When Joseph Smith was fourteen years old he wanted to know which church was right. And the Lord answered his prayer in a way that changed the world. Since I was fourteen years old I’ve wanted a thrashed Martin dreadnought guitar. And, after “waiting upon the Lord” for about five decades, He has answered my prayer in a way that has changed the way my cabin wall looks. What it looks is worse. Which is just what I wanted. Because this guitar is thu-rashed!
You see, back at the age at which I ought to have been engaged in identifying the true church, I was instead having the whimsical idea that if a Martin was thrashed, it would probably be really old—and something that old and thrashed couldn’t cost very much. NOT! I looked everywhere for the kind of Martin you would take with you when you hopped freights (this was back when I imagined that hopping freights would come back in style), the kind of guitar that you’d never dream of putting in a case.
(I did, in fact, find a Martin of precisely the correct degree of thrashedness, but it wasn’t a dreadnought, which is a great big manly guitar. It was an 0-18, much smaller ((and about a hundred times cooler than I knew at the time)), built in 1944, which made it a highly prized “pre-war” Martin, meaning not that it was made before any particular war, but that it was made to interior design specifications that were coarsened after World War II ((this does not mean that the guitar would have worked any better or worse as an element of home décor, but that the design specifications pertained to the interior of the guitar—just so you know)). On the way home from junior high school one day I found it decorating the wall of a pawn shop for twenty dollars. Contrary to popular mythology, this never happens. Except once.
The guitar was thrashed to the extent that if you needed to park your pick somewhere, you could just stick it into a crack near the upper right-hand corner of the front. It was gorgeous. ((Not all thrashedness is gorgeous. Being fourteen and so stupid it hurts to think about it, I reckoned I’d make a 12-string guitar out of it. The complete idiocy of this plan didn’t hit me until after I’d drilled six more holes in the peghead. Many years later, this guitar (((the value of which I still didn’t comprehend))) was involved in a trade to a guitar builder in Provo named Bob Steineggar. It instantly became legendary. People would whisper “Have you seen that pre-war Martin that some jabbernowl drilled a half-dozen holes into?” When it went full circle and one of the people whispered that question to me, I just rolled back my eyes and shook my head as though I was as appalled and innocent as everybody else.))
A couple of years ago I got an email from some nice people in Idaho who said they’d re-discovered that guitar on their closet shelf. Somehow, they’d gotten Bob Steineggar to spill the beans about its former owner, yours truly, when they bought it from him a long time ago. They thought I’d be tickled to know that my “first guitar” ((it wasn’t, but pretty close)) had been unearthed. I offered to buy it back from them. Then I offered again a couple of years later. I never heard back either time. I don’t think they’re ignoring me. I think they somehow found out what it was worth and died of ecstasy.)
Now to the “answer-to-prayer” guitar. I had just redeemed an entirely un-thrashed Martin (and a couple of guns—I never tell people about it when I’ve had to pawn my guns, because the sympathy arousal factor is so much lower than when you pawn guitars. Most people I hang with would just say something like, “Well of course, jabbernowl, that’s where guns belong—in pawn shops!” ((I’m thinking of marketing a bumper sticker that ends with “…then only pawn shops will have guns,” but I can’t think of a good first part. Maybe you can. Feel free. Let me know. Haven’t heard from you in a while.)) ), and was walking out when Norm, the pawnbroker, said, “You’ve taken all our good Martins, but we have one Martin that’ll stay here.” I took one look and said, “No it won’t.” They wanted $150 for a wonderfully thrashed version of what the Martin company has dubbed the DX1R. Not in order, the “D” means it’s a dreadnought. The “X” means that the back and sides are made not of mahogany or rosewood, but of HPL (high pressure laminate—this is a composite of mostly wood fiber that’s a lot like, well, ((do I have to say it?)) um, ((oh, all right)) Formica. And they sell new for about five hundred bucks.
((Several decades ago, the Ovation company invented a guitar whose back was made of the stuff they make helicopter blades out of. They were impervious to machine-gun fire. Come to think of it, their emergence was coincident with the Viet Nam War. There’s an object lesson in there, but darned if I can find it.)) )
The “R” is because the outer lamination is a photograph of rosewood. (Oh, the shame!) The “1” indicates that this guitar has a real, unlaminated spruce top, or face, which, along with the fact that the rest of the guitar is a least loosely derived from trees, makes it, in my humble estimation, more of a traditional guitar than the Ovation is. (This is not fair, this is not kind, this is not even founded in sound principles, but Martin zealots have been known to post bumper stickers declaring that “Friends don’t let friends play Ovations.” There is opposition in the world, and Lehi would doggone well want you to remember it.)
Now spruce is imminently thrashable and this spruce proves it. And though HPL is resistant to smaller caliber firearms, somebody must have taken a rocket-launcher to the back of this guitar, because there was a sizeable gash in it. The faces of guitars are typically two sheets of wood with a seam down the center. This guitar had a seam separation running from the bridge to the bottom end of the body. You could press down on one side of the seam and slip a quesadilla through it. I didn’t, but you could. Some former owner (the guitar is eight years old) had plastered it with stickers, probably of the sort discussed earlier, as well as, I have to imagine, of flaming skulls and the names of various bands who play young-people’s music. Mercifully, the stickers had been removed, but not the gunky residue.
Seeing a guitar that has merely been neglected and abused offends me. But seeing a guitar whose scars are evidence of a lot of playing excites me. Alongside all the delicious unnecessary violence, this guitar had well-worn frets, and the more pronounced scratches in the top were in all the right places.
I took it home and went at it with lemon gunk-remover and then Comet. Yes, you read it right: Comet. It was that bad. I wasn’t restoring (that would have defeated the purpose), but just rescuing.
I puttied up the gash in the back (Ugly? Words can’t express. I mean “after.”) I found a little pine building block my kids wouldn’t miss and sliced it into four pieces that I used to brace the seam crack together from the inside (it’s called “cleating”). Then I put on some new strings and I was ready to hop the next freight, or at least sit on a rock in Central Park with my hat upside down on the sidewalk. Or hey, lead a protest march! (Umm, what to protest… I know! The cheerleaders in the Alpine Days parade have been waving at us from massive boats pulled behind gleaming trucks instead of being down on the asphalt, cheering. That’s it. I’ll find more protestable behavior if I look hard enough. Like, we haven’t had a band of pipers in the parade for a couple of years. What’s up with that? Vigil at city hall. With my thrashed DX1R.)
http://www.marvinpayne.com/frettedfriends.html (Doesn’t look nearly as thrashed as it is. Sorry.)
Now. You all know the rhyme about the battered old violin and the auctioneer and the touch of the Master’s hand, how wounded things can be loved into beautiful things, and that celestial music can pour from the throat that once accepted demon drink. This isn’t that. You may be asking what the gospel lesson is in all this. Well, me too. But there are still five hundred thirty-one words to go in this column and I’m confident that when we find it, it’ll be a real rip-snorter.
JAC Redford, an old musical buddy of mine, once lived in a particular Utah Valley ward that was not populated by people he thought were likely to take the Nobel Prize for physics, philosophy, or anything in between. (What if there were a Nobel Prize for Anything In Between? That’d be something. There are lots of prizes, I guess. I saw a newspaper photo on the wall of Rosewood Recording in Provo that was of a burger place that had on its marquee “Free Nobel Peace Prize with an order of fries.” Can’t beat that!) He told me about an elders quorum teacher who’d been talking about The Rockford Files. It was like, “Last night, ol’ Rockford had to get through a door to this girl hostage, a heavy door, and when he kicked that door he ‘bout put his foot through that door. Y’know, if we could only decide to keep the commandments with that same strength, well, wow.”
(My bishop, who after only a couple of months is the best bishop I’ve ever had, just like all the other bishops I’ve ever had, began fast and testimony meeting day before yesterday by testifying to the whole ward that if we are more obedient and charitable, our wives will be cuter. I said to my wife, “Fine, but what incentive is there for guys like me?” Did that get me major points, or what? Later that evening, picking up my daughter from a fireside at the bishop’s house, I told that story to the bishop’s wife, who couldn’t possibly get any cuter no matter how much more obedient and charitable the bishop got, and scored points with her! I was on a roll, so an hour later at the rehearsal of our Christmas choir I told it again and scored points with them! (Big “Ahhh…” from the sopranos and altos.) Now I’m telling it to you! Perhaps I am emotionally needy.)
Well, let’s see now… I’m remembering the first time I played this old guitar for an audience (other than my kids when they’re going to sleep). Rosie Stevenson asked me to be her guest on KBYU FM, 89.1 on your radio dial, during their semi-monthly two-week fund drive. As I sat there trying to look as good as Rosie does for the radio audience, I had the idea of offering a free concert to anybody who would pledge $89.11 to support the station’s noble work. One of the first takers had me over a couple of weeks ago, the day after I brought home the hundred-and-fifty-dollar guitar. It bore testimony just as well as other Martins I have that cost me a couple grand.
Maybe the gospel lesson is that you don’t have to be transformed in order to sound good. Maybe you don’t have to be restored, only rescued. Maybe you just have to be willing to say “Grab me by the neck and yank on my strings. Stretch me into tune and pound on me. I’ll sing whatever song you want me to sing. I’m good enough for that.”
Oh yeah, it didn’t come with a case. Do I hear that freight train whistle in the night?