January 2005: Never Spend Your Guitar or Your Pen

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BY DON FLUCKINGER • If there’s any hobby/interest for which I’m more passionate than fountain pens or even Red Sox autographs, it’d have to be music. Listening to recorded music, be it blues, jazz, rock, or those ear-pleasing combinations thereof, such as New Orleans 1950s R&B by the likes of Larry Williams, Art Neville, Professor Longhair, and Joe Liggins & His Honeydrippers.

The way it sounds, he probably had filled his fountain pen with black Quink, which often makes my own pens hallucinate of times back in the old days when their feeds weren’t gunked up with Quink sediment. Extra Fine Points

When I joined the army of iPod users a few years back, it reignited my interest in exploring the dustier crannies of my thousand-strong CD collection, which led to the need for more CDs to fill in blanks here and there … and a larger iPod. Soon, I had a 40-gig iPod. Which led me to get more even more CDs, recently these whacked-out various-artist collections of rare and obscure 1960s garage-rock and psychedelic singles including Nuggets Volumes I and II (Rhino), Pebbles 1-12 (Archive International), and The Rubble Collection Volumes 1-20 (Past & Present).

So I’m walking the dogs the other day, listening to Pebbles on shuffle-play, and lo and behold, in this cut “Suicidal Flowers” by a psychedelic group called Crystal Chandelier, and I think for the first time ever, I hear a lyrical reference to a fountain pen!

While this dirge kind of drones on a bit, and it’s hard to focus on exactly what the singer’s trying to sing about (a problem endemic to the more psychedelic songs of the psychedelic era) I think the idea was, the author had dropped some magic mushrooms or whatever, and started writing, and watched “the reason flow from his fountain pen.”

The way it sounds, he probably had filled his fountain pen with black Quink, which often makes my own pens hallucinate of times back in the old days when their feeds weren’t gunked up with Quink sediment.

Overall, it’s a dumb song by a band that didn’t get popular for obvious reasons — namely, the music wasn’t that interesting and oh by the way, its sound had already been patented by a little outfit called the Doors. That meant one thing: Crystal Chandelier was doomed to end up with a fate worse than that of the 1910 Fruitgum Company: Utter obscurity and yet, immortality on a compilation made by record collectors for other record collectors who delight in owning albums nobody’s ever heard of.

Hearing the tune reminded me of another song that struck me as pretty cool the first time I heard it 20 years ago, and whose personal significance has grown over the years: The Who’s “Guitar and Pen.”

In an interview with British rock weekly New Musical Express he said the song was about writing songs, but his analogies can be applied to writing in general — sort of a general exhortation to, even when things are going their worst, to never pawn your best pen because you never know when the muse with grab you by the lapels.

Some critics like to see The Who as over and done by the time this piece came out in 1978 on the album Who Are You. It’s true, groups like The Who were fading in the musical rearview mirror as punk, funk, and disco came into their primes. Many say the only worthwhile tune on the whole album is the title track, inspired by Townshend’s rough run-in with a couple members of the Sex Pistols, an affair that challenged him to contemplate his relevance on the rock landscape.

But Townshend & Co. had something left in the tank at this juncture. It wouldn’t be too long, however, before Pete lost his fastball and his material became overwrought, tedious, relevant only to the few classic-rock stations who’d play his stuff — and the Broadway crowd, tired of Cats, who welcomed a re-treading of Tommy for the stage.

I digress. Back to the song: How many of us understand this line far beyond Townshend’s syllables:

In your hand you hold your only friend
Never spend your guitar or your pen.

You know what he means. A bunch of things, two possibilities being “with my best fountain pen I’ve been able to write down words in a note to someone that I wished I could have said but couldn’t summon at the time,” and “I could lose a lot of junk here on earth and it wouldn’t bother me, but they won’t take away this Vacumatic until they pry it from my cold, dead fingers.” There are many more, I’m sure you could come up with several.

The tune has several movements. It’s almost like a little opera, a la Queen’s expansive period piece “Bohemian Rhapsody” that had come out a little more than two years earlier and clocks in a mere two seconds longer. In the first chorus, I like to think that Townshend, 20 years before eBay, predicted that pens would be much more collectible than the matching pencils that come with many of them:

When you take up a pencil and sharpen it up
When you're kicking the fence and still nothing will budge
When the words are immobile until you sit down
Never feel they're worth keeping, they're not easily found
Then you know in some strange, unexplainable way
You must really have something
Jumping, thumping, fighting, hiding away
Important to say

See? Pencils were useless to him, too.


cover Required Listening: Who Are You

Among its five bonus tracks, the 1996 remastered reissue of Who Are You includes an additional mix of “Guitar and Pen” not included on the original.

Freelance writer Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the Biddersedge.com collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site. Don Fluckinger
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