“Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been.”
– Truckin’, The Grateful Dead.
(Words by Robert Hunter; music by Garcia, Lesh, Weir)
While sitting down with an animated and excitable subject in a North Queen Street-facing living room, the lyrics from a Grateful Dead song pop into my head. It’s definitely been a long, strange trip for Sérgio Vigilato, the musician once known as “Canhoto”* who was a staple on the Brazilian airwaves—from his impromptu meeting with Jerry Garcia and friends in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin to legal tangles over Lady Gaga’s meat dress, the artist now known as Sergio 2000 has more adventures than could fit in this entire tome.
Sérgio was born in Brazil, carried there in the womb by his mother as she emigrated from Italy. He grew up on the rough streets of São Paulo honing at an early age the skill of knifemaking, first picking up his grandfather’s shoemaking knife and turning it into a weapon. He joined a small gang. At the age of nine, he fired his first zip gun. He wasn’t a miscreant, he just regretted his situation and soon turned his inclination towards craftsmanship to guitar making. He went to work for Giannini, a skilled, Brazilian producer of guitars since 1900. Music was always a progressing interest. He started performing at three years old. When he was five, his grandfather had given him a cavaquinho to play. This early member of the guitar family was the gateway instrument for the left-handed musician.
“I kept playing. No one had left-handed guitars; I learned to play upside down,” says Sergio, who still rocks the musician look wearing a black, sleeveless shirt emblazoned with the name of his Brazilian hit band, The Jet Black’s.
The Jet Black’s, called “one of the first Brazilian instrumental rock groups,” was formed in 1961. With driving snare drum rhythm and syncopated guitars, The Jet Black’s sound is reminiscent of The Ventures. The band hit big with their first single, a medley of The Shadows’ “Apache” and “Kon-Tiki”. By 1963, the band was heavily influenced by The Beatles. After a multinational tour in 1967, the band’s popularity dwindled, but they remained active even releasing re-recordings into the ’90s.
“In 1964, we had a revolution… and I thought, ‘I gotta get out of this country,’ so that’s what I did,” Sergio recalls. “I got to L.A. with 100 bucks in my pocket.” He fell into the California beach scene, mingled with the counter-culture movement, and eventually met a Hollywood agent.
“I was right by Grauman’s Chinese Theater and I was hungry. These agencies always had coffee and crackers—maybe it was from the day before,” recalls Sérgio, and he ended up playing his nylon string guitar for the man behind the desk. That agent made a call to another agent. He was shuffled over to Wilcox Avenue to play for another agent; Not seeing a future in his given name, Gail McConkey—who discovered The Standells**—promptly dubbed him Sérgio 2000 and signed him.
By 1973, Sérgio was a restauranteur and was fronting a 16-piece band, but he grew tired of the big city. A temporary gig in Alaska turned long-term as the altitude started to suit him better than L.A., but he eventually returned to the City of Angels and more than dabbled in taxidermy; he became a respected expert with major politicians and big game hunters as clients. He tells a story about Lady Gaga’s famous meat dress, which Rock & Roll Hall of Fame director of collections Jun Francisco verifies. While he was operating American Taxidermy, a small shop in Burbank, Sérgio preserved (essentially made jerky out of) the dress the pop star wore to the 2010 MTV Music Video Awards. (There was a bit of a squabble over the dress, which you can hear Sérgio retell in the video above.)
“I’ve been always an oddball,” says Sérgio, his English carrying a thick mix of Portuguese and Italian accents.
Now he is here in Lancaster. Most of his equipment—including a collection of 15 guitars and a handmade cat-skin tambourine—is in storage. He has found a place to start a small workshop and wants to build a guitar harkening back to the craft he learned many years ago with Giannini. “You have no idea all the things I can do,” says Sérgio.
And I believe him.
* Translates to “southpaw” or “lefty.”
** The Standells hit “Dirty Water” reached #11 on Billboard in 1966.