Something to live for
Part storytelling, part live music, John Sheldon’s ‘The Red Guitar’ comes to the Arts Block May 2-3
John Sheldon’s ‘Red Guitar’
We told you about this performance a few weeks ago, so we just want to remind you that it comes to the Arts Block Friday and Saturday. When we checked Wednesday, it looked like there were still tickets. See ‘Music.”
John Sheldon plays the Candy Apple Red Fender Stratocaster that gave rise to the name of his new performance, "The Red Guitar." Recorder/Trish Crapo.
John Sheldon found this Candy Apple Red Fender Stratocaster in a music store in Amherst in 1999, three decades after his first one was stolen. Recorder/Trish Crapo.
John Sheldon in 1964 with his first Candy Apple Red Fender Stratocaster. Photo courtesy of John Sheldon
Sometimes the best ideas come almost unbidden. It’s hard to say where they come from. Do they originate from inside ourselves, where a notion might have been germinating unnoticed? Or, are we receiving them from some outside — dare we even say “divine” — source?
Guitarist John Sheldon’s newest work, a performance he calls “The Red Guitar,” first occurred to him one night as he was driving from Amherst to Wendell, he tells me, as we sit in the upstairs music studio of his Amherst home.
“I was driving to play a solo gig and I felt like I wanted to do something different than I usually do,” Sheldon said. “And this idea popped into my mind: ‘The Red Guitar.’ It was all there.”
That first night at the Déja Brew, Sheldon improvised his way through a series of autobiographical vignettes — part storytelling, part guitar playing — that focused on his evolution as a guitarist.
“I was doing it ad hoc,” Sheldon said. “I would tell little pieces of the story and then I would play. Maybe I would tell a story about how I first heard some particular guitar music and how I learned to play it.”
Snatches of Duane Eddy, Jimmy Reed, Buddy Holly, Hendrix or Mark Knopfler threaded their way through Sheldon’s narrative as he explored the music he loved. The red guitar of the show’s title was a Fender Stratocaster, Sheldon’s first professional electric guitar, purchased from longtime family friend, musician James Taylor, in 1965 when Sheldon was 14.
Sheldon had already been playing acoustic folk guitar for years but the Stratocaster took him to a new level.
“It really changed my life,” Sheldon said. “I was so excited to have an electric guitar. It took over my life completely. And it was kind of for better or worse. Because I lost interest in school, I lost interest in other things. So, I wasn’t doing the things I was supposed to be doing. I was playing guitar all the time.”
His parents were understanding of his love for the red Stratocaster, Sheldon said, but even so, his fervor came at a time when the electric guitar was considered to be “something anybody could play.”
“It was like, anybody can play that — all you have to do is turn it up loud … Even The Beatles thought that it might just be a fad,” Sheldon said. “People didn’t really think of the electric guitar as a serious instrument. So I was immediately doing something that was rebellious.”
The Candy Apple Red Fender Stratocaster
In Sheldon’s studio there are six guitars immediately visible, including the iconic Candy Apple Red Fender Stratocaster that gave rise to the show’s title, and several more closed away in cases. Sheldon estimates there are 10 or 12 guitars in the room.
But the Stratocaster, released by Fender in 1954, was, “The ultimate expression of what a guitar could be,” Sheldon says. “It still is to this day.
“It’s some sort of freaky coincidence that it’s like it is,” Sheldon continued. “It’s one of those inventions that’s more than the sum of the parts that go into it. It’s much more.”
Sheldon cites the Stratocaster’s “endless palette of sounds” and “strange, timeless design.”
“I mean, the Stratocasters look a little bit like a car from the fifties. They look a little bit like they ought to have fins.”
In addition to Sheldon’s Candy Apple Red guitar, Fender made Stratocasters in a dizzying array of colors over the years, including Ocean Turquoise, Chrome Blue, Butterscotch Blonde and swirling black or red Paisley Flames.
A journey of discovery
“The Red Guitar” began as a journey of discovering music, Sheldon said. “How to play music and then where it took me. It took me a lot of different places.”
Some of those different “places” were actual geographical places, like San Francisco, others were really situations: touring with Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor, playing studio gigs with Van Morrison, or attending The New England Conservatory of Music.
Another thread that began to weave itself through the narrative was the story of the hydrogen bomb, which the United States tested by dropping on the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands in the same year the Stratocaster appeared on the market, 1954.
“A lot of us grew up with this thought that we were possibly going to blow up the world,” Sheldon said. In the face of nuclear proliferation and the Cold War, rock ’n’ roll was, “Sort of the anti-H bomb,” he added.
“The kids in Russia want blue jeans and rock ’n’ roll,” Sheldon said, of popular music’s worldwide impact during the 1960s. “They don’t care about politics, they just want to go to The Beatles concert.”
The destructive power of the bomb and the creative power of rock ’n’ roll were like “two opposing energies” in Sheldon’s life. “It’s interesting that they both came about at the same time. It resonates for me that I grew up in this environment.”
The more he worked on it, the more “The Red Guitar” led Sheldon in unexpected directions.
“As I went on with it, it became more of an intimate story about my journey as a person. As a soul,” Sheldon said. “It wasn’t the history of rock ’n’ roll, or just my experience learning to play rock ’n’ roll. It went into deeper stuff. It went into what happened in my life and how music basically saved my life.”
As an example, Sheldon recalls a low point in his early twenties when he was living in San Francisco in a house with no furniture, playing with a band he had begun to suspect he didn’t want to be in.
“I had really started to hate it,” Sheldon admitted. “And if you hate something like that, eventually the other people will kick you out because you won’t be any fun to be around. So, that’s what happened. I got kicked out of this band.”
“I was so low,” he continued. “Everything I tried had failed. I was so low, I felt like there was very little connecting me to the earth at that point and I was really thinking about getting off (the earth) somehow.”
Sheldon laughs but there is sadness in it. Somehow, in the middle of this low time, he recalls, he picked up a guitar and wrote a song called “Flying Fish.”
“I can’t figure out why I would ever write a song called ‘Flying Fish,’” Sheldon says. “Because I don’t remember ever even seeing a flying fish. Maybe I’d seen one in a film or something, you know?”
He laughs again, this time conveying his delight and affection for this first song, which he describes as being “like a little haiku poem.”
Because it struck him as being beautiful, the song gave him something to live for, Sheldon said.
“It was the first song I wrote by myself that I felt was good. Or ... good is the wrong term. I don’t know if things are good. But it felt like I had a really strong connection to it. It was giving me something back. It was like I was talking to a spirit, or something, that was talking to me back. That was the first time that had happened to me. And that’s really what changed the direction of my life.”
The scenario repeated itself, “almost like cycles,” Sheldon said. He’d reach a point of feeling that he “just didn’t want to live any more” and then he’d “somehow pick up the guitar and make something.”
Sheldon plays some of these pivotal songs throughout his performances of “The Red Guitar,” interwoven with stories from his musical journey, from his teenage days as a “concert rat,” seeing bands like Led Zeppelin “before they were even famous;” through his years playing with various bands or performing solo at open mics in his 20s; to touring with internationally known musicians in his 30s; to music school in Boston; and finally to his years in western Massachusetts, teaching guitar and playing in clubs and at festivals with bands such as Blue Streak.
Leaving the world of touring was a hard decision, Sheldon said. “It’s agonizing because you feel like everybody wants what you have and nobody gets that you don’t.”
But he left because he began to feel that playing in huge arenas was not really about music but was “an empty ritual. A mating ritual,” Sheldon suggested.
“I mean, it was a communal experience, I suppose, but if you’re in the middle of it, there’s a lot of drugs and a lot of drinking and you ask yourself, ‘Why? Why is there a lot of drugs and drinking?’ Because just gathering and listening to music and sharing music should be enough.”
Now that he’s developed the format of “The Red Guitar,” it seems to Sheldon that it was what he’d wanted to do all along.
“I wanted to share what I love about music directly,” he said.
“The Red Guitar” plays out
Last year, encouraged by Linda McInerney of Old Deerfield Productions, Sheldon submitted “The Red Guitar” to the Double Take Fringe Festival and performed a 45-minute version of the piece to packed audiences at The Red Door in Greenfield in October 2013. Now, he’s expanded it to roughly 90-minutes that include more of his life, more of his journey. Though he’s scripted the piece and rehearsed it many times, Sheldon said that if something new comes up while he’s performing, he’ll follow it.
“I feel like I’m artistically breaking through something and that’s been really exciting — the feeling like I’m breaking down a wall,” he said.
Performing “The Red Guitar” is much riskier than other kinds of performing he’s done, Sheldon said. And he hopes that, for the audience, the musical experience is deepened by the context he brings to the songs.
“It’s different than somebody just playing music for you,” Sheldon explained. “Now it means something.”
“I’ve seen a lot of music and I’ve often been frustrated with the fact that this person is playing their music for me but they’re not sharing everything,” he continued. “They’re holding something back.”
“I spent years bent over the guitar,” Sheldon said, leaning forward to mime playing a guitar close to his body. “And I still see people that do that. They’re bent over the guitar and maybe their shoulder is hunched up and they’re playing really, really good but they’re protecting themselves. They’re protecting their heart. And in this piece, my heart is exposed.”
Surprised every time
Before I leave, Sheldon agrees to play the red guitar while I take some photographs. The guitar he has now is not the same one he bought from James Taylor, he told me. That one was stolen about a year after he got it. It took until 1999 for Sheldon to discover another one at a music store in Amherst.
“But in a way, that’s OK,” Sheldon says. “Because there’s the red guitar I got when I was a kid and then this one — and everything that happened in between.”
I lift my camera but Sheldon has turned on his amp and started to play and the sudden brilliance of the red guitar spills into the room. It’s so beautiful, I catch my breath. It’s impossible not to comment on how beautiful it is.
Sheldon laughs. “Yeah. And I’m surprised every time.”
When I say that the sound seems almost liquid, Sheldon nods.
“Quicksilver,” he says, his fingers gliding over the strings.
John Sheldon will perform two shows of the “The Red Guitar” on Friday, May 2 and Saturday, May 3, 8 p.m. at The Arts Block, 289 Main St., Greenfield. Tickets are $20 online at olddeerfieldproductions.org and (if still available) at the door.
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She is always looking for Franklin County poets with recent publications or interesting projects to interview for her column, Poets of Franklin County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.