Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Guitar's Life by Hank Stuever

Intro (Waltz Across Texas): Debbie Katruska brings along her neighbor, Larry Bailey, to help her pick one out. What do I know about guitars, Debbie says. That's why she asks Larry. She likes to tease her husband, Dennis, with the JCPenney catalog: Look, Denny, here's a guitar for only $79. "Oh, he gets so mad at me when I tease him like that," she says. "Denny says, ÔLook, do me a favor and don't buy me a guitar.'"

Some of the men in their neighborhood get together once in a while at the gazebo in the park by the tennis courts, three cul-de-sacs over. They play guitar and sing songs past sunset, sometimes until midnight. Larry Bailey loaned Dennis Katruska one of his guitars. In a few weeks, Dennis managed to pick up a lot. Just by watching, by listening. Larry told Debbie that her husband really needed his own guitar.

And that's why she's working extra nursing shifts, saving a little extra, not telling him. Dennis wants to learn "Waltz Across Texas." That is something he wants very much to sing to his wife, while playing his own guitar.

Guitars and Redemption (John Begs the Lord.)
The Lord punished John Guerin with a pain that started in his hands, slowly, fingers to wrist. Then up his arms, through his shoulders, his neck. Finally, he couldn't play guitar. John sat one morning at the kitchen table, in his bathrobe, remorseful and wincing, barely able to lift a cigarette to his mouth, staring out the window at snow.

He took it as a sign.

He did not play guitar for a year.

Sometimes God would say to John, Go smell it. Go smell your favorite guitar. John would go to the closet and take a guitar case out, under the pretense of looking for something else. He would open it. It smelled like smoke. It smelled like booze, too, and these were good smells. His Stratocaster smelled like a bar at 2 o'clock in the morning. Guitars smelled like his recent, disastrous past; smelled like why his wife began to distrust him and his daughters were sometimes afraid of him and some of his friends stopped talking to him. Guitars were sin.

He would snap the lid back down, wedge the cases into shadows and shut the closet door.

When the Lord was satisfied, one Christmas day, the pain went away.

When the pain went away, John made a deal.

He moved his family home to Texas from Buffalo, N.Y. He told people he felt good and honest and more alive. But really he didn't, not completely, because instead of playing the blues, he was back to selling cars in the suburbs. Years before, under the flap-flapping of plastic streamers in the lots of the former Landmark Ford on Research Boulevard, John had worn suits and ties and enticed people into Tauruses and Broncos. He talked happy. Everything ended in an exclamation point. He even looked like an exclamation point, upended. He kept his head shaved bald. He seemed a little crazy to the front-office types, but his sales were high. He was good at selling the Ford Festivas, economy cars lined up like Skittle candies on the back lot, cars that no one else could sell. He was called a "heat handler." A heat handler smoothes it over.

He left the car business to become a guitar legend. In Buffalo, he called his band the Heat Handlers.

From the snow and addiction and pain, after redemption, he came back.

Landmark Ford had become Covert Ford. Management promoted him inside. They put him in an office, made him F-and-I Guy, finance and insurance, the one who makes that last excision of the money from the customer.

He would smile and shake hands and get the papers signed.

He was making $9,000 a month, some months, and he was miserable.

(Where's Guerin?)

(I dunno. Check the bathroom.)

Every day he locked himself in the executive bathroom, a few minutes alone, the only place to drown out the noise. He would start, Jesus, please. There was a blinking phone mounted on the wall, but he wouldn't answer it. There was a sink and a countertop, and a wicker basket with tools shared by polished salesmen: toothpaste, toothbrushes, dental floss, hair gel, Right Guard, Brut. He would beg, on his knees, praying:

God, just get me out of the car business.

If somehow you get out, John says, "Other people in the car business will never stop talking about you: ÔOh, man. He got out.'" In the late winter of 1995, the Lord answered John.

It came to him in a dream. How the carpet should be a shade of red. How the walls should be green. It would be full of guitars. "Hey," John said, looking over at his wife, Kim, as they drove a rented RV down U.S. 183 on a camping trip with their girls. "God wants me to quit the car business and open a guitar shop."

"No, He doesn't," she said.

"Yes, He does," John said. "And we will be blessed."

A song.
I need one song that says it all.

I need this song to be about a shaved- bald, Bible-quoting, exclamation point of a man who opened a 1,300-square-foot shop called Guitar Heaven two years ago at the corner of Ninth and Austin streets in Georgetown; a man who sometimes almost isn't able to pay his bills but then manages to sell enough guitars to do so, and reminds himself to credit God.

I need this song to be about men and guitars. About how happy they are to stand around, speaking a language where pickup is not something to drive and fret is not something to do.

(Strum. The only chord I know: A.)

I need this song to be about one guitar of little or no distinction. How, on a random afternoon 11 months ago, I saw this guitar among 127 guitars in Guitar Heaven -- an unremarkable Fender acoustic guitar -- and slowly, when I had the time, traced it back to the six different men who owned it over 14 years.

Up to the guy who presently owns it, a plumber who lives in a subdivision in Williamson County.

That's at least three verses right there.

(Strum) This goes out to men who love guitars.
And I think you know who you are. Some men keep guitars under their beds. Some men keep guitars in their hallway closets. Some men keep guitars in a corner of the living room, on three-pronged guitar stands they bought at the shop where they buy strings, until they are asked to move their guitars to a guest room or the garage. And teen-age men, who sit on waterbeds beneath posters and work out chord progressions with the amp turned down low, or turned up, depending on the current state of domestic affairs. Men with electric guitars are men who -- secretly or plainly -- wish to start or join a band. To be a great among greats, looking back at the crowd for once instead of looking out from it. Otherwise the guitar wouldn't have to be plugged in, a life-death metaphor in show business and hospitals.

Men with acoustic guitars wish to be charming, so they can be in love. They believe in campfires and circular meanings contained in simple narratives. They have messages: Jesus Saves and He is Groovy. This War is Hell. You Broke My Heart But I Love You Anyways.

A man buys a guitar and classifies himself. There is a beauty in the having, the keeping, the care. There is a suffering as well, not being virtuoso.

Whether he plays it.

Whether he doesn't, and it stays under the bed.

This goes out to the women.
In my song I say "men" as a way of saying "not women." A woman with a guitar is fighting a different fight. A woman with an electric guitar is up for the same crap as the woman who can clean and love a rifle. A woman with an acoustic guitar is up against everyone thinking she's on some equality kick, a cause, has a hammer. She can play guitar better than any man and still be referred to as a woman playing a guitar.

Fender, Clarence Leo (1909-1991)
For several years, he thought he was dying of a rare virus. This was after he was famous, after he tinkered with tube and solid-state amplifiers, after he co-devised and built the solid-body electric Broadcaster in 1948, his variation on the Hawaiian steel guitar.

Which in 1950 became the Telecaster.

Which in 1954 led to the Stratocaster.

Which is the guitar most people see, the mental image of the Strat, when the mind needs a picture of an electric guitar.

Air-guitar solos are played on the classic Fender Invisible.

Along with this, quietly, there was a return to the acoustic guitars. Leo Fender put his people to work on those in the '60s. The hollow-bodied beauties, the unplugged craft. But when the mind needs a picture of an acoustic, it doesn't see Fender. Maybe it sees a Martin. Maybe it just sees wood.

The guitar business grew too large for Leo Fender, and he thought his end was near. He had nearly $10 million in back orders and not enough magic to make that many guitars. He sold the company to CBS in 1965, and everything grew from there: electrics, acoustics, amps, mics, string manufacturing, drums, keyboards -- all of it with the Fender or Fender-related logos, some of these instruments having to be made overseas.

Leo Fender lived another 25 years, and now he is with Adolph Rickenbacker and other instrument makers in guitar heaven; footnotes, spirits in the sky, the by and by. The grandfathers and gods of guitar, the famously dead who teleported there via the heroin syringe or sputtering single-engine airplanes or overturned tour buses, everyone playing together.

Fender Herringbone-Inlay Acoustic, F-260S, Serial No. 400580.
The top is carved from spruce, polished to a comforting, yellowish-tan in the hue of worn leather or a stiff drink. It has a tiny, distinctly painted strip of inlay, a herringbone pattern, all around its edges and soundhole.

Joni Mitchell plays one just like it. Joan Baez has one.

It's not just about men at all. It never has been.

The perfect side curves of it, in rosewood.

This acoustic guitar, something so American, of little or no distinction, simple and nearly unnoticeable, was most likely Made in Japan, sometime in 1981 or 1982.

Juju (Or, the Brain Surgeon)
John Guerin, 38, is in Guitar Heaven on a cloudy Friday afternoon last fall, having a conversation at the front counter with a customer, a computer programmer- type, a bearded guy in khakis and a clip- on ID badge, blowing off time in the guitar shop. They are talking Bible. Something about the sins of the father. You will or will not be judged on the sins of the father, but on your own sins.

"Amen," the bearded man says. "Well, John, I gotta go, I gotta get back to work."

"All right," John Guerin says, "Thanks for blessing me with the Word."

The store is empty. Surrounded by all these guitars, and for a minute, not a sound.

John fills the silence with a story. When he moved back to Texas three years ago, he saw one of his old guitars, a Gibson ES175, up for sale in a South Austin shop. You just know when it's yours. He had traded it for a gold-top Les Paul in 1985. Here it was, a decade later, with a $1,200 price tag. "I said to the guy, `That's my guitar.' I was so excited. And he just looked at me and said, `Not anymore it isn't.' And then this other guy comes in and pays $1,200 for my guitar.

"And it turns out the guy was a brain surgeon," John goes on, underlining the air with the absurdity of it: "A brain surgeon.

"A brain surgeon who doesn't know how to play has my guitar."

Juju. (The Feel of It.)
That is one way to understand the coming and going of guitars. That all guitars have a story; belonged to somebody, and are about to belong to somebody else.

"This guitar, for example," he says, taking down the Fender with the herringbone-inlay (series F260S, serial no. 400580) from its place on the green pegboard wall.

"This guitar has been in my shop at least three times," he says. "I bought it from a guy I used to sell cars with, and I think he got it from a guy he used to sell cars with. Then I sold it to Ronnie, he's a barber who works at the barber shop around the corner. Ronnie traded it back to get a different guitar that he really, really wanted. ... Then I sold it to this young guy, Jeff, and he brought it back in because he wanted to get a bass guitar and start a rock band ... Now he wants to buy it back."

John handles it. (Strum.) It has a $489 price tag on it.

"It's a nice guitar. It's got kind of a high tone to it, but a really good sound. ... It's somebody's guitar," he says. "They go to the person they're supposed to go to. It's weird."

This leads to John's sermon about juju. One guy can pick up one guitar and just tell from the feel that he should own it. Some guitars always have juju. Some guitars have juju only for certain people.

Or, John says, "What about a 300-year- old violin? What makes it so much better than a 200-year-old violin? And how do you know when you pick one up?"

Guitars without juju are usually ghettoed, neatly, in their own section of the store -- the starter guitars, acoustic models favored by church groups, the vanilla-brand electrics for budding rock stars who just turned 12.

Guitars with obvious juju usually get to live behind the counter, on display, with signs on them that say things like No and Don't. John has a Gibson with the original "patent applied-for" pickups that was played every Sunday morning by a black church pastor, the paint worn down where his sweaty, meaty arm rubbed it with years of juju. The elderly pastor walked into John's store one day and gave him some of the Word. He walked around and blessed the store, the instruments, the green walls. He bought strings.

Many months later, after the pastor died, his son came in to sell the Gibson. John gladly bought it. He spent the next day tracking down its exact value, making calls. The thing oozed so much juju you'd almost expect it to fly around the store like a cherub; it is worth several thousand dollars because of certain little pieces of old metal screwed to it, but also because of no singular fact at all.

When you think about it, John says, there's a little juju in all of them.

The phone rings. John hangs the guitar back on the wall and gets to the counter in two leaps to pick up the phone: "Guitar Heaven!"

* * *

Two hundred miles north of Guitar Heaven, off the Lyndon B. Johnson Freeway west of the North Dallas Tollway, at the Roger Meier Cadillac dealership, I find David Berger on a Wednesday evening in May, while thunderclouds turn inky purple in the background. He has a dark mustache and sad eyes. In the wind, his hair doesn't move. He is waiting for two men, a father and son, to decide whether or not to purchase a '94 Infiniti with 52,000 miles on it, a "pre-owned luxury vehicle," another way of saying David Berger sells used cars.

He paces. He holds back. He is 49 years old, and has been in the car business for more than a decade. Before that, computer sales. Before that, insurance.

Fifteen years ago, he wanted to play guitar: "I liked the idea of it. I'd see people playing and thought, well, I'd like for that to be me. I didn't know how to play."

As closing-time nears, the Infiniti is sold. "They got a very good deal and they know it," David says, pleased, wiping some unseen speck of something from his desk in his glass-walled cubicle. "Hey, let's go get a drink and I'll tell you about that guitar."

On the other side of the freeway, in the Midway Point, a bar that could be the fern-and-darts hangout of some canceled sitcom, David Berger reaches back to remember where he found the Fender, how much it was. "I went into two or three guitar shops, just trying to get an idea. My friend said, `Gee, David, why are you gonna get such a nice guitar to start out with?'

"Here's what I think. If you buy something cheap and you outgrow it, what are you going to do? Sell it and take a tremendous loss anyway. It's like playing golf with cheap golf clubs: You hit a bad shot and it's the club's fault. If you buy really good golf clubs, you know it's nobody's fault but your own."

It was in a Dallas music shop, some November day in 1983.

"It was so beautiful ... the solid-spruce top," he says. "I just thought, well, this could always be around. I could always enjoy having it."

It was just a Fender acoustic guitar. The serial number was 400580. It was brand new, and retailed for about $650. "I think I got it for around $450 or $500," David says.

The store threw in some free lessons.

His wife rolled her eyes. "The toy of the month, David," she said, when he brought the Fender home.

"No, I'm going to learn how to play this thing," he said. "This is a beautiful instrument." (Strum.)

"You do that," she said.

Under the bed
"Well, you know," David says, on the second drink, "I didn't play it nearly enough. I took lessons for about two months and there would be different artists I'd hear and try to emulate them and I'll tell you, I was getting close. I guess I wanted to get to the point where I could entertain people, around the fire, sing songs and stuff like that."

He kept it under the bed.

For four or five years, sometimes not looking at it for months at a time.

"Oh, I'd show it to people," he says. "That's how Sam saw it. Sam and I worked together at Courtesy Nissan for a while. He came over one night and I showed it to him and Sam knew a lot about guitars. Sam had a whole room in his house for his guitars. He had worked for Kenny Loggins. He said, `Hey, if you ever want to sell this guitar. ...'"

It went under the bed for another year. By now its strings were beginning to rust.

David wanted golf clubs. "A new set of woods," he told his wife.

She said no more toys. Something would have to go before any more toys.

David called Sam and asked him if he still wanted to buy the Fender. They went back and forth on a price. "I think I sold it to him for $200, maybe $250," David says. "I wish I'd kept it. I do. I wish I'd kept it because when you sell something ... you just piffle the money away and then you don't have it."

After a third drink, the story begins to unspool, if with a little regret, of a man who did not play a guitar he wanted to play. He got a divorce. He came to consider himself an expert on golf clubs and car sales. I learn a lot about Pings (golf clubs) and that the Lexus (a competitor) is nothing but a "woman's car." I learn about his cat, an elderly tabby named Hobo, who died of an enlarged liver and broke David's heart.

On the notion that he has the actual receipt for his purchase of the Fender at home, I accept his invitation and follow the tail-lights of his weaving, pre-owned luxury vehicle through the streets of North Dallas, to his tree-shrouded, vaulted-ceiling condominium, which "used to be owned by one of the Dallas Cowboys," he says.

The receipt doesn't turn up. He puts on an Ottmar Liebert CD and shows me his snapshots of Vietnam, when he was young, an Army sergeant in charge of a PX. There are colonels smoking cigars beside swimming pools. Pretty nurses on three-day leave in Australia. Giggling Vietnamese children huddled around him.

In the garage he shows me the toy of the month, the decade, a BMW motorcycle. Zero-to-87 mph in 7.1 seconds, doing for him what a guitar could not. "When I get in my motorcycle motif with my leather jacket and helmet," he says, "it's like I'm a different breed of cat."

* * *

Maybe I need a song about car salesmen, too. Car salesmen who sometimes daydream other lives, some of them dreaming about playing the guitar.

Sam Smith is sitting in his office at Covert Ford on Research Boulevard before his shift starts, his red hair combed back, the door shut to the noise of car sales, the hurried windstorm of carbon- copied sales agreements. He's an F-and-I guy, just like John Guerin was. At 46, he has the freckled, curious face of a boy, the twang and easy narration of a man in a starched white dress shirt selling cars in the air-conditioned middle of Texas.

Sam Smith remembers the day John Guerin went into the general manager's office and abruptly resigned, telling whoever would listen that this was it for him and cars, that he'd be starting his own guitar shop. Management sputtered at John, cajoled him, berated him, possibly begged him to stay, all the way to the door.

"Once I found out John was going to open a guitar store -- well, I didn't know John played guitar. I was happy as hell for him," Sam says. "I'm going to say John was probably making 80 or 90 grand a year. It's a hard business to get out of. It takes a lot of strength and courage to make the break. ... To leave and be around guitars all day? I admire that like I can't explain."

Boy with freckles. The first record Sam bought was "Meet the Beatles" in a music shop in Northline Mall in Houston.

When he was a teen-ager, Sam was rearranging the furniture in his bedroom and knocked the headboard over on his first guitar, a department-store cheapie, crushing the box. "That was the end of my guitar playing for a while." Sam among the rock stars. In the mid-'70s, Sam booked travel arrangements for Loggins and Messina, the successful rock duo. He was part of the entourage, surrounded by guitars and guys who could really play them for thousands of fans. If he could whittle it down to the biggest moment, he would tell about the night Paul McCartney stood backstage at a Loggins and Messina show at an arena in Hawaii.

Paul McCartney.

Paul McCartney holding a guitar.

Paul McCartney holding a guitar, so close Sam could touch him, meet the Bea tles, waiting for Jimmy Messina to call him onstage for a rendition of "Lady Madonna."

But why Jimmy Messina never called Paul to the stage is wrapped up in mystery and ego. Sam won't speculate.

That next day, over breakfast, Kenny Loggins said that he wanted to be sure to rehearse "Lady Madonna" during the soundcheck, so Paul McCartney could join in.

"Paul's not coming to the show tonight," Sam said. "Paul said he's going body-surfing in Maui."

"What?" Loggins asked.

Sam shrugged. Jimmy Messina looked up from his breakfast cereal and gave Sam a look, a look that said: Don't tell Kenny anything.

"I just shrugged it off," Sam said.

Shrugged it off and, when it seemed that everyone in the business was getting younger and he was getting older (all of 27), when his hearing was shot, when he was tired of hotels and buses, left the rock 'n' roll business. A deal. "It appealed to me from the time it came out from under Dave's bed," Sam says of the Fender herringbone-inlay, series 260S, serial no. 400580. "Even though it had rusty strings and was out of tune. I said, `This is a beautiful guitar.'"

He brought over a set of Martin lights and restrung the Fender. He tuned it.

"David said, `Well, you know I never play the thing,'" Sam recalls. "Over the years I've probably had 20 or 25 guitars. They've always been something that I loved to have. It's something you can admire, and it also happens you can pick it up and make music. I told him if he ever wanted to sell it, call me."

Sam proffers the Fender to Kenny. After he moved from Dallas to Austin, after a divorce and remarriage, leaving his past behind but taking his guitars, Sam Smith had Kenny Loggins and some of the guys from Kenny's tour group over for dinner. Sam's guitars were, as always, on display in the living room.

Loggins picked up the Fender herringbone-inlay. He noodled around on it. For a while there was talk of him buying the Fender, to include among the guitars he carries with him on the road.

The next night, backstage in San Antonio, Sam brought the Fender for another look. Loggins thought it was a nice guitar. But they had 20 guitars on this tour already. Loggins said it wasn't like he needed another one. "Heck," Sam says now, "I'd-a given it to him. ... But I told him, if he really wasn't attached to it, I'd just rather hang onto it. I wouldn't have wanted him to hang onto it for a couple of months and then give it away. Because people give these guys guitars all the time."

The Motorboat Problem
Sam got lake fever. You get crazy, he says, "And you want a boat."

He sold two Martin acoustic guitars and the Fender herringbone-inlay to John Guerin at Guitar Heaven, so he could put money down on a new boat. He got about $350 for the Fender.

"The two happiest days are the day you buy the boat, and the day you sell it," Sam says. The boat, a Sea-Ray 175 Bowrunner, had electrical problems. The boat had a cracked engine block. On his wedding anniversary the boat wouldn't start. On Labor Day weekend it was locked up in the shop.

Sam is now down to one guitar.

It's a Gibson J45, an acoustic. He plays it to relax. He says he gets hesitant, too shy to play in front of people who are better at it than he is. If you handed Sam a guitar right now, "I'd play `Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,'" he says. "I play basic chords. I can play rhythm, but I'm not a finger-picker. ... I'll sometimes pick it up when I hear something on the stereo and think, boy, I could play that."

When he owned the Fender, he liked to keep light-gauge strings on it. He has some high-frequency hearing loss, from too many rock concerts in the '70s. "That Fender had such a good, rich, clear tone," Sam says, speaking of it like a child lost in a crowd. "No fuzz, no distortion. It was in tune and you knew it. ...

"I don't have that boat anymore," Sam says with some scorn. "And now I don't have my guitars. I wish I'd never sold it, that Fender. I'd love to have it back."

* * *

You can get guitar lessons at Guitar Heaven, but not in heavy metal. One mother mouths the words "thank you" when John Guerin explains to her teen-ager that he's out of luck, that they only preach the elemental blues in here.

Guitar Heaven ("Let Your Noise Be Joyful")
The store is a block south of the town square and courthouse. It is around the corner from the antique shops and cafes, where each window displays a picture of one or another Georgetown High School football player. It is down the street from the historic limestone firehouse, and hidden, really, except for its giant painted sign, and John's white Volvo wagon parked out front with "Guitar Heaven" screaming across it sides in 10-inch letters, virtually ensuring John's teen-age daughter will never borrow the car.

John will have some weeks where he sells $4,000 worth of guitars. "And other weeks, almost nothing," he says. One day John is sitting in a corner of the store, teaching himself to play "Zip-a- Dee-Doo-Dah" arranging it into a bluesy improv, like he had done with "Over the Rainbow" a few weeks before. Such simple songs. John says they're not. The highest G chord comes along at the 15th fret, ("Zip-a-dee-DOO-dah, zip-a-dee-ay") way up the neck of the guitar.

"I spent so many years playing rock and blues, I was maniacal," John says. That was when he fronted the Heat Handlers, before he was stricken with carpal- tunnel syndrome. "People used to think I was possessed. I played guitar behind my back and jumped off the stage and all this stuff. It doesn't appeal to me now. I like elevator music now. Elevator music with guitar guys on it."

Some days I walk straight into guitar chaos: John will be teaching one 13-year- old girl basic guitar chords in a corner and an employee, Dan Vogel, will be teaching a 10-year-old boy how to play bass in another corner. Mothers will be waiting to pick up and drop off children for guitar lessons. Someone needs 11- gauge strings. The Visa card machine will be flashing in transmittal error. The phone rings -- someone wants to know if John has any classical flamenco guitars; someone else wants to sell his grandfather's Les Paul, wanting to know what John will give for such genuine, unspecified juju.

A different day, for several hours, morning becoming afternoon, there is not a single customer. John puts on a recording of a dead jazz guitarist named Lenny Breau and feels that it is very important to examine each note of how Breau played "How High the Moon." Afternoons like this, time with a guitar is a way of praying.

And some days religion prevails, in a non-denominational church of six-string iconography, the sharing of the Word among Promise-Keeping men. One day John made me listen to a 40-minute recorded sermon, a tape of a tape of a tape of the Rev. Jimmy Somebody, who has painstakingly translated Bible verses to mean Prince Charles is the devil and the apocalypse can be penciled in for September 2000. "Interesting, isn't it?" John says, his eyes alive with inspiration.

Guitar Heaven is a place people come to because they are hungry to connect. They can hold and wish for a certain guitar, feel some juju, and not have to drive all the way to the city for the officially- stamped Austin juju. They can connect because John is a blues guitarist of notable skill, with as many tricks to pass on as he has to learn. They can connect by debating who is the greater of the guitar gods. They can connect by picking up any guitar and playing, knowing someone will listen.

A man named Bob Simpson, a retired Austin police officer, comes Saturday afternoons to fix guitars that people bring to Guitar Heaven for repair. Bob doesn't play guitar, but his garage is full of them. And there's Lucien Nastase, another employee, a guitar whiz who immigrated from Romania. There's Bill, who works for Dell Computers, who has bought a dozen or so guitars here. There's Lou, "like a doctorate in engineering, or something," John says, who also buys a lot of guitars here.

Every once in a while, Clint wanders in. John didn't like Clint at first; his attitude, the way he bragged about never paying his child support. "But man, you should hear him," John says. "I mean, he's incredible, he could be famous, but he's this knucklehead, right?"

Clint frequently has a warrant out for his arrest. John has sold or loaned Clint some nice guitars, which Clint has pawned. Clint wound up in jail and John bailed him out. "I just didn't refuse anything Clint asked for," John says. "That's what I decided to do. He needed a good guitar and an amp and I said, `Well, how's your credit?' and I get this whole sordid tale of woe. The bank laughed at me, snot running out their nose, when I mentioned Clint."

"So," John says, "I loan Clint like a thousand dollars and he pays me $40 a week and never missed a week for like, forever and ever. ... But then troubles come, and he disappears for a while. Then he needed a car and I helped him get a car. The tale just got weirder and weirder." Clint threatened to hit John one time. "I said `Clint, it will be a brawl, I promise you.'"

Days and weeks will go by. Just when John thinks he's seen the last of Clint, he comes around with 50 bucks. (Currently, Clint is square with John, but without any guitars to show for it.)

"Ya pissed at me?" Clint says.

"No, Clint, I'm not pissed at you, man," John says.

"You're not pissed at me?"

"I'm not pissed at you."

"OK, man."

Clint leaves.

There's Douglas, a teen-ager with black fingernail polish who used to work part-time fixing amps, until John had to fire him, who then asked if he could hang around anyway. John said yes. There's Andy, Jerry, Ed. Some of them with day jobs elsewhere -- jobs in the making and selling of software, the shrubbery tending of mutual funds, the maintaining of city parks -- who manage to while away whole afternoons. Even the UPS man stops to talk about guitars and musicians.

"I'm married 17 years, have the kids," John says. "It's hard to have best friends. I know guys, they go hunting with their pals, they go bowling every Tuesday, they play on a team. I don't hunt, I don't bowl, I don't play softball. I have no outside activities. The guys I was always tightest with were musicians. I play guitars and that's all I do. I play them and sell them."

* * *

Around the corner from Guitar Heaven, Ronnie Courtney cuts hair at the town barber shop. "We don't hardly have any breaks around here," he says. "You cut hair until lunch and then you cut hair until you quit. Standing in that little foursquare gets you down. You get what we call barber burnout. Especially when you're at the level I'm at. In 1974, I was the No. 2-ranked barber in all of Texas."

During his lunch, Ronnie -- who walks, talks and sings and even looks a little like Johnny Cash, if Johnny Cash wore faded blue Wranglers and a powder-blue barber shirt -- goes around the corner to the guitar shop.

Ronnie plunks down some $20 bills on John's counter, paying off an $1,800 Yairi Alvarez, one of the most treasured things in his life. ("At no interest, by the way," Ronnie says.)

For six years, Ronnie was on a Navy ship in the Phillipines, and in 1963 or so, he bought a beat-up, no-brand electric guitar and amp from one of his friends. He paid one of his shipmates 10 bucks to show him how to play "Pipeline." He practiced the surf-rock classic over and over, especially that opening beach-bum-falling-down-the-deck stairs Drrrrrrrrrrrrrrrllllddddddlll maneuver, "Until I could play that one song real good."

Without getting into it a whole lot, Ronnie, 52, thinks he may have started the Vietnam War. The battleship guns were supposed to have been pointed in such a way as to warn the enemy, to shoot over and across the target, a flash of light, a thundering, a gesture. But that's all past now.

When his duty was complete and he came back to the States, he and a friend bought a convertible 1967 Impala with their back pay. Which they drove across Ohio, in a snowstorm, with the top down. Ronnie also bought a Gibson Jumbo acoustic guitar, and when the money ran out, he pawned it.

"After that," he says, "I owned several cheap guitars that wadn't worth 20 cents."

Thirty years later. Ronnie's wife won't let him smoke in the house, a double-wide mobile home on some rolling, empty acres in Briggs, a one-Texaco dot 45 miles west and north of Georgetown.

He is allowed to smoke in the spare bedroom, which has become his guitar room, decorated with a framed, fake thousand-dollar bill he got at Six Flags, a harmonica that belonged to his great- grandfather and a Hopalong Cassidy cup he drank out of as a boy.

When he's watching TV at night and wants a cigarette, Ronnie goes into his guitar room. His 13-year-old chihuahua, Pee-wee, follows him. He feeds his dog peanut M&Ms from a glass jar. He plays guitar, smokes the cigarette, has another cigarette, plays more guitar. Sometimes he's in here for two hours.

He has a Washburn standard electric on one stand, a $900 gift from his wife, and a handmade $1,800 Yairi Alvarez acoustic on another stand. He has several thousand dollars worth of karaoke machinery and song discs that belonged to his father, who ran a juke joint in Sherman. When his father died, it seemed to Ronnie that the karaoke machine needed to be used. It might make money. For a while, he and his wife would load it up and take it to VFW halls or American Legion outposts in town. He'd sing a few country songs, and try to get some of them to get up and sing. Hand anyone the microphone. Once the old guys got into it, they kept inviting Ronnie back. It got old. They liked it, but Ronnie got tired of hauling the karaoke to town, watching the veterans croon.

Beauty is one thing
Ronnie went into Guitar Heaven in the summer of 1995, almost as soon as John opened for business. Among the first guitars John had for sale was the Fender acoustic with the herringbone-inlay, which John had bought from Sam Smith, along with the two Martins.

Ronnie picked it up and thought that it was a pretty guitar, one that he could keep, "Knowing I'd probably trade it in later for something else." He paid around $500 for it.

"Beauty is one thing," Ronnie says, "but to find a guitar with a particular tone is the most important thing. I could have bought a lot more beautiful guitars than what I have, but not have found the tone I was looking for." Ronnie sings a song he wrote for his wife, years ago, when he first met her. He had been married twice before. He wishes he'd met his third wife first:

She's a jealous devil/
She don't understand/
A jealous devil/
And she don't trust her man.

Ronnie says, "I always felt like I was the best barber I could be. I always felt like I was the best pool player I could be. And I try to be the best guitar player I can be. It's not that I'm a great guitar player. I play as good as I can play."

Watch this. Ronnie says.

He picks up his Alvarez and strums an open chord.


He looks up to a corner in the ceiling, tilting his head and drinking in the sound, how it comes from of a deep place in the wood, surrounds us. Pee-wee cocks his head and listens. The strings vibrate.

Ronnie counts, softly: 17, 18, 19 seconds ...

"It will hold an E chord for 27, sometimes. You either have that feeling in your fingers and your ear, you know, your whole body feels that sound, and if it matches what you feel then that's the guitar for you."

Ronnie trades the Fender
Visiting John in Guitar Heaven one day, Ronnie saw the $1,800 Alvarez. "I was there to look at a Gibson Jumbo, like the one I had owned way back. But when I picked up this Alvarez, there was no comparison. This is one of those guitars that when you walk by it says, C'mere."

He brought the Fender herringbone- inlay back to John, with another guitar, trading both in as a down payment toward the Alvarez.

"That Fender was a wonderful guitar and all. You see it being played by folk singers. It had that higher pitch. No matter what kind of music you try to play on it, it still sounds like a folk guitar," he says. "I'm a country and western guy. I play old rock 'n' roll and surfing music. I'm just not a folk-guitar player."

Fire (Or, Ronnie Tries to Buy the Fender Back)
A few weeks later, a house burned down. It belonged to Ronnie's son, and among the things lost in the fire was a well-worn Takamine acoustic guitar. The Takamine had been in the family for 35 years, a hand-me-down, and even bore the son's baby teethmarks along its neck. Ronnie felt bad. He went back to Guitar Heaven to repurchase the Fender acoustic, so his son would have a guitar.

It had been sold.

"The two guitars I have now will never leave my hands until I die," Ronnie says. "And then they'll be handed down to the right people."

* * *

He came into Guitar Heaven looking for an acoustic guitar. He had turned 17 in September 1995 and his parents said they'd help him buy a nice one.

Jeff Nitsche lives alongside a golf course in a place called Berry Creek ("Family first, lifestyle second to none," according to the billboards), on the north edge of Georgetown. His dad sells insurance. His mother breeds and raises Labrador retrievers.

Now 19, Jeff thinks he might like to go into insurance sales, like his dad. When he graduated from Georgetown High School in May, he decided to take community college classes for a while. He has a part-time job delivering documents. He decides we should meet at Arby's, on a spring afternoon. He shakes a drape of brownish-blond bangs from his forehead. He is tall and quiet and says he belongs to no one crowd.

"It was my third guitar," Jeff says. "My first guitar was an acoustic, I forget what kind. I sold it to my brother for like, $50. The second guitar I got was a Fender Stratocaster, and I still have that. Then I bought the Fender acoustic. I just liked the way it played and the way it looked."

When Jeff bought the Fender herringbone-inlay, he had John restring it. "I think I'm the only one who had it strung upside-down," he says. "I'm right handed, but I play left-handed."

After nine months, he brought it back. There was a whole other plan now. He needed a bass guitar.

At an Arby's (Exit 266)
He says: "It's basically love. That's what I'd like to do, is know a lot about guitars. I used to draw comics and stuff but that's not what I do anymore, because I started liking music more."

He says: "Other people have a guitar and they don't even play it."

The story of a band that wasn't "These two other guys, Robby and Willie, Willie's in my marketing class. I met Robby through one of my friends. Robby graduates next year. We were thinking of starting a band. Robby has, I guess, like about five guitars? He has a Gibson Les Paul and a Yamaha acoustic and a couple other guitars. There are some bands that play down at San Gabriel Park. Like the skater kids come down ... I guess it's like heavy metal. A little bit like Korn.

"... We called our band the 3 Wishes. It's more like grunge alternative. We also play blues stuff. Practically anything we like. Ska. We were writing songs I guess.

"I wanted to do a kind of punk version of `Margaritaville' sometime.

"I played bass for about six months, and then I traded it back to John. I got new pickups for my Fender (Strat) and I inst

alled it all myself, but I messed up in rewiring it. So John went ahead and fixed it for me. "I started, like, playing acoustic guitar again. I kind of wished I hadn't sold the Fender, because I liked the sound that it had. I told John I was going to come back down, and get it. But I didn't and then he sold it again anyway.

The band never did anything. He sits in his room and plays guitar while he watches TV. He says: "I can play a lot of different things. Pretty much anything you want, I could learn it by ear. I like to play fast metal. Like Pantera and Metallica. It's not all two-chord. It's a lot more than that.

"Most people don't know that I play guitar."

In the bump-and- pardon shuffling of the moneychanging in guitardom's temple, I wander among the endless rows of dealers and guitar freaks with their eyes agog.

One man is carrying a half-dozen Minoltas around his neck, to trade cameras for juju. Several people are simply wearing guitars with "For Sale" or "Will Trade" signs. One dealer shouts, "Hey! Don't touch that. That's a $10,000 guitar." In a men's room, a guy plays one blues lick after another and pretty soon there's a crowd gathered, watching in slack- jawed, arms-folded appreciation. "The acoustics are better in here," he says.

I checked out every last shaved-bald head in the place, seeking the angel of Guitar Heaven. I find John Guerin and his 11-year-old daughter, Gaby, sitting on folding chairs, with various guitars spread out for sale. "Well, it's hard to find us because, tech nically, we don't have a table," John admits. "We just kind of hang out and sell guitars, until the security guards come and chase us off. We're guitar gypsies, right, Gaby?"

He brings Gaby along because he says her negotiation skills are sometimes better than his. She is a born saleswoman, able to bolt herself down to a best-offer price and not budge.

In Georgetown, John loaded his car with vintage guitars: a '73 gold-top Gibson Les Paul, a Gibson SG, an L50, a '75 Fender Strat, a Washburn archtop and a 1950s mandolin. It's tax time. Things have been slow. He could use some good sales. God, he says, driving along I-35, just give me good favor.

Later that night, after all six instruments are sold, there are jubilant father- daughter elevator races in Reunion Tower.

* * *

"See here, Denny," Debbie Katruska teases her husband, in the fall of 1996.

"Why pay so much for a guitar? Right here in the Penney's catalog, only $79. And it's a new guitar, Denny."

"That's a toy," Dennis Katruska says. He's serious about guitars now. Ever since Larry Bailey loaned him one, ever since he saw his neighbors play at the gazebo. Men from all over this sliver of Williamson County have come down to join in at the gazebo. Larry's learned how to play mandolin and the upright contrabass.

The Katruskas live in Buttercup Creek, a neighborhood near Cedar Park. They have three daughters and go to the Church of Christ. It would be hard to find a place of fewer guitar legends. Dennis is a bespectacled, large-armed, 40- year-old plumber. Dennis gets home late most nights, too tired to do much.

Then one night they were over at Larry and Melissa Bailey's house having coffee and Dennis just started playing guitar. Debbie did not even know her husband could play, or that he had lessons for a year or so when he was a teen- ager.

There's memories in there, Larry thought, watching Dennis play.

"I could tell in his hands there were memories in his fingers," Larry says. "That he had it in him." So this is Debbie's idea for Christmas. She is going to meet Larry Bailey during his lunch break one afternoon and go to that little guitar shop in Georgetown, and get Larry to tell her which guitar to buy for Dennis. She is going to save money that Dennis doesn't know about.

Fender Herringbone-Inlay Acoustin, F-260S, Serial No. 400580 (November 1996)
Larry Bailey likes this one. It's well-made, in good shape. He strums it. Examines the spruce top. The price is $489.

"That's a nice one," John Guerin says.

(Thinking to himself: Well, that's the guitar Jeff Nitsche brought back to me and traded in. Jeff had been back just a week earlier, saying he was going to buy it back. He had said that for several weeks, in fact, but John hadn't seen any money. And, he thinks, this is the guitar that Ronnie from around the corner had, and wanted to buy back, but didn't get to it in time. This is the guitar that Sam from Covert Ford sold him. And, further back, further than John goes with it, David Berger still kind of wishes he had a guitar, thinks what if he'd kept it.)

This guitar has been to Guitar Heaven three times.

This guitar needs a home.

"I like it," Debbie says.

"Good choice," John says. "Great guitar."

Debbie puts $80 down, and will pay the rest when she picks it up, a few days before Christmas.

After this transaction, John slides a pink index card into the strings of the Fender that says "Sold."

"When women come in and want to buy a guitar for their husbands or boyfriends, I want to weep openly," John says. "We always go around apologizing for wanting to be a musician. We say, ÔOh, honey, this is the last one.'"

Behind the Couch
In the living room, which she and Dennis and the girls painted a bright carnation pink when they bought the house, which she decorated with colonial-style antiques and embroidered pillows, she hides the Fender behind the couch.

No, Denny's going to find it here, she thinks. She hides it behind her daughters' waterbed. She keeps it in a cardboard box on which she has written, in black marker: J.C. Penney.

Listen. Debbie says when it's late, when Dennis has been under every sink in town, after the girls are in bed, she can hear him in the other room playing the guitar she bought him.

"When I hear it," she says, "I know that he's relaxed."

* * *

Guitar Heaven (Or, the Vision of the Lawn Mowers)
"Get this," John says, chopping at the air with the sheer importance of it. "Eric Johnson is going to mow my lawn." Great. Who's Eric Johnson? I say. (Two other customers shake their heads with the pity they save for poor, stupid men.)

"Eric Johnson?" John says. "Come on: Eric Johnson."

Wait, don't tell me, I say. He plays guitar. I get it now.

John wants $1,500 for an amp, a '68 Marshall Plexi, that used to belong to the Austin musician. Eric Johnson called the store, after someone told him the amp was there. John thought it was his friend, Tommy Z, making another one of his crank calls. "Then I realized, it really is Eric Johnson." Eric said his fiancee would kill him if he bought another amp, especially one he sold before. This fact is the part John likes: Even Eric Johnson can't bring home every guitar, every amp he wants.

John struck a deal. Eric Johnson can borrow the amp if he'll come mow the lawn at John's house in Liberty Hill. The whole acre, and all around the dozens of oak trees. John wants a picture of that. Or a counter-offer: Come over and make one pass around on the mower, long enough for John to make a video to show his friends.

Which will never happen. Instead, Eric Johnson comes by the store and John gets a picture there, of him pretending to teach Eric a D-chord. I like the mental image anyway, of all the world's major and lesser guitar gods circling in, riding a herd of lawn mowers through the green thickness of Texas, around and around the porch of a shaved-bald, Bible-quoting exclamation point of a man, while he sits in a chair and picks out "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" on his Gibson 335, divine in his hands.

A song (August evening, the Gazebo É)
I need a song about men and their guitars.

The sun is going down in Buttercup Creek and little girls are turning cartwheels in the grass around the gazebo. The Larry Bailey family moved up the road to Leander, became "Leanderthals," as Larry notes, but comes back for a Tuesday night jam session. Larry brings his 14-year-old son, Ben. There is Doug, playing his guitar. And Ken and Jim and Chris, playing their guitars. And Tom, playing Larry's upright bass.

They go around in a circle, telling stories about their lives, cracking jokes, suggesting folk songs. They always play one gospel song. They always play one by the late, great "Johann" Denver.

They never talk about their jobs.

They do talk about guitars.

"One thing about musical instruments is that it doesn't matter how much they cost. It's what they've come to mean to you," Doug Taylor says. "Over the years I've collected a few and I've had a real hard time getting rid of any of them because they've all developed a personality. You develop a love affair with each and every one of them."

It's one of the rare nights Dennis Katruska can make it home from work in time to join in. He goes down to the gazebo with the Fender herringbone-inlay, series 260S, serial no. 400580, a guitar of little or no distinction. He has learned to play along with just about any song. Sometimes he shakes his head and laughs and waits for the chorus to come around, falling back into the rhythm of the chord changes. "It's a lot easier to learn how to play when you play with guys like this," he says.

They sing "Grandpa Get Your Guitar." They sing a song Larry wrote about high-cholesterol breakfasts. They sing about aliens, lost loves and the times- they-are-a-changing.

Dennis says his guitar isn't going anywhere ever again. It's staying with him, even as he accepts a job transfer to San Antonio and prepares to move his family by this Christmas. His eyes tear up when he sings "Waltz Across Texas" for his wife. Almost every time. His daughter holds the song sheet in front of him. When we dance together/ My world's in the skies. It's a fairyland tale that's come true. ...

Past dark, when all of them should have been home hours ago, the gazebo crowd decides it's time to finish as always, singing "Happy Trails to You." They say good night and set off for home, either on foot or by minivan, in the by and by.

(Austin American-Statesman | Nov. 13, 1997)


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Charlie Wright said...

I now own the Fender herringbone inlay
Model F-260s, serial #400580. I bought it as a Christmas present for myself.(2015) I paid $300 at the Yale St. Guitar Center in Houston. It found me and I hope it keeps me for many years to come. MUCHO JUJU!!

LoAna said...

I have a friend who asked me to find some guy named John Guerin. Says he used to own Guitar Heaven in Georgetown. I get it... I'm clueless. My friend is a musician who knew Guerin years ago; my friend lived in Jarrell. I've read your blog and I guess there's no contacting the guy? I told my friend is try. Can you please at least let me know if I'm on the right track or not? Thank you.