Friday 8 February 2019

Rick Kelly's Carmine Street Guitars

New York is changing. Streets I walk down now are a mere shell of what they were in the 1970’s. Starbucks, CVS and Banana Republic have displaced the bodegas, record & book stores that gave New York its particular stamp.

But when was the city ever different? Surely Walt Whitman railed against the changes he saw on his return from the Civil War. 

Some businesses, however, weather the changes and continue to provide both great service and a much-treasured dollop of hospitality.

Take, for instance, Rick Kelly’s Carmine Street Guitars – it’s like entering a haven from a bygone era when the music business was idiosyncratic and occasionally even fun.

The front room - full to the gills with guitars of all shapes, sizes, vintage and prices - is usually devoid of attendants. You’ll hear laughter leak out from the workshop, and eventually Rick or Cindy Hulej will venture out to offer assistance.

Rick has had a shop in the vicinity since 1976 and if you wish to experience the old West Village then take a hike down to Carmine Street, just west of Bleecker. 

You can browse in the Un-Oppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Bookstore while across the street House of Oldies (no CDs or Tapes sold) flaunts its vinyl, all basking in the considerable shadow of Our Lady of Pompeii Church.

Rick himself hails from Sunnyside Gardens and is from solid Irish-American stock, though he’s not sure from whence his branch of the Kellys originated. “Maybe Dublin,” he offers without too much conviction.

The shop is a delight for musicians, or just the plain curious - any space not occupied by guitars, mandolins, and banjos is filled with pictures of Patti and GE Smith, Lenny Kay, Lou Reed, and the many others who have ventured in.

Rick has a lot of time for working musicians. Tell him you’re in a panic because you have an upcoming gig, and he’s likely to bump you up the line for repairs or a quick set up.

If you have a guitar whose strings buzz or are too high off the neck to play with comfort, Rick’s your man! And he doesn’t charge an arm or a leg, much less a finger.

One of the problems with modern guitars, he feels, is that the wood employed is not what it used to be. It can’t hack the winter heat of apartments or the air-conditioned rigors of summer.

Which brings me to Rick’s main gig. The man makes his own guitars. Bob Dylan owns two and plays his sunburst Eaglecaster regularly onstage. Why - because like all Rick’s guitars it sounds great.

The key is the wood he uses. And that’s where the “old New York” comes in. According to Rick our city was originally built with Eastern White Pine (Pinus Strobus). And that’s what he’s been hunting down since 1976. 

He keeps his eye on old buildings and recently got some beams from the loft of his friend, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch.

Inside his workshop you can witness how Cindy and Rick convert this venerable wood into all manner of “axes.” 

Not only does White Pine sound sweet but it’s one of the straightest trees and thus its guitar necks rarely bend. 

You tell Rick and Cindy what kind of axe you want and they design it for you, and don’t take forever about it either.

Meanwhile Rick’s mother, Mrs. Dorothy Kelly does the books and, like the white pine, keeps the enterprise on the straight and narrow.

Rick is about to lose some of his anonymity. A movie has been made about him and his shop. Carmine Street Guitars debuted at the Venice Film Festival, and Rick himself was persuaded to attend the prestigious Toronto Festival. He’ll soon be traveling to Amsterdam to receive well-earned plaudits there.

In April, this “five days in the life of a unique guitar shop” will hit the nearby Film Forum for a run and will be available in DVD soon, before it ends up on Netflix.

But Kelly’s Guitars will always remain the same – a place where refugees from the pre-Spotify world still drop by for a chat and a laugh, and where their axes will always receive TLC at a decent price. 

Long may you thrive, Rick & Cindy!

An Duanaire - The Dispossessed

There are books… and then there are books that change your life. Most of the latter I read in my teens and early 20’s. 

I remember so well reading For Whom The Bell Tolls in a frigid Dublin bedsit and becoming ensnared by the poetry, principle and pragmatism of its hero, Robert Jordan.

In somewhat similar circumstances in the East Village I first ploughed through The Alexandrian Quartet and discovered that not only could there be two sides to a story but four in Lawrence Durrell’s classic collection.

And where would any of us be without an introduction to Ms. Molly Bloom. Along with being introduced to literature’s greatest character, Sunny Jim Joyce demonstrated to me, at least, that the very sound of words is as important as their literal meaning.

Each of these books catapulted me into new worlds of imagination. But two others that I read in my 30’s were glances back into a history that I’d brushed against as a young boy in Wexford.

How odd too that I read them on Avenue B with the sound of drug dealers hawking their wares outside my window and the occasional gun shot to make sure I didn’t doze off.

The Hidden Ireland by Daniel Corkery might be a study of 18th Century Munster culture, but it also helped me understand that buskers like Margaret Barry and Pecker Dunne who I had listened to on the streets of Wexford were among the last survivors of a fast disappearing Gaelic Ireland.

I realized how privileged I was to have experienced that world in some small way.  Corkery’s book opened up a vista that I’ve drawn on as a writer and composer, and showed me how vapid and insubstantial it is to be a “dedicated follower of fashion.”

Before you move forward you must first look backwards and come to terms with your roots.

I can’t even remember when or where I bought An Duanaire 1600-1900: Poems of the Dispossessed, but as I look at my dog-eared copy it’s obvious I’ve turned to it often.

This priceless book of Gaelic poetry was collected by Sean Ó’Tuama with exquisite English translations by Thomas Kinsella.

These years encompass both the Cromwellian genocide and the Penal Laws era that ended with Catholic Emancipation in 1829. You can almost touch the loss of a people dispossessed seeping from An Duanaire.

The poems within are written by well-known bards steeped in learning like Piaras Feiritéar down to Filíocht na nDaoine – the anonymous verses of the common people.

Kinsella’s translations are both muscular and sublime, and he opens up a whole new world to those of us with little or no proficiency in the Irish language.

An Duanaire also contains internationally renowned poems like Brian Merriman’s Midnight Court, and perhaps one of the world’s greatest laments, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire written by his wife Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill.

Lament for Art O’Leary enriched my life considerably for back in 1992 I was privileged to write the music for a Dance/Theatre piece by June Anderson that featured Black Eileen’s passionate response to the murder of her husband.

Part of this vocal elegy became internationally known when I used it as an introduction to the Black 47 song, Big Fellah which was featured in Sons of Anarchy.

How strange is life – a lament for an 18th Century Cork mercenary finds its way onto a contemporary TV motorcycle drama!

By the way, don’t miss Paul Muldoon’s upcoming translation and re-enactment of The Lament for Art O’Leary at the Irish Arts Center, featuring Lisa Dwan with music by Horslips.

One of the most moving poems in An Duanaire is Mo Bhrón ar an Bhfarraige.  My Grief on the Ocean speaks of a woman longing for her partner who has departed for America.

As in other poems from An Duanaire it describes an earthy and sensuous relationship – feelings rarely mentioned in verse after puritanical European Jansenism overwhelmed Gaelic Catholicism in the wake of An Gorta Mór.

“My love came near
up to my side
shoulder to shoulder
and mouth to mouth.”

An Duanaire is out of print and can be expensive, but find one. You’ll get a view of the past - both precious and frightening - that could help you comprehend the complexities of the dizzying present.