TNAG Notes #29 by Stephen Bennett
Yes, it’s “Incarceration 2: Banishing Doom and Gloom from the Room of Zoom”. Being the catchy follow-up title to our (embarrassingly photo-free) last outing. And as with all such sequels, this time out we guarantee virtually no coherent plot and feature a pitifully watered-down cast list (the star guitar is a complete unknown) with the only compensation on offer being relentless loud noise (cursing not playing) and garish visual bombardment. That’s if the photos work. Ah…Notes is upping its game at last, I hear you say. To which we reply, desperate times call for desperate deflections. Just ask the Donald.
And so, without further ado, we bring you the update you’ve all been waiting for. Not the Boris thing. Making a comeback on Easter Sunday is hardly new, after all. Please. We’re talking about carefully monitored progress of a different kind. Where are we with the mighty TNAG Shutdown Special? When will we hear its crystal note ascend the rock heavens and its screeching, blues howl turn base metal into gold? Sadly, never. And here’s why…
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, folks. Thus, with the benefit thereof, and for anyone else thinking that building your own electric guitar from scratch will surely help pass these unwonted idle hours (i.e. get you out from under your partner’s feet) ask yourself this simple question, “have I taken leave of my senses?” Then, after long seconds of agonised soul-searching, as you frantically uncork your second bottle of medicinal Chateau Forecourt du Garahge, that same hindsight will reward you with the time-honoured conclusion that you’re better off leaving the whole thing to people who know what they’re doing.
Ah…D.I.Y. Such a very English concept. After all, it was Shakespeare, of course, who reminded us, via King Lear on a storm-lashed trip to Homebase, “that way madness lies”. Having started with the question, where to begin, we conclude with the answer: don’t. Look what happened to King Lear, after all.
There are a number of mitigating factors at work here but first, let’s get the progress report out of the way. The ‘blank’ T-style body arrived last week. A couple of coats of primer later it was ready for painting. No planning went into this (possibly the first mistake). The reckless abandon of an art school training just aid, “go for it”. The result (below) may divide opinion.
What we discovered was that oil-based Sharpies may be the 21st century’s finest gift to the decorative arts and that using them in conjunction with a chalk paint matt is a bad idea.
In the early 20th century, architects soon figured out that elaborate decoration and detailing along the roof-scape of buildings looks fabulous on a two-storey country house. Putting it 500 feet up at the top of a skyscraper renders all those mosaics and caryatids somewhat redundant so they began to focus on the overall aesthetic – the overall ‘lines’, the façade, the colour, even. It’s the same with guitars. The classics remain so because the iconic shapes have annexed the territory known as ‘industry standard’. It’s hard to improve on perfect design. Hence, the feeling that even after decorating the body with simple, not-too-obtrusive patterning, it’s all a bit much.
Then there’s the cost. You can probably pick up a half-decent, solid-bodied electric for about £400/$500 and enjoy it all the more precisely because it’s cheap and, therefore, unlike the vintage archtop, fun. For a self-assembled instrument that’s going to come anywhere close to acceptable, you’ll be lucky if your final bill comes in under a thousand. A good neck will set you back 250 dollars in the US, a pre-cut swamp ash body not much less. Decent pick-ups will be the next biggest outlay but even that’s going to run to about 150, minimum. With all the gubbings…tuners, bridge, pots, pickguard etc. ...not to mention the paint, lacquer and fabulous Sharpies, that till roll soon starts to get very long indeed. By the time you’ve done, what are the chances you’re looking on this very website at a little professionally built beauty leaping off the screen at a £1500 snip in the sale?
Brain damage is a factor. As is guilt. It’s like having kids. You can’t bring them into the world then just ignore them. Sadly. They gaze at you from the corner with baleful stare. They need love and attention. Fortunately, this one’s completely wooden but still…let’s not go there.
The cunning plan for the Shutdown Special was for it to be transferred to a friend who understands the arcane lore of wiring, string-spacing, neck-angles and set-up. The only problem with that is, like the guitar, he’s self-isolating, too - miles away – thus consigning our absolutely urgent priority project to the shelf marked, “on indefinite hold”.
Finally, the degree of disappointment is directly (or is it inversely?) proportional to the level of aspiration. We know how a good guitar looks and sounds. It’s what we set out to achieve. Will our own efforts ever come close to matching those standards? Unlikely. The painful truth is that, unlike some governments of late, we trust the experts. Like the ornate architectural ‘follies’ of overweening Victorian landowners, our naively embarked-upon parts-projects will languish in a corner of the estate (sorry, back bedroom) gathering dust, looking lovely, perhaps, but having almost no functional merit whatsoever.
Fortunately, there is at least one uplifting tale of lutherie in lockdown; that of the great Edgar Mönch. Born into a family of musicians in Leipzig in 1907, Mönch certainly got around. He spent his childhood in Russia, studied engineering in Gdansk then worked as an interpreter in Prague while studying the violin at the Conservatory. The only information we can find about his exploits in the German army during WW2 is that they didn’t last long. He was captured an incarcerated in an English P.O.W. camp. Who knows whether he dreamed of escaping? What he ended up doing, regardless, is learning how to build guitars from a Wroclaw violin maker he met on the ‘inside’. From the end of the war onwards, lutherie became his life’s work and – in the perfect antidote to the sorry exploits outlined above –thanks to his impeccable craftsmanship and perfectionist approach, he went on to produce the ‘go-to’ guitars for Segovia, Julian Bream, John Williams and countless other world-renowned players. In the mid-60s, he moved to Canada where he passed on his precious skills to the young, more steel-string minded Jean Larrivée, who later, as previously recounted here, became the mentor of some of today’s top acoustic guitar makers.
This Fortnight’s Fab Five…
…takes us a notch up (or down) from our last outing’s self-confinement-by-choice recordings. Here are five gems recorded in actual prisons and not one of them features Johnny Cash. Seminal though the Man in Black’s Fulsom/San Quentin gigs may be, our five featured files within the fruit cake – apart from last – promise some particularly guitar-centric lockdown entertainment, from the celebrated to the almost entirely forgotten. Some may be relieved to note that the raucous document of the Sex Pistols’ louche little soirée at Chelmsford maximum security nick has somehow escaped our careful attention.
- First up, then, a classic. B.B. King’s ‘Live in Cook County Jail’ from 1971 is hailed by many as being even better than the legendary Regal concert. "The Thrill Is Gone" carries an extra frisson in front of a literally captive audience though that doesn’t prevent the up-tempo stuff being cheered to the rafters. B.B.’s rapport with his hometown Chicago crowd is as electric as his playing, especially in a heartfelt – and possibly high-risk – plea against and admonition of the whole abhorrent notion of domestic abuse.
- A live bootleg - but it’s on YouTube and well worth the search - of Jerry Garcia, accompanied by his long-time bass sidekick, John Khan, playing to a highly-appreciative gathering at Oregon State Penitentiary in 1982 is thought by many to be Jerry’s finest acoustic outing. It’s raw, intimate, stripped-down to absolute basics but it’s brilliant throughout. Jerry asking for ‘more guitar’ after the opener, ‘Deep Elem Blues’, is the perfect launch and pretty much what we’re all thinking.
- Ray Charles at Parchman Farm would’ve been a contender had he taken up guitar instead of piano but even that show struggles to match the intensity of John Lee Hooker’s 1972 ‘Live at Soledad Prison’. It already helps that the great growler sounds like he’s been locked down with a lifetime’s supply of bourbon and infinite roll-ups, anyway, but this is one of the great live blues albums. John’s son (that would be John Jnr.) sits in on guitar alongside the old man. ‘Serve Me Right to Suffer’, indeed.
- This one was a toss-up between the excellent 1995 album, ‘It’s About Time (Recorded Live at the Tennessee State Prison for Women)’ by veteran South Carolina guitarist and songwriter Marshall Chapman (think Bonnie Raitt/Mary-Chapin Carpenter meets Chuck Berry) and the one that won, ‘Jail’ by the imperious Big Mama Thornton from 1975. Unlike the former, Big Mama took her act into male prisons, possibly because she felt confident of flattening any macho smart-arse who stepped out of line. Her three guitarists (3!) are well to the fore, as is Willie Mae’s ‘other’ hit song that had already served Janis Joplin so well, the none-more-appropriate, ‘Ball ‘n’ Chain’.
- Finally, though it’s not a guitar album, this one’s the real deal. A superb album of ultra-tasteful, smooth Womack/Mayfield-style old school R&B recorded, literally, behind bars. Calling themselves The Edge of Daybreak, a group of inmates at the Powhatan Correctional Centre in Virginia produced, in a frantic five-hour session, produced their ‘Eyes of Love’ album on a mobile unit the warden had reluctantly allowed in and was all too keen to get out. None of that shows. ‘Our Love’ sounds like a Marvin Gaye/‘What’s Going On’ out-take and the laid-back, hand-clappin’, finger-snappin’ vibe of ‘Your Destiny’ could have slipped easily onto any of the master’s later groove-oriented outings.
Stay safe. Stay in. See you next time.
by Stephen Bennett