La Grange

4blog

Rumor spreadin’ a-’round in that Texas town
’bout that shack outside La Grange
(and you know what I’m talkin’ about.)

Just let me know if you wanna go
to that home out on the range.
They gotta lotta nice girls.
Have mercy.
A haw, haw, haw, haw, a haw.
A haw, haw, haw.

What in the world does a song by ZZ Top about a bawdy house in a little town in Texas have to do with one of the best known music stores in the country?

Well it goes like this…

Gelb Music was started by one Sidney Gelb back in 1939. He actually called it Gelb Music Studios because in his day the Hawaiian guitar had the country in thrall and his store made its foundational income on students harvested by door to door salesmen sent forth by the “United Institute of Music” in San Mateo. Sid had a working deal with those folks and did a nice, steady business teaching youngsters first Hawaiian, then later, Spanish guitar at his store/studio. Along the way he would sell or rent the required instruments as the kids needed them.

His business prospered then went into a slight decline. Sidney was feeling his age and wanted to retire. He had no heirs and would likely have sold the place had it not been for two of his guitar teachers, Kevin Jarvis and Henry White.

It was Kevin’s idea to buy the place and bring it up to date. Henry caught on to the idea and set aside his career plan to teach history and the two men made history in their own way.

Gone were the group lessons. They still had guitar lessons there but single lessons only. The two young men overhauled the inventory broadening its scope. Soon their new attitude about music and guitaring started to gain notice. There was a Fender franchise that came with the store and along with myself, a ne’er do well of a certain charm, Norm Van Maastricht. Kevin and Henry had their own high levels of musical skill on guitar and Norm was a country/finger style specialist which meant the store was conversant in rock, jazz, country, even banjo and Dobro.

So what did that have to do with ZZ Top and La Grange? Be patient… it’s coming.

Kevin adopted a puppy, a marvelously intelligent Shepherd /Lab named Jessica (after an Allman Brothers song). The three men shared training of her to be a perfect Store Dog. She became a legend in her own time and there are some who have a hard time talking about her without choking up, so loved was she.

Three young men, knowledgeable about guitaring and a Wonder Dog in the making. We have close to perfection here.

In the foggy mists of memory not much is remembered about what they may have used for background music in the place but that changed one auspicious day.

A guy came into the store looking for a new Martin D-28. One of the more expensive models Martin makes. A state of the art dreadnought size acoustic guitar that was and is world famous.

The store had the guitar but the guy had no money. What he did have was a Very Good Stereo System with a superb turntable. The turntable was a bit of a prima donna, very sensitive to being jarred. The least little bump would send the needle hopping rudely so staff and customers had to be sure to avoid offending it in any way.

But its sound and power was awesome. Swap was made, everybody was delighted with the barter.

Over the years that turntable played just about every recorded guitarist available on 33rpm vinyl. From Django Rheinhardt to Segovia and Bream. Herb Ellis, Lenny Breau, Chet, all the rockers of The Day and everyone in between. They all took a turn on that machine.

One fateful morning soon after acquiring the new stereo setup Kevin put on La Grange.
And cranked it.
The raw power and humor of ZZ Top playing that tune just hit a chord (pun intended) with the store crew.

It became the opening song, the ritual paean that was further nuanced by careful manipulation of the volume knob because in the studio the engineers faded Billy Gibbons exiting solo. Kevin and Henry liked to keep it as loud as the main body of the song as long as they could.

The block was never the same as we three opened the doors and La Grange let the world know Gelb Music was ready for business.

The turntable was so touchy it was enthroned on a cabinet with a carpeted top. People kept bumping into it anyway!. Norm came up with the idea of getting hold of a decal that said Danger, High Voltage and putting it on the top face of the cabinet tucking a wire under that carpet top with about two inches of it stripped and bare. It didn’t stop the bumping altogether but the natural human fear of electrical shock went a long way to reducing the clumsy collisions…

Gelb Music thrived for many years. Over time, Henry and Norm went their separate ways, Henry eventually succumbing to cancer in 2014.

Kevin kept the store and made it into the well known entity it is today. The turntable got moved to safer quarters and the La Grange ritual ceased being a daily thing.

All things, even good things, must come to an end and Kevin decided to retire after the long tour at the end of 2014. He sold the store to a kindred soul, the man who owns Haight Ashbury Music so the name Gelb will still be in business as Gelb Music

Today Kevin sent me an email which said, in part:

La Grange, became, in the last decades, the annual Saturday before Christmas opening anthem, 42 years and running. The legacy of you, Henry, Trini, Dick, continued on. Every year without fail La Grange played on, and the song still sounds awesome which is totally amazing in and of itself.

Yesterday, (12/20/14) the staff totally aware, all gathered for the final playing at 10:20. Adam even came down for its final performance. Thinking of Henry now gone, those Saturdays in the beginnings all the way to this moment…….our friendship, and all the years gone by in my tour of duty as “Mr. Gelb”, very reflective moment…….what a song, what memories.
It ain’t over until Billy Gibbon’s growls, they got lotta nice girls out there!

_____________

This blog has other Gelb Music stories. Do a search for “Tiger Tiger” “The Lunch Break” “Once Upon A Time”

THE SAGA OF WALNUT CREEK. ~ The Trek

SNOOTYPE_2

First, a little background…

I’m not a confident driver. As a lad I didn’t clamor for The Car. I didn’t get my driver license until I was nearing fifty and really hated freeway driving. There are certain skills one learns by getting a license at a young age, one of the primary ones being the understanding of how freeways work.
…but I’m getting ahead of myself here.

After Barney Steel’s closed I was extremely fortunate to get picked up by a civil engineering company as a computer tech trainee. The pay wasn’t much for starters but it was a job. A job often taken by younger folk but a job that blessedly had fallen my way. It eventually blossomed into the best job I ever had but that’s another story.

I was pretty plain about my aversion to driving during my job interview but the guy who ended up being my boss had taken a liking to me and turned a blind eye to that.

But of course, as must happen, it eventually fell for me to go to one of the other offices to make a delivery/pickup. The actual errand was a simple two way delivery from one office to the other. We headquartered in Redwood City; the office in question was in Walnut Creek. A distance of about thirty miles “as the crow flies” or fifty miles by ground transport.

I had never been to Walnut Creek in my life.

Derrick, my boss, knew that day would come when I would have to make this run so he had me ride along while he made the trip one day. I sat in the passenger seat with pen and clipboard, making notes as to which exit signs to look for next, with special notations if they were Left Access exits (two were) and there were a couple spots that merged left rather suddenly so I made note of that too. There was even one near hairpin turn to switch from one freeway to another. I had to contend with the San Mateo Bridge while I was at it which required its own little clues and cues.
Great Fun!

All these things I put in my computer and printed them out as a personal set of directions, making the type really legible. What I ended up with was a very nice double sided piece of paper which had Boldface lists of the crucial entry/exit signs in sequence to guide this intrepid traveler on his future missions, guaranteeing a safe return.

Both Derrick and I had some misgivings knowing my trepidation about the eventual moment of truth yet, on the other hand, how hard can it be? People go from Redwood City to Walnut Creek every day and never end up in the mental trauma wards.

And we all know I haven’t driven the freeway in maybe three years…but, hey, it’s like riding a bike, right?

Welllll… Lo, it had come to pass that a Walnut Creek delivery and pickup of equipment was needed. It was my turn. There was no one else free to do it.

Show Time!

The company provided the vehicle and a gas card. I was assigned a nice little Buick. I took my time to set my mirrors and seats familiarizing myself with the dash, wipers, etc.like a pilot doing pre-flight preps. After a short Bunny Hop comedy getting used to the brakes, I went off to the gas station to get gas. Not being familiar as to which side of the car the gas tank cap was on I provided some impromptu entertainment to the station attendant as I circled the pumps looking for the best way to gas the buggy. To add to that bit of comedy, the company credit card refused to work. But I got it together without breaking down in tears and, Guide Sheet in hand, off I went!

As I approached the San Mateo Bridge I realized that the HEATER is on! Whoever had borrowed the car before me had apparently felt a chill so they had cranked up the heater. I dasn’t fumble with it at highway speeds so I put up with it. Radio booming! Heater on! Every window open, I’m off to Walnut Creek.

Things are actually going along pretty well if warmly so. There was a little excitement when I almost get squeezed into a sidewall by a semi. Still, outside of having some hostile fellow drivers not being fans of my Granny way of driving, it went pretty smoothly.

Until I get to the next to the last exit to Walnut Creek.

Called the Sacramento-San Jose Exit.

I flinched. I had a fleeting doubt in my carefully crafted Guide Sheet, (This lack of faith was an error) Long story short, I missed my exit.

Thar I wuz.
Not only did I miss my exit, I now had absolutely no clue where I was or how to get back on course!

It seemed like I went about three miles up the road before I got to where I could find an exit ramp to get off the freeway. I found myself in a large, apparently uninhabited urban development-in-progress. It had an eerie Twilight Zone feel about it. Like a movie set or a film where all the inhabitants were Taken by some evil. I had to drive awhile to find some place that had actually had people in it so I might seek guidance but find them I did. The people were quite normal, no Rod Serling narrating in the background. They were eager to help and gave me directions to Walnut Creek that of course put me on a slightly different angle and a different freeway altogether which means my prized Guide Sheet is now worthless!

At least I got to turn off that damn heater once I actually stopped and parked the car.

Getting back on the freeway I was confronted with a “Walnut Creek North/Walnut Creek South” option that the helpful guides “forgot” to mention in their directions. I gambled on the northbound option and went what seemed like forever, wondering if I’m going too far in the wrong direction.

No! There’s Walnut Creek!

The heavens opened! The angels sang! Walnut Creek is a real place after all, Toto!

Now to find the Office. I had no address. I didn’t need it because if my little Guide Sheet had been adhered to I would have been deposited right at the door.

But I’m resourceful; I find a pay phone and call them. Get directions. Follow said directions. Ended up in a residential cul-de-sac.

Back to civilization to find another pay phone

Call ‘em. Get directions again. Throughout all this of course, is the factor that if I leave the car to seek directions or use the phone, the car instantly camouflages itself, hiding in plain sight, so it’ll take me another ten minutes trying to figure out where I parked it …

I finally get back on Main Street in Walnut Creek. I knew the office is on a short road abutting Main Street. I stop off to ask directions again. I asked the Walnut Creek guy if there was a landmark that indicated where I had to make my final turn. There was! I asked a local resident where this landmark to my final turn is. “Get back on 680…”

Argh!

I need Main Street, not 680 for to get reoriented. “Isn’t this Main Street?’” (It was. You could see the green white street sign)
“No” he said.
I thanked him and edged away from that dude and tried another local guide.

All quests must end; this one did, too. I finally got to my destination, picked up and completed my errand which, in itself, only took about twenty minutes and trekked home, this time slavishly obeying my Guide Sheet. The home route fell into place perfectly. The best thing about it was that on that day traffic flowed smoothly. Absolutely no lags or slowdowns.

But I think the guide sheet was forevermore cursed. Karmic punishment for having doubted it meant I never had a totally easy run to Walnut Creek ever after. There would always be some irritant in following the directions. Once I even ended up in Oakland! How that happened I’ll never know but I am eternally grateful to one of the residents there taking pity on me telling me to follow him and he would get me back on the freeway. A true Samaritan, he gave me accurate directions of how to get back on the San Mateo Bridge route and home.

The subsequent runs were never quite as long as that first one.

What took one of the regular guys to make the run and do a short errand while there and come back usually took a little over two hours.

Moi?

Four, nearly five hours. No halfway measures for me!

What Kind Of Feather Is That?

SNOOTYPE_2

I wear a hat most days.
It looks pretty much like the avatar I use. An oddly crowned black cowboy type hat with a long straight feather in it. Nowadays the feather is usually a tail feather from a blue and gold Macaw.

It was not always thus.

I started wearing black cowboy hats when I was nineteen. I lived in Michigan at the time where I found summer work with a landscape architect. Lots of sun, lots of digging. The hat kept the sun out of my eyes, the rain off my glasses and gave me some protection from the dirt of the job. I didn’t adorn it with a feather in those early days however.

After that job went away so did the hat and it did not resurface until the seventies when I was working for Gelb Music. I had grown my beard and hair in the early seventies and liked the idea of wearing a hat again so I bought one of the “wire brim” varieties. I shaped the brim to taste letting the crown do what it wanted and over time it acquired its current slope.

I liked the hat. It became my trademark. I had an unfortunate incident where I sought to clean my hat de jour by putting it in a washing machine but that’s a story for another time. Needless to say, because I was due to play a show and my persona, my ‘act,’ called for The Hat I had to be creative. That day I learned how to steam a hat so I could shape a new one to look like the old ones. After that bit of business, people seldom noticed when I’d gotten a new hat because of this acquired-through-necessity skill. Around this time I graduated to better quality hats, ones without the wire brim, still shaping the new ones to look like the predecessors.

By the time I started working for Barney Steel’s I had been using a single feather. A “jive turkey” as a black musician once called it because it was one of those black-tipped faux eagle feathers made from dyed domestic turkey feathers.

One of the bartenders of the day…Leona, bought me a seventeen inch long pheasant feather at a Renaissance Pleasure Faire so I had to learn how to mount the feather straight up to keep it from getting caught in doors or slapping people walking behind me if I was on a barstool.

The long feather eventually got broken but other people had given me shorter pheasant feathers. People would give me feathers in the hope I would use them in my hat. So I mounted three feathers rotating them for variety. Still, pheasant feathers are fairly common hat gear and I always liked being a little different.

Enter, stage right, one Sue B.

Sue was a lovely girl. Blonde, pretty legs that seemed made for the short skirts she wore. She had nice blue eyes set in a sweet almost doll-like face.

She liked coming to Barney’s. Her husband would meet some of his motorcycle buddies at Barneys and Sue, as I found out her name was, would dance. She loved dancing. So did I, but it was plain she didn’t like contact dancing. In those days I was a swing dance fan. I didn’t enjoy ‘wiggle dancing’ as I called it. She and I may have tried dancing once but, if we did it would have been brief.

I would see her arrive but found she was remarkably shy. She would say ‘hi’ but couldn’t be drawn into conversation. As time passed, she was still shy and not talking but I noticed her looking at my hat intently from time to time.

One night she came up to me and actually spoke to me! A first! Actual conversation!

“I want to ask you something.” she said.
“Ask away,” said I.
“If I promise to provide you with feathers will you promise to only wear my feathers?”
This was such an odd request. I looked askance at her. “I dunno… whatcha got… what kind of feather are we talking about here?”

She held out a really long tail feather from a Blue and Gold Macaw. Blue on the outside, yellow on the inside.

A Macaw is a rather large Amazonian parrot. She had a Macaw aviary at home. She raised the birds for sale to pet stores and individuals.

Well, of course I struck the bargain and figured out how to mount the things. Not an easy trick by any means.

She kept her end of the bargain. The birds molt, twice a year I think, and she would bring me the best and longest two or three of the lot. The elements took their toll on the ones in the hat although they were a tough feather, withstanding weather handily.

All good things come to an end. She eventually divorced her husband causing her to shut down the aviary so my supply dried up. Luckily, I had taken care of the ones she gave me so I could maintain my hat’s image.

I saw her briefly a few times after Barney’s shut down. She was always shy but after her divorce we did get to where we talked when we saw each other. I kissed her once on a warm summer night, a sweet, chaste kiss, when we were walking down the street.

I haven’t seen her in years.

People love my hat. Every time I go out wearing it I always get compliments about it. Over the years I have found that it has opened far more doors than it closed. I usually come home knowing I made some people smile by wearing an outlandishly long blue and gold Macaw feather in my funky black cowboy hat. This is particularly true when I go to a medical appointment. Hospitals and clinics are full of people in private distress. To see them forget their troubles for an instant to smile at The Hat is quite warming. In grocery stores little kids think I’m an event. “Robin Hood” is the most common guess.

I decided to ‘stock up’ on feathers since Sue was no longer around in my world so I bought a Macaw tail molt from Ebay.

It’s just not the same.

People ask me what kind of feather it is and I tell them. Those who try to guess invariably suggest ‘peacock’ or ‘pheasant.’ They ask me where I get them I tell them EBay. The story goes deeper than that but is too long in the telling.

I still only wear one Blue and Gold Macaw tail feather.

I miss the having the pretty blonde girl bring me a couple of tail feathers twice a year.

>sigh<

Ronnie’s ‘Pie Story’

SNOOTYPE_2

Any time of the day is a good time for pie.”
__Fabienne in “Pulp Fiction”

A friend of mine died in 2005… Ron Nakamrua… a great guitarist, a man of unselfish generosity and humor…He and I went ‘way back’ as they say. He is featured in my ‘Reflections On The Garcia’ writing.

This bit of business was one of his favorite stories and he often begged me to recount it. For a time we even made it into a song like a talking blues… I got to thinking about him and that story so I thought I’d share it because I know he’d like me to tell it one more time…

Once upon a time Ronnie, I, Jimmie (Jimbo) Carmichael and Dan Swetlik (with occasional appearances by Ed Donnelan) were in a little almost-jug band called ‘Polecat’. We played Grateful Dead stuff, a little Eagles, things like that…

Ronnie played brilliant lead guitar on his marvelous Martin D-35, Jim handled most of the vocals and Dan played bass and sang harmony. I was playing Dobro for the group. We were several cuts above a garage band, making little gigs here and there and getting together for rehearsals, alternating between Dan or at Jimbo’s house. We had a nice little following.

We had a lot of stories to tell… One day I’ll tell about the time Jim lost the band truck in San Francisco but today I’ll tell you Ronnie’s Pie Story.

Now it happened that my thirty fifth birthday was drawing nigh and being born on April first as I am causes me to exercise a certain amount of caution on my natal anniversary. ‘Getting through a birthday’ has a little more meaning for me than it does for most mortals.

Little did I know my thirty-fifth would have a special ‘sweetness’ to it.

We had gathered at Jimmie’s on this occasion for a rehearsal and we were taking a break. It was about eight thirty or so… dark out.

Jim said “Anyone want to smoke one?” …the times being what they were, folks were known to take a little smoke of cannabis on occasion (only for the camaraderie, of course. It would be bad manners to refuse.)

I knew I was up for it but Jim said, “We have to do it outside so’s not to smell up the house.” I should have seen this as an omen, a portend, of mischief because this had never been a concern before. Still, it was a reasonable request because marijuana does have a pungent odor.

So we went outside on a moonless night illuminated only by the back porch light. We passed the doobie around in good fellowship.

Ron then asked me if I wanted to hear a joke. “Hail no!” I said.

Now folks…having Ron tell you a joke was a challenge to one’s comprehension because he would usually go into fits of laughter during the telling and be incapable of finishing the damn thing coherently. Often by the time he gasped out the punch line the joke will have lost its momentum and the punch line would go flat…

So, in spite of my protests, he starts this long rambling tale, commencing to crack up in the telling as usual.
At last he seemed to be bringing it to a merciful end. There he stands, laughing his head off, while I’m waiting for the punch line. Finally, I get impatient and say:

“Let me have it.”

Ronnie looks at me in mid laugh, almost unbelievingly, and says “What?”

“I said…Let me have it.!”

Okay!” said Ron with a grin of sheer delight…”You asked for it”…

And I saw, almost in stop motion, his hand come from behind his back holding a coconut cream pie which he plants firmly in my face.

There is no experience quite like it, folks… You can watch all the old slapstick movies you want that feature such shenanigans but there is no substitute for the real event.

I remember reacting with a stunned roar, momentarily immobile but not for long. I was looking over my glasses for someone to grab and punish when the next surprise was unloaded… a bucket of water splashed on my chest. Ice water…

Cold! That slowed me down and a second bucket of water at groin level pretty much stopped me gave the miscreants ample time to flee. I saw one scurry over a fence and Dan virtually flew over the rear gate.
I was half blind and wet and cold and about as disoriented as one could be.

After a beat or two, one of the guys asked if it was safe to approach me and I said it was because I was of two minds… outraged that such a thing had been done to my person and at the same time the realization had started to sink in that not many people had undergone such an experience. and I could see it was every bit as ludicrous in life as it seemed when done in the movies.

The boys had planned well. They had the setup planned weeks in advance, even to the point of having a dry jumpsuit set aside so I could shower and change (and cool off a bit) allowing us to all have a great laugh, not at my expense, but at the whole project and its brilliant execution. Ronnie had thoughtfully provided some ‘sip of the day’ (Peach Brandy) to assist in the warming up process…

That is the essence of ‘Ronnie’s Pie Tale’ and it achieved the status of near myth over the years.

It did have some negative footnotes however…

We were scheduled to play at a now defunct beer and wine joint called “The Rhinoceros’ that once existed across from the legendary Gelb Music store. It was early in the evening. The place was empty and the boys were back in the main showroom getting set up. I was in the bar drinking coffee.

Alan, one of the bartenders, brought in a familiar looking box… a pie box! I rose to my most threatening height and put on my War Face but Alan said… ”No, wait… we thought you should have a pie to eat for your birthday.”

Well, that was an altogether different matter so I picked up the pie and took it into the main showroom intending to show it to the boys but they all scattered like marbles dropped on a linoleum floor when they saw that pie in my hands. They didn’t want to share evidently.

About a week later we went to play a gather at a rented hall at the San Mateo YMCA, when the line between fun surprise and malice blurred and started to spoil the effect.

That very night someone mushed Ronnie with a chocolate cream pie. He didn’t take it well but the poor guy had no recourse to get it all off him until he got home. No shower and jumpsuit waiting for him. All he had was the facilities available in the rest room and we had a show to play. I’ll tell you from experience it takes a couple of showers to get the sugary-ness off. So the poor guy was gooey and grumbly about it for the rest of the night.

It became dangerous for anyone in our circle to have a birthday for a while after that. They tried to pie Dan the bass player, whose birthday was near mine by a couple of days but he avoided the pie assassins. Jimbo got blindsided at a joint called ‘The Rusty Pelican’. Ed Donnelan, a frequent band mate, told us that “…the ‘pie tradition’ that year, cost me a bloody nose and a loose tooth because the perpetrator’s of my ‘pieing’ neglected to fully thaw the frozen banana cream prior to “surprising” me with it.”

Finally one of our number from our fan base, Rick Chatfield, got slightly injured which should illustrate to the masses that your standard surprise party is a much safer and saner way of doing things. They know what they were talking about when they say ‘Kids, Don’t Try This At Home.’

So then the pie in the face routine faded into the realm of Legends Told…

The thing I remember most about it though, isn’t the pie in the face as much as it was listening to Ronnie laugh because he knew what was about to happen… he loved to laugh…

Here’s to you Ronnie…thanks for the memories… miss you terribly…

…an interesting email


My Grateful Dead write-up, (Reflections on The Garcia) originally written as a free flow learning exercise for learning MS Word, took on a life of its own once I finished it. I edited it three times and at this point I’m not that happy with it but I know enough to leave it alone.

It has been around the world and every once in a while I get a really special sounding email from total strangers.
This one is hard to top

From: Nicholas Meriwether
To: norm@Normspot.com;
Sent: Friday, September 20, 2013 9:07 AM
Subject: Greetings from the Grateful Dead Archive

Dear Norm,
I am the archivist in charge of the Grateful Dead Archive at UC Santa Cruz. I came across your very fine and eloquent essay on your time with Jerry and I wanted to email and thank you so much for writing and sharing it.
I edit a peer-reviewed academic journal devoted to the Dead and I am wondering if you might like to allow your fine essay to be published in the next issue. Your essay deserves as wide an audience as possible, I believe – – and while the journal doesn’t pay (me or anyone), it does let your work live in academic libraries and allow it to be consulted by good scholars, historians, and fans.
Please let me know if this might appeal to you, and regardless, should your travels bring you to Santa Cruz, I hope you’ll stop by the Library and let me introduce myself and give you a tour of the Archive exhibit.
With many thanks in advance for your time,

Sincerely,
Nicholas


Nicholas Meriwether
Grateful Dead Archivist
McHenry Library, UC Santa Cruz
1156 High St., Santa Cruz, CA 95064

… I accepted, of course…