Saturday, April 19, 2014
You might not have known it, but this past Monday was Record Store Day. At least in my life it was. I walked into the Downtown Music Gallery that afternoon looking for something a little off the beaten Robert Wyatt path. Which means way, way off the fire trail in the middle of a forest a couple 100 miles from the nearest thing that resembles a path. The ever-helpful walking encyclopedia and co-owner Bruce directed me to Michael Mantler's The Hapless Child And Other Inscrutable Stories featuring the text of Edward Gorey. At first it didn't seem quite my cup of tea, but then I looked at the list of players and saw the inventive Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal. This was a good start. I decided to give it a chance. I don't need to tell you how that worked out, but I will.
I'd been in the shop a couple months ago right after Bruce and one of his employees, Chuck, had brought in some CDRs of a band they'd just discovered (To be geekily accurate, Chuck discovered them and turned Bruce onto them.), Wei Zhongle. They remind me of Henry Cow, This Heat, General Strike with a dash of Gang of Four and featuring vocals that sound vaguely Chinese even though the lyrics are in English. Mad, mad stuff. ANYWAY (This is me reflecting the overarching idea that one of the best things about shopping in a record store are the tangents.), when I'd bought the Wei Zhongle's they had mentioned a clarinet quartet CDR by one of band's members, John McCowen. I didn't buy it then, but it stuck in my head. I also remembered that it had a low price. I asked if they still had any of them left. That was about the time that Chuck walked into the store with some packages. He overheard what I was asking about and said, "His new one is in this box." Yeah. I took that one too. But it wasn't over. When they opened one of the other boxes, they found that it had the new one from the King Crimson offshoot, Stick Men. Bruce knows my light (HaHa. In the context of Manny Lunch, trust me. It's LIGHT.) obsession with the Crims. Yeah. Put that in the bag too. I'm done. OK. I'm not done. On the way into town, I happened to have been listening to a great disc that DMG had put out on their own label a few years ago by South African drummer Selwyn Lissack. I had to, again, compliment Bruce on what a fabulous release that was. He said, "You know, have you ever heard that disc by Ric Colebeck? At this point my wallet screamed, "Make it stop!" But my reply was, "No. Who's that?" Turns out he's a British trumpeter who had released a scorcher of an album with Lissack hitting the skins. They, of course, had it in stock. Sigh. OK. That really WAS it. I went home and listened to a pile of great, unexpected music.
What allowed me to take all those leaps though was the trust that I have in Bruce. I've been shopping at DMG for 17 years, and Bruce and his co-owner Manny have never led me astray. Not once. Over that time, they've developed a sense of my tastes, AND how far I'm willing to stretch those tastes. With their help, my boundaries—already pretty expansive—could now be used in science books as proof of the accelerating universe. There's no algorithm that could do the same. Even if there was, I can't think of anything more boring than being told what I might enjoy by a machine. I'm pretty sure that that machine didn't meet the artist at a Jazz festival and talk to them about a favorite recording or what they're working on now. I'm also sure that a machine wasn't going to be able to buy a stack of CDRs from a band they had just been knocked out by for the first time, and put them on the shelves the next day. I learned from Mr. Rogers a long time ago that robots don't have feelings. They have no sense of smell either. Because you need a good sense of smell to follow the trail of an expanding universe of paths, to see where they end or better yet, to see where they just keep going. It's the very essence of improvisation.
The official Record Store Day is something designed to get people off of their asses and away from their screens, and INTO the record stores that haven't been killed by fucking Amazon, fucking Walmart, fucking iTunes, and fucking Spotify. That's great, and I'm going to be indulging in some of the special events later this afternoon. My girlfriend and I are going to catch guitarist Steve Gunn play at an in-store at Academy Records in Greenpoint. Then we'll pop over to Rough Trade to hear Simon Raymonde spin some jams at Rough Trade in Williamsburg. Yes, I said Simon Raymonde. And all this will probably be after we meet at Heaven Street in Bushwick. The Ascetic House crew were in town, and I want to check to see if they dropped off any of their tapes. And just to say Hi to JR and Sean.
Tomorrow I'm heading back to Downtown Music Gallery. Because, in fact, it worked out like it so often does there. The Mantler record was great, and there were a couple more albums by the same crew sitting in those bins. Yeah. I'll have missed Record Store Day at DMG, but that's not the point. Record stores—the best ones, at least—are wild streams with ever changing currents. You can dip your hand in at any point and be refreshed.
If you don't understand this love letter to accident, intuition, conversation, community and trust; then I have some bad news. It's not the record store that's dying. It's you.