“Hold on,” Gilby said. “Let me grab the sheets.”
“Don’t rush,” I told him as he limped from his family’s guest room.
It had been one year since Gilby’s motorcycle accident. His left leg was broken when a man driving a pickup pulled in front of him, and Gilby, unable to stop his bike in time, hit the side of the truck. The man fled, and Gilby was left with a shattered tibia.
Gilby returned with a stack of linens. He dropped them on a chair and began making the bed. As I watched, the moment turned surreal, the air rarefied. Though I had known Gilby for years and slept in his house, the situation hit me – a man who played with Guns n’ Roses, who had once been lowered in a helicopter to a stadium of waiting fans, was making my bed after a day of riding.
To battle my sudden fit, I helped Gilby pull the fitted sheet over the mattress and brought up a comfortable topic. “My knucklehead’s coming along,” I said. “The springer forks and wheels are mounted on the frame. Now I gotta figure out the front brake.”
Without stopping his progress on the bed, Gilby replied, “You need a drum brake for a Harley between 1936 to 1948. Those are the years before they went to telescopic forks. The drum mounts on the star hub with five 7/16-inch bolts, and the backing plate with the brake pads anchors to the springer forks with a shackle bar. There’s also a sleeve and spacer you’ll need.” He paused to unfurl the quilt, then continued, “You can rebuild an original brake or get an aftermarket model. Either way, you’ll have to radius and trim the pads. But I’ll help you with that.”
I smiled. Gilby’s narrative of ancient motorcycle parts had broken my stupor by reminding me of the first time we spoke. And as I dropped a pillow into its case, my thoughts drifted to that day and how it was then he unknowingly put me at ease by revealing a trait most peculiar for a rock star.
I met Gilby seven years earlier at the Love Ride in Los Angeles. It was a charity event centered around a forty-mile ride from Glendale to Castaic Lake in the foothills of Los Padres National Forest. The affair was a circus, littered with bikers who drank too much and rode too fast along the segmented cement of highway 5 that rhythmically hammered a rider’s spine at 70 mph. It was far from ideal, but like most organized rides it was an excuse to get out and be with friends.
Dave Perry and I arrived at the Glendale Harley-Davidson dealership where the ride started and began wading through people. In the days before, Dave had planned to meet a group of his friends and, after a few text messages and wrong turns, we found them next door to the dealership in the drive-through of a Rally’s burger joint.
Dave knew each of them well and quickly fell into conversation. I, however, was meeting everyone for the first time. Through introductions and small talk, I learned they were all involved in music – some played, others produced, but each was well-known and well-connected in the industry. They spoke of various projects, at times being nice enough to stop and fill me in so I felt included. Nonetheless, they intimidated me. I was out of my element, a scientist who knew little about music and was far from cool.
Among the group was Gilby. He stood on the opposite side of the group from me, bobbing his head in agreement as he spoke with someone. He wore an MC5 t-shirt and jeans that were slightly belled at the bottom, like an exaggerated boot cut. Black Converse sneakers announced themselves from beneath his pants with their trademark white-rubber toe cover. And from his back pocket hung a chain connecting his wallet to front belt loop of his pants. It was the time-honored choice of bikers to keep from losing their wallet while riding. For as long as we stood there, Gilby and I did not speak beyond introductions.
Before long the ride began. We exited the parking lot quickly enough to avoid the main body of chaos and together headed north.
We parked our bikes at the lake and meandered. Lines of tents housed vendors hocking food and various bolt-on motorcycle parts. It was the early days of the 2000’s chopper craze and various glossy, new-age examples sat around looking uncomfortable to ride. Folks in various riding leathers strolled about looking at the bikes, eating concession foods that filled the air with a bouquet of grilled meat and fryer grease.
We headed to the music stage and once there, stood waiting for the first band. Members of our group wandered off in clusters for beer or food, leaving me alone with Gilby. I felt awkward and had no clue what to talk about, even though the answer sat everywhere around me parked on kickstands. I finally said something – what exactly has been lost by a bad memory – and we began a superficial conversation. It went nowhere. That is until one question changed everything.
“What kind of guitar do you play?” I asked.
“All sorts,” Gilby replied. “Some are for jamming and I play the hell out of ‘em. Others are important and I use them for special gigs. But one in particular is my baby. It’s called a Zemaitis.”
“Never heard of it,” I said lamely.
“When I was young,” Gilby said, “I saw Ron Wood from The Rolling Stones playing a guitar. I had never seen anything like it and fell in love. But when I asked around, nobody could tell me what it was or who made it. I tried and tried and was just about to give up when a guitar repairman told me it was made by a luthier named Tony Zemaitis in London.”
“What’s a luthier?” I asked, still uncomfortable but with my interest piqued by a strange word.
“A person who makes stringed instruments,” Gilby said matter-of-factly. “In this case guitars. Tony made just a few each year and they were the highest quality. But he was picky about who got one and always met the buyer in person. If he didn’t like them, he wouldn’t make them a guitar. After I joined Guns, I arranged to meet him at his home while we were playing in London. His wife made tea and scones while we talked about guitarists like Elmore James and Marc Bolan.”
“Christ,” I said, “that must have been nerve wracking.”
“It was,” Gilby said. “But he liked me. He brought me out to his shop that day and measured my hand for a guitar. Everything was going well until he told me it would cost 7,500 pounds, which was $14,000 at that time. Even though I was in Guns, I didn’t have that kind of money because I had just stared with the band. But Tony was cool about it and said he’d give me the ‘Ron Wood discount’.”
I cocked my head in thought, then said, “You mean the guitar you saw Ron Wood playing was sold to him by Zemaitis under the same circumstances?”
“Yup,” Gilby said. “Ron had gotten that Zemaitis when he started with the Stones and was broke just like me.”
“That’s crazy,” I said. “So do you have just the one?”
“No way I could stop at one,” Gilby laughed. “He made me another electric guitar one year after that and then two acoustic guitars. I bought so many that Tony and I became friends. We would get our families together when we could. Sadly, he passed away on my birthday in 2002.”
“So that’s it,” I said. “No more Zemaitis guitars?”
“A Japanese company bought the jigs, blue prints, and rights,” Gilby lamented, shaking his head. “They still make the guitars, but they’re not the same. The originals had all the soul. They’re the best sounding and playing guitar I’ve ever owned. Let me tell you why.”
And tell me he did. Gilby described everything about Zemaitis and his guitars. He explained how Zemaitis used a metal shield on the top of the guitar to prevent mechanical vibrations from being transformed into noise in the guitar’s pickups, and how the metal shields were decorated with images, sometimes with pearl inlay, by a world-renowned gun engraver named Danny O’Brien. He pointed out how the Zemaitis sounded compared to other guitars and how subtle differences could be heard in Zemaitis guitars played by George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton.
And as Gilby spoke, highlighting his points with excited gestures, I recognized him for who he was – a geek.
Now when most folks picture a geek, they envision a runt with thick glasses and a disposition towards mathematics or Dungeons & Dragons. But a geek is simply a person who fixates on a topic that interests them beyond the standard limits of society. They examine details of their topic with great passion. They embrace historical nuance. They make it a defining part of their life. For Gilby, this was guitars. He treated them with great respect, relishing their lineage and studying their importance. He was, quite simply, a guitar geek.
Once I saw Gilby for who he was, my anxiety over being around a rock star evaporated. We settled into a flowing conversation that continued as the rest of our group found their way back to where we stood by the stage. And in the years that followed Gilby and I grew closer, continuing our conversations over topics we found interesting. Sometimes it was how to best grind tungsten tips for welding. Other times it was the psychological implications of a lead singer who lost the ability to comprehend the word “no”. We became the unlikeliest of friends, a musically-inept physicist and a calculus-deficient guitarist, bonded at the root by our geeky love of motorcycles.
My attention was wrenched back to Gilby’s guestroom as Chopper, the family’s French Bulldog, came barreling into the room, snorting with excitement. He tried to stop but slid across the terracotta tiles with his nails making a tap-dancy sound as his paws slapped the floor. He came to rest at the foot of the bed and looked up at us with a pink rubber nautilus poking from his jowl. It was his favorite toy, old and covered with teeth marks. He refused to drop it, even when sliding out of control.
“Chopper,” Gilby scolded the dog, “go back to your room!”
Chopper ignored him. The dog loved Gilby but clearly saw himself as higher than his father on the Clarke-family totem pole.
“Chopper’s gotten into running off into the woods,” Gilby said to me. “And that’s bad.”
“Why would trees be bad for a dog?” I asked.
“Coyotes. They’re coming back to Fossil Ridge Park and some of them are making their way here through the ravine. We’ve seen them across the street. They’ll take a dog Chopper’s size.”
I looked at the scrappy, black bulldog. Old age had turned his muzzle grey and fattened him like a Christmas ham.
Gilby bent over and cajoled Chopper into giving him the nautilus. He tossed it out the door and the dog took off in chase. “I’m gonna get outta here before he comes back,” Gilby said. “He’ll fetch that damn thing all night. The bed’s good to go. If you need anything else, just ask.”
I sat on the bed and took off my boots. The silence of the room was comfortable. Relaxing. I stripped my clothes and cleansed my body of road funk with a hot shower, then slept the sleep that comes only after riding a motorcycle long distances with friends.
The next morning, I woke and after dressing went to the living room. It was empty of life save for Chopper sitting quietly on the sofa as if expecting my arrival. I sat by him and read a magazine until Gilby shuffled in wearing a black terrycloth robe with matching slippers. Beneath the slippers were white tube socks that bellowed at the top because the elastic had long since given up working. His hair was a jumble, sticking out on one side as if hit by a charge of static electricity. Gilby sat in his leather recliner and mumbled something incomprehensible, though the word “itching” seemed to come through.
Gilby’s wife, Daniella, who had been half way into the room when Gilby started speaking, came up and stood behind him. She was dressed and ready for the day, a natural beauty who stood in juxtaposition to her husband in his current state. “What Gilby’s trying to say,” she said laying a hand on his shoulder, “is there’s a fresh pot of coffee in the kitchen.”
I got up and fetched two cups, one for Gilby and one for myself. Daniella and their daughter, Frankie, inseparable as two peas in a pod, left to run errands. Gilby, coffee in hand, muddled back to his bedroom. I continued reading the magazine with Chopper by my side until Gilby returned wearing a t-shirt and jeans with black converse sneakers. I had long since come to accept the outfit as a permanent fixture of Gilby, unchanging as his long hair and goatee, which were now brushed.
Gilby turned on the television to ESPN and began examining game scores. He made special note of anything related to the Los Angeles Lakers, a team as intoxicating to Gilby as warm mud to a hog. He decorated his home with their jerseys and balls like other folks use fine art.
We drank our coffee and talked until it was time for me to ride north to San Francisco. Gilby and I walked outside with Chopper plodding along behind. A rainstorm had come through overnight, leaving my motorcycle wet and covered with pieces of frond from the palm tree it was parked beneath.
“Let me grab a towel for your bike,” Gilby said.
“It’s fine,” I said as I removed the wet palm leaves from my bike. “It’ll dry on the ride.”
“Nonsense,” he fired back, already halfway to his garage.
Gilby came back with a towel nearly the same crap-brown color as my motorcycle and wiped the seat. When it was dry, he handed me the towel to keep for the road. The act showed Gilby’s deepest nature, the one that took me much longer to see than his geeky fixation on motorcycles and guitars. It was a respect for those around him. A respect that was forged by his Midwest upbringing and withstood the time he was in a giant rock band. Gilby could have became a self-centered jerk when he became a rock star. Instead, he was a good man and an even better friend. He was there to wipe off a buddy’s seat. There to make them comfortable in his home. There even to help them radius and trim their antiquated brake pads.
We said goodbye and Gilby hugged me. As he did, I could feel his limp. It had become part of him.
I started my bike and gave it enough gas to start rolling slowly down the street. From behind me came Gilby’s scream, “Chopper, no! Get back here!”
Through my rearview mirror, I had enough time to watch the French bulldog dart into the woods with Gilby following behind before I rounded a corner and lost sight on them.