Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 15
 
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Coldwell Banker Princeton Office

Prudential Fox and Roach, Realtors

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Record Review

“No One You Can Save That Can’t Be Saved”: A Record Exchange Reverie

Stuart Mitchner

Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world.
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one.

John Lennon, “Imagine”

In 1980, the year John Lennon died, a record store opened in a humble slot at 20 Nassau Street that in its present incarnation at 20 Tulane Street is to music as New York’s almighty Strand is to books: a retail force so potent and enduring that it’s hard to imagine anything short of Armageddon shutting it down.

A huge piece of the music history John Lennon helped make — both the stereo and mono Beatles box sets — is the grand prize that will be raffled off when the Princeton Record Exchange, which has made music history in its own right, marks its 30th anniversary and Record Store Day nationwide on Saturday, April 17. A John Lennon box set of three 7-inch singles, three post cards and a poster will also be among the multitude of limited editions offered for sale during the celebration. (For details, see page 22.)

The Vinyl Caravan

It all began with an industrious guy just out of college loading a van full of records and driving it up and down the East Coast from New England to Washington D.C. setting up here-today gone-tomorrow record fairs in college campuses, including Princeton’s U-Store. Call it what you will: American enterprise, chutzpah, brass, Yankee ingenuity, you don’t spend five years hauling around a van full of vinyl unless you’re driven, hard-driving, physically fit, and a bit crazed. As it happens, Barry Weisfeld unloaded his cargo of music across from Holder Hall in downtown Princeton on his way to making merchandising history at the helm of an independently owned franchise that’s more than holding its own while thousands of other indies have been swept under by the post-millennium tsunami that even giants like Tower could not withstand.

A Gift

Back when Barry was a more visible presence in the store, you’d find yourself bantering with a brashly gregarious man (picture a hyperactive Woody Harrelson in a baseball cap) who first-named everyone and wasted no time in pegging each customer as a potential source of secondhand vinyl. If he figured you for someone with a great jazz collection, he’d dazzle you with visions of big bucks for Miles Davis or Sonny Rollins LPs from the mid-1950s and every time he saw you it was “Hey, Stu, when you gonna bring me some jazz?” Not that he was all business all the time. If you’d just published a novel, he’d ask about your writing, and once he understood that you were trading off your rock collection for the likes of Schubert and Berlioz, he could surprise you. Like the time he saw me admiring the little wooden music box bust of Schubert in the first store’s front window and simply gave it to me on the spot, gratis, and here it is on this desk, where it’s been for almost 30 years. It still works, too. When you wind it up, it plays the theme from the Trout quintet.

Enter His Nibs

Downtown Princeton in the early 1980s was a good place to be if you had a predilection for secondhand books and secondhand records. We already had Witherspoon (surely the only used bookstore located in a bank vault) and 1981 saw the opening of Micawber Books, an independent shop every bit as remarkable in its way as Prex. We were living in a garage apartment in the Western borough, and our son, known to our landlord (a distinguished scholar and statesman) as His Nibs, could play in a playhouse built by the former ambassador himself. A sociable five year old who felt more comfortable with adults than with other kids, His Nibs knew people from one end of Nassau Street to the other, including Edie, who worked in the laundromat behind Viking Furniture; Logan, Eleanor, and Roland at Micawber; and of course, everyone’s favorite librarian, Dudley Carlson. But the place that drew him and changed his life was that cluttered subway car of a record store between Chambers and Bank streets, where we’d sit on the floor in back sifting through heaps of LPs while picking out a few to bring home that were doomed to be recycled once his taste began to evolve from power pop to metal to psych to prog, from Journey to Zappa to Diamondhead to early Genesis and on and on into the most exotic, obscure, and farflung reaches of the rock and roll universe.

Imagine how it is when you get bitten by the record bug at age five. Going through albums almost as big as you are (when your growth stats are way below the curve), all that colorful imagery flashing past, like a sort of light-show kaleidoscope. One of the attractions of Prex from day one has been the ample selection of bargains enabling low-budget parents to indulge a child’s sudden craving for, say, a $1.99 copy of Jimmy Bo Horne’s Dance Across the Floor (what got him was the artist’s name and the Dance Fever vibe of the cartoon boogiewoogie checkerboard cover). By the time Prex moved to Tulane Street, His Nibs had mentors, among them his namesake Ben, and the esteemed Associate Professor of Extreme Heavy Metal Phil, who encouraged him to make outlandish headbanger tapes wherein he hammered his Korean electric guitar with the built-in amp and bellowed his own wild lyrics into a boom box like the demented offspring of Captain Beefhart (a copy of that tape or others like it is apparently still making the rounds of the record collector interzone). But the Prex sage actually guiding him through the labyrinth of collectable music and answering the 1001 questions no one else could answer was backroom Bill. The man of the hour when serious collections had to be scoped, he was also the primary source for the numbers inked in front of the “99”s stamped on those small, round, world-famous Prex price tags.

Imagination

Whenever I remember what happened to the five-year-old when John Lennon was shot, I think of “Imagine,” the song that gives its composer a lasting claim to that word; it’s his, he gave new life to it. Except this has nothing to do with the peaceful, positive, share-the-world aspect of the message. This is the imagine-the-worst side. Imagine, then, the impact of that event on a kid who’d been bathed in Beatles from the day he came home from the hospital, whose teething medicine was “All You Need is Love,” the most reliable provider of consolation when his imagination got out of hand, especially that line, “No one you can save that can’t be saved,” sung with such feeling by the man the assassin gunned down. Imagine how it is when the music that once gave joy and banished fear becomes associated with horror and violence and death. Suddenly all our Beatles albums became fearful to look upon, and had to be put out of sight. Soon he was having nightmares about records that could kill, with covers unbearable to behold, which made the bins at the Record Exchange potentially lethal. What if something with a scary cover showed up there? Worse still, what if he encountered a cover close to the ones in his nightmares? The car radio was another minefield. We had to turn it off every time he heard the sirens in the sound of a “screaming guitar” or the gunshots from the drums. His imagination was a no-man’s-land. One way he finally found to deal with it was to create and design his own album covers for imaginary groups, complete with elaborate liner notes. In time he found that he could exchange his creations for real records. Before long he had invented a whole world of imaginary groups, with genealogies as complex as those of the real groups whose histories he knew by heart.

Meanwhile the music keeps playing, new groups from the sixties and seventies, usually from England and Europe, keep turning up online tagged with unaffordable prices. Now the relevant lyrics aren’t from “Imagine” but from Ray Davies’s “Rock and Roll Fantasy” — ”When he feels the world is closing in, he turns his stereo way up high.”

New Arrivals

Every week I plow through the Prex New Arrivals, enjoying the coming and going of old friends, jazz LPs I traded away years ago but not, I’m afraid, to Barry. I’ll look for vintage movies on DVD and ponder buying some CDs to write about, by Django Reinhardt (it’s his centenary) and Robert Schumann (bicentenary). Not to mention that my son’s birthday is coming up, and he’s printed out a list two and a half pages long of albums, cut down from a five-page list. Though I don’t expect to find any of them in the Prex bins, I’ll be there searching. With the volume of possibilities ever increasing, 160,000 new and used LPs, CDs, and DVDs at last count, you never know. You can read all about this weekend’s big celebration in the other article.

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