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Film Festival: <i>My First Guitar</i>
An interview with documentary filmmaker Nick Mead
Slash is one of the guitarists interviewed

NICK MEAD'S documentary My First Guitar is about exactly that: It’s a remarkably intimate collection of reminiscences with some of music’s biggest names about their very first six-string. It’s almost as if, by getting them to turn back the pages, Mead captures these artists in a candid, sometimes even childlike state of wonder.

While the more recognizable artists he interviews are Slash, Peter Frampton, Bill Wyman and Joe Perry, some of the other names are less obvious but no less inspiring: folk icon Pete Seeger, bluesman Hubert Sumlin, Eurhythmics’ Dave Stewart, Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne, counterculture figure Harry Dean Stanton, and the inventor of the electric guitar himself, Les Paul.

A similarly-themed film of Mead’s is Who Do I Think I Am, in which the filmmaker travels to China with saxophonist Clarence Clemons of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. Mead is currently completing American Ride, a doc about George Christie of the Ventura County Hell’s Angels.

We spoke to Nick Mead last week.

Musicians seem to have a more intimate attachment to guitars than any other instrument. Why do you think that is?

Nick Mead: It becomes a part of you, like an extension of you. I think Davy Allen says it best in the movie, when he says every fret becomes a part of you and your unique sound. When you think what you can do with this instrument with basically three or four chords, it’s incredible. If you get it right you can really move people.

I’ve always wished I was a guitar player, and I did learn to play a little bit at school. It’s the greatest pose you can possibly have. But I never really cut it. I’ve been so unbelievably envious. Mostly because what I do takes two years, and then it usually ends with a fight of some kind (laughs). But with them, it’s one guy, one night, it’s done.

Why did you decide to make this film?

Nick Mead: I’ve been friends with Jeff Lynne for years. Jeff has a studio with all these guitars on the wall, and one day when my son Jack was four or five he pulled this mini Stratocaster down and gave it to him. I didn’t realize until later that Dhani Harrison had played that guitar, George Harrison had played that guitar, and Eric Clapton had played that guitar. I told my son, "it’s not just a gift, it’s a legacy. If you knew all the people who played this guitar, you’d feel obliged to pass that guitar on.”

So I was in China with my then-girlfriend Deland, and we started blabbing about it. She said, “you’ve got to do this film.”

You must have some great connections to be able to pull all these big names together.

Nick Mead: Well, there are always a few white lies. I grew up with a guy in London who happened to live next to Jimmy Page. So I kept going by Jimmy’s place to ask if he wanted to take part in the film, but they would always tell me Jimmy “wasn’t in.”

We contacted David Keuning of the Killers, but they weren’t committed. One day David called me just as I was leaving Jimmy Page’s house. So of course I told him, “Oh, I’m just leaving Jimmy Page’s house.” And Jimmy Page had no intention of being in the film! Every movie has a few of those white lies behind it.

The funniest instance, the most bizarre, was with Pete Seeger. All I could find about how to contact him was when I went online and found out he lives in Beacon, N.Y. So I drove to Beacon, and got his address from the mailman. I went to leave a note on the door and this dog came up and started barking at us. So I said to my co-producer — and I’m not sure this is the highlight or lowlight of my career (laughs) -- “get the phone number off the dog collar.” But I couldn’t bring myself to actually call Pete. It was all too stalkeresque.

But Pete actually called the next day. He was so polite, he said he was terribly sorry he wasn’t in. He said he was too busy to be interviewed because he was laying a concrete floor at the time. So I said, “If we help you lay your concrete floor, would you give us an interview?” So five bags of cement later we got an interview.

Did you find any differences between genres of guitarists, say between a rocker and a bluesman, for example?

Nick Mead: I’d say the folk people were more worthy. You talk to Pete Seeger, that’s the real thing. It was very moving. Whereas David of the Killers — and this is not a negative thing, I’m not knocking him — said, “I really love Duran Duran.” So one minute I’m talking to Pete Seeger, then I’m talking to David Keuning, who says he’s inspired by Duran Duran!

The cut of My First Guitar that’s out there is apparently not the one you prefer.

Nick Mead: Currently there’s a dispute about which cut to use. I’ve had major arguments with the producer about the structure and concept. There are way too many talking heads at the moment. I’ve always said it needs to be more of a film.

In making the movie I’ve been inspired by two songs, “Land of Hope and Dreams” and “People Get Ready.” I wanted the film to be about hurling your faith and baggage on this train for the journey. I wanted it to be like an amusement park ride, and I shot a lot of B roll to show that.

I’m fighting against mediocrity, really. It pisses me off. That doesn’t take away the experience of doing it or what it’s about, but it does take away the visual satisfaction. It’s a big disappointment when as a filmmaker you want to go whole nine yards and the people around you are saying, “this is fine.” What the fuck? Why not at least try?

I’ve learned the most important thing about moviemaking is when you’re sitting across the table from somebody, you need to ask yourself: Shall I go down this road with this person I don’t really know? Look at that individual and ask yourself, “Do I want to spend the next two years of my life with this person?”

I told the people in Savannah I don’t know how to deal with this — it’s the first time it happened. I spoke to people there and said this isn’t the cut I wanted, but I don’t want to pull it. I want to talk about what I wanted.

So you’d rather take the emphasis off the PBS-style thing and make it more epic.

Nick Mead: Well, when you talk to some of the greatest people on the planet about what they do, that’s what makes it epic.

But it’s really about faith. I’m good friends with Mick Jones, of the Clash; we did a film together. He can do three chords, and what that took was him being in this vigil with a guitar for a year. He had no education but a faith in his instrument. A chord’s a chord but it’s all in the changes, you know, music’s all in the changes.

So Clarence Clemons and I went off to China together on this journey to make a film. We didn’t known what film we were making until we started making it. One day I was filming him on the Great Wall of China, and he was playing his sax. I had the area sort of blocked off, and this man pushed past us saying, “Who do you think you are?” and walked past. And that was it, I thought, there’s the name of our movie, that’s why we’re here.

When you speak of faith, is that an explicitly religious reference or do you mean it more in a humanistic way?

Nick Mead: Humanistic, really. I’m not following any rules or regulations with it. Doing the film with Clarence, we went into every single kind of religion, all of them. And finally he came to the conclusion that his religion is music.

We were in China, where no one has ever heard of Bruce Springsteen. One day I told Clarence, go stand in that square and see what happens. So he went and stood there and within about ten minutes 200 people had gathered around. They’d never seen a black man before. It was incredible.

It was then that I really knew what the film was about. It was a journey of a man who happens to be one of the most famous saxophone players in the world, and in one of the top three or so bands in the world.

And there he was in this place with no on really knowing who he was, but he was still being loved everywhere he went. It’s all just unbelievably friendly and warm and beautiful. It really made it groovy.

My First Guitar screens Mon. Oct. 29 at 9:30 a.m. at the Trustees Theatre and Wed. Oct. 31 at 11:30 a.m. at the Lucas Theatre.