Robert was a drug and alcohol counselor. — Ironic, considering we met at one of our town’s seediest bohemian taverns, where strong ale, stout and porter were consumed by a crowd of young, middle-aged and senior folks, who frequently gathered to enjoy lively discussions vis-a-vis art, music, movies and poetry, while also putting a fair amount of effort into getting intoxicated. We regulars drank like the proverbial creatures the tav was named after. Yes, the Fish Tank Pub was a sort of human aquarium.
So that’s where we met. But that factoid is peripheral to my story. I had many friends at the “Tank”, as it was known. It took a while for me to get to know Robert, simply because there were so many people to visit and drink with every night. However, Robert and I eventually got to know each other well enough to where he was comfortable in asking me over to his apartment, to see what he described as his fantastic vintage guitar collection, and to do some jamming.
I’d let Robert know I was a musician from the get-go. At the Tank, most everyone was known for what they did, or for what their passion was. There were poets, musicians, artists (I remember one really old dude, a painter named Ernie, who volunteered for LSD experiments in the early 1960’s. He occasionally exhibited at the Fish Tank, and I must say, his work reflected his participation in those experiments – very psychedelic). But, as I was saying, we all had our roles; and I “wore” the musician label.
Robert had also been in attendance on at least one occasion, when I ran the Fish Tank Monday Night Jam. The tavern paid me to welcome all comers to their small bandstand on Monday nights, where everyone could have a shot at performing before a friendly crowd. I played and sang a song or two between acts. So I had the chance to demonstrate my musical ability to Robert. I mean, he knew I could play; and I figured he took me to be a serious musician.
I was very happy to accept Robert’s invitation to come over and not only view, but try out, his guitars. Because, from his description of his collection, he had some rare, awesome beauties. He collected oddball guitars such as Nationals and Danelectros, which were made of, more or less, bowling ball material. Rather than wood, the instruments featured bodies made of strange, ceramic or plastic material, “Res-O-Glas” (a type of fiberglass) and/or Masonite; and they featured swirly or shiny finishes, much like you would expect to see at your local bowling emporium. Strange….
So, one night, after consuming our usual copious amount of ale, and/or porter or stout (we loved those craft brews; but I quit drinking years ago), Robert and I headed over to his impressive, 1930’s apartment building, to have some fun with his guitars. I saw right away that he had a nice, well-kept apartment – homey and well-decorated. His guitar collection was equally well-kept. Robert started opening up vintage, mint-condition cases, revealing guitars which were every bit as desirable as he had indicated. I was amazed at the uniqueness and beauty of these fine axes. Previously, I had only seen them in photos.
None of them started life as the most expensive guitars on the market. They weren’t Gibsons or Fenders. But they were, just as he said, rare and wondrous Nationals, Danelectros, including one with the “lipstick” pickup, a Teisco Del Ray, and even a nice semi-acoustic Gretsch electric. My favorite was his 1960’s-vintage National Glenwood 99, which, intentionally or not, had a body crafted in the shape of the map of the United States!
Robert picked up the beautiful National, plugged it into a small, late-50’s vintage Fender tweed amp, handed it to me, and said, “Give it a try, Randy”. Well, I made a chord. — Except I didn’t. The thing was not in tune. I don’t mean it was a little out of tune. It wasn’t tuned at all. I think that might be called atonal. Something like that….
I started to tune it, but before I could, my host grabbed a black and white Danelectro, plugged it into another fine amplifier, and started “playing”. You see, the Danelectro wasn’t tuned, either. I said, “Hang on a sec, Robert. Let’s tune these, and see if we can make some music”. He said, “That’s OK”. I replied, “It’ll only take a minute or so. I can tune really fast”. He said, “No, that’s OK”, as he noodled away, fretting notes and plucking strings, but not making any sounds that could remotely be mistaken for music. I asked, “Well, how are we going to play a song if we don’t tune up first?” Robert replied, “Just play. That’s all. Just start playing”, as his fingers went up and down the fret board, making random sounds, wearing an intense look of concentration on his face.
I tried one more time. I said, “I’m sorry, Robert, but if we can’t tune the guitars, I can’t jam with you”. He abruptly stopped “playing”, turned to me, and said in a disdainful tone of voice, “Get off that tuning thing, man!”
Of course, I left about five minutes later, never to return.
Teisco Del Ray was not only the name of a line of strange, wonderful Japanese-made guitars; a writer for Guitar Player magazine used that pen name in the 1970’s and 1980’s. He wrote about obscure, oddball guitars; in doing so, he helped make them collectible, more appreciated, and consequently, more expensive.
But you know, it was kind of a shame to see those guitars so underpriced, before Mr. Del Ray started writing about them. So, maybe it’s OK that we have to pay a bit more for them.
Elvis Costello did the same thing for the Fender Jazzmaster. Before they were known as his axe of choice, they were also thought of as an oddball guitar. I remember trying-out a really fine pre-owned one at Guitar Center in 1975, which was going for $200. I thought, “Wow, this guitar has so many amazing features! But it’s not a Tele or a Strat. – I can’t buy it”. – Should-a bought it!
Here is Dan Forte (Teisco Del Ray) playing one of his crazy guitars. Please excuse some of the rather risque images in this video. I had to include a Teisco Del Ray video. OCD and all that….
The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn was the person who coined the phrase, “We tune because we care”. I saw that there was already a post with that name, so I tweeked it…. I have also heard David Hidalgo of Los Lobos use the phrase.