John Mescall | Photo by Joe Livernois
By Joe Livernois
John Mescall, Seaside
The cello was made in 1892 in Birmingham, England, by Thomas Davies. The tag inside indicates that it’s #6 in a line of cellos Davies produced.
That’s really about all John Mescall knows about the early history of his cello. What he does know is that the instrument has been his constant companion for 47 years. Mescall has been banging it around Europe and California all this time, hopping freighters, rescuing it from devastating fires, repairing broken necks and sharing onstage acclaim. The good times and the bad.
But he lost the cello Easter Week — on Good Friday, actually — in what turned out to be yet another misadventure for the 62-year-old musician, who now lives in Seaside.
Voices of Monterey Bay has already told the story of how Mescall managed to save his cello from the Camp Fire conflagration that destroyed the Northern California city of Paradise in November. Mescall lost nearly everything in that fire, including his house, his extraordinary record collection and a beloved cat. But he was able to rescue his cello, pedalling his bicycle while carrying the bulky instrument in one hand out of Paradise, down the mountain to Chico, while his city burned behind him.
Cello John is still dealing with FEMA and his own trauma about those losses. He’s living with his mother Sally now, while trying to figure out what FEMA will and won’t allow him to do. He was the principal cellist for the Paradise Symphony Orchestra, but these days he’s picking up gigs wherever he can find them. “I’m taking it one day at a time,” he said.
Mescall said he was torn when he was recently invited to join the orchestra accompanying an opera last week at San Francisco State University’s McKenna Theater, something called “Menotti Madness.” Mescall had also been invited to join a friend, Robert Seals, for a show that Seals’ band was scheduled to do in Santa Cruz on Saturday, but he had opted to do the opera instead.
The opening-night performance on Thursday went off okay. He was in San Francisco, so Mescall decided to visit the music department on the San Francisco State campus Friday afternoon before the second night. He went in to talk to the music director, who asked him what he’d done with his cello. Mescall told him it was in the car, parked in the lot. The music director advised him to retrieve it immediately, that there’d been a rash of break-ins recently.
Sure enough, the back passenger window was broken out of Mescall’s vehicle. The cello was missing. A classic smash-and-grab.
Mescall was devastated. This is the cello that has defined his life for the past 47 years. A teacher at the Royal Academy of London found the cello for him in 1972, when he was a 15-year-old. He had carried it around with him everywhere he went, including the coal-bearing freighter he hopped in New Orleans in the 1980s that got him to Europe.
It’s the cello that supported his travels, with gigs on two continents that even included a brief tour with a punk band. He developed a reputation as a musical savant among fellow Northern California musicians when he settled into Paradise because of that cello.
Now suddenly it was gone.
He returned to the campus music department to tell the conductor that he wouldn’t be able to play that evening. The opera would have to go on without him. The conductor told him he could borrow a department cello. Mescall declined. “I was too wigged out,” he said.
The cellist called campus police, which sent an officer. A report was filed and the officer gave him his card. There really wasn’t much reason to think the instrument would ever be found.
Distraught, Mescall drove home to Seaside that night. He called Seals when he got home to let his friend know what happened.
Robert Seals, Soquel
It was late Friday evening when Robert Seals got the telephone call. Seals lived in Chico for a time and that’s where he first met Mescall and where they bonded over their shared interest in music.
Seals invented the Klean Kanteen, the stainless steel water bottles you see everywhere, back in 2004. He is also the founder of Mother Nature’s Temple, a Santa Cruz-based foundation that provides outdoor experiences for children.
But Seals loves music, and he spins out local genre-bending bands with regularity. These days he leads the Wave Tones, a surf band that features Mescall doing Dick Dale-like riffs on his cello.
There isn’t much that Mescall can’t do with his cello, according to Seals.
Seals took the late-night call and heard the bad news. “You’ll never guess what happened to me,” Mescall told him. By the tone of Mescall’s voice, Seals guessed that something had happened to the cello.
“He was devastated,” Seals said. “There are three things in John’s life and they are — in order of importance — his mom, his cats and his cello. He had already lost his house, one of his cats and the most amazing record collections on the planet. And now this happened to him.”
Seals woke up early the next morning and committed himself to finding the missing cello — or at least convincing Mescall that there are other cellos in this world. “I was possessed,” he said. “The wheels were turning and I was trying to figure out what we could do.”
He had planned to take a bunch of kids out canoeing the Pacific Ocean that day, but cancelled the event for the day. He called Mescall and told him to meet him at his house in Soquel; they were heading to San Francisco, where Seals planned to scour pawn shops and music stores, and to post MISSING CELLO posters around the Bay Area.
“I really didn’t have any hope that we would find it,” he said. So Seals would try to convince Mescall to open up to the idea of adopting another instrument, that perhaps Cello John could find another cello. Something cheaper.
It’s not the wood and the string that make a cello special in Mescall’s hands, Seals said. It’s Mescall’s genius.
He broached the subject early Saturday morning as the two of them set out for the San Francisco Bay area.
“See,” Seals said. “Let’s check out Craigslist. There are lots of cellos for sale.”
He punched in “cellos” and “San Francisco” on Craigslist’s search engine. The first item to come up was Mescall’s cello. Bingo!
There was a photograph of the cello in its open case on what seemed to be a cluttered parking lot. The Craigslist listing noted that someone was obviously missing a cello and asked that anyone missing this fine old instrument should call a certain phone number.
Seals called the number. A guy named “Woody” answered and Woody listened skeptically to the story Seals’ told him. He might be able to retrieve the cello, but he wasn’t going to bother with it until Mescall could prove it was his. He’d want to see a police report.
Woody Hassman, San Jose
The cello looked out of place there in the early morning hustle of the West Wind Capitol Flea Market in San Jose.
Woody Hassman has been going to the weekend flea market for years. He shows up early to catch treasures before someone else discovers them. Over the years, he has developed an eye for items that don’t belong in flea markets. A week earlier he had found an electric bicycle that looked new. He bought it for $200 and eventually tracked down the real owner; the bike was worth $3,000 and it had been stolen a couple of days earlier.
Discovering treasure is the allure of the flea market for Hassman, but sleuthing around and recovering stolen items can be part of the fun.
Hassman has seen plenty of musical instruments at the flea market. He’s even run across a cello or two. The flea market instruments are generally dusty and sad, like they’ve been sitting in an attic for decades.
But this cello was different. “This thing, you could tell it was loved and that it had been played recently.” he said. “It is a beautiful instrument.” Hassman asked the flea market proprietor how much he was selling the instrument.
Fifty thousand, with a five-oh.
Hassman, who works for the San Jose city wastewater treatment facility, took a couple of pictures of the cello with his smartphone. It was about 7:30 in the morning and he posted the photograph on Craigslist, under musical instruments for sale. “I’m guessing someone is missing their cello,” the listing said. Hassman left his cell phone number with instructions that anyone who would claim the cello should present him a police report for the stolen instrument.
“I wanted to make sure I wasn’t giving it to just anyone,” he said.
Hassman left the flea market about an hour after making the post. He picked up his wife and together they went to a nearby estate sale. His phone rang. It was Robert Seals. Seals told Hassman they didn’t have a copy of the police report, but they’d try to get one from the San Francisco Police Department.
Hassman made his own calls to the police, but couldn’t find a report about a stolen cello. It turns out that Mescall had been confused; he had reported the stolen instrument to campus police — different from the city police department. Eventually it all got sorted out and the campus police department sent a photograph of the report to Hassman.
The officer Hassman talked to urged him to call San Jose police so officers could investigate the flea market proprietor who was apparently fencing stolen goods, but Hassman didn’t want to wait for cops or fill out a bunch of paperwork. He said he only wanted to get the cello back to its owner.
Still, Hassman rushed back to the flea market, unsure that the cello would still be there. It was. He told the proprietor that he knew the cello had been stolen. You have two choices, he told the guy. You can let me take the cello immediately or I’ll call the police.
It should be noted that Woody Hassman is a rather imposing gentleman, 6’2” and about 260 pounds. Not someone you’d want to challenge early in the morning in a crowded market.
The proprietor nodded and waved him away without a word. Hassman left with the cello.
He called Seals back. I’ve got the cello, Woody said. Meet me at the Starbucks in South San Jose.
They met around noon and John Mescall got his cello back. It had been less than 24 hours since the instrument was stolen. Hassman refused the reward Seals offered and he wouldn’t even let Seals pay for his Starbucks order. Hassman did make one request, though. He wanted to hear the instrument.
Mescall took the cello out of its case and played it for Hassman and Seals in the seating area outside the Starbucks in South San Jose. He played a movement from Bach’s Suite No. 3.
Last Sunday, Mescall and Seals showed up on a beach in Santa Cruz — Seals with his guitar, Mescall with his cello — and together they busked surf music. Mescall says Seals is buying him a cheap electric cello. It’s not a replacement for his beloved instrument, but something to play the more informal gigs. That way Mescall won’t have to worry about losing the Thomas Davies model.
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