On the significance of a gone dead Ampeg and the Old Vineyard Way

“But then the fire in my boiler up and quit before I came/there ain’t no empty cellar/need a gone dead train.” –R. S. Newman, 1970

Long before I could drive, or really even play, I fell into a collection of instruments that would make the Silver Lake $100-undercut mavens of vintage skip a collective heartbeat. I was given more cool gear before I was 12 than I would be able to afford until I was in my 30s. Such was the benefit of living among the cabal of doting Vineyard hippies with leaky barns and mildewed basements full of things that hadn’t seen the light of day since Nixon.

Late August, 1997, and another claustrophobic steam bath of a summer was coming to a close on the island. The tide of Ohioans ebbed on the midway of the Gay Head Cliffs, the apian buzz of mopeds overladen with corpulent amateurs began to fade. The old pink-green-and-white tour buses, backfiring on the overrun all the way from the ferry slip to the lighthouse, went back into hibernation. The Old Lady, as we called her, who ran the sandwich shops on the cliffs where I first found employment as a responsible teen, was throwing her annual summer’s-end do up at the old Vanderhoop Homestead. This was before it became a museum. She told us to bring our instruments–most of us youth had taken to music to while away the dreaded winters.

So to this hop I brought my Roland Juno-60 synthesizer, and my Ampeg SB-12 amplifier. In current privileged-vegan-hipster dollars, easily $3000 worth of vintage gear, but I had no idea what I had back then. I just wished the damn Roland would play like a piano so I could practice the Bach Inventions, and wondered why the Ampeg took so long to warm up, and why the power switch would occasionally shock me (knowing what I know now, I’m lucky I wasn’t flambéed into creosote). What did “VCF” stand for? What were those glowing glass bottles about?

I set up this Williamsburg wet dream on the low stage they built for the party. There was a drum kit, a bass rig, a guitar amp or two. The stage attracted the amassed revelers. It was a real cornucopia of enthusiasm, and a wildcard of abilities. Penny Huff and the Glavin kids all took their turn on various instruments. My dad came up and played drums, which he’d never played before. One kid came up repeatedly, screaming “I PLAY DRUMS” and doing his best Animal. I faked along with some synth boogie woogie. It was good fun, until it started to rain. See, Ampeg Portaflex flip-top amplifiers have their chassis out in the open on top of the cabinet. Water and iffy vacuum tube circuits don’t mix well. What exactly happened, I still don’t know for sure. Being that the capacitors had long since reached “death cap” age and I was receiving electric shocks from the chassis, I’m sure the amp wasn’t long for the world regardless. But in a flash, it was all over. The fuse popped, and the flip-top was thoroughly dead.

The hapless Portaflex has been silent ever since. I made a feeble attempt to revive it around 2005, and even started making an extension cabinet for it, both of which were fruitless. After my folks moved into the new house, the amp was tucked away in the mechanical room next to an old Hammond tone cabinet and my race-winning model trimaran. Being that I’ve entered the inexorable, frog-boiling-in-water spiral into gooberdom, on my home visit this past Christmas I packed the half-disassembled amplifier into boxes and shipped it out to the west coast. I’ll make her sing again, by Jupiter.

I have to preserve this Ampeg, partly because it’s a great amp, partly because it was one of my first pieces of musical gear, but also because it’s preserving a totem to a way of life that is dying. The Old Vineyard Way, that is. Those old doting hippies and gonzo poets of the purple haze pur sang are moving on to the next world too fast for comfort, replaced by the forgettable nouveau-riche and dreary teeming silver BMWs from afar, and with them is going a time and place where a snot-nosed kid gets given synthesizers and pianos and amplifiers for no reason but for the love. Where things were perfectly imperfect, where they still work the waterfront and ask about your mother, they party in burnt-down houses and drive Fords on frozen ponds. Where they wave to you on the road and keep the library open twenty-four hours a day. Where somebodies were just anybody, where everyone was someone. Where they drink to peace, love and understanding, drink to everything, live in tipis and set off rockets and make do with what they’ve got. As the clay cliffs steadily erode into the Atlantic, so too do the dancing days.

Christmas day, as Sarah and I walked the beach beneath those cliffs, we saw that the lighthouse was dark. As we wondered wherefore, who should come strolling the other way but Richard Skidmore, the lighthouse keeper. He explained it was a simple matter of a burnt-out bulb. The Coast Guard had changed the bulb specification for the rotating beacon, and the new bulbs had a failure rate several times higher than the old. And when one bulb burns out, they have to shut down the whole beacon and activate the emergency flasher so as not to confuse mariners with an irregular light pattern. We talked about my forthcoming record and Hammond organs and life. It was a little spark of the Old Vineyard Way. Someone has to keep the fire in that boiler, that mighty red lighthouse, that old Ampeg, that Old Way, burning.

Author: Bunny Butler

I'm the last of the good old-fashioned steam-powered trains.