When I was around 10 years old, my mother gave in and bought me a guitar with Green Saving Stamps she had accumulated our first winter in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The guitar was a Kay Standard, the bottom of the line and had a 16th note silk-screened in white paint over the place where ordinarily there would be a pickguard. I learned a few folk tunes on it, Bob Dooley and The House of the Rising Sun were the first tunes I was able to apprehend on my own with the limited resources of a 10-year-old in Michigan in the mid-1960s.
All this time I was holding onto a savings account my grandmother had started for me when I was little. When she counted the bank for the little tavern she owned with her husband, Bob Connor, and if I was with her when she went to the bank, she would give me a dollar or $5 if I helped with some of the chores. I would help her sift out the cigarette butts from the shuffleboard table and also to count the red quarters from the jukebox.
I learned to count and I helped her with the little things and it was Grandma who helped me understand the value of salting money away and it was Grandma who taught me there was no job too humble, because to work was to stay alive. She was the youngest of a family of nine children whose parents died from the Spanish flu epidemic in Arkansas and Oklahoma. She knew how to save, and she knew how to laugh.
I slowly added to this account over time and by the time I was 13 we had moved to Ohio and I bought my first real guitar. It was a 1967 Yamaha FG180. I loved it and it was certainly easier to play than the Kay, but by this time, as a self-taught folkie, all my bad habits were pretty well set.
This guitar helped me get out of my teens alive. My mother, a jazz singer, hated the folky music I played with it, so my playing was relegated to my bedroom, although once, while she was having a drunken party she woke me up to come downstairs and play for her friends. They stood around me in jolly swaying groups. It was the only time I felt my mother was proud of the fact I played the guitar and sang at the same time. But she was drunk, so I’ll never really know what she thought. I played Sisters of Mercy, by Leonard Cohen, and it never happened again.
When I was in my early 20s, I had a car accident which took away my singing voice for almost seven years. Between that accident and a rude comment by a group of male pickers in college, I ended up selling the guitar to pay rent.
I didn’t pick up a guitar again until I moved to Taos in 1986. I discovered the silence up in the canyon caused me to want to play again. I bought a little nylon-stringed guitar (that I still have) from Casa de Musica when they were located in the Cantu Plaza. Since then I have had several and have had two stolen from me. One was a Fender Squire electric I inherited from my real father (whom I found after decades of being separated). The other stolen guitar was a Guild and I don’t want to talk about it because I truly loved that guitar and I still tear up.
I have been loaned a Yamaha and as I get accustomed to the neck, the action and where the sweet spots are, I am thrown back to my teens and how that Yamaha guitar kept me sane (more or less) and alive. [After writing this I am returning the Yamaha and not only am I returning the instrument, it represents another return to heartbreak. I can’t write about it. I can only suffer with it.]
I need to find an FG180, buy it, settle in and face a lot of those old memories from the past. Will it make me sane? Or will it just open old wounds? I’ll find out.