How to Take: A Guitar Lesson

In 1966 I didn’t really even know what to call Bill Warshal, my father in law to be. Should I say Mr. Warshal? Bill seemed disrespectful. “Mr. Bill,” his moniker at the family business, Warshal’s Sporting goods, was no better. His intra family title, ‘Fazio’ or ‘Faz?’ Out of the question. I mean how could you talk man to man with a person you addressed as “Fazio”? Maybe it was just “Dad.” My fiancé, Laurie, his doting daughter was of no help either. He was just ‘Faz’ to her.

The issue of names surfaced when I went on the hunt for a new guitar. Just out of the Air Force, about to start a new job at Boeing (big money – four hundred take home a month) I wanted to reward myself with a new guitar despite that after four years on college and six months in the Air Force, I was basically broke.

The Warshal’s had cousins who owned a music store, Meyers Music on Seattle’s First Avenue. My fiancée Laurie prompted her dad (Mr. Bill, Faz?) to take me there to seek a new affordable guitar.

On the appointed day and hour I arrived at the Warshal home to find Bill Warshal (Fazio, Bill?) out near his car surrounded by a gaggle of beat up, whupped down, weather beaten black instrument cases that apparently contained every flute, piccolo, saxophone, trumpet, bugle, what have you that had been purchased over the years for their children to study.

The cases looked like woebegone leftovers from the marching band in the musical The Music Man. What this had to do with my guitar search I had no idea but I helped Bill (Mr. Warshal, Fazio?) stuff the beat-up instrument cases into his car’s trunk and back seat where they lay askew refusing to neatly pile on each other.

At his direction I drove to the Arlington garage on First and Madison across from Warshal’s Sporting Goods. There Mr. Warshal (Mr. Bill, Faz?) directed me to schlep the whole caboodle of the marching band’s bruised and busted cases in my arms, hands, or over my shoulders as we headed north toward Meyers Music, me stumbling forward like a pack mule toward our musical shopping destination.

As we walked, Bill (Faz, Mr. Warshal?) asked what particular guitar I was looking for. I had scoped out two, a Gretch and a Gibson, models I felt I could afford. Frankly they were just on the line of acceptable, a style popular in thirties westerns. Melodic enough but soft in volume. Either cost about $100 or so. Maybe Meyers Music would throw in a case. Who knows? After all my father in law to be (Fazio, Mr. Bill?) was a relative. That had to be good for something.

Meyer’s Music is gone now but in its halcyon years it was a temple for folk rock musicians; a high ceilinged cathedral. Guitars dripped down every wall like moss off the trees in the Olympic rain forest. Then, as now, the number of young troubadours both male and female craving no, inhaling guitars to pick and pluck was infinite. In every aisle prospective stars all strummed, thrummed, and hummed their anticipated hit songs while searching for with the perfect stringed accompaniment to carry on their journey to stardom.

Bill (Mr. Warshal, Faz?) looked absolutely lost among the guitar inventory. He kept looking for other musical options randomly raising them in questions; Why not a flute? What about a saxophone or a clarinet? What about the mandolin? How about the violin?

In fact Mr. Warshal (Bill, Fazio?) played the violin AND the mandolin but only one piece: The Hawaiian Wedding song. Over and over. I’ll never forget the opening lyric: “This is the moment I have waited for”. When I would hear him begin “This is the moment” I was tempted to head for the bathroom. I’m sure his reaction to my playing/ braying was the same.

One thing I already knew about my father in law to be (Mr. Bill, Faz?) He did not always pursue his objectives in a straight path. He was a businessman who believed in the right of the working man to unionize. He was a strong believer in civil rights but moved his family out of the integrating city to the suburbs. He was a marksman who competed against Irish cops twice his size in target shooting. He was a tough negotiator but always urged that in making deals you had to have “love in your heart”. He loved to describe himself in the lingo of the times. At one event with his somewhat radical son in tow he announced the two of them as “my son: New Left. Bill Warshal: Establishment.”

Knowing Bill (Mr. Warshal, Fazio?) operated in a distinctly indirect way, I worried about where he intended to take me in my guitar hunt at Meyers Music. My mother suspicious of everyone’s motives, once said; “You have to watch that Bill Warshal. He wants you to like him!”

Mindful of her strange admonition, I watched.

Julius Meyers, the store owner, saw us walk in and he ambled over to greet my future father-in-law (Faz, Mr. Warshal?). An immigrant from Eastern Europe, who was married to Bill Warshal’s (Fazio’s, Mr. Bill’s?) cousin Freddie, viewed us with wily eyes. He ignored the stack of old Music Man cases I had piled on the counter as if they were no more than fingerprint smudges on the glass.

It suddenly occurred to me that The Music Man leftovers were to be some part of trade or sale. Julius was preparing for a negotiation with his wife’s cousin who might try to swap the junk for something new.

The two men looked as if they were about to shake hands. Bill (Mr. Warshal Fazio?) greeted his host with a salutation; “Mr. Music.”

Then suddenly they were grappling; it turned out that my father-in-law to be, (Mr. Bill, Fazio?) hand wrestled everybody he saw. The two grunted and grimaced like Jewish sumo wrestlers. It was a kind of ritual. At some point the digital ordeal ended with no declared winner, the two red in the face and grinning, sort of, and Mr. Warshal (Bill, Faz?) introduced me to “Mr. Music” without names. (His weakness was forgetting everyone’s name, including mine and Julius.)

“Mr. Music, this is the man who is marrying my daughter. He’s looking for a guitar.”

Julius turned to me as he extracted a handkerchief and wiped his brow.

“Congratulations,” he said, “and what are you looking for?” I pointed up the wall to a little Gretch which Julius retrieved and handed it to me for a trial run.

While I was stroking its compact, somewhat moody quiet body, Bill Warshal (Mr. Bill, Faz?) suddenly turned to Julius and asked to point out the best guitar in the house. Julius answered in the hushed voice of a reverential supplicant as he gestured at the wall;

“There, is the best money can buy,” he whispered, directing our attention to a lovely large curvaceous guitar body way up beyond the reach of the tallest customer, “A Martin. Rosewood. Model D-21. 1966. One of a kind.”

Martin Guitar, the Holy of holies, the ultimate in folk and country music, made in Nazareth, Pennsylvania by monks and worshipful novices since 1833; the Steinway of guitars, the sweetest, most responsive, heartbreakingly gorgeous guitars in the world.

“Well, let’s get it down,” Bill (Mr. Warshal, Faz?) said.

“OK,” Julius said, spun on his heel, went to a side room, returned with a ladder, gingerly lifted down the Martin and handed it to me as if it were a newborn baby.

Wow. I can remember having my breath taken away that day. I would have sold my soul for the Martin’s dark liquid red-brown rosewood back and sides, its saucy engravings bordering the spruce top and its slim elegant mahogany and ebony neck. The instrument was as light as a cumulous cloud in my hands.

“So play something.” my future father-in-law (Bill, Fazio?) said. “What about the Hawaiian Wedding Song?”

I tried to get comfortable, to cradle the magnificent instrument in the crook of my arm while I plunked and plinked at its metal strings with fingers thick from excitement. Its tone was startling; loud, fluid, and full, a sumptuous blend of baritone wood and filigreed tenor steel. My God, such a beauty.

Then I saw the price tag fluttering with wicked glee from a string on the neck. It shouted the price: $750 DOLLARS! Almost two months pay from Boeing. This was beyond my finances by a mile, but I kept plinking away, never wanting this moment to end.

“What do you think?” asked Bill Warshal (Mr. Bill, Fazio?).

I jabbered away my pleasure with the beauty in my arms feeling it, caressing, no, fondling it. All the time I felt like a car thief with the keys to a stolen Ferrari.

“So Mr. Music, we’ll take this one” Bill (Fazio, Mr. Bill?) said, pointing to the Martin.

“Oh no!” I yelped through a suddenly dry throat; “I can’t afford it.” I felt hot, sweaty and slightly nauseous at the prospect of coming up with the money for the Martin, but I gripped the guitar like a tree in a windstorm which was the wrong reaction. I really should have been handing it back to Julius.

My future father-in-law (Faz, Mr. Bill?) chose that moment to take the floor.

“I’m going to get it for you” he said. I started to object but he waved me to be quiet and then said something I had never before heard.

“I’m making you take it,” he laughed, “because you need to understand that is important to take. Yes, you say that if you take this guitar I might ask for something,” He cackled. “You’re right. Someday I might ask for something from you. I don’t know what it is or when it will be.”

“But that’s the way it is. You have to learn to take, knowing that someone will ask you later to give back. That’s the way it works. First you take something then later on you give back and you will want to. Yes that’s it exactly.”

He was very emphatic about his adage. He thought it expressed an ancient maxim when in fact he had just made it up.

I didn’t care. When I walked out of Meyers that day clutching the case blanketing that beautiful guitar in chartreuse velvet, I was exultant, stoned on the dope of the year. I couldn’t even remember the outcome of the negotiations between Bill (Mr. Bill, Fazio?) and Julius over credits for the used instruments, if any. But what I knew was that I possessed the fantasy guitar of a lifetime, a possession beyond my wildest dreams.

Long after his death, I still think on Bill Warshal’s slapdash, backward, logic that he took down from the homily shelf. It’s better to give than receive. His mind had somehow rearranged the words to fit the situation with a new person in his vision, in his line of fire.

Well he was right on. I didn’t know how to take and say thank you. I didn’t know how to be appreciative, to be obligated. I was raised to take nothing so I wouldn’t owe anybody anything. Because I didn’t take, I didn’t need to say thank you. And because I had the utterly fallacious notion that to be independent, I could not owe a thing to a single soul. He had nailed me to a tee.

His solution was to reverse the objectives. ‘It’s better to give than to receive’ became ‘When you learn to take, then you’ll know how to give back to others.’ And like a great teacher, he drove the lesson home with the aim of a marksman and with the velocity of a bullet.

Fifty years later I still love my Martin D-21 guitar. It still preaches congruity between instrument, music, and fingers. It is a little banged up now; some serious scratches reflect not just my playing but the periodic tinkering of my sons, musicians in their own right.

But each time I pop open the latch of the case, reach for its dark mahogany neck, slip its strap over my shoulder, jiggle it until there’s a feather-like tug on my neck, and when its rounded rosewood back rubs against my belly, a certain riff arises, sometimes jolly and sometimes mantra-like, even before I make my first strum on its twangy strings. It is a wise, funny tune, an exasperatingly direct to the heart melody: a musical guitar lesson from Bill Warshal, Bill, Mr. Bill, Faz, Fazio, and just plain Dad, full of charm, layered with harmony, incredible perceptiveness, and, above all else, delivered with love.

— Mike Cohen, 2017

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