The story is as bizarre as they come: Ely's custom axe -- made by Austin guitarsmith Ted Newman-Jones to resemble a pool table, with felt-colored paint and pool-ball inlays -- disappeared from an equipment truck, along with all the band's gear, while Ely was on tour in San Francisco in 1986.
Years went by, and Ely figured he'd never get it back -- especially after mysterious calls from someone who claimed to have the guitar broke off. Then-mayor Dianne Feinstein even sent Ely a letter apologizing for the theft of his guitar and the band's equipment.
Then, some weeks ago, Ely's management heard from one Matt Wright, a musician in Merced, Calif., who said he'd bought Ely's guitar in a pawn shop some 20 years ago, and only recently discovered that it'd been stolen. Wright, it turned out, wanted to return the guitar to its rightful owner.
"I was just dumbfounded," Ely says of hearing the news. "I said 'Are you sure?' and then he sent me an email with pictures of the guitar, and you know it's unmistakable."
Indeed, the guitar is totally unique. In 1984, Ely enlisted Newman-Jones -- an Austin luthier who made instruments for Keith Richards, among others -- to build him a custom axe. When Newman-Jones said it could be built any way Ely wanted, the musician suggested a pool-table theme. "Pool has always been my only sport, if you can call it a sport," Ely says with a laugh. "I've never played baseball or basketball, I'm a terrible golfer, and I don't do much well. But I play pool well."
So Newman painted the guitar turquoise, to match the felt of a pool table. He shaped the fretboard inlays like pool balls, with the number on the ball corresponding to the number of the fret. The pick-guard was shaped like the triangle of a pool rack. The pastel tones and unusual shape give the instrument a vaguely '80s look. It cost about $500 or $600 to have made, Ely remembers.
The instrument's uniqueness led to its purchase and discovery. Wright says he bought the roadworn axe on a lark from a Merced pawn shop sometime between 1989 and 1991, and always knew it was special -- but not quite why. ("The thing plays like butter," he says.) Wright would post pictures of it on Facebook or Craigslist occasionally, and it was a Facebook contact that led him to Newman-Jones, who led Wright to Ely. Wright even found an episode of the classic concert TV show Austin City Limits from 1985 where Ely plays the pool-table guitar.
"I went from an incredible high to crashing low," Wright told Newman-Jones about finding out the guitar was stolen from Ely. "I felt like I'd been kicked in the gut. My prized guitar was stolen."
Tonight at Slim's, Wright plans to give the guitar back to Ely. It won't be the first time Ely tried to get his long-lost axe back.
Ely and his band were touring the West Coast in April of 1986 when the theft occurred. After gigs in Santa Cruz, Palo Alto, and San Francisco, they'd parked their truck at a hotel in a "not great" part of San Francisco the night before a Berkeley show. It was there -- the night of April 25-26, 1986 -- that the equipment trailer was burglarized. All the band's gear was stolen, including the pool-table guitar and a 1957 Fender Stratocaster that Ely says would now be worth about $25,000. Local radio stations publicized the theft, and Bay Area musicians let the band members borrow gear to play the Berkeley show.
Also stolen was the band's manager's briefcase, which had all the information about their tour -- including which hotels they'd be staying at on which days.
A month later, when Ely and the band were playing gigs on the East Coast, mysterious phone calls began coming through from someone who claimed to know the location of Ely's pool-table guitar and wanted to sell it back to him. The calls came every evening, straight to Ely, after the band had finished soundcheck. Ely notified the police, who told him to keep the caller on the phone so they could trace the call's origin.
One day Ely did keep the person talking long enough to trace the call.
"[The police] said, 'We have good news and bad news'," Ely remembers. "'The good news is, well, we traced the call. The bad news is, it was coming from the police department in San Francisco."
After that, the calls stopped. The last thing Joe Ely heard about his stolen pool-table guitar -- until this year, anyway -- was that the person who knew about it was calling from the SFPD.
"I'd kind of like to know the story between the time that these guys that were trying to sell it back to me got it, and the time [Wright] found it in a pawn shop," Ely says now, still stunned. "But I'm sure I never will."