Love In Action

Kerry Livgren, of the band Kansas and songs “Dust In The Wind” along with “Carry On Wayward Son” fame, recently penned a lengthy muse on Facebook:

Miracles. Everyone has heard of them, some of us have experienced them, perhaps even multiple times. I will enthusiastically confess that I am of the latter group.

The dictionary describes a miracle as “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.” For the less theologically inclined, “an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment.”

Anyone would have to admit, the Parting of the Red Sea, or Christ feeding the Five Thousand are miraculous events. But how often do relatively minor miracles get overlooked, because they are not so dramatic? Are we embarrassed to mention them, or do we even notice them?

Sometimes we have to notice that a naturalistic explanation of an event is simply not going to work. The evidence is too overwhelming.

I will give you an example, (actually three), from my own life. Although there are many others I could tell you about, and they are MUCH more dramatic, I am going to relate these three because they could so easily be explained as “just peculiar occurrences.”

Guitars. Now what could possibly be miraculous about guitars? Well, I will tell you the tale of three “miraculous” guitars I have owned.

(this segment of the story appeared in the book “Between the Strings” by John August Schroeder)

“Miracle” Number 1: (1991) In 1970, while I was in the first Kansas band, we were touring the southwest. The dryness of the atmosphere around Albuquerque caused the neck of the Gibson SG I was playing to warp beyond playability. It got to be a really serious problem. When we got back home, the band bought me a new guitar—a brand new 1969 Les Paul Deluxe Gold Top.

I played that guitar for years, writing dozens, if not scores of songs on it. It was, in fact, the only guitar I played for many years. When Kansas landed their first major recording contract a little more cash began to fill the coffers, and I decided I needed a new guitar. So I traded in that Les Paul for, of all things, a Hagstrom Swede.

It wasn’t long before I began to miss that Les Paul. It didn’t seem to matter what guitar I played; I always regretted getting rid of it. It’s something all guitarists seem to do sooner or later. Like most guitar players, I have a long list of instruments that I wish I had never gotten rid of. I don’t know why we do that, but we do.

Years went by, and guitars went by, and Kansas achieved its multi-platinum success, and still, I never forgot that Les Paul, even though at that time I could have had any guitar I wanted.

One day in 1991, my wife had gone to visit her parents. Well, I was home alone and it was a beautiful day, so I thought I’d get into my Piper Turbo Arrow and just fly around. We were living near Atlanta at the time, and I “got a wild hair” to fly off to the north west. As I continued, I got the crazy idea to fly on to Kansas and drop in on some of my old friends.

I landed in Topeka, rented a car, and drove down to “Steam Music,” the little music store where we used to hang out. As I walked in the door, a fellow I had known for years who worked there looked at me as though he had just seen a ghost. At that very moment, he was hanging a guitar up on the wall—my old Les Paul. Somebody had come in that day and traded it in.

He began to tell me the story of that guitar since it left my hands, where it had gone, who had owned it. It ended up being stolen in the southwest somewhere, and was recovered by the police. It somehow found its way back to Kansas, and when it came into the store, he immediately recognized it. And so had I.

I had played that thing so much that I literally sweated off the gold top finish. I eventually stripped it down to bare wood. And I knew that serial number; there was no question that this was my guitar. And seeing it again after all those years—and ruing the day I let it go—I told him, “Don’t even hang it up. Don’t even tell me what you want for it. Just sell it to me here and now.”

I put the guitar in my plane and flew back to Atlanta. I sent it up to Ken Hoover, who refretted it got it back into shape. But it’s not leaving again. I suppose it will go in my coffin when they bury me.

“Miracle” Number 2: (2015) I walked over to my ringing phone and picked it up. It was Bob Tolford, and friend from Atlanta. Bob would call periodically, and it was always good to hear from him.

“Hi Bob, what’s up?” He replied that he had just seen our documentary, “Miracles Out of Nowhere.” Then, he said something puzzling. “I was wondering – do you want your guitar back?” he said. Now I have many friends who are guitarists, but Bob was not one of them, so I got very curious about his question.

“You know,” he said, “the one you wrote Dust in the Wind on.”

The silence on my end of the phone spoke volumes. When I came to my senses, I said “What?? You mean you have had that guitar all these years?” You could have knocked me over with a feather. I had always wondered what happened to that guitar. Not knowing what a huge hit “Dust” was going to be, I had sold the guitar. It was an Aria acoustic, a mid-price model, and I didn’t even remember who I had sold it to. Later, of course, I regretted that decision, and often found myself wondering where it was, and who had it.

“Are you serious, Bob?” Would you ship it to me? “I’ll do better than that Kerry,” he replied. “I’ll drive it up to you.” Never was Bob so welcome in our house! The legendary Dust in the Wind guitar had returned home.

“Miracle” Number 3: (2016) I drove down to the little Berryton Post Office in order to mail some CD’s that had been ordered, and to pick up my mail. The clerk handed me the day’s mail, among which was a letter to me from one Tony Camardo, from Chicago.

When I got home, I opened his letter and began reading. At first, I just thought it was a fan letter, until he began saying that he had been to one of our shows long ago in Chicago, and that he was the guy who had traded me an old SG for the Les Paul that I was playing at the time. Once again I got very curious.

I remember trading that guitar, but I had traded several guitars back and forth and my memory was not that clear. The memory of the guitar itself was crystal clear, however. It was (another) example of trades that I would later regret.

Just the week before, I had watched our documentary again on VH1-C. The scene that caught my attention was the second Don Kirshner show, where I was playing a Tobacco Sunburst Les Paul – the very guitar mentioned in Tony’s letter. Then, to my astonishment, he went on to ask me it I wanted it back! He was willing to trade it for another guitar.

So I agreed, thanked him profusely, and a week later I had another of my old guitars back!

So are these things miracles? Are they simply instances of exceeding kindness, or are they divine interventions? Perhaps they are just extraordinary circumstances. I have my suspicions, but alas I don’t know. You tell me…

The first guitar Livgren discusses – a Gibson Les Paul Deluxe – is a jumping off point for my own guitar tale.

I start by noting two facts. One, although I am approximately as far back in talent from Livgren as Justin Bieber is from The Beatles, I do have some small amount of musical ability in terms of playing and writing. So there’s that. Second, while the Gibson Les Paul is the second most popular electric guitar in the world, expertly wielded by such guitar deities as Jimmy Page and Slash, there have been multiple models of said guitar over the decades, some more popular than others. The Deluxe, despite its name, is pretty much at the bottom of every Les Paul aficionado’s list. This is due to it using smaller pickups than the Les Paul Standard model, thus giving it less output and a less meaty tone than the Standard and variations thereof. Adding to the Deluxe’s lack of desirability is during its primary years in production (1969 through 1980 or thereabouts) Gibson was owned by a company named Norlin. Despite its music industry origins, Norlin was acquired by an Ecuadorian adult beverage manufacturer that apparently freely dispensed its product to everyone involved in decision making, as the demonstrated knowledge of quality guitar making during its Norlin ownership period was as far removed from a single clue how to go about it as … well, refer the aforementioned Bieber-Beatles comparison. One piece body for best tonality and sustain? Forget it! Let’s do slightly upscale plywood! One piece neck? That’s crazy talk! We’ll glue three pieces together! (To be fair, there are several top-flight guitar makers who prefer multi-piece necks; however in this case it was for cheapness sake as opposed to a quality issue.) And to top if off – literally – we’ll make the headstock bigger, thus making it more likely to snap off if the guitar gets dropped or otherwise jostled! BRILLIANT! Long story short: in terms of desirability and collectibility the Les Paul Deluxe is none of the above.

Naturally it’s my favorite Les Paul model. I love its sound, somewhere in-between the cut and bite of a Fender Stratocaster or Telecaster and the traditional humbucker pickup roar of most every other Les Paul. To me, it’s the perfect combination. So, despite its scorned state of being, the Les Paul Deluxe is dear to my heart.

I first owned one in my tenderheaded … er, tender teen years. It was used. (The guitar, not my head.) I had longed after it when it hung for months in my favorite music store, but the price tag was above my reach. Then someone bought it. Then a few month later it returned, definitely the worse for wear. The once pristine wine red finish was in a sorry state, with scratches and gouges a-plenty. Unfortunate, but it did serve one useful purpose: it brought the price down to where I could successfully beseech my parents for the guitar. Soon it was mine. As an added bonus, my Dad agreed to pay to have it refinished, so off it went, returning a couple of weeks later in a beautiful walnut.

Reference the aforementioned tenderheaded uniform of youth I wore. Eventually I traded my Les Paul for a Fender Stratocaster. Not that there is anything wrong with Stratocasters; they are awesome. Unfortunately, the one I acquired was anything but awesome. And someone quickly snapped up the Les Paul. I lamented my decision then, and I lament my decision today. (The Stratocaster has long since been sold.)

Fast forward thirty years. I had been surgically repaired and could once again play guitar; a tale for another time. Anyway, my regret over getting rid of the Les Paul still hung heavy. I had the money to buy one, sort of, and I wanted to rectify my previous error. So off to look for one at my preferred music store … whaddyamean they don’t make the Deluxe anymore? Swell. Okay, let’s look for a used one in good shape.

In the “too soon old, too late smart” department, I decided to scour eBay. Not that there’s anything wrong with buying most things off of the site, but when you are looking at something as personal as a guitar, especially a used one, you’re taking just a wee bit of a gamble. As in a ridiculously big one.

Nevertheless, I plowed ahead. Ah-HA! There were several listed, but one in particular caught my eye. Made in 1976. Natural finish. Professional setup (so the description said). Zillions of high quality photos of every inch of the guitar. Looked clean and sweet. Okay. Take a deep breath and click the Buy It Now button.

Then the guitar arrived.

Three things became rapidly apparent. One, the guitar was in remarkably good condition for having thirty plus years on it. There was some cosmetic damage here and there, but overall it was excellent. Two, the professional setup claim was a bit of a stretch; it immediately required readjustment of most everything adjustable, and there was a problem with the nut that had me slide a small piece of paper in-between one of the strings and its slot in order to keep the string from buzzing. Three, the previous owner or owners had played the guitar a ton. The frets were extremely worn. They also apparently never washed their hands before playing, as both sides of every single fret bore a thick cake of grime. Also, whether it was because of the incredible amount of playing needed to wear the frets down to where they were, or some other factor, the fretboard inlays – like the frets, all of them – had worked themselves out of the fingerboard to where the edges sat just above the wood, with grime caked against all edges. Swell. The guitar was still playable, and sounded wonderful, but it was an uncomfortable mess to play.

I did what I could: clean the fingerboard (which didn’t reset the inlays, alas), replace some broken or worn out plastic parts such as the toggle switch tip. An improvement for sure. Still, a far cry from satisfactory, especially considering the money I had shelled out. The end result was a seldom played guitar and me deciding what to do.

Finally, one day I had my Popeye moment. You know, that’s all I can stands and I can’t stands no more? I grabbed the guitar and went to a well-recommended repair shop in San Francisco. Didn’t like the vibe there; for some strange reason being treated like an inconvenience doesn’t warm the cuckolds of my heart. That, and the fact it would be several months before they could even look at my guitar, made it a no-go. So I went to a different well-recommended repair shop where I wasn’t laughed out of the place the moment I opened my guitar’s case and pulled out my mangy mutt.

My original idea was to have the inlays reset flush with the fingerboard and leave it at that. Said idea flew out the window when the main repair guru took one look at the guitar and, after commenting he had never seen inlays working their way out of the fingerboard like that before, said, “You have got to get this guitar refretted. These things are gone.” I reluctantly agreed, choosing the slightly more expensive stainless steel frets over the usual nickel one in order to pretty much guarantee that no matter how much I played the guitar going forward the frets would outlive me. They also replaced the nut and gave everything else the once-over. And, during the initial meeting, carefully went over with me what kind of guitar player I was as far as style so they could select the right size and shape frets to best match my playing. I appreciated that.

About a month passed. Then the call came. Guitar is done; pick it up whenever. So I rushed over. The repairman discussed how, in order to fix the inlays, they had to very carefully remove them all, re-route the fingerboard spots for them, and glue them back in. A bit out of the ordinary, but the results were flawless. I picked up my guitar, played a few notes, and immediately realized this was the best guitar I had ever played. Ever. It was perfect. Took a while to get there, but it was perfect. I’ll always miss my first Les Paul Deluxe, but this one was a more than worthy replacement.

I’ve often wondered about the person or persons who owned the guitar before the Floridian online dealer I bought it from acquired it. The grimy fingerboard aside, they took very good care of it. They obviously loved it. And, they obviously loved playing it. So why did they let it go? A somewhat melancholy thought, given how the the likeliest answers are they were either no longer able to play, or were no longer here to play, this guitar which now resides with me.

And that’s the story of my guitar. Hardly miraculous how it came into my possession. Yet, there is a touch of the miraculous how this particular guitar came to be mine, and how once given the loving care it had been more or less given its entire existence it sprang to life as a truly fine instrument. Sometimes, the least desirable turns out to be the greatest prize. All it takes is skillfully, actively applied love in action. So it is with my guitar.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I really need to practice my playing.