Pawn Shop Rock

Musician money lender, guitar store, and employer since the Holy Roman Empire and before

Pawn Shop Rock

I'm living on Chinese rocks,
All my best things are in hock.
Everything is in the pawn shop!

– "Chinese Rocks," 1977, written by Dee Dee Ramone, performed by Johnny Thunders' Heartbreakers

"Pawnshops are the original Kickstarter."

The sidewalks are roasting, and Alejandro Escovedo, Austin's musical ambassador, cuts the swelter by ducking into a juice bar. It's a rare day home in an incessant touring schedule, and he likely has better things to do than explain rock & roll financing. Yet, he's here, summoning a time "before we had record deals."

"Back then, recording and publishing deals were still a reality," he waves. "For most artists, until they got one, money was hard to come by. Gigs were ... a scratch and survive thing. So, pawnshops were a source of money. We'd pull things together in order to survive. We had to do it.

"Either that or sell drugs," he smirks. "Sometimes we did both. My apologies to all the parents in the world."

Bird calls: Alejandro Escovedo with his latest pawn shop acquisition - Charlie Parker's preferred mode of expression, alto sax
Bird calls: Alejandro Escovedo with his latest pawn shop acquisition - Charlie Parker's preferred mode of expression, alto sax (Courtesy of Mike Thompson)

Buick MacKane, Escovedo's so-called glam band, left behind one album, 1997's The Pawn Shop Years.

"The days when pawnshops were our saviors," nods the bandleader. "If we were having financially hard times, you could always pawn a guitar, an amp, or everything from leather pants to record collections, with hopes that you would always retain that object and somehow find the money to pay it back and retrieve your possession. More likely than not, it didn't work out that way."

Amongst his casualties: "A '58 Les Paul Junior and lots of beautiful guitars, leather jackets ...."

By the same token, he made a lifetime's worth of great discoveries in pawnshops, including his first guitar, "borrowed and then returned" from a "music store/pawnshop" when he began San Francisco punk pioneers the Nuns. Headed into his fifth decade onstage, he still scours them regularly.

"I found a saxophone recently."

Escovedo's pawn strategy?

"Get all the money you can," he laughs. "As much as you can, whatever you can. That's my philosophy."

Kings & Queens & Minstrels

Pawnshops offer secured loans, using personal items as collateral. The word "pawn" derives from the Latin "pignus," meaning "pledge." When pawning an item, the borrower agrees to redeem it for the amount of the loan plus interest within a certain time frame. Interest is governed by either law or the pawnbroker. If the loan isn't paid or extended, the lender can then put the item up for sale. One advantage to this system: Loan defaults aren't reported to credit agencies.

Historical instances of pawnbroking occur in the ancient Greek and Roman empires, not to mention in China some 3,000 years ago. Most Western pawn-brokerage laws derive from Roman jurisprudence. Although Roman Catholic law forbade charging interest, exceptions were made for Franciscans aiding the poor. Pawn-brokerage came to the UK with William the Conqueror, after which King Edward III pawned his jewels to finance a war with France, while King Henry V followed suit in 1415. Queen Isabella of Spain financed Christopher Columbus' passage to the New World by hocking her jewels to the Medici family, Europe's ruling pawnbrokers.

Surely, broke minstrels were pawning lutes and lyres to pay the rent.

In 2007 documentary Fuzz, music retailer Jack Waterson claims, "Every musician is a loser ... a bum that can barely keep their shit together from one second to the next .... [They] buy [an instrument] and the first question [they] have is, 'When I need dope, who's gonna buy this from me? And how much?'"

"What is clear is that [Charlie] Parker was a serial pawner owing to a heroin habit he was never able to kick," stated a CBC online news item concerning the 2012 auction of one of the jazz legend's saxophones, thought to have been lost as pawn collateral. Guns n' Roses guitarist Izzy Stradlin informed Guitar World a pawnshop ate his Gibson Black Beauty:

"'I had [it] for years. Before we went out on tour [for Appetite for Destruction], I had to pay rent, so I offed it!'"

New York Doll, Greg Whiteley's beautiful 2005 documentary on Arthur Kane's final days, revealed his basses had been in pawn upon the New York Dolls' 2004 reformation. He had been renewing his loan notes for years, only able to afford interest payments.

Big Bottle of Wood Glue

Ian Doherty, CashAmerica
Ian Doherty, CashAmerica (Photo by John Anderson)

If pawnshops hold rock & roll together, then the vast CashAmerica on South Lamar is what longtime employee Ian Doherty calls, "The big bottle of wood glue that holds all the broken guitars together. We make it happen for all the musicians who are struggling to get where they're going. Even the really big-shot guys still have bills coming up."

Ryan Holley, the shop's former manager, recalls its antecedent.

"When I first started here, it was Doc Holliday's, and I worked with Doc," he says. "His name was Doc Weiss, and he was an old band director. He was in his 60s when I was a teenager, and he taught me pretty much everything I know about instruments. And it wasn't just guitars. It was guitars, guns, and gold."

Doc Holliday's had a reputation as the most musician-friendly pawnshop in town. Stevie Ray Vaughan's guitars were frequently in and out, and it's also where Alejandro Escovedo lost some of his. Once CashAmerica bought the store in 1997 and Doc retired, Holley returned after an absence and the store began to morph.

"It used to be just one room of this store devoted to music," says Doherty. "We didn't have room for it all, so we finally put a few guitars on the floor."

That didn't go over well with corporate headquarters.

"We were told we can't have guitars on the floor," continues Doherty. "We have to keep 'em in a certain room. 'But we can't fit them in the room anymore!' So, finally, we put out all the guitars, had a big sale, and we were successful. So they said, 'Okay, you can have this side of the store.'

"Then a few years later, we got the other side of the store, too! Now here we are, 20 or 30 years later, and there's an entire store covered in music gear!"

Today, they're a repair department away from being a full-service instrument retailer.

In fact, tour buses are a common sight outside the store. Doherty once nearly turned away a "crazy-talking" Bo Diddley until Holley showed him a photo on the Internet. The rock & roll founding father still signed an acoustic guitar displayed above the counter, as has Eric Johnson, Chris Isaak, and many other visiting luminaries. Holley recalls Bootsy Collins borrowing an amp when playing the ACL Moody Theater as part of the Experience Hendrix tour a few years back. The store's South by Southwest sales of high-end guitars are now legendary.

"Our biggest first day was $80,000!" exclaims Holley. "It literally happened in three hours! We sold 150 guitars that day."

With skyrocketing rents driving most music retailers out of an area once known for them (and muffler shops), Doherty sees this last bastion eventually relocating. Meantime, even Austin's musical future patronizes CashAmerica South Lamar.

"The Peterson Brothers bought all their gear here," he says. "They bought it with money they earned from playing shows. Their mom brought 'em."

Queens of the Stone Age

Standing Ovation: Orville Neeley and his go-to axe
Standing Ovation: Orville Neeley and his go-to axe (Photo by John Anderson)

CashAmerica South Lamar remains an anomaly, rewarded near-guitar-shop autonomy for generating significant business. Its exceptionalism wasn't apparent until attempting dialogue with other pawnshops. No one talked, referring me instead to corporate. Even CashAmerica's sister location on Guadalupe remained silent. Adam Kahan, a former, five-year employee there and bassist for Austin's literary blues-noirists Churchwood, didn't.

"I didn't have any reason to work in a pawnshop," says the college graduate, who bowed to a nine-month period of unemployment with a job application to the Guadalupe branch "out of the same desperation in which most people enter a pawnshop."

Kahan says his former employers hoped to groom the UT-area location into a music one-stop on par with the South Lamar store, and suspects his hiring fell in line with such plans. He became Guadalupe's "music guy" until his recent departure, and insists both CashAmericas are the capital's best pawn options.

"The whole nature, long before I started, was different," he stresses. "It's changed. It used to be pawnshops were utterly ignorant of other ways to sell things. Now they all know about eBay. Everything gets looked up on the Internet."

Whilst at CashAmerica Guadalupe, Kahan initiated the Pawn Shop Rock non-SXSW concerts, stemming from Church­wood's inability to play day shows because he worked. Youthful ATX hardcore outfit the Grundles played the last series, owing to the store's manager, their drummer's uncle.

"It was amazing," says guitarist Tim Carmack. "We rocked out in their parking lot from 12 noon to 2am. They provided a PA, and some other things like a bass cabinet. They were really supportive."

Kahan advises pawn-shopping musicians to hit "all of them, all the time" for "awesome, crazy deals."

"Pawn shopping has been one of my curiosities from the get-go," says OBN III's leader Orville Neeley. "I got one of my main guitars at a pawnshop in Houston when I was 17. Had it 11 years now. I got it for $120."

The garage-punk polymath pulls out an Ovation Ultra GP solid-body electric, a rarity favored by Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme. Neeley says he and a teenage buddy combed local pawn brokerages in December 2003 when he saw it hanging on the wall, priced at $160. Unbe­knownst to him or the store, Ultra GPs already commanded $2,500-3,000 on eBay from Homme's endorsement.

His friend negotiated a lower price, and Neeley laid it away with the sole $20 in his wallet, paying it off on New Year's Eve. The Ovation's been Neeley's signature axe ever since, featured on all entries in the OBN III's discography. It's the riff machine for the band's recent hard rock glory, Third Time to Harm.

What Would Charlie Parker Do?

Keith Ferguson's pawn ticket
Keith Ferguson's pawn ticket

Ryan Holley says CashAmerica South Lamar gets instruments belonging to a lot of famous musicians.

"Like the bass player from the Fabulous Thunderbirds."

You mean the Keith Ferguson? (Revisit our May 9, 1997, memorial issue.)

"Yeah. We had his white Fifties Kay upright bass in here with a pinup lady on it."

"One of Keith's fave pawnshops was Doc Holliday's," laughs Ferguson's onetime partner in rhythm, drummer Mike Buck, co-owner of Antone's Records – just down the drag from CashAmerica Guadalupe. He still has one of the bassist's pawn tickets.

"Not sure how I got that," admits Buck. "He had guitars in and out of pawn all the time. It was kind of a way of life for him. I won't go into some of the reasons why."

The T-Birds/Tailgators' four-string foundation, noted as much for his cholo fashion sense and hard livin' as for his bottom end, will have a biography soon, Keith Ferguson: Texas Blues Bass, by German scholar Detlef Schmidt.

"People would give him stuff, like Billy Gibbons gave him this custom-made bass," says Buck. "I think it ended up in the pawnshop pretty quickly."

The Tailgators' Don Leady confirms it.

"We had matching red metal flake guitars," he says. "The whole guitar was red metal flake – the neck, the fingerboard, everything! Alligators on the front. He ended up losing that one, but a friend of his bought it, and I think he still has it. One time, Miller gave us some guitars, like a guitar and a matching bass that looked a Miller Beer sign. We pawned those, and we weren't intending on getting them back!"

Former Texas Beat editor Keith Ayers has another Ferguson pawn casualty, a Harmony H-22 hollow-body. He notes Fer­guson's customization: "He flipped it lefty, and replaced the pick guard and the trussrod cover with semi-see-through tortoise stuff and gold lamé cloth underneath."

The pick guard screwholes were then filled with fake diamonds. Los Lobos' Cesar Rosas once rescued for Ferguson a bajo sexto commissioned from "this guy in Corpus named Macias who's considered the master craftsman," according to Buck. Ferguson also discovered a vintage Fender Pre­cision bass stolen from Speedy Sparks on one of his pawn excursions and tipped him off.

"We bought a lot of stuff from pawnshops when on the road," says Leady. "With Keith and a lot of other players, sometimes you need a little extra money to see the end of the month."

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pawnshops, CashAmerica, Doc Holliday's, OBN III's, Orville Neeley, Churchwood, Keith Ferguson, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Mike Buck, Don Leady, Charlie Parker

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