In the Spirit of Medicine: The Red Guitar
He turned on the amplifier and I expected to hear the twangy sounds of the 1950’s. Poodle skirts and ducktail haircuts were in my mind, but what came out of the guitar was the blues. Not just any blues, but the heart-wrenching blues from a life that didn’t deliver what was expected. I could hear his anguish and the guitar moaning as he was saying goodbye to an old friend who was moving on and leaving him behind.
In the Spirit of Medicine features the essays of Dr. Arne Vainio, an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and a family practice doctor on the Fond Du Lac reservation in Cloquet. His essays on life, work, medicine, and spirit are published on Indianz.com and you can find the transcript of this story below.
The Red Guitar
By Arne Vainio, M.D.
Our son Jacob plays piano, but has recently started to play guitar.
Randy and I were best friends in high school. His older brother Mike played guitar in several bands. Randy and I used to get into bars by carrying band equipment in before the shows and we would just stay for the rest of the night. Mike is still legend in my memory as a guitar player and we felt cooler than we actually were just by being associated with him.
Mike’s guitar was a cherry red Gibson SG Standard. This is the same guitar played by Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin, Angus Young from AC/DC, Eric Clapton, George Harrison from the Beatles, Pete Townshend from The Who and scores of other famous guitar players. No doubt Jacob will have many guitars, but most guitar players find a favorite or two that stay with them.
I wanted a used guitar because it would have some history behind it, so I placed an ad: “High end electric guitar wanted. This will be a gift for my 13 year old son. I want him to have a guitar he will treasure forever. I need this to be in very good condition.”
I got a few answers with cheap guitars and guitars that were beat up, but one was an email stating, “I have a Gibson SG Standard that I would like to sell. It’s in good condition and it plays well.”
I was hoping to get this as a Christmas gift, but I don’t play guitar and don’t know a good one from a bad one, so Jacob had to be in on the secret.
It was a 140 mile drive to look at the guitar. Next to the house was an old truck that clearly hadn’t been driven in years. The porch was sagging and the roof had shingles missing. I knocked on the door and Frank had to open the screen door from the inside as the hinges were broken. The carpeting was old green shag carpet from the fifties and the linoleum in the kitchen was worn through.
He was 55 or so and looked worn and tired. It was two weeks before Christmas and there was a tree, but nothing under it. An older woman and a younger man sat on the worn sofa, but didn’t say anything as we walked past them to the basement stairs.
The guitar was on a stand next to an amplifier in the basement. Frank played in bars when he could and was in a band that played 50’s rock and roll. The guitar was coated in greasy yellow nicotine stains and the red was faded where Frank’s right forearm rested on the guitar. I could tell Jacob was skeptical, but underneath it all was the same guitar played by Randy’s brother Mike and all the other great guitar players.
Jacob played it for awhile and then I asked Frank if he would play it for us. This was the last time he would play it and he held it and looked at it as he said, “I found this in a pawn shop a quite a few years ago and I knew as soon as I saw it this was the guitar I’d been looking for. I had to put money down on it and it took me a long time to pay for it. This guitar and I have been through some good times and some bad times together.”
He turned on the amplifier and I expected to hear the twangy sounds of the 1950’s. Poodle skirts and ducktail haircuts were in my mind, but what came out of the guitar was the blues.
Not just any blues, but the heart wrenching blues from a life that didn’t deliver what was expected. I could hear his anguish and the guitar moaning as he was saying goodbye to an old friend who was moving on and leaving him behind. He finished playing and the amplifier held his final note for a few seconds longer.
His eyes were moist as he handed me the guitar. He held it for a little longer than he needed to, then he let go of it.
“Are you really sure you want to sell it, Frank?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’m sure. I found this other guitar I like even better.” He pointed to another electric guitar on a stand. I recognized it as a copy of a Gibson Les Paul. Not a bad copy, but still a copy and a much cheaper guitar.
I grew up poor and remember my uncle Punkin wheeling and dealing on everything. A smart seller always sets the price higher than they will accept, but there was no dealing here. I counted out the money into Frank’s hand and he folded it and stuffed it into his pocket.
I had been looking for this guitar for myself for almost 40 years and now it was mine. I turned around and handed it to Jacob and now it was his. He put it into the tattered case it came with. The case had been opened thousands of times and carried in and out of bars for years and it showed every mile. One of the locks was broken, but the rest still held.
We were all quiet as we walked back up the basement stairs and no one looked at us as we walked through the living room. As Frank was opening the broken screen door I had to turn a bit to let him by and I saw a four year old blonde girl with a dirty face and no shoes. She was standing in the bedroom doorway by the Christmas tree holding a ragged stuffed dog. When she saw me, she turned and disappeared into the bedroom and she was gone.
I ordered some guitar cleaner and polish made just for nitrocellulose finishes. I was hoping we could get a little bit of the red color back and just accept the permanent wear and stains as history. Instead what happened is the cleaner dissolved the nicotine and sweat stains completely and as I rubbed the cleaner and then the polish on the brilliance of the cherry red started to shine through and in about an hour the guitar looked like new. Jacob was holding the guitar as I was cleaning it and I could tell he held his breath a few times as the cleaner cut through some of the thickest grime.
He’s been playing it ever since and I was reminded of a line Bono from U2 sang, “All I need is this red guitar, three chords and the truth.”
And I thought about what the red guitar meant to everyone involved:
Did the original owner play his heart out with the sounds of his broken dreams before he handed it to the pawnbroker?
Frank found it and played it for years, but finally it was a means to make Christmas happen for a little girl. Even through the haunting blues he played when he last held the guitar, I didn’t understand where his love was until I saw her standing in the doorway. His time with the red guitar had passed and he was using it to make someone else’s dreams reality.
For the little blonde girl this would be the Christmas she would always remember, the Christmas where she learned Santa Claus really does listen to the prayers of a little girl who isn’t even aware of her own poverty. The Christmas where her grandfather was the happiest.
For me? I finally held in my hands the guitar I had dreamed of owning for decades and I finally did own it. Even if that ownership was for less than a minute, it was all the time I needed.
And for Jacob? He now has one of the all time great guitars and I hope it will be the one he has forever. One day he will reach for this guitar on stage and he will remember me. And this will come through the amplifier:
The music that flows through him, the broken dreams of whoever first pawned it, Frank’s deep connection and love for the guitar, but his deeper love for his granddaughter. A little girl’s best Christmas will come through and so will all of the things I’ve passed down to him without his direct knowledge.
This is the gift of the Magi.
This is the story of the red guitar.