The smile beams, the eyes twinkle and then Collin Massie sets into the mournful opening chords of “Little Wing” on his “new” 1972 Stratocaster.
Just 16 years old and already catching up to Jimi Hendrix – sweet.
His style, sound and look also resonate with a woman old enough to be his grandmother.
For more than three years Pat Clarkson’s been grieving. You could say the music stopped when husband Gil – a longtime musician – died of a rare blood disorder in Saskatchewan at the age of 53.
Ever since she’s been looking for someone to fulfill one of Gil’s final wishes. Clarkson didn’t know who that was and she certainly didn’t expect to find him that day last fall, a long way from home, right here in Campbell River.
Clarkson had come to the West Coast for a few months to be with family in an effort to “kick start” her life. On one of the last Sundays of the season, she headed down to the Pier Street Farmer’s Market where she heard the local acoustic duo Fiftieth Parallel – Jonathan Hinds and Phil Marchand.
Clarkson loved their sound so much so that she decided to catch the teens’ next performance at Carihi Secondary during a fundraiser for the school’s music program. Clarkson enjoyed the duo’s set and was just leaving when someone suggested she stay for the next act, Who Is Barbosa.
The teen band features vocalist Kyell Erickson, drummer Jacob Storback, bassist Mitchell Robertson and the guitarist she’d been searching for, Collin Massie.
“It was like watching my husband as I watched you play,” says Clarkson, in a letter she later wrote to Massie.
Gil Clarkson was passionate about music – a lifelong rock ‘n’ roller. He got his first guitar at age 12 and later learned how to play piano. And then he captured the heart of his future wife when he improvised playing Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” for her on one of their first dates.
“He could play from hearing a song or from written music. He heard music in perfect pitch,” writes Clarkson. “My favourite time of day was after supper. While I would do the dishes, he would play for me. This is one of my happiest memories of our time together.”
And now, three-and-a-half years after his death, here was this kid – a stranger – playing on stage, his presence and his music reminding her oh so much of her late husband.
And that’s when she decided to fulfill the promise.
Gil’s prized guitar was a 1972 Stratocaster. In his youth he had meticulously lacquered it – in 25 coats of red!
Then, in his 50s, Gil decided it was time to take the Strat back to its roots. So he took it to a friend’s shop in Saskatoon to have it refinished back to the original blonde wood base.
Sadly, Gil wouldn’t be around to play his refurbished “axe.” As the blood disease took over his body, he no longer had the strength in his fingers to play.
Gil knew he was dying. In his final year, he and Pat talked about what to do with his instruments. She suggested giving the Stratocaster to his grandson.
“He turned to me and said, ‘No. This guitar is meant to be played. I need someone to get that guitar that loves playing, won’t stop playing as he grows older and would truly appreciate this guitar,’” writes Clarkson.
Collin Massie started playing guitar at age 11 and hasn’t slowed down. He and his buddies started a band, they’re recording their own music, and he’s already accumulated two Strats of his own.
Massie never met Clarkson after the concert at Carihi, but she took steps to know more about him. She stopped by the principal’s office, then spoke to Massie’s mom Trish, who also works at the school, and she told them what she intended to do: She would give the original 1972 Stratocaster to this young man who embodied the memory of her late husband.
“I told her it was a gesture that would not be lost on him,” says Carihi principal Sean Toal.
The Strat was still sitting on the guitar maker’s shelf in Saskatoon – waiting for the right person – when Clarkson made the call and had it shipped out to the coast. Then she returned to Carihi on Jan. 10, with guitar in hand, and presented it to Massie. She also told him about her husband and his passion for music. Her reward was a walk to the band room where Massie strapped on the iconic rock guitar and played for her.
“I was pretty overwhelmed. I didn’t know what to say, but it was a good feeling,” says Massie.
And this Strat, compared to his other two, was different. The neck is just the right size for his left hand, he loves the clear wood finish and it holds a note better than any other electric guitar he’s played.
“The neck is between the usual sizes, but it felt perfect,” Massie says as he straps on the Strat and then takes a moment to reflect on its original owner, a man he has never met and never will.
“This guitar will always be played and will continue the passion that he always had.”
And that’s music to Clarkson’s ears. In concluding her letter she writes:
“Please accept this gift from one fanatical guitar player (who’s jamming in Heaven) to another. May you receive the hours and years of enjoyment Gil did. With gratitude to my Higher Power for directing me to you.”