Tales From the Road with Binky Phillips: The Cream Case
On July 8, 1967, I saw The Who at the Village Theater, their first full concert in New York, and Pete Townshend was using a Fender Stratocaster guitar. Up until that point, I'd only seen pictures of him with Rickenbackers. Although, when I saw The Who at Murray The K's "Music In The Fifth Dimension" Show about 100 days earlier during Easter vacation, Pete was using a blond Fender Telecaster exactly like the one my parents had bought me for Christmas, 1966. Seeing my idol playing the same guitar that I owned was pretty damn dazzling. Both the Murray The K and July 8th shows were incredible Union-Jack jacket, Vox Super Beatle amps, smoke bomb spectaculars that deserve their own column... coming soon.
Anyway, being the utterly twisted Who-obsessed 14-year-old I was, I immediately just had to have a Stratocaster. The fact that this wild new guy, Jimi Hendrix, was playing one upside down didn't hurt my new-Who-found mania for a Fender Strat. Oh, and it was Pete Townshend who I first heard call them "Strats" when I met him in the lobby of the Gorham Hotel on West 55th St about 5 months later.
Within a few weeks, smackdab in the middle of the summer, I ventured onto the basketball courts of the 80% black, 15% Latino, 5% white, junior high school I was getting ready to go back to for ninth grade in the then-very-rough Clinton Hill area of Brooklyn. I started timidly asking the hard nuts hanging around if anyone knew who Ray was. A few days earlier, I had heard from a friend of a friend that a guy named Ray had a Stratocaster for sale and that this where I could find him. Ray was pointed out to me, an older and lethal looking Puerto Rican, standing by himself. I walked up and asked him if he was the guy who was selling a Fender Stratocaster. "Yeah, I wanna buy my girlfriend an engagement ring before I go in the Army. The guitar is $50." I told him I was interested and he said fine, come back with the money and it's yours.
I went home and about two weeks later, I'd sold a Danelectro guitar and a Premier reverb unit for $25 each to a neighborhood friend. I went back to my school's yard and once again, found Ray hanging out. I showed him the $50.00. He shook his head and told me he had decided to raise the price to $60. But, I was instantly so obviously heartbroken that he shrugged and relented. "Okay, okay, $50..." He then took me to a one room basement apartment that was occupied by an old bald black man about four blocks from the school. Ray announced that we were there for the guitar. The old man, watching the most enormous color TV I'd ever seen, in as pathetic a living space as I'd ever seen, silently and glumly nodded. I realized the guitar must've actually been his. It was a Strat all right, but, one that had seen some real abuse. No matter... I counted out the five tens, handed them to Ray, said goodbye to the old man, and walked back out onto the street with what was now my guitar. And that's how I wound up with a beat up Fender Stratocaster made in November 1957 for $50. A small problem, no case.
After I'd had the guitar about four months, I ventured into Danny Armstrong's tiny dingy shop on West 48th Street that specialized in used guitars and repairs with the hope of buying a cheap used case for my Strat. Yes, this was the same Dan Armstrong who later designed the clear-bodied guitars you see Rock Stars playing now and then (Keith Richards at the "Get Yer YaYas Out" shows being the most famous... . As I walked into Danny's cluttered little shop, staring me straight in the face was a standard long rectangular guitar case with the word CREAM stenciled on it in letters about ten inches tall, along with about seven or eight tattered customs stickers and airline tags. You can see this exact stencil on the back of an amp in a photo in the Cream CD box-set, Those Were The Days. Cream had just played two nights (I saw the first one) at the Village Theater, where I'd seen Pete play the Stratocaster and which was soon to be renamed the Fillmore East in early 1968. So, I knew that Eric was in town.
"Is that actually Eric Clapton's guitar case?!" I asked incredulously.
Danny, sitting behind a desk, replied, "Yep, left it here just this afternoon."
I blurted out, "I'll give you $20 for it."
Danny burst out laughing, "Oh, kid, it's not worth 20 bucks, but I'll take your money."
This was the guitar case that Eric had carried around his psychedelically painted (by The Fool, who had also painted the outside of The Beatles' Apple Corps building in London) Gibson SG Standard in. Yes, the guitar that he'd used to record both Cream albums ("Disraeli Gears" had come out about two weeks earlier) and done a few tours with as well.
Then I showed Danny my 1957 Stratocaster (I'd brought it with me in a duffel bag).
He was very impressed. When I told him how much I'd paid for it, he laughed even more raucously and called his two repairmen out of the back room.
"Tell Carl and Eddie what you paid for that Stratocaster."
When I did, all three started howling with laughter.
Danny then said, "Don't ever sell that guitar, kid."
I handed him a twenty dollar bill and put my Fender in Eric's case.
For a few weeks I walked around Brooklyn and Manhattan with my Stratocaster in that case and all I ever got was shit.
"Look at the Cream groupie!"
"Hey, stupid, you're supposed to put your band's name on the case..."
"Whattya have... a crush on Clapton, ya fairy?"
So, sick of the embarrassment, I got a can of black spray paint and covered the stenciled CREAM and customs stickers with about 5 coats. Yep, I did.
About 3 months later, against Danny Armstrong's sage advice, I sold both the Stratocaster and the sprayed-over CREAM case to Jake Jacobs, a Greenwich Village guitar legend from a band called The Magicians. He had a new act called Bunky & Jake about to record an album for Mercury Records. His cohort, a black woman named Bunky, needed a guitar. For $150, my Stratocaster and Eric Clapton's case were now hers. I used the money to buy an Gibson SG Les Paul almost just like the one Eric Clapton had carried around in that case.
A year had passed since I'd first bought the Stratocaster. It was the end of the Summer of 1968. WNEW, New York's new progressive FM Rock station held a free First Anniversary show at Central Park's famous bandshell. Stevie Winwood's Traffic and a band of supposed superstar session-men called Rhinoceros were on the bill. I got there early enough to be sitting in the second row. The first act to take the stage was Bunky & Jake, who, by the way, were a wonderful band, kind of a cooler, hipper, more raw rock, New York version of Delaney & Bonnie. While they played their set, I proudly announced in a loud voice that I had sold Bunky's old Strat to her several months earlier. A guy with long, long straight black hair (I can still vividly see his face in my mind's eye after all these years), turned around from the row in front of me and contemptuously sneered, "Well, then, you're fucking asshole!"
Looking at Bunky playing my guitar, I suddenly knew he was absolutely right. Oh my God, I had to get that Fender back! And so, the minute Bunky & Jake finished their last song, I bolted from my seat and ran up onstage. A cop at the top of the small staircase leading to the stage stopped me, "Where do you think you're going?" I told him that the band that had just played was borrowing my guitar and with a shrug he let me pass. Such was security back then!
I walked up to Jake and Bunky, who both immediately recognized me, told them how much I dug their show, and that I desperately wanted my Stratocaster back. Jake said they were about to sell it for a Gibson. I told them that I'd recently bought an old Gibson ES-330 (the Gibson version of John, Paul and George's Epiphone Casinos... I'd paid a whopping $100 for it) and that I'd trade them for the Fender Strat.
Jake laughed and enthusiastically said, "Wow! Amazing! That's the exact model we're looking for!"
Three days later, I had my 1957 Fender Stratocaster back. But, Jake had sold Eric's CREAM case for the same $20 I'd paid for it. Oh well, at least I still have the guitar!