The Fender Telecaster
Bruce is coming! Bruce who? Get out. You know. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, that’s who. Have you seen the adds? Bruce is playing an old beat-up Fender Telecaster guitar exactly like mine. That’s cool. I love my Tele. It’s outlasted several wives, dozens of booking agents, a bunch of record companies, and more than a few managers. A great guitar is forever.
Let me show you the scars.
On the backside you can see a huge divot where the finish had been chipped away right down to the wood, then someone had applied new lacquer to the raw wood. What’s that from? I’m glad you asked. See that indentation there near the backside of the bridge? That’s from a guy’s tooth!
And there hangs a tale.
The Greg Kihn Band played at the Chicago Fest back in 1983. We had a number one hit record and were headlining concerts all across the nation. Chicago was always a good city for us and we played there at least 2 or 3 times a year. Chicago Fest was a big gig for us. It usually drew around 10,000 to 20,000 people outdoors in the middle of the summer.
For some reason, the Festival was being picketed that year. I don’t remember exactly why, except I think it had something to do with the organizers not booking enough black acts, although the night before Stevie Wonder had played and the night after us Earth, Wind, and Fire was booked. Still, some people felt the urge to protest our appearance there. I hated to cross a picket line, but I had a contract and a band who expected to be paid regardless of circumstance, so I had no choice. We’d played Chicago Fest before, and never had a problem.
Once we were inside the venue everything was fine. A huge crowd awaited us and I could feel the energy building. It was a breezy night; a little cool, but quite comfortable. The main outdoor stage was lit beautifully. This was during a period of time where we not only had a sound mixer with us on the road; we also had a lighting director. He was in charge of a dozen spotlight operators. Their job was to make us look good on stage. That’s just one of a million changes a band goes through making the transition from a nightclub band to a concert attraction. I’ll talk more about that next time, right now I’ve got a hell of a story to tell.
The gig started well enough, we were having a great night. The band sounded good, I was singing well, the stage looked professional, and all was going great guns. We finished the set and went off stage, only to return a few minutes later for the encore.
During encores, Gary Phillips often played my guitar because his was in a weird tuning and I usually took mine off and just sang on the last song anyway. I never thought about it. In fact, it didn’t dawn on me until later that Gary was still playing my guitar at that point in the show. If I had known what was going to happen, I never would have taken the Tele off in the first place. Hindsight is always 20-20, right?
Everything was going along just fine when, from the corner of my eye, I could see somebody running across the stage. In my peripheral vision, I saw a middle-aged man sprinting across the front of the stage. He was moving fast and heading directly at me. He looked like a linebacker ready to make a tackle and, at the rate of speed he was traveling, the only thing he could do was tackle me. He certainly wasn’t going to give me a hug, he was moving way too fast for that, and besides, he had a look of utter depravity in his eyes. I caught a glimpse of his face and deduced that he DID NOT HAVE my best interests at heart. In fact, he scared he crap out of me. Was he an over-the-top protestor out to get me? Who knew? Was he a crazed fan? An angry husband or boyfriend? Or was he just a garden-variety drug-fueled maniac, out for blood? I had no idea. Visions of Mark David Chapman flashed through my brain.
All this happened in just a few seconds. I had no time to react. The atmosphere on stage was absolutely supercharged. The lights were blinding, the crowd was cheering, the band was rockin’ at high volume, and here comes this guy. In the hysteria of the moment, time slowed down. I could see the stage bouncers reacting (too late) as the interloper flew past them. I don’t remember if I worried that he might have a weapon, I just remember trying to get the hell out of the way. But it was too late.
I braced for impact.
What happened next has been talked about for decades and has gone down in the rock and roll record books as one of the greatest on-stage moments in modern times. It has become known as the “Lights Out, Chicago!” incident.
Gary Phillps was standing next to me; a few steps back, playing my Telecaster, when he saw the guy coming toward me. I noticed he was a pretty big dude, much taller and heavier than me. There was a moment of indecision when it became clear that Gary was the only thing between the crazy man and yours truly.
Gary never hesitated.
We were in the middle of “Road Runner” I believe, in the part of the song just before Steve did his bass solo. I was singing the chorus, sans guitar, in the middle of the stage, completely vulnerable. The guy sprinted the last few feet between us.
In one fluid motion, Gary slipped the leather guitar-strap off his shoulder and grabbed the neck of the Telecaster with both hands. Swinging it around like a baseball bat, Gary clubbed the guy full in the face as he ran past. The body of the guitar hit him in the face like a Barry Bonds home run. The guy ran right into it. The force of the blow knocked him back, but his legs kept going. They flew out from under him and for a moment he seemed to be completely suspended in space, as if levitating. Then he fell, flat on his back. A tooth went flying. Some blood splattered. The man was knocked out cold.
Without missing a beat, Gary followed through with his homerun swing and brought the guitar back over his shoulder. It landed in the proper position and he resumed playing the song as if nothing had happened.
The poor guy was out cold on the stage and Gary just kept on playing! Amazing! But here’s the kicker: THE GUITAR WAS STILL IN TUNE!
Those Telecasters can take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’! I guess that’s why Bruce plays one on stage. You never know when you might have to use the thing as a weapon.
They carried the guy away and I never saw him again. We finished the gig without further incident, went back to the hotel, and got drunk. Everybody went home happy, except that guy. I wonder what became of him.
God bless the Fender Telecaster, best electric guitar ever made! Next time I’ll tell you how it got those ugly scratches on the side. Now that’s a hell of a story.