New York state of mind


New York state of mind

As every music nerd knows, collecting is not about lists. It’s the art of submission, catching the wave of chance and riding it for as long as you can, writes FRED DE VRIES.


NO way this cold — sore throat, headache, runny nose, the works — was gonna keep me indoors. Not when you’ve just set foot on American soil. You simply do what you have to do: you swallow, in quick succession, paracetamol, Vicks, Fisherman’s Friends, strong coffee, honeyed tea and fresh orange juice. You swallow, swallow again, then you step outside. You breathe in the murky Manhattan summer air. It tastes of life, excitement and endless possibilities. You blink, then cross First Avenue and take the M15 bus on Second Avenue, get off at 16th Street near Union Square, go two blocks up, cross a few more avenues west and then, on the left, you enter Academy Records & CDs. It’s been a year, but it feels like home.

As every music nerd knows, collecting is not about lists. It’s the art of submission, catching the wave of chance and riding it for as long as you can. Subconsciously, there will be titles of albums you still want, although over the last 50-odd years you’ve collected thousands and thousands of vinyls. But there’s always more, always new genres to explore. Folk, jazz, metal, country, bring it on! And the real delight of entering a record store is letting it wash over you: the sounds, the clientele, the chatter, the grumpiness, the banter, the weirdos, the background music and the thousands of LPs, singles and CDs. It’s heaven.

Academy Records & CDs on W 18th Street is anything but a funky New York store. Nothing like Bleecker Bob’s Records in the West Village, which used to attract members of The Clash and Led Zeppelin, who were looking for rare stuff. It was at Bleecker Bob’s that Patti Smith met her guitarist, Lenny Kaye, in the early Seventies. But the shop closed in 2013 and Bob, or Robert Plotnik, is no longer with us.

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Back in the day, downtown Manhattan had tons of famous record stores. I remember going to Sounds on St Mark’s Place in the East Village in 1984 and walking out with Black Flag’s hardcore classic My War, with a big pink price sticker that said $6.99. These days, an early pressing of My War sells for about $100 but I won’t get rid my copy. The memories of my first New York visit, attached to that album, are too dear. Sounds closed in 2015. Almost next door was Mondo Kim’s, one of the branches of Kim’s Video and Music, a fantastic store that specialised in “experimental and esoteric music and film". I visited the last remaining Kim outlet in 2012 and bought Cat Power’s album Sun there. The shop closed two years later.

The other heralded East Village store was Other Music, a hipster place with knowledgable staff, lots of recommendations scribbled on cards and an incredible choice of left-of-centre music — Japanese noise, esoteric ambient, Malian desert rock and everything in between. It opened in 1995 and remained the go-to place for every self-respecting indie music fan for the next two decades. My favourite music writer, Amanda Petrusich, used to go there. When the shop closed in 2016, she wrote an obituary in The New Yorker in which she summed up the magic of Other Music neatly: “In 1999, if you were the type of person who was looking for something a little different (more challenging, more sophisticated, more esoteric) from the schlock being peddled to the herds of dead-eyed automatons browsing the Tower Records up the block, then here was the store for you."

But since none of these downtown stores has survived, my first port of call when visiting New York is Academy Records & CDs on W 18th Street. It’s very New York. Like lots of places in the city, it makes you feel as if you’re in a movie. The staff act aloof and talk loudly, just like in the movie High Fidelity. It’s the kind of place where you will not buy certain albums, because they stare at you and make you feel deadly uncool. That said, it’s not really a hip place; the branch on E 12th Street, a 25-minute walk away, has much more street cred. But somehow I prefer this outlet, even though a lot of floor space is devoted to classical music. I love its excellent collection of rock, jazz and blues, as well as a wall full of interesting CDs that sell for between $4 and $7. In the $5 bin, I once found a classic, mono Sonny Rollins album which I still cherish.

You can happily spend one, maybe two hours here, then you’ve checked out all there is to check out. Which is exactly right — there’s so much else to do. See, that’s my kind of place. I don’t want to be overwhelmed, not knowing where to start, like the shop I visited in Pennsylvania a few years ago which had room after room full of vinyl, including 28,000 singles. Those shops are great if you know what you’re looking for, but useless for browsing — you just drown in vinyl.

And then there’s the serendipity factor.

Here I must add a bit of background. A few days before I flew out of Cape Town International Airport I was looking for a particular CD at home. I wanted to listen to some catchy rock 'n' roll, and in particular I wanted to hear the Flamin’ Groovies. They started in San Francisco in 1965 and lasted many decades, using different musicians but keeping their signature sound, somewhere between garage rock and power pop, short, sharp and to the point. I first heard them in 1976 when a friend played me their Jumpin’ Jack Flash/Blues From Phyllis EP. Their version of the Stones tune gave the English boys a near run for their money. Not much later I bought their near almost hit Shake Some Action, four-and-a-half minutes of pure pop bliss, reminiscent of The Beatles, The Byrds, Big Star, Badfinger, every great pop band that ever existed. It’s a crime that the song never made them world famous.

So, while I was packing my bags I wanted to hear the Flamin’ Groovies, sing along, get into the right mood. And I was pretty sure I had several of their CDs, but I must have mislaid them, or maybe thrown them away because they were too scratched. In the end I grabbed a Flaming Lips CD, a poor substitute.

Anyway, here I was in downtown Manhattan checking out the “new arrivals" section at Academy Records & CDs. And while my fingers and eyes did the work, my brain registered a familiar intro coming from the shop's speakers: a chugging guitar, soon followed by the opening lines: “I’m a monster, got a revved up teenage head/Teenage monster, California born and bred." Yup, dear serendipity, it was the Flamin’ Groovies, the opening track of their third album, Teenage Head from 1971. I mean, what are the chances of hearing this album at this moment in this place, exactly when you are there and have been looking for it?

The album is absolutely ace, a cult classic. It came out around the same time as The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, and one of the persistent rumours is that Mick Jagger once said it was better than his band's effort. Other people claim it was Keith Richards who said that. There you go.

So here I was, checking the boxes, the walls, the $5 bins, while listening to one of my all-time favourite albums, one I thought I had but couldn’t find. I hummed and whistled along, tapped my fingers to the beat, smiled like a mad raccoon and eventually found the courage to approach the staff at the front desk. There was a pale guy with dark hair, somewhere in his late 20s, a woman with a black CBGBs T-shirt (yes, the place where New York punk was born) and an older guy, thin grey hair and wearing a face-mask, who was inspecting and cleaning records that had just come in.

“Is this the Flamin' Groovies?" I asked. Stupid question, I know, because obviously it was the Flamin' Groovies. But hey, I wanted to sound knowledgeable. No way was I going to meekly inquire what was being played.

The pale guy looked up and mumbled something I couldn’t understand. And just as I started to feel like an extra in High Fidelity, his female colleague with the über-cool CBGBs T-shirt stepped in and said it was indeed the Flamin’ Groovies.

“Is it for sale?" I asked, my voice croaky from that cold. My assumption was that the staff would choose and play the music in the store. There was a chance they were using Spotify or some other streaming service but this is a New York record store, not some coffee shop or fashion outlet. It was a proper CD. And I had already heard a number of bonus tracks, which made me even more determined to get this seminal album.

“You have to ask there," said the woman, pointing to the back, beyond the rows of classical music and jazz. There in a tiny room was someone who was apparently in charge of the sounds we were treated to while browsing. I walked down the aisle. The man, skinny, pale and probably in his 50s, was loudly discussing a customer who had brought in a case of records he wanted to sell and who had phoned to see how much he would get for them. Not only that, he had also mentioned that he had another case with records he wanted to get rid of. The sales person complained that the boxes were mostly full of “shitty stuff". The other guy countered with the observation that it did contain a few gems. “Yeah, but it’s Friday and I told him we were just too busy," retorted the first guy, who didn’t seem busy at all. Meanwhile, I stood there and waited and thought of Lou Reed and his song about “just a New York conversation rattling in his head".

Eventually, I apologised for interrupting their scintillating conversation and asked if the Flamin’ Groovies CD was for sale. The guy handed me the jewel case; $9.99 said the yellow price sticker. I nodded eagerly. He took a long time getting the disc out but eventually he handed that to me too. “Pay at the front," he said, and continued the conversation with his colleague.

I paid, said a feeble goodbye, received a “see ya" from the pale boy (the woman with the CBGBs shirt had vanished) and went out into 18th Street.

And from there on everything was easy. I went to several other record places. The staff were friendly and helpful. I found more records I had been looking for since god knows when, including a rare one by Captain Beefheart and one by an obscure band called Crabby Appleton. That one I found in the $5 bin at a stuffy Brooklyn dive, Record Grouch. We struck up a conversation and the guy behind the counter asked where I was from. Then he shook my hand. “I’m Brian," he said. I had made the grade. Next step will be a CBGBs T-shirt.

♦ VWB ♦

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