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.
“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!