It seems like yesterday, but it was long ago. Seven and a half years ago, to be precise. The precise who and why of it we can leave to the privacy of the woman involved, but here’s the what and where: I found myself behind the wheel of a nearly-new, livery-spec Lincoln Town Car, pulling up to the arrivals lane at the Memphis airport. I’d driven it down from Columbus for what was supposed to be a week-long trip across the American Southwest. For a variety of reasons, mostly alcohol-related and drama-related, we never left the city. By the time I took my date back to the airport, we were no longer strangers to each other — and that was, perhaps, the problem, because we liked each other best as strangers.
It was the kind of “lost weekend” that every man should experience a few times in his life, because it teaches you the raw mechanics of human desire and disgust in a way that you’ll never learn from frantic collegiate couplings or dissipated domestic boredom. In that short span of days, she and I shimmered and sank through a fast-forward series of scenes alternating between exhilarating and exhausting, the fragile high of each evening collapsing into the vomiter’s cockroach crawl at four in the morning. True to form, I managed to make a few bucks out of the thing, with a review of the car and a fiction-ish story. That modest financial return was far outweighed by long bar tabs and rack-rate extensions on a hotel room that we couldn’t summon the moral strength to leave.
Oh, and somewhere in there I spent $3,400 on a new guitar.
From the Gibson Memphis showroom, immediately following a spur-of-the-moment factory tour. I’d made fast friends with the shop foreman and asked him to find me something that had turned out just a bit better than the rest of the day’s haul. He returned with a cherry-red ES-339 Figured. It was absolutely flawless and rang out strong even before I’d plugged it in. In the years after, I used it twice a week for my sandwich-shop gigs, always enjoying the complex tone and perfect playability of the thing. Which was good, because financially speaking I lost my shirt on it.
Turns out the nice people at Gibson were losing their shirt on it, too.
The “Memphis Custom Shop” was a hugely ambitious turn-of-the-millenium build-out that included a massive performance space and enough extra room to double or triple production in the future. It built the semi-hollowbody Gibsons exclusively and it also handled gloss-white Les Paul Customs because the paint booth had some special equipment in it that the Nashville Custom Shop did not. Because Memphis real estate was cheap, the numbers kinda-sorta balanced for a long time.
Then Gibson made some big bets on non-guitar-industry acquisitions that didn’t quite pan out. It’s ironic that the Gibson management team would blow their wad on expanding the company, given that they’d rescued the brand from a non-music-industry firm — the infamous Norlin — that had weakened itself by taking on Gibson. Not everybody learns from history. Now Gibson’s debt is firmly in junk-bond territory. There must be more money, and soon.
This was the impetus behind the re-branding of the Memphis Custom Shop as simply “Gibson Memphis”. Doing that freed them to ramp up production and cut costs to the bone. All of a sudden, the entry-level product from Memphis wasn’t a $2,900 ES-339 Plaintop but a $1,200 Studio. Did I say $1,200? We can do better than that: How about $850? Used guitars from the Memphis shop are now changing hands for $700 or thereabouts. My Custom-labeled ES-339 Figured would be a tough used-market sale at $1,499 now.
Pressured to turn out product at an ever-increasing rate, the Memphis factory has let quality control slip through the cracks. They were always hit-and-miss — I had a tangerine CS-336 with a twisted neck, replaced by Gibson after a vicious back-and-forth discussion with customer service — but the new ones are apparently horrible. Which makes sense. Their production process isn’t automated — I know, because I’ve seen it. There’s no real way to do this stuff faster unless you just stop paying attention to little things like neck alignment and fret width. You can make a solid-body guitar with a CNC machine but laminated hollow and semi-hollow instruments require a manual process. The list of steps is long and very few of them can be cut out.
Last month, Gibson announced that they would be closing the Memphis facility as soon as a buyer could be found: The price: $18 million, which is a drop in the bucket compared to Gibson’s billion-dollar liability. It’s like somebody being $100,000 in credit card debt and “addressing the problem” by selling his XBox on Craigslist. Better to think of it as the Gibson management team making a public sacrifice to the gods of Wall Street, who like their ancient pagan counterparts never become tired of seeing mortal men humiliate themselves on their collective behalf. Gibson claims that they will replace their Memphis with a smaller, more “agile” shop down the street. You’d be foolish to expect that. Production can and will fall back to Nashville. It will be the end of a lovely adventure, an attempt to build the guitars most closely connected to the electric blues right there in the current spiritual home of that music. But the numbers don’t match up. You won’t find thirty Gibson semi-hollows on stage in a whole evening of Beale Street bar-hopping. The Memphis factory could turn out three hundred of them a day.
I need to get down there again before they close it, to really take a look around, to commit it to my permanent recollection. In the years between 2010 and now, I visited the shop twice: Once in a 1976 Cadillac Fleetwood Talisman, and once in a Chevrolet Spark. Neither time did I spend more than three minutes in the building. It felt haunted somehow, by memories of times that had passed and would not return. For the people of the Gibson Memphis plant, those times were the good ones; for me, they were something I am happy to have left behind. I think of a video game I played as a kid. In it, you would run towards a lake with three dot-matrix alligators angrily chomping their dot-matrix jaws. There was a vine swinging towards you. At the perfect moment, you’d push the button, which would make your character grab the vine and swing safely to the far side, accompanied by an 8-bit jingle.
The trick was pressing the button at the right time once you’d swung across, or you would fall back into the alligators. So even as a child I understood something that I have to learn again and again as an adult, namely: Don’t wait too long to let go.