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This TIFF film puts the spotlight on a man who turns the 'bones of New York' into guitars

Melody Lau

Rick Kelly is an anomaly in the New York City music scene nowadays. He is one of the few remaining custom guitar makers in what used to be a city full of them. In fact, the street his shop, Carmine Street Guitars, resides on was populated with multiple guitar and record shops in the ‘60s. “This was the music block,” Kelly recalls.

Now it's the sole music shop left on Carmine Street, and Kelly says it’s “kind of sad in a lot of ways” how Greenwich Village has evolved, with big corporations taking over the mom-and-pop shops. Adds Kelly, “Trump Tower was the first of the obnoxious buildings put here and they just bypassed all the permits.” Thankfully, Carmine Street Guitars isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Kelly, a self-taught guitar maker who first became interested in creating instruments in the ‘70s, has spent decades making custom instruments using reclaimed wood from various parts of the city, or as he calls it “the bones of New York.” And some of Kelly’s biggest clients have personal ties to the Big Apple: Patti Smith, Lou Reed and Bob Dylan.

Another client and friend of Kelly’s is director Jim Jarmusch, who is credited with the idea of Ron Mann’s new documentary about Kelly and Carmine Street Guitars. The result is Carmine Street Guitars, which will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this Sunday, Sept. 9. Featuring appearances by the Roots’ Kirk Douglas, the Kills’ Jamie Hince, Patti Smith Band’s Lenny Kaye and some Canadian cameos by Bahamas’ Christine Bougie and members of the Sadies, the film spends a week inside Kelly’s shop and highlights the craftsmanship behind his detailed pieces. It's a film primed for guitar nerds everywhere, but it's also packed with heartwarming stories of why musicians have such strong bonds with their instruments.

Ahead of its premiere, CBC Music spoke to Kelly about some of his biggest run-ins with musicians and some clients he has become friends with over the years. Scroll down to read stories about David Bowie, Bob Dylan and more.

For a full list of Carmine Street Guitars screenings at TIFF, head over to the festival's website.

David Bowie

“He came in looking for an instrument and I didn’t have what he needed so that was the first and last time I ever met him. He was looking for a fretless bass at the time because the band needed a fretless bass that night. I had a bass and I said, well, I’ll take the frets out of it for you but he said ‘No, I need it this minute.’ And that was that. He liked the shop and looked around a little bit, and congratulated me on the job I’m doing, so that was fun.”

Lou Reed

“Lou’s guitar player at the time was a guy named Connor and he was living across the street from my shop on Downing Street. He said Lou needed some work on his guitars and could he bring his guitars over, so I started working on them during that time. Then I got to meet Lou and he wound up buying a couple of my guitars and that’s where all that started in 1977. When I was down in Maryland, struggling to make a living for years, I used to listen to Patti Smith and Lou Reed records all the time and never in a million years did I think I’d ever meet them and actually be friends with them. That still amazes me to this day. It seems spooky in a telepathic way that I was playing their music so much everyday and then I got to know them. That’s pretty incredible.”

Patti Smith

“Her guitarist at the time, Oliver Ray, was coming into the shop and he was Patti’s boyfriend. He brought her in a couple of times and then I got to know her son and made her son a couple of guitars. Her daughter would come in a lot too. I don’t see Patti much anymore, she owns a house in Europe and loves being there, but I see her daughter and her son Jackson lives in Detroit, but he bought a couple of my guitars recently.”

Bob Dylan

“Bob was playing my guitar for a couple of years there. Now he’s mostly playing keyboards again but on the last tour he played guitar in, he only played my guitar so that was pretty cool. I never met Bob. He works through his guitar tech, but he was personable and sent me actual pictures of him playing the guitar in Beijing and Australia. He sent me the newspaper pictures. The guitars I made for him had to be made from wood that came from Chumley’s, an old speakeasy on Bedford Street. Bob used to hang out there in the ‘70s and he wanted to know if the beer he spilled on the floor might be in his guitar so of course I said yes, that’s very possible [laughs].”

Daniel Day-Lewis

“Daniel Day-Lewis brought his guitar in and I was writing a ticket up for him and asked what his name was, not knowing who he was. He said ‘Day-Lewis’ so I wrote down first name Day and last name Lewis. The kids were in the store and they recognized him immediately so when he left, they were like ‘You didn’t know who that was!’ That happens quite often.”


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