Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Own a chunk of Titanic coal

A few months ago my wife and I went to Vegas for the first time. I haven't written anything about it because I just was never sure how to even divide it up - the whole trip was just one big drunken blur, like most trips to Vegas seem to be.

But one thing that didn't seem to fit the Vegas stereotype was just how into the Titanic disaster the whole strip seems to be. I bought this there:

It's a tiny lump of coal that sank with the Titanic.

I know from my obsessive internet scrubbing that coal is really the only artifact from Titanic you can buy, and RMS Titanic Inc. is the only company authorized to sell it. You can buy it online, but for some reason Las Vegas is the only physical place I've seen where you can buy it in person. (You would think maybe New York, the ship's destination? Where half its passengers lived? No?) I think I paid $25 for this. They have bigger chunks in nicer cases for more money.

This is the Titanic artifact exhibition at the Luxor. The coal is from the "gift shop". (It feels weird to write that - a gift shop dedicated to a major disaster)

The exhibition itself was actually pretty amazing. They have lots of stuff pulled up from the wreck, and seeing it all up close really makes it a lot more personal. You see the movies and read whatever books about it, but it all still feels like a story someone else is telling. When you see somebody's glasses, their pocket watch, their socks right in front of you, it's no longer detached from you. These were real people.

They also have "The Big Piece", which is pretty awe-inspiring. Unfortunately they do not let you take photos of anything in there and I followed that rule, but there are some at that linked article. I can tell you that their pictures don't capture it, though. It's huge, and it towers over you in that room. It's amazing to look at it and realize that you are looking at part of the actual Titanic. The ship that's in the movies, that everyone's been talking about for more than 100 years, that I was actually alive before it had even been found - here it is.

Vegas is Titanic-crazy in other ways too, though - it seemed like every show we went to (even the topless shows) had some weirdly out of place skit about the ship sinking. All I can think is that it's a remaining vestige of James Cameron's movie mania. Hotels are torn down and rebuilt on a daily basis in Vegas, but it seems to take a lot longer to retool a show or exhibition.

I love ocean liners and I've always had an interest in Titanic (even - or maybe especially - before Cameron's movie), so this was kind of an unexpected bonus to our Vegas visit.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

NGD: Fender AV65 Jazzmaster in Firemist Silver!

At the risk of guitar posts taking over my blog, I've got at least one more to get out of the way, because a New Guitar Day is always one of the most exciting days of the year!

That's a brand new Fender AV65 Jazzmaster - top of the line - in Firemist Silver with matching headstock. Supposedly there are only 150 of these out there, although you can still find them if you look hard enough. (I'm guessing they're expensive enough that they sit for a while before selling.)

I'm a sucker for matching headstocks and the only other AV65 Fender makes (or has ever made) with one is in Olympic White, which is both incredibly common and incredibly vanilla (literally). So it was love at first sight when I got turned on to the existence of these Firemists - a unique metallic color that's never been mass produced.

When I first opened the case, my reaction was this. In person, it is exquisitely beautiful. It's beautiful in a way that I've never seen a Fender be beautiful before. It's downright elegant. It's the classiest lady at a chic dinner party.

I have an earlier AVRI, the 1962 reissue that was the precursor to the AV65's. I knew that there were a few minor upgrades in the AV65's - a bound neck, redesigned pickups, and a "flash coat" nitro finish that's supposed to wear more like vintage - but I'm surprised at how different this guitar both looks and feels.

The neck is chunkier, for one. And the fretboard feels flatter, although it's not supposed to be - it's probably the binding that's tripping me up. The fretboard itself is bone dry, whereas my AVRI has what seems like some sort of light but hardened oil finish on it. It's hard to tell if the finish on the guitar body is really thinner than on my AVRI, but it does seem to be on the neck, where I swear I can actually feel the grain through the nitro.

I do seem to have a knack for picking up motley guitars, though. It's actually more pronounced in real life than this photo, but my fretboard looks weird:

That's not an illusion or a trick of the light - the left side really is a lot lighter. In sunlight, it almost doesn't even look like rosewood, it's like half of it's maple! I actually think it's kinda cool, though. (In fact, a few days on now, I kinda love it.)

Also, I'm gonna have to update my pickup cover post:

Fender changed the color! These new ones look a lot better - they're more of an off-white than the yellowish "aged white" of the AVRI's. I'm trying to find out now if these have replaced the packaged ones you can buy separately.

Anyway, between my CIJ, AVRI and now this AV65 (not to mention my Mami Stratomaster), I feel like I'm pretty set for life for Jazzmasters... at least until the itch strikes again. Who knows, maybe the next one will be vintage!

Monday, June 15, 2015

I've Spitfired my CIJ Jazzmaster and it is now complete

Ever wonder why modern guitars never seem to look quite right? It's because their pickguards are ugly! Just a swirly brown painted mess. So I've Spitfired my CIJ Jazzmaster:

That's a brand new, handmade tortoise shell pickguard, made the same way the original vintage ones were. It's the closest you're gonna get to the real thing without paying $500 or so. Red Jazzmasters never actually came with these, but it's a common aftermarket look and it was this look that got me into Jazzmasters in the first place.

The contrast in colors on mine is a little strong right now, but that should mellow out over time just as it did on the original vintage guards.

I touched in an earlier post on the fact that modern tort sucks. And there aren't a lot of options for Japanese Jazzmasters - US pickguards don't fit. Spitfire is the only guy making them old-school, with real celluloid patterns churned by hand. And he just started making them fitted for Japanese Jazzmasters.

It's really hard to convey how this looks in person compared to a standard modern printed tortoise shell pickguard. Printed tort has a very "2D" look - it looks like the piece of paper under plastic that it is. A real hand-churned pickguard, though, has truly random patterns all through the material - it has a real depth to it.

Here are a few comparison shots with my old Allparts pickguard still on:

Below is Spitfire, US AVRI, and Allparts top to bottom:

Spitfire and US AVRI below - what is Fender US even doing these days?

Spitfire, US AVRI and Allparts again:

I chose "Vintage Burgundy" for color and "Speckled 60's" for style, because my research showed that that was closest to what was most common in 1966, the year my guitar was based on. Don't like the big splotches of color? Pick "Subtle 60's" instead of speckled. Want something even more dramatic? Go for "Crazy 70's" or even "Solar Flare". Color options also range from "Faded Orange" to "Vintage Dark". The truth is there's no one "right" look if you're trying to replicate vintage - it depends on when a vintage pickguard was made, which individual person made it and how it's been treated since then. Spitfire seems to cover all the possible combinations.

But they all share one thing in common - that look that says you're standing in the middle of an exploding fireball. You just don't get that from printed tort.

Notice too that Spitfire's now using vintage-correct 4-ply thin black line material cut to a wider angle - a seemingly tiny detail that really makes the edges pop (see above!).

Spitfire's pickguards do not come with any sort of shielding material, so on a Japanese Jazzmaster you have to make your own. Whenever you replace your pickguard, do not neglect this step. But I'd protect that signature just in case!

I used the same shielding tape I bought to shield my Jazzmaster's inner cavities. This is probably the best option for a Japanese pickguard, because again, US pickguard shields don't fit and Fender Japan doesn't make one - they use even thinner silver foil tape on their factory pickguards.

Here is it done and trimmed. Truth be told I don't like a lot of wrinkles in my tape and I tried to smooth it out as much as possible while replacing some strips that were even worse than that bottom left corner. (This tape is difficult to keep completely wrinkle-free as you work with it.) Wrinkles that are too deep nearest the edges can leave indentations on your finish over time.

Trimming the tape is tricky - I used an X-Acto knife to trim as close to the edge as possible. I'm sure I scored the back of the pickguard a bit, but who cares - if I ever do sell this, whoever buys it is gonna want that shielding anyway. You need to trim right up to the edge, since you want the pickguard shielding to contact the inner cavity shielding and form a Faraday Cage.

After that, the rest is easy - unstring the guitar, remove the bridge, unscrew 15 screws, remove the knobs, and use a pliers to remove the nut on the pots, switch and jack. Then do the same in reverse. It sounds like more work than it is.

I took the opportunity to replace the rubber gaskets I mentioned at the end of this post with metal washers, as suggested by one of my commenters. I don't know if it made any difference but I had started to notice a bit of buzzing coming from somewhere and I didn't like it.

Outdoor photo of the new guard installed!

This guitar has been an amazing project guitar and I'm almost sad to report that there's just nothing left that I can do to it. All the parts that I *can* change, I have - and in every case, with top of the line replacements. There are just no upgrades left to do, whether functional or cosmetic.

It is at this point, in all honesty, one of the best guitars I've ever played. I have no way to improve it further, and consequently I'm not sure I'll ever write about it again.

But don't worry - there's a new addition to the stable coming this week. More on that soon!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The infamous "Atari Dump" - got my piece of it!

Yeah, today I want to show you some garbage. Historical and infamous garbage.

The first game console I ever played was the Atari VCS at my cousin's house in 1976. I grew up with Atari and I remember the video game crash of 1983 well. I personally remember the news reports of Atari dumping E.T. and other games in a giant landfill in New Mexico.

Over the years, this somehow became probably the biggest urban legend in all of video gaming. It was like the moon landing - many people swore that it never happened, and endless debates would take place all over the internet. Some of the claims did blow up into ridiculousness - that they buried "millions" of E.T. cartridges, for example. But most of the exaggerations actually seem to have been invented by those trying to prove that the landfill didn't exist. (It'd be kinda like saying the moon landings had to be faked because NASA said they got there at the speed of light.) And those exaggerations then became part of the debate.

But those of us who knew the dump existed never claimed Atari did anything but throw away a bunch of junk they couldn't sell. And not coincidentally, that included a lot of E.T. cartridges.

Finally, last year somebody set out to definitively prove that the Atari Dump is real:

You can watch that documentary in full on Netflix and various other places.

Spoiler: they did it. They found the dump. It's no legend anymore; it's fact, as it always really was. The first game they pulled out was E.T., just as the "rumors" suggested they would. Whole unopened cases of E.T. were found. Many other games were found as well - basically anything that didn't sell by the time of the industry crash.

The city of Alamagordo is still selling the spoils on Ebay (as they suggest in the documentary that they will!). The E.T.'s all seem to have been burned through, but they went for unreasonable amounts anyway - $300+ when I last checked. I picked up this copy of Defender for a much more reasonable $31, although at this point, it looks like prices are skyrocketing because there might not be much left.

My game came sealed up in a plastic bag with that metal City of Alamagordo property tag taped to it, with a separate manila folder containing a Certificate of Authenticity and photocopies of both some original 1983 news articles about the dump as well as a short written history of the dump and the dig. (I love the headline "Dump here utilized" - so straightforward, yet vague.)

I'm not going to show the Certificate of Authenticity (at least not until I heavily redact it) but it's signed by various city officials as well as Howard Warshaw, the designer of E.T., Yar's Revenge and many of Atari's most popular VCS/2600 games (and one of the guys featured in the video above).

I have not tried to play the game. I doubt it'd work; it seems pretty smashed up. But the box is unopened, and I can feel that everything's in there that should be. I find it interesting that there's a price tag on it - most likely, this game was returned from a store to Atari.

One thing I will say is that I was not prepared for the smell of this thing. The zip-lock bag does a good job of containing it, but man - when I took this game out to take the picture, I physically recoiled. It's not a smell I'm even familiar with. It's not like garbage, it's like what I imagine a compost heap smells like. It's like rotting organic matter. I quickly put it back in the baggie and opened all my windows. I doubt I'll ever take it out again. But I wonder if it's just going to continue to rot in there. I guess it's a fitting end if so.

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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