Over the summer of 1974, my high school’s music director bought a Fender Mustang bass and a Yamaha amplifier. I think he got the Mustang because it’s short scale and would be good for hands of all sizes, even Freshman.
I was a Junior when the school year started, and he held an open audition for the stage band. I knew I wanted to play bass but I had never really touched one before, but I was the only person to audition for bass, so I got the gig.
While everyone else was tuning up, the director took me and the bass out into the hallway and he showed me three notes. They were C, E, and G. I played the hell out of those three notes through that whole first rehearsal. It didn’t matter what key the song was in or what the chord changes were. I played C, E, and G. I like to think I’ve gotten better since then.
Naturally, I lost access to the Mustang as soon as I graduated in June 1976. Every week or two, I would go into Al Corey’s Music in Waterville, ME and drool over this bass hanging on the wall. It was a Univox “lawsuit” copy of a Rickenbacker, and one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. It was also $250.
I was going away to college in September and would need spending money, so I got a job working construction. (If you’re familiar with Waterville, I helped pour the foundation for what is now Champions Fitness Club behind the JC Penney.) By summer’s end, I had $300. The $50 left over for spending money ran out by Thanksgiving.
But I had a bass and that has made all the difference.
I would spend hours sitting on the edge of my dorm room bed, playing it and admiring the wood grain which could be seen through the transparent paint. I knew the whirls of the birdseye maple. There were two near the bridge pickup, with three crooked lines of grain between them. There was also a long, elliptical knot on the back of the neck, right behind the 12th fret.
I played it with my rock band Rags, but when I was in my punk band Psycho in the early 80s, my charismatic guitarist convinced me I needed a Fender Precision. I didn’t have the money to buy a brand new bass, so I traded in the Univox towards a Precision at a small store in Cambridge, MA. I still have the Precision and love it. It was my main bass for a couple decades, but I missed the Univox and wished I had it back. This was about the time I met my wife, who got tired of me wistfully whining about it over the years.
I don’t remember when I became aware of eBay, but at some point in the late 90s or early 00s, I set up a watch for “Univox Rickenbacker bass” and they’d email me whenever someone put one up for sale. Every now and then one would show up but none were the right color. I wanted one just like mine, in that same Fireglo color with a dark fretboard.
In January 2017, there was one that looked nearly identical, and the seller was about a hundred miles from where I sold mine, in Saco, ME. I crossed my fingers and bought i
I looked it over carefully when it arrived. Without really remembering what I should be looking for, I saw a birdseye near the bridge pickup, then three crooked lines of grain, and then another birdseye. That triggered my memory of the elliptical knot on the back of the neck at the 12th fret, and I flipped the bass over.
And there it was. I got my bass back, 34 years after trading it.
After I got teary, and told everyone I knew, I emailed the seller and asked what he knew about it. He said he hadn’t had it long, and that he had bought it from a kid who sold it for money to buy a dirt bike. That’s all he could tell me.
I wrote up a story, much like this one so far, and posted it on one of Facebook’s bass groups. There were a couple hundred replies, and most were people saying something like, “Great story, I wish I had such-and-such bass back. I was a fool to sell it.” Most musicians have a one-that-got-away story.
And then one reply said, “I’m the guy who sold it so I could buy a dirt bike.”
His name was Christopher and he lived in rural southwestern Maine. He had bought the bass from a friend who found it at a yard sale in New Hampshire for $75. That’s as far back as I’ve been able to trace it, but the bass is in such immaculate condition that I have to imagine that it spent a lot of years in its case in a closet. Maybe someone bought it to learn how to play and gave up. It’s hard to say.
Whether it had four owners or fourteen, each took very good care of it. It plays and sounds and looks as beautiful as ever.
Christopher and I became Facebook friends and have stayed in touch. Every time one of us buys a new piece of gear, or considers buying one, we send pictures. I’ve bought and sold a lot of instruments. He’s bought and sold a lot of instruments and motorcycles.
Sometime in 2018, he let me know he and his girlfriend were coming to Nashville and asked if I’d like to get together. Heck, yeah, I would. They came over to the house a couple times during the week they were here, and we took them out to dinner. They were a couple of nice kids.
He wanted to see all of my basses so I pulled them out one by one, and he played them all, falling in love with my 1978 fretless Fender Precision, the kind Sting used to play. He said, “Don’t sell it without giving me a shot at it.” I had no intention of selling the fretless but every now and then, he would make sure that I still had it.
One day, after a long time of saving, he made me an offer. Honestly, I probably could have gotten more on the open market, but I couldn’t break the man’s heart. I know what it’s like to be totally in love with an inanimate object, one that lets you sing without opening your mouth.
And I know it’s in good hands.