October 23, 2014
Punk Rock, in all its charming snottiness, it’s launched a thousand ships.
Many un-seaworthy. Zing!
It’s the very nature of the goddamned thing to get out of the garage just as quickly as possible, am I right?
It seems impossible enough: To get a guitar, bass and drum to start the song on the same magical moment.
And God bless the neighbors that had to endure the count off yet again, instruments crashing into each other like drunken Shriners on an ice slicked parade route.
But one time, inevitably, it comes together for any group of kids flailing away in that suburban garage.
On that paused millisecond of breath, just after …Four! is yelled once again, the thing happens.
The instruments all play the same note, the drummer does not drop the stick.
And it is that shining moment, downbeat, that lets a band finally look beyond the tar paper and fluorescent hum of the garage.
It is onto the backyard party, night club and National tour, thank you very much!
Unfortunately, you’re still playing those shitty guitars (2 to a shared amp of course), the bass drum is actually an empty ice chest and the bass player is keeping the bottom playing a touch tone phone.
Unlike the metalheads and your stoner big brothers, you didn’t take years perfecting your craft, upgrading your gear as the years went by and your fingertip callouses attained titanium-grade hardness.
Fuck that brother, leave it for the Rush cover bands! We’ll take our tubs and bullhorns, 5 stringed beaters and play the Cuckoos Nest anyway.
Hell, we got 4 originals, we’re ready to roll!
Ah, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t covet those shining swords like every other hack.
Yeah, guitars, they are crazy things.
No matter how many you have, there’s always another one on the horizon, however distant.
Fragile, beautiful things, mass produced yet each as unique as evil twins with their individual preferred means of torture.
If you’ve ever wandered into a Guitar Center on a Saturday afternoon, you know.
A dozen snotty teens, each playing guitars they will never have the money to buy until they are balding dentists.
Smoke on the Water, it’s plodding riff hangs in the air like, well, smoke.
It is a hellish fugue, circling back upon itself as another kid starts in.
They don’t care: They just want to hold that guitar.
On first sight, the Beatles rocking those beauties in black and white, then Townshend smashing them in technicolor.
And into our world, who else could bring the class and style to a rawer generation?
Hell, what kid didn’t think those mysterious guitars weren’t made in England, if not in some mythical land of elfish craftsmen.
To learn that these things were made in nearby Fullerton, of all places, did not diminish the mystique: They were not the easiest guitars to find.
Finally getting one:
A single pickup 420 model at a long gone pawn shop, North Hollywood.
All of 295 dollars, it had a cracked pickguard and was missing the tone knob.
This was a small guitar, thin and worn, not one of the fat beauties held by the Englishmen.
But still, there on the headstock sat that glorious sweep of white: like a ceramic dagger in a pool of blood, with a name pulled from a dogfight in the clouds:
I got a Rickenbacker!
Plugging her in the first time, amp knobs all set for the usual ho-hum humbuckers, I was met with not with the jangle and chime, but a banshee squeal of feedback.
It was if the guitar was announcing its presence, demanding you pay attention.
And the chords didn’t bleed effortlessly from the speakers and hang there, no.
You had to play it a bit differently, set the amp to fit its temperment, not yours.
Let it sing in its own way.
But any guitar player will tell you the same story.
Yeah, I wish I never got rid of that one!
The years rolled along, the shows got bigger and more frequent.
We had kind and generous artist reps give us some new flashy guitars to take on the road, amused to have a punk act on their roster of metal virtuosos.
And then you notice the Ricky sits in the corner more often, left behind in favor of more reliable and common sounding guitars.
And that’s when you commit the sin and sell a guitar, justifying the loss with a pocket of crumpled bills that will be spent on simply nothing in a week.
Years later I try to locate it, for it’s stayed close, changing hands with friends and fiends.
But eventually it leaves the neighborhood, sold criminally cheap for amphetamine, taken on the road with some shoe gazer band or traded across state lines in a cold internet deal.
Some nights I wonder where the guitar is at that moment.
And if it is not quite my Rosebud, I knew it was something dear that I gave up foolishly, like a virginity lost to a cruel but beautiful stranger.
Years become decades, and although I see the same model pop up on Ebay now and then, the slight little guitar is now listed in the thousands, victim to the collector society that makes all things priced to the fool.
But one night, on a Jameson soaked whim, I put in a low bid on a black 330.
Not my old buddy, but a modern Rickenbaker, full and beautiful, not a scratch visible on the zoomed-in photos.
I lose the bid, of course, and shrug it off before bed.
Perhaps I don’t deserve a second chance anyway.
But in the morning comes the email:
The high bidder turned out to be a flake, and the seller wonders if I’m still interested?
Original bid, and he’ll pick up the shipping?
I bring it to our next practice, and when I open the case we all gather around and sigh at its timeless curve.
The cat-eye F hole, the funky split level pickguard.
On its head like a jauntily cocked crown, there sits that familiar swoosh of white and the Rickenbacker name.
And when I tune it up and finally plug it into the Marshall, I am blasted with the shrill alarm of feedback:
Pay attention!, it yells.
And this time I will.
Thanks Alan Snodgrass and Martin Wong for photos!