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