Gypsy Rose, 1987. L-R: Mike Starr, Mike Gersema, Tim Branom (Flying V in hand). The Flying V was stolen from inside the same house, which is now demolished. Photo by Alan Fuchs.
Flying: A Guitar Odyssey
By Doug McCausland & Tim Branom
“My 1975 Gibson Flying V guitar was first purchased at age 16,” recalls Seattle-area producer and musician, Tim Branom. “It became one of the first 200 guitars to have a Floyd Rose tremolo installed, by Floyd Rose himself.”
“I saw a Guitar Player magazine interview with Eddie Van Halen and it listed Floyd’s address, so I asked my mom to drive me there and just knocked on the door. I used it through my last few years of high school and I think people still associate me with that guitar.”
That was 1982, and the beginning of a tumultuous 35 year trek for the Flying V, a story threading together the lives of strangers in a heartwarming way in this increasingly dark world.
Tim, a former vocalist for Fifth Angel and session musician for acts like Days of the New, might best be known to grunge fans as a key individual in the early years of Alice In Chains.
“My brother introduced me to a band at my high school who needed help in the studio,” Tim explains. “They first called themselves Sleze then Alice N’ Chains and finally Alice In Chains.”
For a six month period, Tim acted as their producer. Nick Pollock, later of My Sister’s Machine, utilized the Flying V on these recordings, while Tim helped Layne Staley, a budding drummer turned vocalist, to shape up his voice.
Tim and Layne bonded during this time. At one point, the both of them ended up homeless together: “After we finished the studio recordings, somehow Layne and I had nowhere to live, and we ended up both living together in his rehearsal room at the Music Bank. We kept our clothes in just a couple of plastic bags, and then I had my Flying V the corner of the room.”
“I had a sleeping bag on the floor and Layne slept on the couch. Above the couch was a family portrait that he had put up as a joke. But Layne was not able to make the same photo session as the rest of his family, so the photographer just inserted Layne into the photo, but at a much larger size than the rest of his family. We would refer to the giant in the family photo as ‘Super Layne.’ Every once in a while, I would pull out the Flying V, Layne would get on the drums and we would play some very bad music while laughing at Super Layne.”
After witnessing misadventures like this in the Music Bank, the guitar would end up being utilized by more future Alice In Chains members on demos for the band Gypsy Rose, of which Tim was a member; at one brief time, Gypsy Rose included Jerry Cantrell and Mike Starr. The band also included Mike “Bones” Gersema, who went on to play with LA Guns and MSG. (Editor’s note: Gersema’s current status is unknown.)
“Everybody knew the guitar and we would pass it around to show each other ideas. There was a time where we were just a three piece band, searching for a guitarist, so I just played the guitar parts myself, but we were always clowning around.”
On Halloween night in 1987, Tim’s beloved guitar was stolen as everyone slept. The perpetrator remains unknown to this day.
“I heard the front door open at the Gypsy Rose house while we laid in bed, and someone walked inside, picked up my prized Flying V, and walked out the front door.”
It happened in the blink of an eye, and Tim was convinced he’d never see the guitar again.
“I was devastated,” Tim said bluntly.
It may seem like a minor setback that can be corrected with the purchase of a new instrument, but Tim claims that it was like a big chunk of his life was stolen from under his nose.
“You spend 13 hours a day playing your guitar as a kid, it becomes the most important thing in your life. You know every part of the guitar because you touch it with your bare hands and communicate with that piece of wood. When it was stolen, it was like a piece of my life was taken from me and I had to decide what to do next.”
“Every time I saw an Alpine White Flying V, I thought it might be mine.” Tim’s hopes and suspicions were grounded in reality, given the limited number of the guitar produced in 1975. “I’ve owned and played many guitars since then, but the emptiness was present every day and I found myself in a conversation about that guitar at least once a week the past few years.”
To Tim’s shock and overwhelming joy, he received a Facebook message from a vocalist Alexis Ames (Singer Sergeant, The Nicholas Russell Band, Evo Floyd) in early 2017, thirty years later: her brother-in-law had his guitar.
Alexis’s beloved deceased husband, Stan Smith (the namesake of Rockin’ Stan Records in Seattle), purchased the guitar for $200 many years ago. Unfortunately, Stan passed away in 2003. The Flying V went into storage for over a decade, his close family reluctant to get rid of their dearly departed’s prized guitar. In the mean time, Alexis remarried a man named Dave Ames (who plays bass guitar in the Scorpions tribute, Second Sting). The couple were completely unaware of the guitar’s origins in the Seattle grunge scene, and they decided to gift it to Dave’s brother, Abel. Abel plays in the band The Kennydales.
“It is one hell of a sexy axe,” Abel explained. Abel and Dave also play together in a band called Elizabeth Better.
After Abel opted to have the guitar restored, a curious tag with the name “Tim Branom” was discovered inside. Alexis reached out to Tim. She was horrified to learn that the guitar was actually stolen property, purchased secondhand by her husband at the time.
Abel wanted to do the right thing and return the guitar to its original owner. Alexis agreed, saying that Stan would have wanted this.
“But Alexis said I needed to fly to Seattle to get it.”
Alexis was afraid that the guitar would be damaged in the mail. Besides that, it would bring more proper closure to physically hand Stan’s guitar to Tim. Tim immediately purchased a plane ticket to Seattle from Los Angeles. The moment was caught on video.
Sometimes, you find yourself in a situation that is so unexpected that it stops you in your tracks. This is where Dave, Abel and I found ourselves this week.I have a story to tell…Some know this about me but you may not. I was once married to a wonderful man named Stan Smith.Stan was quite the character. In High School he was known to randomly whip out the air guitar making guitar sounds from down and dirty to high squeals playing all the crucial rock solos. It apparently was common for him to sing to the girls out in the hallway. Basically, he was a charmer with a rock edge.He was so well known for this behavior that two guys he went to school with would see him in the hallways and yell, "Rockin' Stan!". Stan would then raise the devil rock horns and growl at them.They never forgot Stan and so when these guys graduated high school and started their own record label it was obvious what they would name it.And so, "Rockin' Stan Records" was born. (Google them)When I met Stan he was a closet guitarist. Never having the need or desire to play in front of anyone (unless he was drunk and that usually involved one friend and our very open loft), he never wanted to be in a band but he had a Gibson Flying V that he had bought off of someone for $200. He just loved that guitar and when he played it he was a real Rock Star. He really was a very decent player.Our life together was wonderful until one day the unthinkable happened.He was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and after 5 years of fighting he let go and went home to The Lord.I was devastated.It took me a long time to find the ground again but eventually I stood up and walked forward.There were two things that Stan owned that were very important to me that I couldn't let go of. His Truck, that he bought right off the showroom floor, and his Gibson V.He never had a case for it so I ordered the best case money could buy to preserve this guitar. If anything were to ever happen to it I don't think I could have handled it. It would have been just too much.My brother, John Trytek, had the guitar briefly worked on and played it every once in a while but the guitar eventually was stored for safe keeping and not played again. Until I cleaned the storage area this past Tuesday and Dave went in later that evening and said that we aught to give The V to Abel. Thinking about it I thought it was a perfect idea. It's just sitting, it needs to be played and it'll stay in the family so, I agreed.Abel came over Thursday and we gave it to him. Reluctantly, he took it and said he would play it in honor of Stan.At 2:30 am I received a text from Abel and he said that he took it home and immediately took it apart to clean and make any repairs necessary. While he had it apart, he discovered a name written inside the guitar along with other markings that apparently a previous owner had done. The name was Tim Branom.I googled his name and his bio is impressive.He was in a few bands in the Seattle area and one of those bands was Gypsy Rose and some of that bands members went on to form Alice In Chains. Tim become a record producer.Abel discovered his FB page so I went there and looked through his pictures hoping to find a picture with him holding the guitar and sure enough, there it was. An old black and white photo of a young Tim Branom holding Stan's guitar.I couldn't believe it.So, I sat about writing him a message saying what we had discovered and that we had his old guitar. That It had been taken apart and his name was found all over it!"Isn't that cool?!", I wrote.I sent off the message along with pictures being sure that he would get a kick out of seeing one of his old guitars.After I sent the message, I decided to look and see if there were other pictures and so I strolled through his other pics and discovered another one.In the caption it read, "Throwback Thursday. I think I'm 17 years old in this photo playing Iron Maiden while my family acts like they like it. And that is my 1969 Flying V that I loved so much until it was… Stolen.I sat in shock.Stan had bought a stolen guitar.Now, anyone who knew Stan will tell you that he was one of the most straight and narrow person you could ever meet and if he had known that this was a stolen guitar he would have just felt sick.I text Abel back telling him and that we had to give this guitar back. It belonged to someone else.I got no response so Abel wouldn't see the text till the morning.Now I felt sick.I immediately went back to Tim's FB messenger and wrote him again,"Ok… looking through your pictures I just realized that this was stolen from you. CRAP!! You need this guitar back. Unfortunately, I can't ask Stan who he bought it off of because he's my former husband who was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 29 and passed at 34 back in 03'. I was devastated when he died and I remember looking at that guitar with visions of him playing it.This just breaks my heart. It's been sitting in my closet since his passing and I decided it needed to be reborn so I gave it to Abel to play.I gotta' talk with Abel… he's going to be as heartbroken as I am. He wanted to play it in honor of Stan.He's a hell of a guitarist and I was so looking forward to hearing him play this on stage. Damn.He sure would have done this guitar justice."Friday morning Tim wrote:" OMG, Alexis. I am in complete shock. I think about that guitar every day. I even know the serial number because we had recently been in contact with the Des Moines police. I'm beyond words. It was stolen on Halloween 1987 – probably by a neighbor (I don't think I knew or met your husband). I don't have kids and it was like a part of me was taken. I can't expect nothing but I wish there was a way I could get it. That guitar was my reason for living. Music is my life. Thank you for telling me this but I am still sad.What's worse is that someone asks me about this guitar about every week. It's really ripped my heart out. Also, I am so sorry you lost your husband 😞"I called Tim and he told me he has been looking for this guitar for 30 years. That he's never been able to bring himself to own another V because of how much this one meant to him.I told him that it's now been found and we're giving it back to him. You can imaging his reaction. Let's just say we were both in tears many times during our conversation.He just couldn't believe it had been found and that I was willing to return something that I had such a deep personal connection to but neither Dave, Abel or I would ever think twice about what the right thing would be to do and Stan wouldn't hesitate to give this back.God's timing is always perfect and here's where yesterday became the perfect time…Tim had just had surgery on his left hand and he said to his doctor, "Guess I won't be playing guitar for awhile", but his doctor said he wants him to play guitar to get his hand moving. This guitar is the motivator for Tim to not only rehab his fingers but to start Rocking again.So, yesterday, Tim flew in from California in hopes of retrieving his first love, still not believing this was really happening.When he laid eyes on the V for the first time in 30 years he couldn't believe it. Not only was this his guitar but it is in EXACTLY the same condition it was on the night it was stolen. Stan never changed anything about it. Not even removing the sticker that had been placed on the back. Tim had put it there and couldn't believe it was still there. Stan was meticulous in keeping everything in good shape and it would be no different with his guitar.This guitar also has a prototype of the Floyd Rose Tremolo that was partially installed by Floyd Rose himself.Tim went on to explain how important this was to him showing pictures of himself playing the guitar with Mike Starr and telling us that this guitar was used in some of the very first demos for Alice In Chains which he had recorded and produced.There were many other stories involving this guitar with some very notable people in the Seattle music scene and we were just in awe of what we had.And, for me, here's the kicker.Between Stan and Tim & myself and Tim there is only 2 degrees of separation.I arrived in Seattle December 90 and met Stan in 91 and he already had the guitar.Tim told us that he is friends with the guys in My Sisters Machine. Stan was best friends with Nick Pollock the lead vocalist. They went to school together.I was in a all female group called Citizen Cry and we were handled by a two gal management team. One of the ladies was Gail Starr, Mike Starr's mom. Tim and Mike not only played guitar together, they were really good friends with Tim speaking at Mikes memorial service.Tim was just one step away from Stan and myself to where his guitar was and we were all clueless. There are some other twists and turns to this story, some that are so heart wrenching, but I will leave that part up to Tim if he decides he wants to reveal them.After over two hours of hanging with Tim and his friend Lonnie Gunal talking, laughing and choking back tears, I took my last opportunity to hold what was once known as Stan's guitar and would now forever be known as Tim's, Stan's & Abel's guitar. I flipped it on its side and kissed it then handed it back to Tim saying, "This is yours". I hugged Tim as he fought to keep his emotions in check. It was a losing battle for both of us.We stepped outside as Tim thanked us again and then the most wonderful thing happened as we were saying our goodbyes… Tim and Lonnie looked up to the sky and said, "Thank you, Stan". Yes, life is strange and oh so cool at the same time.Don't'cha think?😘
Posted by Alexis Ames on Monday, February 6, 2017
“So when the guitar was returned to me by the Ames family, and after 30 years, it had a much deeper meaning than you can imagine. So many comrades and roommates had died over the years, and I feel like it was given to me to make new music.”
“I want to publicly thank Alexis Ames, Dave Ames, and Abel Ames. You have changed my life and given me a fresh perspective on life and music!” Tim gushed.
Many people who have an association with the guitar, including Tim’s brother Scott Branom, Layne Staley, Mike Starr, and guitarist Brock Graue of Gypsy Rose have tragically passed away over the years. The Flying V is a beacon of light to Tim, to keep fighting on and playing music in their memory.
“Sometimes letting go of something so precious for the good of another not only heals their wounds, but your own,” says Alexis. “It becomes so much more and sweetens the memory.
“This guitar is a symbol of how a positive can always arise from a negative no matter how much time goes by,” agrees Abel.
“For 30 years, we all wondered who took the guitar. But then to be given the guitar back by Abel Ames was even more of a shock,” Tim concludes. “This is living proof that there are some great people among us. And I intend to make some great music with this guitar. Maybe it needs a name?”
It’s been a rough and wild year, but things will always turn better. Happy Holidays from Alternative Nation!