Monday, November 17, 2014
We don't make a lot of things in this country anymore. Big corporations discovered long ago that it was cheaper to move operations to countries like Korea and China, where workers are paid peanuts(sometimes literally, I'd imagine)and working conditions are not supportive of healthy human life. The fact that this takes jobs away from U.S. citizens, exploits workers from other lands, hurts the U.S. economy in the long run, and reduces the quality of their product does not ever seem to have phased these people, when there was more money to be made. More, more, more. More to the point of gluttony, more to the point of over saturation. That is how most modern business men have interpreted the American Dream.
But it wasn't always that way, was it? America, this great rugged land of ours, was once a place of innovation, and quality, and pride. Pull up a chair, crack open a beer and let me tell you about some cool-ass stuff you can still get made here in North America that isn't (always) mass produced cookie cutter crap.
SCHOTT LEATHERS, NYC
Irving Schott was the son of Russian immigrants. In the early 1900's, he started working in pattern making for various clothing manufacturers in NYC. In 1913, he and his brother Jack decided to open their own factory and leather company in a run down basement in the slum that was then Manhattan's lower east side. Schott Bros first product was a sheepskin lined raincoat, which they sold by literally going door to door. They started attaching their fancy new "Perfecto"label to their finest coats. The label itself was inspired by the logo on boxes of Irving's favorite cigars.
Irving and Jack were not bikers or car racers, in fact Irving never even learned to drive. Motorcycles were brand new technology in the early 1900's, but the name Schott would become forever tied to images of bikers, punk rockers, outlaws, rockabillies, and daredevils. Irving had a friend, who was part of the Beck family, who had become one of the nation's largest distributors of Harley Davidson products.At the time, since the motorcycle was a new invention, there was no clothing made for riding specifically. At Beck's behest, Irving and Jack began to make rough, thick leather jackets for cyclists, with a zipper (zippers were also brand new tech at the time) on one side of the jacket, rather than down the middle, to make it easier for riders to unzip the jacket with one hand while steering with the other. Irving was the first person to put a zipper on a commercially available piece of clothing.
In 1928, the garment that we now universally recognize as the motorcycle jacket was officially born. The Schott Perfecto. It cost $5.50 then, and will now run you around $600.
Over the years, the Perfecto has become an icon. Marlon Brando, James Dean, Sid Vicious, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Bruce Springsteen, the Stray Cats, the Ramones...the list of icons who have famously donned a Schott Perfecto is long and star studded. The list of companies who copy the Perfecto is five times as long as that. I've had many of the copies, and now that I own the real thing (I have a Perfecto that was produced between 1968 and 1970, and I found it in a vintage store for a very reasonable price. And you can, too!) I can tell you that there is nothing like a real Schott. Save up for one, it is worth it.
MOST (but not all) Schott leather jackets are still made in America (and the somewhat shockingly high price reflects that), they are still made from hand cut pieces of leather, and the machines used to put them together are run by human beings. They are the same machines from the old Schott factory, dating back to the turn of the (19th-20th) century. Yes, they are beyond the reach of most people financially. As I said though, you can find gorgeously broken in used ones on eBay and in thrift stores. Sometimes these can be had for around $200.My Schott Perfecto is magical. I found it by accident, it's around the same age as I am, it fits perfectly, and I got it for under $250. Get a Schott, I'm telling you. Just get one.
At Right: Here's the author and his beloved late '60s/early '70s Perfecto. I don't ride bikes, but I do fall down a lot.
LEVIS JEANS, SAN FRANCISO- Still an Icon
In the early 1990's, when the Clash's "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" appeared in a UK TV advert for Levi's jeans, a lot of old punks bristled at the inclusion of a tune by one of the iconic anti-establishment punk bands in a commercial selling blue jeans. This was kind of silly, of course, because the Clash were signed to one of the biggest corporations in the world (CBS/Sony) and had always ridden the line between selling out and rebelling, like all "rebel" bands do once they get big. Mick Jones, the Clash's guitarist and one of my fave people ever, simply had this to say about the furor: "Everybody's got a pair of Levi's. They're alright."
Levi Strauss invented the bluejean in the late 1800s. Again, like the Schott company, it was a family affair, run by Levi and his two brothers, all Bavarian immigrants. Along with Jacob Davis, they introduced the Levis bluejean, which would become known (after several design mutations) as the 501, in 1890. As most people know this story, I'm not gonna waste time by repeating more detail. Instead here is a fantastic video about Levi's history and a very pleasant-seeming woman who has the coolest job in the world.
Levi's, of course, does not produce the bulk of it's product in the USA anymore, to keep costs down. You can buy some very expensive Historic Collection garments (the 1954 501 jean, etc) which painstakingly replicate the historic designs of the past that are made in the USA. These cost two to three times what you would pay for a foreign made pair of Levi's. However, my suggestion is that you do as I do: seek out the garments made in Levi's factory in Mexico. It's still North America, from what I can tell workers are treated fairly, and the product is always of far greater quality than the ones produced elsewhere. Just look inside the jeans for an origin tag, which should say "Made In Mexico", or "Product Of Mexico". Like Fender Guitars' Mexican operation, Levi's Mexico produces higher quality product at a very reasonable price.
THOROGOOD BOOTS, MILWAUKEE- Tough, Stylish, Reasonably Priced, and made in the USA.
Thorogood boots have been made in Wisconsin since 1918 by the Weinbrenner company, which was started in the late 1800's by Albert Weinbrenner, the son of a German immigrant who had a shoe repair business in Milwaukee. During WW2, the factory, by then very successful, dedicated 100% of it's production to the military effort. If you see an old pic of US soldiers in the 40s, chances are they are wearing Thorogood boots. Like the Schott Perfecto and the Levi's 501XX, the basic designs of the boots have changed very little over the years. They are still made in America, they are not as expensive as their biggest (and trendiest) competitor (Red Wing), and the quality is very, very high. These are tough, cool looking, working class boots. Wear them to work, wear them to school, wear them to the punk show, just wear them. Thorogood does make more modern designs, but for my money it's the American Heritage Series that does the trick.
Where a pair of Red Wings will cost you $200.-$300, a very similar pair of Thorogoods will cost you around $150, maybe less if you luck out on eBay. The quality is undeniably the same, but Red Wing has become a trendy name in hipster fashion, where Thorogood is still known mostly to people who need work boots, and people who really like work boots, like me and you, buddy! Comparing with the great guitar companies, if Red Wing is Gibson, and Wolverine is Fender, then Thorogood is probably G&L. If that helps you.
Sadly, I do not own a pair of these beauties yet, but they are most definitely on the ol' Xmas list. Here's a pic of some douchebag who has the boots I want.
GIBSON GUITARS, KALAMAZOO- An Icon Gone Horribly Wrong
The story of Gibson is very similar to the story of Schott, Thorogood, and Levi's. Immigrant comes to America. Forms company that boasts a combination of high quality craftsmanship and innovation. Product becomes wildly popular and changes first American culture, then the world. The difference is, today in 2014/2015, I cannot recommend that you buy a Gibson. In fact, with a few exceptions, I would not advise you to buy a Gibson made after 2005.
Orville Gibson began selling instruments out of his small workshop in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1894. Word got around about the quality of the instruments, especially in the musical hotbeds of Detroit and Chicago, which were both fairly close by. Orville died in 1918, but the company grew and grew. In 1944 it was sold to Chicago Musical Instruments. Gibson was responsible for the first hollow body electric guitar, popularized by Jazz guitar great Charlie Christian. The innovations kept coming, with the birth of the Les Paul line of guitars in the early 1950s, then as the 1950s progressed into the 1960s, the ES-335, the Flying V, the Explorer, the Firebird, the SG and more exploded out of Gibson's Kalamazoo factory and into the hands of famous and working class musicians alike, who used these rock solid slabs of mahogany to change pop culture, and the world.
Recent years have seen Gibson make some very public, and very stupid mistakes. From suing every small guitar company (and some large ones, too) whose guitars had even a slight resemblance to 60 year old Gibson designs, to being raided by the feds for using illegal and endangered woods, to raising prices to absurd levels, to letting quality drop to an unprecedented low, Gibson has been pissing on it's legend for years now. The most recent development is their policies regarding their 2015 line of products. There is an overall price hike, again (whereas Fender's prices have held steady for several years now), and they've announced that ALL Gibson guitars from 2015 onwards will be fitted with the company's latest unnecessary and ridiculous "innovation", the "Robot Tuner" system. This is a strange, awkward looking box mounted to the back of the headstock that tunes the guitar for you, so you don't have to. This piece of crap, which has inspired very little besides derision since it's introduction a couple of years ago, will now be on every guitar Gibson makes, whether you want it or not. In fact, if you don't want it, you'll have to take it to a tech to get it removed, like a mole on your ass. Gibson's 2014 is full of charmless, ugly, and overpriced guitars, and it's 2015 line, while showing a slight return to more traditional designs, is ruined by the "Robot Tuner" fiasco. If the company's decidedly non-rock'n'roll CEOs and owners would recognize that musicians WANT the elegance of Gibson's traditional designs, and stop trying to re-invent the wheel with absurd gizmos and dubiously "fresh" re-designs, I think they'd win our trust back after a couple of years. They'd also need to lower prices, but hey,one step at a time, man.
A lot of people have pointed to 2005 as a loose point in time where quality went to shit, and some would say it was much earlier than that. I can only tell you that I have two Gibsons that I dearly love, pictured below. On the right is my 2003 Melody Maker Junior, also sometimes referred to as the Melody Maker P-90. It's a Melody Maker body and neck with Les Paul Junior pickup and electronics. It's got a thick, chunky "baseball bat" 1950's style neck that feels great. I added a Bigsby to it a few years back, and it is just a fabulous guitar. It was made in Nashville, Tennessee and oozes mojo. A lot of people hated the "satin" or "faded" finishes that Gibson introduced as a cost-cutting method in the late '90s/early 2000s, but I love the way it looks and feels on this guitar. On the left, I have an "SG Junior 60's" model from 2012. While most recent Gibsons I've played have been shoddy to various degrees, I really lucked out with this one. It's design is a combo of a few different 60's era SG designs. It's got a larger late 60s headstock, but the body, pick guard and controls are more similar to the early 1960's models. The volume and tone controls are placed in a straight row, more like an LP Junior than the usual 60's SG control placement. It's got a glossy finish, very nice visible cherry mahogany grain, and a fairly substantial neck. It's a good guitar. To get a good Gibson these days, I'd scour eBay, used guitar stores and pawn shops. That's what I did.
So there you have it...some great American products. Some that are still great, some that have fallen from very lofty heights. All worth your time, and all great inspiration to get you dreamin' about this country's glory days.