Buddy Stubbs: Remembering a Guitar Man

I had just returned home to Northern California after spending an aimless couple of years in Chicago. I had no plans to speak of. You don’t need plans in your early 20s; you have all the time in the world. Back in Chicago, I had talked to my friend Sara, who lived back home, and she’d told me about some guys who had recently moved to town and were playing jug band music. I fancied myself a folk musician, and was intrigued. Before long, back in rural, coastal Mendocino County, where you have to make your own kicks, I found and fell in with them.

We jammed  – it wasn’t “practicing” yet – at Andy’s place. Andy worked as a caretaker at a nature preserve called Jughandle and lived in a rustic cabin on the land. He played banjo and was a sweet-tempered, slow-talking dude. At our second practice, he brought in a guitar player, somewhere in his 50s, who looked like he had stepped straight out of my record collection: thin as a whip, both care-worn and indestructibly handsome, with a carefully trimmed mustache set in an angular face that could have been chiseled from rare wood. He was in good shoes and slacks and a broad-brimmed hat. He said his name Buddy Stubbs.

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His given name was not Buddy Stubbs. It was Garth Beckington. He made no secret of that but I didn’t learn it until later. Many of his old friends and family called him GB. To the younger crowd of musicians he ended up running with, he was almost always Buddy.

He told me he never thought the name Garth was well-suited for a musician, Garth Hudson aside, and that when Garth Brooks came on the scene, that was the final straw. Buddy Stubbs, the name, came to him in a flash, as though given. Now that he is dead, I find myself using his birth name more often, as I communicate with his friends and family and try to tell others who he was. But, to me, in my heart, my friend’s name was Buddy Stubbs.

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Apparently he had other pseudonyms through the years. One was “Pete Ton.”

“He’s heavy,” Buddy would say.

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The whole thing, tentative at first, was elevated to an incredible degree when he started playing with us. His was a special musical genius, but it was also my first encounter with a top-shelf musician – in other words, someone who can pick up a song on one or two listens and then play it back in any key.

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There are numerous instances I can recall that demonstrate his musicianship. Every time we played together, really. But a couple stand out as illustrations of his abilities.

a) One time I brought a Chuck Berry song to rehearsal. He loved Chuck Berry. He would remove his hat at the name “Chuck Berry.” We played it a couple of times and then afterwards, during our between-song beer-drinking, he told me that the vast majority of guitarists who play Berry songs play generic versions of his famous leads and breaks – basically Johnny B. Goode on everything. He then started to show me all the different Chuck Berry riffs, and the important differences in them, the actual ingenuity of his style that has been sort of generalized into a rock ’n roll cliche. It was a master-class in Chuck Berry. Buddy wasn’t just an intuitive player: he was educated.

b) Another time I watched him rehearsing a band that was supposed to learn some Bessie Smith songs for a young woman’s school recital. The band started going into the basic 12-bar blues form. It was, let’s say, sufficient for the tunes, which are basically 12-bar blues. But it didn’t sound right. Buddy stopped the band. He explained that these early recorded blues were played by orchestras, influenced by early jazz. It was uptown stuff. He started going through all the inversions, augmentations, diminishings, passing chords. Again I saw one of the things that distinguished him from other players: sheer education.

c) More than once, when our band played out of town shows, he would be asked to sit in with the headlining group. This is pretty rare. Outside of certain communal genres with a broad shared repertoire, like jazz or bluegrass, bands are usually loathe to let a stranger sit in. They’ve practiced and practiced their set to get ready for the show and the last thing they want to do is add an unknown element at the last minute. Certainly Buddy would never ask; his manners forbade it. But they would ask him. And he’d do that thing he did: set up in the corner, in the deepest shadow he could find, and sort of fold into his guitar, symbiotically, until the notes and jagged riffs and bright arpeggios started to flow from that dark corner, chipping away at the songs to reveal their depths, contours, meanings, truths. That shadowy corner would sing, and that band would be very lucky that night.

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As someone once said to me, “Buddy is the only guy I’ve known who can wear his sunglasses at night and not look like a prick.”

He usually did wear his shades when he performed, any time of day or night. And it’s true, it never seemed questionable or pretentious. The word “pretentious” sort of crumples, wilts and burns in proximity to his name.

I think it was partly shyness or humility, the same thing that made him seek the darkest corner of the stage where his guitar could do the talking. But he also told me one time that he wore the shades because often his eyes would roll up in his head while he played. Make of that what you will.

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We kept thinking he would leave, in the early days. The Kerosene Kondors were a pretty crazy band then, striving for performances that were cathartic, consciousness-erasing, orgiastic. In reality, they were usually just extremely drunken. A typical night might find me writhing around on my back in the audience, frantically strumming my guitar with bloody fingers, while David Jones, fully naked, leaned into his washtub bass, pressing the end of the broomstick into his forehead to hear the vibrations, and Josh banged away on the washboard he’d rigged up with various cymbals and a percussion instrument that looked like a medieval dildo. It was not unknown for us to perform on the verge of being black-out drunk.

I remember well many hung-over conversations with the other guys the day after a show. The general sentiment was, “Shit. We probably lost Buddy.”

We needn’t have worried. He just kept showing up, right up until the end. As I learned more about the extent of his career, I also realized there was probably very, very little he hadn’t seen before.

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His love for the blues was deep and authentic. At his memorial service, pictures of Robert Johnson and Lightnin’ Hopkins were prominently displayed. And, as the Bessie Smith story indicates, he had a nuanced and detailed knowledge of blues forms.

About the blues, he once told me that they weren’t about sadness. “The blues,” he said, “is the human condition.”

As a young man, he received some musical instructions from the old-school Chicago bluesman Shakey Jake. He said he had a tape of it somewhere. He passed on to me one thing that Shakey Jake said to him. It’s a little oblique.

“You can’t play anything that’s not in your head! Folks look at a man, let’s say some fool who is walking down the street on his hands, and they say, ‘He’s out of his head!’ Nah, what he’s doing  – that’s IN his head! It’s GOT to be!”

Make of that what you will.

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The hat was key. He would take it off or bend the brim as a gesture of respect, in the old-school fashion. Not just when, say, meeting a new person, but when someone mentioned something, or someone, worthy of acknowledgment. Like if you said you were at your grandma’s 95th birthday. Hat would come off. Mention Ray Charles. Hat off.

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When I would go on the wagon, as I try and occasionally do, he would tip his hat and say, “Abstinence and prayer.” No idea where that came from.

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He once gave me a rattlesnake tail that he had picked up on his travels and told me to put it in my guitar for superior tone. I didn’t know if that was just his own belief until years later when several other musicians confirmed that it’s some good juju from Louisiana or somewhere.

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a) Buddy’s Guitar

A crow in the twilight as it flaps then takes wing

A whippoorwill in the darkness as it stirs, then it sings

A train whistle calling across the still desert plains

the great howl of thunder, the soft fall of rain

the wind as it leafs through the leaves of a tree

a stream as it carries those leaves to the sea

The sea as it hurls its great waves at the shore

The rhythm, the rumble, the rest and the roar

The hum of the wheels as they roll through the night

The soft hiss and crackle of those bright neon lights

The buzz of the barrooms, the shouts and the cheers

The sex and the sorrow, the truth and the tears

The swing of a door as it closes behind

A jilted young lover going out of his mind

The pad of her footsteps as she heads down the hall

Then the rev of an engine, then the silence that falls

A New Orleans brass band in dazzling array

An old-time Cajun picker in a shack by the bay

The chant of a chain-gang and a church-house’s choir

A young child playing with a stick and a wire

Ten thousand nights, boys, in ten thousands bars

I heard all these things in Buddy’s guitar

b) That’s how I feel about his guitar playing.

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Buddy’s dad was a three-star general in the Marine Corps. Herbert Beckington saw combat in WW2 and Vietnam and later went on to head the United States Agency for International Development, where he became both famous and notorious for ruthlessly rooting out waste, corruption and mismanagement.

One of the keys to understanding Buddy was learning that he grew up in a rarefied segment of Southern society, with an elite, private-school education (same school as the Roosevelts), heavy training in manners and decorum, and certain ideas about how a man should conduct himself. I mean, as a boy, he was a page in the United States Senate! Then, of course, he chucked it all out the window to become a guitar player.

But he didn’t chuck it all out – thus, you have the gentleman rock and roller whom I remember. Having played music with him for years I can attest that it went deep: he showed up on time, was true to his word, and acted with respect towards everyone he met. Paupers or princes, it didn’t matter to him: he enjoyed talking to hobos and barflies and is probably the only person I have ever known who could conduct himself properly at a society ball or in a house of government.

The combination of old-school values with the open-minded non-judgment of the counter-culture, to which he also belonged, was, to me, a beautiful thing. I’m not ashamed to say I try to emulate it.

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I picked up from him any number of obscure little musical practices, superstitions, traditions.

a) He referred to the various keys by the names of women. In other words, the key of “E” could be Eleanor, or Ellen, or Elyse, and so on. This has, in fact, a practical purpose, as so many of the keys rhyme (E, G, D, B) and when onstage, where it can be quite loud, you occasionally have to communicate about a key, this method removes the confusion. But it also gives distinct personalities to the keys themselves.

My dear friend and fellow songwriter Angie Heimann, who at first played with us in the Kondors, then later started her own group with Buddy, The Blushin’ Roulettes, gender-reversed this practice – “Key of Al! Key of Gus!” Buddy loved it.

b) The endless ending: the way the guitar player in a band can save a flubbed ending to a song. Essentially a series of descending notes that gives a second chance to the band to finish properly. He saved our asses with this more than once. I might be able to do it now, in a pinch.

c) A tip jar is a “musician’s retirement fund.”

d) “What’s the difference between a clown and a guitar player? A guitar.” He was quick to remind you that, as a musician, you were an entertainer, and shouldn’t take yourself too seriously. At the same time, he would say that a musician can find himself welcome, and often fed and housed, anywhere in the world. I learned from him that musicians occupy a special space between the song-and-dance man and the mystic, the huckster and the healer, the clown and the communicator. If your head gets too big, remember that you’re in the same business as any other entertainer. But if you start to get down on yourself, remember that you speak a universal language that can be understood anywhere on the planet. These weren’t his exact words, but it is one thing that he taught me.

e) If you make a mistake while playing, repeat it. And then maybe again. At this point, no matter how weird it is, it’s no longer a mistake – it’s a part of the composition. I wasn’t sure how literally he meant this until we were making our first record together. Right there, on our version of the bluegrass standard “Raleigh and Spencer,” he hit a flat, dissonant note, then, without missing a beat, repeated it two more times. The trick works. The first time you hear it, you think, Oh shit, the guitar player screwed up. But before you’ve even had time to finish that thought, the note comes back, and your whole paradigm shifts: you think, Oh shit, the guitar player is OUT THERE. This is INTERESTING and ON PURPOSE. It alters the perception of the listener. And by owning a mistake and turning it into your intention, it allows that mistake to become a subconscious prompting towards a new dimension of the song, of the feeling, of the story.

~

His stories. Good God. You had to be patient to hear them. He didn’t force them on anyone and they were hard to prod out of him. You just had to wait until he was in an expansive mood.

a) One that I will always remember has to do with him being arrested, as a young man in the south, for bank robbery. It was a case of mistaken identity – there was another Garth Beckington who was a bank robber – but Buddy ended up in jail for a couple of days. Scared out of his mind, he said he left his body, and, while out there, worked out an understanding of musical intervals that informed his playing ever after.

b) He told me once of eating in some diner with a couple of other musician buddies when Count Basie walked in, resplendent in his jazzman finery. Recognizing Buddy and his friends as musicians, he asked, “How you boys doing?” “Well, we’re sort of on Skid Row,” replied Buddy. Basie just smiled. “Skid Row can be groovy,” he said, and walked away.

(Buddy and I joked that we would call the biography I wanted to write about him, “Skid Row Can Be Groovy: The Buddy Stubbs Story.”)

c) He met Dylan twice. Once in New York at some night cafe. Buddy walked up and gave him his number in an effort to get on the Rolling Thunder Revue. It wasn’t a total crapshoot: he was good friends with Rob Stoner, the monstrously talented bass player on Dylan’s “Desire,” who played on that tour. It didn’t happen. Another time he ended up at a urinal with Dylan on one side, Buddy Guy on the other. As I recall, he looked one way, looked the other, finished his business and walked out. What else are you going to do?

d) You literally never knew when you were going to mention some artist, or some song would come on the sound system, and he would have a related story to tell. It was the result of just a lot of years in the music business, of being on the scene in the twin hotspots of NYC and LA. In New York, he was buddies with the Ramones – maybe not close personal buddies, but they shared some, uh, hobbies. He had very little regard for Warren Zevon because when Warren would go on a bender in LA, Buddy would sometimes end up looking after his kids. He gave guitar lessons to a young Slash – I’d known Buddy for close to ten years before THAT story came out. Slash’s mother was apparently a hip photographer in the LA scene that he ran around in, and her son wanted to learn guitar. Worked out pretty well for him.

There are just so many stories. Both Angie and I – for a time his two bandleaders – wanted to get him to talk about his life on tape. We thought we could edit and arrange his stories into a book, a sort of rock ’n roll memoir from the shadows: what the business looks like to a great talent who never achieved much fame, but was always on the scene. Buddy was way too humble to ever go for this. The stories had to come naturally; he didn’t like being put on the spot.

I do have one letter from him in which he said he had started to write some of them down – what he called his “Encounters at the Corner of Hither and Yon.” At other times he called this project “Bright Moments.”

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He was enormously sensitive to music. I suppose that goes without saying. But I learned right from the start that I could not play too many sad songs in a row with that man. Eventually he’d crumple up and, if they wouldn’t stop, clutch his chest in mock-agony. He could go deep and dark for a song or two, no problem, but you had to be aware of his moods. My impression is that he had experienced a great deal of deep and dark moments in his own life and that flirting with sadness and darkness was dangerous for him. He didn’t want to step too close to the edge anymore.

My predominant memories of Buddy, by far, are of a happy, gregarious man, but I saw him down, too – mostly when the gigs got scarce. He needed to play to stay sane. I was never more worried about him than when Angie and I both left Mendocino County and he was briefly without a band. Didn’t last long, of course – players like him get snatched up fast.

But when he was down, you could sometimes look at him and see him flickering in and out of existence, like he was a light that needed a power source to remain illuminated. That power source was music, and family.

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Buddy Stubbs made the gig.

a) Once we had a show at a small outdoor festival in the middle of the woods – I mean, really far out there, at a friend’s farm. Come forty-five minutes to showtime, Buddy hadn’t shown up yet. We were concerned. Generally he was the first person to a gig. He would be there when you arrived, nursing a beer at the bar, his gear on the stage, ready to roll at a moment’s notice. So it was weird that he hadn’t arrived.

Maybe twenty minutes before showtime, a familiar, rail-thin figure in a hat came ambling down the dirt driveway, his tweed amp in one hand, his guitar case in the other. Why was Buddy arriving on foot to a gig in the middle of the woods? And why did he have a bloody gash on his forehead?

He walked up to us, set down his gear, and smiled. He’d been driving to the gig when he’d collided with another vehicle, a truck full of Mexican laborers. No one had been seriously hurt, but Buddy’s car was totaled. So he grabbed his amp and guitar from the wreck and walked down the road with his thumb out.

I don’t know exactly how he did it, but Buddy Stubbs made the gig.

b) Another time, the band attempted a national tour. It was a foolish, reckless, great idea. We bought a beat-up van for $700 and our drummer Jubal took out the back seats and tricked it out to be a sort of clubhouse/lounge for derelict pickers. Ironically for a West Coast band, most of our professional connections were back east, so after a show in Portland the plan was to drive across the country in a mad dash, play in Chicago, and then hurry to get to our big gig in Manhattan. After that, points beyond.

Buddy was game, as always, but he wasn’t super eager to ride in a seatless van with a bunch of excited kids on their first tour. He planned a separate trip with his wife, Hilary, and their dogs, and we were to meet in Chicago.

Well, Buddy wrecked his car in Nevada. If you notice a recurring theme here, it’s true that every other one of his stories ended with, “and then I wrecked my car.” Somehow, he always escaped unscathed. Maybe it was his guardian angel – more on his guardian angel later.

We got the news by phone; he said they were working on it and he expected to still be able to meet up with us down the road.

That night, as we barreled down the Iowa freeway, the head-gasket on our van blew in one loud, startling, smoky moment. Did I mention it was winter? Nothing about our tour made sense, looking back on it. Some state troopers got us to a motel, and the next day it became clear that the van was done. So there we were, stranded in the midwest, and there Buddy was, stranded in Nevada, and it looked like the tour was off.

Well, it was for us, anyway. We managed to get ourselves to Chicago and play that gig, but after that we were forced to acknowledge that there was simply no way to continue. Cold, depressed and humiliated, we wended our way home by different means, plane or train, to nurse our wounds. We’d left home as conquering heroes out to spread the jug-band religion. We returned beaten. We never made the big gig in New York City.

Well, most of us didn’t. Because, when that night rolled around, one lone figure strolled into that club by Tompkins Square Park, guitar-case in one hand, tweed amp in the other. He sat down at the bar, I’m sure, and ordered a beer.

“I’m the band,” he probably said.

Buddy Stubbs made the gig.

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“I got to know Garth back in my San Francisco days hanging out with Brendan. First off, he was usually instantly the damn most handsome guy in the room and then the next thing you knew he was playing guitar licks that were way beyond anybody you’d ever heard that wasn’t on a record. And when he put the guitar down, there was always the most beautiful woman on his arm and whispering in his ear. So envy – and lots of it – was what you felt when you first met him. But that vaporized as soon as he’d start talking to you in that easygoing North Carolina (?) accent about Dostoevsky or some other literary giant, and he’d get so serious and funny and passionate about the stories and characters, explicating and analyzing and exaggerating with verbal licks every bit as tricky and complex as his guitar playing. He was mesmerizing and funny and charming as the devil with a halo. That was Garth, as I remember him, at 25.”

– from the Internet

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Some of his favorite musicians:

Fats Waller. Thelonious Monk. Django Reinhardt. Howlin’ Wolf.  Muddy Waters. The Stanley & Delmore Brothers. Jimmie Rodgers. George Jones. Merle Haggard. The Lovin’ Spoonful. Gus Cannon.  Hank Williams. The Beatles. Bob Dylan. Buddy Holly. Willie Nelson. Charles Mingus. Mississippi John Hurt. Mississippi Fred McDowell. Sun Ra.

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He also liked the Beastie Boys and The White Stripes.

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He once told me that, as a young man, he had gone to a psychic in New York City who told him that his guardian angel was none other than the great Louis Armstrong. He would always deflate stories like this – he finished it by saying that Armstrong had just died and the lady could probably tell that Buddy was a musician and wouldn’t mind hearing that Pops was his heavenly protector. At the same time, I suspect he half-believed. I more than half-believe it. Nothing could make more sense to me.

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He was a gift-giver. It became a part of our friendship. It was very difficult to leave his house empty-handed. I have a lot of books from him: an old, ancient tome of English ballads, a true-crime thriller about art-theft in Nazi Germany – even his favorite book, The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini. This last volume is by an Italian artist and craftsman who lived during the Renaissance. Buddy said Cellini was great, a yarn-spinner of legendary proportions who, were he alive today, would be the guy who claimed to have taught Hendrix to play guitar, Picasso how to paint, Orson Welles how to make films. I haven’t read it yet.

When I moved away and we became postal correspondents, we would often send each other clippings from newspapers that we knew were of mutual interest. From him, I have an excerpt from Louis Armstrong’s memoirs, a piece about Miles Davis, rules for guitar playing from Captain Beefheart. I sent him various things, such as a picture and description of a Martin guitar owned and played by Mark Twain, which I knew would blow his mind. He asked if I’d read Mark Twain’s uncharacteristically serious work on Joan of Arc. We went back and forth in this way. Whether on paper or in person – just not on the phone – he was an epically erudite conversationalist. I never wanted those conversations to end.

Once, during a visit back home, I brought him a big, hardcover photo book about Louis Armstrong. Next time I came over, he’d built a shrine to it.

That’s what I was meaning to say. He put it up as an icon and built a shrine around it. For his guardian angel.

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He could talk about Armstrong all day. I remember him saying once that, although Pops had lost a lot of lung power and damaged his lips beyond repair by his later years, this only forced him to hone his musical vocabulary until just the essential things were left.

I understood that, in a typically roundabout way, Buddy was talking about himself.

If you talk to certain people, my friends and I found Buddy after the prime of his musicianship. Years of the rock and roll lifestyle had slowed his reflexes, damaged his nerves. Rarely would he unleash a blazing solo that singed the ends of your eyebrows. There’s even a book – I’m going to choose not to name it here – that quotes some joker as saying that Buddy “used to be” a really great guitar player.

All this is grade-A certified bullshit. I made three records with the guy and played hundreds of shows. He could play anything. He could do BB King, Django Reinhardt, or Charlie Christian at the drop of a hat. He transposed Fats Waller piano songs to guitar like he was buttering bread.  You couldn’t throw a song or a change-up at him that he wouldn’t immediately be able to play.

The main impact age and some hard living had on him was that he had a limited amount of gas in the tank. I saw this in the studio with him a lot. For the first 3-4 takes, you had the best guitar player in the world at your disposal, endlessly inventive and versatile. By the 5th or so take, his energy would start to flag and he would fall back on a bag of tricks that he could play in his sleep. Now, it was a big bag of tricks. It was a great bag of tricks. It was a bag of tricks that a lot of players would give a couple of fingers to possess. But it was limited and it was what he would resort to when his energy would start to go.

He was well aware of this; I’m not saying anything that he wouldn’t admit himself. And there were solutions, ways around it. You’d give him a break, retire to the kitchen, open up a few beers, roll a joint. Calibrating and priming Buddy’s energy levels was a fine science: a little beer, a little weed, a lot of laughter, camaraderie and story-telling. Pretty soon, the magic would start to flow again. A lull in the conversation and someone would say, “Hey Buddy, you wanna take another crack at that?” And he’d be back in the saddle.

In live performances, I’m afraid we worked him hard. Young bucks, we’d do three sets, play for hours and hours on end. He’d often start off standing, sending painstakingly beautiful leads flying like holy shrapnel into the dancing crowd. Eventually, he’d sit down on his amp, but still be finding new directions for the tunes, uncovering songs within songs. By the end of the night, he’d be sort of slumped over his guitar, wide-brimmed hat over his eyes, his fingers the only part of his body in motion as they played a boogie-woogie bass pattern that he could play when all else failed.

I mean, we worked the man. Sometimes I’d feel a little bad afterwards. But after the gig, he’d just say an Irish Goodbye, and if I didn’t contact him for a week or two, he’d be calling me up to ask about the next gig.

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There is no level on which Buddy, in his later years, was a lesser musician than his younger self – but he did have to go through the sifting process of age, decide what to retain, what to discard. The secret about that? Finding the best stuff you have inside you, discarding the rest, and then just polishing and refining that best stuff, day in and day out, gig after gig – that doesn’t make you a lesser musician. That’s the goal. That’s what the young guys are looking for when they’re playing every note under the sun.

Buddy found it. He fucking found it.

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I’ve been lucky enough through the years to meet and befriend some of his crew from the old days. They’re a motley assortment of brilliant, hilarious and talented guys. There’s Phil Lee, a hugely gifted, witty and heartbreaking songwriter who made a name for himself in Nashville’s songwriting fold and now travels the world playing music. Brendan Earley, a soft-spoken and soulful dude who used to front the seminal Bay Area punk band The Mutants. Jon Faurot, who was in my band with Buddy for a time, a Chicago blues aficionado and veteran of LA’s Laurel Canyon scene. They all say the same thing about him: that no one had a bad word to say about the guy, and that he was always a gentleman from a different time. Even as a young man he had those strangely courtly manners, would refer to the fridge as the “icebox” and his bandmates as his “worthy constituents.”

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Buddy’s most famous association was with Gene Clark. Gene was one of the main songwriters for The Byrds and later went on to a solo career whose work was heralded by music critics, fans of the as-yet-unnamed Americana movement, and Bob Dylan, if not the general public.

Buddy did not talk much to me about Gene. I heard more about him from Jon Faurot, who has the sad distinction of being the one who found Gene’s body when he died in 1991.

Gene Clark was famously troubled and self-destructive and the most I heard from Buddy in regard to him was his distaste for the media’s fascination with troubled and self-destructive artists at the expense of their work. He had a very dim view of the typical way in which rock musician’s lives are seen as tragedies of self-mortification. This often came up in reference to people other than Gene, but I think it connected back to his time with him.

He saw the Townes Van Zandt documentary on TV once – his friend David Olney was interviewed in it – and was not a fan, saying something about the lack of focus on the music in favor of the sensationalism of drugs and death.

Buddy himself had been in the trenches of rock and roll, had seen the casualties, many of his close friends among them, and had no doubt escaped disaster more than once. His attitude was that excessive attention on life’s darkness was unhealthy. He believed our great creators of art and music should be recognized primarily for their achievements, not their problems.

It was like I said earlier about his reluctance to play too many sad songs in a set. He’d fought hard against the darkness. He’d won. He didn’t want to relinquish victory.

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Once we were talking about Buddy Holly and I went into my usual tirade about the immense tragedy of this death, all of the projects he was working on that might have changed the course of musical history. Buddy Stubbs listened attentively, waited till I had my say, then gave a little shrug and, quoting the Psalms, said, “Hey – he made a joyful noise.”

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Doc Watson. Django. Buddy Holly. Maybelle Carter. Elizabeth Cotten. Hubert Sumlin. Robert Johnson. Keith Richards. Cornelius Grant (guitar player for The Temptations). Jimi Hendrix. Steve Cropper (of Booker T and the MG’s). James Burton. Chet Atkins.

These are just a few of the guitar players he loved. He valued tone, originality and musicality over virtuosity for its own sake. Sure, he loved Hendrix, but he was also the only person I’ve ever heard admire Jimmie Rodgers as a guitar player, for his cool bass runs, his rhythmic ease and fluidity, and his chord changes. He was especially fond of players like you find on Stax or Motown, who might not even play solos, but instead lay back and play accents, riffs, chord inversions that establish a groove for the song to live in. Buddy excelled at that and a lot of his best work, at least on our records, can be heard behind the vocal.

~

Some people who knew him, or who have just been reading between the lines, may wonder if I am keeping deliberately silent about something. You know, the “rock and roll” lifestyle he partook of for many years.

Well, yeah. I kind of am. But not because of any shame. Here’s the thing.

Most people’s distaste for drug users comes from the behaviors associated with them: the stealing, lying, manipulating. The actual act of altering your state of mind with a foreign substance – the majority of us do that, legally or otherwise.

Buddy Stubbs was the most honorable, reliable, punctual, hard-working and trustworthy man I have ever known. People who knew him in earlier phases of his life echo the same sentiments.

The drugs he may or may not have had a predilection for, at any point, have nothing to do with who he was as a person, didn’t compromise his integrity, and, frankly, are nobody’s fucking business.

That’s all anyone needs to know.

~

I’ve been trying to put a name to our friendship. Some people assumed that it was a fatherly thing, but it wasn’t that at all. Others saw it as a mentor/student thing, but he would have rejected that definition; he happily referred to himself as my guitar player.

It was friendship, just that, but if it was something else, it was that he was an elder. That’s something that tends to be missing in our society, the eldership role, the idea of older men and women as transmitters of wisdom and tradition. Of course, he wasn’t that old, but he had some decades on me, and he had gone about as deep as you can go into the kind of life, the musical life, that I aspired to. So although we related as equals and friends, he was also an elder to me: an older man who was a repository of important knowledge. As our friendship progressed, I became more and more aware of its special nature. It couldn’t be said. But on some level, I think we both knew.

~

The greatest confirmation of this came one night after a gig. It was a very satisfying show to me. I don’t know how the audience felt, it wasn’t very well-attended, but it was just one of those nights when I felt able to fully harness my powers.

(I also had a moderate hangover, which, oddly, I have found to be helpful for a good performance. The way it slows down higher brain function allows me better access to my heart and gut. I am not recommending this as a long-term career plan.)

Jon Faurot was in the band at this point too. The fact that I had inherited Gene Clark’s backing band did not escape me. At this stage the Kondors had transformed from a wild hillbilly party band into a tight roots-rock outfit with an emphasis on songwriting.

Jon is a fantastically talented guy and a good friend, but he’s a bit more high-strung than Buddy, and had a hard time dealing with some of my musical shortcomings, like the tendency of my voice to go a little flat when singing live. Buddy never seemed to care.

Jon’s fastidiousness was actually really helpful to me; I’m not complaining. And this particular night, I impressed him. After the show, he walked up to Buddy, not noticing I was there, and, talking a mile a minute, started saying really complimentary things about my performance. It felt nice to hear, of course, but he also seemed confused. He started quizzing Buddy, who had known me a lot longer. Who is this kid? Where is he going? What’s his deal?

Buddy, in the usual fashion he had of shutting down over-inquiry, just gave a little shrug and said, “Hey, Jon. He’s one of us.”

~

It’s a little embarrassing to share that because it sounds like I’m talking myself up. But my feelings about Buddy are such that hearing him say these words felt like a confirmation, a seal of approval, even a graduation, and it’s part of the story of our friendship that I am telling here.

I’m really only bragging on a certain level, because plenty of people wouldn’t have taken it as the compliment I did. “One of us?” One of who? A group of talented musicians who labor in semi-obscurity, live too hard, never find their big payday?

But he wasn’t talking about any of that career stuff or lifestyle stuff. He was saying I was a real musician.

He believed this about me to the extent that he was, let’s say, distinctly un-encouraging about my other pursuits. When I got a promotion at a job here in Portland, just a little hike to a floor manager position at a restaurant, I was pretty proud of myself. A first promotion, you know; it’s an accomplishment. Rather than congratulate me, he warned me that taking on more responsibility in the straight world could mean less musical opportunities.

Buddy’s credentials were impeccable. He was Gene Clark’s sideman, friend of Jesse Ed Davis, cohort of Neil Young and Crazy Horse. He was the quintessential musician, someone who lived his art and embodied his craft with total dedication. His incredible life in music was wrung out of every soul-drenched note that he squeezed out of his Gretsch or sent soaring from his Tele. He was the real deal, and he dedicated himself to my songs.

I draw on that for strength and inspiration, every day.

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~

“Cool,” properly understood, is a spiritual quality. The term itself has become torn and faded from overuse. It doesn’t signify anything anymore. But once it did.

It came from black culture, from jazz, and like most spiritual terms it is hard to define precisely. I think of what Jesus said: “Be in the world but not of the world” – a certain detachment from transient, ephemeral things. Also a stillness, a stability in a world of constant change and passing trends.

Most of all, I think that “cool” is knowing exactly who you are. Most people in this world have no idea. We sense that when we meet them, that they are a set of characteristics without a single unifying principle, that a gentle wind could blow them away.

Now and then you meet someone who knows who they are, and who acts, speaks, and maybe plays music from that authentic, immovable place. You know it immediately. You never forget them.

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~

Certainly, Buddy never changed anything about himself based on who he was with. He had a code of conduct that was designed to hold him in good stead in any company.

His daughter Jesse Jane told me about going to punk shows with him when she was growing up. How it was never weird, for her or anyone else, for this lone older guy to be hanging out amongst the crowd of young rockers. That’s a rare thing, but I saw it too, again and again. The reaction was never, “Why is this weird old guy here?” The reaction was: “Who IS that dude? THAT’S who I want to talk to.”

Playing in our band, he often found himself in the company of younger people. There was never the slightest attempt to ingratiate himself, nor did he appeal to his age for authority. It was as though he saw others as souls, rather than entities defined by variables like age, class, race or sex. Living this way, as a soul, he of course could only be an equal among equals, a soul among other souls.

~

A few times, I heard him refer to his body as his “creature.” That was, of course, his soul speaking – as usual.

~

At Buddy’s memorial service, his wife Hilary gave a brief eulogy. One of the things she had to say was that her late husband was a “supporter of women.” It’s significant that this was one of the things she chose to say about her husband at that particular time. Clearly she thought it was one of his important attributes.

I can attest to it. I remember, when he first entered the band, being just slightly nervous. There’s always a certain dissonance in opinion when people of different generations and cultural milieus come together. In my experience, men of his generation, musicians very much included, tend to have retrogressive attitudes towards women (which is not to exempt my generation).

My nervousness was unfounded, to say the least. In all of my years playing music with him, I never once saw him act disrespectfully or inappropriately towards a woman. In fact he would go out of his way to make sure that the women around him felt safe and respected. Even in all male company, he refrained from engaging in the usual “guy talk” that parses women down to their separate attributes to be judged and rated.

I mean, he was an appreciator of feminine beauty – don’t get me wrong. But again, he saw souls first. It might sound hippy-dippy but I don’t know another way to put it.

He played music with women and happily put himself at the service of Angie Heimann in her band, The Blushin’ Roulettes. He raved to me many times about her guitar playing, and about female guitar players in general. It was his belief that the guitar was in the hands of women now, that they were going to take the next steps with it. That made him happy.

His life was full of amazing female presences. His wife, Hilary, is a smart and independent woman from an old Hollywood family (her godfather is John Wayne, who Buddy insisted was much hipper than he is generally given credit for). They had two daughters. One, Eloise, died young of congenital health issues – a tragedy that Buddy spoke of only rarely. The other, Jesse Jane, was his best friend.

Finally, there was his mother, who survives him. Well into her 90s, she remains a sharp, busy woman. They spoke on the phone every Sunday.

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~

I want to share now what I feel is the definitive word about Buddy. I had a conversation with Jesse Jane just days after his passing. We talked about many things, but what I want to share is this: she said, “My dad never once hurt my feelings.”

That wasn’t a casual statement. We talked about it, explored it. She knows how few people can say that about their parents (even really good parents!) and she didn’t say it thoughtlessly or sentimentally. She said it as a fact: he was her best friend, from the start, and never once hurt her feelings.

I can imagine nothing more exceptional to say about a man.

~

I always knew that he drew and was good at it, but when I visited his home after his death, I saw that he had compiled a vast, vast array of visual art that few outside of his inner circle were privy to. Brooding, intense pen and ink pieces, wryly funny cartoons, lush nature scenes, painted portraits, intricate, abstract illustrations, and lots and lots of drawings of his wife and daughter and his various dogs. They’re great, and show that he was possessed of an original artistic talent that went far beyond his music.

There was woodworking as well. It turned out that several of what looked like antique furniture pieces I had seen around his house were actually his creations, such as a Victorian-style “lover’s desk” with gorgeous inlays, perfect curves and stunning design. This, it turns out, he made in woodshop, back in boarding school.

Lots of carvings. Beautifully ornate walking-sticks, birds, feathers, knives, tie pins, woodcuts of various scenes.

These are all sides of his talent that most people didn’t know about. I knew only a hint. His music was what he presented to the world, but around the house, every day, every hour, he was creating – out of necessity, out of inclination, out of self-preservation, out of an overflow of beauty in his heart.

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~

Writing a eulogy this brimming with praise, I suppose I am leaving myself open to charges of hagiography.

To that I say: whatever. This is a big world full of a stunningly eclectic assortment of people. A very few of them are both extremely talented and extremely kind. They should be remembered.

Buddy was not a saint. But he was a brilliant artist, an exceptional person, and a good man.

~

If I wanted to get really hagiographical, I could tell you that he loved children and animals, and that they loved him back, instantly.

Which is true.

~

I never went on the road with him for long periods. Our band would go on short trips around the county, or to San Francisco, or to Humboldt. But we did travel some, and he traveled like a pro. He never seemed to get bored, and he had the ability to sleep anywhere. In fact, he seemed to disdain beds. Often we’d get to the house we’d be staying at and the first thing we’d do is try and figure out a bed for him, out of respect for his age and experience. We needn’t have bothered. “I’m good!” he would exclaim, smiling, from the chair he’d found.

Or he’d sleep out in his car, with the radio on.

~

Cas from the Blushin’ Roulettes says Buddy was the same way on the much longer excursions that those guys would take. And he also reminded me of the fact that, no matter how early you’d get up, Buddy would be up already, and usually out of the house, at the nearest cafe or bookstore. It seemed at times that he didn’t have the physical needs of ordinary people. His “creature” had been tamed.

~

The last time I saw him was at our friend Jubal’s memorial. Jubal I will have to write about another time. He was the drummer in our band, and another one of my dearest friends. He passed in February of this year, and Buddy followed him in July.

It’s interesting, in retrospect, that the last time I saw Buddy was at a memorial, because we of course talked a little about death and grieving. After I got back home I immediately resumed the correspondence with Buddy that I’d let flag. It seemed important in light of recent events.

We made plans for him to come up to Portland, where I now reside, so we could play music. In what turned out to be his last letter, he also wrote me a little bit about Jubal. I’d been dreaming of him – or, I should say, Jubal had been appearing to me in dreams, because that was how it felt. In the dreams he was aware of his death, at peace, and wanting to spend time with me. They were powerful experiences and Buddy told me to believe in them, that he “would expect nothing less from Jubal.”

Then he wrote something else. He wrote: “I have learned to make grief my friend when confronted by it, which is not hard when it is accompanied by nothing by fond memories.”

In a few days, Buddy would be gone, and those words would ring in my head like the endless vibrations of a giant church-bell or a Tibetan singing bowl. They rang for others, too. I shared them with his wife and daughter and they shared them with his mother. They ended up being used in the pamphlet that was printed for his funeral Mass back in Virginia. They seemed so prescient, and yet mysterious: “I have learned to make grief my friend.”

In any case, it seemed to all of us that those words were in some way speaking not just of Jubal, but preparing us for what was about to happen to him.

If anyone could pull something like that off, it would be Buddy Stubbs.

~

He told me once that he didn’t like songs about dying, but he liked songs that were narrated from beyond the grave.

~

I’ll tell you what I know about his death. He was sitting around the house with Jesse and Hilary. I believe he was getting ready for a gig. He and Jesse were talking about simple, ordinary things, like an organ he wanted to sell on Craigslist, when he was struck by a sudden and massive cerebral hemorrhage. He remained able to communicate for a little while, but not long. By the time he arrived at the hospital, he was beyond communication.

His last act on earth was to remove his glasses. He would not need them where he was going.

~

At the hospital, Jesse and Hilary were informed that they still had the option of having him airlifted out of our rural community to a better hospital, for emergency brain-surgery. They were also told that the damage was already severe and that probably the best scenario they could hope for was keeping him alive in a seriously compromised condition.

They made the only possible choice: they brought him home to die, where he passed away around 7:00 in the evening, in his own bed, on his own land, surrounded by the people he loved most. A Native friend performed a ceremony for the passing of his soul into the next world.

And then he was gone.

~

Buddy Stubbs should have lived a lot longer. That said, I am not sure anyone has ever had a more graceful exit from the world. It seems to me that a good death is a thing of immeasurable worth. He had one.

~

His daughter put it like this: “Even his death was considerate.”

~

One more story. I was at his house after his death, with several of his other “worthy constituents,” and of course Jesse and Hilary. We were sitting by the big open window that looks out onto the garden. Pale sunshine lit the deep green grass and fell gently into the home, which is a beautiful old building made from the salvaged redwood of a local bridge. His drawings, photos, carvings, guitars and other assorted talismans and souvenirs were everywhere. It was like sitting in a museum dedicated to the epic of his life. We sat there, all in various stages of shock. His ashes were in a box nearby. Then Jesse, looking out that window, mentioned that he liked to watch the hummingbirds from there, and that he felt some kind of spiritual kinship with them.

Right after she said this, a hummingbird flew in from the garden, through the open window. It buzzed around in the room, above our heads. Then it flew back out.

The strangest part was, we didn’t really talk about it at the time. Maybe it was too strange to process. But about an hour later, someone said, “Wait – did that really happen?”

Yes.

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~

Garth Lyford Beckington – also known as Buddy Stubbs – was born at the old Naval Hospital in Norfolk, Virginia in 1950. He died in Little River, CA in 2014. In between, he played the guitar like no one you’ve ever heard. He conducted himself well, according to a gentleman’s code, and practiced non-judgment and loving-kindness. He was an artist, a creator, in everything he did, every day of his life. He loved children and animals, and they loved him back. He despised pretension, bigotry, and bullying. He was my friend. I am weeping right now and I will weep again, but I am so glad I got to know him. He was one of the most important people in my life, and it’s amazing how many others can say the same.

~

Do me a favor if you would. The next time you have a drink, like maybe tonight, like maybe after you finish reading this, just raise your glass to him. He wouldn’t like tears, but he’d be okay with that.

~

“…stumbling along, playing a few gigs – not nearly enough – and hanging on tight.”

– Buddy Stubbs, letter to me, August 16th, 2011

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Kerosene Kondors:

Blushin’ Roulettes:

(Photos by Pablo Abuliak, Luke Stone, Brian Storms, Raj Kumar Ojha.)

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18 thoughts on “Buddy Stubbs: Remembering a Guitar Man

  1. You know, Will, I never met Buddy Stubbs, but I feel like i know something so deep about the man from your incredible writing, deeper than i would have ever been able to go without it. This is just gorgeous. Perfection.
    love Zida

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  2. Will, last time I saw you, you were about 12 years old… Your Mum and I are great buddies. Just had gig in Portland, Bin21 in the NE. Buddy and I are 1 month apart in age. Some great guitar bangers on the north coast- Gene Parsons, Rick Bromelo, Roy, JC, Lennie, Bates brothers, Charlie Reemer, Philo, Ernie, Bugs. Michael Ward, David Raitt, Mark Hanson, Joel Scott Hill… Thanks for rememberin’. Doug

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  3. My children played music with him, traveled with him, and loved him He always treated us with kindness and respect. Thank you for helping me to know him better. He is missed.

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  4. Hey Will. This is Max Jones writing in from New Zealand. What a wonderful piece you have shared here. I didn’t know Buddy very well but always viewed him with respect and intrigue. Your words were well written and received. And I will most certainly raise a glass to honour the late Great Buddy Stubbs and to you my friend – for bringing it all into my living room on the other side of the world. Good on ya Will! If you’re ever down this way you will find kinfolks that you know.
    Aroha from Aotearoa,
    Max

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  5. i didn’t pull this up for a few days. i think i was preparing myself mentally. i just read it now and it’s beautiful and perfect. thank you, will. xoxo

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  6. Thank you, Will, for writing such beautiful words describing Buddy’s life and your friendship with him. What a humble, intelligent, talented, sweet, handsome gentleman!! I feel happy that I had the opportunity to meet him and hear him play his guitar !! I loved his twinkling smiling eyes! He was so kind to my daughter and Cas and they will always have Buddy in their hearts forever! I loved reading about all of the parts of his life…. What a passionate man! Thank you again, Will.

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  7. Will,

    A lovely piece. You captured the Garth I knew in Chapel Hill, N.C., in the late 1960s. He started with a one-man acoustic act, fingerpicking and singing Jimmy Rodgers, Hank Williams and blues standards, drawing appreciative crowds in the beer joints around town. Later he played in bands and started at least several of his own, including the fabled W.C. Handy Blues Review. At least it was fabled in our minds. Throughout this period he was a college student who could pull off brilliant academic work but was more interested in his art. He had particular style in all things, from his buttoned-up shirts and bowler hat to his witty, discerning and fluent commentary on people and situations. As you note, he liked to invent names for himself — his ‘noms de plume’ as he called them. When he played for a local band, the Mainline Delivery Service, he went by ‘Virginia Slick.’ That name went away after a hispanic announcer introduced him as ‘Boginnia Sleek.’ His friends from his days at Groton called him ‘La Garto.’ Whatever the name, though, he was a friend who took you as you were and responded with generosity and courtesy. A memorable man. Thanks for doing this.

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  8. This tribute was great for me to hear. Back in the fall of 1963 at Groton I got to know him. I believe its true that I taught him his first chords on my guitar. A nylon string classical where he learnt the G. E. C. D chords. He learned very quickly. A hungry guitar player right off the bat. I think he borrowed some other guys’ guitars as well and then soon got his own. He got into accoustic and jug bands. I got into rock bands. Garth used to come over to our practices every once in a while and we’d jam a minor 7th slow blues on either my Gretch or my Telecaster. I loved his strong clear solos over my rythym. And then he’d take my rythym part and I’d take a solo. I honed my lead work in these jams. I felt sad whenever these jams were over. He was so good that I got better. Just thought I’d tell you ….

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  9. Met Garth tears ago when I was first gettin serious about guitar.that was I Chapel Hill,NC….early 70s…..i remember being pretty doggone impressed with his playing & he was a mighty nice fella.God bless him.

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  10. First time I met Garth was hearing him. I was a young city kid from the housing projects who got in to one of those ‘great society’ programs back in the 60’s that brought us to Groton School on a weekly basis. I heard this band playing a slow blues riff and the guitar player was killing it… Later that year during the summer camp they had for us, he turned out to be one of the camp councilors. I was just learning guitar and he sat me down and showed me some basics of open tunings and finger picking – stuff I still use to this day. He took his time with me let me play his old D28. Years later, I had also heard some of the darker things of him, but I always chose to remember him for his kindness and patience that summer.Thanks for the kind words they brought back good memories.

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  11. I met Garth in 1970 when I was doing my laundry the same time as he was . He brought his guitar and was playing while sitting on the sidewalk . Playing bottleneck slide .I offered my sincere appreciation for his sound and he proceeded to show me how to play slide guitar . He was so filled with charisma that I was instantly a fan , and searched out his band wherever they played . He invited me to a practice session which showed me how talented he really was . Just magical stuff , I had never seen anyone play like he did . The band I knew was The Beckingtones , with Phillip the drummer .

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  12. Thank you Will. your fond memories had me weeping like an earthling. I also was fortunate to know and play with Garth. I was living in Hollywood on Holly Drive in the first house on the right after the tunnel, It was built in 1906 by the Anderson Family then Owned by The old time silent film star Pat O’Brian who was one of the few who made the transition to talkies. Anyhow I would often walk to Lake Hollywood , One day while walking me and my girlfriend saw a cool looking couple having a yard sale and we said we would stop in on the way back from the lake. Tracey and I were singing ukulele Lady On our walk. When we got back down the hill there was Garth strumming his 29 parlor Guitar. We said do you know ukulele Lady and he went into the most beautiful version I have ever heard any human sing and play.
    I ended up buying a laliani lap steel from him and a crazy lightning bolt Hammer Guitar which I still own. It was on that day Tracey and I met Garth and Hilary And Anne the biggest baby Dog in the world.
    I was in a Band called the Aliens at the time and jamming with a few friends now and again. Garth and I and my friend Robert Chilton started jamming in Garth and Hilary’s Living room calling ourselves the slunkers . Eventually playing a show at the comedy Store on the sunset strip as the back up band for Jeff Richards AKA drunk Girl from SNL.
    We knew some mutual people, Tequila Mockingbird used to book shows for the Aliens and we would play venues with her band. And Garth was playing with her at a la poubelle a fancy french Restaurant where she would sing old timey french songs with Garth playing the tunes on his 29 Martin
    My first introduction to Buddie Stubbz came a year or so later when the Aliens had a gig in Yucca Valley at a coffee house on the corner of Pioneertown rd and 29 palms Hiway, We booked a solo Buddie stubbz to play with us , Garth and Hilary and Annie drove out in the Suburu wagon , We played the show while the Yucca Valley Christmas Parade passed by the venue. Garth was so great as a solo act , It was amazing how great his tone was plugged in or not.
    A few months after that show is when Garth and Hilary decided to sell the Hollywood House and move to L R . It was sad to see them drive away.
    About a year after that Tracey and I finally made it up there and saw how amazing the new digs were and heard the first Kerosene Kondors . holy cow !!!! I am so greatful Garth made it up there to that beautiful place to live his last couple of decades out in the dappled sunlight and sea air. And that he met some of the grooviest musicians and artists reconnecting with people and friends from his past in no cal was good for his soul.. I could see it in his eyes.
    Garth drove me over to the local watering hole in a 42 willies where we met up w band mates and were served beers by if my memory serves me the great Grandson of Groucho Marx ?
    It was a beautiful trip. I spoke with Hilary about a year ago and found out about Garth’s Passing.
    I love how Will captured Garth’s nuances in this blog of love and respect. I feel lucky to have known Garth .
    and I feel blessed to have met Jessie and Coy. Fly on Buddy Stubbz

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