TNAG Notes #20 by Stephen Bennett
“Start shreddin’ the Blues…”, as Frank Sinatra meant to say. While TNAG HQ decamps to the leafy idyll that is Hemel Hempstead, there to bask in the bucolic splendour of the Hertfordshire countryside (steady on – Ed.), TNAG Notes takes a very different route and now, via the magic of the inter-web, comes to you from the very heart of New York City, a mere Big Apple’s throw from the cloyingly-commercialised cauldron of chaos that is Times Square. Yet fear not, reader, for we’ve wandered these clogged arteries before - albeit thirty years ago and with functioning knees. Our logical topic for today, therefore, is ‘what’s changed?’, especially for guitarists. The answer, of course, not a happy one.
Denizens of Denmark Street will be all too familiar with the slow strangulation of the independent dealer at the hands of ‘development’ and due to the decline of that crazy, outmoded pastime, “actually leaving the house”. Why get the bus into town when you can order your strings to be delivered straight to your door, probably cheaper, the next day? There are all kinds of complex sociological reasons for the switch from personal interaction to wary isolation and we’ve touched on them before. What matters here is that the blight that decimated London’s Tin Pan Alley hit New York’s Music Row much harder.
It’s no coincidence that both of these one-time music meccas share their real estate with their city’s theatre, restaurant and red-light districts. Ah, those arty types. At least they stop to eat, occasionally. Trouble is, no one’s ever wanted to go on holiday to a glamorous capital and wander the insurance sector or the financial hub. 21st century Soho attracts millions of tourists a year, as does Midtown Manhattan. Very few of them come looking to buy a guitar. Commercial property is increasingly coveted for the 24-7 peddling of gaudy, souvenir tat and, inevitably, rents go up. It’s an old story.
Manny’s – the spiritual embodiment of the whole Music Row concept - occupied the same site at 156, W. 48th Street, for seventy-four years. Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Buddy Holly, The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix were all regular customers. Their photographs, taken alongside the eponymous proprietor, decorated every available blank space on the walls. The fourteen-year-old Paul Simon bought his first guitar there. Manny’s ceased trading in 2009, the premises limping on under the Sam Ash banner for a further eight years. Anyone hoping for the US equivalent of a blue plaque would have been better advised to duck as the wrecking ball swung through its five-storey façade a couple of years ago, leaving an unsightly gap in the 48th Street dentistry. It was the perfect venue; a short walk from Broadway, the Brill Building and any number of recording studios. In the 1960s, the ‘British Invasion’ supercharged sales and general interest in all things guitar but that was over fifty years ago. Good as they are, the likes of John Mayer and Joe Bonamassa hardly constitute the cutting edge of a cultural revolution.
As Music Row faded, Greenwich Village clung on, mainly in the form of Matt Umanov’s, another destination guitar store for anyone hoping to catch a glimpse of Bob Dylan, Steve Earle or Prince checking out the latest inventory. Again, the 8 by 10s tell the story; Eric Clapton and Jerry Garcia among them. In the weeks before the store closed for good, just before Christmas 2017, a local woman wrote to Umanov thanking him for having provided “an island of sanity on Bleecker Street”. The store was both a sanctuary for musicians – almost all the staff were gigging guitarists - and an ever-reliable repair shop. Fixing stuff, as opposed to selling it, was probably Matt’s great passion. After over fifty years in the business, he came to be recognised as one of the foremost flat-top restoration luthiers out there. The Brooklyn native is quoted as saying he was always delighted at the prospect of who might drop in next, whether it be Johnny Depp, Johnny and June or a bum off the street – it was all part of the adventure. Now, apart from taking repair work by appointment, Matt Umanov’s is gone, too.
There are a few places left worth visiting, TR Crandall and Rivington in the East Village, Rudy’s in Soho, but it’s hard to avoid the sense of a business model in managed decline. Maybe, as in London, so in New York and every other major city with a once-burgeoning music scene. The pioneer dealers of Denmark and 48th Streets often lacked the practical means or, after a lifetime in the job, the will and energy – even the requisite pain threshold -to adapt and evolve to meet the demands of the 21st century market-place. Of course, we miss them, not just as gear ‘filling stations’ but as immersive environments where fellow geeks might gather; where we might pick up a riff from some old hand trying out a second-hand Twin Reverb or raise a weary eyebrow at some flash kid who’s just learned to tap. Top of Form
A recent New Yorker article imagined the guitar store as a place we go to, through crowds, right at the centre of things, to buy the stuff that then allows us to vanish once again into our own private worlds. You could say the same about bookshops. Sorry..? Okay, so they’re disappearing, too.
Fortunately, some dealers have figured out how to manage the essential balance between the old-school and the brave new world. Welcome all, then, to sunny Hemel Hempstead!
A short, sort-of-personal p.s.
Some years ago, I formed a brief friendship with one of Matt Umanov’s occasional employees, the brilliant New York songwriter, Eric Frandsen. If ever an unknown (at least in Britain) deserved to be universally acclaimed, Eric is the man. He wrote the fabulous “Christmas In Brooklyn” and, going off recent YouTube evidence, is still blowing audiences away with annual performances of it and a raft of other gems, including the devastatingly poignant, “Nobody Grieves For George Reeves” (kids, ask your grandad about the original TV Superman). On one memorable occasion, I accompanied Eric to the apartment of a guitar-collector friend of his, deep in the heart of Greenwich Village. The run-down, tiny ‘studio’ was, to put it politely, redolent of feline habitation, and there were at least half a dozen of the disdainful little gits slumped across dusty old Martin and Gibson cases in ever corner. The guitars, though - predictably, of course - were all in immaculate nick, not least Groucho Marx’s Gibson L-5 (the one with the block inlays last witnessed in 1932, serenading Thelma Todd in the canoe scene from “Horse Feathers”). Maybe it’s still there.
This Fortnight’s Fab Five…
…is inspired by events in France where a friend’s bass-playing daughter has launched a three-piece band (Citadels – look out, monde entière) with her older brothers. What better time, then, to celebrate five inspirational women who’ve not only raised the ‘low’ bar to new heights in jazz, funk, rock, r&b and classic pop but have been er…instrumental in dragging the bass into the spotlight both as band leaders and acknowledged studio giants of the star-maker machinery. Any arguments about how good they are should start with a list of the musicians who seek out their services; Prince, Clapton, Beck, Bowie et al. Simply the best.
- Canadian Rhonda Smith was in Germany at a music convention when she ran into Sheila E. and learned that Prince was looking to put a new band together. By that time – the mid ‘90s – she’d settled on bass as her main instrument but could turn her hand to pretty much anything that made a musical noise. Rhonda was to remain a cornerstone of the NPG sound for ten years. Jeff Beck was another guitar maestro drawn to her consummate low-end skills - rock-solid and dazzlingly inventive in the same bad-ass stage package – and she continues to bring edge, authority and sheer class to an increasingly impressive rock and soul resumé. There are tons of examples of her fab-ness but it’s all there, front and centre, in a live performance of “Musicology” (with Prince) on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Awesome.
- Tal Wilkenfield is another young bass virtuoso to grace the stage alongside the aforementioned Mr. Beck. One gets the sense that you’d have to be fairly handy to keep up with that company but that’s no problem for the Aussie prodigy who’s also a mean singer-songwriter in her own right. Both her compositional and playing style are reminiscent – to these ears, at least – of the mighty Jack Bruce. There’s no higher bass compliment than that.
- Gail Ann Dorsey. Twenty years with David Bowie says it all, really. She toured with Tears For Fears before that and has played in a vast array of bands and styles from The National to the Charlie Watts Big Band in its original Ronnie Scott’s residency. Instantly recognizable with her shaved head and uber-cool stage presence, she’s a great singer, too, as evidenced by her slick reconfiguring of the Freddy Mercury part on live versions of “Under Pressure”.
- It would appear there’s nothing, musical genre-wise, beyond the vast technical and artistic scope of Esperanza Spalding. The Oregon violin prodigy and multi-instrumentalist turned to the heavier strings as a teenager and has since excelled in straight-ahead jazz, soul, r&b and, increasingly, the various musical stylings of Brazil. She’s featured on the work of top-line artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Mike Stern, Stanley Clarke and Jack DeJohnette and a few minutes spent at her chamber-style, NPR Tiny Desk Concert on YouTube will tell you why.
- Finally, that legendary doyenne of studio bass players, the peerless Carol Kaye. Nobody’s played on more hits - or is likely to, ever again. She started her recording career in 1957 and soon came to the attention of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson who both concluded they’d never need to look for anyone else to fill the bass chair from then on. The list of her credits is mind-boggling; from The Beach Boys and Righteous Brothers to J.J. Cale and The Mothers of Invention. Paul McCartney cites her as his inspiration on Sgt. Pepper’s. Say no more.
So, with apologies to fans of bass-thumpers Tina Weymouth, Kim Gordon, Kim Deal and enduring pop/leather icon Suzi Quatro (that would be everyone then), we sign off from a dark and decidedly chilly NYC. Still, Old Crow Medicine Show are playing just around the corner at the Town Hall tonight so that should liven things up. See you next time!
by Stephen Bennett