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  • Writer's pictureChristopher McHale

Our Dreams Can Turn To Fire

In Adelaide, there’s a tree with guitars hanging from its branches. There’s a bright red Stratocaster, and a metallic green Les Paul. There’s a hollow body Epiphone, whose classic curves echo the curves of the tree branches.

The Luthier sits back and smokes a hand-rolled cigarette, his frizzy hair a wild crown, a boney smile, some crazy there.

“I lived in Detroit once and worked in a custom paint shop.”

In his hand is a spray paint gun. He’s fallen in love with guitars. He wants to create new ones, the Luthier full of ideas, an artist’s vision, a passion. I always fall for people like this. Their fire sparks me. I tune in to his ideas. I want to torch his inspiration and rock in his fire and before we’re done, that’s exactly what I do.

I was born with a shopkeeper’s spirit. I don’t know where it’s from. Maybe my grandmother, whose family ran a haberdashery shop in Listowel, Kerry. We meet in his garden, and gaze at the guitars hanging like luscious fruit from tree branches, drying from the spray paint and catching the sun in bright sparks of paint.

“We could open a guitar shop,” I say.

He’s pretty skeptical of the idea. His eyes are wary. My super-power is my enthusiasm. I’m still young, maybe twenty-four, boundless energy. I love guitars too. I love to pass my hand along the neck and sweep across the lacquered face. I cherish a soft stroke and the resonant voice of steel.

He asks me am I the type of person who is patient and understanding? I miss that. He lays it out plainly enough in his words. In those days, I hear what I want. I want a business. I think it’s a grand idea. I push forward, overlook his signals. He tells me to be careful, be aware, see the trouble that might come. I discount all of it. I carry us on my passion and sense of adventure. A guitar shop. In Melbourne. A wonderful, wild dream. Why not?

I persuade him of my grand idea and we form a plan. We’ll drive to Melbourne and open our shop. We’ll sell new guitars in the front, and in the back we’ll have a workshop where we’ll repair guitars and he can follow his luthier art, his fantasies of invention, unique bridges and necks and painted faces.

We take the guitars off the trees and load our vans and head east to Melbourne. I’ve lived in Melbourne before, a city of Victorian houses and neighborhoods, like London in some ways, trolleys and shopping streets, cafes and music clubs.

We travel across Australia, a little caravan, a Volkswagen bus and an old Ford van. Filled with guitars and tools and an encompassing vision. I wouldn’t say it’s a matter of success or failure. I’d say it’s just an adventure, something to try, something to experience, fun to be had. It’s not that for the Luthier. It’s something else entirely.

We find a small shop to rent in Greville Street in Prahran. It’s a couple of blocks down from busy Chapel Street, a backwater block next to the railroad and across the street from a rock-and-roll bar.

There’s a bakery, and macrobiotic grocery, a record store, a shop that sells handmade leather goods, a small park where we play frisbee, a community gathered to explore new ways to live and work. I hear Greville Street is fancy now, with high-end boutiques and cafes. I guess we started something with our first little shops.

I love our shop. We have a window where we display a guitar. I rotate a different one each day. A Gibson salesperson stops by and offers us stock. I hang acoustics and electrics on the walls and fill a glass counter with picks and strings.

In the back we have a workshop where we fret necks, and fix cracks and scratches, adjust tension. There’s another room with a big open fireplace. We build fires and work through the Melbourne winter. We work in the day and at night sit by the fire and drink beer, play the guitars, sing songs. The Luthier talks to me about Detroit.

I can hardly believe he traveled to Detroit. He worked in a small custom shop painting cars. The spray gun is his art. It’s where he excels. Everything he does is for that final touch, the wood prepared and ready to receive his paint. He studied his art on metal panels edged in chrome. Somehow it makes sense to me. I see Detroit as a rugged city with a Motown heart. Beats and voices raised in some of the best tunes I’ve heard.

I see the Luthier in a small garage on a quiet Detroit street, waving his gun across sheet metal. Listening to the music, putting the beat into the spray, a direct connection to us here in Greville Street, the soft spruce embracing the swoop of paint, the feathered edges, the bold strokes of the Luthier’s hand, mentored by backbeats and a pocketed bass from the American Midwest.

I know nothing about business. I go on instinct. Customers show up and we chat. They drop off their guitars, their babies for repair. Each one is a negotiation with the Luthier. He has skills none of us have. But the truth is he has little interest in repairing the guitars. His mind is full of ideas for unusual guitars, different techniques, fresh ground to break in the luthier’s art.

We need to pay the rent. We need to eat. I push the business on, like I always do. It’s a perilous thing to ignore a man’s dream. Ambition can sweep across a life and leave chaos in its wake. I’m too young to have an awareness of things like that. I’m getting calls from the bank manager. I need to develop the shop.

The Luthier acknowledges the responsibility of his commitment, but he does so reluctantly. That’s okay with me. As long as we progress, but we’re already heading down a dangerous road toward a dead end. Still, we’re busy and the customer are coming in. This is my first business. I learn to greet the customers and listen to their needs. The things I learn on Greville Street equip me for the businesses I build in the future. Business is business, from a hot dog stand to IBM.

I learn to take guitars off the wall and let the customers play. The steel and wood build a bond between our shop and the Melbourne music community. I listen to their chords. Now and then a real player comes and fills the shop with their music. It’s magic.

My favorite guitars are the ones we build with abalone bridges and black pearl trimmings, painted in blends of sunburst colors. I love the Luthier’s work. His guitars are a continual source of inspiration. I wish we could have a shop filled with his invention. But that’s not possible. We’re running out of time.

The tools of our trade are sharpening stones and oil, wire-cutters, files, grades of sandpaper from very coarse to super-fine, fine blade saws, jeweler screwdrivers, and glue. We buy sheets of spruce, blocks of ebony. We have ten gallon tins of acetone and polyurethane, different strippers and polishing oils.

Every day, I shift the guitar in our shop window, sweep the rough wood floor, lift down the guitars hanging on our walls, dreadnoughts and Flying V’s, polish them and put them back.

I walk up to the bakery and buy some rolls, prepare tea and then go to work, mostly polishing frets for me. I’ve no skills for the finer tasks.

I observe the Luthier as he creates. He embraces the craft and launches into modern ideas, original materials, spends hours shaping abalone shells to form a mosaic rosette around a sound hole. He has a scheme to develop sculpted frets, so a neck plays silky smooth, slight waves to guide the fingers up and down.

Someone comes in with a new album, Dark Side of The Moon. We drop the needle into the groove and take off. The music grabs us, fills the workshop as we hammer and saw and polish. The parts of guitars in our workshop fused back together by the soaring guitars of the album, everything connected from the rolls of fret wire to the arcs of guitar riffs drenched in reverb and delay.

One day a young guy walks in, a cardboard case in hand, puts it on the glass counter and lifts out a cheap guitar. I know what it is, pressed wood, barely sawdust and glue, but I can tell he loves it, it’s important to him. That’s enough for me. It has a split on the face, a crack running from the base of the bridge down a poorly set seam. I accept it for repair and advise him to return in two weeks. He’s reluctant to let it go.

“No, it’s fine, we’ll keep it safe.” I say.

I carry it back into the workshop to present it to the Luthier. He scarcely glances at the guitar. His mind is elsewhere. He’s just completed his first attempt at sculpted frets. It hasn’t worked. He tears them out again. I put the guitar back in the cheap case and place it in a corner.

Life can show no mercy. Sometimes I think it’s how you end things that count most. Miss the turnoff and you find the road suddenly ends and you go over a cliff into free-fall.

The Luthier’s art is singular. He brings a brittle passion to his day. I still have one of his guitars. I don’t play it much, but it carries its own beauty.

It draws the hand along the neck. Its action is silky smooth. That was always the Luthier’s goal. The frets shaped in a gentle undulation. The rosewood is edged in stripes of silver, fit tight against the wood with a rounded edge. The saddle on the bridge is six pieces of filed abalone shell, turquoise with streaks of dark blue. Each peg is custom cut ebony topped with a dot of pearl. The machine heads are from Schaller, with Art Deco tiers and the face of the headstock is a piece of zebrawood, a small silver disc embedded at the top, a sun with tiny rays coming out of the right-hand side. The body is a dark sunburst feathered into an amber center.

The guitar plays the lightest strings, .009 gauge or even .008 if you can find them. The action set is delicate and needs constant attention, but when it finds its height, the guitar plays like a summer breeze.

The guitar shop is failing. It’s plain enough on the ledger. I think we could have made it. The bank manager has become my friend. He comes sometimes for tea and offers me advice. He likes our shop and passion for the guitars. He encourages us. But the ledger is not the real reason the shop fails.

The Luthier never rests. He sleeps in a cramped room in the back. We often leave at night and he is still at his bench. Somewhere in his mind is a vision. But the guitar refuses to take shape in his hands. Dreams can have a perfect clarity floating deep inside, impossible to grasp.

His temper is quick. He intimidates us. The workshop air can spark. The fumes from the paint and finishes can make you dizzy.

The young guy returns for his guitar repair but the Luthier has ignored the job. I tell the customer to return in a couple of days. We’re almost finished. His eyes are wary. He must see the lie.

That night I take the cheap guitar out. The crack on the face spread down to the base. I hand it to the Luthier. He glances at the guitar. A cheap knockoff in his luthier’s hands.

“I promised the guy we’d fix it. I told him to come back in a couple of days,” I say.

The Luthier’s face flushes a deep red. His eyes flash. A sneer of disgust. He tosses the guitar in the fireplace. It explodes, the dry pressed wood and glue gone in seconds.

I always turn from anger. It’s the way I’m built. When confronted with sudden rage, a nervous smile appears on my face. It pisses people off. I don’t mean to smile. I mean to flee. It’s more conceit than anything else. I didn’t mean to provoke a tantrum. I know things have ended. Grab a life-jacket and jump.

I’ve never had much interest in dancing around a reason. There’s another road to walk and I mean to take it. Humility’s not the word, but I feel anger flash a sign that says a person doesn’t want me in their life. I retreat. It’s self-preservation, I suppose.

I’ve been wandering for fifteen years. People call me American, but I barely know what that means. It certainly doesn’t define the way I feel about myself. Even to this day I don’t feel I’m the citizen of any nation. I’m a human being. I don’t like borders and flags, but maybe it’s time to go home.

The young guy returns the next day. I tell him we destroyed the guitar in an accident. His eyes tear.

“What do you mean?”

“There was an accident in the workshop. I’m so sorry. It’s gone.”

Every player at every level bonds with their instrument. It’s intimate. It crushes my heart to watch the loss sweep across his face. He turns and leaves without a word.

That night, two beers between us, I tell the Luthier I’ve determined to go to music school. I need to study composition. I’ve put it off too long. The Luthier’s empties the bottle and exits the room without a word. I’ve met his expectation. Or his expectation wrote the story. One and the same.

Within weeks, the powerful jet lumbers down the runway and lifts me into the sky. Australia falls away, dreams scattered in the jet trails. I hear the Luthier went into the bush, to a place called Coober Pedy to mine opals.

Demons chased him there. I can’t think of any other reason to choose such a rough life, but the Luthier always kept to himself. I knew him as a man bent to his art. He wanted nothing to come between him and his bench. He was generous in knowledge, but bound to a restless spirit. He peered at the world through wary eyes. I never saw the wounds, but they were there.

We live by our guitars. They sing through us. Each one crafted to fit a single hand. You grow around the wood. It lifts you. The vibrations trace along the curves and chase out to the stars. We spin song lines through the sand and the old people discover them and follow them through the world, draw us to the sacred places hidden deep in the bush. It begins with a touch of steel.

I left the guitar shop behind. I lock the door and step away. But sometimes I remember. I sweep the rough wood floors, lift the guitars off the walls and polish them, then them hang up again. Each one hovers in anticipation, waiting for the music to begin.


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