With Thanksgiving fast approaching I thought it would be fun to write about the people and things I am thankful for.
I dreamed of being a guitar player. I longed for adventures like Jake and Elwood Blues. Most of all, I wanted to be cool.
My father did not see things my way. After a failed attempt to join the school band (dad even rented a saxophone for me!) ended at the beginning of my first lesson.
It went like this:
Scene: A small room full of kids and one teacher. Smelled like pee and mimeograph ink.
Music Teacher: (hands me a bit of sheet music) “Play this.”
Patrick: “How? This is my first lesson.”
Music Teacher: “You can’t read music? Why are you even here!”
Patrick: “I thought this was going to be my first lesson!”
Things went downhill after that. It ended with my applying some sophisticated swearing – using words I had learned from my dad, my grandfather and my uncle Tom.
After the expensive wasted saxophone rental my dad didn’t want to hear any nonsense about playing the guitar. Guitars are difficult instruments and I did not have what it takes.
Years later I wound up making a bet with my dad that I could teach myself to play the banjo. I won that bet and I had a shiny new banjo – but I still dreamed of playing the guitar.
I figured that if I was supposed to play the guitar and instrument would find its way into my hands. I played my banjo and I waited.
It took a while, but eventually I saw a chance to have a guitar. I was walking home from school and I spotted a guitar neck sticking out of the trash. It was a cheap classical guitar that somebody had smashed. The entire lower bout was crushed.
It was destroyed. It stank to high heaven – but it was a guitar.
Question: How is duct tape like The Force?
Answer: It has a light side, a dark side and it binds the universe together.
I patched the guitar together with duct tape, restrung the instrument and I had . . . well, technically it was a guitar.
Right about this time my father and I started going to festivals playing our banjos on the open stages and jamming out in the fields. We met a lot of wonderful musicians, including Tiny – the cigar smoking guitar player I wrote about in The How and the Tao of Old Time Banjo.
Tiny was a big man who smoked cheap cigars. He played a battered National guitar from 1928. It was made of steel and nickel-plated. He said there was a cone under the strings and when he strummed across the strings it rang for days. The plating had worn off in some spots and had dulled in others. Rusty spots on the cover plate matched the age spots on Tiny’s hands.
Tiny said he got the guitar when it was new.
I thought he was cooler than week old penguin poop.
Then life threw me another curveball. A year earlier my father and I had been in a pretty bad car accident. I had taken a bad blow to the head, but we all thought I was fine. Then I had my first grand mal seizure.
The seizure and what happened to me in the hospital is another story, but I got back home even more determined to be a guitar player.
I started skipping school to practice my trash guitar. My grades were slipping, and I was making little progress with the duct-taped guitar.
Then it happened. My folks were mad about my grades, so I crept outside to sit on the back steps with my guitar. I was trying as hard as I could, but I was terrible.
Then I realized that my dad was standing behind me. Eating an apple.
“What are you doing?” He asked me.
“I’m playing the blues, dad!”
He took a bite of apple and chewed it slowly. “That’s not the blues, son. That’s shit.”
He laughed and went back inside.
I was desolate. With my hearing and desperately wanting to play the guitar everything seemed hopeless. I was never going to do this.
The next day my father woke me up early. We got in his pickup truck and we started driving. When I asked him where we were going he said, “Mandolin Brothers”.
It’s gone now, but Mandolin Brothers was one of the greatest music stores on the planet. They sold everything from priceless vintage Martin and Gibson guitars to modern handmade instruments.
We got to Staten Island before the store was open. We sat in truck listening to Doc Watson on the radio.
The store opened. Stan Jay greeted us at the door the way he always did and said that we were free to pick up any instrument we wished.
My father pulled his wallet out of his back pocket. Opened it and drew out his credit card.
“Son, pick your guitar.”
I knew we didn’t have a lot of money and the guitars at Mandolin Brothers went from expensive to oh my sweet Jesus. I wandered around the store afraid to touch anything – and then I saw it.
It hung on the wall shining brightly in the early morning sunshine. A Dobro guitar. Fashioned from metal like Tiny’s, but this was bright and new.
I rushed towards the guitar and looked at the price tag. $1200.00.
I nearly had an anxiety attack.
There was no way we could afford that.
I backed away from the Dobro and went off I search of something cheap.
I thought I had found a reasonable alternative in a much lower price range. My dad just shook his head.
“You will never learn on that cheap piece of junk.” Dad said with comic bluntness. “Let’s go back to that Dobro you were looking at.”
We went back to the Dobro. Dad got somebody to take it down from the wall for me.
I sat with the guitar in my lap. It was heavier that I expected. The neck was so big and heavy I thought it might have been a telephone pole.
I did the one thing I had managed to teach myself with the trashcan guitar. I strummed a C chord.
Stan Jay came around and asked me if I could play the guitar.
I told him I could play the hell out of a C chord.
That must have been the wrong answer because Stan and his employees tried like hell to talk me out of the Dobro. They brought out some really nice Martins and Gibson’s, but none of them appealed to me.
I finally told my dad that we should just go. The guitar I wanted was too expensive.
My dad said that I was being silly and to go get the Dobro off the wall again.
I sat with the guitar, slightly shocked by its massive size and weight. I strummed the C chord and I felt the ringing from the top of my head to the tips of my toes.
“This is a guitar that you can learn on” my father said.
It was a bronze guitar with chrome plating. Inside the instrument was a massive 10 ½ inch aluminum cone. The strings ran over a maple biscuit on top of the cone. The round maple neck and rosewood fretboard were unadorned apart from dot inlays and the Dobro shield sticker on the headstock. The body of the guitar – front and back – were decorated with sandblasted scenes of Hawaii.
I was in love, but it was just too expensive. With my hearing I might not be able to play it. I couldn’t saddle my dad with a price tag like this on a maybe.
I went to put the guitar back, but dad stopped me. He said that we couldn’t buy me a car now that I was diagnosed with epilepsy, but he could do this for me. This was a guitar that I could learn on and play for the rest of my life.
He went and told Stan we were buying the Dobro, and once again Stan tried to talk me out of it. There were lost of other cool guitars that would be easier to play than this Dobro.
I asked Stan if he wanted to sell the guitar or not. Dad laughed as he went to pay the bill.
At the last-minute dad saw a vintage National tenor guitar. “In for a penny, in for a pound” he said, and we wound up going home with two guitars.
Now, you probably read all of this thinking that I am thankful for my Dobro 33H guitar – and I am, but what I am most thankful for is my father. My dad. My old man. Dear Old Dad.
A guitar is just a thing made of wood and wire. A musical instrument that I went on to play pretty well. Life being fond of practical jokes I became better known as a banjo player and teacher and that’s okay.
I was far from being a perfect kid. I got into so much trouble in school that I practically drove my folks crazy, but even when I made him angry my dad had my back.
My father did not just support my dream by buying me a guitar, he became part of that dream. Through the language of music, we got to know each other so well we can have whole conversations without saying a word.
Over the years we have been Philadelphia Mummers, performers, Disc Jockeys, music teachers, publishers and best friends. I am reminded of this every time I pick up my guitar and every time I sing a song.
I love you, Pop. Thanks for the guitar, and thank you for being my friend.