Round the Dial
Wednesday 23 July @ 15:07:10
by Tom Hallett
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “I have a low tolerance for mediocrity in music and life. I’m into pain and joy, and the in-between doesn’t interest me.”
SONG OF THE WEEK: “Guitar Blues”
Man, talk about strange days, indeed. I’m layin’ low at my crib, recovering from some minor surgery, tryin’ to stay outta trouble, spendin’ most of my time converting an abandoned birdhouse I found in the alley into a massive purple Tribute To Motown (that’s one way to get rid of those annoying little plastic raisin guys that’ve been sittin’ on my shelf since the early ’90s), and gettin’ the most outta my prescriptions. Do ya think I can escape the mad, mad, mad, mad world of rock an’ roll? Nawwww.
John Koerner's guitar
Thursday evening, July 17th, I’m kickin’ it in front of the A/C and the tube, watching a kickass video compilation Turf Club rock guru Rob Rule put together of some of the club’s greatest shows from the past few years, when I get my hands on a copy of last week’s Pulse. I trip out on rock ’n’ roll soldier Donny “Q” Doane’s cover story on Twin Cities stalwarts The Quincy Punx, nod with approval at the excellent exposé on Scud Mountain Boys founder/Pernice Bros. frontman Joe Pernice, then flip over to my column, where I’d hoped to see an excellent reproduction of the artwork for The Rogue States’ debut album, Flag Day, accompanying my review of the band’s show and album.
Instead, my eyes are greeted by the über-depressing headline, “JOHN KOERNER’S GUITAR: STOLEN.” I immediately forget about album cover art and start commiserating psychically with “Spider” John. Man, what a drag, I remember thinking. Some dumb-ass junkie probably broke into the folk/blues legend’s car and ripped off his axe, not having a clue whose it was or what, historically, it meant to the world. Typical bullshit. I notice in the accompanying photo of the guitar, a 12-string Gretsch, that the company logo is misspelled as “GRETSRH.” Very strange, I remember musing. Shouldn’t be too hard to locate with that kind of an oddity involved. I took a big swig of Vi-Q-Tuss cough syrup and tossed the paper aside, figuring I could help spread the word later, after a nice nap.
Suddenly, the phone rang. It was my roadie/publisher/designer pal, Ron Schreiner (he’s worked with damn near every stadium band you can name, most recently schlepping gear for ’80s hair-metal giants Firehouse), who wanted to stop by and cheer me up with his unique wit and charm and one-of-a-kind chortle. “Far out,” I said. “Come on over, man, let’s kick it for awhile and rap about how green the grass is on this side of the fence. Heheh.”
So Ron swings by, we chill for a half hour or so, and then I remember the article on Koerner’s guitar. What the hell, I figure, Ron knows more people in the music biz than Robert John “Mutt” Lange, so why not show him the piece and maybe he’ll run into somebody somewhere who’s seen the axe recently. A long shot, I know, but one never knows about such things, does one? Answer: HELL NO, ONE DOES NOT!! I tossed the paper to Ron, and he took one look at the photo of John’s stolen guitar and said, “I know this guitar. I’ve SEEN this guitar. I HELD THIS GUITAR IN MY ARMS JUST THE OTHER NIGHT!!”
Now, I know what you’re thinkin’. I told ya Ron has a great sense of humor, loves to shoot the shit and match stories with the best of ‘em. Thing is, where most people’s B.L. (Bullshit Line) is pretty easy to spot, Ron’s isn’t—mainly because his far-out stories are all true. So when he insisted that he’d actually seen the guitar, I started taking him seriously. When he pulled his cell phone out and called John Koerner (whose number was listed in the article), I knew for damn sure he wasn’t jivin’ me. Koerner wasn’t home when Ron called, so he left a message assuring him that he’d seen the axe and would most likely be able to bring it on home to papa ASAP. Ron and I then went about finishing up our little pow-wow, and he went on his way with assurances that he’d contact me as soon as Mr. Koerner had his instrument safely back in his arms.
Here’s Ron’s side of how he got involved and what happened after he left Chez Hallett:
“In the beginning..oh wait, not *THAT* far back! (heh) OK, so let’s go to Friday, June 11th instead. I was at a bar with a friend of mine, hanging out and having a few drinks, when this guy came in and sold my pal a guitar and amp for $80.00. Flash forward to July 17th. I was over at another friend’s house (yeah, I know a lot of people), and just by chance he tosses me the latest issue of Pulse to show me this blurb on a stolen guitar. I had no idea who John Koerner was, but my first reaction and words were “I’ve seen this guitar. Not only that, I’ve held it and I know where it is!” Now, the guy’s house I’m at happens to be none other than Tom Hallett of Pulse Newspaper. He was amazed that only in such a short time since the guitar and amp were stolen, and the article in Pulse came out, the stuff was found.
I immediately called my friend and told him that the stuff belonged to John, and that I needed to get it back for him. He agreed, and in fact, even stated that when he bought it, he wasn’t sure if the guitar and amp was stolen or the guy selling it just fell on hard times and needed the cash. He said, “If it is stolen, whoever owns it, I’d like to see them get it back.” John said he wouldn’t press charges, just wanted his stuff back, and even paid my friend back his $80.00. So I dotted my i’s and crossed my t’s and met my friend, got the guitar with amp, brought it back to John, and was happy to make it all turn out OK.
On my way to bring John his stuff, I was nailed with a $130 speeding ticket (I was 13 mph over in a 40 mph zone.) John was kind enough to pay for the ticket and such. He’s quite the nice gentleman, and I’d love to go to one of his shows sometime. We sat around and talked music, the business, about various artists, ideas, and shared some nice wine while doing it all.
When I’m not recovering stolen gear for its rightful owners, I run a computer desktop publishing business doing Web sites, CD design/layout, clothing, etc., for bands and musicians. We’re geared towards the music and entertainment industry. My company, A440 Graphics (http://www.a440graphics.com Phone: 651-334-3638) has a motto: “We’re in tune with your needs,” and we hope we stay that way for a long, long time. I also hope that John’s guitar stays in tune, and in his possession, for many years to come.”
“Spider” John Koerner gained fame and acclaim in the early ’60s for his work with Koerner, Ray & Glover, the Minneapolis trio who influenced folk/blues artists as diverse as Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt, played the Newport Folk Festival, and pretty much made Dinkytown and the West Bank THE hot spots for young blues/folk artists to play. And though they haven’t been an official “band” since 1966, KR&G are still revered today as pioneers in their field. Koerner, despite a massive triple bypass operation a few years back, continues to play and wow new generations of fans today, and was naturally thrilled to get his beloved guitar back. Once the dust had settled and all the people, places, and things involved in this little Encyclopedia Brown-style rock n’ roll mystery were all where they rightfully belonged, I called John to get his take on the return of the guitar, how life’s been going for him since the recent loss of his good friend Dave “Snaker” Ray, and what he thinks about the latest rock gossip concerning his one-time protegé, the inimitable Mr. Bob Dylan (recent stories report that many of the lyrics for the free-stealin’ Mr. D’s latest effort, Love And Theft, were lifted from a hard-to-find book about a Japanese gangster called “Confessions Of Yakuza”). Here are some highlights from that interview:
Tom Hallett: So tell me about the guitar: where you got it, what it means to you, and so forth.
John Koerner: Around eight years ago, a friend of mine in Boston gave me that guitar. It was constructed in 1947, it was a Gretsch, a six-string. When I got it, the neck was coming out of the body. I took the neck out completely and it sat in my closet for five years or so. And then a friend of mine named Charlie Jerrousek—who’s a guitar maker and used to have Arrowhead Music up in Duluth, now he’s down near Safety Harbor, Tampa Bay, Florida—came through town. And I said, “Charlie, do you wanna work on this for me?” And he said OK, and he took it back to Florida with him. And then we had a conversation, or more than one, about whether to leave it as a six string or make it into a twelve-string, which is what I had planned. And one night I called him up and I says, “Charlie, let’s just make it into a regular old six-string like it used to be,” and he says, “too late!”
TH: So where did the misspelling of Gretsch come in, was that a mistake at the factory?
JK: I believe so! I can’t see how it would’ve happened otherwise.
TH: You’ve gotta know that’s the one thing that brought that guitar back to you.
JK: Well, the identification was obvious!
TH: So where have you played that guitar? Has it been at some special shows, or has it been pretty much your staple for the past eight years, or what?
JK: Well, it’s been about three years now. Since Charlie finally put it together, it’s been about three years. I’ve played it in Florida, and I’ve played it on the East Coast, and I’ve played it on a bunch of jobs here, I’ve played it on the Garrison Keillor show a couple months ago.
TH: Did you play it at the tribute to Dave Ray?
JK: It was also there. You know, in the past three years, it’s been on everything I’ve done.
TH: How are things going for you now, with the loss of Ray? Are you finding you’re able to fill in some of the holes in your life with him gone, or is it still real tough?
JK: Well, a couple of things. I mean, it’s really a dumb thing—(that people assume the loss of Ray has changed John’s playing habits) you know, I mean, there’s no longer any such thing as KR&G—and that’s really dumb. And the obvious thing, seeing Dave go down was really hard to handle. You know, but you continue on. I was a little more worried about Tony (Glover) than I was myself, because Tony played a lot of jobs with Dave. But apparently he’s found some people to play with, so that’s all happening.
TH: Are you still pickin’ with (Randy) Webb and those guys down at the Viking?
JK: Once in awhile, it’s just kind of scattered, but one thing or another happens, yeah.
TH: Let’s talk just for a second about you gettin’ the guitar back. I hear you actually paid for Ron’s speeding ticket. Sounds like you really went overboard on the pay-out end of things with this guitar, man.
JK: Yeah, well, that’s the story. To tell you the truth, mainly I just wanted to get it all over with and hope everybody was satisfied. And so now it’s done, and financially, it’s just another bump in the road, you know.
TH: Are you playing any gigs in the next few weeks?
JK: Let’s see, next weekend I go up and I’m playing a thing in McGregor, Minnesota. And then I’m getting myself back down here as quickly as I can in the evening to Palmer’s Bar, to play PalmFest, that’ll be on the 26th, and I’ll be down there around five or six o’ clock.
TH: Are you bringing that bad boy guitar with ya?
JK: Yeah! (snickers)
TH: Just be careful with it this time, John! One more question: I’m wondering what you think of the latest news about Dylan. Have you heard about him supposedly lifting his lyrics from some book in Japan? What do you think about that?
JK: I saw the piece in the paper about that.
TH: Have you heard the record?
TH: What’s the last thing you have heard from him?
JK: I haven’t talked to him in a long time...
TH: No, I meant as far as music goes. I guess the author of that book is pretty tickled that Bob was inspired by his work, and actually found that he likes Dylan’s music.
JK: I hate to say this, but I don’t listen very much anymore. But as far as it goes with the thing about the lyrics, to me, it’s just totally typical. The Japanese guy’s reaction was totally appropriate. I mean, it’s all free. We all make art out of other people’s art. And that’s OK.
TH: Didn’t Bob used to lift your guys’ records when he was a kid? (chuckles)
JK: (hesitates) Well...I don’t know, you know? Like I say, it doesn’t make any difference.
TH: It’s all community property, right?
JK: I would say that, yeah.
JOHN KOERNER—REQUIRED LISTENING:
Blues, Rags, And Hollers (w/Koerner, Ray & Glover), 1963
Lots More Blues, Rags, And Hollers (w/K, R & G), 1964
Spider Blues, 1965
The Return Of Koerner, Ray & Glover (w/K, R & G), 1966
Running, Jumping, Standing Still, 1969
Music Is Just A Bunch Of Notes, 1972
Some American Folk Songs Like They Used To, 1974
Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Been, 1980/1986
Raised By Humans, 1992
Big ups once again to Mr. Ron Schreiner, who can be certain that the gods of rock are smiling down upon him with pleasure and approval tonight and every night. You kick ass, Ron!! Thanks also to John Koerner for his graciousness and time, and for all the great music he’s played and will play in the future. “Spider” will play PalmFest at Palmer’s Bar in Minneapolis (500 Cedar Avenue, 612-333-7625) on Saturday, July 26th, around 5 p.m. And that’s it for me this week, kids. Until next time—make yer own damn news.
If you have local music news/gigs/events that you’d like to see listed in this column, or you’d just like to help solve a rock n’ roll mystery with “Sherlock Hallett,” send replies to: TMygunn777@aol.com.