The Adventures of Sancho Panza

Guitar Techs

by Mindy LaBernz

photos by Johnny Medina

Vile, humid Houston heat permeates Fitzgeralds' cramped backstage. In the wings, Charlie Sexton's nine guitars stand sweltering at attention. Road manager Corey Moore glides about troubleshooting, strategically arranging floor fans, hunting down face towels and water cups, all the while wisecracking with the band while they put on their game faces. In a tiny room adjacent to the stage, guitar technician Jeff Tweedy sits quietly behind his rig, a large portable workbench that houses everything from pliers, spare chords, and picks to a tattered, unused song list that details each of Sexton's many guitar changes and tunings. Suddenly Tweedy bolts upright, scrambles through the drawers for a stack of paper and a Marks-a-lot, and begins scribbling last-minute set lists.

A tech's work, you see, is never done. Despite holding a position well above the obligatory family-member roadie or the hanging-out-with-bands-is-cool roadie, and still somewhere beneath the hyper-kinetic road manager, the guitar tech is usually a jack-of-all-trades. While the job description encompasses all that is guitars - fixing, tuning, maintaining, lugging, even catching - the duties often lead to more nebulous roles: set-list maker, errand-runner, whipping boy, confidante, fishing partner, drug-buddy, etc.

Spit in this town and you'll hit a guy who can change strings and tune a guitar. Hitting on a good technician, one who can actually fix things - including amps, which break just for a laugh - is a bit more difficult. Harder still is finding someone who has the temperament to play the role: For as many guitar-slinging Don Quixotes as this town spawns, there are far fewer Sancho Panzas, content, footslogging squires willing to spend the bulk of their days on the road, cleaning up after mad, deluded knights errant dueling windmills with their Stratocasters.

Then they heard nothing but the sound of sweet concerted music, which gladdened the heart of Sancho, for he took it to be a good omen, and he said to the duchess, from whom he did not stir a step, My lady, where there's music, there can't be mischief. - Don Quixote

Tweedy doesn't often go to shows he's not working. "I don't like being out there, because it's a lot of people drinking - yahoo crazy people. I'm not into that," says the non-drinking vegetarian, a small smile briefly visiting his normally placid face. Instead, Tweedy has spent most of the last ten years with a laminate - the coveted prize of the yahoo crazies - around his neck. Starting at 15 as Billy White's guitar tech with Watchtower, Tweedy has steadily worked his way from gigs with the locals (Will & the Kill, brother Charlie, Joe Ely, Arc Angels) to shaky, but career-step gigs (King Diamond, Trixter, Don Dokken) finally to cushy gigs (roadwork with Don Henley and Bruce Hornsby, and studio work with the Supersuckers and the Meat Puppets). And let's not forget, of course, the cool gigs: Lenny Kravitz or the Smashing Pumpkins on the Lollapalooza tour.

In light of his intimate knowledge of guitars and amps, his insider's take on the monster that is the music business, and all the wisdom he's accrued on his many travels and travails, the "big question" is obvious:

So, what did you think of Courtney Love?

"Scary," he replies in that terminally shy Tweedy voice, his hazy green eyes and thick, fuzzy mane of hair making him look like a quizzical forest creature. Then, with the deftness of a well-trained rock & roll fly on the wall, he quickly tidies up his statement. "But, it wasn't a very good period for her. She was kind of whacked out." He refers to the period following her husband's and also her bass player's untimely demise, a period in which she spent some time on Lollapolloza with Smashing Pumpkin buddy Billy Corgan (whose band took Nirvana's slot when they backed out just before Cobain's death).

Like a man who wants to work again, he won't dish, but when pressed for stories, he agrees to tell a story on the record, but off tape, about a memorable encounter with Mrs. Love-Cobain. It seems Miss World wanted to play a few songs solo before the Pumpkin's set. Corgan discussed the logistics with Tweedy and left him with Herself. Apparently she and Corgan had been tiffing, and when he walked away, she muttered something about wanting to kill him. In typical Courtney fashion, she skipped a beat and added, "Why not, I kill everybody else around me." So the lovely Courtney is everything we'd hoped she'd be. And Corgan?

"A lot of people have bad things to say about him because they work for him," says Tweedy, who, with a mortgage and other normal-person debts, has a pragmatic, careerist attitude toward his working relationships. "A lot of people expect to be buddies when they work for someone, and some people take it personally when they're not. I'm not saying you're not supposed to be [buddies], I'm just saying that sometimes it doesn't happen. It's great when it does, though."

He insists that it's more a symptom of touring than any particular iciness that he and Corgan weren't spending their days off together. The crew usually travels separately, arrives at the venue long before the band, and spends the day unloading and setting up the gear while the band is elsewhere. "Most of the time you just see everybody at the shows," says Tweedy. "It just happens that way. I wouldn't say it's because of the way Billy Corgan is or the way Don Henley is that we didn't really know each other."

Tweedy is, however, good friends with Charlie Sexton, with whom he's worked since 1989, and is currently on tour with. But, even being friends with the artist doesn't preclude bursts of displaced aggression being hurled at the tech. Even the eternally good-natured Sexton has been known to suffer a temperamental spasm. "During the Arc Angels thing, he wasn't having a very good time," says Tweedy. "It was hard for me, because sometimes he'd throw a guitar whenever something got to him enough. And it could be anything - it could be some look Doyle [Bramhall] gave him, it could be some problem with the monitors." He admits he sometimes took it personally. "But Charlie's such a good guy, that I knew better. I've worked with him along enough that I can tell what's bothering him. He's such a great guy."

That he is. As the night sweats on, Sexton, looking very much like a rock & roll Gap ad, seduces the Fitzgeralds' crowd with lush, elusive musical missives from Under the Wishing Tree. "Ladies and gentlemen," purrs Sexton toward the end of the set, "I'd like to bring out a very good friend of mine... Mr. Jeff Tweedy."

Black, acoustic guitar over his shoulder, Tweedy takes a few tentative unsmiling steps onstage. With Susan Voelz on violin and Sexton on electric guitar, Tweedy plays the pivotal syncopated rhythm guitar part on the album's title track. Sexton grins devilishly at his timid pal who looks from the floor to the monitors to backstage, as if confirming that everything is in working order. The more Tweedy tries to step in the shadows, the more Sexton acts like a father sheep, nudging his favorite calf into the spotlight. Finally, Sexton leans over to whisper something in Tweedy's ear, drawing him out from behind the B-3. As soon as he takes the bait, Sexton gleefully plants a kiss on his cheek and dashes back to the mike. As the beaming band whirls and waltzes its way out of the song, it's suddenly apparent that the five-member Charlie Sexton Sextet earns its name only when its sixth steps silently from the safety of the wings.

Take heed, brother Sanchez, that this adventure and others of its kind are not adventures of islands but crossroads in which nothing is gained but a broken head and the loss of an ear. Have patience, for adventures will come whereby I may make you not only governor but something yet higher.

"`Guitar tech' is just a fancy name for a roadie who can tune guitars," says Jerry Holmes, who, having worked as Eric Johnson's guitar tech for 10 years, is more than qualified to make that statement. Still, never has a more diplomatic, modest man stepped from the bowels of the music industry, and, as such, he's bound to downplay most everything he does, whether it's his golf handicap or his new gig as Joe Ely's guitarist.

Towering at a very lanky 6'2", Holmes answers the door to his Austin home with his one-and-a-half-year-old daughter Kahli in his arms. Her inherited friendly blue
eyes light up as a stranger enters the house, sits on the living room floor, and places a little black box next to her papa. Crawling over, around, and on top of pops, Kahli fixates on the tape recorder. She wants that box. "Well," says Holmes evenly, with a hint of a smile at the corners of his mouth, "She can't have it."

Such is the temperament of Jerry Holmes, a man who's dealt with many a crybaby musician over the years, both touring and working at the Austin Rehearsal Complex. Serenity simply emanates from him; that he worked with Johnson for so long seems a given. Why he quit the ultimate tech job is less obvious. "I was real fortunate to work for Eric Johnson and see the magic that he can create every night," says Holmes. "It kept me with him for 10 years.

"But I'd rather play guitar," he continues, clear eyes unblinking. "It just got to a point where I got tired of schlepping someone else's gear around." Not that his tenure with Johnson amounted to just moving amps from point A to B. In fact, Holmes considers the experience a sort of apprenticeship. "Eric taught me things I couldn't learn at MIT. All I knew when I started working for Eric was a few Ted Nugent and Pat Travers songs." Because his mother and Johnson's were business partners, Holmes started working lights and pushing amps around for Johnson after quitting Southwest Texas State University in 1982. From there, "I just learned how to work a guitar... how to tune it, mainly."

Holmes isn't the first person to say he thought he knew how to tune a guitar until Johnson showed him. "Anyone can tune a guitar," says Holmes, "but he really taught me how to temper it like a piano." Explain. "Not every guitar plays in tune because of the way it's made. They have their own little idiosyncrasies. So you have to use your ear more than anything, instead of just using an electronic tuner, where the meter lines it up and you say, `Okay, it's in tune.' You have to listen to it like you do a piano. With a piano you don't tune everything right on the meter, you temper it from the center out. It has to do with overtones, beats."

And so Holmes enrolled in the Johnson School of Guitar, touring with him (as well as other acts) through the pre-Grammy years, up through the recording of Ah Via Musicom, where he witnessed first-hand the infamous, meticulous process by which Johnson gets a guitar sound. Says Holmes, "He starts from scratch. He starts from the guitar chord coming out of the guitar. He's into magnetism and polarity, and the relationship to the electricity, and the angle and the dangle and the fandangle." Holmes giggles a bit. "For the most part, though, he's just a real talented cat."

Suddenly Kahli lets out a monster screech. Pops has been methodically working a pen around his body, over her head, generally out of reach while he's been talking. Her frustration spills over, and she starts to howl. Calm as ever, Holmes looks down at the little tantrum and starts to laugh, tickled. Is this how he deals with a musician's little hissy fits? "I've been chewed out, but I never let it bother me," he says, referring to gigs other than Johnson's. "I always found it best not to make a scene, but just let it go. The worst thing that could happen is [getting fired], and then I'd get to go home."

Like clockwork, Kahli starts screaming and babbling in that angry toddler language they're so sure you understand. Holmes nods his head and waits it out. "I still do it. I'm not saying I don't do it anymore," he says out of the blue, referring to teching. "I have to eat. I have a mortgage. But right now I'm focusing on playing." That includes golf, the game he played most of his life, until he burned out in college. Now, he hopes to qualify for the U.S. Amateur Tour, having finished fifth in a professional tournament earlier in the year. He's even thinking about making a go as a pro golfer. "Time will tell," he says humbly. "One step at a time, you know? I'm going to play all amateur tournaments for the rest of this year."

And then there's the matter of Joe Ely, a gig he'd wanted since he auditioned for it back in 1992 when that showy Ian Moore kid got the gig. "I thought about it the other day," he says. "It never really dawned on me that I was playing guitar for him, and that I have been for the last year. I just realized it the other night when I heard his new album, and thought, `I'm going to play these songs'."

As for why he didn't continue the career track to bigger, better-paying gigs as a tech, Holmes is without regret. "I was right there to make that step. But I was at a period in my life where I wanted other things. I wanted a family. I wanted to get back into sports again. And I wanted to play music. I wanted to get back into it for the reasons I got into it to begin with: because I love music. Now, I'm happy playing music. I'm definitely poorer than I've ever been, but I'm happy."

I've heard it say that she they call Fortune is a drunken, freakish drab, and above all blind, so that she doesn't see what she's doing, and she does not know whom she raises or whom she pulls down.

A thin, pale boy - right pec tattooed with Elvis' TCB (Takin' Care of Business in a flash) logo, left one with a Thirties pin-up girl - makes a perfect swan dive into the cool, chlorinated suburban waters. After swimming the length of the pool, his greased head pops from the clear water, a relaxed smile softening his drawn face. A year ago a pleasure as simple as relieving the tension of a hot, summer day with a dip in the pool wouldn't have felt quite so sweet. Then again, a year ago, this 6', 160-pound boy, who weighed a good 35 pounds less, enjoyed much stranger pleasures, paramount among them, finding a vein that hadn't collapsed.

Paul Wittman went from being a 21-year-old kid who parlayed a talent for fixing guitars into a long-running teching gig for Jimmie Vaughan, to a 27-year-old junkie pawning other people's equipment. An age-old story in the music business that's become cliché these days - "Heroin Addict Pawns Friends' Gear" - Wittman's tale takes a particularly sad turn when one considers that his young career, built carefully and sturdily, is forever marred by some very dramatic, but predictable, mistakes. Irreparable damage won't be forgotten with his next hit single; after all, he's not the one who writes them.

The first show Wittman ever saw in a club was Jimmie Vaughan at Rockefeller's in Houston. "I was up really close to the stage, and he just looked as big as life," remembers Wittman. It's almost eight months to the day that his mother had him committed to a treatment center in Houston. His dark eyes aren't quite as hooded as they once were, twinkling just a bit when he smiles. "I remember his amplifiers pointed right at my head, loud as hell, and I loved it. It was great."

He met up with Vaughan again six years later at Gruene Hall where the guitarist was playing with the T-Birds and Wittman was bartending. This time, instead of standing awestruck at his feet, Wittman handed Vaughan a business card. "I was on my way back to stock beer and the manager said, `Hey, go run this message back to the
T-Birds and make sure it gets to Jimmy Vaughan.' I handed him the message, and was like, `Oh, by the way... 'and I gave him my card. `Just in case you need something.' I'm thinking, `Yeah, right'."

Granted, he'd just had the cards printed up that day: "Paul Wittman, Guitar Technician." And his credentials up to that point were fixing his friend Chris Duarte's guitar and being a roadie on a bare-bones tour with friend Ian Moore. He knew a bit about amps, as well, but was really just hoping to pick up some extra cash doing easy repairs. Three days later he got a call from a guitar player asking him to go out on the road. If he worked out, they'd hire him on full-time. He agreed without hesitation.

"By the way," Wittman finally asked,
"Who is this?"

"Oh, I didn't tell ya? This is Jimmie Vaughan."

After that, Wittman's career exploded like a man who'd finally chosen the right door on Let's Make a Deal, picking up gigs with Joe Ely, James McMurtry, and Stevie Ray Vaughan within a week. His job with Eric Johnson came in 1992, when Jenny Holmes, burnt out after the recording of Ah Via Musicom, recommended Wittman for Johnson's Steve Miller tour. (He'd also recommended Tweedy, who now kicks himself for having passed up the gig.)

The respect with which Wittman talks about Johnson is like that of a dyslexic Pulitzer Prize-winning author remembering the grade school teacher who taught him to read. "It was probably the most challenging job I had, and the one where I learned the most, too," he says with palpable respect. For a person to whom the word "cool" is effusive, Wittman's praise for Johnson is infinite. "That's the closest I worked with anybody, too. He and I have worked five, six, seven days a week, eight hours at a time, just me and him, rewiring speakers. One, two whole days, just rewiring speakers. That's the kind of job most technicians look for, the one where you work off the road, stay with the same musician. You get to know the person real well."

It was while spending these power work days with Johnson that Wittman started shooting heroin. Ironically, he was not on the road; he was not being seduced by the rock & roll lifestyle - he was working for the cleanest guy in the business. He was also being paid $700-800 a week to work exclusively for Johnson. (The only job for which he'd been paid more was with Dwight Yoakam at $1,000 a week plus a $40 per diem. The biggest tours can pay upwards of $2,000 a week.) His pockets were lined, and his nights were free. Unfortunately, so were those of a good friend who had an equally self-destructive bent. They shot each other up, Wittman for the first time.

"What started out costing me maybe $100 a week went quickly to $200 a week to $200 a day," explains Wittman. "When you get a habit that big, it's every day. For me the next year and a half - probably 500 to 600 days - I was high everyday." The "good thing" about heroin, he felt, was that unlike alcohol, he could be high and still do his job. Problems arose only when the habit surpassed his income.

"The Arc Angels tour was the first time I went out on the road strung out. And I had every intention of sobering up before I left, because I knew I didn't want to be strung out on that tour. But I couldn't do it. So, the day before I left, I got a bunch of money, and bought as much dope in Austin as I could, and flew out to meet the band." The real trouble hit when he returned to Austin without a cent, the point at which an addict's desperation starts reaching into other people's pockets. In this case, those pockets were Eric Johnson's.

"What was going through my head was, first of all, `Eric will never find out,' and `I wouldn't do this unless I had to'," he recalls in trying to explain what drove him to start pawning Johnson's gear. "That was the desperation I had. First I needed to take care of my problem: I need to get high first, and then I'd worry about getting his stuff back. To me, if I didn't get high, I was going to curl up somewhere and die."

The pawn-it-on-Thursday, get-it-out-of-hock-Friday-when-I-get-paid routine worked for a bit, until he didn't show up to work one evening while Johnson was in the studio. When Wittman finally went to talk to him, Johnson and manager Joe Priesnitz - two of the most mellow characters you're likely to meet - confronted him. "They point blank asked me what the problem was and I told them," says Wittman, a jittery smile almost masking his discomfort. "They were pretty mad at first, and then Eric put two and two to-
gether, and asked where some of his equipment was. I told him I took it to the pawn shop."

His uneasy laugh surfaces again as he relives the meeting. "Neither he nor his manager raised his voice, you could just see it. They looked disappointed, man, that was the worst part." His laugh comes again; this time, though, it's origin is more evident: To this day he can't believe he did it. "I really didn't want to do that stuff. I didn't want to take his things. I knew that I was losing his trust, and I did not want to do that." After insisting on getting Johnson's gear back himself, Wittman spent the next year on and off the wagon. More gigs came and went - as did other people's equipment - until he finally bottomed out and went home to his mother in Houston. She tried to get him in treatment, and he wanted help, but not enough to actually go through the excruciating process of detox. "I freaked out and ended up stealing a bunch of stuff from her and hauling it back to Austin. As soon as I got there I remembered I had no place to go."

Today, his place to go is the Brother of Hope half-way house near the University of Houston. After a successful month in treatment there last November, he moved to the 80-person dorm where he has managed to live clean for the last seven months. "They teach you in treatment how to stay sober," explains Wittman. "They can't fix you, obviously; it's not like going to the doctor to get your tonsils out. The big difference is, I know I have a problem, and I know more than anything I don't want to do it anymore. I want to have a good life." He looks a bit embarrassed. "It's like a positive attitude or something, man. It sounds funny as hell."

As for teching again, Wittman's uncertain. The music industry is notoriously forgiving in this area, but he's sure he's burned some bridges. Most painful perhaps, is the bridge that led to his treasured relationship with Johnson. "I lost his trust, and I don't know if I'd ever win that back again," he says flatly. "I don't think I'd want to, either. I think it would be hard for both of us. It would be a strain that neither one of us needs."

He has remained good friends with Jimmie Vaughan, who, in fact, was one of the people Wittman credits with trying hardest to get him help, and who served as a beacon of support throughout his addiction. Ironically, the greatest support he received was from those supposed lewd and lascivious rock & rollers who've been there and back again. "Since I was probably 14 years old, I've never had to go for a long time without booze or drugs - it's hard for me not to have it," says Wittman. "Right now, I feel better than I ever felt in my life." His primary goal now is to remain in that mindset, and keep off the road for awhile. "From the age of 21 to 28, I've been touring, and it's great. I've gotten to see the world. I've gotten to see a lot of things happen. But I haven't seen my own backyard."

So he's taken a trip to Oz and back, complete with an extended stay in the poppy fields. "Right," he says with a grin. "I just clicked my heels three times." And he was home again. If only it were that easy.

Shame on you, master; don't let the grass grow under your feet. Up with you this instant, out of your bed, and let us put on our shepherd's clothing and off with us to the fields as we had resolved awhile back. Who know but we may find Lady Dulcinea behind a hedge, disenchanted and as fresh as a daisy.

There was a time a few years ago when Tweedy, Holmes, and Wittman roamed the concrete halls of the Austin Rehearsal Complex (ARC) together: Holmes staked out as an in-house tech, Tweedy as a temp as he bounced on and off the road, and Wittman as an "honorary" ARC employee swinging in and out as his bands rehearsed there. They exchanged more than just passing hellos; often they traded gigs and stories. Eventually, a kinship was born of professional ties.

But the story ends, eventually; the master must die and the sidekick realizes he won't be getting to the promised island at journey's end. So, like Tweedy, he forges ahead, content to embark on new adventures with other equally mad knight-errants. Or, like Holmes, he accepts the gifts bequeathed to him, scours his helmet, and strikes out on his own. Or, the story resolves itself as it did for Wittman, who finally saw that his lord was crazed, having tasted a bit of the madness himself. He steps back to reflect on his physical and emotional voyages, wondering for the first time what it is he wants - not for his mentor, but for himself. Whether he knows it or not, the words of Don Quixote's chronicler ring silently in his ears:

Beware, beware, all petty knaves,

I may be touched by none:

This enterprise, my worthy king,

Is kept for me alone.

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