Who could love her more than me?

A long time ago, I went to the Melbourne Guitar Makers Festival (go on, support your local luthier).

And I fell in love with this strange, one-off acoustic bass guitar.

I’m not using the word “unique” like we do all the time now. Like “key”, or “passion”, or “vision”.

This instrument is actually a one-off. Nothing like it, anywhere in the world.  It was the only one of its kind, made by some guy I had never heard of called Richard Morgan. There is  good read with more detail on its unique qualities here.  But for me, there were many which stood out.

Firstly, most acoustic bass guitars are a scam. The idea is attractive, but just wrong. They generally sound terrible.

The physics is not in the luthiers’ favour: to function, the bass has to resonate as low as 40 times a second (that’s slow) to create the lowest notes on the instrument, which are the most important. Mostly, acoustic bass guitars are just not big enough to do that well. So what you hear is a clanking sound (the strings clack-clacking on the frets, and not much actual fundamental.

This bass was loud. It wasn’t a thumpy sound, but it had the promise of being heard in one of my favourite settings to play music:  just sitting around with friend somewhere, pickin and grinnin’, where the double bass is not practical.

Secondly, it was mostly made of carbon fibre, and what looked like fibre glass. So, that’s unusual. It felt super-solid.

Uniquely distressed finish. I love it.

By the way, it still has three wooden components: a wooden bridge, a real ebony fingerboard (pre CITES-ban ebony from beside an airstrip in the Solomon Islands) —

Portland Post Office, Portland, Victoria, Australia

and that wooden top is from the counter of the old Portland Post Office.

Thirdly, it had a jazz bass pickup, not a piezo. Basically, this meant it could be played at full-volume, through an amplifier, in a full-band setting, and it would sound like a proper electric bass (not a louder, but not-very-good acoustic bass).

Then, there’s this:

Do you see? Just below that mouthwateringly agricultural tailpiece, the ass of this bass is flat. It stands up by itself. No guitar stand. Why don’t they all have this?

But the most unique element of this bass’s story is that is made with a resonator design. It’s not common. The sound is actually produced by a resonating cone of spun aluminium. You’re probably familiar with that design being used on guitars like this:

But — nobody  builds basses like that.   And this one has a cone of carbon fibre.

So, I’m in love. That’s obvious to you, right?  So I did what most of us do when we feel the pull of love, and we are old enough to know the cost.  Nothing. I sighed, and gave her back.

A year or so later,  I saw it was for sale,  on the wall at Guitar Gallery. It stayed there a long time. It seemed like a lot of people just couldnt get past her uniqueness. A lot of people just didnt find the bass visually attractive.  I thought they must be crazy.

So each time I found an excuse to pop in to Guitar Gallery it was still on the wall.  And, like the very good friend that he is,  Peter Bodin (Peter & the Wolves) kept telling me I needed to stop. Stop popping in, getting it down off the wall, trying it, sighing, talking about it, and not buying it. So one morning I bought it, and brought it home.

Now, she’s on my wall, instead of Gerry’s , and we’ve been in love ever since.

I play this bass all he time. I love it. I always throw it in he back of the car when we’re going away and there is a chance of playing music. It’s not as bassy as the bass of your dreams (see above), but with its punchy punchy mids, it’s always audible.

In 2016, we went to live in Berlin, and this happened:

Of course, I felt sick just looking at it. Anyone who saw it did. I was also puzzled as to how it could have happened.

Shock. Sadness.

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression — and then finally acceptance, supposedly?

I tried to put her out of my mind. It all felt unfixable. We brought her home to Tasma, broken. The airlines would not accept responsibility, and I had tried to reach Richard Morgan before without success. I didn’t know Richard at all. I knew he had lived in Portland and in Tasmania somewhere, but I could not find him by scouring the internet.

Then I remembered a conversation with Kimberley Wheeler (Uncle Bill, Little Rabbit) long ago, where she had told me she could rustle up a number for Richard Morgan if she needed to. So I contacted her, and she found it. I still didnt call for months. I was afraid Richard would not want to work on the bass, and I couldn’t stand the thought of hearing that news.

One morning, walking to the tram, I told myself I was being stupid, and dialed the number Kimberley had given to me.

At this point I want to introduce the elusive Richard Morgan to you, because this is the moment our friendship began.

Richard Morgan

Richard picked up the phone and said, immediately on hearing me mention the bass: “Of course I remember her. I’d love to see her again!” If you read the profile above or any of the articles below it, you will see how truly and doggedly Richard pursues his art.  We felt an immediate connection.

Turned out, Richard was living in Mount Isa now, 3000 km from Melbourne.

After a few months and a nervous truck ride, she was up with Richard in Mount Isa to be reborn.

What followed was the best experience I have ever had with a maker.  One of the first images that came through was this one of two dates, written on the inside back of the guitar:

Maker’s Marks. You can also see here Richard’s one-of-a-kind mute, deployed with a hex-key, which is used to apply balancing pressure under the cone when transporting the bass, and also when playing in electric mode, where it prevents feedback.
Mute and tailpiece

Richard called me whenever a decision needed to be made, and we would discuss it at length. The first decision was what kind of wood we should use on the resonator cone. We chose Celery Top pine. Richard felt it would be very loud.

Building the Celery-Top pine resonator cone
Something magical like a jig?

.. and it was all looking good:

… until…

The call began with “Nick, I couldnt sleep last night…”

it fell over, and the whole headstock broke off!  So Richard rebuilt that:

See the carbon fibre on the repaired neck, and the palimpsest on Richards bench.

…a new kevlar spine is  installed inside the neck.
Richard’s making her even stronger than he was when she came in

.. and she was ready again!

Until … The call began with “Nick, I couldnt sleep last night…”

Richard told me that she didnt have the bass response that he remembered from 2007. The Celery Top pine was very resonant, very loud, but it didnt have the thump of the old bass. He wasnt happy with the result yet, and he was already building yet another resonator cone out of western red cedar.

A first glimpse of her true colours.

And then she was made.

… and back up on the wall at Tasma. The day she arrived, we had two tradesmen come to the house. One of them charged me $400 for a plastic part for a toilet cistern. The other sullen fella charged me $400 for 20 minutes on the roof.

Richard put in three weeks of love. I’m not telling what changed hands financally, but every day of those three weeks was an object lesson in craftsmanship. In caring absolutely about the outcome of what you do. Literal write-your-name-on it integrity.

Thanks, Richard. The bass sounds great.

Who could love her more than I do?

Her maker.

Contact Richard here: dobmorg@gmail.com

Continue reading “Who could love her more than me?”

Bad Münstereifel, Rhüden, Goslar

One of the things I ached for in Berlin was open, wild space.  There are lots of popular lakes and forests on the outskirts of Berlin – we visited a couple, but didn’t really get to know them.  Thanks to generous Berliner friends however, we were lucky to have a couple of beautiful excursions out of the city.

serenity now

It’s easy to forget that Germany is not Berlin.  Germany truly is made up of lots of small Brothers Grimm villages, most with their own brewery.   Note to kidsWe are not on the set of Shrek – this is all really, really old. And real humans live here.

There is a magical story to share later about a double bass… But part of the story’s magic is the fairytale village of Bad Münstereifel, near Köln (Cologne).

We made some wonderful friends in Berlin, including Jens, Sofie and Daphne   They generously lent us their ‘barn’ on the outskirts of Rhüden, near the Harz mountains.  A joy to watch the Autumn storms roll across the fields and to collect windfall apples.

Exploring the nearby Harz mountains, we visited the UNESCO world heritage town of Goslar.

The town is famous for its nearby silver mines, but the homes are made of dragon scales

Seasonal discoveries

Food is core to all cultures.  The growing, harvesting, preparing and sharing of it.  The regional flavours, traditions, recipes and festivals.

source: https://www.essen-und-trinken.de/rezepte/43837-rzpt-bratkartoffeln-aus-pellkartoffeln

In Berlin we lived a block away from Marhieneke Markthalle, a fabulous fresh produce market, where each deli has it’s own small cafe, serving great value meals.  I cried when I visited Berlin recently and the two man-mountains in line before me took the last two serves of Bratkartoffeln.  Didn’t they understand I’d travelled all the way from Melbourne just for potatoes fried with bratwurst?  And I don’t even eat bratwurst…. usually.

Unlike Melbourne, the seasons in Berlin arrive confidently and with them celebrated foods.

Spring

Spring = Spargel 

Germans love this white asparagus.  Huts appear on street corners.  Kids miss school to help harvest the spargel and be Spargel King or Queen in the local spargel festival.  Restaurants adapt their menu to include spargel in every dish, cooked every possible way.   There was really no way to avoid this pale, phallic vegetable.

So I put on my best German Hausfrau apron and grilled, steamed and pureed spargel.  It was a bit bland and boring really – which I mostly blame on my cooking.  I think the real joy of spargel is that it heralds longer, warmer days ahead.

Spargel
Grilled spargel in garlic butter

Summer = Strawberries

mmmmmm… and the balsa boxes are pretty sweet too

German strawberries have ruined me.  I’m doomed to never enjoy another strawberry; fresh, on a tart, in jam… they just cannot compare to the sweet perfection of German strawberries.

In summer huts appeared all over the city selling large balsa punnets of freshly picked strawberries.  Easily located by following the fragrance.

I made the best strawberry jam… ever!

Perfection: croissant, strawberries and strawberry jam

Autumn = apples

the crispest, sweetest windfalls

We were lucky to stay at our friend Jens’ barn near the Harz mountains.  This 3 storey barn (with indoor pool) is on the edge of a village.  Nick and I walked through the fields after a storm passed.  Windfall apples covered the ground where old, solitary apple trees stood between the rows of corn.

Autumn in the country
apple flans, apple sauce, stewed apple
Big stormy skies at Jens’ barn

Winter = Weihnachtsmarkt

There are so many special German Christmas foods… most include marzipan, so let’s leave those ones out. We discovered that each of the Weihnachtsmarkt in Berlin had their own specialities and flavours.  This was true in Hamburg too, where we sampled delicious deep-fried battered cauliflower (German pakoras).

It’s very convivial to sit on stools around a large fire/open air kitchen, where a half dozen men cook a dozen varieties of sausage. Matched with an equal range of condiments. Meeting friends. Buying kitsch glass Christmas ornaments and drinking gluhwein.  The night air below freezing.  Enormous Christmas trees looking right at home.  All under sparkling lights.

Yes, I’ll have another gluhwein danke… after all, I’m taking the uBahn home.

 

Not just bikes…

Berlin is a great city to ride a bike.  For starters it’s totally flat,  practically all roads have a dedicated bike lane and it’s quick to get around.  On Sundays families load up their bikes with picnics, children, pets, scooters, trailers… and ride into the distance.

But.  Berlin is never boring.  There are many other ways to get from A to B….

Gothic beauty
Beautifully functional

Beautifully restored butcher’s bicycle from the 1920’s

… now an all terrain bar.
Tempelhof is the best place, possibly in all of Europe, to get your skates on.

Kinder school bus.  Rain, snow or sun… the kinder kids go to the park everyday.

Kind of the MG alternative to the Christiania trike
Why not??

There are some damn fine motorised options too….

Summer festivals are just a drive away.

Yes, this helicopter did land on the roundabout in Moritzplatz, stopping the traffic, for no apparent reason.

ICE baby… so fast, so comfortable, so punctual

Berlin U Bahn

The Berlin underground is brilliant. Living in Berlin we depended on the U Bahn daily.  It’s clean, reliable and safe. We’re all seriously peeved when we need to wait five minutes for a train. “Trains run every two to five minutes during peak hours, every five minutes for the rest of the day and every ten minutes in the evening.” (Wikipedia)

The U Bahn has consistently easy to understand signage, so getting lost wasn’t an issue.  Charmingly each station has it’s own ‘look’.  Ours wasn’t winning any design awards.

A rare moment of waiting for a train at our home station

This is just a taste of some of the U Bahn stations…

Love the bold tiling
Love the bold tiling

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Another great typeface
Another great typeface
I love the colour of these tiles.

The longest time it takes us to get from home to anywhere on Berlin public transport is 30 minutes – just ask Google Maps.

They cleaned the tiles and now I can't read the station name :)
They cleaned the tiles and now I can’t read the station name 🙂

The Ubahn opened in 1902 and has over 170 stations. With the building of the Berlin Wall some stations became ghost stations and didn’t re-open until 1990.

One of the first stations to re-open after the wall came down

It’s possible to take an underground railway tour – sitting on exposed bogeys like coal miners.  (Commentary is only in German.)  I can’t tell you how strange it is to see one of these trains passing through the station.

 This is kind of weird   Source: BVG

The station platform stays at a comfortable 20 degrees year round.  Worthy shelter when the weather above ground becomes too inclement for drinking.  The convivial drunks that populate benches 1&2 at Gneisenaustrasse Station may look dishevelled and smell bad, but their dogs are the most well behaved, well fed, cleaned and groomed that you will find in the city.

It doesn’t matter that you can’t say it… you’ll never forget those tiles.

A market for spittel?

Source:  www.mapaplan.com

And if the train is taking more than 5 minutes… then the tiles make a great backdrop for reluctant subjects…

Street Art in Berlin

img_3524Berlin embraces street art with a similar enthusiasm to Melbourne. 27 years ago I took photos of the five-storey murals painted on West Berlin apartment firewalls.  This time there’s street art large and tiny all over the city.

Commissioned public art still exists. Since the wall came down in 1989 graffiti and murals have appeared in what was East Berlin – most notably the tourist attraction of East Side Gallery – a long section of remaining wall along the Spree river.

Here are a few of my favourite street artists/work from our neighbourhood; Kreuzberg.

Little Lucy has a very ‘special’ relationship with her cat
Well known Spanish/Berlin street artist El Bocho decided the Czech TV series about ‘Little Lucy’ could be more interesting.

It was a treat to find new Little Lucy paste-ups

Grunge photogenic in Hackescher Markt
Dancing girls are strutting their stuff all over Berlin
Cosmonaut. When Victor Ash painted it, the shadow from a light pole of a nearby car-sales yard – became a flag in the hand of the cosmonaut.
Ned Kelly making an appearance in a tiny stencil
ROA mural

 

Gentrification

Inevitable?  There are winners and there are losers.

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Torstrasse, Berlin

Berlin local government has banned AirBnB apartments, with the argument that they tie up rental real estate that could be leased to local people.  Seems to be ineffective on every level.  But has led to some interesting graphics.

airbnbprotest

Going down the drain

I think I can credit Fe Siseman and David Hodges for my interest in manhole/drain covers. Turns out there is often wonderful civic and creative pride taken in the creation of these basic utility items.

No need for a compass - Berlin
No need for a compass – Berlin

 

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Prague
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Prague
Tivoli Gardens Copenhagen
Tivoli Gardens Copenhagen
One of my favourites, Denmark
One of my favourites, Denmark
Copenhagen flock of birds
Copenhagen flock of birds

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