A Bird Painted Like A High Plains Sunset
I felt like an E minor chord at this time of my life. You can see the hummingbird on the pick guard, just below my right hand. I think it's 1974.
It was an epic road trip in 1973. Two long-haired teen-age hippies, a school bus-yellow Volkswagen Beetle, and a Mission: Each of us questing for THE GUITAR of our dreams.
My road buddy, Wayne, assured me “no problem” as we slid the 12 volt 1967 engine into the ’59 Bug with the 6 volt system. We had mastered the art of VW engine swaps, and this one seemed an improvement - a reliable newer engine with 1500 cc power. It would be the bane of the journey.
Every hundred miles or so we blew the main fuse in the engine compartment. Solution: Fill the glove box with spare fuses and perfect the 15-second Fuse Switchout Maneuver when it blew. The burned out windshield wiper motor was a challenge, but only when it rained. The accordion sunroof helped- the passenger would peel it back, pop up, and wipe down the windshield, temporarily restoring visibility. More problematic was when the starter motor burned out - solved by creatively parking on a slope, the snubby nose of the Bug pointing downhill. For you kids who have never driven a manual transmission, you roll down the hill in neutral, then engage the clutch, slip into 2nd gear, and pop the clutch. The car lurches a bit, then the engine catches and purrs merrily on its way. This hack was a pain on busy city streets or when we had to push start the Bug on the flat. An afternoon in a junk yard in Dover, Delaware yielded a used 12 volt starter and wiper motor that solved the issues.
Not many guitars in DC, but we did get to see the beginning of the end of Nixon. That's why I'm smiling.
Wayne’s dream guitar was a Martin D-35. Mine wasn’t as specific. Maybe a Gibson J-45, like I knew my heroes Bob Dylan and John Lennon played, or any Martin with a D in the name. Wayne saved up a nice chunk of cash working at the packing plant. I painted houses and managed to squirrel away $300. As we lurched our way through the South avoiding rainstorms, we zeroed in on the pawn shop rows outside army bases. We’d check out the inventory, then test play the possibles. I had a somewhat vague idea of the sound I wanted, kind of a mellow, sweet baby James Taylor-ish vibe. Driving up the east coast, we hit music stores and pawn shops with no luck. We toured the C.E. Martin luthiery in Nazareth, PA for inspiration.
After a few days as the only living boys in New York, sightseeing out of a seedy, cheap room at the Greenwich Hotel, we took the train out of the city to White Plains, where the Bug was parked. Wayne was hopeful. We learned at the Same Ash store in NYC that the White Plains store had a D-35. There, Wayne picked up the gorgeous guitar with its tripartite rosewood back, strummed it, played the opening riff to You've Got A Friend, and laid his money down. His quest was over.
Wayne at the Greenwich Hotel, New York City, just before the end of his quest.
It was a For Sale notice on a bulletin board at Boston College. 1971 Gibson Hummingbird. I’d never heard of that Gibson model and probably would have passed it up, but Wayne assured me they were good guitars. I tore off the phone number and we searched out a pay phone. The guy told us to stay where we were, he’d come and pick us up and take us to the guitar. It felt more like we were buying three fingers of weed than a guitar. Fifteen minutes later a two-tone van, white on top, rust on the bottom rattled up and off we went.
That three fingers of weed? Our driver musta smoked it already. We sped down streets the wrong way, spun improbable u-turns, and careened over the Charles River to Cambridge. At a fourth floor walk-up apartment, I pulled the Hummingbird from its case, laid it on my knee and strummed some chords. A gentle, balanced sweetness wafted like warm smoke from the sound hole. I smiled. Will you take $235? Sold.
The Hummingbird has been with me for almost 50 years. We’ve both had some repair work and are a little worn from wear. But I like to think we are making the best music of our lives. The Quest wasn’t over in 1973. It was just beginning. It continues with every humming note from that beautiful bird painted like a High Plains sunset.
The Hummingbird today, after three major repairs, the normal finish checking and the usual nicks and dings. Pick action has almost effaced the hummingbird. Don't worry, Buddy. She's well humidified now.