The Past 14 Years: Bought Dream Guitar, Checked Into Psych Ward, Sold Dream Guitar

by S.T. VanAirsdale

I can’t even look at it.

It rests inside its case in another room, upright and disused, as it sat by my left shoulder in my office for four years. And before that in a storage shed, and a garage, and before that beneath a bed and a futon. Before the futon it knew a different life entirely, one of bright, sonorous roars in the half-light of clubs and rehearsal rooms, aluminum on nickel on brass back on aluminum, tightrope walks of semi-competent musicianship and curious sideshow regard. Few who encountered it in those days had seen anything like it, and their inquires as to its identity and provenance gratified its owner as he followed their eyes down the length of its neck and across its gleaming curves and answered with the same unfailing, almost intoxicated pride that always accompanied every such reply:

“It’s a Travis Bean.”

It’s a Travis Bean. Not a lot of people get to say that, either as owners or admirers of the rare guitars. Only 3,629 of the instruments were made over a five-year span in the ’70s, and of those, few exist as publicly as mine did between 1998 and 2000 in rock shows and recording studios. And I wasn’t even famous; fewer still enjoy the profiles of the guitars owned over the years by Jerry Garcia, Keith Richards, Joe Perry, Bill Wyman, Steve Albini, Stanley Jordan, Lee Ranaldo and other noteworthy Travis Bean aficionados. The majority lay low in the guitar-geek subculture, nurtured and celebrated by loving players and occasionally popping up on eBay and in music stores like the one in Nashville where I finally found and bought mine 14 years ago.

And like that same guitar, others eventually come to hibernate in repose, pushing 40 years old in the dark below surfaces that gather dust or worse. Thousands of guitars are retired this way every year, their owners having moved on to different, better instruments or other, more diverting hobbies. But few guitars are more qualitatively different or better than Travis Beans, transcending hobby or even music on the way to something more approximating experience, like a spacewalk with six strings. And when experience fades, succumbing to cold, crazy-making reality, nothing remains but a commodity.

It’s a Travis Bean. It’s my Travis Bean. Or at least it was.

The first hospital bill arrived in late June. My eyes roamed its surface: “If paying by check…” “YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR BILL. PLEASE PAY THE BALANCE AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.” “Please pay this amount…” Along came the dizzying despondency of the Amount Due, four figures comprising the deductibles left over from a six-day stay and ER consultations and minor surgery and X-rays and everything else a troop of professionals provides to keep patients alive and well at Lenox Hill Hospital. More bills followed — consultations here, outpatient follow-ups there. As sure as I felt my preexisting vortex of personal financial ruin gather strength around me, its waves tickling and willing the bills into whispering tremors in my hand, I knew how all of this would end: I would sell the Bean.

I’d intended to sell it before all this. Money had been very tight for a while, and offloading the guitar seemed a quick way to acquire it without picking up any additional work. I contemplated selling more, too: books and DVDs and electronics and collectibles and sports equipment that sulked unused in corners and closets. All this stuff and its purported comforts had value — to someone else. Here, they surrounded their owner with a kind of unrequited pity for the guy who’d concluded he didn’t need them anymore.

The Bean led this class of possessions far and away. I acquired the guitar in 1998, roughly three years after first encountering the instruments in a fanzine called Thicker. Tim Midgett of Silkworm (a.k.a. the best band of the last 20 years that nobody’s heard of) was featured in a photograph playing a bass that turned out to be a Travis Bean “Wedge,” its aluminum neck topped with a headstock bearing a T-shaped cutout and bolted at the opposite end into a long, broad, trapezoidal body. It looked laughable, like a Gibson “Flying V” without the “V,” some oafish big brother to the more compact, keystone-shaped Steinberger guitars that 1980s music videos had made so retroactively unfashionable. I’d loved the bass’s lively sound on the two Silkworm albums I owned — sinewy and dense at the low end, blinking out of a dusky beauty sleep in its upper registers — but I couldn’t reconcile that quality with its outlandish form. “Oh my God,” I yelped to my friend Keith in the magazine aisle at Tower Books. “What is Tim playing?”

A few pages later, a sidebar explained Tim’s set-up: “2 Travis Bean basses: Serial #22 — Shaped like an oar. Serial #397 — Shaped like a bass.”

Thus commenced probably the first in-depth research I ever really did on the Internet, where the cult of Travis Bean hadn’t yet coalesced but still, in pockets of intoxicating revelation, conveyed enough about the guitars and their creator to captivate my 19-year-old imagination.1

1 This experience was somewhat common among Bean fans; the proprietor of recalled his experience after seeing Shellac play in 1995: “Cruising around doing research on my Win95 computer, I started seeing mention of Travis Beans and Shellac. I confirmed that the guitars I saw… were Travis Beans. The quest begins.”

Travis Bean himself was a machinist from California who envisioned a guitar of a certain… indestructibility. There’s no other word for it. Vexed by conventional electric guitars’ fussy truss rods and warped wooden necks, while at the same time in search of sustain that held and carried notes in ways that made a silver bell sound like cardboard in comparison, Bean and his partners developed an aluminum neck-through design that eliminated the need to anchor the guitar strings to one piece of the instrument (i.e. the bridge) while tying them off to another (i.e. the headstock at the top of the neck). The result was an unprecedented continuity of sound, aided by both the design and the materials used to construct it. The downside, of course, was the weight — in excess of 11 pounds among the Beans built with koa wood bodies, whose density only enhanced the sustain but practically meant keeping a chiropractor on retainer. From everything I continued to read and learn and hear, however, the trade-off was more than worth it.

Sometimes there are things you have to have, those objects that exist in a parallel universe beyond need and want. For some it’s drugs, for others it’s sex, for others it’s both in one night in some Vegas penthouse suite, just to say you had it. Under the influence of the instrument’s sound and its heroic practitioners in my record collection — Midgett, Albini and Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison chief among them — I had to have a Travis Bean. I surely couldn’t afford one, and I didn’t have anywhere or any band with which to play it. But I’d deal with that later. Just as acknowledging and permuting reality seemed to power Bean’s vision, so it seemed to power mine.

Thus commenced a three-year market vigil for any available Bean. Then and now, it was an obvious time to save money. Instead I spent it further immersing myself in the Bean subculture. In May of 1996, in the guise of enthusiasts making a documentary film about this phenomenon, Keith and I traveled to Chicago to attend a Shellac recording session where we would interview Albini and his bandmates Bob Weston and Todd Trainer about the affinity for their chosen instruments.2

2Trainer, Shellac’s drummer, had a Travis Bean six-string at home while Weston borrowed Albini’s bass in the studio and for live shows. “Actually,” Weston later told me, “I’d put any good Fender Jazz Bass up against a Travis Bean.”

Within a few hours of observing our cheap camera and breathless, sputtering conversation in the basement of his old home studio on North Francisco Street, Albini called us out. “Oh, I get it,” he said. “It’s meet-the-band day. See the guitars, all that.” We got a little more video and some photographs of the session before the band politely expelled us with our tails between our legs.3

I don’t remember exactly how I came to find the Bean I would eventually buy from Gruhn Guitars, the renowned musician’s mecca in Nashville that had included my Bean on the cover of its catalog in early 1998. I do remember the retailer’s refusal to budge on its $1,200 price tag and the subsequent need to boost my credit limit to have any chance of snagging the guitar right now. I mean, $1,200. Who can’t pay back $1,200? Part of me considered it an investment. While I had already resolved never to sell it, the guitar would only appreciate. And anyway, I had to have it. This all culminated in a thoroughly rational transaction, as wildly irrational demands often will. Receiving it at work one day in early March, I unsheathed the case from its packaging, unclasped the latches and beheld my Travis Bean, serial number 729.

3 Another, far more reputable Travis Bean documentary called Sustain remains unfinished; its producers are welcome to salvage any of my footage from this unfortunate episode, assuming that it’s worth half a damn or that I can even find it.

It felt like a reunion, a sensation I can only really characterize 14 years later because no matter how much I persuaded myself to believe I didn’t need the Bean, or that it deserved a better home with someone who would play and cherish it with the affection this masterwork deserved, my last moments with it — touching its face and clasping the latches shut before watching a stranger disappear with it into Manhattan — walloped me like a death.

I have gone through most of my adult life being irresponsible. I go to work not to make a living so much as to have the wherewithal to do stupid things. Or at least to feel like I have the wherewithal, which itself is often stupid — borrowing tens upon tens of thousands of dollars for 18 months of graduate school, or charging airfare to faraway destinations, or entitling myself to drunken breakdowns and five-figure hospital stays when I sense real life tipping into the unbearability of consequence. I’ve never saved a cent that I have earned, and I’ve spent a fortune that I have not.

Eventually I’ll get around to paying off the folly I indulged in May 1999, when Keith and I returned to Chicago with the band we’d started the year prior. There, we met Albini to record our first album. He had moved his operation out of the house on North Francisco Street in 1997 and relocated to an old industrial space on West Belmont. Rehabbed and retrofitted with two studios, dorm-style accommodations for out-of-town bands, and an open, airy upstairs commons, Electrical Audio was (and remains) an inspiring and incredibly affordable place to record music. Albini’s steady demand over the years among scores of major-label rock acts like Nirvana, PJ Harvey, Bush and Robert Plant and Jimmy Page indirectly subsidized the day rate for the indie labels and unsigned bands like mine that made up the majority of his clientele. Fans that we were, and with the Bean ostensibly sharpening our sound in ways that I didn’t trust anyone else to capture, it seemed perfectly reasonable to load up my truck and drive 4,000 miles round-trip to spend about $1,400 (not including the cost of gas and motels and Cubs tickets and roughly 800 cans of Old Style beer, naturally) for my third of a full-length debut that we could say was recorded by Steve Albini. Another investment, right?

In the end I didn’t even trust Albini, who recommended recording with an amplifier other than my own — a totally common practice — to optimize the Bean on tape. Having worked almost every day over the last year to understand and exploit the guitar’s quirks through trial, error and equipment 4 — having established with this temperamental instrument a hard-wrought mutual respect that I can really only associate with marriage — I defied Albini’s counsel and instead insisted on recording with the inferior amp I schlepped from California, which, listening to the product today, I recognize as the arrogant mistake that it was.

4 Whenever possible before live shows, I removed the guitar from its case and let its aluminum neck adjust according to the temperature in the room. User error or not, only then could I rely on it to stay in tune onstage.

But that wasn’t my most arrogant mistake. Midweek, with our mixing sessions underway and an invoice in hand, I strolled to a nearby bank where I planned to obtain a cash advance for the balance of my share. I didn’t even have half of what I owed in my checking account, but I had a Mastercard with plenty of room left to charge the difference and return with a cashier’s check for Electrical Audio. But once, then again and a third time still, the advance request came back declined.

I panicked on the way back to the studio, less disgusted by having taken the luxury of debt for granted than by the abjection of being denied. I advised Albini and his aides that I might have a problem paying. They’d heard that one before and proposed the standard solution of holding on to my band’s tapes until we were square. I called my card company and asked for an increased cash advance limit. After two tense minutes on hold, the company agreed to raise it from $500 to $1,000.

Relieved, I returned to the mixing sessions. “Crisis averted,” I announced, only to then listen to the recordings and hear the crisis. No amount of funds saved or borrowed would fix the sloppiness and inadequacy of my parts — accelerated tempos, miscues, and solos doomed by one mediocre player’s inexperience. Worse still, the Bean sounded strained, leashed, mishandled, disappointed. This was not the sound of a guitar that would transcend the music it made, so redoubtable and singular and instantly identifiable. It was not the sound of an object that would save me or any listener. It was instead the sound of an exorcism in reverse: the sound of overextended ambition captured and forced back into a person. The sound of something to dwell on and, perhaps someday, almost certainly when every part of that man is least prepared, something to reckon with. At least Steve Albini was there to record it for posterity, so there’s that.

The alarm struck early on May 22, 2012. Not “early” early, the way it used to, but early enough to give way to a patient rain soaking the dawn. Feeling ambitious and bitterly sleepless, I rose to make coffee and confront a grave reality awaiting me in the kitchen. The night before, after some bookkeeping — an unusually routine practice for someone about to find himself in the situation I was in — I discovered my total cash holdings to be $645.43. Exactly $400 of this was committed to partial rent I’d deferred until my mid-May payday; the check hadn’t yet cleared, but it would that day or the next. That would leave me with $245.43. Another $86.82 was committed to an automatic deduction of a student-loan payment to Sallie Mae some time around the 29th of the month.

Thus the light sleep and early rising: the sooner to know I would essentially have $158.61 to last me nine days until the glorious payday at the end of the month, the better.5

5 I hope that my awareness of how many people in the world — hell, how many people in New York — get by on less money than I had over far longer stretches than I faced goes without saying, but for the record: Of course it could have been worse.

At the very least, it would help me dodge a few easily avoidable overdraft fees. At most, it would prompt some reflection on my unprecedented financial straits and every guitar purchase, recording session, college loan, cash advance, frivolous excursion, drinking binge, profligacy and other unalloyed waste that got me there. And if I were smart, a little hard work and austerity might influence some much-needed change.

On the morning of the 22nd, it all seemed like a reasonable plan. Within two weeks I was in a hospital psych ward.

When it comes to money — particularly at these levels — getting smart and going crazy aren’t removed by much more than one degree. My degree was another credit card that I’d saved for emergencies — of which running out of drinking money on Memorial Day weekend is apparently one, and so I activated the card. “That is a bad idea,” my girlfriend said at the time. But most ideas are bad. We tend to proceed with them anyway and hope for the best. Buying a Travis Bean was my first encounter with a bad idea that squirreled away from me, building an unsustainable reality on little more than good intentions. Really, though, what are good intentions when it comes to money? Even Bernie Madoff intended well — for himself. Modern charity amounts to little more than an extension of power — institutionalized bureaucracy with a conscience. There is no moral upper hand to economics beyond acquiring and having what makes us content. There are endless bad ideas, though, and people without money are very good at having lots of them.

Perhaps ironically, then, my breakdown occurred on payday. Once relieved, the stress of the nine days prior, compounded by the existential bitchslap that accompanies any awareness of being utterly broke, could only give way to the bends. Add alcohol, and the next thing I know I’m at Lenox Hill awaiting emergency-room treatment and admittance to the eighth-floor psychiatric unit where I’d spend the next six days.

Theoretically, to the extent a patient is lucid and able, the experience should give him time to think. For me, it did and it didn’t. I’ve since broken virtually every promise that I made to myself and those whom I love, parting ways with my girlfriend and turning back to drinking regularly; the prospect of discipline that so enticed me when locked indoors and surrounded by orderlies and catatonics and schizophrenic junkies clearly did not withstand my more historic urge to have what I want. Fine. But not long after I realized that this visit was not an overnight kind of thing — that I was under “observation,” and that “observation” requires time and represents but one line item in the financial toll that this place would take — the awareness of impunity and its consequences rolled in on a wave of debilitating nausea. Time to think became time to throw up, which gave way to time to suck it up and ask someone in charge exactly what this all was costing me.

In the end, that turned out to be the easy part. Inside the hospital’s tiled beige cocoon, the only numbers that feel like they matter are meal times and duration of stay. Even when you think about “money,” you don’t think about money.6

6 Except, that is, when the leaders of the ward’s 12-step meetings remind you how much you can save when you don’t drink for six days. Then you suddenly and very strangely feel kind of rich.

Maybe you acquire a taste of perspective suggesting that $158.61 is less a low point than a starting point — an amount to grow rather than one you prepare yourself to watch erode over nine excruciating days like some snuff film starring your bank account. But it became clearer as time passed that the conception of real money is too debilitating or even foreign for many patients to confront. My roommate, a 61-year-old Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn, had spent two years effectively housebound after a bad investment left him both unemployed and clinically depressed. Yet after two weeks at Lenox Hill, under “observation” that included shock treatment and inedible food from the kosher menu, he wheedled and lobbied and finally earned his chance to go confront the vicious whims and insecurities of the outside world. Regardless of my roommate’s actual readiness or his clear and natural preference for the economic and emotional hell he knows over that which he did not, his doctor diagnosed, treated and ultimately signed off on the capacity for resolve.

My doctor eventually did the same, for which the hospital accountants tend to reward patients with a kind of psychic honeymoon — three weeks, maybe even a month, for them and their families to restore their bearings before sending the first bill. Then another, followed by insurance statements and invoices from other doctors whom you don’t even remember seeing but whose specified functions — an X-ray technician here, a surgeon there — begin to fill in the aggressively elusive memory of one doomed night. Eventually the memory attains relief and the scale and actuality of one’s responsibility sets in, drawing other previously unthinkable circumstances and options to the psyche like magnets.

The four-figure hospital tab, though, was just part of it. My overall debt was creeping toward $100,000. Should I file for bankruptcy? Should I write and peddle a screenplay about vampires? Should I liquidate my belongings, shake off my creditors and decamp to the woods? Should I go Full-Krugman, defy austerity entirely and spend my way back to prosperity? Should I just calm down and, for once, apply rational thought to my conditions and their solution?

Whatever. For all the good intentions and bad ideas and every other fraught, recondite measure I stood there persuading myself to believe I couldn’t understand, that one unyielding certainty stood out and lingered and wouldn’t leave my sight: I knew how this would end.

It’s notoriously hard to price a Travis Bean. Very few change hands in any given year. Condition matters, but not nearly as much as with other vintage guitars thanks to their limited numbers and the natural resiliency of their materials. They are all rare, but some models — the Wedge, the Artist — are rarer than others, thus enhancing their value over the most common model, i.e. my Standard. The Travis Bean fan site attempts to track online sales by model, helping those private sellers set an asking price; the site’s message boards alight with activity any time one of the instruments hits the market, activity that comprises both prospective buyers hungrily sizing up their opportunity to own one and long-time owners appraising their goods. But consensus is impossible, particularly with full-time guitar retailers crashing eBay asking an ungodly, unprecedented $7,000 for a Standard or trawling the protean Bean-selling frontier for suckers whose merchandise they can swoop in and flip for maximum profit.

I pledged not to be one of those suckers, but I was anyway. Even after researching and studying comparable sales and taking into account the worn wood finish (especially around the neck pickup) and the Albini and Denison autographs on the back and, most notably, a grainy dullness in the middle of the aluminum neck surface where the metal should have been shiny,7

7 Once, upon viewing a picture of the neck’s condition via e-mail, Travis Bean himself told me he’d never seen it before, but if I wanted to send it in he’d look at it. I never did.

I’m pretty sure I undercut myself at least 50 percent on the $2,000 opening bid amount alone. That said, the first few days of the auction defied this sense: After two marginal upticks of $25 each within two days, more than 72 hours elapsed without another bid. A guy named Steve inquired about the Bean’s condition and told a familiar story: Having sought a Bean for years but been priced out of the market by the guitar retailers, he hoped to take advantage of my more competitive auction and finally win the instrument of his dreams. He also told an unfamiliar story, noting that he’d only bid if he could scrape the money together by selling other gear. He wanted to hustle for it. I admired him on all counts and privately hoped he’d succeed. I wouldn’t mind leaving money on the table if I knew the Bean was going to a good, responsible home, as opposed to some soulless guitar-store sepulcher. I’d still be a sucker, of course, but only in my grand tradition of losing money on what felt good at the time. Consistency must count for something.

Bids ceased for a few days. Then came July 14. Hours remained in the auction. I couldn’t bear to watch. I went to the gym, drowned out the buzz. Around the time I returned home, with 11 minutes left to go online, a flurry hit: A bidder offered $2,200, increasing his offer minute by minute in $50 increments.

I sat down at my desk and watched the clock tick away on my last 60 seconds of Travis Bean ownership. I thought a lot less about the minor windfall I was about to reap than I did about lowballing myself, and even less still than I imagined what it would take to say goodbye to the Bean. Knowing “what to do” was excruciating, but now this knowing what I’d done proved itself a ego-numbing counterpart to the rage and despair of penury. Other rage and despair glinted in the penumbra of this moment: Ambitions dashed, resources squandered, follies exposed and futures compromised. And time flying, flying, as though eBay’s seconds hand has its own inexorable pace and breadth. What was I supposed to do? Cry? Clap? Make a toast? Take a picture?

I opted for the latter, just to get the last second over with. And then, a torrent of congratulations from the Web: “Your item sold!”

In the cases of tie bids closing out an auction, eBay’s policy is to award the item to the first bidder. Thus it was that Steve narrowly lost the Bean to a guitar merchant from Brooklyn who had slid in with an equivalent bid just under Steve’s wire. I was more than a little crestfallen. Steve seemed to take it a little better, however nonplussed. “I’m not sure what just happened,” Steve wrote. I replied back with the details, all the while jittering and fixating on the Bean and its monolithic presence to my left — encased, entombed, condemned, gone, a phantom limb in the making. As desperately as I want to be and assume that someday I will be, I’m not sure what just happened either.

I can’t even look at it.

Sam, the buyer’s envoy, is on his way to pick the Bean up. It’s one of the hottest days of the year, and my nerves melt around the expectation of his arrival. I think about the last 14 years and what an object can really mean to a person and the limitations of experience and the uselessness of regret and what I’ll do with the money I have left over after I pay the hospital bills and if there will even be any money left over. I tell myself that I’d be happy or even better off breaking even — fewer mistakes to make that way, fewer goals to compromise with irresponsibility. I think about my time in the elite fraternity of Travis Bean owners and wonder if the fraternity of Travis Bean sellers may actually be any more elite. It is a quieter group to be sure.

I meet Sam on my stoop and open the case. In the sunlight, the Bean shows its age: Dead strings, green around the frets, faint layers of fingerprints fossilized on the tuners, Denison’s autograph fading over the dulled finish on the back. As it should be, I think to myself. Someone played this guitar.

“I love this thing,” I tell Sam. “But it’s time.”

“They’re beautiful guitars,” he says, investigating the build-up on the neck.

“I think that’ll come out.”

“Yeah, that’ll come out.” He plays a E chord.

“All right, well…” A passer-by observes our exchange, double-takes at the strange instrument at its center. “I marked it as shipped on eBay. If you’d drop some positive feedback in there, I’d appreciate it. It’ll help move payment along.”

“I’ll do it as soon as I’m near a computer.”

“I think this is the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever done.”

Sam lays the guitar in the case. He closes and latches the lid. “They’re beautiful guitars.”

We shake hands, and Sam departs. The street engulfs him; summer engulfs the street. A hard emptiness thaws, swells, evaporates in the heat, giving off a faint metallic smell. I breathe deep — inhaling the past, exhaling the present — and retreat into the bittersweet fog of whatever’s next.

S.T. VanAirsdale is a writer in New York.

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