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Performing Songwriter Cover

Of Guitars & Righteous Men

Originally published in Performing Songwriter Magazine
Issue #33, January 1999

"There are men who steal silver, and men who steal gold
"But the worst kind of thief is the man who steals your soul"

It started with my father, who made the transition from chicken farmer to music teacher when I was around three.

Actually, it started with my dad's membership in various socialist organizations, since he needed a guitar to take to the meetings when he led them in singing.

No, I guess it started before that, when he bought The Guitar.

He bought it in 1948 from the widow of a farmer who'd had it laying around in her attic for years. When she asked what Dad thought it was worth, he replied "I dunno - 25 bucks?" He brought it home three years before I was born, and began learning to play. It was rural New Jersey; there weren't exactly a lot of other guitarists around. Somehow, he got a Weaver's songbook with chord diagrams, subscribed to Sing Out! magazine, and we were on our way.

I grew up with that guitar. It was miles too big for me, a colorful, beat-up window into another world. My small fingers could barely fit around the neck. As I began learning chords, I discovered new ways of fingering them to compensate for my size. To this day, I play a D chord "wrong", but it works for me. By the age of eleven, I was arguing over it; when we went to see friends whose sons played with fingerpicks, and they insisted that was what "real" guitarists did, I just sneered.

It helped that The Guitar went everywhere with us - to summer camp, where my father obtained 8-week stays for his children by teaching music for nothing; to my grandparent's, where we went every weekend to pick up groceries from my grandfather the bagger. It went with Dad to work, it went with us to play.

The guitar you grow up with, the guitar you learn to play on, is a special thing. It doesn't matter much whether it's expensive, pretty, even playable - it trains you. I wrote my first song on that guitar in my twelfth year, eventually playing it to a captive audience from the back seat of our car. I remember my mother turning and staring at me, wondering what had happened to the child she thought she was raising.

We did everything wrong. I faithfully polished it with cheap lemon oil once a month - everywhere. Fretboard, pickguard, if you were attached to my guitar you got polished. When it buzzed, I'd fold over a cardboard match-cover and stick it under the string, right up at the nut; that always worked. I took apart the tuning machines and cleaned them periodically, squirting them with WD-40 to keep them moving.

When a waitress dropped a tray on it, we had no idea where to take it for repair, so my father just asked around for a good instrumental wood worker. A violin-maker in Newark rebuilt the top, re-glued the braces, and installed a larger, heavier bridge plate. Having no idea how to take care of a valuable instrument, we went on instinct and Mechanic's Weekly. In return, The Guitar played, and played, and played.

I learned to write a lead sheet with it, sent the song into Broadside Magazine, was invited to play at the Village Gate. The Guitar and I got a standing ovation; we were on our way.

One day another performer mentioned that it was a Martin D-18, from 1937, the "pre-war years"; when I got home I said "Dad! Dad! This is a Martin guitar!" He shrugged. "Yep, honey, it's a guitar. I knew that." I'd read about Martins somewhere, but it had never occurred to me that Dad's beat up old instrument could have been made by anyone. It just was.

It became My Guitar when my father gave it to me for my 16th birthday. By then we'd met Leonard Bernstein together, recorded 2 albums, been on The Tonight Show, and done concerts from coast to coast. We'd lived through "Society's Child," getting spit on and booed off the stage by crowds chanting "Nigger lover!" We'd earned each other.

We survived being called a has-been a few hitless years later, and we'd written "Jesse" two years after that. Through the dark times, one of us, at least, had remained universally admired. Vinnie Bell, legendary New York studio musician, had offered me $5,000 for it - in 1966! Artists like Jimi Hendrix would greet me and say "How's The Guitar doing, man? What a sweetheart!" It was an extraordinary instrument, a 1937 D-18 that somehow, through a combination of wood, break-in, temperature, humidity, and just plain love, wound up being the best acoustic guitar any of them had ever heard. Reverend Gary Davis would beg it at folk festivals; other artists kept offering me money. Why? It had the best bass tone I'd ever heard on a guitar, bar none. And unusual in a guitar from that era, it sounded as good picked as strummed, flat-picked as frailed.

I moved to Los Angeles in 1972 and took her with me (somehow over the years she'd become "her" - my closest confidante, dearest companion), hoping the more temperate climate would be good for my aging friend. One day I came back from a morning at the beach to find my apartment burglarized - and although clothing had been flung from the drawers and the place was a mess, all my credit cards and jewelry were left where they'd been. The only things missing were a rented television, and my two guitars. Ironically, I'd bought a Gallagher just months earlier, having decided the road was too dangerous for my Martin.

I called the police; they were pessimistic, saying a large ring specializing in stolen guitars had been operating in LA for months. I called Martin, registering it as stolen. I canvassed the apartment complex. I telephoned every pawn shop in the Los Angeles area, offering a reward for any scrap of information. Then I sat, dulled by fatigue and pain, waiting and hoping.

The phone rang two days later; a young man had pawned my Gallagher, demanding exactly what it was worth "like he knew what he was doing". He'd used his draft card for ID. A few days later, the police picked him up.

I went to court and testified that I hadn't given him permission to borrow my guitar. The detectives (knowing he already had a 13-page rap sheet) threatened him, trying to break the ring. And although told it was illegal, I desperately offered him a $2,000 reward if he'd just bring it back, no questions asked. In the end, he chose to do 3-5 years of hard time rather than reveal anything.

That was the end of that. I mourned for years - 26 of them, to be exact. Nothing in my life - not breakups, not the death of beloved friends and family, not the loss of every dime I had in 1986 - nothing affected me more deeply. You may think that's crazy, but then again, maybe you've never owned a guitar like this one.

I became afraid to be attached - to anything. When a former accountant failed to pay taxes on my behalf, and the IRS stripped me of everything down to my pride, it was relatively easy to sell what remained. My friends thought I was in shock, not caring about the things I lost that year - the Vega Tubaphone #1 banjo, the Lloyd Baggs guitar, the house and studio and clothes and furniture. But nothing mattered after my Martin. Things were just things; everything that wasn't replaceable could be lived without. The only regret I had was parting with my Bosendorfer piano, and my heart was salved knowing it provided enough money to care for myself and my mother for six long months.

Yet somewhere in the back of my head, a small part of me clung to hope. "If she ever comes back..." I would think, "everything will be all right". When I began recording again, I put a note on each album: Missing since 1972, Martin D-18 serial #67053. Reward for return; no questions asked. I meant it.

I hoped someone kind had bought her, someone who played her frequently and treated her well. I hoped they bought her not knowing she was stolen. I hoped she wasn't living overseas. I hoped.

Years passed. I slowly regained my financial footing, bought a home, began a relationship that's still going strong. I began to feel like the hard times were over at last. Oh, I'd never be able to afford a Bosendorfer again, but I had guitars now, and heat in the winter again. And I'd held onto two baby Martins through the worst of it, thinking that if anyone ever returned mine (unaffordable to me at today's prices), maybe I'd be able to swap for it.

My partner graduated from law school this year, and to celebrate we took a vacation in Provincetown, MA. Over her objections, I brought my laptop. One day, I was scanning my new mail, and noticed something from a stranger.

Now, I get email from strangers all the time, but most of it does not have "RE: YOUR D-18" in the header. I read it with growing excitement. Eric Schoenberg, owner of a guitar shop in Tiburon CA., was telling me he had a client who had my guitar. Did I want the client's phone number?

I wrote back immediately, saying "Yes", then gave full reign to paranoia. Could someone have replaced the serial number on a Martin, hoping to claim a reward? For that matter, how much of a reward would they want? What were my rights under the law, and what were my ethical and moral obligations?

I contacted everyone I knew, from Stanley Jay of Mandolin Brothers to master guitarist Preston Reed. Do you know this guy Schoenberg? I asked. Is he reputable? Would he lie to me, or participate in a coverup? And Geoff Grace, the fellow who says he has my guitar, does anyone know him? The answers flew back. Eric Schoenberg was highly, highly respected by one and all, with an impeccable reputation. It was impossible to replace an old Martin serial number. And legally, since I'd filed a police report, the stolen property was mine. All I would owe Geoff was whatever he'd spent on maintenance and repairs.

A day later, heart in mouth, I called Geoff Grace. He's not home, this is his mother. Ah, he had a mother. That was already good. She lived with him, or spent time there - even better. She didn't sound like a con artist; she knew about the guitar. I sat in an agony, waiting. Hours later I was still waiting, having completely forgotten the time difference between east and west coasts. Pat sat with me in silence.

Suddenly tears began pouring down my face. I couldn't speak, couldn't explain myself. It was as though a 26-year-old dam had burst, throwing the debris of all those hopeless years out of my heart and into the open air.

When I finally became capable of speech, I spoke through my hiccups. "If it is her... if it is my Martin... then I've come full circle, finally... I'll get back the only material thing that ever mattered to me...all those years paying off the IRS, paying off the ex-husbands' debts, paying off other peoples' mistakes and meanness... all those years of waiting will finally be over. I can be myself again, if she comes back."

Make no mistake - I am not a fetishist. I don't cling to objects for luck, or believe my life is over without them. Yet when my Martin was stolen, it left a hole in me that nothing could replace - a big, dead spot where no life grew.

The phone rang, and I met Geoff. He told me he'd bought the guitar in 1972 from a shop in Berkeley. It was pretty beat-up; someone had done a bad lacquer job on the back, so the price was only $650. He'd had the neck reset and a couple of other things fixed, but never touched the body or frets. Oddly enough, the same guitar was stolen from his home in Sausalito in 1976, which is why he'd memorized the serial number. The guitar had been with him all this time; although he bought and sold instruments regularly, he'd hung onto her because "It's the best D-18 I've ever heard".

He'd read an interview with me in Vintage Guitar Magazine by Steve Stone, praising my playing and mentioning at the end that I was still looking for my Martin. "It took me 15 seconds to realize that was my Martin you were looking for," he told me.

And amazingly enough, he immediately decided to give it back ("Then I called two friends in the Bay Area with big mouths and told them, just to keep myself honest. I figured after that, there'd be no turning back.") He called Eric Schoenberg, knowing Eric could contact me through email. The rest was history.

Now, the moment of truth. What did he want? What, in his estimation, was the guitar worth? I won't say we fenced; he quoted a figure I couldn't afford, then thought about it and said that was for insurance purposes - the real value was half that. Even half was too much for me. Well, since I did file a police report, isn't it mine anyway? I asked. He thought about that and said yes, he supposed so. He thought some more, then said "Hell, I don't want to keep someone else's guitar! Just tell me where to ship it - it's yours."

I couldn't do that - this man had loved my Martin as long as I had, even longer. I suggested we try a trade - he could ship it to me at my expense, and I would ship him my two small Martins, a turn-of-the-century 0-28 and a 1924 0-42. He could have whichever he liked, and the Mark Leaf case to go with it. Geoff agreed.

I arrived home and raced to the package. There she was. I pulled the guitar out and began to cry again. It was her, just as I remembered. I hugged it to myself, not daring to play just yet, only daring to remember. My partner stood, smiling, as I babbled.

"See, Pat, here's where I learned to flat-pick!"

Oh, she wondered, I thought you flat-picked over the hole, not making gouges near the fretboard.

"Sure, when you know how..." I mumbled.

"It looks awfully... old", Pat said, "Kind of worn".

"Like we're not?!" I fiercely answered, clutching the Martin to me. Then I burst into tears yet again, stroking the fretboard, afraid to play her. What if she didn't sound the same? The lost fish is always biggest in memory. What if she wasn't special, wasn't extraordinary? What if I'd spent the last 26 years mourning nothing more than an imaginary ideal?

I hit the first chord and started grinning like a fool; she sounded just like I remembered. I tuned the E down to a low D and hit a second chord. It rang forever. I pressed my ear against her side to hear the aftertones, the subtones, all the little nuances I'd missed, these long and lonely years. Everything was there. Everything was stunning. Everything was beautiful. We were finally home.

Geoff ended up taking the small Martin I preferred, but as Pat said, "If he hadn't taken the one you liked best, what kind of sacrifice would it have been on your part? You can't get something for nothing you know." And when I finally met Geoff and Eric a few months ago, I found myself speechless. How do you thank someone for giving back your dreams? How do you thank someone for filling a hole in your heart? Where do you find the words to explain, to make him understand that he's healed you?

The bottom line is, you can't. You can only hope he understands a small part of the gift he's given you - how it made up for every petty moment in your life; how it erased all the bad memories and left only the good. How you know now, in every fiber of your being, that in this world righteous men still walk, and you're fortunate enough to have encountered one.

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