My metalhead friend still doing his own thing
By ANDREW MCGINN
A decade after the fact, Ben Christopher feels kind of bad about how he left his job at Power Lift.
Let’s just say he’s still on his lunch break.
“I really did bail on them,” Christopher, now 41, reminisced about the day he never returned to his place on the assembly line.
In his mind, though, it made perfect sense.
At least at the time.
“I wanted to burn the bridge,” he explained, “so I wouldn’t have an easy way back.
“For me, I didn’t think there was any other way to do it.”
He left Power Lift that day and took the first step toward his dream.
“I went back to Scranton,” he said, “and went to bed.”
He was officially a full-time musician.
Too many people tend to equate stability with happiness, so you have to admire anyone who jettisons stability to pursue happiness.
Christopher was already teaching guitar on the side to more than two dozen students when he ditched his job at Power Lift.
“I’ve got people who will pay me $30 to teach them guitar,” he remembers thinking, “or I’ve got this one guy who will pay me $14 an hour to hang heavy parts on the line.”
A 1995 graduate of Jefferson-Scranton High School, he made his move — and he’s been able to play and mess around with guitars every day since.
For the past six years, Christopher has been the manager at BRG Music in downtown Perry, and has taught hundreds of students how to play everything from country to thrash-metal since leaving his factory job.
“I love it. This is what I’ve chosen to do,” he said. “Everyone’s after the money and not the happiness.”
Along the way, he also won an endorsement from Buddy Blaze Guitars, the company that put guitars into the hands of Whitesnake and Pantera.
In our ever-changing society, though, the guitar isn’t nearly as omnipresent as it once was.
In fact, in many ways, we’re being led to believe the guitar is dead.
Or at the very least gently weeping.
A 2017 Washington Post report on the “slow, secret death of the six-string electric” cited plummeting sales and financial woes for Fender and Gibson, arguably the two most iconic guitar brands.
Billboard magazine followed up by quoting Eric Clapton as saying, “Maybe the guitar is over.”
And then, just this past May came the stunning news that Gibson — whose Les Paul, SG and Flying V guitars have all been wielded by a who’s who of rock gods — was filing for bankruptcy with roughly $500 million in debt.
Gibson Brands plans to exit Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection later this year, Reuters reported in late June, but they’re also exploring a foray into ukuleles.
Because, apparently, boys would now rather be Tiny Tim than Jimmy Page. (I don’t know that for sure, but let’s just say it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.)
Back in the early ’90s, even those of us who didn’t play guitar got the joke when the guitar store employee stopped Wayne in “Wayne’s World” from playing “Stairway to Heaven,” sternly pointing to a sign declaring, “NO STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN.”
“No Stairway. Denied!”
Today, far more people are streaming songs by Iggy Azalea and Cardi B on Spotify than they are “Stairway” or “Iron Man.”
Makes you want to hurl, don’t it?
That’s what led me to reconnect recently with Christopher, my old buddy from school. (Do you have those friends you haven’t spoken to in years, but when you finally do, it’s like no time has passed at all? By the time I left his shop the other day, I felt we might actually fill up some water balloons and chuck ’em at passing cars, like in the olden days.)
I knew he’d devoted his life to the guitar in recent years, so I wanted to know how he was holding up.
“In spite of all the negative press,” he said, “people are still into it.”
He’s still giving lessons to kids as young as 8.
On closer inspection, Gibson’s bankruptcy has less to do with a lack of interest and more to do with a number of corporate goof-ups in recent years, including its $135 million acquisition of Philips’ home-audio line.
Thankfully, then, reports of the guitar’s death are greatly exaggerated, it would seem.
“They’re actually moving,” Christopher said.
“Ukuleles are a huge thing,” he added.
So, yes, there’s still hope that Jefferson might one day produce another rock band like the Bushmen, who were inducted Sunday into the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
Of course, the Bushmen of the future may play ukuleles.
(Seriously, though, ukuleles? Are that many people clamoring to play “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”?)
Christopher isn’t all that concerned about ukuleles one day outselling guitars. They get kids’ fingers moving, he said, and act as a sort of gateway to guitars.
Besides, there’s only so many times you can play “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” before you eventually discover Rainbow, the old Ritchie Blackmore band.
With his parents split between Jefferson and Scranton, Christopher was brought up hearing mixed messages.
In one ear, he had a stepdad berating him for being massively into rock ‘n’ roll, insisting he would be a loser if he didn’t find something better to do.
One day, he recalled, his stepdad discovered a copy of Circus magazine in his room and freaked, like finding your kid in possession of The Satanic Bible.
“It was evil,” Christopher recalled. “Rock ‘n’ roll very early on was something not accepted.”
But in the other ear, he had his dad, Dennis, in Scranton, who was into the pioneering hard-rock of Rainbow, Ozzy and others.
“I’d go to my dad’s house and sit in the corner and listen to Twisted Sister and the early Europe albums,” he said.
Evil must have prevailed, because when we started hanging out as kids, Christopher’s walls were covered in glossy pages torn from Circus, Hit Parader, Rip and the other metal magazines of the day. (The magazine section in the back of Walt’s Hallmark became a sort of home away from home for us.)
Christopher later delved into thrash and death metal, and it’s fun to see him nowadays on YouTube scowling like a badass and growling like a demonic Cookie Monster with his band Pat1ent Zero.
I don’t want to ruin his street cred too badly, but there was a time when he liked to come over and air-drum with his head hanging over my parents’ central-AC unit because the fan blew his hair all around like Robert Sweet’s in a Stryper video.
Everything changed in the fall of 1990 when we both bought Megadeth’s latest album, “Rust in Peace.”
To this day, he’s still trying to master the solos from the album’s opening track, “Holy Wars.”
When asked how many years of high school he was pictured in the yearbook wearing a Megadeth shirt, he estimates at least half.
Funny enough, joining the Bushmen in the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame class of 2018 was David Ellefson, Megadeth’s bassist, who grew up just across the Iowa border in rural Minnesota.
Staying home from school one day, Christopher remembers picking up his dad’s guitar — a copycat Hondo version of Fender’s Strat — and teaching himself how to play “One” by Metallica.
“It’s been stuck to me ever since,” he said of the guitar. “I never did put it down.”
Eventually leaving town to study art at UNI, Christopher made it a year and a half before realizing that college “wasn’t for me.”
“So you create your own reality,” he said.
He practiced guitar.
By the time he finally joined his very first band, in 1998, he made a surprising discovery.
“I found out very quickly I outplayed the other guys,” he said.
Before long, Christopher was living in Des Moines with Slipknot guitarist Mick Thomson.
Thomson’s dad, Gordon, was a 1968 graduate of Jefferson High.
Christopher was floored when they finally made the Jefferson connection, Mick explaining that his grandpa used to work at Coast to Coast.
“We used to go in there and look at guns,” Christopher reminded me.
Living with Mick Thomson proved to be a far superior education than the one UNI could offer. Christopher got to watch as Thomson designed signature guitars and amps with companies, and he gained an awareness of various woods and how they affect a guitar’s tone.
Mahogany gives a guitar that classic, Les Paul sound, he said, while country players prize ash.
“Before,” he recalled, “all I knew was this guitar sounds bad, this guitar sounds good.”
Christopher also saw how the music industry was rapidly beginning to change in the early ’00s.
“Without the physical record sales,” he said, “it’s a whole different ballgame.”
Slipknot at the time was between the albums “Iowa” and “Vol. 3,” and didn’t yet have full control over their merchandising.
He once observed Mick Thomson sell a guitar to pay rent.
“When you’re young, you think rock star dreams,” he said. “The reality is, it’s a lot of work.”
Retail has changed dramatically as well.
Christopher estimates 80 percent of their business is now done online.
“A lot more goes out the back door in a box than out the front door in someone’s hand,” he said.
Managing a guitar shop enables Christopher to be around music, but still be a dad to his two kids, 8-year-old daughter Jhét Ella and 2-year-old son Niklaus.
In 2011, he posted a 17-second video clip to YouTube of him playing a Buddy Blaze Shredder in the shop. (On a side note, he’s sporting what may be the world’s greatest goatee, akin to a squirrel dangling from his chin.)
One day, his cellphone rang.
It was Buddy Blaze himself on the other end.
“He called me up and said, ‘I want you playing my guitars,’” Christopher recalled, still somewhat stunned. “Someone’s going to give me a guitar deal? Wow. That’s cool.”
Christopher now enjoys the backing of Buddy Blaze, the same guy who famously customized guitars for Vivian Campbell (who wielded a blue Buddy Blaze guitar back in the day in the video for Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again”) and Pantera’s Dimebag Darrell.
It’s clear that Christopher also has lost track of how many guitars he now owns.
It’s somewhere around 20, he said.
“Ish,” he added.