These days it has become a popular pastime to bash the bankers. In the wake of the credit crisis, mortgage meltdowns and phony derivative markets there are sound reasons why the public are upset and feel betrayed by the banking sector. In being careful to not throw the baby out with the bath water I have to say that I have known some very good bankers in my life. They were even nice people.
For several years we lived across the street from Bill Anderson a former RCMP officer and a no nonsense banker at the TD bank. Bill and I had several adventures over the years which will be the subject of stories in future days. Another gentleman I was pleased to know was Bruce Gilbertson. Bruce was a gentle, soft-spoken man who was the manager at the Alberta Treasury Branch in town. I don't know if this is just urban legend or not, but I have heard that head offices cycle their managers by those who are lenders and those who are collectors. It is uncommon to leave a banker in one place for too long, for fear that they will develop relationships that could possible compromise their judgment when dealing with clients. My hat is off to all the bankers who tried to understand the machinations of a recording studio and record company being run in a little town on the Prairies and in Canada to boot.
One afternoon I was in Bruce's office at the bank. He had probably summoned me there to discuss any myriad of issues. Inventory levels, accounts payable or receivable, cash flow, etc. - never my favorite conversation! In the course of our meeting he mentioned to me that he had an old Gibson guitar at his house. That got my attention! He told me that he had purchased a fine new foreign built guitar and the old one was now a toy for the grandkids to play with when they came over to visit.
Gibson Guitars was founded by Orville Gibson, a mandolin maker, in Kalamazoo, Michigan in the late 1890s. The Gibson Guitar Corporation went on to manufacture a variety of instruments and revolutionized the development of the acoustic and electric guitars, and along the way have built one of the world's most iconic guitars, the Gibson Les Paul. Many of their instruments continue to increase in value and some Gibsons are among the most collectible guitars in the world. I had no idea what type of guitar Bruce owned, or what condition it was in, but I promised him that one day I would drop in for a visit and see the guitar for myself.
Some time passed and I called Bruce, making arrangements to stop by and have a look at his guitar. When I arrived at the house, Bruce proudly showed me the old instrument. From what we have been able to determine it was built in approximately 1954. What strings were left were all rusty and some of the frets were worn down completely. There were two large cracks on either side of the sound hole where the spruce top had completely caved in. It seemed that Bruce was a bit of a closet picker and had purchased the guitar decades before. He told me that in an earlier life he and his pals would sit around a fire, drink a few brewskies and sing and play until the wee hours of the morning. They would always end their night of revelry with the singing of Amazing Grace. As it happened, one night someone had drunk one too many, tripped and fell right on top of Bruce's guitar, rendering the fine instrument relatively useless. The guitar looked more like a giant spoon. I asked him what he intended to do with the guitar and he said he wasn't sure. Then he said some words that were music to my ears. "Steve, if you can use this guitar for good and positive purposes, you can have it." Humbled, I thanked Bruce for his kindness and bid him good day.
I returned to the studio with the guitar and presented it to my colleague, Eldon Winter. Eldon could make a cigar box guitar sound good and I figured he would be the right guy to make an initial evaluation of the guitar. He tuned up the remaining strings on the guitar and played a chord. There was magic in the room. In that instant we both knew that there was something very special about the guitar. Even in its battered and broken state, there was a musicality about the instrument that was so warm and inviting. We knew we had a keeper, the question now was how could we get the guitar fixed, so we could actually use it in the studio for recording.
A fine luthier friend of mine, Jake Peters, (http://www.jakepeters.ca) was called on to help in the decision. Jake is not only a expert builder of string instruments, but a champion banjo player as well. (you may insert banjo jokes here!) He took the guitar back to his shop to make an assessment and report back to me on his findings. Several weeks later, Jake phoned with the news. To properly restore the guitar to its original look and condition would costs several thousand dollars. I told Jake that I just didn't think that would be possible, but thanked him for his time. He then mentioned if it wasn't really a cosmetic restoration that we wanted, he could do a structural repair, adjust the neck, and give the instrument a new set of frets. He said there would be no difference in the playability or sound of the instrument, it just wouldn't look as pretty. For around eight hundred dollars, he said we could be in business and have a very usable guitar. I told him to go ahead and that I trusted his judgement. "Don't worry about how it looks, just worry about how it sounds", I told him.
The day finally arrived when Jake came to the studio to deliver the guitar. I could tell by the cheshire grin on his face that he knew we had something very special. He handed the guitar to Eldon. The sound that poured out of that guitar was jaw dropping! The guitar still bore the scratches, scuffs and scars of its previous life, but it was now solidly repaired and ready to make beautiful music once again. Sounds from that guitar have graced many of the albums I have been privileged to work on since that day. It has become our "go to" acoustic guitar in the studio. Recordings from Starfield, Jaylene Johnson, Matt Brouwer, Jill Paquette, Jake and many others, bear the imprint of that instrument.
As we begin the New Year, I have reflected on the story of the old Gibson guitar and realized that we are all broken.
Like Bob Dylan sings in his classic song:
"Broken hands on broken ploughs
Broken treaties, broken vows
Broken pipes, broken tools
People bending broken rules
Hound dog howling, bullfrog croaking
Everything is broken"
Each of us has experienced pain, loss, hurt, loneliness, betrayal and the list goes on. Like the old beat up guitar, many of us have suffered some pretty deep wounds and scars. The good news is that there is hope. Hope for healing, forgiveness, restoration and peace. Hope for another day. Every one of us can be patched up and make useful, beautiful music once again.
As I ponder the past year, I am thankful for Mr. Gibson and at least one good banker!
© 2011 Stephen J. Rendall - All rights reserved.