Power Pickers
of the '60's

Musicians of the Flower Generation


Archive for April, 2009

Dishin’ wid da Duke of Pearl

Old, Good Friend CHUCK ERIKSON, now the renowned DUKE OF PEARL, saw my last post, “Doc Watson, Roy Noble & The Psychedelic Guitar,” and reminded me that he was one of the original Rapidograph Rangers who trip-scribbled all over the face of the mahogany dreadnought Roy built for Doc 40 years ago. (BTW, Chuck gets a FREE POWER-PICKERS FLATPICK for leaving a comment!)

Chuck and wife Cheryl are da bomb in cutting, preparing and supplying ultra-fine mother-of-pearl and abalone shell for inlays to luthiers all over the world. And now, back to me.

On the reverse of a photo Chuck sent me of Doc playing a Noble 12-string in 1969, someone wrote that I would visit Roy’s while Doc was staying there, and “usually the music went all night.” This is good, because until now I didn’t know about it. I mean, these were my post-grad finishing years, when I altered my mind and abused substances as much and as fast as I could. Don’t tell your mother.

I had a rock band then, Evergreen Blueshoes, and we were running all over LA trying to cover an album we cut in 1968 for Amos Records, whom we ultimately traced to Warners/Elektra before they remembered who we were. Anyway, the period from late 1967 to ’69 we lurched from joint to joint, from places like the Whiskey a’Go Go and the Ash Grove in H’wood to the Plush Pussy (no kidding) in Reseda. One of my temporal lobes spilled out on the Ventura Freeway between Laurel and Topanga Canyons, so if you can tell me anything about me and my band during that time I will pay top dollar. (If you want to learn anything about the band, click here. How hard is that?)

Anyway, I know Chuck from before even then. I know him thru Roy, who sold his guitars in my shop at the Ash Grove in 1966, and is seen here with Chuck. Roy is, amazingly, if you know Roy, the straight-looking one.  I know Chuck for so long I can’t remember half the things I remember him for. But I’ll try.

Besides decorating guitar tops, he made good banjos and great inlays (no visible filler, just pearl and wood. He did two guitar necks for me, one for my Gibson ES335TDC that spelled out “Mother of Pearl,” the other for my Noble dreadnought that displayed my phone number); invented a patentable joint-rolling machine, which he claims he never used for himself. Right. He mined gold, scrapped metal, traveled all over Asia, dealt blackjack in his own brothel in Tahoe, and much, much more.

All of this was done while building a M.O.P. (mother-of…you got it) empire that counts Gibson, Martin, Taylor, and, of course, Noble Guitars, as supplicants (can you use that word in public?) to his demonic skills.

Duke’s been mothering pearl for 40 years, and, with Duchess Cheryl, holds court at http://www.dukeofpearl.com/, one of the most entertaining sites I’ve ever seen. You could go there instead of the movies, except that your Precious Treasure would think you were a cheap-assed douchebag she never wanted to see again. On the other hand, you could use the money you saved not going to the movies to have Chuck make you that Japanese Awabi Abalone earring you’ve been lusting for. You do want that earring, don’t you? Hey, I don‘t judge, I just observe.

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Doc Watson, Roy Noble and the Pyschedelic Guitar

Roy Noble, Doc and suspect Guitar. Photo below shows doodling better.

Doc Watson was playing at the Ash Grove in LA, probably some time in 1965 or ’66, and one day I took him to Roy Noble’s guitar workshop in Reseda, in the San Fernando Valley. I go 45 years back with Roy, whose guitars have been played and/or owned by Doc, Clarence White, Jorma Kaukkonen, Pete Seeger, Leo Kotke and other awesome players.

Doc really liked Roy’s guitars, particularly, as I remember it, a mahogany dreadnought Roy made to compete with Martin’s D-18. In fact, Doc played it on stage at the Ash Grove for several sets before he started hearing strange things coming from the audience; at least they were strange to him, and they would be to you, too, if you were a Bible Belt Southerner on your first visit to Hollywood.

“Far out, man,” and, “Can you dig it? Doc’s trippin’,” and, “Whoa, a psychedelic D-18,” were three jewels that I remember. After a couple of sets of this Doc asked me what was going on with the strange comments coming from the audience.

“They’re acting like I’m a hippie, or something,” he said. “You heard it, Al, things like ‘groovy’ and ‘far out.'”

“Yes, I heard it, Doc, and I don’t know what’s going on, either,” I said.  And I didn’t.

“I’m not doin’ anything different, am I?” This was said with a touch of menace. Remember, Doc is unsighted, but big and very strong.

“Not that I can see, Doc.  Roy, do you know what’s going on?” I said.  Roy shook his head, a gesture of  sheer eloquence for Roy Noble. “Roy doesn’t see anything either, Doc.”

But suddenly I did see.  It was the guitar that was different. It sounded terrific and played easy–Doc and I both agreed on that–, but it was an experimental model Roy was still feverishly working on. It was in the sealed-but-not-sanded stage, and the front was covered with Rapidographed, acid-induced doodlings contributed by workshop hangers-on. At that moment, the face of the guitar was covered with a spider web of paisley dragons, checkered stairs and soft-core pornography.

To Roy and myself, the pretend artwork was invisible. But other people picked up on it because it was Doc, a deeply religious and proper man, playing the guitar it was on. I was just about to tell Doc that I thought that might be the problem, but he beat me to the punch.

“It’s something about the guitar, isn’t it, Al?”

“I think so, Doc. Yeah, I’m pretty sure it is.”

Country Al with Guitar at Topanga Canyon Banjo/fiddle contest, '65.

I told him about the psychedelia on the guitar’s face and that Roy and I hadn’t given a thought to  what the instrument looked like, because Roy was so intent on getting it to sound and play right, and I wanted so much to get it into Doc’s magic hands. It could have been a map to buried treasure on there and we wouldn’t have seen it.

“Doc, we’re really sorry,” I said; Roy was in the dressing room, too, but as  I said, Roy doesn’t talk much and you can’t understand him when he does, so I just kept on tap-dancing. “We really are. You know we’d never play that kind of trick on you in a million years.” And we really wouldn’t.

He grumped a little before he said, “Yes, I know you boys too well to think you’d ever try to put anything over on me. Tho’ if you did you wouldn’t be the first.” Doc got some really shitty treatment being blind and poor and brought up in some sort of institution during the Depression.

He played his own D-18 for the rest of the night and the run, and people stopped asking him to play Grateful Dead songs. True story.