Lucky Me

by Matt Olson

I don't remember exactly who or where, but someone, either entertained or annoyed by my guitar playing, asked "What is her name?" The question was in reference to the guitar, and the whole misunderstanding should be blamed on B. B. King. He had a succession of guitars that he called "Lucille." For many years, Gibson guitar company produced a semi-hollow body electric (your choice of glossy Black or Red) called "Lucille" in honor of B. B..  I'm not sure if they still make it these days. I once owned a Lucille for 3 weeks or so. I don't remember whether it was the Black or Red version. The point is that lots of folks think guitars should be named after women because they (the guitars) have curvaceous bodies and often break your heart. But that was B. B. King's influence.

Eric Clapton, no guitar slob, named one of his guitars "Blackie" and another "Brownie." Guess why? Willie Nelson, surely an official guitar player, named his guitar "Trigger," after Roy Rogers' horse. This was Roy Rogers, the TV cowboy in the 50s and maybe 60s, not the great slide guitar player. Stevie Ray Vaughan had guitars named “Number One,” “Red,” and “Yellow.” See? So if we can agree that guitars aren't necessarily named after women, I can tell you how I got my guitar and how it got it's name. The entire story is a strange and twisted convergence of somethings. Might be energies. Might just be nonsense.

I got a toy guitar when I was 4 or 5, but it was just a toy. I first tried to guitar, for real, in 1962, and I wanted an electric guitar. Of course, that was not to happen. Electric guitars were for rock 'n roll juvenile delinquents and punks. My parents would have none of it, and they had the onliest checkbook that could have paid for a 1961 or '62 Les Paul or Stratocaster. My lawnmowing money just didn't make it. Imagine how my career trajectory would have changed if I only had an electric guitar and a pair of black jeans--both forbidden. My father told me that if I would play a classical guitar and take lessons--better yet, if I learned to play Flamenco-- I might get an electric one day. I actually thought about it for a few minutes. Then I realized that the owner of the music store in our little town was not a source of classical or Flamenco lessons. In fact, all he taught to his 2 or 3 guitar students was country/western strumming. No classical guitar or lessons in my near future, unless I wanted to strum classical with a guitar pick while yodeling about the Red River Valley. One of my friends taught me 1 or 2 chords on his acoustic guitar, and that was about it. The Beatles and Rolling Stones had not yet arrived in the USA, but their insane successes only made my guitar problem worse.

Next was Albuquerque in 1965. My girlfriend was taking guitar lessons and taught me the chords to "Abilene," a country strum song that I have long forgotten, because I was motivated. She showed me a few more chords and stuff, but I was more interested in her than her guitar. Nonetheless, the seeds were planted. Bob Dylan released Highway 61 Revisited that year, and I began to gobble up older Dylan songs and songbooks, which were really interesting for the lyrics. I could read the words, but I still had no guitar or reasonable facsimile.  I started to write obtuse poems, which I would set to imaginary music once I got my imaginary guitar. Nevermind the delusion about learning to play the instrument. My friend Sally listened patiently to the poems and agreed that I was a troubled youth.  

In 1966, my parents moved to Waukesha, Wisconsin, just for fun. I managed to save enough money to buy my very first guitar from Joe Bose, at a shop on North Avenue, in Milwaukee. It was a Harmony brand. I worked hard, and the guitar worked pretty well. When I was 16, that guitar became guitar parts, thanks to Trans World Airlines. It never earned a name, gendered or no.

Parts of that guitar were bartered, along with about $200 for a new guitar, same shop, same Joe Bose, that I played for about 30 years. It was a Kalamazoo-built Epiphone Texan. It came with me to Madison and San Francisco. It traveled through Chicago and New Orleans and across Texas in the middle of the night to the safety of Albuquerque. It never got a name. A decent series of more guitars, only 4 or 5, went by. No names except for the Gibson Lucille, and that guitar came pre-named, so it doesn't count. In 1989 or 90, my loving wife, Marcie, bought me a Gibson Dove, the first high-quality instrument that I ever had. It was one of the first from the new Gibson plant in Bozeman, and I got to talk with the man who built it. For anyone familiar, it has good tone and all that, but the indentifier is a really fancy pick-guard. It is inlayed with a mother-of-pearl dove, a good choice given the name. The guy from Gibson was delighted to learn that I was a finger picker. He told me that, if I ever used a flat-pick and scratched that inlay, he would find me. Not my problem now.

One day I was reading an interview in a guitar magazine.  Richard Hoover, the interviewee and founder of Santa Cruz guitars, pointed out that you can spend money in different ways. In those days, when buying good acoustic guitars, you needed to think somewhere between $2000 and the sky, even for a used instrument. Mr. Hoover also noted that you could buy a highly decorated guitar, knowing that a substantial part of the price might be in the decorations. On the other hand, your investment could be in the craft and the sound. Among other instruments, he mentioned the Santa Cruz Model H. It stuck fast in my head, but it took me a while to find one. One afternoon, I wandered into a high-end guitar shop near the U of Minnesota campus. I asked about Breedlove, Taylor, and Santa Cruz guitars. They had a few of each. I found the first two interesting and likable but I saved the Santa Cruz H for last. The small-body guitar had such a deep, projective voice that it startled me. I thanked the staff and headed off to figure out how to get one at a price that didn't hurt too much. 

Now comes an odd part of the story, odd partly because it involves a former student named Pat. He was about 6'8" and wore a straight-up, flat-top haircut and old style, black, horned-rim glasses. His humor was wonderfully twisted, and he laughed at strange things--like when he and his girlfriend got mugged and beat up the muggers. Just thinking about him makes me smile deep-- in the best way. At the time of this event, he had graduated and worked for university admissions. There was a ruckus in the neighborhood that autumn. Someone opened a gun shop about 3 blocks from an elementary school and even closer to a couple of churches. There were people with signs, marching around and protesting in front of the store. According to city ordinance the whole thing was legal.

Pat called me one afternoon and proposed that we go down to the shop and pretend that we are interested in doing the paperwork and buying guns. How could I resist? We made our way through the 3 or 4 protestors on the sidewalk, and we rang the bell so that the owner could "buzz" us in. The owner, already wary and pissed-off, did not seem to approve of us. He asked what we wanted, and Pat told him he wanted to buy a handgun. 

"For target or for self-defense?"  And Pat said the following:

"What kind of gun would I need to really stop a guy in his tracks? Really put him down." This is true.

Mr. Gun Shop Owner beamed like a neon Christmas tree. The previous December (1993), a man opened fire on passengers riding a Long Island commuter train. Mr. Owner held up a semi-automatic pistol and announced that it was the same model used by the Long Island commuter shooter. He assured Pat that he could fire as fast as he could pull the trigger and that the gun would never jam. Best of all, the shop carried extra-large capacity magazines, soon to be declared illegal, for that model. He promised Pat that he could shoot all day. He made sure that the gun was empty and offered it to Pat so that he could "get the heft." Then he turned his attention to me.

In high school, I had a friend who owned a Browning 9mm Automatic pistol. I did not know the names of any other guns. I had a BB gun as a little kid. Had a 22 rifle for a couple of years in the early '60s. Nothing else. So, when Mr. Owner asked me what I wanted, I asked if he had a Browning 9mm Auto. Nothing doing! He explained how bad that model was and how much more I would love the Long Island commuter shooter. And so we gathered the paperwork, NRA applications, event notifications.... and left.

Pat and I began to abuse email and send each other pictures of handguns. It was a good laugh, a nice private joke. When winter rolled around, my wife, Marcie, and daughter, Mira, and I went to Champaign, Illinois to spend the holiday with my mother-in-law. The gun game was still on, but only Pat and I knew about it. Marcie's mother came home one day and announced that she had not yet shopped for my Christmas present. She was sorry and asked what I would really like. Out of the great blue, I told her "I'd like a carton of Lucky Strikes and a handgun." This was a good one, a real knee-slapper. We stopped smoking cigarettes in 1982, when our daughter was born. I don't know if I ever smoked a Lucky Strike, but it seemed funny. And, of course, we never had guns of any kind.

My wife, Marcie, went off like a Roman Candle. "Matthew! How can you say that in front of your daughter? Tell her you were just kidding!"

Instead, I told Mira about a guy I used to know who always kept his pack of Lucky Strikes wrapped up in the sleeve of his T-shirt. I tried to pantomime his very cool, Lucky Strike strut. And as for the handgun... Oh you know.

The three ladies all left to go play more shopping. I did not. When they came in at the end of the day, Marcie's mother apologized once again, and, once again, asked what I wanted for Christmas. Because my answer was so well received earlier in the day, I tried it again. We spent the evening in uncomfortable silences. I found a deck of playing cards and showed Mira how I would carry my Luckies, tucked into the sleeve of my shirt, if I was ever so lucky to get them. This did nothing to break through the silence, but I thought I was pretty funny. 

Gift exchange came and went, but there were no cigarettes or gun. I sort of forgot the whole issue, and our silence was eventually broken during the 9 hour drive home. Back to normal, more or less. A few days later, I was working at my computer in the basement. I didn't actually hear Marcie come downstairs, but she was standing behind me when I opened an e-mail from Pat. Of course it was a photo of a handgun-- a Baretta 9mm Automatic, if I remember. I chortled; she yelled.

"If you stop this, I'll buy you that damn guitar you keep moping about!" I just laughed and promised to stop sending gun pin-ups. She, on the other hand, was already in motion. She contacted Elderly Instruments, same shop where she found the Dove and I found my brief Lucille. She asked if they happened to have any used, Santa Cruz Model H guitars. They had two, and she asked them to choose between them. Three days later, when I walked in the front door, there was a large shipping box from Elderly Instruments. No guns have been mentioned since that day. No carton of cigarettes either. And she still loves me.

Nonetheless, you probably know my guitar's name now. Or maybe I'm the one who is Lucky.