August 13, 1992. The dead heart of San Diego’s dog days. Full moon, sunset, humidity, and wary egos. The sweat- and beer-damp Spirit Club on Morena Boulevard. Robin Henkel, at a front table, is wearing one of those caps that make look like a gnomish New York cab driver. He is hunched over the National Steel guitar on his lap. His glasses travel down a perspiring nose. He blinks sweat out of his eyes as he picks out slide riffs in the darkened club before opening.
The barmaid is unloading cases of beer into the cooler. Buddy Blue, in a sleeveless T-shirt exposing tattoos on each bicep/ leans against the doorjamb seeking out a breeze. Jerry Raney arrives wearing a battered brown cowboy hat and shades. He carries a guitar case and nods at Buddy, who nods back and jerks his head inside as if to say, Listen. The heat and the cataract moon hang in the twilight like elemental terrorists. The air from inside the Spirit Club is a hot rank breath. You close your eyes, listen and feel, it could be a roadhouse in the middle of a Louisiana summer 50 years ago.
In grade school, say ninth grade, in Chicago, while teachers droned about supply and demand, the Council of Trent, Thomas Hardy and fatalism, a+x over y squared equals...you fucking got me, Father — I was drawing guitars in my notebooks. Rectilinear patterns of fretboards intersected by six clean straight strings forming a coded matrix of transcendence I could not crack. Strings I had yet to suspect could be bent into the sounds that filled my dreams.
My dreams: lean, white, curving Stratocasters and pearl-inlay Gretsch Country Gentlemen; worn, woody Tellys with crisp, biting, trebly truths. Sensual/industrial-looking Les Paul customs, with their challenging/reassuring heft (play what you mean on me). Metal and wood and elegant rococo lines, smooth and provocative, inscrutable, pregnant with the promise of technology and adolescent power. Guitars, especially electric guitars, were and are to me a symbol — potent as a crucifix — of mystery: the sexual meets the divine.
A lifelong fascination shared by many men my age and younger. Why do we not see grown men at classical concerts, their faces twisted in vicarious rapture, playing air violin or air oboe?
This is, I realize, to say nothing of the women who linger over guitar sounds and dream their own dreams. Women who are, in some way, irrationally but undeniably moved by the sound itself — guitar.
Six chairs onstage. One for each guitarist and one for me. Dave Britton is running late. Raney is leaning against the north wall, uncertain if he wants to be a part of this. Uncertain what this is. So am I. Everyone seems to know Buddy Blue, but Raney hasn't met Jaye, just heard of him, and vice versa. Jaye doesn't really know Gazlay, and Gazlay’s looking dubious. Everyone except Britton takes a seat in the row. Blue, Raney, Jaye, Gazlay, empty seat for Britton. I take up a chair at stage left. About 30 more people have arrived. Some of them are musicians, others have congregated in response to the Spirit ad announcing “GUITAR SUMMIT!” and the handful of names synonymous with fret-board pyrotechnics in this town.
Willie Jaye, from Austin, Texas, arrives without a guitar. He is wearing a white cowboy hat over short dreadlock-braided hair, a flowery vest over a black T-shirt. He scopes the situation, “I didn’t bring no guitar. I thought this was just like an interview.” “That’s all right,” someone says. “There’s a lot of guitars around. Maybe you could borrow one.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Jaye looks around uneasily again. “What is this anyway?” he asks, meaning the occasion, the gathering of guitarists, the six chairs lined up in a row on the stage behind six microphones. He does not seem as interested in an answer as he is in Henkel’s laptop Dobro guitar. Jaye listens and, trance-like, seats himself at a table next to Henkel.
Rick Gazlay arrives looking like one of the Beach Boys from their post-“Good Vibrations” era or a psychedelic tennis pro. Shorts, paisley shirt, ponytail and red beard, a multicolored brow visor, guitar case. He greets Robin Henkel, who often plays around the corner from Gazlay in the Gaslamp, when Henkel is gigging at Croce’s and Gazlay is at Patrick’s II. An onlooker, also a musician, scans the five guitarists, grins, and says, “Roomful of blues, huh?”
“Roomful of Egos,” says a deadpan Buddy Blue. “That’s what they should call it.”
“Is everybody here?” asks Blue. “Where’s Britton?”
“He’s not here yet,” I tell him. “He said he’d be coming, though. I can’t believe everybody agreed to do this. I mean, except Billy Thompson, he’s working.”
Someone said, “Put a penguin up on one of those chairs and just, you know — you could have the penguin say what Billy might have said.”
Raney takes off his battered hat and says, “Yeah, he could just keep saying, ‘This is stupid. I’m leaving.’ ”
“Are we rolling, Joel?”
“Yessir!” Joel is not only the most compulsively affable soundman I have ever known, he is also, as I think on it, the only affable soundman I have known.
Britton arrives. We’re just a few minutes late, and Blue wants to clear the stage by 9:00 p.m. Plenty of time for whatever is going to happen. This could be a hash, a complete failure — a contrived, fatuous session that might have all the dynamic entertainment value of watching ice melt. Or it could be a fireworks display of virtuosity. I find myself hoping for a fistfight, anything but nervous boredom.
Britton clambers onto the stage wearing shorts and dragging a custom-made natural wood Guild guitar (specially contoured to his body, he would later say) along with a Gorilla amplifier the size of a toaster. His straight, dirty-blond hair falls over his face and shoulders; I can’t see what he looks like. I’ve never heard him, only his name uttered by the under-30 metal rock fans I know. Only Buddy Blue seems to know this kid, who says he is 30 but.... He looks like he’s going to blow chunks of Eddy Van Halen all over the stage. I find it curious and reassuring that Britton’s is the smallest amp on the stage. It’s a toy.