Pride Month — My first 12-string guitar

Feb. 9, 1964 — an evening burned into the fabric of nearly every American youngster my age — The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. Actually, the Fab Four appeared on television three consecutive Sunday nights, and the British Invasion was on. By April they owned the top five spots in the top-10 (with seven other songs in the top 100). I think it’s unlikely that will ever happen again.

Yeah, that’s 13-year-old me on Feb. 10, 1964 with combed forward hair in my improvised collarless jacket. I didn’t know it yet, but I was a goner! Guitar player walking.

Responding to a never-ending series of frantic requests, on Christmas 1964 I got my first guitar  — a Silvertone 1478 (made by Harmony), sort of like a Fender Jaguar but without the fancy electronics. It cost a small fortune for a poor family like mine — about $89 — on the good old charge card. (They tell me you had to have pretty good credit to get a Sears card in those days.)

Like many kids my age, the dream-bug of being a musician bit me hard. My biggest issue — I didn’t know how to play! All I could do was plug in and raise a God-awful racket. That changed fairly quickly when four junior high classmates and I (two of whom were already taking guitar lessons at a local music store) formed my first band — The Ravens. No bass. No drums. Just five know-nothing guitar players sharing a couple of amplifiers in somebody’s bedroom playing surf stuff like “Church Key,” “Pipeline,” “Wipe Out” or “Walk Don’t Run.” None of us were brave enough to sing yet. Every day after school, I would grab my caseless guitar in one hand and pump my skateboard as fast as I could about half a mile north up Van Ness Avenue to Kent’s house so I wouldn’t be late for band practice. I sure didn’t want to miss out on learning how to play our newest number!

The Beatles “Hard Day’s Night” movie exposed all of us wannabe possers to the Rickenbacker 12-string, which at about $350 rose far beyond our budgets. My paper route money could never cover that expense. Despite that insurmountable barrier, I unabashedly lusted wholeheartedly after a 12-string just the same.

The Fab Three and Me!

My dreams were answered the next Christmas when a used Hans Hauser acoustic/electric 12-string (much like a Hoyer, and they may, in fact be exactly the same thing from what I can tell) appeared under the Christmas tree — a gift from Toni Bruce. It wasn’t an expensive guitar. 12-string guitars have never gained wide popularity, and Toni discovered it at a pawn shop downtown for about $25. I’m guessing it probably found its way to me via a serviceman who served in Germany, its country of origin.

Toni and I had spent many hours talking about and listening to music in her tiny apartment in the back of a house across the street, chain smoking cigarettes and chain drinking Folger’s instant coffee. With her massive collection of never paid for record club vinyl (you could get 12 records for a penny with the promise to buy 12 more over the next year), she turned me on to all kinds of music to which I never would have paid any attention — all the big bands and singers, western swing, Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey and most especially her favorite, Edith Piaf.

Trying to learn the craft of songwriting, I frequently shared my new compositions with her, sometimes just running across the street with my guitar in hand to share my latest composition, complaining all the while it would really sound better on a 12-string (although I’d never played one of those outside of a music store). Toni always encouraged me and said my songs needed “more bounce.” I was a prolific songwriter in those days, and I probably churned out the better part of 100 songs in a three- or four-month period. I spent a lot of time sharing at Toni’s house.

I never imagined Toni would buy me a 12-string guitar. We had quite a bond between us, and music was a big part of that. She was gay and I was straight and we were more than 20 years apart in age, so there never was any kind of sexual attraction or any of that sort of nonsense. We just clicked and became close friends.

A few years later when I called mom to just check in while doing some shows in Southern California, she told me Toni was dying in a hospital in Compton. I went to see her, and she told me of all these beings who were visiting her in her room — which I’ve since found out is a fairly common experience among the dying. I have several legal pads where she scribbled the truth of all those secrets of the universe the beings shared with her, but I can’t read more than a word or two or three here and there. I spent a few hours at the hospital sitting in a chair next to her bed, holding her hand in mine, and we said our goodbyes. I headed to a show in Ventura, and she died a couple of days later.

I held on to that old guitar for several years, but as I moved up in the music scene, I had a chance to buy a better 12-string and I had to sell the Hauser to help pay for it.

But you know what? I still keep my eyes peeled on eBay and Reverb hoping I might see my old guitar up for sale someday. I would recognize it. I know it’s a horrible long shot, but stranger things have happened in the music world.