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A walk on the wild side

Local luthier recalls thrill of building guitar for late music icon Lou Reed

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When news broke that Lou Reed -- the hugely influential Velvet Underground leader, New York legend and rock 'n' roll visionary -- had died last Sunday of liver disease, the music world was left reeling. An outpouring of thoughtful obituaries and nerdy think-pieces recalling his monumental and far-reaching impact on modern music followed. A host of musicians, including David Bowie, Morrissey, Patti Smith and Iggy Pop, have paid their respects; Arcade Fire even slipped in a Lou Reed medley that included covers of Perfect Day and Satellite of Love during its NPR session this week. Memories are still being shared.


Allan Beardsell has his own personal memory of the venerated songwriter. About six years ago, the noted Winnipeg luthier -- who has been professionally building custom guitars for nearly two decades -- had a guitar commissioned by Reed himself.

Reed was introduced to Beardsell's work via a Vancouver musician and Georgia Straight music scribe by the name of Alex Varty, who owns an extensive guitar collection and has been a friend of Beardsell's for years.

"Alex called me up and he said, 'You'll never guess who just showed up at my doorstep,'" Beardsell recalls with a laugh. "I don't know how Lou heard about his guitar collection, but there he was. I don't make a traditional-style guitar and Lou is not a traditionalist. Alex put one of my guitars in his hands and apparently he flipped out."

Varty told Beardsell to expect a call from Reed's camp. "I didn't think anything of it. A month later, I got an email from one of his guitar techs that said Lou was interested in commissioning a guitar."

After a few weeks of email exchanges, Beardsell finally suggested he should talk to Reed himself.

"A couple days later, I got a call from Lou. In that thick Brooklyn accent of his he said, 'Hi, it's Lou -- what do you need to know?'

"I've heard about other people having explosive dealings with him, but he was really nice to me, He seemed like a straight-up dude," he adds with a laugh.

Beardsell doesn't know what became of the finished guitar -- "an acoustic guitar, which is unusual." He doesn't know if it was used on any recordings or preserved as a prized addition to Reed's estimable guitar collection. "I don't have any pictures or recordings," he says.

Still, creating a handmade work of art for someone who served as a personal creative inspiration is its own reward.

"I was a pretty big fan. I listened to his albums and I appreciated his songwriting. It was the urban vision he presented that I found so fascinating. He wasn't the greatest guitar player or the greatest singer -- but he's a true artist. He really said something. I used to listen to (1989's) New York just about every day," says Beardsell.

The luthier, who grew up in Vancouver and later moved to Toronto, started making guitars out of scraps he collected from his job at a cabinet maker's.

"I made some real ashtrays at first," he says, laughing.

In the years that followed, he made his living repairing guitars and building the odd custom piece for notable Toronto musicians such as Ian Blurton. Beardsell moved to Winnipeg in the mid-'90s to start his family, and turned his focus to building. He ran his business out of his Wolseley garage before relocating to his current St. Matthews Avenue location, which used to be the workshop of Thomas 'Gar' Gillies, the inventor of Garnet Amplifiers, which were favoured by the Guess Who.

To have a musical legend ask for one of your guitars is a unique kind of career affirmation.

"It definitely makes you feel like you've made the right choice with your life. I don't make my living off guys like that. My living comes from more obscure artists. Famous musicians are not usually involved with the equipment on that level because they're usually endorsed," Beardsell says.

"For Lou Reed to seek out a guy working out of his garage in Wolseley, it's pretty extraordinary."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 2, 2013 G1

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