Little Boy Blue
When I was really small, like about five maybe, I discovered Cowboys. Not directly of course there weren’t any where I lived. All of a sudden all things Cowboy-related I considered to be the very fabric of life, Cowboy hats, chaps – those leather things for protecting the Cowboy’s legs whilst riding the range (whatever that meant) – pistols, gun-belts and to me anyway, for some reason most importantly, the definitive Cowboy’s sitting-round-the-camp-fire-accessory, the GUITAR – absolutely essential.
Countless home-made efforts followed, usually a re-modelled cardboard box, a flat strip of wood (or someone’s ruler if they weren’t watching) and elastic bands. In no time music followed. ‘Music’ may be a tad euphemistic there but you get the picture. The next punctuation mark in the progression was a plastic, grey and white ukulele with nylon strings, a Christmas present.
I recall thinking that it wasn’t quite the same instrument I’d seen film star cowboy Roy Rogers playing around his camp fire. During the film he’d captured a baddie and had him sitting close by with his hands tied behind his back. Roy announced that before he delivered his prisoner for hanging he would sing him a song, and then reached for his GUITAR. With the benefit of hindsight, I’m guessing that Roy’s performance was designed to render the prospect of imminent death almost appealing.
Anyway, for some time the uke prevailed – I’d kept the sheet of paper that came with it, poorly printed with the basic chord positions which I was able eventually to master.
Around this time I acquired my very first record, ‘Staggerlee’ by Lloyd Price, accredited to Logan/Price. I don’t believe Lloyd Price had much to do with the writing end of it but a great song, part of my set today.
Across the street lived a diminutive gentleman called Henry Bushell who was a master craftsman with wood, seriously good, a restorer of antiques and so on. I suppose one of my parents must have mentioned to Henry (who was a lovely guy) my obsession with the prospect of owning a GUITAR, ‘prospect’ as I was still plinking away on the uke. Henry built me one. He went along to the local music store, stood outside and drew a picture of the one in the window. What he couldn’t see was that to support the power needed to stretch metal strings, there is a rod that runs through the neck and into the body. There was no decoration on Henry’s creation, just a large brown polished body with a conventional round hole in the middle. I loved it. I taught myself to play on it.
Although the change was gradual, I became increasingly aware that without that strengthening rod in the neck, the distance between the strings and the fret-board was growing ever wider as the huge strain gradually bent the neck. Comparison with a longbow soon became obvious. Ferocious gripping strength was now required to hold down a chord. The missing strengthening rod pretty much put paid to any further playing; sadly I had to let that one go.
Next up was an inexpensive white ‘cut-away’ Rosetti acoustic. Thus armed, carol singing became a lucrative prospect – I’d never done any carol singing previously but my mate at the time, Fatty Emmett, drew to my attention the earnings potential of adding GUITAR. Cool. It worked big time.
When it wasn’t Christmas we would play in the street or in the park or occasionally in a smelly ‘bus shelter’ (it predated the bus stop but was sufficiently close to be considered thus), somewhat romantically known as ‘White City’, a kind of Romanesque semi-circular concrete affair with one step up off the street, pillars at the front and wooden bench seats along the back wall. Doubtless a place of immense relief to the occasional desperate visitor, as evidenced by the smell but big enough to have a significant and pleasing acoustic, so if it was raining…..
The previously dozing music industry was now beginning to stir so belonging to a ‘group’ became very fashionable; a confusing pursuit for some as quite a few aspirants seemed surprisingly unaware of any difference between owning a GUITAR and being able to play one.
I went to sea.
In those now distant days I worked on banana boats for a couple of years trading up and down the East Coast of South America, Brazil to Uruguay to Argentina – the significance of which being that the price of musical instruments in Brazil was amazing. No tax, wood was limitless and virtually free, and Brazilian wages terrible, the upshot being brilliantly well made but incredibly cheap GUITARS. This kept me playing.
Whilst a seafarer I had on countless occasions cause to reflect on how glad I was of having learnt to play. On some ships I taught others and found myself invited to every booze-up going. On the odd occasion (stupidly – I don’t remember being aware of it then but see now – it was a dangerous place) I played in oil-lamp-lit shacks at the edge of shanty-town.