Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Casualty of the Economy: Guitar Shop Down

Vintage Manny's.jpg
"Excuse me for a minute, let me play my guitar a little bit..."
Jimi Hendrix

Two months ago, I left a downtown Manhattan office late in the evening. It had been a long, stressful, creatively taxing day. My brain ached from trying to be clever for 11 hours.

The 3 Train rumbled through midtown. "You taking the express all the way uptown?" my co-worker asked. I thought for a moment. "No. I'm stopping at Times Square and going to play guitars at Manny's for a while. It'll make me feel better."

Browsing and playing rare/cool guitars serves as an antiseptic to the sore. That indescribable therapeutic quality of holding a Martin 000-15 in your hands and playing "Folsom County Prison Blues." Johnny Cash is musical Alka-Seltzer.

Up the subway steps, onto Broadway, left turn, 6 blocks north to 48th Street and hang a right. That's how you get to Manny's Music, the greatest guitar shop I have ever been in. As I walked, I was looking for the familiar green awning that marked the entrance to a musical museum with a helluva gift shop. Where is the green awning? Am I on the wrong street? Is this 47th? I walked right by the place. Not even realizing it. Turning around I saw the doors to the shop, but the green awning was gone. So was the Manny's sign. A new sign said "Sam Ash Guitars."

Something is not right. I stepped inside. It was much worse than I thought. In fact, it was a nightmare.

I was witnessing firsthand the symbolism of the bad economy. The loss of family owned businesses. Is this as serious as people losing jobs, insurance, cars and homes being foreclosed? Of course not. This is only a metaphor for what the current economic depression is costing us. A sad side note of the Bram Stoker-like horror story that is our national economy.

Little did I know that a couple months before, Manny's Music, the guitar store that both the most gifted players in the world and the hobbyist hackers had flocked to for 74 years, had been sold. The building was still there, but the guitar store I revered was all but gone. Bought by national music chain Sam Ash.

There is nothing evil about Sam Ash guitar shops. They're just selling instruments at competitive prices. Nothing wrong with that.

However, inside the former Manny's Music was a much different place. The soul had escaped. Manny's, as she once was, had given up the ghost.

Dylan at Manny's.jpg
The most famous and endearing feature of Manny's was the Wall(s) of Fame. All along the walls were hundreds of autographed pictures from artists that created the music you have on your iPod. (Or at least you should have.) You wouldn't believe who was up there. Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, The Beatles, Keith Richards and the rest of The Stones, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Buddy Holly, Nirvana, The Byrds, The Kinks, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Simon and Garfunkel, The Ramones, even Conan O'Brien. Hundreds of musicians' inked photos covered the walls.

They're gone.

Cleared away to make room for more awful clich├ęd guitars. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's autographs were removed to make room for ridiculous "Dimebag" Darrell guitars and pathetic Slipknot signature editions. It looks sad.

Less Gretsch. More Garbage.

Not only was the layout of the store different - displays were moved, counters added - it felt different. Smelled different. Like your grandparents house after they have died. You can't quite describe the difference, but it isn't the same in there. And a bit creepy.

Immediately, I was sad. Though I am a hobbyist hacker and only play for fun (though if I had a band, we would be Johnny the Kid & the Gunslingers) and for the therapeutic qualities strumming a guitar holds, going into Manny's was exciting. I felt like Augustus Gloop heading into Wonka's Chocolate Factory. Magic a lived in those walls.

The only real surviving artifact of Manny's is the smashed Danelectro 59 DC that is stored in a glass case. (A guitar that I own a modern replica of.) The Dano was the official store demo guitar. When an artist wanted to test an amp or effect, the staff plugged in the Danelectro. Legend says that Dylan, Clapton and John Lennon loved the sound so much they tried to but her and were sternly told the instrument was not for sale. Imagine telling those three you're not selling them a guitar. Now the broken-in-half Dano rests in her glass case that seems to serve as a tombstone for a once great guitar shop.


Here Lies Musical History
"If There's a Rock & Roll Heaven, You Know They Have a Helluva Band"

There are some legendary tales from Manny's. Hendrix bought his first Stratocaster there. Then over the next few years he bought about a dozen more. Sometimes switching necks, bodies, pickups and other parts to get unique sounds. (Only 6 of Jimi's Strat's are accounted for today.) Another story is about Pete Towshend's one day order. According to the legend, Pete bought 15 Strats, 10 Telecasters, 5 Gibson Jaguars, 5 Gibson Jazzmasters, 3 Gibson SG's and 3 Gibson ES-355's.

I don't know how many of those Pete smashed into kindling. Let's guess 7. It will be fun.

Looking around, I got the eerie feeling that musical history had been hijacked.

I asked a couple of staff, including the guy I had bought my Martin LXK2 from, what had happened and they just shook their head. "I don't know what to tell you, dude."

1938 Gibson L-5.jpeg

Still, even though I was shocked and bummed at this news, I still wanted to clumsily play some guitars. I played a few, The aforementioned Martin. A couple Taylor's. A Gretsch Double Cutaway Electromatic. Then I saw a very old axe on the wall. With caution, I took her in my hands. She was beautiful. A 1938 Gibson L-5. (The exact one I played is pictured above.) Battered and beaten. Scars of the road and travel. It is a guitar that has been played by Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Paul Simon and Django Reinhardt. Man, she sounded amazing.

There I sat, in the corner by myself, and played the blues for about an hour. I plucked Robert Johnson's "Malted Milk" on that amazing instrument. That helped a little. But it wasn't the same.

Again, this is less about guitars and more about the economy in microcosm. The mom and pop, family owned businesses are endangered species. And the privately owned guitar shops are the Black Rhino.

I have read that Eddie Vedder and others made a final pilgrimage to Manny's before she changed hands to say goodbye.

I wish I had been able to do that.

Spin the black circle...

Johnny Wright

Post Script: If you would like to learn more about Manny's Music, I highly recommend the book The Wall of Fame: New York City's Legendary Manny's Music. I have a copy in the stacks of the J-Dub Memorial Library.