As technology advances, art often suffers. Businesses become automated as the human touch is left behind. A perfect example is Warner Music’s recent signing: an algorithm that generates personalized soundscapes based on mood. Even Google got in on the act celebrating the 334th birthday of famed composer Johann Sebastian Bach by giving users the chance to have their melodies harmonized by an algorithm to produce a full composition in Bach’s style. While neither of these has been completely successful, nor can they render human composers obsolete, machines have largely taken humans out of the loop regarding the manufacture of guitars. But this is not the case on Carmine Street in New York City. And this is not the case in the new documentary, Carmine Street Guitars.
Tucked between the nondescript townhouses of the West Village, Carmine Street Guitars blends into the landscape as if it’s always been there. It’s actually been a mainstay for nearly thirty years opening its doors in 1991 and while repairs and guitar set-ups are commonplace in stores such as this, owner Rick Kelly does much more.
While vintage guitars from the Fenders and Gibsons of the world are available within this West Village institution, it is Kelly’s handcrafted guitars that make Carmine Street stand out from its competitors. Although handmade guitars are less and less common in this world of automation, his creations are extremely unique due to the wood he uses. Salvaged from the city’s old bars, hotels, churches, and apartment buildings, Kelly’s guitars are literally created with “the bones of New York,” as he puts it succinctly.
For twenty years he’s rushed to five-alarm fires, buildings in the process of being demolished, construction sites, and has even gone dumpster diving to reclaim the wood that he uses to create one of a kind masterpieces. The guitar built with wood from McSorley’s Old Ale House, (the oldest tavern in Manhattan), is soaked in the beer spilled by patrons for over one hundred and sixty-five years.
Just as Carmine Street Guitars is not your typical guitar shop, this is not your typical documentary. Gone are the talking heads and Ric Burns’ style photo panning. Instead, director Ron Mann opts to let the musicians that frequent the store tell the story with not only their words but their playing.
The film follows five days in the shop with everyone from director Jim Jarmusch to jazz legend Bill Frisell to the Roots’ Kirk Douglas stopping by to check out one of Kelly’s creations, play one that they already own, or (in Jarmusch’s case), bring in a rare acoustic guitar on which Kelly can work his magic. Frisell plays a beautiful impromptu version of the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl,” Marc Ribot offers a striking improvisation, and Charlie Sexton works wonders on a jazzy rendition of an original fittingly entitled “Rick.” There are plenty of interesting moments such as when Nels Cline, the guitarist for Wilco, comes in to buy Wilco founder and leader Jeff Tweedy a one-of-a-kind guitar for his fiftieth birthday or the scene where Lou Reed’s guitar technician Stewart Hurwood demonstrates the odd altered tuning (all one note in different octaves) on one of Reed’s Kelly built guitars. Guitarist and founder of the Kills, Jamie Hince, whose middle finger is paralyzed on his fretting hand, tells Kelly during his visit that he would have been better off playing one of his guitars instead of subjecting himself to physical therapy.
The other story explored is that of Kelly’s young apprentice Cindy Hulej, an art student who entered the picture five years ago when she asked Kelly for a job. She began by burning intricate designs on various guitars, including an incredible “Traveling Wilburys” axe, before building her own instruments. Singer-songwriter Eleanor Friedberger stops by and after playing one of the shop’s guitars remarks on how incredible it feels. She is surprised when Hulej reveals that it is one of her custom-built guitars, which opens up a conversation about being a woman in a predominately male business. Paired with the touching moment when Kelly presents Hulej with a guitar-shaped cake for her fifth anniversary, one gets the sense of what a special team they are in this exceptionally-warm film.
Patti Smith’s longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye summed up what’s so special about Rick and Carmine Street Guitars in this exchange:
Kaye: “You build guitars, you sell guitars, you fix guitars. What don’t you do?”
Kelly: “Computers. I don’t do computers.”