By Bruno DeSmartass, San Francisco Copyright 2011
Original Thread for commenting and discussion: Click Here
To all: I wrote this a few years back. thought you might enjoy it.
I've been assured that it probably will not be too long for TGP. Enjoy!
￼Musicians, guitar players, know about the soul of the thing; the guitar, the amp. That it exists. That it is meaningful. Maybe the soul of the machine endures. If we are lucky we are played by the amp or by the guitar. It was a dark and stormy night....
Fender Concert amp S/N A02931 left the Fender Electric Instrument Co. factory in Fullerton, California in March of 1964. It was a 1964 model year Fender Concert amp. One of the older ones manufactured by the Fender Electric Instrument company before it was absorbed by corporate giant, Columbia Broadcasting System. A fine-sounding 45 watt beast sporting 4-10" speakers in a compact unit. The second year of this model's manufacture; Leo Fender still smiling or grimacing from the corner office off the main floor. For years the amp wandered across the country searching for it's fate, surfacing in New York City some 20 years later.
I was living in San Francisco, a small fishing village in Northern California. My sister, Barbara DeSmartass, was living in Brooklyn at the time, where we both grew up. She had an old friend, a college roommate named Leah B. This was from her days in school in Potsdam, New York up near the Canadian border. I got to know Leah through my sister and always liked her. She was a good soul, capable of a dry world-weary wit. I think she was from Westchester, a suburb of New York City just to the north.
The gravity well of New York is hard to escape from when you are so close, and I think Leah ended up in the City in the early 80's. Details are sketchy, as were many things back then. It is known that she picked up the Concert then. I'm sure it seemed to be a good deal and the first step towards the stage and performing. Converging on this event path was another old friend, Susan M.
I knew her in San Francisco, where she had lived for years. We had many adventures together, but she was restless. After years in California, she moved to New York City to see what all the hubbub was about. She found a place in Manhattan and lived on the Hells Angels block of E. 3rd St. in the East Village. Oddly enough and somewhat convergently, she started playing guitar in my old band, BAD POSTURE. They had also made the pilgrimage East from San Francisco. The gravity well had a pull that was inescapable even at those large distances.
Susan, through my sister, connected with Leah. Two, three paths crossing. A pilgrimage to some place in Brooklyn ensued and the amp moved with Susan to Manhattan. I think $50 exchanged hands. Susan was using the amp with BAD POSTURE during the early thrash 80's in New York, playing at CBGBs and beyond. She played with them until their life expectancy was exceeded and they were forced to stop. The amp languished in her bedroom, unused except maybe to hold up cigarettes or a beer or some books or a candle. Only three of the original Oxford 10s were working and still in the amp; one of them was fried, a casualty. The amp sat waiting to be powered up for some late-night inspiration, singing or silliness. Such was what life was like in downtown Manhattan on the Lower East Side before the poets were chased out by the moneyed masses yearning to live free in splendor in the slums.
I breezed through town in May, 1983 on tour with FLIPPER. We were crashing at Susan's place. We were using it as a base of operations while we were playing everywhere from DC to Boston. The chaos that was associated with us coming into the apartment at all hours after a late night show and a 2- hour drive seemed to not faze Susan, who seemed to be operating on a different plane. It was totally to her credit that she put us up and put up with us. It was very Punk rock, too.
At some point the Concert caught Ted, the guitar player's, eye. He asked Susan if he could use it for a few shows. As if his Twin was not loud enough! But that was the nature of Ted's sound, with multiple amps making different-toned distortions. It made for a singular fat, wide sound, hard to achieve with one sound source. Increased dissonance is a good thing, right? Chaos is always king.
Susan explained that one of the speakers was blown. The grill cloth was gone and parts were missing. Cigarette burns on the Tolex. A freaking Punk rock disaster of an amplifier. But sure, she said, go ahead and use it.
Ted did have a tendency to pick up stuff as he went along. It was as if things were attracted to him, and would follow him around. Well then, time to Ted-ify the amp! All us New Yorker rockers knew you had to go to Andre's Audio-tronics on 48th St. for amp and speaker work, I dragged Ted up there and we bought a couple of totally mismatched late 70s, early 80s Eminence 10" speakers for cheap. Ted figured out a way to wire them so the resulting impedance was sort of correct. I think the filter capacitor cover was missing, so Ted fashioned one from a beer can. With time he carved his Flipper-fish logo into the chassis and silver-markered the black exterior to complete the process. The engraving is still there. The territorial marking was nearly complete.
This was truly the beginning of a dark and stormy time for the Concert. As the weeks went on, the Concert ended up on stage next to Ted's other amp, and somehow ended up being sprayed in nifty Punk black spray paint. Though de rigueur Punk fashion; the missing grill cloth and knobs, the black paint, mismatched speakers and all, it bespoke good-old-fashioned disguising of stolen goods....! Which is what it became. We left the East coast for points West and North. We had 2 more months of touring before we returned home. 8 more weeks of sleeping on floors. What joy! And that indeed is what it truly was...
I think our first stops out of the City were Western PA, like Pittsburgh or New Hope or something. At load-in I saw that Ted had taken the liberty of liberating Susan's Concert amp. Certainly claiming Eminent Domain. I guess he figured that after he had modified/messed-up the amp it was no longer fit for mortal humans.
I was annoyed.
The story of touring with this dysfunctional family is a good one, with its funny moments and bound to be immortalized elsewhere, elsewhen. At any rate, the tour ended abruptly in Chicago with Ted flying back to his home in Los Angeles, a desert settlement situated in Southern California.
I stole the amp back from him when we got back home and refused to give it back to him. I mean, the nerve!!
"Life in the hive has puckered up my night, the kiss of death, the embrace of life" sayeth the poet.
The odd turnings and twists of life, brought Susan back to San Francisco some years later, on the road with yet another band I had been associated and dear friends with; FRIGHTWIG. She was due for a life change. When she got back I talked to her about the Concert but she had no use for it, but said she sure could use $50 for it. I guess that was the going rate for the mutant Fender it had become. Another half a buck exchanged hands.
I shelved it for a couple of years. I really dug the sound, but I needed more power for the stuff I was doing at the time. Somehow I knew I was to be its caretaker for just a little while longer, but was in no hurry to unload it.
The Punk aesthetic and ethos was losing its luster, I guess, in the mid 80's. I mean we can all revel in a trashy look. I mean, hell yeah! But there comes a time to move on. These were the unconscious meanderings in my brain when I turned my attention to the Concert and decided to tart it up a little.
I did a cosmetic, ahem..."upgrade". I made a new speaker baffle out of some ACX plywood that was lying around my shop. Painted the baffle bright red and installed a 60's Ford chrome 289 emblem with crossed checkered flags at its center. The speakers were protected from rock'n' roll mayhem by an expanded-steel grill painted flat charcoal gray held off from the speakers by small black plastic bushings. Aluminum trim molding covered the exposed edges of the grill. It was mostly stuff I had lying around. The effect was very 80's charming! And very ****in' rock'n'roll!
The speakers were a sore point and I took the whole mongrel mess to Sal Trentino, amp guru extraordinaire, in San Anselmo. He had the speakers re-coned and went through the amp. New caps, tubes, a proper grounded cord, a general overhaul. I think he replaced dozens of resistors, caps and diodes.
The Concert entered the nineties and it was a-rocking and a-looking good!
I started using the amp with my band, LOVES ME, HATES YOU. Its size was more appropriate for the music we were doing than my Marshall. Small bars and clubs. I did run it hard though. Those old Fenders sounded their best when being flogged mercilessly, tubes glowing dangerously bright red, approaching meltdown. It sounded nice.
I've always had a problem with the speakers in the Concert. The speakers that were installed in New York were just plain problematic, and new cones did not help matters much. I blew out the cones in short order and they had to be re-done. Again.
I took a vacation from playing for a spell, but I never got rid of the Concert. I bought a fitted vinyl/fabric cover for it, and then as it made it's way deeper into my amp storage, a hard amp case on wheels. I guess some sort of nesting/hoarding instinct took over at that point and my feeling must have been to preserve it for the future date when I knew it had to be dragged onto stage again to make the joyous noise again.
Some years later I realized it actually looked a little silly and decided to put it back to stock(-ish). The thinking being as ever, that sometimes it is best to lean on the old, original design and improve upon it. Upgrade and improve that which can, or should, be improved, but in the end rely on the old design as a guide for what the final product should look and sound like.
It is not the best amp in the world. No, it could use a smaller box, less weight, more power and reverb to even approach that (maybe keep beer cold, too!) It is not the most versatile amp ever made; incapable of all those lovely assorted 6L6/EL34/gain-stage/ SRV/Jimi/Clapton/****ing-whatever-classic tones you may want to hear. But it is the amp you have, so shut up and play your guitar.
I purchased a bunch of new-from-the-factory Fender knobs and hardware from a supplier online, as well as a newly-constructed baffle and grill cloth. God, that was a thing of beauty, in and of itself. I guess I had to get rid of the wood skids on the bottom for some proper ones. At least my aching middle-aged back didn't compel me to put casters on the thing (Well... there was the case that it sat in, handily on wheels!)
It was starting to look kinda sharp, with its original grill and logo and all. I threw out the old beer-can capacitor cover and bought a new one.
With the years, amps of this vintage had become dangerously collectible and every single part of the amp could be purchased to replace bits thrown away and destroyed over the years. It begs the question of what becomes of the body when all of the components, bones, organs, even the cells have been renewed or replaced. Is it a new organism? Are we just templates, schematics with replaceable parts?
The amp was approaching a new incarnation.
During that period when I started playing again, I was using my 100 watt Marshall Plexi RI full stack. Absolutely redonkulous! All visual effect and very, very loud! In all honesty I must say that I wasn't totally in love with the sound of the rig. Too big and powerful to dial in a decent sound at mere mortal sound pressure levels. But it worked for the project at the time.
When you are a gearhead, and you have a little dough, you are always on the lookout for deals. It is what keeps the process going forward. Buy 'em when you have the dough (at a good price), unload 'em when you need to and are through ab/using them (for a better price!). That is the theory, at least.
I scored a real nice somewhat battle-worn 1966 Blackface Super Reverb. It was similar in configuration to the Concert but had different circuitry and Utah speakers, if memory serves. They were cousins.
One of the most bitching sounds I have have ever achieved live was with the Super and the Concert together at the Bayview Boat Club on the San Francisco Bay for my buddy Tommy's 50th birthday party. I ganged the two amps together, even had the tremolos cranking at different speeds. Sheer ecstasy! It was one of those no-pressure party gigs that somehow turn out to be the most fun. We did a bunch of our stuff, and a bunch of covers, and the people dancing had their hands up in the air; I swear, they just did not care!
The Concert was rocking again. The Super, the long-lost cousin participated in the glorious din for a while, but was culled to make room for something less memorable. With time came the periodic need to "thin the herd". The amps were just taking up too much real estate in my garage and I needed to fill in some real estate in my wallet.
My bass amps did not make the cut. They were gone! See ya! The Marshall and half the stack were history as well. Been a pleasure! My back spasmed in thanks! All these weird cabs I picked up along the way found new homes. The cycle was approaching completion.
Then the Concert was pulled out into the light.
Hmm, did I really want to unload it? It did have certain value, and it was looking good. But I seemed to have a psychic connection to it and not a little history. It would mean the end of the story.
I had not played it in a couple of years, so I cleaned it off, opened it up, pulling out the chassis, noting date codes on the transformers. I cleaned the pots. The tubes could definitely use replacing. I took some photos for ebay so I would have them on file.
I wonder what the old girl sounds like? Been a while. I fired it up for the first time in years and plugged in.
One of the speakers was blown! Now how on Earth did that happen? Certainly it was fine when I stored it ( "It was running fine when I parked it next to the garage in 1986. Just needs a new battery, oil change and a carb cleaning".)
It appeared the midnight rock gremlins were at work in the dark recesses of my amp oubliette!
Nevertheless, the Concert had spoken and my puny plans had failed!
Oh well, maybe I need to replace those speakers once and for all. Bury the old ones in the yard or the bay or make wall art out of them. Get some new Jensen re-pops. They are supposed to sound good. I should consider leaving the amp out in the open for a while and even played now and then.
Maybe even start a new band appropriate to the amp and its vintage vibe and sound.
Sometimes you have to let the hardware do the talking and the thinking. The vacuum-tubed beast has its own plans. You just have to tag along. I mean, you can only play the guitar you have, not the one you don't have.
If you are lucky the time will come when the guitar or the amp plays you and you are carried along for the ride. Brain in neutral, fingers on automatic-pilot, eyes on the event horizon.
The soul of the machine endures.
- Bruno DeSmartass, San Francisco Copyright 2011