ARRIVED IN A CARDBOARD SUITCASE;
SEALED WITH A KISS FROM HIS MOM
WITH A NEWSPAPER UNDER HIS ARM AND UNDER HIS HEAD.
ALONE IN THE HALL WITH HIS BACK TO THE WALL
YOU COULD SEE HE WAS ONE OF A FEW
HE SPOKE ONLY WHEN SPOKEN TO...
AND SOMETIMES ALONE IN HIS BED
small and jocular the group
that sat crosslegged in the middle of the camden maine
cabin's living room. some on the couch, some leaning
against the walls and enough of us to spill out into
the kitchen where the bourbon and beer sat bag by cooler
betty and i were attending
our first 'rinctum', a term which contrary to it's sound,
has nothing whatsoever to do with anatomy. gordon bok,
a former schoolmate of betty's brother, had visited us
several times at the house in rye, and had invited us
to join in an informal down-east folk gathering where
perhaps thirty musical friends came together to renew
themselves with traditional folk music. guitars and mandolins,
fiddles and pennywhistles (some carved out of PVC plumbing
materials). this was the first opportunity in a long
time to relax musically and be known as noel, brother-in-law
of one of denny's schoolmates at hebron academy - somebody
other than the 'paul of peter paul and mary'.
denny picks up a boxy looking
twelve string and begins to play music from the hebrides
islands. i'm hypnotized. the growl of the low strings
on the guitar pluck my imagination...like a hauser flung
ashore from some ketch; fastened around a piling and
stretching taut against the swell of the ocean and the
rhythmic flug-flug-flug-flug of the ship's engine at
low idle. though it is, after all, only a guitar he's
playing, it seems as though denny's right hand is hauling
lines and his left hand is setting sail. and then, in
a knowing, loving voice, from under his walrus moustache
comes the tragic tale of a mystical union between a seal
and a beautiful woman; a son who grows handsome and strong
and wise in the ways of the sea and fishing and, then
borrowing a page from shakespeare (or not knowing the
age of this old folk song perhaps it's the other way
round), kills his own father...or was it that he leaves
his mother to join his father in the ocean never to return?
sigh. sometimes i suspect that these tales are composed
with a variety of verses and endings and sung simply
for the pleasure of expressing exquisite sadness and
lament that can't be understood in any other form. and
then somehow they all get collected together and made
available for whatever circumstance might call for them.
following the skule skerrie
song there are several others sung and accompanied by
this 'magic' strung box. then an instrumental played
upon it. with your eyes closed, hearing the chug of the
tempo and the chrystalline harpischord sounds of the
top strings, you'd swear that bach was irish and that
some sea captain was playing his variations on a well-tempered
jig. there was a salt breeze blowing, the middle strings
flapping like petulant sails in a sloppy tack. it could
be covered in barnacles or dripping in seaweed or plucked
from a leather satchel by alan adair in sherwood forest...and
say, "where DID this guitar come from?" i ask
the fellow next to me.
"i made it for him",
"you MADE it?!" i
respond in surprise to this modest soft-spoken unassuming
fellow in a checkered shirt with whom i've been sharing
the wall for the last twenty minutes or so.
"is it a one-of-a-kind
instrument?" i asked.
"what do you mean by
that?" he cocked his head and smiled slightly.
"well, uh..." i
stammered, "did you make it as a gift for denny?"
"no", he said his
smile widening, "i make them for a living".
"you mean", i began
awkwardly, "you'd consider making one for someone
else?" and meanwhile my mind is tumbling over itself
with questions; i mean you can't just go to a 'magic
concert' and 'order' a mystical guitar?! can you? c'mon
"sure", he replied.
"just like that one?",
i asked still disbelieving.
"if you want",
"well, uh" i began
tounge-tied, "uh...that's great... do you want a
deposit or should i write my address down or i mean how
long would it take...wow this is terrific...uh...oh,
i'm noel stookey", i say finally realizing that
i've been babbling away and haven't introduced myself.
"oh, i know who you
are", he says, "i'm nick apollonio." and
he nods in denny's direction, "denny's got your
address...and..." he pauses for just a moment to
consider something, "it'll take me a couple of months".
"oh, that's fine" i
assured him, "i do a lot of traveling anyway..."
"yes," he replies
almost conspiratorily, "i know".
SEBASTIAN IS LED TO A BLACK-WALLED
RED CARPETING COVERS THE FLOOR
SOMEONE IS CLOSING THE DOOR AND RAISING THE BLIND
HIDING HIS EYES SO THEY WON'T BE SURPRISED
WHEN THE HAND REACHES DOWN FOR THE NOTE;
THE ONE THAT HIS MOTHER WROTE
AND TIED BY A STRING TO HIS NECK
i had been home for more
than a week now; and though peter, mary and i were doing
far fewer concerts than the almost 200 per year of the
mid sixties, it was still unusual to find myself around
the house with 10 uninterrupted days.
'how weird,' i thought as
i walked from the kitchen through the pantry to the dining
room, 'to be a stranger in my own house.' oh, not the
physical layout; betty and i had made all the decisions
regarding this 30 room, four floor westchester tudor.
but rather a stranger to the flow within the house; the
day to day activity.
it's 10am and i've just awakened.
betty says i'm a night person but i really DO like the
morning (she laughs when i say 10am is the morning and
i know what she means but just give me some time...i'll
be up at six am...she'll see...)
i'm so out of touch with
the day to day around here...i mean after a week or so
away i usually catch up on the big stuff like brett's
over her cold or the racoon got into the garbage again.
but the little delicate day to day wonders like discovering
the spider's web behind the refrigerator or the A+ on
the test that's now week-old news it hurts being 'out
of the loop'. no wonder some folks just pour themselves
back into their work...at least their work 'understands'
well, hopefully those self-pitying
thoughts will be more and more behind me what with the
decision i've made to get off the road. i glance through
the panelled den off to the left into the tiled gazebo,
nobody there...'hmmm, let's see, it's monday and what
happens on monday...uh, oh yeah brett (used to be button
but she's four years old now and aside from an intense
six months where she wanted to be known only as dorothy
- as in wizard of oz dorothy - button has become brett;
we've endorsed the 'changeover' trying to avoid the use
of liz as a nickname which ironically, of course, finally
becomes her operative name starting in her early twenties)
is at ethical culture school and betty, mmmmm...probably
working on westchester magazine...so i wonder if the
mail came yet'
i pause briefly to look in
at the huge unfurnished living room. with twenty foot
high ceilings and a railing from the second floor that
overlooks the huge forty by sixty foot room, betty and
i just threw up our hands in helplessness...to do this
room right...well, it's just not the kind of folks we
are...who are we trying to kid...we're not about to spend
the ten thousand dollars required to 'do up' this living
room and turn it into the kind of 'baronial ballroom'
it deserves. so we put in a little projection booth where
the passageway goes out to the porch and at least we
use it when ever we rent a movie and have the neighbors
over, or brett has a birthday party and foof...what a
waste...this entire house for three of us and a maid.
i mean there's a bedroom and a workspace on the fourth
floor that we have some vague plans about converting
into a japanese inn kind of feeling...the third floor
has three bedrooms, a sewing room, a dressing room and
the list goes on...off the kitchen a two room suite with
bath for live-in help, and down in the basement...foof...the
two car garage under the kitchen with a door that leads
to a darkroom, a laundry room, a furnace room, my office
adjacent to the recording studio and control room, a
hall leading to a piano alcove where i keep the upright
player piano that i use for some overdubbing and a closet
that is in reality a secret panel leading to the billiard/hi-fi
room with a separate exit to the pump and changing house
for our 40 by 60 swimming pool. i mean, i suppose it's
not what you have but what you do with it that counts
but even if that's the case, i've got to ask myself 'what
AM i doing with all this?!' i think of the simplicity
of the summertime spent with eddie and cathy mottau and
their family; eddie and i hauling boulders from the collapsed
new england stone walls to build an addition to the new
hampshire house soon to be their home.
i stop my day dreaming and
walk to the front door where, scattered on the slate
floor is the mail of the day and, of course that package
that came for betty over the weekend. 'hmmm, that's odd',
i think'...betty usually opens her department store items
right away'. i bend over and check the mailing label
"hey! this package isn't
for betty; it's for me! from maine...hey...this must
be my guitar! hey, wow!" the mail forgotten, i pick
up the large cardboard box and head for the basement
in the unreal, almost vacuum
quietness of the black-walled, red-rugged room, i cut
the twine holding the package together and gently lift
off the top. there are crumpled newspapers on top and,
oh my gosh...'there's no case here!?'...just the guitar...fortunately
it appears as though the box was handled by the carrier
with kid gloves.
i lift the casket shaped
instrument out of the box. it's fully strung and there's
a note threaded between the strings that says 'read before
"this is sebastian." reads
the note, "treat him with love and care for that
is how he came to be built."
i look once again at this
strange flat sided twelve string and think how inauspiciously
he arrived. i return to reading the next several pages
of the note which suggest brand and tension of string
to use and a bit about the wood and a brief history of
the casket style. it seems that long voyages on the sea
made for a certain kind of musical vacuum and when the
desires of the crew ran beyond shanties and the little
squeeze concertina, several planks from an empty packing
case could be fashioned together into a box and joined
with a long sturdy neck (made perhaps from a split oar)
to produce a fair replica of a guitar without of course
the tonality that results from shapely curves of steamed,
pressed and clamped hardwood.
i pick up the instrument
and laying my fingers at random somewhere in the middle
of the neck i strum sebastian for the first time.
any musician, from serious
composer to jazz virtuoso, knows the extent to which
coincidence often creates a new set of melodic options...i
could be wrong but it seems to me that most musical 'accidents'
just challenge the status quo; the 'established' way
of presenting the inversion of a chord.
the twelve string has so
many overtones and particularly because of the third
string's octave tuning, the combination of high notes
with the non-fretted open strings produce a tonal range
that more resembles a harpischord than a guitar. and
so it was with astonishment that i discovered the opening
chord for the chorus of a song that later became 'sebastian'.
equally astonishing was the fact that the entire guitar
arrived in tune! it's hard enough to keep a 12 string
in tune from song to song, but this box had managed to
travel from maine to westchester county intact and intune!
but, about the song: originally
begun as a description of sebastian's arrival, the song
lay around in it's one chorus-two verse state for a year
or so. though my songs are usually grammatically correct,
i must admit i looked the other way when producing the
sentence-with-no-subject in the second verse ("...hiding
his eyes so they won't look surprised when the hand reaches
down for the note; the one that his mother wrote and
tied with a string to his neck") it was just too
delicious a chain of events to make 'proper'. however,
current pop music examples to the contrary, a chorus
and two verses doth not a song make and it wasn't until
well after abilene texas that a last verse could be written.
but that's for later...
WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE
AND THE REST OF HIS LIFE TO BEGIN
SEBASTIAN IS WEARING A GRIN UNDER HIS NOSE
AND OUT ON THE GRASS
HE CAN HEAR IT AT LAST;
THE RUSH OF A BIRD TO ITS HOME
AND THEN WHILE UNPACKING A COMB
HE THINKS OF A SONG THAT HE KNOWS...
SING SWEET SEBASTIAN; SING THE SWEETEST SONG
SING SO SWEET THAT WHILE YOU SLEEP YOUR MELODY LINGERS ON...
* this story is included
in John Schroeter's new book "BETWEEN THE STRINGS
- THE SECRET LIVES OF GUITARS" . More information
can be found at http://www.johnaugustmusic.com/