When I was six years old I wanted to be in the Beatles. But I didn’t have a guitar, and it seemed awfully difficult to actually be in the Beatles, and, maybe most importantly, I was only six years old.
I wanted to be in the Beatles for quite some time, actually. You know, until they broke up and then no one could be in the Beatles, not even really excellent musicians. To fill the void that was left by the dead Beatles, between the ages of 10 and 15 I wanted to be in a newer and decidedly more weird and dangerous crop of bands. Bands like Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith and KISS.
But I was still far too young to be in these bands. I also lived in St. Paul, and those bands didn’t generally hang out in St. Paul much, so my chances of meeting them and striking up a friendship close enough to get me into their bands seemed slim. And I still didn’t have a guitar.
Then when I was 16, two really fucked up things happened. I saw the New York Dolls play a live show to a tiny audience (did they ever play to anything but tiny audiences?), and, the first Ramones album came out. I said, “What? Hey, I don’t know what to make of all this!” and then someone handed me the Stooges albums and suddenly it didn’t matter if I was old enough to be in the Beatles or if Black Sabbath was ever going to sleep over at my place in St. Paul. In fact, it didn’t even matter if I could really play music. I could still be a rock and roll star!
As I saw it then, the only thing standing between me and rock stardom was a guitar, so I saved money, stole money, sold things and begged for money on the street until I had enough greenbacks to visit a real music store and get me a real ELECTRIC geetar!
Well, I walked into Torp’s on Rice Street just north of downtown St. Paul, and there they were; every guitar bass, drum, keyboard and amp any band could want. I felt intimidated. I didn’t have any idea how to play the guitar so trying them out would prove to be troublesome. I also didn’t realize that the less than $200 in my pocket wouldn’t really buy any name brand shit in there. I came to learn that later, of course, and Torp’s pocketed about a third of my income for the next 8 or 9 years.
So I walked up and down the cramped rows between the amplifiers and just thought, “What the fuck? How do I pick one of these, and what the fuck am I going to do with one of these after I pick it out?” Just then Arnie walked up to me. Arnie must have been in his fifties, buzz haircut, pocket protector, and he had one leg shorter than the other that made it necessary for him to wear a giant shoe, just like the guys in KISS, so I figured he couldn’t be all bad.
Without the slightest condescension, disdain, ridicule, pity, or anything else he could have felt toward me in my obvious virgin condition, he casually said, “Which one of ’em to you want to play? You really have to play a guitar before you buy it.”
Well, I said, since I was standing in front of it, “I really like that red one.” “The flying V?” “Yeah, the Flying V.” (I had already learned my first rock term. I was well on my way). “Oh, this is a good one,” he said. But then he probably said that about every guitar, bass, accordion or other piece of crap in the place. He was right, as it turned out, so maybe he wasn’t bullshitting me. But probably he was. He was old school like that.
Arnie pulled it down, laboriously plugged it into some crappy amp and said, “let me get you a strap.” A strap? How the hell do you put on a strap? Does it tie around the top part where the end of the strings are? Luckily Arnie connected the strap for me, and then, in the kindest and most understanding gesture of the evening, turned and walked away.
Because, remember, I didn’t know how to play the guitar. So had he stood there and watched me I would have probably just shit my pants and ran home. Instead I plucked some stings, tried to put my fingers on the frets like I saw the bands do on TV, and then I unplugged the guitar, which made a huge buzzing sound that you recognize if you’ve ever just jerked the cable out of a guitar.
Arnie walked back over and took the V from me and hung it back up on the rack. “What else do you want to try?” He asked, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the V. “None,” I said, “I want that one.” So he smiled and brought it up to the counter and I bought it. Somehow, the exact amount of money that I had in my pocket was what it cost! Isn’t it amazing when that happens? I think it happened a lot at Torp’s.
It was an Electra model – made in Japan (like all the copies of famous guitars were back then) at the Fujigen factory where they made Ibanez and a million other brands of guitars. In their catalog it was called the No. 2236 Flying Wedge. It had a Mahogany body and a really nice wine red transparent finish, so the wood grain really showed through. A beautiful and well-made guitar, because even budget shit was built with pride of craftsmanship back in ye olden dayes!
Anyway, it was the only guitar I had for a long time. I learned to play on it, and with my newfound appreciation of groups like the Ramones, Stooges and the New York Dolls, I was starting to think this rock band stuff was going to be easy. Shit, if they could do it, so could I.
My friend Jimmy Wallin played bass and guitar, Roger DeBace and Brad Johnson played guitar, Mark Madden, Steve Nelson and Mike Reiter were all drummers, and John Ohr could howl and yelp and squirm around on the floor just like Iggy. Jesus christ, why didn’t everyone have a band? Probably because everyone didn’t hang out in the same circles as I did. You know, among the kind of people who could listen to the Stooges Funhouse 15 times a day and actually enjoy it.
Over the next few years I accumulated more guitars; a 1969 Stratocaster (that I ruined – more or less on purpose – during my first live show in front of a paying audience), a Les Paul Deluxe, a few 1950’s Les Paul Juniors, even a one-of-a-kind, factory custom made-to-my-specifications Ibanez Iceman (you’ve never heard of it, but it’s a really a stupid looking guitar, trust me). Yet 90% of the time I found myself playing the cheap Electra copy of the Flying V.
I was a tinkerer though, so I couldn’t leave well enough alone. I stripped the beautiful finish off the V (don’t remember why), put in new DiMarzio pickups because that’s what was advertised in Guitar Player Magazine (A Super Distortion in the bridge position and Super II in the neck position, if you were wondering). I rewired the knobs and switches because I kept hitting the volume knob with my hand (hey, it was punk rock). Put on Grover tuners – pretty much the only things left that were original were the neck and the body, but god damn it man, no other guitar sounded like that fucker. It didn’t matter how much I abused it, I couldn’t kill it.
One night we were playing a show in someone’s basement (hey, it was still punk rock), and I did a little shtick that I had done a thousand times – balance the V and let it stand up by itself, then let go of it and walk away and let it fall down and make a big ugly racket.
Well that night it made a real ugly racket – the neck snapped as soon as it hit the floor. You have to kind of expect that when you purposely let a guitar fall flat on it’s face every day, but still it saddened and angered me.
I picked up the headstock which was still attached to the rest of the guitar by shards of wood and string and I swung the whole contraption around over my head, which pretty much made everyone within 20 feet of me run away, but also tore my hand up pretty well. What with the shards of wood and strings and whatnot.
I tried to rip the neck off, but guitar strings are very strong, so it’s not an easy task. I solved the problem by yanking off the tailpiece, smashing the busted neck repeatedly against the cinder block wall of the basement, and then picking up the body and throwing it against the front of my classic 2×12 Marshall combo amp twenty or thirty times. I couldn’t break the body (god damn Japanese craftsmanship!), but I successfully punctured both of the stock Celestion speakers in the Marshall and effectively put an end to the evening’s festivities.
I was bleeding like a motherfucker from several different places on my hands and face (how the face got involved, I really don’t know), my best gear was ruined, and oddly enough I didn’t even want to get drunk(er). The singer’s sister, Karen, kept trying to pour rubbing alcohol on my hands and wrap them up in gauze but I sat on the basement stairs saying, “Take me home. Just take me home. It’s only blood. Please drive me home.”
I felt like someone very special to me had died that night and everyone was trying to tell me it would be okay, I should just try to forget about it, but I couldn’t. I know that if you aren’t a real guitar player that sounds like the most idiotic thing you’ve ever heard, but if you are a real guitar player, you know exactly how I felt.
Karen agreed to drive me home and before leaving the party I grabbed my only unbroken piece of equipment from the floor, an old MXR micro-amp stomp box. A really unsurpassed booster for when you need to be even LOUDER than loud. Which was a lot of the time back then.
I put the micro-amp on top of her car while I was waiting for her to unlock the doors (it kind of hurt to hold things at that point), and when we finally got in and started to drive away, it occurred to me that I had left the micro-amp on top of the car. “Shit, pull over,” I said. She did, and I got out and looked even though I knew it wouldn’t be there, and of course it wasn’t. We spotted it a few days later at the side of the road, flat as a Bay City Rollers groupie.
So, life went on without the V. A few days later someone from the party actually brought me the body and said, “Maybe you can put on a neck?” But people had stolen the DiMarzio’s, the pots, the switch – even the fucking jack. I kept it for a wile, even painted it some horrible bright yellow color (because it was just so ugly), but could never bring myself to put some shit Strat neck on it or something. It wouldn’t have been the same.
– – –
So flash forward twenty eight years. Yeah. I know. Long time. I played professionally in that time, in punk bands using mainly the Les Paul Deluxe and in Reggae bands playing various Les Paul Juniors (and even one of the old, original headless Steinberger’s, which was more like a baseball bat than a guitar), but I never forgot the V.
I was recording a solo for a friend on a beautiful Reggae track, but he said he wanted a rougher sound for the solo (I was playing a Junior so I’m not sure what the hell is rougher than that – but anyway), I immediately thought of the V, and wished I could go grab it and knock out the part. Because even though 10 years had passed since I played it, I knew it would have been perfect.
Anyway, one night a couple of months ago, for some reason I thought, “I wonder if Google will come up with anything for an Electra V…” I had searched and found nothing a few years before and expected the same this time around. And it wasn’t much different. Precious little is known about the brand, outside a great Electra fetish site run on the rivercityamps.com domain – those guys have to be the world’s largest (only) repository of Electra history.
But it was another link that caught my eye. Writer David Kilpatrick’s blog, contained an old entry about being a teenage dude in the 1970s. There he was in his typically dorky 1970’s pictures (hey, if you were there you have them too), but then – I could hardly believe my eyes – was a picture of him playing the Electra V. My Electra V. Exactly.
The last line in his blog about the guitar was, “I still have the guitar in its original case. If you know of anyone who wants to buy it, give me an email.”
What? The post was from 2005, so I immediately deflated, figuring he’d sold it long ago. But still, I kept going back to that page and reading that sentence over and over – “If you know of anyone who wants to buy it, give me an email.”
So I emailed him.
Well, David is a really nice guy and offered to sell me the V at a very fair price, which I immediately agreed to and sent off a check.
Yeah, you read that right. I just sent a check to some guy on the internet who I knew nothing about.
Well, I knew he had that fucking V, and that fact right there made me know that his heart beat in a different way than yours does, but in a familiar and comfortable way to me, and for that reason alone I knew could trust him. I never once worried that I would be robbed. In fact, the shipping came out to a bit more than he anticipated and he covered it for me!
It taught me a valuable lesson, because 12+ years working and playing on the internet has made me distrustful, but sometimes you just have to trust people. If you don’t, we are all, as a species, extremely fucked.
So you know how the wait goes when you really really really want something to arrive in the mail or on that damn brown UPS truck. It feels like years, but the guitar arrived (In the original case!) and I immediately disassembled it.
I had vowed to myself that I would only clean it an leave it untouched, but I had to take it apart to really clean it, so what the hell. Took some pictures of the innards to show to the guys on the Electra forum, which actually helped them out.
Anyway, It’s here, it’s clean, and looking at it hanging in the rack next to my (modern) Junior is a very weird feeling. I am 48 years old, but I feel like I could strap on either one of those fuckers, drop the strap down real low (because that’s how you play rock and roll, bitch!), and just blow the ass off some 15 year old Green Day kid. And I probably could, but I won’t.
This is their time, and they are welcome to it.
I will always remember David Kilpatrick though, and my good friends at Torp’s in St. Paul and how they could have blown my ignorant 15 year old ass right out the door with a few snide comments or simply by ignoring me, but instead treated me like a member of a secret society, and in doing so, gained a customer and a friend for life. And inadvertently (or not) sent me around the country and around the world playing the guitar.
So even if I only pick up the V once a month and play it on the couch, that’s okay. We have been reunited, we know each other, we don’t need a lot of chit chat. We communicate in a different way.