“Why?” he responds.
I feel like I’m playing my neighborhood. I can feel all this energy inside of this wood
Kelly’s signature design is based on the Fender Telecaster, the first mass production of the electric guitar, only done it with a single electric pick-up truck, because why complicate things? – and an acoustic guitar style “snake” of the head, with three pegs on each side. But it is the wood that is the thing. He constructs his instruments of “the bones of Old New York”: reclaimed white pine that he rescues from skips and building sites. Her clients have included Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, the jazz legend Bill Frisell, and punk guitarist Lenny Kaye, whose “Kellycaster” is carved from the beam of the ceiling of a Pergola, night shelter, which dates back to the 19th century. “When I play, I have the impression that I’m playing in my local area, I can feel all this energy inside of this piece of wood,” said Kaye. “It is a kind of alchemy.”
There is something alchemical about Mann, in the documentary too. It presents a week in the life of Kelly and Hulej. Nothing happens besides turn and jigsawing and shoptalk. A parade of characters drop by, including Kirk Douglas, Roots, Eleanor Friedberger fiery Furnaces and Jamie Hince of the Kills. At a time when the very idea of wandering in a shop is thrilling, transgressive, it is a restorative experience. “We have always said that the film would be a drop in blood pressure,” Kelly told me by phone from New York, as Hulej scissors in the background. “It’s like petting a dog, it promotes relaxation.”
It was Jim Jarmusch who has set the film in motion. “I just find Rick a fascinating person,” he said. “Often, you are going to go in the store, and it seems that no one is there yet. Rick and Cindy will be in the back, to the construction of instruments, so that you can just go and hang out in the front on your own. I always come out covered in sawdust.”
The central event in the film sees Kelly bike to pick up a piece of 160 years, the wood of McSorley’s Old Ale House, New York’s oldest bar, founded in 1854, and the subject of one of the all time great New Yorker articles by Joseph Mitchell. Canadian filmmaker Mann seems to take its cue from Mitchell in his nonchalant approach, capturing something more than just the guitars. As Kaye: “Stores like Rick, they just give a sort of home in a city, you know? In the afternoon, whenever I need a break, I like to smoke a joint and stop in my favorite places. The used book store, the comics place, the shop that sells bizarro antiques. Maybe buy something, maybe not. But just to immerse myself in the museum of man.”
And these guitars are really something. (I fear that they now sell 1 500 $to 5 000$).
The New York of wood is not a simple gadget; Kelly insists on the fact that it is the best for the job. When the Europeans arrived, New York was covered by forests of pine trees. They have come to be used to build in Manhattan. “Almost every building down here is framed in this wood,” said Kelly. “And now, the wood has been inside for about 200 years, so it is fully seasoned to the point where it is incredibly resonant. Therefore, it is very special wood as much as the guitar goes.”
There is an ominous note in the film, when a real estate agent enters the store like a great white shark just after he sold the next door building for $ 6m. But Kelly insists on the fact that the future is assured. “There was a bunch of shops here, Portuguese, Chinese. Now, this is yuppies and corporate stuff. But if anything, it has probably helped our business, because we have people who can afford the product.” The building has been owned by the same family since 1905; its rent doubled during the last generation has inherited the building a decade ago, but the demand is higher than it has ever been.
The lock has presented its own challenges: they had to cope with a flood in the back of the shop and the rioters outside, but it’s also given Kelly and Hulej the chance to work through their two-year backlog of orders.
Nobody is claiming that the guitars occupy the same position in the popular culture as they have done in the past; but Carmine Street Guitars makes me see my own guitar with a renewed appreciation. “I don’t think you’re going to do much with a guitar that has not already been done,” said Kaye. “But I don’t think this is so bad. The fact is, there will never be another instrument that is versatile, portable, and easy to play. You can learn the three chords in 10 minutes and express to you immediately. And then, you have a whole lifetime to master.”