The Godfathers of Guitar

18 02 2011

There’s a progression in music, much like the generations that pass as we raise our children, pass on our values and go forward into the world, having influence on so much.  We might feel insignificant while we are bogged down in the drudgery and seemingly mundane detail of every effort it takes to produce what it is we are striving for.

But it’s all worth it!  It pays off, maybe not in the peak of our lives as we would like, but if we persist, endure and do it right our lives and what we create become a crescendo that builds a foundation for those who come after us.  What we do is not lost on the demands of daily life as long as we keep our eyes on the distant goal.

Before I get too far off course, I’ll reel my thoughts back in and start talking about a man named Robert Johnson. Robert Johnson was born in 1911 and only lived to the age of twenty seven, but what he did for music is something that cannot be measured.

This brings me to another point of irony; the great music artists who made a huge splash and shook up the status quo of music in their day, dying at the age of twenty seven.  Robert Johnson, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain.  There I go again getting ahead of myself.  It’s all in my head, but I need to lay it out in some order for it to make any sense.

Everyone has heard the story of the guy who sold his soul at the crossroads for talent, fame and glory.  Charlie Daniels brought it to us and told the story well in his classic song, The Devil Went Down To Georgia.  Did you ever wonder where the story of Johnny and the Devil came from?  It wasn’t Johnny and it wasn’t a fiddle.  It was Robert Johnson with a guitar.

Robert Johnson was a good blues guitar player but he wanted more, he wanted to be the best.  He studied with one of the greats of the time, Son House and used to try to emulate his idol but was unable to play as well.  When Johnson was nineteen he disappeared from Robinsonville, Mississippi for several months and when he came back he had a new guitar technique that nobody had ever played before.

This is where the story gets told, that Robert Johnson, for his passion of wanting to play the guitar so well, took his guitar to a crossroad near the Dockery Plantation at midnight where a large black man appeared to him.  The man took the guitar from Johnson, tuned it, played a couple of songs, and gave the guitar back to him along with total mastery of the instrument.  He was given the gift he sought but in return for this gift Johnson exchanged his soul.

This story makes for great PR but there’s another story that is probably what really happened.  Another player of the time named Ike Zinnerman spent a lot of time with Robert Johnson playing in the local cemetery at midnight, reportedly because it was quiet and nobody was around to disturb them.  This is where Johnson honed his mastery of the instrument, and the cemetery isn’t a bad place to come up with a story about selling one’s soul to the devil in exchange for fame and glory.

With the fame and glory came a tragic end.  Robert Johnson had been playing a certain gig for a few weeks and was flirting with the juke joint owner’s wife.  The man offered Johnson an open bottle of whiskey (he had previously been warned to never accept an open bottle but replied to the man who told him that to never knock a bottle from his hand) and he drank from it.  Reports tell us that the bottle was laced with strychnine and over the next few days Robert Johnson fell ill and eventually died.

Robert Johnson did leave us with an incredible catalog of recorded music that artists of the future would learn from and grow with to produce greater and more influential musical creation for us to partake of.  One in particular, and the one who most all musicians would agree is the standard for rock and roll and blues guitar is James Marshall Hendrix aka Jimi Hendrix.

Jimi Hendrix was born Johnny Allen Hendrix, November 27, 1942.  When Jimi’s dad came back from Europe after World War II he changed Jimi’s name to James Marshall, after his late brother, Leon Marshall.  I’m not sure where the James came from but I like it because we get Jimi spelled in that unique way.  Maybe it was just time to break from the chaos of the past and make things new.  Jimi always had a bright outlook on things and I think Al, his dad, was instrumental in teaching him correct principles.

On a side note, I had the honor of shaking hands with Al Hendrix in the fall of 1991 at a club in Seattle called the Rockandy.  It was a type of gig the Seattle bands put together to follow a theme of the godfathers of rock and roll and this night was Jimi Hendrix theme night.  Twelve Seattle bands came together to perform two Hendrix tunes of their choice and of their interpretation.  No, we didn’t have Nirvana or Soundgarden or Alice in Chains or Screaming Trees or Pearl Jam or Mudhoney or any of the huge list of big-shot Seattle bands you might wish were a part of this story; yeah, and I wish too!  How would that have been?  To meet Al Hendrix and watch Soundgarden knock out a couple Jimi covers for a six dollar entry?  But it wasn’t to be. Although we did get a dramatic performance from a band called The Sky Cries Mary, an obvious reference to Jimi’s song The Wind Cries Mary.  The Sky Cries Mary had some accolades and even made an appearance on the David Letterman show, but for some reason they didn’t receive the strong and wide spread recognition a lot of the projects coming out of Seattle did, which is a cryin’ shame because to be honest their expression through music was far more complex and layered than most everything else, especially at that time. They were never part of the ‘grunge’ scene, nor do I think they ever had any desire to be. They stood head and shoulders apart from the rest of the dank and dirty rock and roll genre that swept through Seattle at that time..

 
I sat with Roderick Romero, a member of The Sky Cries Mary, that night and we talked of musical expression, the layering of sound and the experiences obtained through the use of mind expanding particles introduced to the creative process. It is a conversation that has stayed with me through my life and throughout my creative endeavors. It was a great night, and I am grateful to have had that moment with him; he is an inspired and remarkable artistic visionary.

And there I go again, getting off track.  When it comes to music and the things I’ve seen, I can talk for hours and find myself down the goofiest tangents.

Jimi’s mom died when he was nine, from complications due to her alcohol abuse, and he moved up to Vancouver, BC for a while.  This is where he acquired his first acoustic guitar, from a pawn shop for five dollars.  His dad got it for him because Jimi had been air guitaring on an old broom stick and playing a broken ukulele his dad found while cleaning the garage.

Eventually Al rounded up enough dough to get Jimi his first electric guitar.  In 1958 he got a white Supro Ozark 1560 S, single pickup from Myer’s Music in Seattle, Washington.  He didn’t have an amplifier but Jimi did what he could with what he had and that’s why Jimi Hendrix is the legend he is today; because he felt it and what he felt, he was able to let out his arms and through his fingers, through his guitars and into our ears for the expansion of minds around the musical world.

Jimi took what the godfathers before him did, like Robert Johnson, Son House and Ike Zinnerman and added a new flavor to the mix.  It’s an evolution, and as society in Jimi’s day evolved in technology and industry, so did music in intellectuality.  Thank God Jimi Hendrix was there with his electric guitar to express this new knowledge given us from The Field in the form of music as the floodgates opened and the new energy rolled forward.  The minds who were paying attention and who would not immediately dismiss this new horizon as rebellion and sedition from normalcy opened to the influence of this musical microcosm that had previously existed only in science fiction and in the fantasies of artists.

He had the audacity to play The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, and regardless of what most white collar conservatives, flashing down the street, pointing their plastic fingers at Jimi believe, he did it as a tribute to this great nation, not as a desecration of something sacred as our national anthem.  Just because the squares of the day didn’t get it doesn’t mean his art form was nothing short of God’s grace shedding brilliant talent down on a generation of artists to shake up the status quo.  That’s not to say his lifestyle was anything to emulate; maybe something to be learned from, but the authorities of the day tried to dismiss what he was doing as a mockery when it was merely a new form of expression.  And to dismiss the art because of the artist is a shame.  If we were to do that then we might just as well throw out Mozart, Hemmingway and Van Gogh.

Jimi did live fast and died hard.  On September 18, 1970 at the age of twenty seven, Jimi Hendrix died.  It was that night that he had attended a party in London and was picked up by his then girlfriend, Monika Dannemann and driven to her place at the Samarkand Hotel at Notting Hill.  It was no secret that Jimi had an affection for amphetamines and this night he downed nine Vesperax, a German brand sleeping pill whose dosage was one half of a pill.  A few hours after midnight Jimi began to vomit from the overdose but was unconscious from the high dosage and asphyxiated on the red wine that was in his stomach.  Eeeew!

That’s a tragic end to a lifestyle lived.  God bless Jimi Hendrix and may he be forgiven for any trespasses upon the Natural Law.  He was a man of vision and an artist that many followed after.

And after Jimi came many, and there were other masters who deserve mention as Jimi’s peers.  Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, George Harrison, Jimmy Page and in the years beyond the great sixties and early seventies we had mega freaks like Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhodes, the Schenker brothers and Stevie Ray Vaughan and even some disgustingly, technically perfect, so perfect it’s not even enjoyable listening, like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai.  But then, thank the heavens; we were blessed in the late eighties with a new son of pure guitar art form who played only because it’s the only thing he could do.  Not for the glory, not for the fame, not for the money; he played from the heart and he gave it everything.

On June 25, 1988 Hillel Slovak, guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers succumbed to the horrors of heroin addiction and left a gaping hole in the world of music.  One of their fans, John Anthony Frusciante had been playing guitar since age nine when he became infatuated with The Germs and learned to play along with their record, GI.  Shortly after that, one of his instructors turned him on to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and John proceeded to emulate Hillel Slovak’s guitar style.  John went on to master the blues scales at then discovered Frank Zappa.  At the age of sixteen, with the permission of his parents, he dropped out of high school after taking a proficiency test and enrolled at the Guitar Institute of Technology.  At one point Frusciante was set on trying out for Frank Zappa’s band but heard that Frank wasn’t too keen on chemical refreshment so John decided, as he knew he was going to indulge in the hedonism of rock stardom, not to even give it a shot.

Frusciante had become friends of the Chili Peppers as their shows were more intimate in the early days when the fans would go gangbusters slam dancing (before it was called moshing) and rarely experience the show visually.  There was a band in LA at the time called Thelonious Monster who was auditioning guitar players.  Anthony Keidis was friends with Bob Forrester of Thelonious Monster and arranged an audition for John.  After seeing the audition, Anthony offered Frusciante a position in the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

John Frusciante was eighteen years old and they called him Greenie.  He fell in quick with the band and followed in Hillel’s footsteps without missing a beat.  It was almost as though he had channeled Hillel’s spirit he played the Chili Peppers’ material so well.  As Slovak was greatly influenced by Jimi Hendrix, so was John Frusciante, and like Hillel, John approached the guitar from a minimalist angle, which likely came from his punk and new wave roots.  And I say God bless you John for not being another over playing virtuoso and laying it down cleanly and simply and beautifully as you have for the years.

The music that John has created with The Red Hot Chili Peppers has given me insight into things that I knew were going on within my own life, but I was unable to touch upon them in any coherent manner.  But when I listened to Californication in February of 2000 while driving from Vancouver, Washington to Salt Lake City to look for a new career, and move my family back home as the wife requested, I heard Anthony telling me about parallel universes and that was something of a catalyst to my thinking toward my belief that this band has in fact, paralleled my entire life with their songs, the stories they tell within the songs and all the drama and in fighting, with Dave Navarro coming into the band during that time I was adopting my two daughters, Tayslie and Ali and I did  not treat them right.  I didn’t have the tools or the skills to be a tender and nurturing parent.  But as time has passed I have grown in knowledge and wisdom and I pray that those beautiful young women forgive me some day of the faults of a young man who was trying his best to do what he was told by those around him and echoing the environment in which he was raised.

And here we are today, loving Stadium Arcadium, again following the patterns of my life.  Every song on that recording speaks profoundly to me at some level of my life at the time it was recorded, from my relationships with younger women and She’s Only 18 (and it actually tells the story of my relationships with Jayne Pederson exactly as it happened, and with another girl named Raquel; it just blows me away how precise the words are to us) to Warlocks when I spent my time in Portland with the hedge witch, Tami to the soul touching song Hey, the last track on the first disc, Mars of the Stadium Arcadium masterpiece; that song, Hey tells the story of the communication between me and my ex wife to the T.  And the song, Charlie is totally Marlene, my angel and my healer. And not to mention their unreleased b-sides recordings that speak directly to me with profound exactness every time I stumble upon them.

I could go on and write volumes.  This means nothing to many and it’s just silliness to some, but for me it’s profound and this is my life.  All things happen for a reason.  There is no such thing as coincidence.  All things have purpose, if you have faith enough to believe on things greater than yourself.

So, from Robert Johnson to Jimi Hendrix and on down through the cacophony of glammed up rock star virtuoso guitar players we are blessed with the tenderness of John Frusciante who expresses the truth right through his instrument and into my ears to resonate with me and validate my existence.

I love you John.  Thank you for everything you’ve been through, everything you’ve given us and everything that is to come.  John Frusciante is a master beyond recognition.

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7 responses

3 12 2015
Laura

Interesting read, Vaughn. I like the history you provide and your colorful life you have woven into it. I wish so badly I could do something to help you with the situation in your family and extended family. I just don’t get it. There’s got to be someone to advocate for you. Your bishop? Someone from home?

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3 12 2015
Darth Mistake

I have my bishop here but it doesn’t help. I’m out of the family and they are in paradise with money and boats and horses living a dream life and they have totally forgotten about me. It’s OK. In the end the boats and horses aren’t going to help them much. But the things I do every day are providing me a good retirement fund.

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5 01 2016
Darth Mistake

it’s fruitless. I called my mom and she said “your not the kind of people I like to be around”. My daughter Cassidy was talking to me when she was on vacation in Ireland but when she got home she said, “I reached out to you for all the wrong reasons”. And now I get silence again. Christi is one evil woman, whom I have forgiven in my heart, but she still has to answer for what she has done to me, and why. She gave me no reason, she just keeps the kids from any contact and tells them I am a deadbeat because the money stopped when I had a nervous breakdown because of what she was doing with my family. So twisted, I just wait for Judgement day when she gets to tell her story…that she thinks is a fairy tale. But man, it’s gonna hurt her bad. She did this to two men. Me and her first. You Know 🙂

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17 05 2013
Wanda

Nice blog. Nice to see another frusciante fan.

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30 09 2013
calmerthanyouare

thanks, I love the man!

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19 02 2011
calmerthanyouare

Oh that’s right! I can’t believe I got my hands on it before it was released. Same thing happened with Blood Sugar Sex Majik. I got a copy of it the day before it was released to the public. Made me feel special, like when I used to ride the short bus.

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18 02 2011
Lance Blas

I remember the night you brought Stadium Arcadium home before it came out and we listened to it in the dark and then listened to it again. It blew us away and soon became the soundtrack to an epic crazy chapter in our lives. Man, what a trip. I’m glad we were both flying on the same magic carpet.

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