“I was headed home from a rehearsal one night in Boston, when some guy came up to me and said, ‘Give me your guitar,’” says Stern. “The argument was definitely on his side, because he was holding a gun.”
The devil that evening, however, was not the armed bandit in Stern’s face. It was the substance in the baggie in Stern’s coat pocket.
“Truth be told,” says Stern, in a rare admission, “is that I was strung out like a clothesline back then. The irony is that I probably could have handed the cat some dope, and said, ‘Take this instead.’ I’m sure he hocked the guitar for 25 bucks to score something anyway.”
In the days that followed, Stern scoured a few local pawnshops hoping the guitar would surface, but it never did. Chances are that somebody is playing the instrument right now—a beautiful hybrid ’50s/’60s Fender Telecaster—with no clue that its prior owners were Mike Stern, Danny Gatton (“He had done all this hillbilly s**t to it, like melting crayons around the pickups”), and Roy Buchanan.
Stern hopes the message from this story is clear: Music has the power to save lives. Even when Stern was in the clutches of addiction, music’s grip on him was strong enough to keep him from slipping into the abyss. Stern has been clean and sober for nearly 25 years now, and the guitar is a major reason why.
“It was—and continues to be—an incredibly positive force in my life,” he says. “Throughout a lot of the negative stuff I was doing, music carried me. Without it, I don’t know if we’d be having this conversation.”
Stern’s first major epiphany on the guitar came as a youth, exploring his mom’s record collection.
“I was always an ear player, and the rock stuff was easy to figure out,” says Stern. “Then, I tried playing along with a Miles Davis or Herbie Hancock record, and I was lost in two seconds. I loved that. The melodies and harmonies were so intricate.”
Stern’s next big breakthrough came years later at his first major audition.
“Pat Metheny had heard that Blood, Sweat & Tears needed a guitarist, and he told me, ‘Man, you sound great, you should try out,’” remembers Stern. “I said, ‘What do you mean I sound great? I can’t f**kin’ play.’ But he said, ‘No—you’ve got some stuff that’s really happening.’ I think Pat liked my feel. Later on, Miles liked it, too. In fact, Miles used to call me ‘Fat Time.’ and he even put a tune called ‘Fat Time’ on The Man with the Horn. I played a big solo on that song [laughs].
“Anyway, I went down to the Blood, Sweat & Tears audition, and my hands were shaking the whole time. I was absolutely expecting I would never get that gig, but I got it. The lesson from that experience is that sometimes you just have to put yourself out there, take some risks, and don’t think you can predict the outcome. Some stuff works, other stuff doesn’t, and it’s hard to say why. None of us are really qualified to critique our own playing.”
Stern confesses his nerves still flare up before some gigs. (“My hands still tremble sometimes.”) The one show where he’s least likely to get the shakes is his steady gig at the 55 Bar in Manhattan. The small, narrow club might as well be his living room. Even with patrons squeezing by him to get to the head, and waiters carrying trays of cocktails across the “stage,” Stern always seems to be on fire. It’s a thrilling, “only in New York” experience to witness the adventurous
guitarist in unpretentious surroundings, alchemizing swing, funk, and other genres into one of the most lyrical voices in all of guitardom. Stern consistently reinvents both his own tunes and jazz standards on the fly, seeking—and nearly always finding—new musical routes deep into the cosmos and back. But even Mike Stern still has off nights.
“I probably have more of them than people realize,” he says. “I’ve been gigging for so long that I guess I’ve figured out a way to sound like I know what I’m doing, even when I don’t. When you’re having a bad gig, you have to stop focusing on yourself. One thing I do on those nights is focus on what one of the other players is doing, because usually someone on the bandstand is hitting on some cool sh*t. Let them inspire you, and, sometimes, they can bring you along.
“We wear our hearts on our sleeves in this business, and music can certainly be a heartbreaker. It’s not like working at a bank. Every time you play, you’re pouring your heart out. You’re up there baring your soul—even when you’re trying to be cool [laughs]. I sometimes tell students the only guarantee you’ve got is the music, and no one can take that away from you. Only you can take that away from you—by not practicing and not putting in enough elbow grease. The more you put into music, the more your passion for it will grow.”