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The first time my grandparents saw the Statue of Liberty, their most influential image of America, it made them real Americans, real New Yorkers. The winter before 9/11, I took my oldest daughter to work with me in Lower Manhattan. As we left the subway at the WTC, a fireman from the firehouse across the street hit her with a snowball. That was my daughter’s first NYC moment. The events of 9/11 made her an American, a New Yorker—especially when she asked about the “fireboys,” and I explained to her what had happened.
For me, it was the summer of 1975. Someone explained to me that I just had to go to 48th Street. It was an event! That trip was the biggest influence on my teenage life, possibly my entire life. That was the day I became a bass player. That trip made me a real New Yorker, a real American, and a real musician. So, in this column I’m going to self indulgently reminisce about the great basses, the terrific people and wonderful stories about “The Street,” also known as Music Row, 48th and Seventh.
I started visiting The Street as a teen from an outer borough during the time of Taxi Driver-esque Times Square. Times Square at 42nd Street was a dump loaded with drug dealers, addicts, hookers, porno theaters, hobos, and every form of dreck. It infiltrated a few blocks north to about 45th Street, and a few blocks south into the Garment Center, and went from Fifth Ave heading west until the Hudson River. To make this trip, I’d do the usual walk to the Great Kills Station, take the Staten Island Transit to the Ferry, and then take the R train to 48th and Broadway. We always promised our parents we wouldn’t get out a few stops early and walk through Times Square. We never said we were going to Manny’s or Sam Ash, or any other store for that matter. We always said we were going to “The Street.” There was Terminal Music, Stuyvesant Music, Silver & Horland, Alex Music, Sam Ash, Manny’s, We Buy, Alex’s Guitar Lab and finally Rudy’s, the late-comer.
Rudy’s is still the survivor of the independents on Music Row. There were many very cool guitar shops not on 48th Street back in the day. Matt Uminov’s in Greenwich Village is still around in its original format. It’s hard to believe I’ve been friends with Rudy Pensa for almost 30 years, and that I’ve also known Matt Uminov that long. I’ve been living my dream as a retailer, and I am proud to call these folks my friends.
The Most Amazing Bass in the World
I wish I had a picture of it… hands down the most amazing bass I ever saw. I just didn’t realize it until ten years later. The Freidman family owns We Buy Guitars in NYC. Richie Freidman and I have been buddies over 30 years. My friend Eddie Matejka was with me, and it had to be the fall of 1980. Before going to a Plasmatics concert where Mitch Rider and the Detroit Wheels opened up (I’m still trying to figure that one out) we detoured up to 48th Street. I actually went in to buy a ‘64 T-bird IV that was in the We Buy window. Richie was enthusiastically calling from the back of the store, “You have to see this!” Richie had seen everything, and to this day I’ve never seen him so buzzed over a piece. He handed me a ’58 or a ’59 korina Explorer bass. I remember it had a single mudbucker, and I believe the headstock was crudely assembled (but I’m not positive). The bass was very odd to play: you couldn’t play it sitting down; you couldn’t play it standing up. I plugged it into an old Acoustic 360 or 370, and it sounded like whale farts. I whipped out my rendition of “The Lemon Song”—it was unrecognizable. “Renegade” didn’t work, and “Back in the Saddle” sounded like an out-of-tune foghorn. I’m sure the amp had a ton to do with this. ‘Bursts were only a few grand then, and T-birds were about $550. I expected to hear a price of about $750 or so. So how much was this bass? Two-thousand dollars! You could buy two and a half Stack Knobs for “two large” back then. This was no doubt the most expensive bass on the planet. I could drop a year’s salary on a bass I really didn’t like, or I could buy a T-bird, a Stack Knob, and a ‘65 Precision? Long story short, I bought the T-bird, I never saw the Explorer bass again, and according to Richie, the bass is in a private collection valued at the gross national product of a small nation.
The Lowdown Wrap-up
I’m stunned, reminiscing about my youth and it seems like yesterday. Rachel, my oldest daughter, is older now than I was when I started going to 48th Street. As I’m writing next month’s column, I’m seriously laughing… trust me, it’s worth the wait. Until next time, drop the gig bag and bring the cannolis!
Kevin Borden has been a bass player since 1975, and is currently President of Goodguysguitars.com. Feel free to call him KeBo. He can be reached at Kebobass@yahoo.com.