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The Story of Grandpa

The story of this 1953 Martin D-18 (sn# 132933) begins in 1988, when it was purchased by Mary Lou Lord, a Salem, MA based indie folk musician, busker and recording artist. According to Mary Lou, the nickname “Grandpa,” as the guitar is known today, was affectionately bestowed upon it by Kurt Cobain, due to its resemblance to an old, curmudgeonly grandfather: well-worn and weathered, but full of stories, memories, wisdom and charm. The following is an excerpt from Mary Lou’s recollection.

I was introduced to Martin guitars by my friend and mentor, singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin. Shawn played an early 60’s D-28 and it was this guitar that influenced me to look for a Martin of my own. When I finally found this well-worn D-18 at the Music Emporium in Lexington, MA, it was love at first sight. Over the course of the next several years, this guitar busked its way around the globe with me, from The Powell Street Turn Around in San Francisco, to Covent Garden in London. This guitar was my pal through thick and thin…

In 1991 I met and befriended Kurt Cobain. I had been a Nirvana fan for months, since obtaining an advance copy of Nevermind in April of 1991 or so. I learned almost every song off that record by September, which is also when I met Kurt.

My friendship with Kurt turned romantic almost immediately. It was really an amazing time for me. I was with Kurt nearly every day during the first part of that tour, and we were deeply in love. It was during this time that I learned he was in need of an acoustic guitar. I told him that I wanted to give him the best gift in the world – my Martin...which by now, he had also fallen in love with. He said that he would take the guitar under one condition, that if he ever got big he would either find another one, or he would keep this one and buy me another. How could I say no to Kurt? He loved it, I loved him, and he loved me.  Besides, I really wanted a D-28 at this point and it would be my honor for him to take the D-18.

Over the months that followed, however, many changes occurred. Nirvana was sweeping the country on a major tour and gaining momentum with every spin of their new single "Smells Like Teen Spirit." I had the good fortune to travel with the band on a good part of that tour, much of it with Kurt riding along in my car. When we got to the Midwest, I had to return to my job in Boston at Mystery Train Records. Kurt kept the guitar and we made plans to meet up in England during the European leg of the tour. Things seemed good…

What I did not yet know, was that during this time, a dark evil was creeping in and things were not as "hunky dory" as they seemed. When I met back up with Kurt in England, initially things were good, but by the end of the first week they took a weird turn. Apparently Kurt had met up with another woman later on the US tour: first name...Courtney...last name...Love. One thing led to another, and in an interesting (albeit heartbreaking) turn of events, things got very strange, very fast...When Courtney found out that I was in London with Kurt, she basically flipped out. Although she was certainly NOT his girlfriend at the time, he knew that she would be hopping the next available flight to get to him (probably to kick his and MY ass)... 

I flew back to Boston and began trying to put the pieces of this heartbreaking puzzle together. The rest of that story is pretty much history and a big part of musical history at that. 

When I saw Kurt next it was on MTV’s Unplugged. Even though it saddened me greatly after everything we had been through, I smiled when I saw that he was playing another well-worn D-18. I KNOW that he chose it out of his love for "Grandpa.”

Eventually, I got “Grandpa” back. When I asked Kurt about this later he told me that he didn't think it was fair of him to keep it, although he loved it very much. I'm sure Courtney wouldn’t have let him keep it anyway. “Whatever... Nevermind.” 

After all that, one of the greatest things in my life happened. I had the amazingly good fortune to meet another incredibly talented songwriter named Elliot Smith. He set a new bar for music and I truly believe him to be one of the great voices of our generation. In 1995 I took Elliot out on his first tour as my opening act. I adored his songs and our friendship ran deep. Although our relationship was strictly platonic, it was Elliot who helped me fill the void after the loss of Kurt. On both of the tours that Elliott and I subsequently did together, it was the Martin that we would end up playing into the wee hours of the morning in our hotel room...I believe that "Grandpa" is the ONLY instrument in the world that was played, adored and loved by both Kurt Cobain AND Elliott Smith. It was also played on occasion by Shawn Colvin and of course, me. (It’s featured prominently on the cover of my album, “Mind The Gap,” and also in many of my other photos. Just do a Google image search for Mary Lou Lord). 

In 2003, Elliott died and this completely broke my heart...It was around this time that I began to release myself from the whole world of music as I knew it and dedicate myself to my young daughter Annabelle. The Martin was getting little attention, and by this point it held memories that I wanted to let go of. It had served me well and I wanted to give it a new lease on life. It needed to be played, so in 2004 I sold it to a guitar dealer and that was that.

A few years later I got a letter from someone who was about to purchase the guitar and wanted to know if everything was on the “up and up.” I am happy to say that the guitar Kurt Cobain called "Grandpa" and Elliott Smith called "Gramps" now resides in the permanent collection of Make’n Music in Chicago, IL. I am told it is played regularly and adored by many a visitor who wants to hear the "stories.” On special occasions it is even made available to other musicians for purposes of inspiration and to use on recordings. 

I am glad to have known it, served it well, and to have shared in the memories this wonderful guitar possesses. 

There you go...the story of "Grandpa." …..xo MLL

A FOOTNOTE TO THE STORY.... Joe sent his photograph of Grandpa to Dick Boak, the historian at C.F. Martin & Co.  It was then published in the company's Sounding Board Journal.  Now, C.F. Martin & Co. will be acquiring it for its Museum.