My First Great Guitar

Gibson 175D (1959)

This is my 1959 Gibson ES 175D in the loving and capable hands of Sharon Cheema (I bet you didn’t notice the guitar either!) The guitar was recently returned from the luthier where I had extensive repair and restoration work done by Joey Rosito. New frets; re-set inlays, dressed fingerboard; a kink taken out at the 14th fret. Yay F# is back. Proper (authentic) tail piece and bridge installed and replaced Machine Heads.

I found this guitar in 1976 at Izzy Cohen music on what was then called Craig St. Next to Steve’s music in Montreal. I had recently discovered jazz guitarist Joe Pass who played a similar model and was starting the huge learning curve needed to play this sort of music authentically and passionately. I had $20 to my name when I first put my hands on what was to become my lover, my confidante, my companion and sometimes my nemesis. I gave Izzy the $20 and asked him to put the guitar away for three days while I gathered up the $500.00 needed to purchase this used guitar. I entered into a summer of slavery, but I got that baby! My mother thought I was nuts (which is entirely beside the point) but she saw my passion and lent me the bread. This is the first quality instrument I ever owned. My confidence, ability, and endurance all took a huge leap forward as I plunged into a life dedicated to musical pursuits.

This guitar has toured with me, been across Canada many times, down to Australia, she played herself through the travails of my first CD. she has been seriously dropped twice, splitting open like a ripe watermelon and causing me great grief and pain. If it is possible to love an object more than I love this guitar I would be surprised, and yet it is just that, an object. my true values of worth are of health and happiness, family and friends and I would gladly trade my guitar if it was needed to restore any of these elements of my life. My guitar is just an object, but the way she sings, you can tell she is loved and I feel like stroking and caressing her for hours. She makes me play beyond my capabilities and make me seem like a better musician than I am.

En duo with Dave Turner. Photo credit Sharon Cheema
Funky case. Photo credit Sharon Cheema

While undergoing a financial strain around six years ago due to a marital breakup I was forced to look at options to keep a roof over our heads. One of those options was to sell off some guitars. By far the most valuable one was this one. I had a page open looking at comparable instruments and their value. Suddenly I was confronted by my two daughters with tears in their eyes imploring me to never get rid of this guitar. One of the tenderest, hurtingest and most beautiful moments in my life.

At rest.

Remembering my friend Charlie Biddle

I met a man when I was 21 who was to become a good friend; a roommate; and a mentor. It was the year 1977. I had hitchhiked to a little town called Val David which is in the Laurentian mountains north of Montreal and around 18 km from my home in St. Sauveur-des-Monts. I had gone there to buy some hashish from a shady acquaintance that my friend Stu had introduced me to. After our transaction, I chanced upon some music wafting through an open door in a rustic ramshackle building called “Le Bistro d’la Butte” in Val David, Quebec. La Butte à Mathieu was a famous “Boite à Chansons” where many of the largest acts in Quebecois music performed. Le Bistro was an adjunct building much smaller. I guesstimate it could probably hold 50-60 patrons.

I peeked in the door and there was Nelson Symonds (guitar) and Charlie Biddle (upright bass) playing their hearts out even though there was no one in the audience. I knew almost immediately that the passion and authenticity of expression in this kind of music was for me, and that I had to find out more about it. Charlie gestured to me to come in and I entered, but embarassedly explained that I didn’t have any money (I left out the part that I had just spent it on dope). He said come in anyways and his wife Connie offered me some fried chicken…. Thus started my friendship with Charlie.

I was a bedroom guitar player at the time. I learned songs by Bob Dylan; Peter, Paul and Mary; Paul Simon; Cat Stevens; etc. but this jazz music was something new. I recognized the tune they were playing from my dad’s record collection. Pretty sure it was “Night And Day” by Cole Porter. I was fascinated. It had (seemingly) a zillion chords and was way beyond my skill set. My casual conversation with Nelson and Charlie during the “break” was the start of my upward climb into music that I have embraced with religious fervor.

I was working my summer job with a landscaper company and several of the guys were jazz buffs. I started to tag along with them on excursions to “The Rising Sun” in Montreal to see the cream of international Jazz stars pretty well every week-end. I saw and heard Dizzy Gillespie (the guitarist was Al Gafa), Dexter Gordon, Kenny Burrell, etc. I started to read Downbeat from cover to cover and buy albums based on the information there. Weather Report, Chick Corea, Oscar Peterson and Joe Pass. Joe Pass’ music in particular made an impact on me and I bought a music book of transcriptions that I couldn’t yet read, but I learned some of the chord shapes and started to introduce them into my playing. I also purchased a book from “International Music Store” on Ste. Catherine Street by Mickey Baker called Mickey Baker’s Complete Course in Jazz Guitar Book one). The hours I struggled with that one…

I went to see Charlie and Nelson as often as I could that summer and continued to absorb their music and jovial friendship. On July 26th,1977 Charlie turned 51 and I was 21. At his birthday gig I jokingly told him he was “one short of a full deck”. He howled with laughter and the habit of our male put downs for each other was established.

Over the course of the summer I decided to return to school. I had been studying Philosophy in the Maritimes but wanted to be in Montreal. I started night courses at Concordia University and found part-time employment as a Parking lot attendant. My favourite time at that job was after the main attendant left and I changed the music in the booth to Radio-Canada which is the french radio station of the CBC where there was a very good Jazz show. The host was very relaxed and soothing and my music education and my French improved immensely. Paycheques were spent mostly on records.

After a few months of almost daily commuting via Voyageur bus from St. Sauveur to Montreal for classes and my job, I was getting pretty tired. If the walkman had been invented, it would have been an easier commute. During that winter Charlie started to commute as well. He was playing a bar on Crescent Street around the corner from the Hall building of Concordia and we started to sometimes commute together. After my night class I’d wait until his last set was over and I’d drive him in his huge boat of a station wagon as far as St. Sauveur and he would continue on to his home and family. After a bit of this grind, he asked me if I’d like to share an apartment on Bishop Street that he had found. It was near the Annex, Cheap Thrills and Concordia and was very cheap, so I agreed. I had bought a VW hatchback from my brother to help me manage my time better between work and school and my home up north..

Living with Charlie was an education. We hung out a lot! We were only on Bishop Street for a short time before Charlie told me we were going to move. He had found a “loft” in Old Montreal that was a block West of a famous Jazz club on St. Paul St. There was no rent!!!!!! The idea was to stay there until the bottom two floors were to be converted into a flagship Jazz club. We had the whole place to ourselves, but lived on the top floor. I learned how to mop! A few drawbacks to the place…. hot water tank needed fixing, so showers were not hot…. the shower stall was one floor down. The heating system was shared by several office buildings and was minimal on weekends and holidays….. other than that it was great! My record collection was expanding and I had a good sound system, so when I was home and not practicing, I would listen to great Jazz. Charlie and I hung out a lot. He was a great story teller. One day I will try and recall some of his better ones and the outrageous exaggerations that never seemed to change. I can still conjure up his voice and facial expressions in my mind’s eye and ear.

Quite often during this time we would both be between paycheques or I’d be out of work and we had not much between us. On more than one occasion I’d be broke and Charlie might have 5 bucks and would say “Let’s go get breakfast”. There was a Deli on Ste. Catherine that had a breakfast special. We’d come out of there and be stuffed. He said there was no point to not eat like a king even when things were tight. He also introduced me to a place that he called “Sausageville” which was a Delicatessen on the Main where you could get a sausage sandwich and a drink (Cott Black Cherry) and sometimes splurge the extra dime for a pickle. I am pretty sure that it was either just under or just over a dollar for the drink and sandwich.

I continued to go there for decades and introduced my friends and my younger brother to “Sausageville”. As an adult, my brother actually bought sausage sandwiches and drinks for himself and his girlfriend and drove up to the top of Mount Royal and proposed to her over their picnic. When Hoffner’s closed, I went down the street to the competition “Slovenia Deli”, but it wasn’t quite the same. I went without for years, but by chance found another Slovenia sausage place on the North Main…. near Beaubien Street. I would often detour there just to have a hot sausage.

Now I live in a suburb about twenty Kilometres away and one day I was craving a sausage. I noticed that in my neighbourhood was a Deli called La Bernoise that I had always meant to try. I went in and they had the sausages that I was used to, but didn’t make sandwiches. I said to the lady behind the case that I usually go to Slovenia for my hot sausage sandwiches. She told me that Slovenia had just gone out of business, but that La Bernoise was their supplier. I bought a dozen. They have a butcher’s dozen: 13 for 12. I keep a supply on hand in the freezer at all times. I am mostly vegetarian, but in denial about sausages.

Enough about food, though. Charlie taught me how to live royally without very much money. Cheap restos, shopping at the Sally Ann, where to find the free parking spots. He taught me through his example that sometimes bills have to wait. He always paid them, but not always “on time”. Sometimes needed a prompt. The Hussier (bailiff) called…..I’d better get on it. He also showed me through his generosity, to be kind. If you have, share, if you don’t have, ask. As he grew more successful in the city, he moved his four kids and Connie down to the city part-time. Sometimes I’d get home to the loft and it would be teeming with the youthful exuberance that children bring. I loved those kids and Connie, but usually their arrival dovetailed into my going up north to my parents house. Biddle’s golden rule was NO NOISE DURING DADDY’S NAP. Charlie took a nap every day in the late afternoon. He played music til the wee hours and got up with the kids, but all was OK if the nap was undisturbed. I acquired the same habit which I try to do every day.

One night, I was all alone at the loft. Practicing and/or reading and/or listening to music. I fell asleep in my bedroom which was a cordoned off area of a huge space. Charlie had the other room away from the Big Space and near the bathroom and kitchenette. He was on a gig. I fell asleep with my guitar in my hands. I was awoken by the sound of boots on the floor on the other side of my bed. I sat up to see two guys with hand guns drawn who said “Who the fuck are you?” I said I lived there. They were looking for the owner who had lent us this space and they looked like they were “collecting”. I said he wasn’t there and I hardly ever saw him at all. The men stomped out and when Charlie got home I told him what had transpired. He replied… “OK we’re moving!”.

The next day he found a multi level rental on Rue Notre Dame above a specialized hardware store. The area was the eastern fringes of the traditionally predominately black neighbourhood housing railway porters called Little Burgundy. At that time we moved in, rue Notre Dame looked on to what had been the Turcot Yards which used to be the railway yards for both Windsor station and Central station. It was a vast expanse of weeds and old asphalt and detritus from having served the city for a century. It is now built up into condos and is a very different neighbourhood.

On Notre Dame St. I had my own apartment on the left side of the stairs and Charlie had two floors on the right side. we had an adjoining back “deck” palettes strung together on the roof of a neighbouring workshop/garage. Seeing as I had to now pay rent again, I walked down the street and I asked at the various businesses if they needed any part-time help? One actually did. It was a start-up courrier company that needed an evening person to sort and record the manifest. The secretary liked my spirit and the fact that I was literate and I got hired. It fit in well with my schooling, so after the owner interviewed me, I was hired.

With the change of address, my new job and Charlie’s family there all the time now, the dynamic shifted, but I used to love hanging out and watching tv with them and was often over there for dinner. We would get into huge loud and funny disagreements about all sorts of stuff…. I miss that. One of us would say something outrageous just to get the other one going. Thinking back fondly of those times.

It was around this time that Charlie partnered up with a successful businessman (George D.) and opened up a jazz club on Aylmer Street. Named Biddles Jazz and Ribs. This venture became very successful and attracted a wealthier crowd than I was used to hanging out with. Most Jazz clubs in the city could service students and marginalized people. Nelson Symonds’ cousin Ivan Symonds had Le Mixeur before he opened up Le Jazz Bar. Very different. Sort of like the difference between uptown clubs in New York and Greenwich Village clubs back in the day. Nowadays it all costs a fortune.

Ivan Symonds club. Note the “translation” of Jam Sessions…lol

I saw Charlie less, mostly it was if I went out to catch him play at the club where he was “on”. I went over to his place less as we both got busier, but every time we did see each other it was a lovely homecoming. Charlie and Oliver Jones also played a cocktail gig at The Queen Elizabeth Hotel. I sometimes went there to see him and my dad went there after his work and kill time before catching a suburban train.

We saw each other less as my studies and work and girlfriends took over and Charlie got more opportunity to be in films and better gigs etc.

My four years in Winnipeg really put time and distance between us. I came back to Montreal to get married and Charlie was a guest. He pulled me aside as was walking down the aisle and whispered “so long, sucker!” in my ear. We would see each other only sparingly as my kids became focal points and I had many weekend gigs out of town and I didn’t get out much to listen to Jazz during the week. I took my girls to see Charlie a few times, but the dynamic had shifted.

My next encounter with him was a shock. My brother-in-law had been working at Biddles as a waiter and he was visiting his sister and me and just casually asked if I had heard that Charlie was in the hospital? All the blood rushed out of my face as I tried to absorb this news that my friend, tower of strength and hero was suffering. I sped over to St. Mary’s hospital and found the ward where outside the door a nurse informed me that “only family is allowed to visit”. Constance heard my voice through the door and emerged and said “It’s OK, Ian is family!” A wave of pride and shame came over me. Proud to be considered family, but ashamed at how absent a son I had been.

I entered the room and Connie said “Look Charlie, you have a visitor!” “Hey Eee” said Charlie from his hospital bed. Charlie is one of only four people I have known who shortened my name to “Eee”. They are all dear to me (My “Aunt” Hemmy, my sister, my present wife Sharon and Charlie).

Connie took some time for herself and Charlie and I had a lovely visit albeit a sad one. We tried to keep each other laughing like usual, but Charlie grew tired and I knew I should go. Judging from his diminished frame and weakness I sensed it might be the last time I’d see Charlie. I said “I’m going to give you a hug, so don’t play with my tits!” I hugged him and he pinched my “tits”.

He died a few months later at home. The same address on Notre Dame street where we had shared so much time together.

Loving him will never come to an end.

Charlie and me at my first wedding.
Gift from my friend Lyle Robinson
portrait of Charlie by Linda Rutenberg on the wall beside my piano

My Gibson 175

My first great guitar, as it turns out, has a checkered past. You can read my initial blog story from a few years back, before I knew her pre-me history here:

I first learned about my guitar’s history from before she was mine when I saw a  photo on a Facebook post by a mutual friend that showed a legendary Montreal band opening for the Beach Boys in the mid sixties. The guitar player (Bill Hill) had an ES175 with a Bigsby (by Gretsch) whammy bar. Such a visible unique mod. I was sure it was my guitar. I contacted the man who posted it, Don Graham, another legendary player. He told me what he knew about the guitar and I then contacted Bill who told me some of this story:

JB and The Playboys

A young Bill Hill was at loggerheads with his dad over…… hair! It was the sixties. Exasperated, his dad said “ If you get a hair cut (my choice of style) I will buy you a brand new Gibson guitar”. Bill was emulating Elvis’ hair at the time, long and greasy so dad chose a “bean shave” for the budding guitarist. True to his word, Hill Sr. took Bill to a store that was owned by his friend, looking for a deal.   Do Re Mi music on rue de Bleury, south of Sherbrooke St. had an impressive line of Gibson guitars on display and after trying them all, Bill had his dad buy the Gibson 175D that I now own.

Bill wasn’t quite satisfied, as the guitar did not have a whammy bar. He took the guitar over to Anton Wilfer, a luthier on de Maisonneuve at Mackey and ordered a Bigsby vibrato and had it installed. Bill jokingly referred to the guitar as a “Gretschson”. Ironically Wilfer’s store is the same place that uninstalled that Bigsby for me a decade later. 

Bill loved the guitar and took it everywhere with him except the night it was stolen. There was a teen hangout/ disco on what was then called Dorchester boulevard (now boulevard. René Levesque )called “Snoopy’s” which was part of music mogul Donald K Donald’s empire. Donald let the boys practice there. They left their instruments overnight one night and in the morning discovered the place had been cleaned out. Guitar, bass, microphones and more. Even the cigarettes from the cigarette machine, all gone. Like the Grinch had arrived to steal Christmas. 

I know the feeling of senseless loss and hopelessness he must have felt. I remember the first time I dropped this guitar and she split open like a ripe watermelon. The gig bag strap broke and the strap holder peg that holds the tailpiece in place was driven into the guitar like a blunt chisel….. I thought it was the end…. pretty sure that is the same feeling.

When I heard that the guitar that I own had been stolen before, I immediately felt conflicted. This guitar that I loved so much was “stolen goods”. I felt ashamed, and that the guitar was now somehow less mine, the joy of having owned this guitar diminished by this new knowledge. It was a guilt for something that was not mine to be guilty about. My anguish was eased a little when Bill told me he had had a chance to get it back, but didn’t. He had seen the guitar a few years after it was stolen hanging in a pawn shop, but he had neither the proof that it was his, nor the money to buy it back as he had just purchased a Gibson Byrdland. Hearing this cleared my conscience, as there had been no indication at the guitar store I bought it from that it was a fenced item. Ours was a legal transaction.

After we had talked, I wanted at least to show Bill the guitar, and I brought it with me to one of the Keepers’ gigs. He played it for a minute and asked me if I was interested in selling it back to him. Again, the conflicted feeling. How could I sell something so precious to me? How could I ask for money for something so priceless from someone who had been so wronged? 

I had already met Bill Hill before making this connection. He plays in a band called The Keepers. The night I first saw them in Pointe Claire at the Mayfair tavern, singer Allen Nichols was sitting in with them. It was a sort of reunion of “The Haunted” and the “Playboys”. Great stuff. Bill was playing a Telecaster and is a “finesse” kind of player. He knows all these cool fills and stylistically à propos voicings that might be lost on most ears, but not mine. We became casual friends. 

Recently, another friend posted a picture of a beautiful Gretsch 6120 “Nashville” for sale. My wife Sharon drew my attention to this post  and said “You should buy it!”. I had just spent an unexpected load of money on a huge car repair, and I told her all my reasons not to buy yet another guitar. I am not a collector, I’m a player. My negativity lost, so I sent a message to my friend Victor who said he had posted it for  Bill Hill. My heart leaped. I now knew it would be a quality instrument, well maintained and well played…. for a minute I considered offering him the 175 as a trade, but rejected that thought and just forged ahead. I texted Bill and said I’d like to buy the guitar. He ascertained that I was serious and immediately took his advertisements down. We made an arrangement for me to see it the day after my vaccination. I sent him an e-transfer even before I tried it. 

The guitar is lovely of course, we chatted and laughed about tons of things, He told me some of the goofy trade offers he had received….hilarious!  some of the details in my story that needed filling in as well. 

It was a lovely visit. As I was leaving, guitar in hand, he said:  “I’m glad it was you that got this”.

Me too!

Me and the Gibson Charlie Guerin on keys. Original photo by Ross White 1994
The “girls”
I call her “lollipop” as I got her after my vaccination

This is the star of the story.

Guitarlove

I have a friend who happens to be a “world class” luthier. Every time we talk, we exhibit our passion for music and guitars and tone and, quite frankly, a plethora of diverse subjects that one would expect between friends. Time spent together is always a joy.

One day I visited him in the “wood nest” as he affectionately calls his workshop and we were hanging out talking and drinking espresso coffee with the sun streaming through the panoramic windows of this loft space and I spotted a guitar that was fully built and stringed up and ready to go. Michael (almost) never has one of his guitars “hanging around” because all of his guitars are all pre-ordered two years in advance. Michael had to make a phone call and had to excuse himself for a bit. I asked if I could play the guitar that I was admiring while he was on the phone. He nodded and I entered a new world.

Like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia, this guitar opened up into areas of creativity that were new to me. I played some single note melodies that I had been struggling with, and the lines were seamless. A particular chord sequence that usually required concentration and a shift in my arm and torso to play, just fell out of this guitar effortlessly. I played some Jazz Standards on it, my own compositions on it, and  then put it through the paces of songs I’d always wanted to play, but there was some technical aspect that I was not consistent. All of my limitations and barriers seemed to slip away as I sat playing. It was sublime.

Apparently Michael re-entered the room after his phone call, apologizing for how long it took, but if I heard him, it was not apparent. Some time later, I re-emerged from the trance and looked at Michael and said “I wish I hadn’t done that!” to which he responded “Why not? It sounded great and you were obviously enjoying it.” To which I explained: “I’m a teacher and a musician!” Neither income streams are huge. Michael’s guitars are handcrafted, performance level instruments and priced accordingly. “There is no way I could afford it.” He said “You’d be surprised! We’re friends, right?” I nodded. “It takes two years. Plenty of time for you to plan and save.”

I went home conflicted. I told Sharon of the experience and that Michael offered to build me a guitar. I was convinced that it is “too much guitar” for me and anyways I’d be 63 by the time it was made and blah, blah, blah. All of this negative stuff coming out of  my mouth. “I don’t deserve it!”

Of course, Sharon negated all of these arguments and got me to thinking about what another old friend told me about his Martin guitar. He said that it took him a few years to pay off the debt, but he said if you look at it as 50 cents a day to own an instrument that brings you joy and advances your art, why not?

A few months passed and I forgot about the whole thing until I opened an envelope on Christmas day 2016. The envelope had pictures Sharon had taken in the workshop printed on a paper with the news that she had made a downpayment on a new guitar from Michael. My heart nearly stopped,and my eyes welled up.

All photos by
Sharon Cheema

I went back to visit Michael and we agreed on the materials used and other details of the guitar that are standard options like Cutaway or no cutaway?

I started to save. I took on some extra work and co-incidentally with the ending of my car payments, it was not as hard as I had feared. A year passed. I was on track for my goal when I got another envelope from Sharon. Another instalment. Rare to have a partner that is so supportive of my art. I love her anyway, but this is an endearing quality for sure.

I started to get little notes from Michael in my e-mail with details of it’s progress. “Wood is selected for your guitar” and “body is glued” and “waiting for another coat” etc.

The build up mounting like a tantric encounter. Wait…not…yet…

how cool is that?

One of the last ones was: “she is built! She is a (strong word that rhymes with “trucking”) monster!” I phoned and asked what exactly that meant? “Even better than the one you played!” was his response. Nuances that only musicians or luthiers might notice.

It used to be that two years actually took two years. Not anymore! Like my trip to Narnia, time seems to have become fluid. Some years drag on and others flash by. Like Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game” I want to drag my feet to slow the circles down.

Yesterday I received my guitar. She is beautiful. She feels just right, but hadn’t been played. I activated the molecules by playing her and she is continuing to be “broken in’ with every hour I play her. She will settle in in about two weeks as I get to know her and she, me.

First minutes with my new Greenfield.

I am so thankful to Michael and to my wife, Sharon for this beautiful instrument.

Bye for now, I have strings to play.

A great film about Michael Greenfield

My First Guitar

My first guitar was (and still is) an Ariana nylon string classical guitar made in Japan in the late 1960’s. Ariana was the “budget brand” of Aria guitars. This was a cheap guitar. I had borrowed it from my older brother and learned the basic chord patterns needed to play bits of contemporary folk songs. I had discovered Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell. My brother had “Songbooks” by these artists, but they never really sounded right. There was no mention in the books that the chords were not in the same key as some of the songs….to make matters worse, I could tune a guitar to itself, or to a recording (many recordings from the sixties were not A440), but sometimes things could have been easier if they had said “use a capo up a fret in order to play these chords in the same key as the artist. The internet has made things a whole lot easier. But i digress.

Even with the difficulties mentioned above, I made quite a bit of progress and when I was in tenth grade I was hospitalized for several weeks and the guitar was a great distraction, comfort and pass-time for me. My brother decided to upgrade his guitar to an Aria classical and he gave me the Ariana. I remember knowing chunks of songs and cool riffs I had heard and amassing quite a repertoire without actually being able to play one song from beginning to end. The “Reach For The TopTheme”, “Sunshine Of Your Love” etc. As it turns out, this was annoying to some. My dad asked whether I knew any entire songs, to which I replied in the negative. I then embarked on learning a song in it’s entirety. It was either “Hobo’s Lullaby”, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” or “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”. In any case, those were the first three.

Even with all the other guitars I have owned and played, this humble friend can still wreak new melodies and patterns out of me. She is not loud, but she is loved

guitar neck

I used to leave the guitar at the foot of the stairs in my parent’s home and pick it up on the way by after sleeping or hanging out in my room. People were always warning me that it was not a good place to leave it. One day as I woke from my nap in the mid-afternoon, I descended the stairs and saw a guitar neck and  the top part of a smashed guitar at the foot of the stairs. I freaked out

….everyone was saying “I told you so” and then I realized that the rest of the guitar was not there, and on closer inspection the neck was not my beloved Ariana after all. My brother had found the neck while he was on a walk earlier in the day and decided to play a practical joke……NOT FUNNY!

The Ariana is not exactly “Trigger”, but has spent years in my hands as I learned my craft. She is beloved.

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Not quite as bad as “Trigger”
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Lot of varnish stripped off…practice!

Turn Me Loose

I heard a song at the boulangerie today as I was waiting to purchase a croissant. I told the server (in French) that I loved that song, but it was playing way too soft. It is not a “la la la” it’s an “oomph”!

This triggered a memory of mine.

One of the most memorable rides I ever got while hitchhiking, happened in New Brunswick in 1983 as I was returning home to Montreal. I was returning from visiting friends in the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia. 

I had been waiting with my guitar on the side of the Trans Canada highway at the northernmost traffic light in Fredericton. I had to go north through the province following the St. John river, and I was hoping to get a lift that ate up some kilometres. My last few lifts had been little skips between exits and the ratio of standing with my thumb out and distance achieved was probably the equivalent of walking. I didn’t relish the idea of walking all the way to Montreal which is about the same distance as Munich, Germany to Paris, France both physically and culturally (but with less interesting landmarks on my trip).

A throbbing sedan stopped for me and when I caught up to it, the passenger swung his door open and asked where I was going. He was facing backwards because all the seats but the driver’s had been taken out. The passenger seat was a mere cushion and the man in it was facing backwards to better hear the stereo which was ample for a theatre let alone a car. The stereo speakers were enormous. I wedged in between them in the back and the driver turned the music down for a few minutes to tell me they were going 180 km to just past Perth-Andover as far as the reservation at Tobique. I asked them (they were native) if they were Mi’k maq , they said “no” they were proudly Maliseet and they were returning home from studying at UNB. They lit a joint and shared it with me. Very good homegrown for the times (early 80’s).

With the sun glinting off the river to my left and my head starting to melt as I lay back into the plush cushion between the speakers they put the music back on.

There is “loud” and then there is “ten past loud” which is where we were.The song blew my mind. It was perfect. I was reminded of a quote a friend of mine said he had read on a needlepoint: “Cleanliness Is Next To High Fidelity”. 

It starts off with a synthesizer playing two long notes a ninth apart accompanied by accented 16th notes on a closed hi hat cymbal for seven measures as the synth rapidly sweeps up several octaves a bass guitar belches in with one of the most unforgettable riffs in Rock music. Gmi to F.  After stating his theme twice a glorious electric guitar enters with grinding power chords sound that could sustain forever and have some highlighted harmonics in the F chord where the 9th degree is cutting through. I love the chugga chugga sound of an overdriven electric guitar. It is a bit reminiscent of Martin Barre’s guitar on Locomotive’s Breath by Jethro Tull. The guitarist then adds fills to complement his power chords. All this action that gripped me in the one minute intro. The singer has one of those taut, strutting and loud, “tight trousers” voices that is similar to all the other ubiquitous industrial hair rock bands of the late 70’s and early 80’s like Journey and Kansas, Boston, etc. He hits a great falsetto on the climactic lyric “high”. Very serviceable and perfect for this song.

Interesting that the guitar is not present at all on the first verse. A honky Tony piano enters with a syncopated repeated riff and then the harmonies on “turn me loose” with understated hand muted chugs on the guitar. The hi hat patterns change ever so subtly in each section adding more subliminal interest

There is an instrumental interlude in E….neither major nor minor as far as I can tell (no third in the chord) except the last chord of the interlude which is not only E major, but has an augmented fifth (like the first chord of O Darling by the Beatles).

The song return to the original key and the “woo hoo” background singers start….omg.…perfect. The song builds to finally having all of these parts together in a taut choreographed full bodied sound. The guitar solo is full of vitality and continues throughout  the next chorus. Such mastery near the end when all but the drums playing through with the hi hat going “syup” with”sy” starting on the and of 2 and the “up” on beat 3  and bass hitting on beat 4. A sparse and contrasting accompaniment before the guitar re enters just before the final “turn me loose” which is a capella. Perfect arrangement. Very clever.

All that analytical stuff came after the fact of course. At the time I was totally immersed in learning and performing jazz. In fact, I was returning to Montreal for a gig. I was a bit snobbo when it came to music other than jazz. I knew nothing about “hair bands” and the music I listened to outside of jazz was not mainstream….Classical, Dylan, Lightfoot,Joni, Neil, Harmonium, Focus…..

When the song was over I asked my hosts who that was and they told me it was Loverboy. I jokingly said they should call it “Turn Me Loose!” The one facing backward gave me a gap toothed grin, knowing I was totally wasted and asked: “like it?” As he pressed replay.

P.S. The phrase “turn me loose” occurs 28 times in this song.

And I Love Her

Yesterday I was distracted, then horrified and disgusted and finally angered by something I heard over the p.a. System while standing in line at the grocery store. 

This is the culprit

I was distracted by a pleasant groove and a pleasant processed female musical voice singing “And I Love Him” over a punchy bass and drum (computer generated and a clean sounding nylon string guitar and repetitive piano chords. I thought “oh great, a fairly good musical treatment of The Beatles.” It was not long until I was horrified that the groove over two chords (Bbmi and Fmi) was IT….and not only that, the ONLY lyrics in this version were “ I give him all my love, that’s all I do”. It was sampled and slowed down from jazz singer Esther Phillips’ 1965 recording. 

Esther Phillips

My horror built toward disgust and anger. The original Latin tinged ballad by the Beatles (McCartney) is one of my favourite ballads from their oeuvre. It is a naive exposition of undying love for his muse at the time (Jane Asher). Time has shown that “a love like ours will never die” was a bit premature…lol.

It is not just the minimal repetitive lyric that annoys me. The original recording has harmony to support and enhance. Not just two minor chords.

I play this song (in F) a semi tone higher than the Beatles (E) starting on Gmi which in music theory is the ii of F, but when the melody starts, it goes Gmi to Dmi (the relative minor of F)twice then Bb(IV)then C7(V) then finally to F (I). This A section is the meat of the song and in AABA form is 3/4 of the song. Rich in harmony, rich in melody and strong and memorable. The B section is a short complementary contrast to the A section and ushers in the third A section perfectly from the dominant 7 chord. 

I realize that the music that so angered me is not created as “art” and is perceived as wonderful and inspired by many judging from the comments on  the YouTube video. I imagine not many of them are aware of it’s origins, nor do they care.

I also recognize that the remix is commercial and is meant for dancing, and youth and inebriation can enhance these experiences. 

To me, it is the dumbing down of beauty which is contrary to great art. I have included links to several great versions of this song as contrast to the remix.

No caption necessary

one of my favourites
One of the first versions I ever heard
My present favourite

I hope you have given each of these versions a fair listen. I look forward to your comments.

Commitment

Everybody is competing for your time: Friends are posting their creative endeavours looking for validation; Social media posts bits of sensational news to hold your attention; advertisers; silly memes; rants; quizzes and lists to do or ignore. We tend to commit to the things that take the least amount of our most precious resources. Time and thought.

To read a poem takes about a minute. To glance at a photo or a painting can take seconds. We go scrolling through life, eyes ricochet off pixels. Some articles catching our fancy and we take some minutes to read, maybe respond. Click, click. Like. I agree….

All art takes time to create, but a film, a play, a book, a record album, a painting, a photograph should all take a considerable amount time to experience and reflect upon.

Commitment.

Recently, a number of my friends have been posting their ten essential albums, or books or films. Supposed to not explain. Why not? When someone tells me they love something, I want to know why.  

I love seeing familiar album covers. I enjoy my memories of the album and I enjoy the connection made with the friend via this album. Often it guides me to listen to something I haven’t heard in years. Sometimes I seek out an album that is unfamiliar to me to see if it helps in my connection or understanding of the person who has put it in their top ten. Commitment. Time and thought again.

I listen to a lot of music in a day. I spend a great deal of my time learning, practicing, composing and recording music, and I also enjoy sitting still and listening to music to match my mood, or alter my mood. It can be as diverse as Tower of Power to Keith Jarrett to a Muddy Waters and beyond. I don’t do Spotify. I like to choose.

In 2007 I took a chance on the CD “West” by Lucinda Williams(whose music I did not know) because Bill Frisell was a guest contributor on the record, and I love his guitar work. I am not sure if I was aware at the time that Hal Willner had produced it, although I was very aware of many of his compilations Kurt Weill and Thelonious Monk) and the “Night Music” show on TV.

“West” resonated with me. I learned how to play and sing “Everything Has Changed” within days of hearing it for the first time. I am now a lifelong fan. According to my computer I own 14 of Lucinda’s albums for a total of 155 songs. 

Throughout this last week I have been listening intently to “West”. I think I have listened to it six (and a half….fell asleep…won’t count that) times this week. I chose “West” because of something I had read in Bill Frisell’s reminiscences of his friend Hal Willner who had succumbed to the Covid 19 virus last week.

One listen to “West” takes an hour and nine minutes. Six listens is a commitment of nearly seven hours, (not in a row, mind you). When I listen on this level, it is the only conscious thing I am doing. I don’t consider doing housework with music playing to be “listening”. Throughout my teaching career I have tried to install in my students the difference between “hearing” which is passive and “listening” which is active. To Listen is an invisible action verb. 

Sometimes when I listen, I concentrate on one particular facet of the recording such as the guitar interplay; (Frisell and Doug Pettibone) or the drum sound;(Jim Keltner) or the lyrics…. or the stereo mix.

Sometimes it is merely for pleasure. My mind shuts down my own static and I absorb the gestalt of the artistic statement through my ears.

If you have read this far, you made a commitment. Thank you. I encourage active listening, reading and the parceling of time to truly appreciate works of beauty that deserve to be heard.

I Don’t Want To Wear A Hat

I met up several years ago with my good friend Terry to catch up and just enjoy each other’s company over a cup of tea. As we settled in to our seats he asked me how things were going? At the time my life was seemingly spinning out of control. I had a mother who was fading away and who lived several hours away. I had a teenage daughter who was struggling with life, another teenage daughter who wasn’t, but felt neglected. My job was stressful, and my boss was Narcissistic. My marriage was straining (actually failing) and my art was suffering. I said; “I wake up and put on my Dad hat, I drive to work and put on my teacher hat, I come home and put on my husband hat, there were many more hats, but you get the idea. He said “Sounds like you are wearing too many hats!” which was true. He then asked “How are your migraines?” to which I replied “Worse than ever!”. He said “Maybe you should take off a few of those hats!”. He was right, of course.

The thing is, we wear hats to define ourselves. Nothing says “British Banker” more than a Bowler. Cowboy hat on a musician means you aren’t listening to Jazz. A beret means you are artsy (or a fascist). Work hats are obvious. A uniform. We often wear hats just to fancy ourselves up. Hats are an accessory that people notice first (unless maybe you have no nose, are green, or naked). Just the other day someone asked me “Which one is Ted?” and I said “the guy with the Peeky Binders Hat”. I didn’t have to describe any further. Some hats we put on out of necessity like a helmet or a toque to protect ourselves. I have noticed that many people who are balding or bald wear hats to lower the glare or frame their face.

The good thing about most bald men that I know is they have nice shaped heads. Baldness suits them. My head is a block. If I were bald, they’d get out the pitchforks and torches and I would scare little children. I have a full head of hair which is nature’s way of protecting the aesthetic of the environment. My head is also very large (I was going to say “huge”, but that might be an exaggeration). My chiropractor was working on my head and remarked: “Ian, this is the biggest head I’ve ever worked on!” I replied “There goes my self esteem!”

I wrote this song shortly after my visit with Terry. It came out in one fell swoop. Plopped in my lap fully formed. I was quite pleased to have written something that sounded so balanced and catchy with so little effort. I performed it as early as July 2008 at The Yellow Door and another engagement in January 2009. Then I sorta shelved it because everything in my life came to a head and music became secondary to survival. I recorded a demo of it at home in 2010 (the xylophone sound is an Orff instrument I had borrowed from the school I was working at)) and I always intended to re-record it and put it out on an album. I returned to it last week and listened. I decided to master it on-line to see what that might produce. Lo and behold, I am very pleased with the result. The guitar and voice have a presence I was unable to access in my home studio.

Seeing as almost no-one buys music anymore, I thought I should let this song go. It is worthy of being heard. Best way is going to be a video. I asked some friends to submit some goofy shots. Here it is.

The greatest hat I ever wore
Kept my four corners warm
Sheltered me from every storm
Man, I miss that hat!

Some hats are too loose
Some hats fit too tight
Some hats I get to choose
But nothing seems to fit right

I don’t want to wear a hat
The ceiling’s low and my head’s too fat

I wear a hat when I go to work
Another when I get home
I wear a hat when I’m out with friends
I even wear one when I’m alone

I can’t remember when my head was bare
Since I was young, there’s always been something there
Always on the go, always on the do
Always trying to try on something new

(chorus)

When you wear a hat it’s hard to dream
If you’re a dreamer your head will be splitting at the seam
Cause if your head’s too big like mine is
A hat’ll just confine this

If I gotta wear one, make it fit
Not just my head, but what’s in it
If I gotta wear one, make it cool
I’m tired of changing hats like a fool

(chorus)

In god’s house I try to keep my head bare
But prayer caps and doer caps keep slipping up there
I wish I didn’t care
What hat I wear when people stare

(chorus)
I think it’s pretty unfair
I just want to feel the wind in my hair

Organic Fertilizer (part 1- The Hammond B3 in Rock)

I started out to say that ever since I heard a Hammond B3 organ I was enraptured, but that would not have been accurate. My first experience of it was quite awful. At Rockland Shopping Centre in Montreal when I was a boy they had hired some “square” to play music from time to time (it may have been regular ). It was pretty ghastly. Cheapo beguine rhythms on a rhythm ace and corny sounds and really a “square” sound. I was an organ snob. I sang in the Cathedral choir after all. My choirmaster could play a 4 manual organ and still play the bass with his feet. The shopping centre sounded “cheesy” to me. Like this…..

My first significant encounter with the B3, however, was through the radio. I may be leaving some out, but it was probably “Good Lovin'” by the Young Rascals in 1966. I had not made the “brand” connection yet. Felix Cavaliere was obviously someone to listen to based on that solo. Around this time I also heard “Gimme Some Lovin'” by the Spencer Davis Group with that hypnotic ostinato intro: da da da da dah dum. da da da da dah dum. repeating which caught my attention and then the nastiest sounding organ with that huge funky flourish caught my soul. So amazing.

organ solo at 1:36
organ in video is not a B3…. the sound is from the record which is a B3

I then discovered Santana. I am a guitarist and I found his playing inspirational. The organ riff on “Hope You’re Feeling Better”‘s was so powerful and visceral and the clave figure starting off “Oye Como Va” played on the organ was also delightful. I then went back to their previous album with the great percussion features…. “Waiting” has great textures (control of the Leslie speaker and voicing shifts) and features Chester Thompson going wild….. way before the lead guitar enters…. I love Santana’s music. I have continued to follow the band to the present.

The album ends with Soul Sacrifice which also blew my mind. Listen to the organ growl and then the trading of phrases between Carlos and Chester….. the bomb!

My musical education was taking off right around then, and the next few examples are not necessarily in order. The Small Faces had a hit with “Itchycoo Park”. Listen to the riff just after the first line “On the bridge of sighs”…… It is perfect and propels this song…Ian McLagan was a master of the B3.

What did they do there?….

The Zombies featuring Rod Argent, then Argent…

organ solo at 1:23

When I hitch-hiked across Canada at age 16 in 1972 the shorter version of this was on the radio in most cars. Other songs on the soundtrack of my adventure : “Rocket Man” and “Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress”…..

Listen to how the organ fills this track… awesome stuff.

This is a DUO!!! Lee Michaels who plays piano and organ and clavinet on this and a drummer…… power chords on the B3. Pretty sure the piano and clav were overdubs, maybe not. I like this track.

Steven Stills is mostly viewed as a guitarist, songwriter and a singer, but his organ playing on this is remarkable.

Good God Amighty!!!!…. Deep Purple…. This was my intro to them.

And this…. The album sounded better, but this looks so good. tight trousers, bad teeth and 1970’s hair…. Organ is a bitch! Jon Lord was great on this!

I saw Focus live in 1973… they had a big hit on the radio with Hocus Pocus, but their album cuts still interest me. This suite has so many different ideas in it. Organ is so great! 3:18 a great little solo. The organist (Thijs Van Leer) also played flute and yodelled.

OK, not a B3, but Garth Hudson brought the organ to the fore. It was a Lowrey….

Not forgetting Booker T and The MGs and the Meters whose funky instrumental music I adore. There are many examples of Booker T’s brilliance but I am partial to “Melting Pot” for the groove and the over use of reverb on the organ which renders this perfect.

I first heard Nelson Symonds (Montreal guitarist and friend of mine) play “Cissy Strut” at Rockhead’s Paradise. Nelson told me what it was. I was unfamiliar with the Meters, but became an immediate fan! Led to the Neville Brothers later on as well. Art Neville (keys) died this last summer… a great musician.

listen to the soaring organ note at 1:22 leading into the improvised part of the performance…

Billy Preston had a hit with the Gospel song “That’s The Way God Planned It” I had heard of him (and heard him) via his connection to the Beatles and the organ at the beginning of this song are the same chords as O Canada…lol. I used to sing along with this “That’s the Way…God Damn It” which my mum forbade me from singing in her house….lol. I had misheard the lyrics. The organ solo at 1:57 is gorgeous.

Around this time I became aware of the Allman Brothers. Greg Allman got switched to organ!!!!! He is perfect for this band. One of my favourite cuts is “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” The organ chords just humming along calmly and the song built on top. The live at Fillmore is long, but it won’t seem long. Bon Voyage…

I was drawn to Roy Buchanan through his Second album, but on the first album he had this “hit” Which is essentially instrumental with spoken “lyrics” that are unashamedly religious. The guitar is outrageous…. He makes the Telecaster Scream, Moan and generally suffer. Listen to the organ though…..It is padding and goading and is so beautiful on it’s own. The chords are shifting one note at a time… masterful voice leading. The original is worth seeking out, but this live version is great.

Then I discovered Tower Of Power……Everything about this group excites me still. I have seen them live many times. This cut is a great example of how the organ drives…. Hard to just choose just one example. Listen how the organ counterpoints and cuts through the mix with this huge band (5 horns, guitar, bass, drums and vox). The playing at the end is so great!

at 3;08 til the end….

There were many great organ solos not on Hammond, but I’ll leave that to someone else. Part two of this article will deal with why I started writing this today. Jazz organ coming soon…. I woke up this morning and put on “The Mighty Burner”…have mercy!