(An edited version of the following article appears in the January/February 2016 issue of Collectible Guitar | Then and Now magazine.)
By Gabriel J. Hernandez
John McCaw addressing the media after the record sale of Lennon’s 1962 Gibson J-160E
By now you’ve certainly heard that the amazing journey of John Lennon’s long-lost 1962 Gibson J-160E – the one he used to write many of The Beatles’ early hits with bandmate Paul McCartney – finally ended in magnificently historic fashion on Nov. 7, 2015, when it sold to an anonymous buyer for a record $2.41 million. That’s the highest price ever paid at auction for a guitar, a position held for just three years by Bob Dylan’s 1964 Fender Stratocaster, the one he played at his first electric gig at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1965. Dylan’s guitar sold for $965,000, and a few others have sold for slightly more in either private transactions or charity auctions. But Lennon’s guitar – arguably one of the most (if not the most) significant instrument in pop music history – currently stands proudly as the pinnacle trophy of G.A.S. (Guitar Acquisition Syndrome). And unless Mark Twain’s legendary 1835 Martin 2 ½-17 parlor guitar ever comes up for sale – a guitar recently appraised north of $10 million – there’s not another guitar on the horizon that will touch it anytime soon.
Of course, the chief beneficiary of the sale was San Diego, California native John McCaw, though he did work out a pre-auction agreement with Yoko Ono to donate a significant – and undisclosed – portion of the sale’s proceeds to The Spirit Foundations, John and Yoko’s charitable organization. Actually, the agreement was in place a month before Julien’s Auctions went public with news of the guitar’s existence in June 2015, a fact that was not publicized – nor noticed – until after the auction, and one that allowed cynics, pessimists and naysayers to have a field day at the expense of McCaw, who is arguably one of the most quiet, unassuming and honest human beings one could ever meet. If Lennon himself could have chosen someone to take care of this historic acoustic for 52 years and then rerelease it to the world in 2015, he would have chosen McCaw.
The guitar’s backstory has been well reported. McCaw purchased it from (still) good friend Tommy Pressley in 1969 for $175 cash. Pressley had purchased it from The Blue Guitar in San Diego two years earlier. How the guitar ended up in San Diego is still a mystery, but one that will likely be solved sooner than later via a documentary currently in the works by Los Angeles filmmakers Thomas Scott Stanton and Ryan Carman. The two (Ryan is McCaw’s nephew) have followed this guitar’s incredible journey from day one, interviewing everyone lucky enough to have been a part of it. Suffice to say when the “mystery” is finally solved it probably won’t be as perplexing and Machiavellian as many have attempted to paint it.
But this column is not about the naysayers. No sir. It’s about the personal side of this incredible voyage. You see, it wasn’t just about Lennon’s guitar or how much it sold for. There was a personal side to this story that blew everyone away – including myself. Like the guitar, this story had a way of drawing people into it, whether they wanted it or not. Maybe it was Lennon’s guitar working its “magic” once again. After all, the guitar that was supposedly “stolen” and “missing” for 52 years was never actually lost, was it? And for the record, it wasn’t “found” either, as some have asserted and/or assumed. The guitar’s always been there. It’s more accurate to say it was “rediscovered” than to say it was “found.” And it was “rediscovered” by McCaw and his circle of close friends. It was “authenticated” by someone who does that sort of thing for a living. But it was McCaw and his unassuming buddies who put together the puzzle long before handing it over to someone who looked over the evidence and put their stamp of approval on it.
The heart of this story is that the guitar was in the hands of its destined, very worthy guardian for 47 years – a fact made even more amazing considering the guitar was never altered in any way during that time. Sure, the strings were changed and basic setups were done by a local San Diego luthier. But even when McCaw inquired about changing the “old rusty tuners” on it, that same luthier told him flat out, “don’t change anything on this guitar … EVER!” Even more miraculous was the fact that it didn’t have an appropriate case for more than 25 years! McCaw finally did buy a hardshell case for it, but it too big and never fit properly. That changed when Kevin Dougherty, director of product development at TKL Products Corp. and its subsidiary Cedar Creek Custom Cases, heard about the guitar and decided to build and donate a proper, form-fitting and very secure permanent shelter for the guitar.
And so it was. From McCaw’s perspective, and that of nearly everyone he chose to share the news of his good fortune with – including this writer – everything about this story was very personal. From the moment McCaw first realized his guitar bore a striking resemblance to Lennon’s long-lost Gibson J-160E, he relied on his trusted circle of close friends and family to guide him and help figure it out. And within just a few weeks they had done just that. People too numerous to mention – but including Marc Intravaia, Tom Gulotta, Eve Selis, Jim Soldi, Dan Parks, Peter Seltzer, Tony Batakis, Mike Adams, TJ Klay, the rest of his friends and fellow pickers from the Pot Luck Players group that still get together every Tuesday night, and even McCaw’s wife Cathy and their two sons, Travis and Matt – all had a hand in figuring out the significance of a guitar that had hung on a guitar wall hanger in McCaw’s home for nearly 47 years.
What made this story even more personal was what McCaw did with it after he figured out what he had. First, he realized he couldn’t keep it in his house anymore, so he rented a secure, storm and fire proof vault at The Blue Vault just a few miles from his house in San Diego. But keeping it there saddened him beyond words simply because a guitar so dear to him was suddenly so larger than life and so valuable that he no longer could keep it inside the home where it had been for 47 years.
But he went to The Blue Vault frequently, and he did because he’d made the decision to share it with as many friends and family as he possibly could before he had to finally let it go. He continued to bring it to the Tuesday night gatherings of the Pot Luck Players guitar group. He allowed his friend and guitar teacher, Marc Intravaia, to play and record with it. He allowed Intravaia’s wife, Paula, to take it to her fourth grade class who was working on a project involving Lennon and his life-long message of peace and love, so that those fourth graders could see the guitar actually used by Lennon to write some of the songs they were listening to. McCaw even arranged for nearly all of his close friends and family to pose and take their pictures with it, many of whom have framed those same pictures to hang in their own homes.
Even I have to give a very sincere “thank you” to McCaw and his entire family for allowing me – a complete stranger and outsider prior to June 2015 – to come into their lives and tell this amazing story. Ever since my teenage years in the 1970s, I was a HUGE Lennon fan. Most people my age or older remember the day JFK died. Well, I can tell you where I was the day Lennon died. Along with so many others, Lennon took a piece of me with him that day. But his spirit and everything he stood for remains a part of me to this day, and will until my last breath. So the chance to tell this story, play a small a part in it, and actually hold and play his guitar – something McCaw had arranged without my knowledge – is something I will NEVER forget, and treasure for the rest of my life.
As a result I am now very proud to call McCaw a friend today, and a person that will certainly be a friend for the rest of my days. I’ve also forged life-long bonds with several of his close friends and family. Because of this experience, I have been blessed to meet some of the nicest, friendliest people I’ve ever come to know in my life, and I look forward to spending more time with all of them, and eventually introducing them all to my own family. This is not supposed to happen between a journalist and the story being written. In this case, however, it did. And I am forever grateful – and a better person – for it.
I didn’t have to travel to California twice for this story, but I did. No one paid me to go, and the money I made to write these stories certainly didn’t match the time and effort put forth (thankfully, I have a loving wife who understood why I did it). And I don’t regret any of it. I did it because of the close, personal connection I felt to this story, to Lennon, to McCaw, to the guitar itself, and to everyone involved. I had the honor of becoming a very small part of this incredible journey, and I will forever be truly grateful for the opportunity.
The funny thing is, all of it happened by coincidence.
When I first read the Reuters press release about the guitar I reached out to Julien’s and interviewed Darren Julien. I also spoke with Andy Babiuk, the guy who authenticated the guitar. I desperately wanted to speak with McCaw but was told he didn’t want to be interviewed, primarily because of the initial backlash. I was disappointed, but also understood. So I continued my research, and while doing so was immediately dismayed by the comments being left at the end of countless online stories about the finding of the guitar. It was then that I became aware of just how misinformed people were about this guitar, questioning McCaw’s integrity, the authenticity of the guitar, etc., even though none knew anything about its history and McCaw’s background. It was this rhetoric that actually fueled me to dive even deeper into this.
One comment, however, really bothered me. It appeared at the end of a New York Times blog on June 7, 2015. The commenter, who claimed to be a vintage guitar dealer, labeled the guitar a “fake” and went on about how he’d “studied photos” of the guitar, and that there wasn’t any “paper proof or serial number” to back up claims of the guitar’s authenticity. He also stated that the whole affair was a “case of someones (sic) greed in the USA,” and that “if stolen under UK law [it] belongs to John Lennon (sic) family as there are no time limits on a crime.” Obviously, the commenter didn’t have a clue. But being that I’d already researched the guitar and McCaw, I decided to defend them both with my own reply to the commenter.
The very next day my phone rang. On the other end was McCaw, who told me he decided to call because he’d read my reply to the commenter. Needless to say, I was shocked but I immediately stopped what I was doing, and took the call that ended up being the first of many between us, and the beginning of my association with this story and its many participants. That call from McCaw was significant for me on many levels, as it validated not only my interest in the guitar and the story behind it, but also connected me in some strange way to Lennon’s beliefs and principles that had always meant so much to me. To me this was the most gratifying and satisfying part of this entire process. The icing on the cake was meeting McCaw, and forging the friendships that developed as a result. I’ll be a very lucky man if I ever experience anything like this again. But rest assured I will forever be thankful for it, and gratefully enjoy the new friendships and memories for a very long time to come.
Everything came full circle the day the guitar sold for its record price. That night, at Factor’s Famous Deli in Beverly Hills, 44 of McCaw’s closest friends and family – including myself – enjoyed a celebration dinner in honor of the guitar, the journey, and all the memories it made for everyone in attendance. I cannot put into words what it meant to be there, and I’m sure all of the others felt the same way. It was McCaw himself that summed it up best.
“That evening, nobody really talked about what it sold for,” he said. “Everybody was just there and happy to be a part of a history-making day. Much of the time I was watching people and what I could see more than anything was the smiles on everyone’s face. That part of it was so humbling to me that it almost brought me to tears.
“If I had to sit down and try and write the best ending to the story of owning John Lennon’s guitar and selling it, I could not have written what actually happened,” McCaw said. “Everything about it was just perfect. More than the money, I wanted it to be a part of history for everyone involved. And it happened. It was just perfect.”
McCaw’s own words are a true testament to the humble human being he is, and to Lennon’s own legacy. Think about it … Lennon may have left this earth unexpectedly on Dec. 8, 1980. But it’s quite obvious that his spirit, positive energy and influence still exists in many of us today, and the story of this guitar and how it was rediscovered is just another sure sign of it.
Gabriel J. Hernandez is the owner of Blues Vintage Guitars, Inc., a shop in Nashville, Tennessee, specializing in the buying and selling of vintage and newer high-end guitars and gear. He is also an accomplished writer, having earned a B.S. in Journalism from The University of Florida in 1988. Over a 25-year career he has worked as an investigative journalist for several news organizations and publishing companies, as a staff sports writer for The Palm Beach Post, and most recently as the Web Editor for Gibson Guitars at the company’s worldwide headquarters in Nashville. Hernandez has played guitar since the age of six, and has been fascinated (some say obsessed) by the instrument – and music in general – ever since. You can reach him any time at 1-615-613-1389, or visit his company’s web site at www.bluesvintageguitars.com.