The Red Shoebox Guitar

By: Roy Dufrain

On hot Saturdays the neighborhood men took refuge in their garages. They opened their garage doors and ran portable fans, and they turned up the Giants game on the transistor radios that sat on their workbenches. The men fixed things and made things and drank bottled beer out of old round-shouldered refrigerators. Wives and children were generally not invited.

That summer of 1966, Bobby Highfill and I were both eight years old. Our mothers were forever shooing us out from under their feet and into the great outdoors, which in our corner of suburbia consisted of a few square blocks of housing tract and one dead-end street of undeveloped lots known to local kids as the Trashlands, where Bobby and I both served honorably in the Great Dirt Clod Wars of Concord, California.

Another garage to which we were generally not invited belonged to Mrs. Chambers, a widow who seemed to always have her hair in curlers, and who parked her pale green Hudson Hornet by the curb and turned the garage over to her only child’s rock and roll band. Her son, Larry Chambers, was the lead guitarist, and my own uncle sang and played rhythm guitar.

Uncle Art, my mother’s baby brother, lived with us on Cranbrook Way because he’d been kicked out by my grandparents for reasons my mother insisted I was too young to understand. He was seventeen years old, and he went to high school and drove a red Corvair and had a blonde girlfriend who wore pink lipstick and pointy sweaters. And he played guitar in a real working band that played dances all over the Bay Area and once opened up for Martha and the Vandellas.

The band was called the Royal King’s Four. They played Top Forty fluff like “Sherry” by the Four Seasons and “Sugar Shack” by… whoever the hell did “Sugar Shack.” But, like every other cover band in the world in 1966, they were now learning Beatles songs as fast as they could.

They rehearsed in Larry’s garage, usually in privacy; but when it was hot they would open the garage just like the neighborhood men. A small crowd would gradually form in the driveway, mostly teen girls in tight shorts with pastel blouses tied up in the front to flash their soft, smooth bellies. Yes, even at eight I noticed how the girls were drawn to the music. But Bobby and I would wriggle our way through the girls to get a clear view of the band. Well, not the band so much as their instruments—more precisely, the guitars.

The guitars were called Stratocasters, and they were magical. Mysterious chrome knobs and complicated hand movements controlled the sounds that traveled across the wires and erupted from the amplifiers as sparks of music. The guitar my uncle played was painted like a flame, and Larry’s guitar was as black as his bad-boy pompadour. When the band took a break, the Stratocasters were laid down in cases lined with gold velvet, where they waited for their masters like swords locked in stone.

It’s possible to want something so much that you don’t dare ask for it, or even speak of it, for fear of the hole that a no would leave in your heart.

And yet, someone noticed.

It was one of those hot Saturdays, and Bobby and I were pedaling our Sting-Rays homeward after another glorious battle in the Trashlands, when we heard his father’s whistle on the wind. I’ve never been able to whistle like Mr. Highfill. My sister learned to do it, but I never could. He had one of those two-finger whistles that you heard from blocks away and recognized as a command. We pedaled harder.

When we arrived at Bobby’s house, Mr. Highfill stood in the driveway, arms crossed. The garage door was open. He was a balding man in khaki slacks and a short sleeve button-down shirt. I’m not sure I ever knew what he did for a living—sales I think, but of what I have no idea.

We skidded to a stop and dropped our bikes on the front lawn. Without a word, Mr. Highfill turned and, with a wave of his arm, invited us into the garage. We followed numbly beyond the raised door, into the inner sanctum, where the fan whirred and the refrigerator hummed and the fluorescent light sputtered. The live smell of fresh sawdust and the sweetness of paint hung in the warm air.

Mr. Highfill took something off the workbench and bent down to lay it in my arms. It was my first guitar—handmade from the finest materials available in the closets and garages of suburbia: a Keds shoebox; a long, bare strip of quarter-inch plywood; eight nails; and four industrial-strength rubber bands for strings. The plywood was marked with thin stripes of brown paint to represent frets. The shoebox body of the guitar was spray-painted cherry red and decorated with golden musical notes rendered in glitter and Elmer’s glue.

It was the most beautiful, most inspiring thing I had ever touched.

My own father often said that I was old before my time. I was an oddly serious kid, frequently reading deep meanings in the tea leaves of my young life, and in my restless mind the red shoebox guitar foretold something momentous—and inexorable. Of course, Bobby received a matching guitar, and I decided right then that we were manifestly destined to embark on a career as a performing duo.

But first, we needed a repertoire.

A year before, when I was seven, my favorite Beatle was Paul—you know, the cute Beatle. I liked John too, but he was merely the clever and cheeky Beatle. Some would say he was actually a smart-aleck punk overflowing with attitude. But that was for the most part restrained and carefully packaged by manager Brian Epstein. Then, at a certain point, it became clear that John was something more—he was the troubled Beatle.

It became clear with the song “Help!” It was the first Beatles record with lyrics that were noticeably more complex and interesting than “I want to hold your hand” or “She loves you, yeah yeah yeah.” I didn’t understand my reaction consciously at all, but I was drawn to it immediately. (Like I said, an oddly serious kid.) Forever after, my favorite Beatle was John—the Beatle with inner demons.

Bobby and I spent most of that Sunday in my bedroom with a portable record player, a notepad, and the 45rpm record of Help! By day’s end, we had the vocals down cold… okay, lukewarm.

Next, we needed outfits.

All the big bands wore matching outfits. The Beatles had shiny blue-gray suits with collarless jackets and black leather boots. The Beach Boys had striped shirts. Every band on TV matched—except for those hoodlums, the Rolling Stones. Even the Royal King’s Four had matching suits and skinny ties, and boots like the Beatles.

Bobby and I had seen pictures of the Beatles wearing turtleneck sweaters, and we each had red turtleneck shirts. We’d seen the Royal King’s Four wearing their jeans “pegged” at the bottom, and we bothered our mothers into doing the same to ours. But we still needed that final touch. We needed the boots.

I don’t know how Bobby got his Beatle boots, but I had my aunt to thank. It happened when I was dragged along on a shopping trip with Aunt Irene and my mother. My two older sisters could be left on their own for the entire day, but I could not be trusted to the same degree.

The shopping itinerary included Kinney Shoes. The ladies inspected pumps and flats and sandals and kept the salesman busy measuring their feet and helping them with try-ons. I posted myself at the display of kid-size Beatle boots, and I didn’t move. I didn’t say anything. I just stayed and stared in a trance of longing. Like all mothers, mine was adept at tuning out her children when convenient. And my Aunt Irene was not a sucker for a child’s dreamy yearning. She was a woman with both the posture and character of a straight-backed chair. But, to my surprise and relief, she became my benefactor. “Will you buy the damn shoes already,” she said. “I can’t stand to look at him anymore.”

Now, all we needed was an audience.

Our first (and only) paying gig was something of a guerrilla performance. We were not, per se, invited to perform in Mrs. Chambers’s driveway. However, it was conveniently located within our limited touring radius, being just down the street from my house on Cranbrook Way.

We showed up on a Tuesday afternoon unannounced, looking sharp in our matching turtlenecks, pegged jeans, and Beatle boots. The garage was open and the Royal King’s Four were practicing. A crowd of four or five girls loitered on the concrete, popping their gum, looking out cooly from under long bangs. We waited for the band to take a break, then we stepped out front with our matching shoebox guitars.

Our setlist for this engagement consisted of “Help!”followed, of course, by an encore performance of “Help!” In the showbiz vernacular of today, we killed. We were paid a whole quarter each by the fawning Mrs. Chambers and every member of the band. The teen girls squealed and said “Aww, so cute.” One of them tousled my hair.

Being an oddly serious kid, I quickly invested most of my fortune in literature. Batman, Superman, Richie Rich, Little Archie. Comic books were twelve cents apiece then, three for a quarter. I’ve since played for less satisfying payment on more than a few occasions.

I didn’t yet know that the summer of ‘66 would be my last on Cranbrook Way. My father was fed up with the Bay Area rat race, especially some of the rats in charge. He found a new job in a small town by a big lake in the distant hills of Northern California. The Royal King’s Four broke up when Uncle Art joined the army. On our last day in Concord, Bobby came over to say goodbye and we took one last spin around the Trashlands on our Sting-Rays. Then my father added my bike to the pickup load while Bobby and I stood on the bright sidewalk and shook hands like men as tears slipped onto our cheeks.

*  *  *

I found my second guitar under the Christmas tree in 1968—a three-quarter size Harmony acoustic from the Sears catalog. Classic sunburst finish, with a white plastic pick guard and a golden braided cord to use as a strap. I begged my parents for lessons at the local music store known as Bandbox Music. I was sure that Skip, the owners’ son, would turn me into a full-fledged guitar god in no time at all.

After three weeks of one-finger chords and plinking out Twinkle Twinkle, I was hopelessly, irredeemably bored. Now I begged my parents to let me quit. But, thanks to those excruciating lessons I wrote my first song in 1970, an instrumental I called Psychedelic Butterfly. By then I was twelve years old, the Beatles had broken up, and I was newly under the musical spell of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead.

I guess you’d have to say that Harmony acoustic was my first “real” guitar—certainly more real to the hands and the eyes and ears. But not the heart.

My newest guitar is a beautiful all-mahogany Martin acoustic that cost more than many automobiles I’ve owned. But, when I pick it up, some part of me is back on Cranbrook Way, holding the glittering red shoebox guitar that Mr. Highfill once laid in my arms.