Cobain Ax Sparkles in North Mississippi Music Shop

Vortex Music Magazine

Nate Andrews has compiled an impressive collection of Northwest rock memorabilia—including one of Kurt Cobain's guitars!

When he’s not playing music dressed as his alter ego (hot dog rock star Frank Furter—that’s a story for another day), you can find Nate Andrews perched behind the desk at Black Book Guitars on North Mississippi Avenue, his modest vintage guitar shop that’s been open for just under a year.

Black Book Guitars owner Nate Andrews inspecting the Cobain ax—a left-handed Hagstrom blue sparkle guitar. Photo by John Chandler.Black Book Guitars owner Nate Andrews inspecting the Cobain ax—a left-handed Hagstrom blue sparkle guitar. Photo by John Chandler.

Besides his bread-and-butter business of buying, selling and fixing guitars, pedals and amps, Andrews has, in a relatively short period of time, amassed an impressive collection of Northwest rock memorabilia that he keeps on display in his studio apartment-sized store.

“I kind of want the shop to be like a miniature version of EMP [Experience Music Project in Seattle],” says Andrews, a handsome and animated fellow, as he indicates a couple of cabinets and shelves to the left of the store’s entrance.

Among the treasures is a Ventures signature model Mosrite guitar autographed by every member of the legendary instrumental band; a very worn Fender Stratocaster that was the go-to guitar of the late Billy Rancher, a Portland rock icon from the early 1980s; a Höfner guitar and a pair of fuzz boxes belonging to Steve Turner of Mudhoney; and Elliott Smith’s typed lyrics for the song “Punch and Judy” (on loan from Smith’s friend Sean Croghan—listen to an alternate version released by Kill Rock Stars in 2012 below). All in all, a pretty decent collection.

But, the pièce de résistance is a flashy Hagstrom blue sparkle guitar that’s been customized for a left-handed musician—specifically Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. “It’s really hard to get instruments authenticated,” Andrews admits. “And without authentication, it’s all just folklore.”

In this instance, it was a matter of tracking down former Nirvana guitar tech Earnie Bailey and, at considerable personal expense to Andrews, having him certify that the guitar came from Cobain. Bailey was able to confirm this since he was the one who purchased the guitar for the Nirvana frontman in the first place.

“It even had some little bits of skin on the fingerboard,” Andrews says. “If I hadn’t gotten Earnie’s stamp of authenticity, I was going to see about a DNA test.” He insists that the guitar, like the rest of his collection, is not for sale.

Peter Buck posing with a teardrop-shaped, 12-string Danelectro BellzoukiPeter Buck posing with a teardrop-shaped, 12-string Danelectro Bellzouki

The ambitious merchant has plans for readings, lectures and rotating display items at Black Book, and he confesses that it’s the stories he hears from his customers—R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and John Mayer among them—that fuel his fascination with Northwest rock.

“I'm getting a guitar on loan that was owned by Thee Slayer Hippy, the drummer from Poison Idea,” Andrews gushes. “And it’s got all these prescription labels from his meds stuck all over it!”

A priceless artifact in the eyes of any Portland punk pilgrim, to be sure.

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