Mendocino Talking: Mike Zarkowski

[Mike owns Hobo Guitars in Ukiah hoboguitarsukiah.com. He has been a working musician all his life while also building and repairing guitars and other musical instruments.]

I was born in the small town of Perry in western New York, just outside of Buffalo, in the rust belt, in a predominately Polish community… I almost never heard English spoken on the street when I was young. Most everyone there had come from Poland to work in the cotton mills.

My early childhood was much like most other kids except, when I started school, I was aware that my brothers and sister and kids in my neighborhood were treated differently. If you were Polish in western New York in the 30s, 40s and 50s, it was like growing up Black in the south, or Mexican in California. My brother had a friend who’s father owned an appliance store. When we invited him over one Christmas he said that he “can’t go down there because that’s a Polish neighborhood.”

In the early sixties my folks bought a rather inexpensive home stereo. My mother was a really good singer and as a teenager had sung with a group of girls kind of like the Andrew Sisters all around western New York. She had always listened to show tunes, jazz, and classical music. Us kids started listening to folk music… The Kingston Trio, The Brothers Four, The Limeliters…

My brother Vince and I sang in the school choir when we were really young. We learned to sing before we learned to play an instrument. My first instrument was a clarinet. My brother played the trumpet. But I had a problem reading sheet music because I’m dyslexic. I couldn’t read and play at the same time. So I stopped trying to play the clarinet. Meanwhile, I had developed and interest in woodworking and spent a lot of time out in the barn using my dad’s tools building wooden toys.

In 1966 my folks bought me a horrible guitar that was essentially unplayable… but I discovered the Hamilton capo which made the guitar tuneable and playable. I learned to play by just sheer will power probably because I was unpopular and insecure as a kid. It was the great equalizer and I was fairly talented. I could tune a guitar right out of the box. I also had a great sense of pitch and tone and could compose on the guitar almost immediately. I could learn music by ear and could improvise. After about a year I could play pretty well. By the time I was 17 I was playing and singing in my own band regularly in clubs and schools.

Over those early years my brother Vince had developed into a really great songwriter. We started singing and playing together and writing songs and in 1980 we came out west to Guerneville and started a band together. We played around California and Oregon for years. We had recording deals with CBS, MCA, and 911 Entertainment over the years. We could get $100,000 for production money on a record deal but we never sold many records. My brother and I have a portfolio of great songs… but today we can’t give them away.

I’ve been on a “working vacation” all my life. I would work odd jobs to save just enough money to stop and play the guitar for awhile. I also developed side jobs working on guitars and other instruments and collected boxes of guitar parts I dragged around with me. By the mid-nineties I built my first solid-body electric guitar because I couldn’t afford to buy one but had accumulated all these guitar parts over the years. I also built a mandola. By 1998 I was building some pretty good acoustic and electric guitars.

I worked at Clark Music here in Ukiah and Healdsburg in 1998 for a couple of years repairing guitars. It was the only real job — working for somebody else — I ever had. Through that job I developed a pretty good reputation repairing instruments. So I opened my own music and repair shop, Jitterbug Music on the corner of Church and State. Jim Tuhtan soon partnered up with me. We did a lot of business for 7 years, but our rent was too high and Ukiah wasn’t big enough for our store and Spencer Brewer’s Ukiah Music Center, and after 2008, he closed his store and we closed ours a month later. Soon thereafter I opened a much smaller, one person business off Main street, Hobo Guitars, where I concentrate on repair work.

Today there is no music industry. There’s no money in recording or selling CDs. The only way you can make money now as a musician is performing on the road. Many aspiring musicians for the last forty years who thought they were going to make money in the record industry retired to guitar building. There are thousands of us, especially out here in the west because of stable temperatures and humidity.

If you are going to learn to play an instrument there are going to be a number of years invested before you find out whether or not you have any talent at all. In the small town of 2500 people I grew up in there were three rock and roll bands. There was a lot of free musical education in schools. The primary market for instruments is younger people, but most younger people no longer seem interested in the hard work you have to do to become a musician. Their attention span is short and they want instant gratification. So they play Guitar Hero video games.

I suppose I could be bitter about the fact that we never sold many records. I know some people think I’m crabby… they don’t understand people from Buffalo. If you grew up in a place where there was ice on the ground for seven months of the year, you’d have my attitude too. A warm greeting in Buffalo is “Fuck You!”

But we just had bad luck with records and recording. If our last deal would have been successful — I was 44 at the time — we would have been on the road for 6 or 7 years solid. But those were years that I got to spend with my family before my wife died in 2005. So I’m not bitter. I’m a pretty happy guy. 

MikeZarkowski

(Coming Up: Terry d'Selkie — School Teacher, Mendocino School Gardens, Mendocino Food Action Plan, Ocean Harvest Sea Vegetables; Janie Sheppard, Lawyer, Community Advocate; Rosalind Peterson, Community Advocate, Agriculture Defense Coalition. Mendocino Talking Archives available at https://www.theava.com/archives/category/features/mendocino-talking)

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