|Remember what the term "Japanese guitar" used to
mean, back when beatniks roamed the earth and Elvis was still kinda nasty?
The Beatles hadn't landed and I was in the third grade when my big brother
Jim brought home a brand new Japanese guitar. Loosely modeled after a
classic, it was already caving in from the load of its steel strings. You
don't see them like this anymore, man. Painted-on binding, decal rosette,
door skin luan plywood, basswood (or worse) neck, nice sharp ends on those
rough brass frets. I was totally fascinated!
But the word fascination found new meaning a year later when my even bigger brother Dick came home from college with what might as well have been the Messiah Strad. It was a very plain, small bodied New York era Epiphone archtop with a badly repaired crack running the full length of the soundboard, and he had bought it cheap in a pawn shop. The hand of mortal man never created such perfection. This was a gift from the angels! Oh, the lovely dissonances that it spoke as I whanged it with a juice glass slide! When Dick was begged, he would strum "Who Put the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy's Chowder."
The tenor of my lutherie career was set then and there, as I rushed headlong into the construction of a series of rash and ignorant experiments. The first one to produce a musical note involved bolting the neck of a smashed Gene Autry guitar to a hunk of plywood. By now I was in the 5th grade and the baby boom generation was wild about electric guitars thanks to the Mop Tops and other invading anglos. I made a major life decision to build an electric bass from scratch.
I designed an instrument based on my limited available technology and even more limited engineering savvy, featuring a body made of a sandwich of miscellaneous plywood slabs and a neck which instead of fitting into a slot, surrounded the body like a clothespin. I got the neck fretted, having marked the fret locations on a piece of paper at a music store, then transferring the marks to the oak fretboard, resplendent with 3/4" dowel fret markers.
|Much of the guitar building technical info has been stripped from this
version but can be found in The Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume
One from the Guild of American Luthiers
There I am, a fat fifth grader with my plywood guitar and very big dreams. Click the photo to see Harvey to the left, and Harvey's guitars, including the famous Maltese Cross model, hung along the ceiling. That's my big sister Ruth on the right in the racing stripe jacket, looking at the Hanged Man dummy.
|I got hung up trying to find a pickup. Remember,
this was before the Summer of Love. The man at the music store didn't have
access to anything other than those chrome DeArmonds that were used for
electrifying archtops. I was persistent and doubtless pitiable. Finally
the music store man, against his better judgement it seemed, relented.
"Listen, kid. There's a guy out in Midway that makes guitars. He'll have what you need. But I'm warning you, he's a real character, and I won't promise that he'll sell you a pickup. He might like you or he might not."
Now I had to convince my mom to drive me 25 miles to Midway to see a
guy who might or might not like me, and might or might not help me. The
thought of not going never occured to me.
It took a while to talk her into it, but eventually mom and I were heading north on Highway 99 in the '49 Chevy. Midway isn't really a place, it's just mid way between Seattle and Tacoma. And this wasn't really even in Midway. We found the cross street, and turned onto a small road. About a block later a wooden sign with the stenciled word "Thomas" pointed down a pair of ruts bumping off through deep puddles, apparently to nowhere. We followed obediently.
On the right, a heap of rusted and crumpled metal that may once have
been a pickup truck of '30s vintage held a large sign saying "Bargain.
Howard Carter felt no greater wonderment on entering Tut's tomb than I
did in that living room. In the center of the room was a pool table, but
it soon became clear that its main purpose was as a display table for
guitars. All around the room ran two levels of continuous guitar racks
which held the instruments face outward against a padded rail attached to
the wall. And such guitars! There were some Fenders, Gibsons,
Rickenbackers, and Moserites, but mainly there were Thomases. Pointy, thin
necked, flashy Thomases. White, sunburst, metallic, and tiger striped
Thomases. They were shaped like iron crosses, like swastikas, like Vox
Phantoms, like paisleys. There were double necks. There were triple necks,
Soon the door burst open and there he stood, Harvey Thomas himself. He seemed to have the right build and attitude to walk through walls. Harvey looks like James Whitmore from a distance, having the same low, powerful profile and grey hair swept back from a low hairline. That is, I thought Harvey looked like James Whitmore until I met his brother Floyd Thomas years later. Floyd really looks like James Whitmore! But Harvey doesn't have the rustic, kindly countenance of James Whitmore. The tough look of Evel Knevil glowered from the small eyes on a round face outlined with huge grey muttonchops. Tight lips sprouted a thick cigar. He wore a green turtle neck shirt adorned by a then-fashionable love medallion on a heavy chain. The medallion must have been some kind of joke; Harvey's style was definitely Nashville Western. He gave a look which sized up the fat, dumbfounded fifth grader without offering much encouragement.
There's a face custom made to scare a hippy! Click to see Harvey Thomas playing a guitorgan, a guitar which is wired to also operate an electric organ through electrical contacts in the frets. This is all hard-wired stuff, way before MIDI technology.
|We followed him out of the house and back to a
half-finished building about 25' wide and perhaps 200' long with
occasional doors, windows and garage doors which served, at various
distances back, as music store, repair shop, guitar factory, and garage.
We passed a lovely pond in the middle of a nicely kept lawn and flowers,
nestled up against the house. The serenity of the pond was only somewhat
disturbed by the mannequin legs sticking straight up from the center. Near
the lake was a small white tombstone with the legend: "Here Lies Mary
Thomas, Guitared to Death." Something seemed odd about the giant Douglas
Firs gently swaying in the distance. Perhaps it was the fact that they
were hung with guitars, giving the impression of Christmas tree ornaments.
Across a patch of mud and into the door of the shop. We were met by an aroma mainly consisting of cigar smoke, walnut dust, and fresh lacquer. Here were row upon row of guitars hanging from rods, as well as amplifiers, tools, car parts, furniture, and hand-drawn pastel posters singing the praises of "Thomas, the Cadillac of Guitars". Bumper stickers advertised country radio stations and artists, notably Buck Owens who was still a regional act. On a Honda 50 next to the counter sat a life sized dummy with the grotesque, pop-eyed face of a hanged man. Over the years this guy really got around, now seated in the living room, now lynched in the yard, now driving the company car.
Harvey stood behind the counter in front of the mysterious and forbidden door to the rest of the shop. It was years and dozens of visits later that I was first invited back through that door. I eventually worked as a repairman for Harvey.
I brought the plywood body sections and fretted neck out of a paper bag, and haltingly explained that I just needed a pickup to complete the project. Harvey gravely picked up the fruits of my labor and examined them silently for a few minutes as the cigar moved by some curious process from one end of his mouth to the other. Then he spoke.
"Do you have a fireplace?"
Mom was furious, but thankfully didn't hit him or anything. I was abashed but determined. Over the next two and a half years, (and dozens of drives to Midway thanks to the ever-supportive mom and dad) I did finish an electric bass under his tutelage. Actually, he did half the work himself, back in the inner sanctum. He never really explained anything. Rather, he Socratically allowed me to chip loose little gems of info as I needed them. But only when I needed them
Harvey had a thing for Cadillacs. There were usually one or two
bulbous, toothy, mid-fifties hearses in the driveway. These were generally
black with white roofs and white stencil lettering saying "Thomas Custom
Guitars." Farther back, by the shop's garage doors, there would be an ever
changing herd of vehicles consisting mainly of Caddies from the '50s and
'60s, but also including the odd pickup truck and speedboat. This flock
was shepherded by a '40s vintage truck that was somewhere between a tow
truck and a crane. The farther back in the driveway one got, the more (and
worse) Cadillacs came in to view. The swamp was populated with cars,
hearses, trucks, busses, and trailers, and every turn around a tree or a
clump of blackberries revealed yet another group of treasures. Dry places
between the ponds formed a labyrinth which described a sort of hierarchy:
Those cars which were not called forward periodically by the crane became
surrounded by poplar saplings and slowly went back to nature.
I was an 18 year old long haired freak when I started working at Harvey's shop, a fact Harvey was fond of pointing out in a redneck way. Actually, I felt a kind of kinship of outlandishness with him and his crowd. Although the hardcore Grand Ole Opry aesthetic that prevailed at the Thomas compound was older and better established than the hippie style, it was just about as far from the polite mainstream. My car had a brilliant sunset scene covering its roof and back end. Harvey drove a two tone hearse. Which is freakier? Of course, to his way of thinking he was a responsible, conservative citizen while I was some kind of radical.
True to my freakish ethic, I did not have reliable transportation for
the 50 mile daily round trip. My 1961 Volvo 544 humpback didn't have a
starter, and it was too flat there in the swamp to pop-start it.
Another time he suddenly stated:
One day Harvey gave me some advice on guitar playing.
The fact that Harvey's Country Western milieu was utterly foreign to me did not mask the fact that he was an accomplished guitarist and a consummate performer. His guitar making grew out of his former career as a machinist and his lifelong involvement with country music. Harvey played the regional country lounge circuit as a one man band. On stage he would sit on a bench behind "The Infernal Music Machine", a box containing his various amps, reverb springs, tape delays, flashing lights, and one of those old style rhythm boxes with the buttons marked "samba", "waltz", or "polka" which would give you one bar of little clicking sounds repeated to infinity. A set of electronic organ pedals lay beneath his feet.
The centerpiece of Harvey's on stage hardware was his triple neck guitar, which featured a standard six string with vibrato tailpiece on the bottom, a twelve string in the center, and a short scale six string bass, also with whammy, as the top neck. Above this considerable fire power, Harvey would sing country standards, for instance:
The old town
Click to see Harvey at the controls of the Infernal Music Machine.
|Harvey was a true eccentric, and loved to go to
great lengths to prove it. I always admired this in him. He had set his
own priorities in life, and within his sovereign territory he met life on
his own terms. Anyone who visited the Thomas guitar shop has a story from
or about Harvey. I'll tell one doozy to which I was an eyewitness. I'll
pass by the ones about the time he rolled down a hill on a hunting trip
with his pants and a pair of six-guns around his ankles; the time he laid
several White Falcons out in the muddy driveway just to rattle a Gretch
fan with a bad attitude; his uncanny skill at shooting beer cans off a
distant stump and how it was somehow related to the radio controlled
solenoid in the stump; and how he set fire to a car in his driveway as a
prank on the Midway fire department.
Harvey decided I should borrow a reliable car from him so I could commute to work without excuses. He went back into the swamp with the crane and dragged out a white convertible '58 Cadillac, which he soon started with the aid of an enormous gas station style battery charger. In we jumped and took off for a test ride, going out the back way around the swamp. I didn't feel a bump in those huge white leather seats as we flew over the deep puddles. Harvey checked out the radio and power windows as we zoomed. Everything worked. The paint was a little chalky, but there were no major dents and it sure did go! Wait till they see me in this! I was already fantasizing about picking Deb up at High School and the looks I'd get from those muscle-bound clods in their letterman's jackets. Yeah.
The puddles led to a narrow curved paved road, and a timid little lady
in a timid little car in front of us looked nervously back and forth for
an opening to make a left turn. Harvey soon became impatient. Grabbing the
wheel and leaning forward, he dramatically read from her bumper sticker:
Back at the house, Harvey said the car looked good, but it must pass one more test before I drove it home. If it would start again easily, all was well. He switched off the ignition, then stitched it on again. Although it sounded hopeful, the engine did not start and the battery had tired out within a minute or so.
Silently, he went to get the charger and a bottle of beer. He removed
the air cleaner and poured a glug of beer down the carburetor. He attached
the battery charger, and the car started instantly. He laid aside the
charger leads, got back into the car, shifted into reverse, and put the
hammer down. Gravel sprayed out from the spinning tires and the great
beast shot backward into the brush. Despite blackberries and other small
flora, he'd picked up considerable speed by the time the car's rear end
was lifted into the air by a clump of bent over saplings. The wheels spun
impotently as Harvey climbed down and walked back to the house.
I lost touch with Harvey over the years. I opened my own lutherie shop
and he got more involved in converting city busses into motor homes. Even
Benny at the guitar shop, who had once carried a line of house brand
guitars manufactured by Harvey, had no news. A dozen years
Things were as they should be. A reader board in the front yard announced "THIS SIGN FOR SALE" while the garage held a little English sports car and a '76 Eldorado. Ten years old? Yeah, that's about right. Most of the hearses were '53s when I first saw them. In the driveway was a clean, recent model tow truck, and in the distance among the ubiquitous poplar saplings were several vintage city busses. I couldn't see much from where I stood, but I felt the presence of more Cadillacs.
I remembered the feelings of anticipation, fascination, and terror I once felt on my pilgrimages to this Mecca. He was in there, my Yoda, still partly cloaked in the sanctity of his swamp. My Merlin, stern and inscrutable, ready to shock, amaze and enlighten with his magic.
I got back in the car and drove off past the dumpsters behind the Thriftway. What an outrage. How could they build a Super Duper Store here? Don't they know this is sacred ground?
Here's a real Harvey gig poster. It contains a lot of biographical info and a song list. Click for a larger view.
Hey, if anyone has any information or photos to share about Harvey, his instruments, or cars, I'd like to hear from you. Send me photos and I'll try to post them from time to time. Please e-mail me.
Now I'm going to tell you my e-mail address, but in a form that the spam harvesters are not going to get. Ready? The "©" symbol below stands for the "@" symbol. So use the "@" symbol. Tricky, but you can figure it out.