Thursday, February 3, 2011

Cemetery Guitars

Hollywood Forever Cemetery (photo Mike Spak)
If you hear about someone playing guitar in a cemetery, most likely you think of a music video for a death-metal band like this: “Lugosi’s Morphine”  (photograph by Rolfe Ross). Or maybe you'd expect to find a Sid and Nancy pair playing bass guitar and singing at Nancy Spungen’s grave (Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious' girlfriend). It might surprise you, but I think a cemetery is a great place to play guitar, if you want to be alone—either quiet time with your acoustic, or rocking out with your electric and a small  amp! I've done both; however, it should be noted that out of respect, I've only gone electric in abandoned cemeteries.

Back in 1999, when my marriage was falling apart, I used to take an acoustic guitar to a local cemetery to play. Sometimes I took my son, who ended up being a lot better player than I’ll ever be. Guitar playing was a bond we shared which was never broken, despite the breakup of the family. I actually began taking cemetery photographs during that same time period (gee, I wonder why?). Getting away from it all back then was a necessity. For most of my adult life, playing guitar and taking pictures helped me deal with the world, with personal issues, and even to judge myself. In retrospect, psychiatry would've been cheaper, but not nearly as much fun.

Picking on a mausoleum's steps
One summer during a solo visit to an abandoned cemetery, I was sitting on the steps of a decrepit old mausoleum, playing my guitar. I heard some rustling in the bushes behind me. I stopped and waited. A guy and girl in their early twenties came through the weeds, hand in hand. Their dress was rather odd—casual to say the least, for hiking through the woods. They came up to me, asking where they were. I told them. They seemed happy enough, and thanked me. Strange place to be gettin’ some, so I asked where they had come from. Given the direction from which they had come—through the trees and across the creek—there were no houses or roads until you got into the town bordering the graveyard. To my surprise,they replied, “California.” Even that long ago, this particular cemetery wasn’t very safe, as it borders some rather rundown neighborhoods. So I told them they ought to take the road back and stay out of the woods. They thanked me and continued walking through the cemetery. As I think back on this incident, I realize how bizarre their answer of  “California” was, and I can’t help but wonder if they'd stepped through some mystical California portal and emerged in Philadelphia!

Ed, with guitar (photo by Tim Snyder)
My strangest guitar story has to be about my attempts to date a woman who worked at a local cemetery. I noticed a camera on her desk in the gatehouse and asked if it was hers. She said it belonged to her deceased father, and she wanted to learn how to use it. Valiant person that I am, I offered to teach her. We agreed to meet after work a few days later and walk around the grounds after the cemetery closed.

On the appointed day, I had stopped on the way to pick up one of my guitars from the repair shop. Arriving at the cemetery, we chatted and walked out onto the grounds to take pictures. She was really determined to learn to operate the camera, for a few reasons. Her father had died recently and she was very close to him; learning to use his film SLR would keep him close to her. She also stated that she just wanted to finish "one thing without giving up."

We shot some statuary, and I explained aperture, shutter speed, ISO, all that photography stuff. We talked about our mutual interest in cemeteries. At one point I asked her what she meant about giving up on things, and she said, “Oh, like when I tried learning to play the guitar once, and gave up.” Hmm, I thought, another opportunity to impress this woman! And wait! It's getting near dusk, I actually have a guitar in the trunk of my car! I pictured myself in the graveyard grass, strumming to her in the waning light. Just as I was about to pop open the trunk, grab the guitar and cleverly say "Well, I just happen to have one right here," she says, “Yeah, a friend of mine tried to teach me, but he gave up.” She paused and added, “Have you ever heard of  _____  _____ ?" (I shouldn't divulge who the person is, but he’s a world-famous guitar virtuoso performer and recording artist—and up to that point, one of my idols!). I stammered weakly, “Uh, yeahhhh…,” and didn't open the car trunk.  I made a mental note never to let her hear ME play the guitar! We dated a couple months, but then her rock star came through town on tour and she dropped me like yesterday's newspapers.

Links of Interest:

Sid Vicious
Nancy Spungen
Sid Vicious' Music
Brian Eugene Waddell:  (great quote) "Brian did not die of any illness, his life was stolen, by 2 girls who shot him and stole his van."
Bianca's Angel (photo at top of blog): lead singer and bassist Bianca Halstead for the band "Betty Blowtorch," (another great quote) who "died in a shattered Corvette."


  1. This is (as ever) a good one. But it keeps me mild disappointed because you cruelly keep us in the dark about the other guitar hero...

  2. Much too embarrassing! Probably to everyone involved. I was bummed when she dumped me, but as a friend said, "Dude! Just think of it! You were a PLACE-HOLDER for ____ _____ !" Took me about a year to like his music again, I was so jealous...