Friday, February 04, 2011

“Econotone Dreams”

c. 2011 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

It was a cold winter morning in Geauga County.

Looming crests of snow cast shadows across my driveway. But a momentary hour of sunshine brightened the day. I felt ready to travel.

The landscape sparkled with wild luminosity. Everything had been drenched in freezing rain, overnight. Now, the roadway was clear. Yet the touch of Jack Frost remained. Tree branches tipped toward the ground. Crystal patterns were framed against the sky.

After visiting the Chardon post office, and Giant Eagle, I turned toward Hambden. On the way home was the bungalow of my iconoclastic friend, Archer. As a poet, musician, photographer, marksman, and two-wheeled drifter, he always had a unique viewpoint to share.

Not surprisingly, he had decided to spend the day at home.

A Steppenwolf record was playing as I approached his front door. But before I could knock, he peered through the glass.

“Heyy, Rod!” he laughed. “You stoppin’ by for some coffee?”

He had sent an invitation by e-mail, weeks ago.

“Yeah, that’s right,” I agreed.

The door creaked open, with a cascade of falling snow.

“You won’t believe the old percolator I found,” he boasted. “It came from a shop in Cleveland Heights. Like the kind of thing people had when I was a kid.”

I nodded with appreciation. “So, what have you been doing with all this downtime?”
Archer scratched his graying beard.

“Cursin’ the day I moved back from California,” he bellowed. “Other than that… just catchin’ up on unfinished projects. Gotta get my bike running this year, so I have the motor torn apart in my kitchen. And I put a new set of tuners on my Guild guitar. There’s a lot to do.”

I nodded again. “That sounds very productive.”

He pulled out the antique percolator while we were talking. “Ain’t this thing heavy? It’s got more chrome than a Harley-Davidson chopper!”

I was amazed by its heft.

“An example of lost craftsmanship,” I observed. “No wonder they lasted so long.”

My friend started a pot of coffee as we were talking.

“Well anyway, what have you been doing lately?” he asked.

“Reading,” I reflected. “About Nathan Daniel.”

“Who?” he stammered.

“Nathan Daniel,” I repeated. “The guy behind Danelectro guitars.”

His face brightened. “Ha, ha, ha, I remember those! I had one out of the Sears catalog.”

“Thousands of careers began with one of them,” I smiled. “Their amplifier-in-the-case models were insanely popular.”

“So, what’s the scoop on those axes?” he said, quizzically.

I unfolded a piece of newsprint, and began to read:

“The very first Danelectro guitars were built beginning in 1954. For many teen-agers, this was their first instrument. Brand new, the cheapest models cost as little as $69.00. Many were sold by Sears, under the label ‘Silvertone.’ The most popular models came in a case with a built-in amplifier. Today, that $69.00 guitar, unmodified, and in excellent condition could cost you $500.00 or more. Because they were so cheap, many Danelectros were thrown away, damaged or altered along the way. Constructed simply of wood, vinyl, masonite and Formica, Danelectros used ‘lipstick tube’ metal pick-ups that were literally purchased from a lipstick-tube manufacturer. The guitars were made simply, with no pearl adornments or expensive wood. Professional guitarists have driven up the value of authentic Danelectros because they cherish the instrument's unique sound and look. They have a bell-like tone and a very clean sound. But non-professionals, many of them nostalgic baby boomers, are also entranced. There's the show-off, cool aspect to owning one. And the rareness. They have a sound, look and color all their own.
Many of today's top rock guitarists own a ‘Danos.’ They play them on stage and use them in the studio. Joe Perry of Aerosmith once offered someone $30,000 for an entire Danelectro collection! Guitars designed by Nathan Daniel (1912-1994) never reached the pantheon of instruments made by Fender, Gibson, and Martin. But in their own way they were no less influential, their low price tag making them readily available to the masses.”

“Well that’s cool,” he said. “I see them on eBay all the time.”

“There were reproductions issued from Korea,” I explained. “Then newer models made in China. But genuine Danelectro guitars were from Neptune, New Jersey.”

“Neptune?” he chortled.

“That’s right,” I said. “Daniel’s story has always inspired me. Reading this makes me want to relive his adventure…”

Archer paused over the percolator.

“Uh, oh!” he grunted. “Don’t tell me… this is like your dream to make comic books in the style of Harvey Pekar, right?”

My face was red. “No! I want to build my own electric guitars.”

He slumped over the countertop.

“You want to do… what??” he stammered.

“Build my own electric guitars,” I repeated. “Right here in Geauga.”

The old biker rubbed his eyes. “You are crazy, Iceman. There is no doubtin’ that.”

“Come on!” I pleaded. “Haven’t you ever had a dream?”

“Sure,” he said. “I dream every day. I dream about gettin’ back to California. I dream about gettin’ my Hawg back on the road. Stuff I can really do… you know?”

My face was red. “I can build a guitar!”

“Sure, okay buddy,” Archer muttered. “So how do you get started?”

I took another scrap of paper out of my pocket.

“Look at this!” I boasted. “My first ad for the new Econotone brand!”

His jaw dropped open.

“You are Harvey Pekar, after all,” he huffed.

“Gibson and Fender make great instruments,” I said. “But there is a need out there… for affordable guitars made right here in Ohio. It can be done. The result would be more appreciation for music, and more jobs for our people.”

“Now you sound like a politician,” he groaned.

“Not at all,” I protested. “Just a creative voice wanting to be heard.”

“So, where did you get the design?” he wondered out loud.

“The idea first struck me thirty years ago,” I confessed. “But lately, a certain model of ‘SX’ guitar grabbed my attention on the Internet. It looks like a Fender Jazzmaster with the lower body trimmed away. Very much like a surf-era relic with tailfins. I reckon a re-interpretation of that would be my starting point. The Econotone E-1.”

Archer snorted with amusement.

“Okay, buddy,” he said at last. “That’s cool I guess. If you can write books and report for a newspaper, I guess you can build your own axes, too. But right now… let’s have some of that old-time coffee!”

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