Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Mendelssohn's Rock Bible: The Brave Little Guitar That Could

In 1950, the Fender Electric Instruments Company introduced a solid-body electric guitar called the Esquire, named after the magazine best known for the beautiful pinup paintings of Alberto Vargas. (Any heterosexual male over 85 who claims not to have been inspired to masturbate by the glorious Peruvian’s work is lying.) About 50 Esquires were made, of which not a single one was fitted with a truss rod. As production began, the instrument was renamed the Broadcaster, which displeased Gretsch Musical Instruments because that’s what they were calling one of their drum lines. 

Fender grumblingly renamed its instrument the Telecaster. Because the instrument’s retail price was $189.50! — $46,923.78 in 2018 dollars — only the very wealthy were able to afford one.  A New York financier bought one for his son, Hillel, but its lack of a truss rod so dismayed the young man that he put it in the back of a closet and returned to rabbinical studies. 

For seven years the instrument languished unplayed and unloved in the back of Hillel’s closet, until being stolen by burglars in the spring of 1958, and sold to a young musician from west Texas with big spectacles — identical to those worn by Lumpy Rutherford’s dad Fred in the popular sitcom Leave It to Beaver — and a singing style characterised by overuse of glottal stoppage. Yes, Buddy Holly, who’d changed his last name from Holocaust at the behest of the Jewish owners of his record company, and, indeed, of the entire entertainment industry!

By the mid-1960s, years after Holly’s premature death of plane crash, The Guitar had made its way to England, where it fell into the hands of a pimply 19-year-old in Surrey who’d put together a band to perform the songs of black former sharecroppers, but he traded it for a Framus Inquisitor on discovering that all of his heroes had had truss rods — great big ones in many cases. 

By the dawn of the 1970s, The Guitar had returned to New York, where it was played at Fillmore East and other historic venues by Toby Klezmer of the Canadian prog-rock trio Anemone, whose name was found to be mispronounced Ani-moan by 102 percent of their fans. After the group’s third album sold only 4.1 million copies, nearly three-quarters of a million fewer than its predecessor, We Remember Ayn Rand, Klezmer became an alcoholic and compulsive gambler. 

As the latter, he quickly became hugely indebted to one of the East Coast’s least patient crime families. Discovering that he was without cash, the family tried to persuade him to avoid the shame of ongoing indebtedness by relinquishing either The Guitar or his model girlfriend. In those benighted days, many in the entertainment industry thought of their wives and girlfriends as chattel. After several minutes’ agonised deliberation, Klezmer decided to give up The Guitar, but then changed his mind. This turned out to be ill-advised, as La Famiglia wound up taking both. Klezmer found himself facing the classic rock musician’s choice — drinking himself to death or overdosing, hanging himself, or embracing Jesus. He opted for the latter, but soon came to doubt that his new Lord ’n’ Saviour was paying any attention. Nonetheless, he was seen and heard as recently as the summer of 2014 performing A Tribute to Art Garfunkel in Long Island nightclubs, accompanying himself on a Framus Inquisitor, the truss rod of which had been autographed by the guitarist in The Four Seasons. 

If I were a rich person, I’d have bought The Guitar, or something comparably impressive, for my friend and collaborator Dazza du Toit, of the defunct Freudian Sluts and funct Isambard Jones & His Orchestra and Stonking Novels. But I have a long history of being unable to buy those I love the gifts I’d have loved to give them. I suspect the three best things about being rich are flying first class, not having even to look at the prices column on restaurant menus, and being able to give people you love gifts that will hugely enrich their lives. 

The Guitar is now on display at the big Guitar Center on Sunset Blvd. in West Hollywood, and protected around the clock by armed guards trained by the Transit Security Administration, which supplies the thugs who hassle you at airports. It was most recently valued at $242,961.39, without strings. When I used to go into Guitar Center as a Warner Bros. recording artist, its employees would look at me as though at a see-thru bag of maggots. If I were worth being cordial to, I think they thought, they’d recognise me. Nowadays, though, with most musicians having either drunk themselves to death or taken to ordering their equipment on line, they could hardly be friendlier.

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