Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 24
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
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It’s in the Genes — Father and Son in the City That Never Sleeps

Stuart Mitchner

Driving into New York with Procol Harum’s Salty Dog on the stereo, father and son heartily agree, not for the first time, that Gary Brooker is one of the great singers of rock and that people who trash his group should, as President Obama said recently in another context, “have their heads examined.” By the time the family CRV-stereo-on-wheels is approaching the Holland Tunnel, the Home album is on and father and son are singing lustily along with Gary Brooker to one of the alltime great putdown songs, “Still There’ll Be More,” which they agree possibly outdoes even Queen’s “Death on Two Legs” and Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” for sheer unmitigated attack-mode exuberance.

Not surprisingly, their Manhattan destination is a secondhand record store that the father used to visit in the late 1960s while looking for obscure British imports, which, as it happens, is now the object of the son’s quest. The only problem is that in 2011 such records can cost hundreds of dollars, which is why the father is calculating the potential damage while feeding quarters into the Muni-Meter on Sixth Avenue (75 cents for 10 minutes). As he wanders up and down Sullivan and Bleecker and MacDougal, the shops, signs, and cafes bring on the predictable nostalgia for long-ago pre-Muni-Meter New York summers before Fourth Avenue’s used bookstores disappeared and the Dodgers and the Giants went west.

Bleecker Bob’s

This is a tale of two quite different spaces, polar opposites in a metropolis of extremes. On one level you have the funky, earthy New York that will surely always somehow find a home in one or another of the nooks and crannies of the city. Bleecker Bob’s, the secondhand shop at 118 West 3rd where the son is trading records for records to help lower the ultimate cost, has a grubby ambience that inspires thoughts of those great celebrators of urban decrepitude, Balzac, Dickens, and Dostoevsky. BB’s is not the place to take an elegant museum-going art lover with a low tolerance for dingy, crowded rooms and sagging wooden floors that creak.

What, then, does a shop in the armpit of the city have to do with the Palace of Art some 70 blocks due north? The answer is two words: “Guitar Heroes.” By using a title that instantly evokes legends like Hendrix and Clapton, the Met hopes to cast a wider net. In truth, the heroes in the exhibit are the makers, not the players, of the instruments on display.

Without the electric guitar, it’s safe to say there would be no Bleecker Bob’s. All due respect to keyboards, drums, saxes and trumpets, the electric guitar is the engine that fired the rock and roll shot heard round the world and began the long-playing record phenomenon that approached its zenith with the Beatles-led British invasion of the mid-1960s, around the time Bob Plotnick opened his doors. Other shops like Venus, Midnight, Second Comings, Stew’s, the Shrine, and It’s Only Rock and Roll have fallen by the wayside while Bob’s has held on to become, by default, a museum in its own right.

Look around. The walls are covered with movie and concert posters and hung with 45 singles, guitars, rock T-shirts, and wall clocks. That shabby rug near the entrance happens to be the same carpet that used to cover the stage of the Night Owl, the West Village nightclub that was once home to early performances by Dylan and Hendrix. Bleecker Bob’s took over from the Night Owl in 1984, when Bob moved the shop from the MacDougal Street space it had occupied since the mid-sixties.

One of the major charms of Bleecker Bob’s is its promise to stay open 365 days of the year. Better yet, on Saturdays it’s open till 3 a.m., a definite plus if you have serious nostalgia for the days when New York was truly the City That Never Sleeps. The Met, on the other hand, is closed on Monday (unless it’s a Met Holiday Monday), and shuts its doors at 5:30, except on Fridays and Saturdays when it’s open till 9.

In the Back Door

After lunch and two more Muni Meters (in the East Village at least you get 10 minutes for 50 cents), father and son drive up First Avenue, past the UN building, then west on 81st to Fifth and 80th and into the Met’s underground garage. The visitors find it less intimidating to enter the palatial domain from the garage rather than ascending that voluminous stairway on Fifth Avenue. Best to approach through the back door after a visit to Bleecker Bob’s. Makes for a less wrenching transition.

It took 20 minutes to find “Guitar Heroes.” The grandeur of the Met, the sense of marble halls and Olympian vistas, gave the quest a kind of reflected glory. As for the show, subtitled “Legendary Craftsmen from Italy to New York,” the nostalgia-besotted father’s favorites were Monteleone’s Radio City model named for Marilyn Monroe and D’Angelico’s New Yorker with its inlaid stylized profile of the Art Deco New Yorker Hotel.

As pleasant as it is to know exactly where you are in a building as complex as the Met, it’s more fun to wonder and wander and find yourself surprised by works and artists you thought you knew but didn’t. Tiepolo, for instance. What compels attention in The Allegory of the Planets (1752) is a lightness of touch, the sense of a sketch taken to glory, that can only be appreciated in person, up close.

Another surprise was Poussin’s Blind Orion Searching for the Missing Sun (1658), in which Orion seems to have stepped out of one of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels. A little research leads to, of all people, the essayist William Hazlitt, who calls Poussin “the most poetical” of all painters: “No one ever told a story half so well, nor so well knew what was capable of being told by the pencil. He seized on, and struck off with grace and precision, just that point of view which would be likely to catch the reader’s fancy.”

Hazlitt’s reader’s guide to Poussin seems more than worthy of the painting and makes the father, who has always favored Coleridge at Hazlitt’s expense, curious to read more of a writer who sees Orion “setting out on his journey,” stalking along, “a giant upon earth” who “reels and falters in his gait, as if just awakened out of sleep, or uncertain of his way.”

Rooms and Windows

On their way back to the garage elevators, father and son pass through “Rooms With a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century,” which, like “Guitar Heroes,” will be up until July 4. Since the museum is about to close, there’s not time enough to retain much more than a hurried stroller’s sense of the way the works illustrate the theme. While the exhibit’s commentary suggests “the window as a metaphor for unfulfilled longing,” these tidy, serenely austere interiors by artists the father has never heard of impress him more for the amusing contrast they present to the elaborate disarray of Bleecker Bob’s. Only the crowded clutter of Adolph Menzel’s Bedroom in Ritterstrasse (1847), with its scrap of rug and glimpse of Berlin outside the window, has anything like BB’s wasted charm.


Homeward bound, the bag of records from Bleecker Bob’s safely stowed in the back seat, the city-sated travelers admire the sunset over New Jersey and know without discussing it the music they want to hear. All the way to Princeton, the sunset is deepening and the Beatles are singing.

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