Power Pickers
of the '60's

Musicians of the Flower Generation


Archive for April, 2009

Me and Phil Spector? We Were Just Like This :-/ (-:

I knew Phil Spector. He was head cheerleader in the late ‘Fifties at my school, Fairfax High, in L.A., and rode on the bus with the jocks for away games and meets. I ran track ( See Junior Olympics photo with me in upper left corner.  It has nothing to do with this piece, but if you leave a comment you’ll get a free POWER-PICKERS  flatpick.)

Spector was considered a little weird even then, but reasonably so, whatever that means. I think it means he wasn’t a benny, the word we used for nerd, but he didn’t really fit into the stratified and judgemental social scene at the mostly Jewish school. He probably didn’t want to.

We knew he was doing something kind of important, especially after he wrote and recorded the hit single, “To Know Him is to Love Him,” with the Teddybears, a group comprised of him and three other Fairfax High student-performers.  But for some reason this didn’t translate into popularity for him. But, again, I don’t think that was the kind of recognition he craved.

When I looked back on his and my high school days a few years after I graduated, I realized he was ahead of us in so many ways we just couldn’t wrap ourselves around them all, let alone see ourselves doing them.

Come on: you’re into a sexy career and lifestyle before you graduate from high school? You’re hanging out with other creatively talented-and older-Industry types and making serious bucks while other guys your age are delivering groceries? A Jewish boy from Hollywood playing a Fender Telecaster, professionally!, in 1958,  a year before his graduation and at least five years before Eric Clapton and Jerry Garcia?  Was this the kind of life any of us saw ourselves leading, even in our zone-of-the-barely-possible daydreaming, let alone within our power to make happen? It certainly wasn’t in mine.

All of this said, I have to tell you that a lot of people found something about Spector a little disconcerting, not only for the reasons above, but also for a certain unwholesomeness he projected, and maybe wanted to project. He may have even started some of the rumors about himself, even though that’s what most of them probably were, i.e., rumors.

But one tale seemed to stand out from the rest. This was the one that had him cram two friends into a closet to watch and, reportedly, take pictures of him and his girlfriend, sweating naked and banging away in his bedroom while his parents were out.

Somehow, this rumor and putative photo got out, and, God knows why, swept up the Fairfax High gossip charts like #1With a Bullet! But not before the lovebirds broke up and D____ started going with S___, a club brother of mine.

When S___, a tackle on the varsity football team, heard about it and confronted one of the alleged watchers, the legitimately frightened kid threw Spector under the bus without missing a heartbeat. S___ went berserkers and threatened to beat Spector with one of his size 14 cleats.

At the end of day, though, it was still a rumor, the photographic evidence had mysteriously disappeared, and my friend had nothing tangible with which to drill Spector into the ground, and the matter was grudgingly dropped. But…

Spector never disputed the rumor. That should mean something, shouldn’t it? But what? Did he do it and was proud of it? If so, wouldn’t he have wanted to go into the witness protection program to avoid being hammered by S___? On the other hand, a correlate of the rumor had Spector tied to guys without necks who would have been happy to discourage even an All-City lineman from cleaning Spector’s musical clock.

Or did he not do it but wanted people to think he did, whether he had discouragers or not? Was the rumor credible? If it was a rumor, did he start it himslf? Was he presenting already with a behavioral Weltenschaum that has led him into the very big doghouse he’s in today?

How should I know? So if I once held his megaphone while he tied his shoes, does that make me some expert on the guy? You keep up with news, you decide. I’m just saying.

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Thanks from Country Al

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.