Night Air and a Cheap Guitar

It wasn’t even fully dark, but my wife – being an early-to-bed-early-to-rise sort – had abandoned the vacation-ship for the night. Being more of a night-owl, I put down the paperback book and slipped out of the condo and into the Caribbean night.

Our rental was off to itself, but we were provided an electric golf cart and in no time I was humming my way down the road to the marina. Near a line of anchored yachts was a long, open-air bar called the Tipsy Seagull, mostly deserted, with plenty of space for me on the near side. I sat down and ordered a frosty pop. Back then, there were no mounted televisions blaring sports commentary – but there was still plenty to look at.

Probably the main grabber was the shark. Maybe eight or ten feet long, mounted below the beams of the roof. Could have been a real catch, or could have been a rubber version of a reef shark – the open-mouth toothy grin had the same Jaws effect, either way. From one end of the bar, all the way down to the other, there were hanging nets, strings of colored lights, fishing poles, seaweed, harpoons – everything but a wax-version Captain Ahab.

The bar was long and as irregular as Elbow Cay – just wide enough to be too far to have a conversation with the two or three folks sitting opposite me. That was okay, too. I was enjoying the beer, the evening air, and the whole Abaco Island vibe.

There was a young guy walking toward the bar from the marina area, and just as I noticed him, I realized he was headed straight for me. He looked like a man on a mission.

“How ya doing?” he asked, before dropping onto the barstool next to me. We exchanged pleasantries before he came to the point. He was flying back to the US in a few hours and was hoping to lighten his personal effects. “Wanna buy a guitar?”

I didn’t really want to, especially after hearing him describe it as a cheap, no-name brand, without a carrying case. Cheap… he said – which turned it into a what-the-heck kind of deal. He promised to run back to his room and return with it straightaway.

He showed up just as I was giving up on him. I dug into my pocket for some cash, and he handed it over. Star brand. Star Guitar. Five Star, to be precise. Never heard of one, but now I was a proud owner. Or at least, an owner.

As he started away, he turned back and said, “Can I play one last song on it?”

It only took a couple of seconds for me to realize he had the guitar set up with an open tuning, so he could change chords just by moving a single finger across a different fret on the neck. He had a nice voice, and did himself proud. When he handed it back, he suggested I play one for him as a way to complete the deal.

I explained that I didn’t know how to play with an open tuning, but that if he would allow me a minute, I’d give it a quick reset. After a couple of tilted-head listens and turns on the tuning keys, I launched into an easy James Taylor song – one that I could manage even on a guitar I had only just strummed for the first time. He grinned broadly through the whole song, and when I finished, he laughed and said, “Maybe one more before I’m off?” So I did.

We shook again when I was finished, and after watching him walk away, I knocked back the last dregs of my now – no longer frosty pop. I set the little guitar down on my lap and turned around to face the bar. There were four big mugs of beer sitting in front of me. And those folks who had been sitting across the way? They were sitting on the barstools just to my right.

“Will you play another one?” the lady nearest to me asked. I’m pretty sure it was more the ‘ham’ in me than any sense of social obligation from the row of beers they had sent over to me, but I launched into another. When I finished, I was flattered to see the bartender joining in the applause from down the way.

The thing is – I’m a pretty hack guitar player. A guy who knows just enough to accompany myself as a singer. And I never have professed to be anything more than a mediocre vocalist.

But I do like to sing.

It may have been the Caribbean moon, or the salt in the air, or the extra tasty drafts that were accumulating in front of me – but there came a cosmic alignment of bar crowd and goof-off strummer. Every song title that was requested over the next hour-and-a-half was – by some miracle – a song I knew how to play, and remembered the words to – at least most the words.

At one point, the woman who first spoke to me leaned in and semi-whispered, “Are you someone we should know?”

“What do you think?” I replied.

She grinned and said she thought I was. Since she obviously couldn’t come up with a name, and since I certainly WASN’T anyone she should know, we just smiled at each other with our secret safely kept.

Later, a young man was setting up a keyboard just to my right, and I realized he was likely the night’s scheduled entertainer. I was loving the evening, but I knew I was AWOL from the condo and my sleeping wife. So I gave an appreciative thanks and bid the gathering a pleasant evening. As I walked away toting my little Five Star guitar, an island constable who was standing near the bar extended his hand and smiled. He said he had enjoyed hearing me.

The smile the constable gave me, I wore all the way back to the golf cart and then glided back down the dark road to the condo. My wife was still sleeping. The guitar got propped up in a corner and I lay down on the bed thinking there could be no sleeping dream better than the waking one I had just experienced.

Next morning – bright and early – my wife and I took a walk along the gentle surf looking for some beach-side breakfast. We had managed a hundred yards or so walking along on the sand before we saw a figure approaching from the opposite direction. When he drew near, I recognized him as the constable from the Tipsy Seagull.

He took a quick step out of his way to shake my hand.

“Will you be doing a follow-up tonight? he wondered.

I glanced at my wife, whose puzzled expression told me she had slept uninterrupted through my absence of the previous evening.

“You never know,” I answered, “what might happen on an island night.”

These days, that Caribbean island refugee sits atop a book shelf in the shop, and occasionally whispers out to me to remember a moonlit evening at water’s edge, a night when I was almost a somebody.

The Battle of the Books. (Not found in Game of Thrones.)

It is pretty rare when a set of books comes in – with all the volumes present… but it happened today. And it’s always a happy day for me when Charles Dickens makes an appearance in the book shop.

Much to his dismay, the works of Charles Dickens were widely pirated, and he sold thousands of books – receiving nothing. His solicitors would send ‘Cease and Desist’ orders to U.S. publishers, who generally had ordered a copy of the latest Dickens novel and then set the type, reprinted the story, and took the profits. Copyrights were difficult to enforce in Dickens’s time, even though he made arrangements with publishers to print his ‘authorized’ version.

After his death, his works were widely reprinted in the U.S. by publishers who knew that Mr Dickens would no longer be sending legal representatives to protect his stories. The books that arrived today might be of that sort. Typically, early unauthorized editions contained no copyright information and – usually – no actual printing date. I was trying to pin down the date on this set when I ran across an ad in an Oakland Tribune issue from 1937.

The idea was to collect the twenty volume set by purchasing a couple of books at a time. (I remember doing that at the grocery store to acquire a set of Funk & Wagnall encyclopedias.) But – what a set of hoops the buyers were required to jump through!

According to the article from 1937, to obtain a set required a registration form, a printed mailing label, and a dozen ‘Dickens Certificates’ (obtained from the pages of the newspaper). Of course, the thirty-four-cent per volume price tag sounds pretty nice these days. Even the adjusted-for-inflation amount of $6.45 seems a bargain for a nicely printed hardback!

Such bargains could be offered when publishers were not required to pay royalty figures to authors or copyright holders. In the case of the Cleartype Edition library, the marketing expense was covered by the participating newspapers across the country – which also served as a distribution point for copies that were to be picked up in person rather than by mail.

Dickens wasn’t the only one ever to be defensive of his copyrighted works, and although he was vocal in his opposition to pirated copies, at least no lives were lost: the Irish in the mid-6th Century were a wee bit more emotional about their printed works. According to Wikipedia, the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne (Gaelic for the Battle of the Book) caused the deaths of some three-thousand Irish in a dispute over a copied religious book.

In the year 560 (or thereabouts), Irish abbot and missionary Saint Columba and Saint Finnian of Movilla Abbey disagreed over a religious book. Columba copied a volume owned by Saint Finnian, intending to keep the copy, but they disagreed as to whether it belonged to Saint Columba because he copied it or whether it belonged to Saint Finnian because he owned the original.

King Diarmait mac Cerbaill ruled on the disagreement, concluding that: “To every cow belongs her calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy.”

The judgment didn’t please Columba one bit. As a result, he staged a rebellion of the O’Néill clan against the King, which succeeded, but was said to have resulted in some 3,000 casualties.

Perhaps rightly shamed over the fuss, Columba took his copied book and left for Scotland, where he founded the Iona Abbey and devoted the rest of his life spreading the Christian gospel.

No lives need be lost in acquiring copies of books in our shop. And, although Charles Dickens might not have been happy about it, we are happy to offer the full set of the Cleartype Edition of his works, circa 1937, so patiently acquired by a newspaper reader and Dickens fan, in the time between the World Wars.

Music: If you don’t mind the mind…

Did you ever hear Jumpin’ Gene Simmons hit song, Haunted House? Some classic lyrics, there…

He ate the raw meat right from my hand
Drank the hot grease from the fryin’ pan
He said to me now you better run
And don’t be here when the mornin’ comes

It’s stuck in my head, sort of. I don’t remember all the lyrics – just the main guitar riff and the ‘hot grease’ part. I’m guessing it sometimes happens to some of you, too. A song you like, or don’t like, keeps playing on the jukebox-brain.

Funny thing is – and I’ve probably mentioned this somewhere along the line – there are other associations that get caught up in there. For example, I can tell you where I was when I first heard that novelty song. I was riding in a school bus with a little radio held up to my ear.

I can even tell you where the bus was driving when the song really caught my attention: we were westbound on what was formerly called Grand Avenue in McAlester.

Many years later, my brother-in-law Dennis introduced me to the music of Steve Goodman, a Chicago songwriter who died way too young. He wrote Go Cubs Go – which probably gets played more often than his song City of New Orleans, a train-riding hit for Woody Guthrie’s son, Arlo.

It was easy to remember that Dennis provided the musical introduction. We were at a family get-together and his record ended up in my Steely Dan album jacket. It was several years before we got that mix-up squared away.

For some reason, I was thinking about my mental-music-retention (talk about a slow-day-brain-activity, but anything can trigger it… the song Low Rider just came on the shop’s music system – which I remember first hearing as a DJ at Top-40 KQYX in Joplin, Missouri.): earlier, something made me think about the jarring way I was introduced to Led Zeppelin.


In Mr Sittel’s first-hour Mechanical Drawing class, we toiled away to the soothing sounds of his classical LPs, played on a little record player mounted on the corner wall. Whatever the reason, he invited us to bring in a record of our own to play during the period.

As a tenth-grader, during my first-ever stint in a public school, I was about as small as I could make myself. There were a number of seniors who sat directly across from me: I think Don Whitehead and Jim Sadler were among those sitting opposite, but I don’t think they ever spoke a word to me all year. I did listen, though, and I ascertained there was some sort of conspiracy afoot. Might have been Johnny Peccio who provided the record album.

Too naïve to know what it was all about, I watched along with everyone else as Mr Sittel carefully removed the record from the paper sleeve and got it spinning on the player. There was a palpable sense of anticipation before the first shocking blasts of guitar rolled out over our drafting tables. It wasn’t Classical Music, that’s for sure. Couldn’t have been a full couple of musical measures later before Mr Sittel grabbed the tone arm and scraped the needle from the LP.

I recall thinking that was sure to cause a scratch (something you young whippersnappers never experienced in your non-vinyl musical lives), a playback pop to be heard ever-after on what I heard described by a classmate as a ‘brand new record.’ Mr Sittel, red-faced and blustery, was none too happy.

And that was my introduction to Whole Lotta Love, the first song on Side 1, Led Zeppelin II.

Later, I acquired a copy of the record. It was one of those that was in the regular rotation, but truthfully, I was more of a Beatles fan.

And starting up their albums could be done without raising up memories of a surprised Mr Sittel, the speediest music censor ever, at McAlester High School.