The Mightiest Band You Never Heard Of
by J. Andrew Beaman
Chapter 1: Rudiments
“Well yeah, but fifteen bucks is more than I have…”
The young shop assistant placed the item back into the long glass display counter as her expression turned just a little slate-like revealing her waning interest in making a sale here. She glanced up again at the clock on the wall as I turned to see my friends still looking at the posters one by one as if thumbing through the pages of a giant book.
“…and I already have a pretty good bong anyway, I believe what I need is over here in this vertical case…”
She started rummaging through a drawer for the keys to the vertical case I assumed; inside it were a variety of harmonicas along with a couple recorder flutes and one last set of Black Diamond brand guitar strings; the only set in the whole town that could be had so late on a Sunday evening. “Bright Country-Western” it said across the pack, I guess my sound was going to have to have a little more twang than usual.
Hearing the “tak, tak, tak” of high heels across the tile floor behind me brought a small sense of relief as I stood somewhat guardedly next to the lone packet of strings as though some other joker would spring up and buy them out from under me. Those strings were as important- more important than the PA system we paid $35 to rent from Hanich Music just an hour before… a place where I could have bought a dozen sets of strings, even ones made for rock music… If that is, I would have thought of it when we were there.
The store lights flickered to signal closing time as we exited the front door; good ol’ Tower Records saved our gig and they could never know what kind of mayhem these strings might witness. We were supposed to play a kegger at a presumably trashed house in B.P. with F-Word and I was braced for a lot of spiked hair and safety pins through lips and noses and eyebrows…
“Damn, did you guys get a load of the tits on that chick- outstanding!”
“Those weren’t just tits man, those were “baby-heads”!”
The three of us had a good laugh as we piled into Kurt’s Buick, I lit up a cigarette, took a long drag and just sat there with the side of my head riding against the passenger window as we skirted around the mall parking lot.
The others must have been talking about the coming keg party or F-Word or maybe even the baby-head tits, but my mind slowly wandered back to a simpler time a few years before in 1975 where playing backyard keg parties in an all original heavy metal band could have only been a wistful notion…
“I either want to be a guitar player or a karate instructor!” I blurted out one evening at the dinner table between forkfuls of chili-mac. Usually my father just let my aspirations go right through his head unchallenged; I might get a “yeah, sure, okay” between his coffee and his cigarettes and his Columbo and his Banacek. This time he paused for a moment thoughtfully and said “I didn’t pay for braces to be put on your teeth so they could be knocked out with karate lessons, so I guess it’s gonna’ have to be guitar.” and said it with a finality reminiscent of the time we got into a fight because he wouldn’t let me go snipe hunting in Azusa Canyon.
So that was that, I owe it all to my orthodontist.
The following week I entered the eighth grade and began a more than 40 year adventure with guitar and rock music.
While the other kids were childishly talking about being a fireman or a doctor as though they were still in preschool, I would just smile and tell them I will be a guitar player and maybe an amateur karate instructor.
So, my father took me over to Wallich’s Music City to purchase my first guitar. A sturdy little acoustic number that cost $28 brand new with box. It also came with a plectrum and instruction pamphlet.
I had everything I needed… my first rig.
This was a period of transition in my life, I would no longer fritter my time away watching cartoons, for I was now a disciplined musician fast on my way to becoming a professional and putting my mark on the music industry and molding and shaping the musical landscape to my own design.
At Christmastime toys were replaced with requests for tape recorders, Black Sabbath records and guitar strings… preferably not “Bright Country-Western” style.
I was fortunate in that my best friend Mike Willison began to play guitar at the same time. It helps as a raw beginner to have a “jamming buddy” to share this trying experience, we had a long road ahead of us.
But we had a little help along the way. Mike’s father Joe played guitar, he was an ex-biker with long, dark hair he had combed back almost into a lion’s mane and had a pretty muscular frame and could be somewhat intimidating at times.
Mike had told me a few stories about his father back in his biker days… tales of “Crazy Joe!” lying in wait with a shotgun in the middle of the night to scare the hell out of some thief who was stealing suits out of the back of a friend’s Cadillac convertible… Apparently the thief just managed to squeeze their arm underneath the soft top and unlock the door and take a couple of expensive suits, so Joe fires the shotgun from the backseat and blows a hole straight up through the roof of the Caddie and that took care of that.
Joe had a nice Guild acoustic guitar with a burgundy finish that he kept in perfect condition. We could admire it, but I don’t recall ever being able to play it, and for that matter I don’t recall ever having enough nerve to ask. But Mike had an older cousin named Danny who played and had an electric guitar, something we could only wish we had at the time as we were both beginners with more or less “student model” acoustics. These we would have to strum right next to the bridge to get a mock electric sound and just dream.
Mike’s father had a friend named Tom who owned The Fret House, a small guitar shop in Covina where I started my lessons a full week before Mike. So I hoped that he wouldn’t mind playing rhythm guitar; backing up my lead work since I would of course always be just a few steps ahead of him and being professionals we would each do our parts with quiet disregard over “who does what.”
Much of our time was spent hanging out at Hanich Music, just a few blocks down the street from our houses. The place was one of the biggest musical equipment retailers on the west coast and chock full of the latest gear including guitars, basses, amps, keyboards, drum kits and even a few harmonicas and recorder flutes.
Mike was very much my partner in crime in many ways; we pulled all kinds of stunts throughout the neighborhood and beyond, so it stood to reason that we had a story cooked up between us to feed to the hapless merchants about how our fathers were rich and our birthdays just happened to be around the corner and so we wanted to try out their very best guitars and amps… for as long as they could stand it, we only knew three chords…
Most of the time we didn’t drive all the customers out of the store and many times we were able to pick up a few licks while we were at it. I even got some hippy to show me a couple Black Sabbath songs which was my favorite band at the time.
It was back in seventh grade when I heard Black Sabbath for the first time at a friend’s house. Somehow I had always assumed that “Black Sabbath” was a disco group… Boy was I a dumb kid back then, and felt so for that, but the power chords and fast lead solos were just what I was looking for and so I stopped by the record shop that same day and bought two Sabbath albums knowing I was in for a very full evening of mind-blowing new songs.
“Black Sabbath… disco?” HA!
Just a little more than a year from that point in time and I would be trying to figure out those songs I had heard a million times by then; getting from open chords, to barre chords, to finally being able to make your first chicken scratchings at lead and someday maybe getting the song down note-for-note. This was my quest and it wasn’t until around my freshman year of high school that I felt much proficiency in my craft at all, but still knew I had a long way to go; a lifetime of study and work ahead of me…
But that was okay because in just a few short years I would be riding around in limousines, trashing hotel rooms and making millions and millions and millions.
“I want to learn “Stairway to Heaven”, not this folk music!”
I hated to spring that on my guitar teacher all at once, he was such a nice, pleasant, even sort of guy… almost like getting private lessons from a bearded and sandaled “Mr. Rogers” of a guitar teacher… But it was high time to move along from sappy Simon and Garfunkel songs about “parsley and sage and rosemary” and other such fluff and start putting some bona fide rock music into my column!
Besides that, everyone knew that “if you can’t play Stairway to Heaven, then you ain’t shit!” so it was really an essential song to have in one’s repertoire… unless you were satisfied with being less than shit.
It was also high time that Mike and I ditched our acoustic guitars for solid body electrics! After all, if you are going to play hard rock you can’t do it on a cheap Japanese acoustic, you at least need a cheap Japanese electric or you might as well stay with sappy Simon and Garfunkel songs!
My friend was the first of us to get an electric guitar; not that it was any kind of competition you understand, but in this way Mike had made up for starting private lessons a week after me and had put himself so far ahead that I might even have to start backing him up with chords while he does all the lead solos!
I could just see myself at a party we might jam, standing there like a lerp afterwards because Mike got all the glory and took all the bows and ended up with all the chicks… Everyone will be clamoring around, listening to him accentuating the difficulties in playing such demanding lead solos and volunteering his candid methods and tips for “beginners” as he is directing his tone a little more in my direction. I’d be lucky or probably ashamed actually to interject: “hey, I play too… (You just can’t see me there in the back…”) and instead would probably wind up slinking away in disgrace…
It was insufferable! I was not ready to be a failure at age fourteen!
Oh, I was happy for him and all, it being his birthday and such, but this was more like business and I wasn’t just going to sit there like a lump!
I had to find an electric guitar, one that wasn’t “Sears Best” or something, a legitimate solid body guitar and damn-it there was no time to spare!
And it was even worse than that, Mike had made vague references to getting a band together with some other kids at school. From what I could extrapolate out of the few comments he made, they were going to play cover songs from candy-coated “pop” bands like The Beach Boys at small, supervised parties for the football team and maybe even a school pep rally or two… sounded like a real weenie roast.
So I had to get a band together, but first I had to find an electric guitar I could afford, but before that I had to somehow cough up the money to get it. My situation seemed hopeless as we headed to The Fret House with his father to pick up his new guitar just as it arrived, and I sank a ways down into the seat and tried to look as cheery as possible under the circumstances.
My friend practically started running to the front door of The Fret House, his dad shot him one of those “now don’t go crazy here” glances and he slowed down a bit with me lagging behind almost wanting to stay in the car.
This could actually mean a parting of the ways between Mike and myself: he goes off with his new band and becomes a rock star, and I get a one-way ticket to Palookaville…
The store was empty except for John the sales manager up on a ladder shifting empty guitar cases. He had collar-length hair, a bushy beard and furry eyebrows and a smile that was hard to place sometimes. I’m not sure if I actually got along with him or not. But he seemed to have a genuine love of the instrument. While Hanich Music had all types of instruments including ones for the marching band, The Fret House, like the name implies specialized in fretted instruments; for the most part acoustic guitars with perhaps a few mandolins and banjos and even an occasional electric guitar or bass. They didn’t have much in the way of amps either, maybe two or three that were used for demonstration purposes, they were primarily a guitar shop and could just as easily have been named “The Guitar House”.
At first John acted like the shipment hadn’t arrived, he got kind of wall-eyed and scratched his cheek, but then he pulled the guitar, in-case from out behind the counter with a large impish grin that made me think of an old Irish leprechaun. Mike’s dad smiled from behind his own coarse beard and they set the guitar case on the floor.
Mike had the three latches snapped open almost at the same instant and opened the case to reveal a beautiful golden blond Ibanez SG with black trim and a pleasant waft of new guitar smell along with it.
“Now those factory frets might be a little rough, you should let us do a fret job on it for you when you are ready to change those strings.” John put in with the tone of someone who had watched people forget to do this a million times before.
“Mike… are you listening to what John is saying here…?”
He was oblivious to his surroundings and I could see in his eyes that he was probably up onstage somewhere in his imagination surrounded by fog with smoke bombs going off in front of screaming throngs of fans with chicks flinging their bras and panties at him. He took the instrument in his hands and struck a rock pose with his long, straight hair flowing over the neck of the guitar like he was Tommy Bolin or something. Mike came out of his trance and started to expound each of his new instrument’s many virtues. He put special emphasis on how light the action was compared to his “old acoustic” that would probably never see light again outside of the naked overhead bulb in his closet.
“How much is that fret job John?” Mike’s father asked, mostly it seemed just to be polite and make small talk.
I decided to drift over and peruse the guitars displayed against the wall while Mike was picking out a new strap so he could shake his ass on stage for all the screaming chicks I had to guess, and I also overheard some quiet talk about getting him an amp.
Just as it seemed like they might ask me to come over and join in on a chorus of “Happy Birthday” I came across an almost new Gibson Les Paul Junior with a tobacco-burst finish and dared to check the price tag which was marked down to $300.
“Hey, what do you think?” he struck another pose as though a panoply of press cameras were about to descend upon him. “I can’t wait to get up on stage surrounded by fog with smoke bombs going off in front of throngs of screaming fans with chicks flinging their bras and panties at me!”
I didn’t have a lot to say during the ride home and had a lump in my throat clear up until the next evening when I went to my father, right in the middle of his Kojak, and exclaimed: “Mike Willison just got a brand new electric guitar for his birthday… his dad bought it for him…” and hoped I would get something besides “Shhh, I’m right in the middle of my Kojak here…” Then I told him that while we were picking up Mike’s new guitar, (the one his dad bought for him for his birthday) I saw an almost new Gibson Les Paul for only $300, about half of what one costs new, but he looked at me and didn’t say anything, just turned back to his program.
I could see this was going to take more than the previous subtle hint, fortunately I had been up all the last night going over the figures and trying to make a plausible case for my father buying that $300 Les Paul right now before someone else does and someone else’s son ends up being a rock star instead of his!
Now, I was experienced enough here not to try the old “Get me this one big present this time and I’ll never ask for any more presents for anything ever again!” Especially since last year for Christmas I only received a Timex watch, a pair of pants and a pickup for my acoustic guitar that hopefully would soon be seeing the inside of my own closet.
“So here’s the deal,” I said while he kept looking at his program. “If I sell my acoustic guitar, with pickup for about $50 or $60… say $60, then if I promise to mow our yard for the next three months and maybe get back into painting addresses on curbs or take up a paper route then I bet I can pay you back for the guitar, in full- with interest of course right around Christmas which you could also keep in mind is right before my birthday…”
I came close to throwing in the bit about never asking for anything else ever again, but hoped my father would see the arrangement before him as reasonable if not equitable without the added groveling.
And I don’t believe his gaze left the television for one instant.
Then without taking his eye from the screen he said “It’s at The Fret House eh’, over off of Citrus? Well, tomorrow’s Tuesday so we can go there after supper, but we will have to be back in time for my Barnaby Jones…”
And it was just as simple as that, as long as some other jerk hadn’t come in and bought it that night my occupation as a hot-shot guitar player- electric guitar player was all but assured. Just the same I planned on calling up the Fret House the next morning or ditching school if I had to so they would understand that guitar was SOLD!
I always knew I was lucky in that my dad never discouraged me in my musical pursuits the way some other parents I had heard of did, the same was true for Mike. I suppose any pastime that didn’t undo my orthodontia could be considered a plus. My father had a pretty respectable collection of 78s sitting in his musty, old record cabinet: Bing Crosby, Mary Martin, Andy Russell, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Nat King Cole… I always wondered if my father had ever tried his hand in music, maybe at the piano or perhaps “cutting a rug” on the accordion? I tried to picture him onstage with long hair and a guitar hanging down below his belt buckle… standing there in the fog and the bombs and all… I just couldn’t see it.
But through our early years in music, my father, like Mike’s father along with a lot of other parents I would come to know or learn of, would always help us when we needed them. Either they were giving us rides to rehearse somewhere across town or to our music lessons, sometimes to drop us off to see a local concert and then come back two hours later to pick us up. They put up with music that was too loud and played for too long into the night… And sometimes by helping us get the gear we needed as mentioned here.
Of course, we all figured we would pay them back someday. I had no problem picturing my dad in the back of a chauffeur-driven limousine with his coffee and his cigarettes and a portable television onboard playing his Mannix and his Banyon…
I scarfed down the Hamburger Helper my father had prepared and probably droned-on more about the virtues of the guitar I only held for a moment than I actually knew or remembered. When we pulled in front of the shop I found myself dashing in to make sure the guitar was still there. (Even though John assured me he would put it aside when I called him that morning.)
John tried at first to pull my leg the way he did with Mike, but I just smiled and he smiled back and perhaps I did get along with him after all.
My father was taken aback just a bit when we both learned that while the guitar was $300, the guitar in case was $360. But he went ahead and put in the extra money, (John wished me a happy birthday, remembering our phone conversation) and 15 minutes later I was breaking out the Lemon Pledge and making a prominent place for the new guitar in my room.
But then I put it aside for a while, went out into the living room, curled up on the couch and watched a little Barnaby Jones with my dad.
So in short-order, Mike and I were both thrust into the world of electric guitars and rock music proper. No more sappy, three-chord folk songs- we would spend the next few months honing our lead work, perfecting our styles and ultimately branching out and forming groups.
Mike already had a band set up it seemed, they were going to call themselves “Blue Diamond”, which I assumed was a take on the KISS song “Black Diamond”. But Mike explained that actually a blue diamond was supposed to be the rarest and the most expensive diamond, making it the best, and that’s what their band was- only the best!
In fact, a couple weeks later they were going to play a beer party at a member of the school football team’s house and maybe I would want to come along too?
Well I couldn’t think of any better evening than sitting there with a bunch of jocks watching Mike take endless lead solos while I… Well, we went through all that. So I told him I had to stay home and watch Barnaby Jones with my dad… because it was his birthday. Mike understood and I think just invited me to be polite anyways, he knew I had to get my own thing going, I was glad he was my best friend.
I didn’t actually watch Barnaby Jones that night because it wasn’t on, nor was it my father’s birthday. I just sat in my room polishing and playing my guitar and listened to my Black Sabbath records.
At dusk I heard the crickets starting to chirp outside my window and knew that soon Mike would be playing his first gig and I wouldn’t be there. In some ways I wanted to, but was glad I wasn’t because I had to get my own band going and we weren’t going to play Beach Boys’ songs at pep rallies… we were going to be an all-original, Southern California heavy metal band and make it all the way to the top!
Next, Chapter 2: Eclipse