Guitar maker Rick Kelly plays a new song on the Big Apple’s ‘old bones’

Cindy Hulej can tell you the exact date she first walked into Carmine Street Guitars and met Rick Kelly. It was June 23, 2012. She was 20 years old and a nervous, sweaty mess.

The mercury topped 28 degrees in New York that day, the humidity was insufferable and she had mistakenly exited the B train from Brooklyn one stop too early. Trekking across town in the heat with her résumé under her arm, she had to pause at the corner of Carmine Street, pat herself dry and steel her nerves before pushing open the door of number 42.

Kelly was working in the front of the store and nodded hello as she walked in. But instead of saying anything, Hulej started poking around, looking at guitars.

“Can I help you?” Kelly eventually asked.

“Maybe,” she said. “Do you ever hire people or take internships or whatever?”

“Well, what exactly do you want to do?” Kelly asked.

“I want to build,” said Hulej.

Kelly had been waiting to hear those four words from a young person for a long, long time. Hulej has been there ever since.

Carmine Street Guitars has been at 42 Carmine Street since 1990. It’s in New York’s West Village, a formerly bohemian stronghold that is now one of the most exclusive and expensive neighbourhoods in Manhattan.

In his cluttered workshop out the back of the store, Rick Kelly makes electric guitars with his hands and his tools, including the old draw knife and spokeshave he inherited from his grandfather. He has a pin router, a bandsaw and a duplicarver that was formerly used to make the wooden stocks of guns and duck decoys.

The vast majority of guitars you see being played by musicians are made in factories using Computer Numerical Control (CNC) technology and they pass through many hands before making it into a store. A Kelly guitar is put together by one 69-year-old man. On average he makes one a week. His instruments have been owned and played by Bob Dylan, Patti Smith and the late Lou Reed.

How did he get here? How is he still here? And is it possible that a humble guitar maker can survive in a city that announces itself loudly, changes constantly and becomes more unaffordable by the hour?

In the middle of 2017, Canadian film director Ron Mann (Comic Book Confidential, Grass, Altman) visited the shop to make the documentary Carmine Street Guitars. The film has been selected for many international film festivals including Venice, Toronto, New York, Melbourne and Perth, and has been touring the US since March. (It will get a limited cinematic release in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane from October 9, before a home entertainment release next March.)

Many of Kelly’s loyal customers and admirers dropped in during filming: Lenny Kaye, Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell, Eleanor Friedberger, Eszter Balint, Charlie Sexton and more. They hung out, played the instruments and opened up on camera about what Kelly’s store and his guitars meant to them. But the main thing Mann captured on film was the quiet joy of creation and the shared love of building guitars between a man who will turn 70 in January and doesn’t own a mobile phone or have the internet at home, and a 27-year-old punky girl with a platinum blonde shag-cut and an Instagram account that sometimes uses the hashtag #GuitarPorn.

“Rick represents something that we’re losing, and I wanted to capture it before it disappeared,” says 61-year-old Mann, on the phone from his summer home in Woodstock, New York. “As I was making the movie, the building next door to Rick’s was sold for $US6.5 million ($9.6 million). There’s this barbarian invasion of yuppies all around Rick and Cindy, but I wanted to examine this space and these artisans who are dedicating themselves to the old-world tradition.”

It’s Monday morning. Rick Kelly has cycled to his store from his rent-controlled apartment in SoHo. He’s friendly but reserved, a stocky man with close-cropped silver-grey hair and spectacles. He wears a black Kelly Guitars T-shirt, baggy shorts and battered sneakers. Ask him about something personal and he’ll frown, look a bit shy and awkward, try to answer you as best as he can, then shift his attention to whatever it is he’s carving, planing or sanding into shape. Ask him about wood, however, and he’ll talk from here until next Thursday.

Lining the back of the workshop and threatening to take over the space are stacks and stacks of wood. Written on the ends of these planks and beams are their places of origin: The Chelsea Hotel; Trinity Church; former speakeasy Chumley’s; McSorley’s (one of the oldest bars in New York); and McGurk’s Suicide Hall (a former dance hall and brothel that earned its grisly name due to the deaths of many women who frequented the place).

When the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St Sava in the Flatiron district caught fire in 2016, word got to Kelly that there was a dumpster full of roof beams sitting outside. Kelly raced up there, found the dumpster and started pulling out a charred beam. “There’s yellow tape all around the dumpsters and there’s a cop car sitting there,” Kelly says. “The door of the car opens and the cop comes over and she says, ‘You can’t take that wood.’ I told her, ‘The monsignor told me it was okay because I’m going to make a guitar for the church.’ She let me take it. I didn’t even know if the Serbian church had monsignors. But I got the wood.”

Rick Kelly is collecting what he calls the bones of old New York. He’s taking old-growth wood from decaying buildings that no one wants any more. And he’s turning that wood into something that sings and is alive. Rick Kelly is Geppetto.

Kelly and Hulej have just spent the weekend attending a special screening of the film in Woodstock, to coincide with the 50th anniversary celebration of the famous music festival of the same name.

Kelly was there in 1969. Well, for the final morning. He and his buddies got stuck in the massive traffic jam along the New York Thruway, as more than 400,000 people heard the call of a generation-defining moment and hit the road. They finally abandoned their 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air and walked the remaining 16 kilometres to the festival site. Most of the crowd was walking the other way by this point, trying to get home.

Kelly and his friends only got to see the last act. Fortunately it was Jimi Hendrix, who took the stage at around 8.30am. As the 19-year-old Rick Kelly watched the dynamic guitarist redefine the way the instrument was played, then perform a 30-minute medley that morphed Purple Haze, Voodoo Child (Slight Return) and The Star-Spangled Banner, he saw his future.

Kelly grew up in Long Island, the working-class kid of a machinist father and management consultant mother. As a teenager, he built hotrods and motorbikes out of any spare parts he and his friends could salvage. But he also had natural artistic talent and loved to draw, so in 1969, after graduating from high school, he went to art college in Baltimore, gravitating towards sculpture.

“I wanted to be like Henry Moore or David Hare,” he says, as he sands the white pine contours of a guitar body at his work bench in Carmine Street. “I mainly made sculptures out of found wood because I was so poor. On the first day they told us, ‘If you think you’re going to make a living by being here, you should go somewhere else.’ That’s when I knew the chances of making money from art, especially fine art, were pretty much nil.”

He dropped out after two years but had developed enough skills to translate his training into some cash. He started making Appalachian dulcimers, narrow three- or four-string instruments that are relatively simple to play. He made about 200 of them and was so good his friends started asking him to fix their guitars. It was only a matter of time before he began building guitars himself.

He set up a guitar store in Downing Street in Greenwich Village in 1976, but fled to California in 1980: “Let’s just say there was a lot of mafia action going on in the area at the time. Stores were being ripped off. They didn’t steal anything from me, but my friend around the corner got heisted and I got involved in that somehow, so I had to go to California to hide out for a while.”

He moved around a lot – rural Maryland, back to Long Island – before landing back in the Village on Carmine Street. This street used to be a pocket of guitar stores and record stores. Across the road, House Of Oldies is the last record store standing, run by Bob Abramson, who moved to Carmine Street in 1980 after being in nearby Bleecker Street since 1969.

At number 34 is another bastion of the old Village, Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books, which Jim Drougas has operated since 1992. His books are half-price or less and the stock reflects the tastes of the proprietor, a laconic gentleman who favours wide-brimmed western hats and looks like a cross between Iggy Pop and the late David Carradine. There are seven shelves of books on Bob Dylan and a section devoted to William Blake.

“There’s always been a good rapport and a certain camaraderie between Rick, Bob and myself,” says Drougas. “Intuitively, you’d think we were the least likely to have survived all these years, but I’ve been here 27 years, Rick’s been here almost 30 and Bob’s been here way longer than that. Everything else comes and goes, even expensive restaurants. I know Rick works hard. He’s there every day. You don’t see him taking vacations, ever. We both have a strong work ethic.”

When Ron Mann invited Kelly to attend the screening of Carmine Street Guitars at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, he discovered the guitar maker’s passport had expired decades ago. “He hadn’t been away from that work bench in almost 30 years,” says Mann.

Kelly with The Roots’ guitarist Kirk Douglas in the documentary Carmine Street Guitars.Credit:Courtesy of Sphinx Productions

Kelly’s mother, Dorothy, calls him Rich. She has the demeanour and the energy of a woman a couple of decades younger than her 94 years. But when her husband died in 1996, it hit her hard. “I was kind of numb for the first year,” she says. “And in the second year I got really, really down. Rich very quietly gave me a whole other world. It’s something that saved me.”

Dorothy was living in the family home in Long Island – where she still stays on weekends – but Kelly set her up in an apartment in the building where he lives in SoHo. They get home, walk up one flight of stairs, then he goes left while Dorothy goes right. Recognising that she needed to keep her mind active, he invited her to work a few days a week at the store, answering the phone, keeping track of orders and doing the book-keeping.

She probably gets the biggest laugh in the documentary with a running joke: as she dusts the many photos on the shop walls of famous musicians who play her son’s guitars, the picture of the late, mercurial Robert Quine refuses to hang straight no matter how much she tries. “They made me do that over and over!” she says, waving her hand in the air. “Finally I said, ‘Enough!’”

She’s more than happy to show off Kelly’s early creations that litter the shopfront: a Bo Diddly-style square guitar festooned with wine corks; a machine-gun-shaped guitar; one of his first guitars with an eagle carved into the body; a cabinet with leadlight inlay. There’s also a wooden sculpture that looks like a cross between a totem pole and a prop from The Lord of the Rings.

Dorothy points out a surreal painting of Kelly’s near the entrance, dripping with vibrant colours. We consider it for a moment, then she quietly says, “I’m glad he decided not to paint. This isn’t my thing.” Growing up, she says her son was individual, creative and headstrong. He would obsessively build model cars, ignoring the instructions and customising them, adding extra pieces that weren’t in the kit.

Dorothy invites me to go through a file of papers that includes various copies of Kelly’s CV, which she has typed up and updates regularly. There’s a letter she wrote to her son not long ago, analysing his business going back to 2005. In it she worries that he’s kept his prices too low for too long, that his rent has more than doubled, and that he works almost seven days a week. She frets that he spends too much on lunch and on stocking Carmine Street Guitars T-shirts and bags.

It’s all business and tough love for almost an entire page of single-spaced type, but at the end the management consultant turns back into a mother: “I realise you have been extremely successful and I am extremely grateful for that, but you are my son and there is no way I can stop worrying about you, nor do I want to,” she writes. “You have your own vision. You are smart. You are extremely talented. I have no doubt you know exactly what you are doing.”

“I felt blessed when Cindy walked in,” says Kelly of his young protégé Cindy Hulej.Credit:Courtesy Of Sphinx Productions

Kelly has no children of his own. He doesn’t have a girlfriend. He’s had relationships in the past and helped raise his partners’ kids, but when it comes to passing on his legacy there’s only one person he has in mind.

“I felt blessed when Cindy walked in,” he says. “I always wondered if I was ever going to be able to pass this on to anybody. I had another guy apprenticing here for a while, but he wanted to be a good repairman. He wasn’t interested in learning to build. And I’ve been approached by other kids but you soon find out what they’re up to. They want to build themselves a guitar and then they’ll be gone.

“Cindy’s different. She was very humble and even a little scared when she started, but she really wanted to learn. And soon enough it was like, ‘Oh man, this girl picks up things fast!’ She’s teaching me stuff, too, because she often approaches something from the opposite direction I would.”

Kelly encouraged Hulej to do her own thing and she now has her own line of Cindy guitars. Her specialty is burning intricate artwork into the guitar bodies she makes: scrolls, flowers, cathedrals, detailed pictures of famous singers and bands. She recently created a guitar covered in leather and zips.

This year she made a beautiful blue Jazzmaster-style guitar for indie rocker Kurt Vile. He wanted to play it at SummerStage in Central Park in late July in front of more than 5000 people. Hulej was so up against it she was still soldering the electronics on the day, then tuning the guitar on the train uptown, finally handing it to him 30 minutes before soundcheck. He used it to play his final encore, a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Downbound Train, and dedicated the song to her. Jersey girl Hulej couldn’t wipe the smile off her face.

Hulej has lost two of the most important men in her life over the past six years: her grandfather in 2013 and her father in 2017. “Kell’s been there for me through that,” she says. “We’re like family. But at the same time I’ve got a lot to live up to, and I can’t be f…ing up here. I also don’t want to drive him nuts, which I can do pretty easy.

“That said, we’ve never had a blowout in seven years. There’s a mutual understanding between us, between our love of art and what we’re doing here and how hard we work. There’s nothing to fight about.

“The biggest difference between him and me is that I grew up with punk and he grew up with hippie shit. But we’re both rebels.”

When asked about the possibility of continuing Carmine Street Guitars after Kelly’s gone, she turns back to her work bench and fiddles with a guitar body she’s been working on. “I don’t really want to think about that,” she says quietly. “I like working next to him.”

“Jim is a good friend and a real awesome guy and he’s a big part of the whole new wave of what’s happened with Carmine Street Guitars,” says Kelly.

Jim is Jim Jarmusch, the maverick film director behind Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law, Mystery Train, Paterson, The Dead Don’t Die and many more. He also plays in Sqürl, a self-described “enthusiastically marginal rock band from New York City”. Jarmusch had an apartment on the Bowery on New York’s Lower East Side. When he renovated his loft, his downstairs neighbour, jazz guitarist John Campo, suggested he offer the old white pine wooden beams to someone he knew could use them: Rick Kelly.

It not only forged a lasting friendship between the filmmaker and the guitar maker, but it kick-started Kelly’s quest to reuse wood from old New York buildings, beginning with those beams, which became the Bowery Series guitars.

Jarmusch – who stresses he is in no way nostalgic when it comes to New York, as it always changes and always will – rhapsodises about Carmine Street Guitars and what it represents. “I just love that place,” he tells Good Weekend, speaking from his home in the Catskills. “Stepping into Carmine Street Guitars is like stepping out of the present world for a moment. If I have any free time and I feel stressed and just want to leave the world for a while, I visit Rick and Cindy and hang out the back.”

For a while Jarmusch would use the store as a kind of post office. He was friends with Patti Smith, and if he wanted to make contact as she toured and moved around, he’d leave notes or books for her at Kelly’s store. A week or two later, there’d be a note from Smith in return.

Jarmusch admires Kelly for his old-school way of doing things and his dedication to his craft, but he and others have been at the guitar maker for some time on one point: a custom-made guitar generally costs around $US2500 ($3690). “We’ve been telling him for years to raise his prices. He wasn’t charging enough for his instruments. He would always say, ‘I’m not building them for collectors. I’m building them for musicians to use.’ And we’d say, ‘Yes, but you’re making them by hand and only charging half of what they charge for a Fender custom shop guitar that’s built by seven people.’ He’s raised the prices a bit, but he’s just not in it for the money.”

It was Jarmusch who convinced his friend Ron Mann to make the documentary. “Rick is proud and happy to get this attention from the film, but that’s not really what he’s after,” says Jarmusch. “The biggest smile you ever see on Rick’s face is when a musician comes in and picks up a guitar he’s made and then plays it. That’s when Rick is happy.”

The George Washington Bridge connects Manhattan’s Upper West Side with New Jersey. The sidewalk and bikeway close at midnight and open at 6am. Summer or winter, Kelly will usually be one of the first people there on a Sunday morning, waiting for it to open.

Kelly is a bike rider. He’s closing in on 70, but every weekend he rides from Manhattan up along the Hudson River to Nyack and sometimes as far as Bear Mountain, a 95- to 160-kilometre round trip.

Hulej calls his apartment every Sunday. Kelly doesn’t own a mobile phone. If he doesn’t answer, she starts to worry. One day in the middle of winter, with a bitter wind rattling the windows and the roads iced up, she kept calling and got no answer until late afternoon. He finally picked up and sounded like he was crying.

“Kell, what happened?” she asked. “Why are you crying?”

“I’m not crying,” he said. “I’m shivering. I think I’ve got hypothermia.”

He’d slipped on the ice twice, cracked his helmet and was soaked through. He was back out there the following weekend.

“I worry about him,” says Hulej. “It’s like the opposite of the father-daughter thing. He’s this crazy kid, going out on his bike. I’ve been trying to make him memorise my cell phone number for the last seven years. And he still doesn’t remember it.”

Marc Ribot is fired up. The iconic experimental guitarist, who is probably best known for his work with Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and John Zorn, is a long-time customer of Kelly’s and still plays the guitar he bought from him many years ago.

“There are places in a musician’s daily life – where we get equipment, where we record, where we hang out – that give us a sense of community,” he says. “Carmine Street Guitars is one of those places. What’s remarkable about it is that it’s still there.”

The reason it’s still there is Lily, Kelly’s landlady who lives in the apartment upstairs from the store. She inherited the building from her late mother, who charged Kelly around $US3000 a month rent for more than 20 years. Although the rent is now up to $US7500, Kelly estimates Lily could demand $US20,000 a month from a higher-profile tenant. When asked if he thinks he’d still be here if he had a less sympathetic landlady, he snorts: “Oh, of course not. No, no, no, no way.”

Ribot recalls paying $US150 a month for an East Village apartment in the late 1970s. He could play one wedding or one commercial gig a month and pay the rent. He knows those days are over for a young guitarist living in New York today – and for a 69-year-old guitar maker. “What’s unique about Rick’s store is that it’s survived due to this fluke of a landlady who has a heart,” he says.

In the late 1970s, a teenage street musician from Texas used to come to Kelly’s old store on Downing Street. His name was Chris Whitley, and he went from singing for change on Manhattan’s streets to becoming a renowned blues-rock performer, before dying in 2005 from lung cancer, aged 45.

“He was incredible, even back then, but I noticed something,” says Kelly. “He played these really cheesy guitars, but he made them sound really, really good. I started wondering how they sounded so good when they were pieces of junk. I found the same thing with a lot of great street singers. And I decided it was because they played them all day long. To me, the amazing mystery that happens in the wood is that the more it vibrates, the better it sounds.”

Kelly has been given vintage guitars to sell that have been sitting unplayed under a bed or in a cupboard for years. He’s taken them out of the case, hit the strings and they’ve sounded dead to him. “People can turn into curmudgeons if they’re not loved. A guitar can be a curmudgeon, too. You get to the point where if it’s played a lot, it just gets livelier and livelier. It enjoys being an instrument because it’s vibrating all the time.”

During our conversation, Kelly has been whittling and sanding a small piece of wood. After a while he examines it and blows away some sawdust. He seems content that it’s finished.

Hulej finally notices it and asks, “What’s that, Kell?”

He holds it up. It’s a tiny, slender spoon, about as long as his ring finger.

“Who’s that for?” she asks.

“You,” he says, shrugging and handing it to her.

Her face breaks into a broad, red-lipsticked smile as she takes it. She puts her palm on his head and gives it an affectionate rub, then hangs an arm loosely around his shoulder as she examines the spoon.

Kelly gives a shy grin. Then it’s back to work, turning the bones of old New York into living things.

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