April 28, 2021

A Birthday Tour of the City of Lost Record Stores

By Stuart Mitchner

You could say that growing up with the Princeton Record Exchange sealed my son’s fate. I can still see him sitting on the floor, plowing through the $1.99 bargain bins at the back of the legendary store’s first location on Nassau between Chambers and Bank streets. When Prex was two years old in 1982, Ben had just turned six, and there he was, hunkered down picking out albums that would be recycled over the years as his taste began to shift from mainstream pop to power pop to metal to psych to prog, and on and on into the most exotic, obscure, and farflung reaches of the rock and roll universe.

“Little Red Corvette”

The first record Ben actually owned was Prince’s “Little Red Corvette,” purchased on his birthday from a startled sales clerk at Titles Unlimited, who wanted to know if the little kid in the stroller knew what the song was about. I put him off, not ready to delve into the philosophical depths of a five-year-old’s careless infatuation with lyrics like “a pocketful of horses, Trojans some of them used,” “a body like yours oughta be in jail,” and “your little red love machine.” Not only were the words hilarious, he liked the way they fit the music, and they were fun to dance to.

From early on, as soon as Ben heard a lyric, he knew it cold. Call it a gift or a curse, this is true today, on his 45th birthday. He still delights in reciting lyrics like Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park,” in which the singer goes from being “pressed in love’s hot, fevered iron like a striped pair of pants” to “the sweet green icing flowing down” because “someone left the cake out in the rain.”

Gandalf Casts a Spell

There was a time when I worried that Ben’s fascination with deranged or mediocre lyrics might indicate a careless, juvenile, noise-for-noise’s sake attitude that would lead to his buying (or asking for) obscure mediocrities at exorbitant prices. When the vinyl monkey first landed on his back, that seemed a definite possibility. Five years after the murder of John Lennon turned his world upside down, he discovered Frank Zappa. Besides putting the whole pop culture human comedy into perspective, Zappa’s musicianship and theatrical imagination helped Ben find his way through a labyrinth of bad heavy metal, pseudo satanic junk, “hot dog stand” singers, and “my girlfriend dumped me” cliches. In the aftermath of Zappa’s 1993 death, which hit him hard but much less damagingly than Lennon’s, his fascination with collectible records was fueled by two immense compendiums, Vernon Joynson’s Fuzz, Acid and Flowers: A Comprehensive Guide To American Garage and Hippie Rock 1964-1975 (1993) and The Tapestry of Delights: The Comprehensive Guide To British Music Of The Beat, R&B, Psychedelic & Progressive Eras 1963-1976, first published in 1995. Both tomes, with their tempting array of images and rarity ratings, opened the door to obscure wonders like Gandalf, which was unaffordable until a CD reissue came along in time for Christmas.

At first Gandalf had little to recommend it but the psychedelic cover art, some word of mouth among dealers, and a reputation as the victim of a major record company’s ineptitude and indifference. My wife and I both had doubts about a playlist that included Tim Hardin covers and oddball standards like “Nature Boy,” “Scarlet Ribbons,” and especially the first track, “Golden Earrings,” a song we associated with a campy old Marlene Dietrich movie. So there were some uneasy moments before Ben slid the CD into the player and a dreamy spell was cast that held until the last song, “I Watch the Moon,” one of two haunting originals by Peter Sando, who calls it “a song of loneliness and teenage angst that was like the Ronettes meet Procol Harum.” The other equally moody original, “Can You Travel in the Dark Alone,” would make a fitting title for the LP. Sando says he wrote it as a poem in a college accounting class, inspired by his love of lighthouses, especially Barnegat Light. No wonder, Sando hails from Tenafly, N.J. Anyway, it’s nice to think that Gandalf’s lighthouse showed us the way to the vinyl Mecca across the river.

Gritty City

Like the Lovin Spoonful, Gandalf was a product of the New York scene, for which the Spoonful’s John Sebastian had written the anthem, “Summer in the City.” One of the first father and son record store adventures began at Bleecker Bob’s, the secondhand shop at 118 West 3rd, formerly the site of the Night Owl Cafe, where both the Spoonful and Gandalf (then known as the Rahgoos) played in the mid-sixties. In fact, most secondhand Manhattan record stores retained the aura of sites where rock, folk, and blues musicians had performed or hung out and might walk in at any moment to check the stock.

Bleecker Bob’s had a grubby urban ambience that inspired thoughts of poets of urban decrepitude like Balzac, Dickens, and Dostoevsky. The walls were covered with movie and concert posters and hung with 45 singles, guitars, rock T-shirts, and wall clocks. In the front window was a photo of the Blues Magoos performing at the Night Owl, plus the shabby rug near the store’s entrance was the same one that had covered the stage. Peter Sando’s website offers a first-hand portrait of the Night Owl: “It was a very unique room, a long and narrow storefront. The stage faced straight at a wall in the center with one church pew at the foot, … an aisle, and then another pew against the wall. All the other seating was to the left and right of the stage, giving a side view. The PA was very trebly and faced to the sides. The music crashed into the wall and died, leaving the vocals very bare to the bulk of the crowd to each side. You had better sing on key or else it was a disaster. Good harmony went a long way at the Night Owl!” Every Thanksgiving there was “a huge feast,” with everyone there “past and present — even The Spoonful…and The Mothers of Invention served the food! Yes, we ‘believed in magic.’”

From Venus to Midnight

My dream tribute to the lost city of record stores — much of it lost well before the pandemic — would be a Jim Jarmusch movie in the style of Mystery Train, with Screaming Jay Hawkins taking over for J.D. at Midnight Records and the ghost of Elvis singing the title song as the lights fade in the back room, with its wall of pricey tresures. In charge at Venus, you’d have the jailbirds from Down By Law, Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto Benigni. Instead of the inevitably hostile sales clerks, Waits and Lurie would be bickering while casting dirty looks in the direction of Benigni (“If-a looks-a-could-a-kill, I would-a be dead”), who breaks the ice by leading all the record freaks and junkies in a march around the store chanting “Ice Cream, Ice Cream, I scream for Ice Cream.”

Ben’s favorite store was Second Coming, on Sullivan around the corner from Bleecker Bob’s. Besides offering an extraordinary selection of European prog at reasonable prices, the place was usually presided over by Ras, a friendly Dane with whom Ben liked to chat. Another favorite was Stooz off Avenue A, where he always seemed to find unfindable albums, and the Shrine on 9th Street, the scene of historic catches like Gnidrolog’s In Spite of Harry’s Toe-Nail and Lady Lake. And as far as I know, Ben was one of the few mortals who got along with Midnight’s dour, forever purple-shirted Frenchman, J.D. Martignon, who carried the fullest selection of collector literature, notably Fuzz Acid and Flowers and The Tapestry of Delights. Midnight was perhaps the most cinematically decrepit of Manhattan stores. It also had the advantage of reflected mystique from the Chelsea Hotel across the street, where Ben and I stayed the night we saw Ray Davies of the Kinks at the Westbeth Theater Center on Bank Street.

By all rights, we should be going into the city today to celebrate Ben’s birthday with a record store roundabout, but even if there were no lockdown, all the stores we’d have visited are gone, with the possible exception of Academy on East 12th. By Christmas, who knows, perhaps the WFMU Record Fair will rise from the ashes of the plague.

The Great Fair

If I want a sense of good old hot, crowded, pre-pandemic Manhattan, all I have to do is visualize the WFMU scene I encountered whenever I went birthday or Christmas shopping and/or dealing for Ben. I’d compare the experience to walking into a Hell’s Angels wedding party, but that doesn’t come close to the blind, visceral impact of the thing. Picture a mile-long R. Crumb mural-in-motion whirling in time-lapse surges around a vast, bright, overheated room where super-amplified Latino disco punk freakbeat music is being spun by a DJ who looks like Patti Smith while live sounds from bands with names like the Cherry Blossom Clinic are being drowned in the flood of collective adrenaline; where pre-millennium hipsters with Miles Davis cheekbones prowl the jazz tables in the same clogged aisle with grey-haired ex-teeny-boppers ready to kill for a test pressing of the first Monkees album; where a tweedy devotee of Early Music gingerly negotiates the sweaty, brawling human tide that is also being charmingly navigated by mini-skirted girls carrying trays loaded with joint-making paraphernalia; where midnight cowboys ride roughshod on the country western bins and velour-clad fans of glam and power pop fight for ‘browsing’ space with glassy-eyed prog and psych fiends from Japan fixated on Vertigo swirls (a favored collectors’ label); where aging metal freaks, New Agers and New Wavers, show-music backstagers and avant-garders pack their bags with goodies, wads of bills pass from hand to hand, and records that sold for $800 last year are going for $1800 the next.

Coming home from WFMU once upon a time a long time ago, I had news for Ben. I was sorting through one of the bins of rare LPs when I came across Gandolf’s psychedelic gypsy femme fatale butterfly, and the person next to me wanted to know how much they were asking. “That’s my group,” said Peter Sando.