My old "National”
This story is the amazing tale of my third guitar, a 1958 National Val-Trol “Baron”.
I already had a Harmony Bobcat, my first guitar given to me at age 12, and a Danelectro with two lipstick-tube pickups which I had bought for 15 bucks. The Dan was cool looking and sounded great, but was almost impossible to play due to the high action. I was on the lookout for something better. By this time (1969, age 16 ) I had become enamored with the old blues pickers, especially Lightnin Hopkins. I would sit around with his recordings and try to copy the guitar parts - that’s how I learned.
This kid named Randy at my high school was already a pretty good blues player. He said he had bought a used guitar in a pawn shop in Tonawanda, a little town on the Niagara River in western New York state, and he wanted to sell it since he was going to give up playing guitar and concentrate exclusively on the harmonica. He had an ammo belt full of blues harps - eleven of them, one for every key. He wore this belt everywhere, even to school, so he would always be able to whip out a harp and play, if the moment called for it. I came over to his house. We went down in the basement, where he had his amps and stuff, to check out the guitar. I loved it. It was old, black, funky, beat-up, and had a lot of “blues mojo” in it. It played and sounded good too, although it needed some repairs. Some of the frets buzzed, but I found I could make it playable by sticking little bits and pieces of wooden matches to jack up one side or the other of the bridge, which itself was made of hardwood, or by placing bits of aluminum foil between a couple of the strings and the nut grooves.
I felt like I finally had an instrument that I could learn to play blues on. It was with me in an old acoustic guitar case when I left Ann Arbor, having just turned 18, on a cheap charter flight to London. I was on a musical pilgrimage - I saw the Pink Fairies at the Marquee Club, and jammed in an old house in Beaconsfield with members of Brinsley Schwarz. In a tiny bar in Paris, I was showing the guitar to some new pals when the cops arrived and made me put it away - it wasn’t even plugged in, but it looked loud. I carried that guitar and a backpack around Europe, through France, Switzerland, and Italy on trains and buses. The Orient Express got me to Istanbul from Venice and back. Eventually I got on an Africa-bound ship in Genoa, sailed around the coast and all the way across the Indian Ocean to Australia by early '72.
A year later, in February of 1973, the Rolling Stones toured Australia. It was the “Exile” tour. I had seen them at Olympia Hockey Arena in Detroit in ’69, just a few days before they recorded “Ya Ya’s”. That show was a life-changing event for me. I had seen the light. I couldn’t get enough of the Stones, so when they came to Australia I went to almost every show - except the west coast. I was a student, and it was summer break. I was working at the Davis Gelatine Company in Pagewood - a miserable job, but it was paying the rent and I was able to put a little cash aside. When the Stones arrived, I quit and spent my savings on tickets. I hitchhiked from city to city, going to shows around the country, and often meeting up at the gigs with my pal Lee Taylor who was far from wealthy but had a good paying job at the GPO - he was able to fly or take trains.
I was jamming with various people, playing in pick-up bands, and just getting started with the guys who would form the line-up of TV Jones. My black Baron was really getting hit hard by the change in climate from Michigan to Sydney - the heat and humidity will always throw off a guitar’s set-up, and my guitar was already marginal in that department. I couldn’t afford to have it fixed up, and I couldn’t afford to buy another. But I had read about Keith Richards liking National guitars. In fact I had been up front when he played a National Dobro resophonic guitar at the Detroit show, on Love In Vain, You Got To Move, and Prodigal Son.
I hit on the crazy idea of trading my National guitar to Keith.
It was the last day of the tour. The Stones were playing in Sydney, the second of two consecutive nights at the Randwick Racecourse. I had gone to the show the night before, and filmed from the front row with an 8 mm camera. I met Ian Stewart at sound check, and gave him a bottle of Old Grand Dad bourbon which he placed on the top of Keith's amp with a card from Lee and I. The energy was sparking. There was magic in the air.
I knew they always checked into their hotels under fake names, and I would get nowhere asking for Keith. They had layers of security. More security than Jimmy Carter or the Pope, probably. I would have to go around it somehow. I had read in the Rolling Stone about Keith’s guitar tech, Ted Newman Jones. I went to a phone booth, dropped in a 20 cent coin and rang their hotel on the off chance.
“Um, hello, could you put me through to a guest, please? His name is Mr. Newman Jones”.
“Just one moment sir”
- pause - guy comes on the line with a deep southern drawl:
“Hi, my name is Deniz. I have a 1958 National guitar here. I wonder if Keith would be interested in it?”
“Oh yeah, he likes those. Course, he’s sleepin’ now. Could you possibly bring it around to the hotel after the show tonight?”
“Yeah, I can do that.”
“OK, give ’em a couple hours after the show and then come on up.”
It was as simple as that !!
So I went to the concert, and it was great. After the last chord died out, I walked to Byron Street. I had stashed the guitar at my friend Dare Jenning’s house. I hung out there for a while. I told them what was happening, that I was going in to town to bring this guitar to Keith. “Yeah, sure”. Dare was always cool, but most of the people hanging out there didn’t believe it. I wasn’t sure if I even believed it myself.
When I arrived at the Hyatt around midnight, the lobby was a zoo. All kinds of freaks were hanging around, everyone hoping for a glimpse of the Stones. There were black belts in uniform from a karate school at the elevators, hired as security. The Stones had the top three floors, which had a dedicated lift. They weren’t letting anyone go up. I sat there, watched the side show for a while, expecting nothing. I waited about half an hour. Then the lift doors opened, and a very tall African woman dressed in leopardskins came out. She looked around, and then spoke up in a posh British accent. “The chap with the guitar can come up now!” I guessed that was me. I stood up, walked over to the lift, she ushered me in past the black belted security guards, and we ascended.
The door opened to a foyer. Newman Jones was there. He looked the guitar over, and said “Nice! Let’s take it in and show Keith.” Back in the lift, up to the top floor. Keith’s suite was a party. All sorts of VIP’s, crew, people - I didn’t know anyone. There was a tape playing loud through a stereo, the night’s concert. Newman Jones had a word to Keith, and he came over, shook my hand, picked up the guitar. He called for an amp. Someone wheeled in a Marshall half stack. Keith plugged in, stood leaning against a wall, and played along with the tape of the show they had just done.
I got a drink - the first time I ever had real French champagne. Watching people. Feeling unreal - like it was not really happening, a dream sequence perhaps? Mick Jagger came over, asked me who I was. Very nice, very polite. I said I had brought a guitar for Keith, and that I was in a local band. He chatted a while, then flitted off to visit other social bouquets around the room. When the tape finished, Mick announced that he was going to show some of his movies in his own suite, and anyone interested could go there. The room emptied out - they all went with Mick.
The only people left in Keith’s suite were Keith, Mick Taylor, Bobby Keyes and me.
Bobby Keyes was passed out in the door to the bathroom. If you wanted to use the toilet you had to step over him. He was in a coma - unrousable, but still breathing. Keith sat back on a couch, smoking, and playing the guitar. His eyes were a strange colour - sort of a dark violet or amethyst, and very deep - like looking into a remote part of the universe. There was a bowl of joints on the table, pre-rolled, big, like cigars. He said that they had been brought over from Jamaica, where the band had been recording for Goats Head Soup. Keith played a few songs from Exile. The riff from Ventilator. I asked about it - he showed me the open-G tuning that he used. It is well known now, but then it was a revelation. It unlocks the secret of many of those songs, which can’t sound right without that tuning. He told me that you didn’t really need the bottom E string either - you could take that off and it would tighten up the chords, and he had a couple of guitars made as 5-strings for that purpose. While Keith played, and I listened, and Bobby Keyes snored, Mick Taylor sat across the room and spoke very little - just enough to be polite, but clearly distracted or unhappy. I didn’t ask. The night went along like that - guitar playing, a little conversation, me mostly listening and absorbing everything. Charlie Watts came in at one point. I told him how much I admired his drumming. Looking very tired, he said “Fank you” in that deep London accent - and he signed a drum stick for me.
The sun came up. The Stones were leaving soon. Keith said “How much do you want for the guitar?” I said I would take a trade for any of his. He said “Can’t - they’re already packed up and at the airport - going back to France.” I said that’s OK, he could send me one when he got there. He said “I would INTEND to, but honestly it would never happen!” So instead of a trade, we agreed that he would buy the guitar. Keith picked up the phone. “This is Keith - I need some cash.” A minute later a guy who was dressed like an accountant - suit, tie, neatly shaved, conservative haircut - knocks on the door and comes in. This is at 6 am! He hands Keith a stack of money, and Keith signs an entry in a book, and the guy leaves. Keith hands me the cash… about $2000 in today’s dollars. Says “Hey, I hope you’ll go buy yourself a nice guitar”.
I wanted a T-shirt. This was in the days before merch. The Stones didn’t sell anything at the shows, but they had T-shirts specially made for the crew. They were bright yellow, with a green Australia on the front, with the red Stones' tongue in the centre of the green continent, and a jet is flying into it. In script writing ,“The Rolling Stones” across the top. On the back in black block letters it said what the person’s job was : like, “SOUND” or “DRIVER” or “CATERING” etc. Keith’s shirt had “GUITARIST” on the back. That’s the one I asked for. Keith said that he’d already given that one away, but “wait a minute …” he went to his bag (he had a tiny black bag, like a small carry-on, with only a few pieces of very cool clothing in it) and pulled out a light blue T-shirt with “The Rolling Stones” in dark blue psychedelic font on the front. He said “Here - you can have this - it’s from another tour”.
In fact it was from their 1966 tour of America.
So I took my Charlie Watts drum stick, my T-shirt, and my pocket full of cash and went down the lift into the now deserted lobby. Went out into the intensely bright sun. Found a taxi (I had cash!) and went to Lee Taylor’s house where he was just getting up to get ready to go to work. I gave him the drum stick. We got breakfast, and I told him the story. Later that same day I went to Harry Landis Music store on Park St. and bought a new Gibson SG. That was my main guitar in TV Jones, until the end of that year, when I went back to Ann Arbor and picked up an Epiphone Crestwood from Fred “Sonic” Smith. But that is another story! ( Read "the Crestwood story" HERE )
Last week we were watching the new Keith Richards documentary on Netflix. It’s a wonderful film in all respects. I couldn’t have enjoyed it more, until Keith’s current guitar tech, Pierre de Beauport, comes on. He pulls out a guitar, saying that Keith had wanted to get this one worked on. It was my old friend, the black National Baron, missing some paint. It was so good to see it after 42 years - and to know that Keith Richards not only still had it, but that it would be getting some care and attention, and that it might even get played again.