, Eric Clapton, and of course, Lindsey Buckingham could get. I guess if you could express the sound I wanted it would be like lemon butter—rich with a tangy touch. And this sound had to be inherent in the instrument itself; it could not be achieved with any old plank of wood by putting just the right pickup on it. It’s all in how the guitar affects the string vibration—that back and forth feedback loop between wire and wood.
I started with the most obvious place, the body. I needed to get away from that neck-through body thing; it did not allow enough contribution from the body wood to warm up the sound. My favorite sounding electrics were the old Les Paul custom—the original version with the all-mahogany body and no maple cap—and the Gibson SG, though I thought it punked out below about “B” on the “A” string and above about “B” on the high “E” string. The common theme between the two instruments is the mahogany body, a well loved instrument wood that can impart a dry tone to acoustic guitars, but a warmer tone with the thicker pieces used in electrics. I also wanted to bring the average weight of the new guitar in at between that of a Les Paul and a Strat—no use sending the players to the chiropractor after every gig. In thinking over what I’d learned about PA speaker cabinet building, echo chamber design and such, I realized that parallel surfaces lead to standing waves, even in solid structures, and that made me wonder if the problem with the SG’s narrower response might be that the parallel surfaces might lead to some kinds of issues with limiting the frequency response, or having resonances too pronounced. These considerations brought me to the idea of arching the surfaces of the top and back, and doing it based on one of the main design features of my favorite vintage acoustic guitars, the cylinder topped Howe-Ormes from the 1890s.
I drew up a set of blueprints for a new guitar that would have a “set” glued-in neck and a mahogany body. For the warmth I liked in the Les Paul customs and SGs, the body was to be mahogany, and I realized I could make a “clam shell” of two body halves with each being 1-¼” thick in the center; that just happened to be the thickness of an Alembic bass body center section on which we glued a ¼” thick top and back. Thus it would use a common lumber dimension with what we were already using. For the neck, I realized that every Alembic bass neck yielded a piece of laminated scrap approximately 20” long, 2-¼” wide, and that could be thicknessed to ¾”. By stacking a heel block on and then scarfing on a peghead, this was perfect for a 15 frets-to-the-body neck that would have the stiffness characteristics—and somewhat the tonal properties of a Strat neck. It would be stiff and not absorb much string vibration, and with a rosewood fingerboard, it would balance the mahogany body nicely. I showed the drawings to Lindsey, discussed the idea of a single pickup with semi-parametric EQ, made a few minor changes, and did a final blueprint. When I took the ‘print down to the studio, Lindsey said, “I’ll take one as soon as you have it done.”
Not long after this, but before I got a chance to build a prototype Model 1, things at Alembic went South…way South. There were a lot of irregularities on the business side of things; there was a lot of money apparently missing; and I instituted an audit and discovered that things were not as they should have been. I wanted an official audit to be done by an independent accountant; I was overruled and subsequently fired for rocking the boat. I learned the age-old lesson that 43% ownership is not 51%, and if the 14% owner had personal reasons for not wanting the boat rocked, well, tough shit for me.
Luckily, I’d moved several years worth of canceled checks to my house where a couple of people and I were digging into how checks had been “coded” and accounted for in the company books. It was not a pretty picture, and I got an attorney involved and moved the accounting to his office. A week later an arsonist burned down my house in Santa Rosa on Pearl Harbor day of 1978. Eventually I settled with Alembic for a financial payout plus taking the design of the Model 1 and my share of the carbon fiber neck patent with me. I learned at that point that you can have justice or get paid, but not necessarily get both at the same time.
As all this was going on, I decided to start up a new guitar company, and so, with the settlement money and the insurance from the house, I started up Turner Guitars with my then-brother-in-law as a junior partner. We set up a shop in Ignacio, in Marin County, and tooled up to build Model 1 guitars. My pal Larry Robinson managed to buy about 300 of the neck scrap laminates from Alembic without them knowing that the parts were going to me; I had my old friend and former employee Jim Furman design the preamp/EQ electronics; and Bill and Pat Bartolini agreed to make the humbucker I’d designed, as I was no longer set up to wind my own pickups.
By the end of summer of 1979 I was finishing up the first three prototypes of the Model 1 guitar, and I knew that Fleetwood Mac was going to start the Tusk tour near the end of October. I called Ray Lindsey, Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar tech, and let him know that I had a guitar for him to try out. Ray invited me to come down to Hollywood to the sound stage where the band was rehearsing. I got there on the early side, before the band got in; Ray checked out the guitar and loved it, and he left it plugged in and put it up on a stand plugged in front of Lindsey’s amps, and we walked to the back of the place (it had once been the site of Esther Williams gigantic swimming pool!) and just sat and chatted. Lindsey came in first, went up on stage, picked up the guitar and played it for about a half an hour before the rest of the band came in. I thought it sounded fantastic—exactly the sound I’d had in my head when I first started designing the guitar. Lindsey then shouted back to Ray, “Leave the Les Paul, the Strat, and the Ovation at home. This is all I need now!” Well, fucking make my day! Then the rest of the band came in and started to rehearse. The guitar just sat perfectly in the mix on any and all tunes. Lindsey could play it clean like an acoustic, get a bit more edge, kind of like he was playing a Strat with a clean tone, or crank it up full bore with Santana-like sustain. It did the trick. After about an hour, Mick came back and said, “OK, Rick, you did it. How fast can we get a backup for that guitar?”
Thanks to Paul Hostetter for editing
Start ’em up here! A friend suggested that rolling my life and times in music and lutherie, and writing it up into a blog would be a great way to pull all the elements of my lengthy book project into one place where I might get some feedback, some questions, and get some editing done. So here it comes. Some will be raw, some will be edited, and I hope it will all be of interest to friends old and new. Please do not expect linearity! Author and songstress Sylvie Simmons relieved me of that burden by saying that memoirs need not be chronological while a biography should be. So what will come will contain memoirs, to be sure, but also a fair amount of technical writing…and extension of the many columns and articles I’ve written in the past for Guitar Player, Bass Player, Acoustic Guitar, Premier Guitar, Guitar World Acoustic, American Lutherie, and other publications.
I do welcome questions and suggestions for topics. I cannot promise to be timely about any of this; FaceBook is more useful for quick quips and (I almost hate to say it…) some of my snarky comments. The blog format will allow me more extended commentary. Bear in mind that I do have a pretty extensive backlog of writing to extract from various computer hard drives.
A word about the soft focus photo up top…in the foreground is the jumbo acoustic guitar I made for Henry Kaiser for his first Antarctic venture; the uke is my “go-to” instrument these days…an all-figured koa “Compass Rose” tenor that I play in “Uke Ellington”; the banjo to the left is a 1922 Paramount Style C which I gave to my son, Eli, for his birthday a couple of years ago.
David Crosby’s 12 String
In 1970 my guitar workshop was in the basement of the Alembic headquarters on Judah Street in San Francisco. We had our PA and live 16 track recording gear upstairs along with Ron Wickersham’s electronics lab, and some space set aside for doing a little bit of in-house mixing and even some recording. The workshop was packed…we were even doing some speaker cabinet building down there, and Frank Fuller had moved over from an old-school guitar shop, Satterlee and Chapin, where I’d worked for about six months, to work with me. We were mostly modifying and repairing existing instruments…doing a lot of what would be now termed irreparable harm to vintage Gibsons, Fenders, and Guild basses, but we were “Alembicizing” them…making them better than new. We had an incredible clientele…the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Malo, and David Crosby among others. I was working on Phil Lesh’s “Godfather” bass making pickups for it, and I’d started on what became Alembic bass #001 for Jack Casady.
Crosby got wind of the alchemy we were brewing at the place, and he brought in an unfinished thin, hollow body 12 string. He’d somehow talked Gibson out of a “Crest” body…hollow, 335 shaped, outer ply of the arched top and back plus sides done in gorgeous Brazilian rosewood with a great solid Brazilian neck made by Bay Area lutherie legend Mario Martello. Ron and I were basically to put our overactive brains to work and turn this into the world’s best electric 12 string. David had the faith that we could do it; and we were riding the beginning of a long wave of inventiveness, willingness beyond eagerness, and I dare say ability to do exactly what David and the other musicians we were working with needed and wanted. In a funny way, it was like we were a part of all of their bands…we just didn’t appear on stage with them or play in the studio with them. But I knew that one of the things I had going was my several years as a professional musician, and a lot of that attitude went into designing tools for these new friends.
For the 12 string, I decided to wind a couple of Gibson humbucker sized true stereo humbuckers but make them wide range, low impedance types to match with a custom stereo on-board preamp done with all-discreet transistor circuitry. I put in a switching network that allowed for the true stereo output if David wanted that…it sends the three bass pairs of strings to one channel and the three top courses to the other. It can also switch to “normal” mono output with a volume control for each of the two pickups. I welded a kind of free-form sculpture bronze tailpiece, modified a TunaMatic bridge, inlaid the Alembic logo in the peghead in abalone shell, and then the most radical innovation was to install Monsanto MV-50 ultra miniature red LEDs in the binding in the side of the fingerboard. Bear in mind that this was in 1970; it was the earliest use of LED’s as position markers on any guitar, and fast forward to 2015…the LED’s still work after 45 years.
David loved the guitar, and after having it for a few weeks, he brought it back for some minor adjustments. It was in the shop for a couple of days, and then went back upstairs for David to pick up…and then the place was broken into with the only thing gone being David’s 12 string. Yes, we had an ADT silent alarm system. No, it didn’t go off. Why? Because another tenant had left the building and had ordered the alarm system turned off. ADT came to do that…and turned the wrong unit’s system off. We’d thought our place was fully armed every night, but it wasn’t. We were devastated, embarrassed, nervous, and pissed off, but the only thing we could do was to call David and give him the news. You may think of David Crosby as being “an excitable boy”, and that can be true, but he’s also a gentleman. He was righteously bummed out and let us know it, but he didn’t put it on us.
About two or three days later, I got a call from Bill Stapleton, then one of the owners of a small music store, Banana’s at Large, about five miles from our place. Bill said, “I have a really unusual 12 string here with your logo on the peghead. What’s the story?” Whew! That was the story! It turned out that a couple of guys had brought the guitar in to sell. Bill saw the logo and immediately put it behind the counter saying that he had to make a phone call. Bill’s description of the guys hastily leaving was something like “Oh, we have to go get ice cream for our mom…” No money changed hands, and we got back the guitar.
We knew that David was recording at Wally Heider’s (now Hyde St. Studios), and so we decided to return the guitar in person. Ron and maybe Bob Matthews and I went down to the studio well before the session, and with the help of the engineer, we staged the guitar in the studio room lit and staged like Tiffany window display. We sat back on the couch behind the console and waited for Cros to show which he did, kind of glum faced. The engineer (Stephen Barncard???) said, “Turn around, David, and look into the studio; the guys brought you something.” Crosby freaked out…joyously this time, and the guitar has remained one of his favorites now for 45 years. He generously brought it with him to the Fretboard Summit in the fall of 2015 and let me show it off and play it for a small audience of true guitar freaks.
In September of 1962 I found myself a commuter college student living at home with my parents in Marblehead, Massachusetts and taking a combination of the bus and the MTA to Boston University on the River Charles. Somehow, I knew almost instantly this wasn’t the right thing for me. When we…the freshman of the Class of 1966…were all bused up to freshman orientation in Swampscott barely a mile from my parent’s home…the first thing that happened was that along with our “how to behave in college instruction manual” or whatever the hell they were trying to get across to us came a really stupid brown “freshman beanie” that we were all supposed to wear when on campus. This was to identify us to upperclassmen as an approved oppressed class of sub-humans. The only hitch was that only three out of about 5,000 souls realized how idiotic this was, and somehow, within minutes, we found one another. There was Michael Kane, a music major/French horn player slated to be a slave in the football marching band (that was the price of music scholarships in those days), Lowell Vincent Levinger, a theater major from Santa Rosa, California, and myself. I don’t remember if I had my wonderful 1919 Martin 2-17 with me that day…it became as regular a part of my wardrobe as shoes…but musos find musos…it’s in the eyes or something. Anyway, we found one another and discovered that we all shared a common interest in traditional forms of American music…black blues, acoustic and electric, Mississippi to Chicago, mountain string band music with the New Lost City Ramblers rising far above the Kingston Trio, and the balladeers like Jack Elliott singing in the Guthrie tradition.
I don’t remember quite when and how we started playing together, but I do recollect that Michael discovered that there was little regulation of the music practice rooms in the music department building. If you showed up and found an empty room, it was yours until you left. I suspect we were the only ones playing anything other than standard classical repertoire there, and as weird as we may have sounded to anybody walking by the door, nobody bothered us or complained.
We all happened to hit Boston during a several year peak of the folk revival, and we figured out very quickly that our real classrooms were the Unicorn, the Café Yana, the Turk’s Head, and over in Cambridge, the Club 47. I started “staying over” crashing in someone’s dorm room if there was something hot happening at one of the clubs, and soon enough met other like-minded folkies and was invited to all-night parties with folks like the Kingston Trio, Theodor Bikel, Jack Elliott, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, and more local luminaries on the club scene. I befriended a fiddle player, Jerry Wein, who had one of those apartments that got handed down from one folk musician to another. The place was right behind the Boston Public Library, and somehow I convinced my parents that I’d do better in college if I didn’t have to commute…yeah, right! I moved in, and in a few months, Jerry moved out making room for Lowell and Michael, and soon enough we were playing together first as Harmon N. Banana and the Knights of Pythias Wake the Dead Gospel Four…which soon enough became Banana and the Bunch, Old Tyme Music with A-Peel.
By Spring of 1963 we’d become regulars at the Unicorn Coffee House which was barely three blocks from our apartment. We had opening privileges…in the sense that we knew which panel in the front door was loose, and George Papadopulos kind of liked that we’d break in and turn the lights on for him and get the place warmed up a bit. We also rarely paid to see incredible acts there; I think George saw us as club mascots for a while. Anyway, this was our kind of classroom, and we studied the music as though we were in for PhDs there. And of course, along the way we met a lot of like-minded folks, some future drop-outs like ourselves, some who stuck it through their college years…Tom Rush, Bob Siggins, and a lot of the folkies who were three or four years our senior.
The three of us kind of stumbled our way not quite well through our freshman year there at BU; I still can’t quite figure out how I got invited to go back the next fall, but there it would be.
It was back to Marblehead for me in the summer of 1963.
In the summer of 1963, I took my first and only long distance bike trip that summer before, riding from Marblehead to Wood’s Hole and then taking the ferry over to the Vineyard on one long and ass-busting day. Once over there I stayed at the sort of communal house rented by Dick Randlett, one of the owners of the Mooncusser Coffee House.
I re-enrolled at BU in the Fall of 1963 not really knowing why I bothered. My folks didn’t really understand my dilemma; college was just the thing a young prep school grad was supposed to do, and both of my parents had taken that normal path…Phyllis from a private high school in New York to Bennington, Hamlin from Exeter to Harvard. Alternatives were not even a consideration.
I did not like BU. All the classes save one were huge; it was like the worst of going back to public high school magnified ten times, and the required courses were just a ridiculous. Moses Brown had been rigorous…a real intellectual challenge…and exciting. My teachers had all been very bright and very engaged. BU was a huge institutionalized diploma factory. If there had been some sort of alternative curriculum that allowed mixing liberal arts with engineering and music, I might have thrived, but it was not to be. At one point I went to the counseling department there and took a whole battery of psychological and aptitude tests. I scored in the top percentile for engineering aptitude and they told me I should never consider farming. They also said I was clearly unhappy with my situation there at BU. Big help!
Banana, Michael and I found a place in Brookline a reasonable walk from BU…and two of the more notorious folkie coffee houses in Boston. One was the Café Yana which featured gorgeous waitresses in black tights and mini-skirts with deliciously bored expressions…and was the site of an infamous pot bust with future pals Chuck Shefreen and Jeff Gerber having been set up by Boston’s finest narcs. The Yana was about a block from Fenway Park which made for a strange mélange of beatnik and sports fans. The other place was the Unicorn, a larger club owned by George Papadopulos, and it was about two blocks from our old place behind the Boston Public Library. The Unicorn was a top-tier national venue for acts like Doc Watson, Ramblin’ Jack, Dave Van Ronk, Rev. Gary Davis ( who, though blind, had an amazing ability to find the waitresses breasts…), Odetta, and guys who just blew our minds, the Kentucky Colonels with Clarence White practically melting the strings on his D-18 and D-28 Martins. Papadopulos had taken a liking to us for some reason or other and let us open the club…by slipping through a section of his glass door where a Masonite panel covered for the lack of glass. Once in, we’d unlock the place and turn on the lights and that was about it, but we were in free.
Our lives became more and more about music, and we got to know some of our favorite musicians in town and those on the circuit. I’d already met Ian and Sylvia on Martha’s Vineyard, and we became good pals with Peter Stamfel and Steve Webber…aka “the Holy Modal Rouders” who would crash at our place and we at Peter’s on occasional forays down to New York.
Along the way, we’d been playing music together as “Banana and the Bunch, Old Time Music with A-Peal. We were sometimes three, sometimes four with the addition of Peter Golden on guitar and vocals, and sometimes five when Al Wilson, later to play with Canned Heat, would join us on harmonica. Al was really great then, but with the odd habit of stuffing his nostrils with Kleenex so he wouldn’t lose any breath out his nose when he wanted all he had for the harp. One of the more bizarre parts of our act was when Peter would read from the “Good Book”, an incredibly large book that was a “Compendium of Medical Knowledge” from about 1875. Between songs, Peter would randomly open the Good Book and read whatever the hell was on the page in front of him. There were particularly graphic descriptions of scurvy, the depredations of masturbation (self abuse), cattarh, boils, etc. with which Peter would utterly mystify our poor audience who would wonder why they had paid to come and sit and hear of the plagues of the past while sipping on their Medaglio D’Oro espresso and eating cheese cake, the two staples of 1960s coffeehouses. We thought of it as a kind of modern performance art thing, although we’d never heard the term “performance art”; maybe we were inventing it. Whatever it was, it went nicely with the dope we were smoking, because yes, pot was becoming a regular part of our lives despite some of the major busts, including Paul Rothchild, one time manager of the Club 47 and later to be producer of “the Doors” and Ed Freeman who would go on to produce Don McLean’s “American Pie” album.
MORE TO COME
Island String Shop, summer ‘64
In the spring of ’64 we were at a party at the apartment of Dick Randlett, co-owner of the place on the Vineyard. He was an electronics designer by day and folk music fan at night. Dick and his partner, Charlie Close were gearing up for another summer on the Island with a great line up of booked talent. Banana and I got the idea of opening a music store in a part of the building that had it’s own store front and backed up to the Mooncusser’s kitchen. The store was on a side street there in Oak Bluffs, right next to an incredible Portugese bakery and two doors from the post office. It was a perfect setup for us. Banana and Michael were making music with John and Jane Nagy as the Proper Bostonians, and they all needed a summer out of the Boston scene to practice. Banana found us a great huge apartment above an African American beauty salon about a block and a half from the club. We painted the apartment totally weird colors, which bothered Jane, but she got over it, and so we all moved into this place, none of us having the slightest idea of how we were going to do financially. And that should have been a worry, as the store was a disaster from that point of view, but we really didn’t care. We had access to all the coffee we could drink, a “day gig” which consisted of hanging out and doing a little bit of guitar repair work, and nights in the club where we were both the house band and I washed dishes for spare change. How we paid the rent I don’t recall, maybe it was from the proceeds of selling some pot, but there was a day when we were happily broke, figured we needed protein, and there it was, canned mackerel kind of down at the end of the cat food section in the market. It wasn’t labeled pet food, but it sure was cheap. We bought it, ate it, and prospered.
The week before the Newport Folk Festival was to take place, we were so broke that I doubt that among the three of us we could have scraped up the fare to get one of us off-island, and that was of tragic proportions in our lives. The lineup of talent, both on the old traditional side and the city folks and up and coming talents like Bob Dylan was incredible, and we couldn’t go. Life at the club was good, though, Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band with Jim, David Simon, Mel Lyman, Fritz Richmond, and the Muldaurs, Geoff and Maria were tearing up the nights. They were at one of their several peaks of performance that summer, and they had a lot of fans on the island. One of them happened to be a yachtsman, and he popped into the dressing room downstairs from the kitchen and our store and announced to us all, “Hey, I’ve got a 45 foot cabin cruiser and I’m headed for Newport. Anyone want a ride?” I hope he wasn’t too shocked at how many takers he had, because we all wanted on-board, and so it was. Diane Tribuno, she of my first acid trip, was hanging out with me, not as my girlfriend, but just as a pal, so she was literally my bunk mate; Banana and Michael and most of the Kweskin band came along, and so it was that we arrived in Newport with a floating hotel for the duration of the weekend and a ride back. The only problem was that we didn’t have tickets. Diane was fine; I think she had scored tickets weeks in advance; the band was fine, of course, as they were playing the festival; Banana, Michael, and I just figured on figuring it out even if it meant slipping under a fence like kids sneaking into a big top circus. No need…the first person we saw upon walking up to shore from the dock was Bernie Apothecker, a folk scene gig hustler from Boston who was to become Peter Rowan’s manager for a while. We knew Bernie through John Nagy, and had hung out with him quite a bit. “Hi, guys, whatcha up to?”, Bernie called to us. “Just got here on that boat, and we’re trying to figure out how to get into the festival.” “Oh, no problem…I’m in charge of giving out press passes and I have them all here in my pocket. Who is going to be whom? OK, Banana, you represent the BU paper; Michael, you’re from Brandeis, and Rick, you write for the Boston College daily!”
In the fall of 1964 Banana (Lowell Levinger), Michael Kane, and I moved to Cambridge from the Vinyard into a second story apartment off of Putnam Ave. The spot was near the Charles River in an area about equidistant from Central Square and Harvard Square. We were gone from Boston University, and we were living the folkie Bohemian life in one of the best places to do that in the US. Rent was cheap, we could walk anywhere in town, and there were always friends like Paul Arnoldi or Jim Mairs who had cars if we needed or wanted to go anywhere the subways and busses didn’t go, and beyond that, hitchhiking was an accepted and reasonably safe way to get to New York, Providence, or wherever. I remember us hitching out to U Mass to see Bob Dylan perform, and we got a ride from a woman who turned out to be involved with putting on a folk festival out there. We wound up staying with her and her husband, played well into the night, and her only request was that we not bring any pot to the festival. Pot? Us? No way…never heard of the stuff… Yeah, sure…
I don’t know what Michael and Banana did for money in those days, but I had a real job, working at Briggs and Briggs, an old time full line music store in Harvard Square. They sold records and had three listening rooms for auditioning the latest albums. They also had an incredibly extensive selection of sheet music all stored in a wall of filing cabinets behind the counter, and I, with practically no education in classical music, quickly learned to fake it and find the sonatas, concertos and the like being sought by Harvard students. And down stairs were two rooms with guitars…Gibsons, Epiphones, Guilds, and Harmonys, and since I was the young guitar player, I got to be the guitar salesman, too. To top it all off, on my way to work lived my first post high school serious girl friend, an “older woman” three years my elder who was a local folk singer playing all the clubs in Boston and Cambridge. Nancy introduced me to the joys of French press coffee and sex in the morning before going to work. For a preppy turned acoustic guitar player that was pretty cool stuff all around. Sometimes I stayed with her, sometimes back at the musician’s boarding house that our apartment had become. It was right out of “Tangled up in Blue.”
It was about this time that I first tried psychedelics in the form of extract of heavenly blue morning glory seeds, courtesy of Maria Muldaur who had given a jar of this vile gray glop to my friend Diane Tribuno, later to be married to bluesman Nick Gravenites. Diane, Jim Mairs and I did the whole 1964 ritual…we read from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, we lit incense, we put on Bach organ fugues on Diane’s record player, and then we all took a trip, and it was the real deal. Laughter, visions, intense profound revelations…at least they seemed so at the time, and just one hell of a good time.
In those days there was a new tradition in Cambridge of psychedelic exploration. Richard Alpert, better known now as Ram Dass, and Timothy Leary had been teaching at Harvard and in the late 1950s they became academically interested in the effects of psychedelic drugs, particularly on creativity. This whole thing blew up in their faces, and in the spring of 1963 Dr. Alpert was fired from his job, and he and Leary headed for Mexico under a cloud of scandal…and were promptly unofficially declared the patron saints of the whole psychedelic revolution into the back yard of which we had dropped. We all regarded acid as a combination of sacrament, brain opener, and, well, fun.
A few weeks after my first trip a number of us decided to try LSD and go see Hard Day’s Night for the first time. Three of us would take the acid before seeing the film, three would wait to see if we killed ourselves or anything and get a report from the other side before downing their doses. I was in the first wave, and what can I say? It was wonderful, spectacular, those guys were having so much fun just goofing off that we all never wanted the movie to end or we wanted to step into the screen, or, and this is what really happened, we wanted to live life as large as we possible could, get paid for it, and just keep going for the rest of our lives. The movie, of course, came to an end, and out we stumbled, by then six stoned musicians coming out into a nice snowfall. For some reason we decided to go over to Bill Lyons’ house and get him stoned too. Bill was a balladeer around the clubs and sometime guitar repairman. He was a bit of a curmudgeon, he was gay, and he was fun to hang out with having a wicked sense of humor and having been around the Boston Cambridge folk scene since the very inception. To get to his place we had to go down a moderately steep drive way to part in back of the house which we did only to find him not home. So we piled back into the car, probably Jim’s Volvo, and headed for the street. No go. The snow and a light sheet of ice had glazed over the driveway, and we only made it up about half way and then started sliding back. What to do? Back up a bit further, gun it, and try for the top. No go. Back a couple more feet further, and hit it. No go. Well this went on for a good half hour. We were cracking up so much that we didn’t dare get out of the car to try to sweep off the snow or through sand out or get a shovel or do any of the things that normal sane people would do. The problem was that we were abnormal and insane and we knew it. Of course it didn’t occur to us that a neighbor might wonder why a car full of proto-hippies with exploding heads was repeatedly attacking a snowy hill with a Volvo. Too much fun, and the next phase of a pretty good run.
Banana, Michael and I sold a bit of pot and we had a fantastic connection for Sandoz LSD that a guy in a Cadillac would deliver. Up the stairs he’d come with a briefcase full of glass ampules of brown liquid acid of the highest quality from the folks who invented the stuff. We’d pipette it onto sugar cubes, and move it on.
The apartment became a real hangout for musician/psychedelic connoisseurs and we continued to have out of town musicians stay with us there. One of them was Monte Dunn, guitar accompanist to Ian and Sylvia whom we had met in the summer of 1964 when they played at the Moon Cusser. We’d all hit it off, and played a lot of music together, an eclectic blend of folk, Bluegrass, and what would become known as folk rock.
Another regular, but relatively local was Peter Rowan, a great Bluegrass singer and guitarist drawn into the scene. We got along famously with Peter, and when his draft notice came, we all got together to strategize how to convince the draft board that Peter was unfit for service. Bear in mind that we didn’t even know about Vietnam at this point. We hear vague rumblings of things going badly in South East Asia, and we were for the most part Seegerized anti-war peaceniks, but we weren’t yet anti-Vietnam war protesters. We just didn’t want our pals or ourselves to be pushed into the army to be trained to kill for no particular reason other than corporate maneuverings and politics.
At that point in time, the standard ways to be declared 4-F were to show up without any underwear and unwashed for a few weeks, say you were queer, or appear to be a drug user, They hadn’t yet figured out that half their army was about to be drug users and that they could just throw stoned soldiers at the front lines. So we decided to give Peter a good dose of acid that he would take right before going for his draft physical. Well, it worked, and how! Peter went in a mumbling lunatic without having to do very much acting. They basically threw him out on the street whereupon the legend is that he found a Macy’s department store pet shop and started to let the birds go free from their cages, just as he had been let free. Ask Peter about that the next time you see him…
More to come