When I was 16, the father of a high school friend of mine and fellow music aficionado told us that we just had to go see this guitarist who played a free show at the Beachland once a month. On the way to the venue, my buddy’s dad showered us with the man’s accolades and musical resume, which included his involvement with The James Gang, the great Cleveland group that would eventually launch Joe Walsh’s career, his top 40 single ‘Are You Ready’ by Pacific Gas and Electric, and most importantly, his notoriously feverish guitar playing.
I walked into the place unsure of what to expect. At 16, the concept of a music venue was still kind of overwhelming in general. Eventually, I remember seeing this wiry old man in all denim walk onto the stage, along with what looked like his evil twin in a black trench coat and wide brimmed hat. After a quick tune-up, the legendary Glenn Schwartz and his brother Gene, accompanied by Paul O’Brien on drums, started playing.
Glenn always took a while to warm up, but that’s to take absolutely nothing away from his more mellow playing. He didn’t use a pick, which was probably the first time I’d ever seen an electric guitarist play without one; he had this strange way of sort of massaging the guitar into doing what he wanted. It was subtle playing, but it was organic and raw, spontaneous and enticing. He always looked like he was talking to his guitar, but you could never in your wildest dreams make out what he was saying.
Around the fifth or sixth song he would suddenly (and I mean suddenly) shift into high gear, and it was like the venue got hit by a power surge and somehow it all got channeled right into Glenn. His solos became an artillery barrage, the notes shrieking and howling over your head while you stood there mesmerized, shell-shocked and unable to move, but in total awareness that you were witnessing something incredible.
At these moments, Glenn moved like a man possessed. He swung around, he’d throw his head and pickhand back like he was hit with shrapnel, and he’d even play with his mouth, in spite of not having any teeth (he took the no pick thing seriously). Meanwhile, Gene would sit unmoved, almost unnervingly, while he and the drummer kept right up along with him, the intensity of the moment rising and falling accordingly. Utterly fantastic musicianship.
I was hooked. For years, I would go back and see him every chance I got, although my visits gradually (and regrettably) slowed. There weren’t always a lot of people at these shows (although many absolutely packed), but I tended to see some of the same people over and over again. Like me, they had the bug. They knew they were seeing something special, and they knew they’d see something new every time.
The song ‘Motor City Is Burning’ is still my favorite. I can hear it plain as day in my head right now, even though I haven’t heard it in nearly a decade. The line “Hey, Motor City! What have you done?” echoes like an accusation at the entire Rust Belt, daring us to contemplate the rags to riches to rags story of the Great Lakes region. He usually hit 6th gear during the solo of this song. The rhythm section always sounded like they were having a blast with the tune, as well.
Glenn became such a legend in my mind that I never really had the balls to talk to him at his shows. I ran into him and his brother one time around town and chatted politely for a bit, and Glenn was incredibly gracious and humble in the face of the blatant flattery I heaped upon them; his brother was equally kind. They thanked me and we talked music for a while before going our separate ways. I remember feeling proud to have met him, albeit briefly.
I think that was the last time I ever saw Glenn in person; I might have gone to one show after that, but I’m not sure. A couple years ago, I stumbled upon a video on Facebook that showed him sharing the stage with Dan Auerbach and Joe Walsh at Coachella in 2016; I remember a feeling of elation at seeing such a grandiose acknowledgement of his musical talent. It was truly deserved.
Glenn died today, November 2nd. To this day, at age 30, I’ve still never seen another guitarist like him. Good and even great guitarists, sure, but any that reminded me remotely of Glenn?
No. Not one.
Thank you for the music, Glenn. Rest in peace.