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1967

1967


SEBASTIAN 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 on counters.

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", he replies.

"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 get serious.

"sure", he replied.

"just like that one?", i asked still disbelieving.

"if you want", he allowed.

"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 ROOM
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' them!

'sigh'.

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 again.

"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 studio.

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 playing'.

"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/


 

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