When I burst out of university with my music degree in hand I eagerly pounced on the waiting world and found myself limited to the very same job opportunities that I had access to before achieving higher education: unskilled labour. Well now, four (okay; five) years of soft-seat learnin’ had mellowed my callouses somewhat and after all that thinkin’ and writin’ I was having none of it. Instead I Scotch-taped my Bachelor of Music degree inside my guitar case and spent my afternoons croaking out Grateful Dead and Neil Young songs outside of the liquor store (in the summertime I supplemented my income by making balloon animals for tourists in the Byward Market). It was hard, cold, lonely, demoralizing, and completely, utterly liberating. I was free from any official ties to bind me and I managed to pay the rent, albeit in loonies.
My first leg up into near-official employment* was a job at Lauzon Music, an upscale music store in Westboro that I had never heard of before. I’d answered an ad in the paper looking for a guitar teacher and I remember making a follow-up call to the store. “No, we haven’t made a decision yet,” the voice told me. It was the boss Kenny Lauzon, I recognized his smarmy voice right away. When I had dropped off my résumé he invited me into his office for a short and rather awkward interview; I wouldn’t soon forget the guy. Twice during our sit-down he took a phone call and as he sat across the desk speaking into the receiver he looked right into my eyes like he was speaking to me. Huge prolonged disembodied conversations right at me – facial expressions and everything – and I sat there all bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed not knowing what to do or where to look. Do I react back to him? Mouth the words? Look away? Read a book? Talk about uncomfortable!
“Oh wait, wait…” he said as I was about to hang up the phone. “Is this the guy with the university degree?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered, gulping. “All right, all right, you got the job,” he said. “Is $25 an hour okay, and can you start on Saturday?”
My heart leapt to my throat! I had only once in my life made more than $10/hour, and to think of making more than double that with a guitar in my lap?!?! My mouth was moving but no sound was coming out. “Well…” was all I managed before he interrupted with:
“Nah, let’s make it $20 an hour. So is Saturday okay?“
“Yes!” I pounced, lest I lose another $5. “See you Saturday.”
(Sorry, this is already way too long and belaboured.) So, I started my still-ongoing teaching career in the back room at Lauzon Music** and eventually I started working in the store selling guitars alongside Kenny’s son Dave (who became my very good friend, was the link to an entire gaggle of people that remain among my closest compadres, and was the guitarist in the band that I managed for several years). Then one day Kenny decided that Dave and I should take a week-long Music Instrument (MI) Dealer course that Peavey offered. It took place in the heart of Hartley’s land: Meridian, Mississippi, and Kenny would be footing the bill for flights, hotels, and food. Are you kidding me? We were in!!!!!
And so it was that Dave and I boarded a plane bound for Mississippi one fine Saturday morning, each of us with guitar cases in hand. Not only was it my first visit to Mississippi, it was also my first-ever work trip – all-expenses paid at that – and I even got to bring a guitar! It felt so cool!
We had a stopover somewhere – let’s say in Nashville – and at one point Dave and I decided to move from our packed gate to the empty and much roomier gate next to ours. And wouldn’t you know it, just as we were walking by the service desk between the two gates a representative got on the PA and announced that our connecting flight had been cancelled and that customers should approach the desk for assistance. The synchronicity was perfect. We stopped, swivelled, and found ourselves first in a massive line that instantly appeared behind us. After typing a million things into her little computer the lady finally explained that there were no more flights that day to Meridian itself, but she had rerouted us to Jackson, Mississippi where they would provide us with ground transportation to our destination. As she handed us our boarding passes she said, “I’ve upgraded you to first class, but you’re going to have to run.”
Wow! First class?!?! I looked back at the huge line behind us and imagined how long it was going to take this lady to reroute all of those fights. It had taken at least five minutes for her to deal with us. “Gee, thanks!” I gushed, “We really appreciate…”
“You don’t understand,” she yelped urgently, waving us away. “You’ve got to run to catch that flight, and I mean run fast!”
We did, and with guitars flailing behind us we made it to our flight wheezing and sweating just as they were closing the gate. An attendant stowed our instruments for us as we sat down in the last two remaining seats in first class. I imagined that everyone was wondering how famous we were. The stewardess came over and offered us the first of what became a steady flow of Crown Royal & Cokes as we settled into our oversized cushiness. This was my first time travelling in the front of the plane and to say I loved it would be a dramatic understatement. It’s just soooo much better up there. Like, sooooo much better.
Anyway, we landed in a rather barren airport in Jackson and soon discovered what we had already assumed: that our checked luggage had not made it on our flight. Yes, it even happens to we famous people. We spoke to the guy at the counter who took our hotel info and assured us that our bags would be sent over as soon as they arrived. He then directed us to a cab driver standing nearby who had been tasked by the airline to drive us to our hotel in Meridian, an hour away. I was amazed.
But get this:
After our flight had been cancelled, after we were the first to be rebooked and had to race to the gate, after quickly ascertaining that our luggage was missing and hopping into a taxi that whisked us directly to our hotel (after a very quick stop at the nearest discount liquor store, by request), yes after all that can you believe that our checked luggage was already there at our hotel waiting for us when we arrived to check in?
I certainly couldn’t. How was it possible that our lost luggage got to the hotel before we did? I still don’t understand it, and I suspect I never will. To think of it boggles my mind.
Okay now, on to today’s story which (in case you’ve forgotten, and who could blame you) is about my week of MI education at Peavey Inc.
(Well, first another tiny diversion: We had arrived in Meridian on a Saturday evening. The next morning when I got up I turned on the clock radio in my hotel room and wheeling around the dial all I could find was gospel music. After a few minutes a preacher chimed in and it hit me…this was live! And not only was it live, it was local! I spun the dial again. All of the stations were broadcasting local church services! I went across the hall and pounded on Dave’s door. “Man, we could be at any one of these churches in ten minutes! We can go hear real live Southern gospel music for legit! Get up, let’s go!” I can’t recall exactly why we decided against the idea though I suspect it had to do with a lack of any formal wear between us. I still have never experienced live gospel in church. Alrighty now, on to the story, for real this time:)
On Monday morning (February 23rd, 1998) a bus came to the hotel and whisked us (and about twenty other music store jockeys – I believe all the conference attendees were staying at the same hotel) off to Peavey Headquarters. We were ushered into a very nicely appointed classroom/conference room where Dave and I sat at a desk replete with our very own bowl full of Jolly Ranchers. Thus began our indoctrination.
For the next five full days our group was introduced to all the top designers and techs at Peavey, including the sole owner of the world’s largest musical instrument company, Hartley Peavey himself. We were given tours of one facility after another where we saw robots and humans alike building guitars, amplifiers, keyboards, speakers, microphones…it was nutty. We learned a lot too, like how to effectively operate their unfortunately non-intuitive mini-PA systems and why the PVM22 is a superior mic to the Shure SM58. But to be honest, I think the actual learning was a bit low on the totem pole – or maybe that was just me? Propaganda seemed to be the main focus, as was having a good time.
As we were leaving the conference building to go back to the hotel at the end of the first day our main host (who was very personable/knowledgable and I totally forget his name) stepped onto the bus and announced our schedule for the following day. He finished his little speech with a warning. “There are two Canadians here on the bus,” he said, pointing us out. “I’m sure you’ll find they are very friendly but I’ll tell you this: Don’t drink with them.”
People laughed, dude got stern. “No, I mean it,” he continued, unsmiling. “We have a lot to do this week and they will incapacitate you. Those Canadians can tear through alcohol like a beaver through a toothpick and they’ll be the first to arrive at breakfast in the morning.
“Don’t drink with them!”
When I got to my room I looked at the 100+ beer cans I had on ice in the bathtub with a touch of concern. Luckily we found a pair of victims who were willing to shun good advice.
Okay, it’s about time I finished this up but I haven’t told you any of the good bits yet! Here is a summary:
There’s one guy who’s sole job is to test Peavey’s packaging. We met him as he busied himself hoisting boxed guitar amps up into the air with a forklift before sending them crashing ten feet to the ground. Afterwards he would open the boxes, plug in the amps and test for damage. He told me he spent a lot of time plotting out ways to more effectively break gear. I asked him if he listened to The Who.
The guy who designs their amps is a large drawling hillbilly-cliché named James Brown. One day he was showing us the features of Peavey’s very popular TNT bass amp. When he asked if there were any questions I eagerly lifted my hand. “How can you tell if the equalizer is turned on or not?” I asked with a smug, knowing smile in my soul. “Well,” he said, turning to the control board, “it says right here that…” Suddenly Mr. Brown turned and huddled with his two assistants. “Um…thanks for pointing that out Todd, we’ll get right on that…”
Y’see, next to the EQ was a switch, and beside that switch was a graphic. The graphic had an image of the switch in the up position and beside it was the word, “UP”. Below that was an image of the switch in the down position that was labelled “DOWN”. Clearly it should have read “ON” and “OFF” (or “OFF” and “ON”; who knew?) instead of “UP” and “DOWN” and it’s something that had bothered me for years. About three months after I posed my question our store received a shipment of Peavey bass amps and whattya know, it was fixed. So if you have a TNT and the EQ switch is labelled properly with “ON” and “OFF”: you’re welcome.
Peavey is the largest employer in Meridian, Mississippi (Peavey’s wing takes up more than half of the local airport!) and every single person who works for Peavey is a musician. It’s a mandated rule, and free lessons are given. Hartley told us that it’s part of his quality control program. His idea is that if a janitor knows how to play guitar then he will notice if something is wrong with the guitars he is sweeping around. Crazy smart.
Hartley also mentioned Peavey’s questionnaire. He said every Peavey dealer was given a stack of forms to hand out to people who had a question about the company and he claimed that he answers every single query himself. He proved it by asking if any of us had ever sent one in. Several hands went up. He asked if they had received a personal response from him and every hand replied “yes”. I thought that was pretty darn cool.
One night over too many drinks (for them, not us) with a couple of the Peavey techs I started asking about Eddie Van Halen, who had recently released a signature guitar through Peavey (the Wolfgang). Once things got slurry I was told that Eddie is “an a**hole” and that the coolest feature on the Wolfgang (the drop-D lever) was invented by a fan who sent the idea to Eddie, who promptly stole the design and patented it. (For the record [and the lawyers] I have no idea if this is true or not, it’s just something I was told in drunken confidence. I would also like to point out that I continue to revere and respect the late, great EVH, May He Rock In Peace).
One of the other guys on the course was a dude named Liam who worked in Burlington, Vermont and said he was Mike Gordon’s gear dude. He told us that the Phish bassman lived in the country/mountains and he bought two all-weather stereo microphones and had Liam install them in the woods behind his house. The mics were wired up to Mike’s basement stereo system so whenever he wants to Gordon can turn on his stereo and listen to the placid sounds of the nearby forest in full quadrophonic sound.
The very best part about the Peavey course were the rehearsal rooms. In several of their buildings – and most notably the one where we spent most of our time – they had a fishbowl room set up containing a full complement of gear all tuned up and ready to play. Guitars, drums, keys, mics…everything. There was tons of jamming throughout the day. I spent considerable time with a fellah from Georgia (or was it Nashville?) named John who was good friends with the Wooten brothers (Victor and Futureman). Anyways, John was a great blues player and I asked him to show me a turnaround once. “All right,” he said. “First you play a G7…” he said, while fingering a B half-diminished7. “But wait,” I said, interrupting him. “That’s not a G7, it’s a B half-diminished7…”
John leaned over and looked at his own fingers fretting the chord. Then his old brown rheumy eyes turned back to me. “Anyway,” he said with just the tiniest hint of exasperation, “…after the G7 you go up to the Jimi Hendrix chord and then…” I decided to humour him.
It took a few more years of theory-ing for me to discover that a B half-diminished7 is a G7, or at least it’s a G9 without the root and as such it functions exactly like a G7. Good thing I humoured old John. To this day I still use that turnaround all the time.
And after a week it was done. With a belly full of Jolly Ranchers, a new turnaround in my blues arsenal, and a certificate signed by Hartley and Melia Peavey*** Dave and I hopped on a plane or two and made our way back to Ottawa, where I ended up selling a whole lot of PVM22 microphones.
*I say “near-official” because as a private guitar teacher I always maintained self-employment status, so in actuality I didn’t really ever have a boss. Or a job, really. Just a contract, and an oral one at that.
**That’s not true. The very same week I also got hired to teach at Domenic’s Music and my first ever paid lesson was teaching Nirvana’s Rape Me (by request) to a thirteen-year old girl at Domenic’s Carling Street location just a couple or three kilometres from Lauzon’s. I simultaneously taught at Lauzon’s and two Domenic’s locations for several years before moving on to the Ottawa Folklore Centre exclusively. I taught there for…um…ever?, until the OFC suddenly and tragically went out of business and closed their doors after some forty years serving the Ottawa music community.
***I assume this would have been among the last batch of certificates that Hartley’s wife Melia signed. She was ill and did not greet us along with Hartley as she normally would have done. Two weeks later – on March 7th – she passed away.