My Back Pages Thirty Years In Guitar Player (December 1989)
The December, 1989 issue of Guitar Player stood out in my mind for the cover interview with Keith Richards, who was celebrating his 46th birthday that month. Hard to believe I’m three years older than Keef was on that cover! On re-reading the issue, there is also an interesting interview with Steve Stevens, who was promoting his solo record. A large chunk of the issue deals with guitar behind the Iron Curtain, and there is an extremely captivating interview with Grisha Dimant, a Soviet dissident rock and roller.
I must have read the articles about Dimant and “Guitar in Poland” at the time–my faculty advisor at Hampshire College was deeply interested in Eastern Europe, and regularly led trips to Berlin and East Germany (a trip I took the following winter, after the fall of communism) so I’m almost sure I would have mentioned these articles to him. But I didn’t remember them at all when I came back to re-read the issue 30 years later. It’s funny–sometimes I come back to these magazines and it feels like I just read them a few days ago, but other times some very fascinating articles don’t seem to have left much of an imprint at all. This is probably due to my changing tastes and interests over time, but I do wonder why it happens like this.
Joe Gore was assigned to write about Steve Stevens, which makes sense; as we’ve seen over the last year’s posts, Gore was often tasked to profile “younger” artists who maybe spent more time on “sounds” and using fancy effects. Stevens was 30 at the time of the interview, and promoting his first solo record “Steve Stevens Atomic Playboys“, which you can check out in this month’s playlist at the end of the post. Stevens comes across as confident and opinionated, and tells some interesting stories, such as this one about his early days on guitar:
My first introduction to guitar was through folk music–Phil Ochs’ sister was my first guitar teacher. I was raised on Leo Kottke, John Fahey and things like that. I never wanted to lose the acoustic part of my playing, and I always loved the way that people like Robert Fripp, Steve Howe and Steve Hackett could be acoustic players, but also utilize effects. Oddly enough, before joining Billy Idol, I worked as an equipment representative tester for Electro-Harmonix. One of the first people I worked with as a consultant was Roger Mayer, who did all of Hendrix’ stuff.
Talk about “Six Degrees of Separation”! Between Phil Ochs’ sister and Roger Mayer, Stevens is one or two degrees away from so many musical legends of the mid-to-late 20th century! Some more excerpts from the interview give a good sense of the ideas behind Stevens’ compositional approaches and his approach to production and gear.
So what is your unique [sonic] turf?
I think my distortion sound is unique. And, consequently, so is the way I approach my rhythm guitars–the stagnant rhythm part against the moving counter-melody in the bass. And the way I use chords–you can’t play, say, a major 7th through a full-blown amp, due to certain properties of distortion. But I can make the single note or the moving 5th I play create the 7th against the bass line. That’s part of the Steve Stevens sound. That focus on arrangement enables me to create 7ths and 9ths in the music without actually playing 7ths and 9ths myself.
How does your approach differ from that of early-80’s English bands like the Psychedelic Furs, the Police, or U2? The guitarists often played simple figures that spelled out more complex harmony against a moving bass line.
It’s similar to a certain extent, but I think I do it in day glo! I play with a much more distorted sound than they do. Not to take anything away from them–I think the Edge is a great guitarist. But I reflect more of the English R&B/blues sound.
Are you obsessed with any dinosaur gear….?
Yeah–I’d love to get a Theremin, man, like Jimmy Page used on “Whole Lotta Love”. I’ve seen them advertised for $1,000. I love that old science fiction sound. A lot of my ideas come from ’50s science fiction films–anything with a plutonium blast in it, I like. I thought the Mutron III was pretty cool for some things–some people called it the auto wah or the envelope wah. I think Edie Brickell’s guitarist uses that, and so did Curtis Mayfield. I have some old MXR pedals–the Phase 90, which was largely the sound of the first Van Halen record. People think of it as an Ernie Isely phase sound, but Eddie used it for stuff like “Atomic Punk”. He doesn’t use that sound anymore, but I wish he did.
Did you have a main guitar for the new album?
The majority of the rhythm guitar stuff was an old ’53 Les Paul that I smashed two days ago on the set of a video. I did some stupid backflip and the neck just cracked off. I also used a Hamer Strat-style guitar. It’s not the same as their Steve Stevens model, which was more of a Les Paul Jr.-style instrument. Mine has Seymour Duncan pickups: a humbucker in the bridge position and a single-coil in the neck. The Floyd Rose sits flat against the body because I really don’t like floating action–I’m too much of a rhythm guitar player. We bevel the point where the Floyd meets the posts on the guitar so that there’s a very smooth transition when I bring it down and up, and if I break a string, the guitar stays in tune. Also, you can’t do those Ronnie Wood/Keith Richards/Nashville double-stop bends on a guitar that has a floating Floyd because the strings all go flat as you pull. The only other person I’ve seen set up his guitar like that is Eddie Van Halen.
You often tune down to E flat.
Yeah. To me, the guitar sounds better in E flat. I’m sure Eddie Van Halen would agree, as well as Jimi Hendrix. And Guns n Roses, they play everything in E flat. I like as much bottom end as I can get without sounding mushy. I would have preferred to do the whole album in E flat, but the synth-bass parts on the keyboard-oriented songs would have been too low. “Soul on Ice”, “Pet the Hot Kitty”, “Slipping Into Fiction” and “Woman of a Thousand Years” are all in E flat.
Is image an indispensable part of [music these days]?
I look back on some stuff I did, image-wise, and think “Oh God, did I really do that?” I think I had more makeup on the cover of Guitar World than the girl on Cosmopolitan that month. But I was trying to get attention. You’re a new guitarist saying “Look at me” so you put on pink lipstick. It was all done in good fun. But I’m comfortable this way. Prince is pretty flamboyant, and I don’t think anyone ever doubted his musical credibility for it. So I don’t think I’m in too much jeopardy.
Quite a bit to unpack there. First of all, thanks for destroying a 1953 Les Paul, Steve! While it would have been only 36 years old at the time, 66-year old versions are listing for well over $25,000 on Reverb.com right now. It’s also interesting to see that Stevens wasn’t using his signature Hamer guitar (which confirms the popular internet suspicion that few stars do play the axes with their names on them). I have always loved the look of those axes, and while I would never want to have a guitar with a locking tremolo, I have often wondered what it would take to be able to commission a luthier to build me an homage to that guitar. Even if Steve Stevens didn’t actually use them much, to me they are just amazingly beautiful instruments. Finally, it’s interesting to me that Stevens so often calls out Van Halen, Hendrix, Keith Richards and Jimmy Page as his influences and sonic points of reference. I’m not sure that I have made those associations before, but now that I think of it, I can definitely see where he was coming from.
Jim Ferguson was a long-time editor at Guitar Player and his interview with Grisha Dimant is a great read. Younger people who don’t remember the Cold War may be surprised to learn about the repression that Dimant experienced as a young person growing up in the Soviet Union. It seems that the only thing more suspicious to the authorities than a Jew who wanted to emigrate was a young person who wanted to play rock and roll guitar. Growing up in the ’80s I remember the comedian Yakov Smirnoff (who was the same age as Dimant) and his tragicomic comparisons of life in America with his time in the USSR. Re-reading this interview brings those memories back to the fore. The following highlights give a glimpse at the 1960’s rock explosion “through the looking glass”, so to speak. It’s also amazing to think about Dimant and his bandmates persevering through much more oppression than long-haired rockers ever faced in America or Britain.
What type of guitar did you start out on?
It was a 7-string acoustic that was given to my cousin as a birthday present. I visited him very often, and then I started to play it….That 7-string was probably built in Leningrad at the State Factory of Musical Instruments. My mother was a professional accordion player and she encouraged me to be involved with music. She recognized my big ears, so she steered me to piano and trombone, and I attended Riga’s Darzenya Music School. But I started playing the guitar.
How did you move from an acoustic guitar to an electric?
The only possibility was to put a pickup on our acoustics, because no electric guitars were available on the black market or in stores at the time. Around ’63, myself and a friend, who now lives in San Francisco, started to get creative. He had just started to work at the railroad station, and he had access to tools and different kinds of woods. We tried to make guitars shaped like the ones we saw in magazine pictures of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or the Animals. But then we realized that the guitars had to be electrified, so we started to experiment. After a while, we realized that the microphones in public telephones have the ability to transmit sound through a radio, TV or whatever we could plug into–amplifiers weren’t available either. So our experimentation led to a certain amount of social damage.
Did those microphones work very well?
They were great. They were good-sounding pickups with strong magnets. It took us a while to get the results we wanted, and we ended up destroying a lot of telephones, but we never got caught.
What did you do about strings?
We used to look for steel cables to make them out of, because the strings in the stores were too heavy and thick. We realized that rock bending is done manually, and that thin strings give good sound. Eventually we found a supply of steel wire. It came from a radio factory where a friend worked. We asked him, “Bring us one roll of this stuff,” and he did. After that, it wasn’t a problem.
Guitarists (rightfully) are amazed when we read about people like Brian May building his own guitar out of household materials, but the difference was that May lived in a modern Western country and at least had access to actual electric guitars and supplies. The idea of having to steal parts from public phones, and winding your own strings from steel wire just to be able to play is almost beyond my comprehension. I love playing the guitar, but Dimant and his peers must have needed to do it. And he wasn’t alone, based on these pictures of his bands:
When did you first begin to see production guitars in Latvia?
Around 1968, which was when the first East German guitars started to show up. It was very hard to get ahold of them. They weren’t great, but they were good. American instruments came later, but they were even more expensive because they were all black market. For example, at one time I considered buying a Fender amplifier from a Polish guy, but he wanted 5,000 rubles for it! [Ed. Note: The little-fluctuating official exchange rate is approximately 1 ruble=$1.65.]
What was the general reaction when you first started to get into rock and roll as a youngster?
Most people were quite shocked–especially when we started to play in public. I first performed in the mid ’60s at various school holiday celebrations. The young people would dance the twist and the kick. But frequently the director and the teachers would close things down after about an hour. They felt that the young people were getting out of control. Tango, foxtrot and polka were considered to be proper dances, and the sound of “Twist and Shout” seemed unnatural to them. That the concerts took place at all was because the officials didn’t know what to expect. They’d let a concert take place, and then when things began to get a little wild, they’d have a meeting to decide what to do, because it wasn’t in one person’s power to close things down.
Did the officials tolerate your Western rock songs?
Whenever something that we played came into question, we would tell the officials a story. Often we would say that a particular number was a protest song with a good message. For instance, we’d tell them that the Rolling Stones “Paint It, Black” was about discrimination and race relations, or that the Beatles, “Lady Madonna” was about a woman standing in an unemployment line. So we made up stories to justify why we played the music. The officials were more interested in a song’s message than they were in the music.
But that wasn’t always the case.
No. In 1965 or ’66, things got particularly bad. We organized a strike, because the city leaders cancelled the first official rock concert to be held in Riga….The officials became worried that it was going to be a disturbing occurrence, because 250 or 300 tickets sold out in about 30 minutes. This made them very suspicious, so they called the Ministry of Culture to cancel the performance. I was among the first to know of this, so we organized a protest by hiring a cab and alerting the people who were going to the concert. The concert went on as scheduled, although the groups had to use acoustic instruments, since the power had been turned off. When a busload of 40 police showed up, we stood very close together so they couldn’t get to the musicians. We had posters and signs that said “Freedom to the Guitar”. Later that night, the police picked up every 15-to-22 year-old person for questioning. I’m sure that the KGB was involved. For awhile after that, things were very difficult, and you could get picked up just for carrying a guitar around.
Did things eventually loosen up?
The authorities took a more subtle approach. For instance, the Komsomol–a communist organization for young adults–put the word out on the street that they wanted to talk to all of the rock bands, assuring us that none of us would get hurt. When we got together, they proposed that we center our activity around certain factory houses of culture, which would provide space for our equipment and an opportunity to perform for the workers. But it had nothing to do with a job; the real motivation was…so they could watch us and control our playing.
Later on, things became a bit better, because the authorities couldn’t go against the times. It was the same as when they harassed all of the jazz players. But most of the time it was very difficult. Myself and a few others can take credit for breaking the barrier of creativity in Latvia. We had the first bands, wrote all of our own material, and we performed on radio and tv. On one hand, officials liked the guitar because you can play tangos and things like that. But when we got to the point of doing “Twist and Shout”, and it became very aggressive with everybody jumping up and down, people got more alarmed. Of course we wanted to play more aggressive music.
Did you ever entertain the idea of becoming an official musician and recording for Melodia, the state record label?
At that time, there was no rock music on Melodia. Later on, I wasn’t interested, because it meant having your material scrutinized and censored. The only advantage was that official musicians could travel to Poland, but that was also difficult because I am Jewish.
Because travel restrictions applied to Jews?
Yes. For instance, I was offered a job working for a philharmonic in Riga, which was an organization for official bands; however when I told them that I had relatives in Israel, they retracted their offer. That was because when it came time for me to go to Poland, I would be refused a visa, because Jews are not to be trusted. Later, in the ’70s I played at a club that was being investigated by the KGB for being a Zionist cell. For that, I received a stamp in my labor book that made it impossible for me to work legally.
I’m embarrassed to admit that it takes stories like this to remember what freedom really means. I’m so impressed that Grisha Dimant and his friends fought for the freedom of the guitar!
Remember how earlier I mentioned my college professor? In 1991 I took a class with him about Eastern Europe in the Cold War period, and for the whole semester he kept promising that he would tell us the secret reason about why communism failed. Every week we would ask for a clue, but he would dismiss us without a hint. Finally, on the last day of class, he entered the room carrying a boom box. After setting it on his desk, my professor said, “Here it is” and hit play. The loud guitars of the Beatles’ “Revolution” blared into the classroom as my professor just walked out of the room. And of course, Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic would also say that rock and roll played a major part in the fall of the Iron Curtain. Now I can add the tale of Grisha Dimant to add more details to this fascinating and nearly forgotten history.
As I believe I’ve mentioned previously in this space, I am definitely more of a Rolling Stones fan than a Beatles fan, but this hasn’t always been the case. I suspect that this was one of the first interviews I ever read with Keith Richards, and it definitely was the first that focused on guitar playing. I remember learning a lot, especially about the five-string and open tunings that he used. Re-reading the article shows a confident musician coming off the success of his solo debut and a triumphant return of “The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band”, both on disc and on their world tour for Steel Wheels. It’s interesting to see what Keith had to say about his history, and about the current music scene. It’s also important to remember that he was still comparatively young and is speaking as an active musician, not as much as he does now, where he strikes me more as a legend pontificating from Olympus. As a bonus, the article also included a close look at some of the axes Richards had with him on the Stones’ tour.
Editor in Chief Tom Wheeler interviewed Keith Richards for this month’s issue and he asked a lot of good questions; no surprise that Keith gave good answers but I am struck by the lucidity of the answers–Keith seemed clean and sober (ish) and ready for the rigors of the road. Here are some highlights:
How long did it take to record Steel Wheels?
From getting into the studio to cut the first track to having 25, maybe even 30 tracks–not all of them completed, but at least a good 20 that could be considered tracks–five weeks.
That seems very fast.
It is. We’re still in shock [laughs].
It’s also the most acclaimed Rolling Stones record in years.
I think the two are possibly not unconnected. In a way, the most important thing maybe the Beatles and ourselves did was to treat every track we were cutting as if it was a potential single, and even if you knew it wasn’t going to be, you still put that much work into it. Which inevitably after a few years is the reason that albums started to become important instead of just 45s. Before that, albums were two hit singles and a load of filler, even for the best acts–Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, every Motown act. It was what you did. You just sold the albums as extra gravy, and the 45 was the thing. In a way, without realizing it, the Beatles and the Stones probably did the most to actually hasten the demise of the 45.
…This is a long, drawn-out answer, but by making a record like that, you kind of won the right to take as long as you like. That’s very admirable, and the record company says, “Well, when is this record finished?” and you say “When it’s finished! [Laughs], I fought for this right!” But just because you won the right to do something doesn’t mean you should always exercise it.
You already had a highly acclaimed solo record and a successful tour, so apart from financial considerations, how important to you was it for the Stones to get back together?
It was very important to me, and even more so since we’ve been doing it. I realized that this is the best time; this year was like the perfect moment, if it was going to happen at all. In another year or so, if we hadn’t’ve hit it, it would have been more an more difficult to put it together. I guess with the Stones, you have to sort of accept this mysterious chemistry about ’em. I mean, I look at them sometimes and think, that’s all there is? Count them out–Mick, Charlie, Bill, Ron, me? That’s really all there is, you know, ad you have to take that into consideration with these boys, and you can never really put your finger on why it suddenly happens, but they just stormed in on this record. I think maybe…[long pause]I was saying this to Steve Jordan last year when we were working on Talk is Cheap, “Well, this should wake the motherfuckers up!” [Laughs]. And he says, “Oh, don’t tell me you’re doing this just to get your other band back together!” And I said, “No man, it’s not like that,” but at the same time, I do have a feeling that it did act as a catalyst for the rest of them. They knew I was the last person interested in a solo album. I think it might have pricked them up the ass a little and may have crystallized the idea.
Was there a time when you thought you’d have to get away from the Chuck Berry style if you were ever going to have your own voice?
Oh sure. Chuck’s style is to me one of the loosest and most exciting to play. I was playing acoustic before, and Chuck and Scotty Moore were the ones that turned me on to saying, oh yeah, I’ve really got to get my hands on an electric. Of course, you can fall into a rut of getting someone’s licks down so well that you are never gonna find yourself. After suddenly becoming a pop star, we worked three or four years and had maybe two weeks off in four years. Then a break came in, I think, ’66. When we took time off, that’s when I became aware that there was nowhere else for me to go like that. With all the years of not hearing myself onstage, I hadn’t really progressed that much as a player.
I’d learned how to make records, and how to write songs, but there was no real opportunity to grow as a player. I mean, there’s a period of 18 months where we never got past the third song in a set. We never actually played. We went to a gig and then a riot started and the kids hit the stage, and the only big deal was how the hell are we getting out….Around the third song, it was just all over, just madness. It was living A Hard Day’s Night–climbing over the rooftops with chief constables who don’t know their way—getaways down fire escapes, through laundry chutes, into bakery vans. It was all mad. We ended up being like the Monkees without even realizing it.
Your adopting the open tuning seems to have been a watershed.
That’s what I did. A year off’s a long time. You start to get bored eventually. I mean, first off you go ’round and visit all the fleshpots, and then when you get slightly debauched and jaded, you remember, ah yes, the music! So I went back to blues, back to the beginning. I started to research and found out a lot more about the stuff, which I hadn’t had a chance to do since we started working like maniacs. I caught up on listening to music, which to me is maybe the greatest art. Playing is not–maybe sometimes it is–but listening to music is an art; it can keep your sanity.
Keith closes the interview by observing that when the Stones started, “there was no way of foreseeing it going to like 1989, or foreseeing all of this current tour. It’s actually reached a point where probably a good 80% of the people at the concerts don’t even know a world without the Rolling Stones. And so you become a fixture–like the moon.” Thirty years on, I’m sure that the number approaches 100%, and here’s hoping that the Stones continue to rock for years to come!
That’s it for now. This month’s playlist has some really fun records–check it out! Unfortunately I seem to have never kept the January, 1990 issue with Johnny Marr on the cover, so I’ll see you in February for a great issue with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jeff Beck on the cover. Until then, keep on picking!