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Unicorn


“Never complain, never explain,” is how Henry Ford II famously brushed off reporters after his arrest for drunken driving while accompanied by a woman other than his wife. The quote popped up on a quote-a-day calendar I got for Christmas when I was in college and it seemed apropos occasionally. One time I trotted it out and a friend said that maybe that worked for Henry Ford II, but if nobody explained how would we learn, and if nobody complained what would we talk about the other 95% of the time?


So I’m going for more explaining than complaining, but we all sound reasoned and mellifluous in our own heads.


Some years ago, a pipe collector included me in an intriguing commissioning project. A number of North American carvers were given a very simple design brief: the pipe was to be representative of the carver’s individual style, and it was to be inspired by the Castello 55 shape. That was it, my take on the Castello 55, complete freedom on color, finish, everything.


Refreshing. Commissions sometimes can be stiflingly specific. As a maker of relatively reasonably priced pipes, I’ve been asked on occasion to closely copy very expensive pipes made by famous makers. Very sorry, sir; if the maker is alive that’s a hard and fast “no” and if it has to look exactly like the picture that’s a quick nope also. Of course, there is nothing new under the sun. All pipes have a big hole where the tobacco goes in and a little hole where the smoke comes out. The little hole goes between your teeth and the big hole has to be far enough away not to burn your face and point skyward enough for the tobacco to stay in. Pretty much everything that satisfies those conditions has been tried, so it can be hard to make a pipe that doesn’t look somewhat like something that somebody else has made.


That said, there is a line. If you ask me to make a recognized shape like a Cutty, no problem. If you ask me to make a Tom Eltang Cutty, I’d have to say that’s a job for Tom Eltang. The collector played it just right; an homage to the Castello 55 and a collection of styles, not a set of budget knockoffs.


Back then my schedule allowed me to go to pipe shows, where I talked to other carvers. One said that the Castello 55 was an ugly shape so he was gonna make an ugly pipe. I disagreed with this equation. As an orchestral musician, I am aware that the audience pays for a professional performance, not for my opinion of the music, and I likened the collector to the audience. Some musicians (say, James Taylor) get to play only music they like but in an orchestra the job is to take whatever shows up on the stand and spin it into gold. Most of the time it’s pretty golden to begin with but if it takes some work to polish up, well, start polishing. Every so often a student will say he or she doesn’t like a piece of music, usually as a half-apologetic explanation for playing it badly. I explain that being a professional musician is like being a chef. If someone comes into your restaurant and orders scallops, it doesn’t matter whether you like scallops or not; you make the best scallops you can so the diner will return. A professional musician must find a work’s best side and deliver it to the audience, so maybe somebody will say “You know, I thought I hated Webern (for instance), but that piece moved me.”


I didn’t start out thinking this way. My first full time job was in the New Mexico Symphony in Albuquerque. Perspective comes with experience; I was short on both. I was fired up to play Mahler and Brahms and Prokofiev, slightly less so the pops concerts. Now, there were some great pops shows and guests. Pete Fountain, Doc Severinson, Emmylou Harris, and so on. Fabulous. I’ll always remember Doc Severinson hanging out with us musicians at Cafe Oceana after the shows, smoking cigars and telling Tonight Show stories, and picking up the tab. Also memorable was Mel Torme’s program of big band arrangements, including an absolutely molten version of Benny Goodman’s Air Mail Special, which came with a note from the librarian of the last orchestra that played it to the effect that the principal clarinetist had better take a look at this one. What a singer, what a musician. Not all of it was easy to love, though.


One of our pops conductor‘s favorite pieces was an arrangement called something like “Orchestral Swing” or “Big Band Hits,” I’ve forgotten. We played it at least once every year. One of the sections had a written-out Dixieland style clarinet solo that I hated. HAY-ted. It was poorly written but if I wasn’t a jazz player I was even less of a jazz composer so I couldn’t be arsed to improve it. I had to stand up to play the solo, removing the possibility that it could pass unnoticed as part of the general cacophony. So I’d haul myself to my feet with the enthusiasm of a prisoner facing the firing squad and slog through it. When I left the NMSO for a one-year job playing second clarinet in the Pittsburgh Symphony I was relieved on numerous levels, not having to play that stupid solo for a year being one of them. So you can imagine my reaction when I opened my folder for my first pops concert in Pittsburgh and there was that very arrangement. In rehearsal, I sat trying to decide between sympathy and schadenfreude for acting principal Tommy Thompson as the solo approached. But instead of slinking down to play the solo apologetically, Tommy popped to his feet like a jack-in-the-box and belted it out. And it sounded GREAT.


Clearly, I had been the problem.


I’ll be the first to admit that the Castello 55 isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Mine included; I would never have taken it as a model on my own. Castello has some very distinctive shapes. The Hawkbill, shape 84, colloquially known as the “donkey nut” also comes to mind. But the people who like those shapes really like them, and, whatever it did for my colleague, that exchange sharpened my intention to find something personal in a shape I hadn’t previously considered.


A design element that I had established as part of my style — although looking back I must have stolen it from Kent Rasmussen — was the prominent, narrow squared edge, as you can see in the photo below of a shape that happened when I started out to make a Ukulele but somehow it got crossed with a Volcano. I focused the defining characteristic of the 55 — the “chin” — by turning it into a raised, squared edge. Which dictated the rest of the shape, “cut to the bone” a la Rasmussen. Simple. The freaky part was what the briar did.



It cooperated. No, that’s too passive, it contributed. No, it outdid me.



In every field there are outliers. Golf has the hole-in-one. Obviously, better and more frequent golfers have more of them, but the European Tour put out a video where Eduardo Molinari was given one day and 500 balls on a 140-yard par three with an easy pin placement. He got really close lots of times, and he rototilled the tee box, but no hole-in-one. The inverse of the hole-in-one is the rub of the green, the perfect nine iron that hits the flagstick dead center and bounces backward into the water. It can go either way with briar is what I’m saying; I’ve had pipes start out great and wind up in the fire and I’ve had tunneling flaws that looked like they were going to wreck everything disappear like a bad dream just as the shape reached the point of no return. This particular interaction between shape and grain was a hole-in-one. If you look at the pictures, you’ll notice that there are no flaws. That’s a lot of birdseye to expose without hitting at least one sand pit. Then there’s the tightness and intensity of the birdseye. Then there’s the fine straight grain that goes all the way around the bowl. It takes a special block to be that straight on a pure cylinder. Finally, there’s the slight, cirrus-cloud flame at the sides of the bottom as they curve up to the beltline of the pipe — the sides are perfectly symmetrical.


Here’s the problem: no other blocks have cooperated, let alone contributed. You know how I said I wouldn’t copy another maker? That doesn’t stop people asking me to copy myself, and a fairly powerful incentive exists to do just that. This where I can tell you I’m not superstitious and in the same breath allow that sometimes briar wants to be something and sometimes it doesn’t. There have been, over the years, a number of requests for one of these pipes, and I’m always on the lookout for blocks that might serve. But the grain is everything. Nobody wants this shape sandblasted, nobody wants it with blobby, off-center birdseye, nobody wants it with wide, flamey or washed-out grain around the bowl, and nobody will overlook the sand pit that is virtually assured in this much birdseye. They want it to look like the picture. They may SAY that they understand that I can’t guarantee that, but that’s not the heart talking, they know that’s what they have to say to get me to try. And once a collector has decided that he has ordered a pipe like this from me there is a non-zero probability that he will think my failure to produce one is intentional and he won’t buy anything else.

Splendid.


Pursuit of the unicorn has cost me a pretty penny in briar. It can be hard to separate normal waste — blocks that were doomed no matter what — from waste that happened because I was trying to make a hole-in-one instead of playing safely to the center of the green, but there definitely is some of the latter. When you don’t have any wiggle room in the shape and you don’t have much wiggle room in the type of block you need for it, a flaw that you might otherwise have dodged gets you right in the heart. Having recently reconnected with a collector who reiterated his long-standing wish to have one of these pipes, I started trying again. Would be to my advantage to pick that apple if at all possible, honestly. In the past several weeks I’ve been able to find four blocks that seemed like candidates. All were taken out by flaws, although I was able to recover early enough on one of them to get another shape. I managed once, a few years ago, to make one for a friend and collector, but although I devoted several specially selected blocks to the effort I couldn’t quite reach the level of grain as the original. He was too nice to say so but I’ve always suspected that the pipe was a disappointment.


It isn’t necessary to start talking about imps again. The simplest explanation is that it’s all relative. If my best pipes sold for a grand or two then toasting a half dozen blocks would be less of a kick in the dangly bits and I’d have flown to Italy to wine and dine with Mimmo and pick my briar in the first place. Which is not sour grapes; making anything with your hands for a living is fraught, and the guys and gals who have succeeded at it are nothing but good for me. If I had devoted my life to pipemaking instead of music and wound up where I am now — well, that wouldn’t have happened. Not saying my pipes would cost a grand, but something would have happened. Pipemaking has given me an outlet for some skills and has made me some good friends. I’m able to make nice things for people who are glad to have them, and that ought to be good enough for anybody.

The 55 collector was very appreciative but that was the last I heard from him and if the email archive doesn’t lie that was the only pipe I made for him. Never saw any photos of the assembled collection, not really sure how many or which carvers were involved. For those of you scoring at home, that’s one happy customer, half a dozen or so disgruntled customers who still think I’m holding out on them. I’m not giving up, I’ve got another primo block tied to the altar right now. But I am pacing myself. Focus on the process, let the hole-in-one take care of itself.

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