Sunday, July 10, 2016

They Paved Paradise and Put Up a Condo

There are places I remember….

We drove through Uptown Friday night after a play.  As we stopped by the light at the Lagoon, I couldn’t help but look at the hole in the ground that was the Uptown Cheapo.  Made me think about all the great music stores in town and wonder what kids today will have to remember 30 years from now (ok, the Fetus will still be rockin’ it, I’m sure). 

Back in the 80's, a couple times a year, Joni would purchase music for the library.  First vinyl, later cds (there might have been some cassettes in that mix too, but I resolutely refuse to acknowledge their existence), once she got to know me (I’d say about a week) she’d ask me for suggestions, and I of course would inundate her with a list a mile long full of what I thought were willfully obscure acts, but were in fact fairly pedestrian selections (culled from my detailed examinations of Rolling Stone, Billboard and whatever music reviews I could scrounge up from newspapers).  She’d buy a lot of the stuff on my list, as well as a lot of stuff on her own, much more informed list, and she’d buy a bunch of stuff on other patrons’ lists too, which around campus became an ever changing rotation of players.  Because of this, odds were high that her buy lists were surprisingly broad and the libraries music collection surprisingly deep, and kept my tastes (and who knows how many other rangey college students’ tastes, but let’s just go with the fact that I was the favorite out of all the other SE library patrons) from getting to insular or circular. 

Once she started buying cds in the late 80’s and the buying methodology in the library system changed I was only too delighted to accompany her on her sorta semi-annual purchasing trips to the Electric Fetus.  I am not sure I had been in the Fetus before Joni started going there to buy library music.  Kid in a candy store event of course, I’m sure I killed hours going section to section adding last minute rare, unknown, ohmygodihavegottotrythis items to her box.  Being the great person she was, Joni patiently indulged me, even though I’m sure she just would have preferred to give the clerks a list, go outside and have a smoke and sign for it all once they were finished picking the music.  But she knew how much fun it was for me to basically have a blank check at a record store.  I can’t thank her enough for letting me do that and for all the joy and decades of listening pleasure it brought me (and hopefully anyone else who might have benefiting from my random music choices).   

The absolute hardest part of all of this, was the interminable wait for the library system to process the vinyl and cd purchases.  It took them MONTHS to receive the music, catalogue it and get it processed and out to the library branches.  Sadly, it’s been almost thirty years and the MPLS library system (ok, so it was devoured by the Hennepin County Library system, is still no more efficient and might even be slower.  (Can I just say delighted I am that one library system in the metro these days has it all going on….no endless waits, super huge hold lists and sometimes, even sometimes, the music is available PRIOR to it even going on sale in stores).  And then, to my eternal frustration, they didn’t do it all in one batch but in drips and drabs with no discernable rhyme nor reason.  Always the one album I just had to listen to was the one that was in the very last set of music to be shipped out to SE Library SIX MONTHS after it all had been purchased And of course, Joni, blessed her soul, always let me have first dibs, often times even before the music had been processed yet once again by the local branch.  Oh, but it was Christmas morning when I’d get the call to come on in cos the motherload had arrived.

My love for the go-betweens, xtc and the chills and a host of one hit wonders that have somehow stayed in my playing rotation all these years later are the direct result of all the great stuff I had access to at the library. To avoid perhaps too much self editing here, I should probably mention, the outfield and the rainmakers and quite a few other mainstream rock bands that I don’t put up my taste flag are from the same library source.

Needless to say, the library provided me with a pretty well curated primer on popular music, 1983 to 1991 (which is where my first tenure in the twins cities essentially ended).

But the library wasn’t my only source for music in those days.

For the life of me, I can not recall the name of the music shop in the basement of Coffman Union, but I’m sure that was the first music store I visited when I moved to the University in the fall of 1983.  I’m also pretty sure I only ever bought an album or two from the place.  As much as I loved all their amazing imports, and that store was the place where the concept of imported vinyl was introduced to me, their prices were far, far out of my feeble minimum wage combined with a modest Pell Grant could afford.  Even by my senior year, when I actually had some pocket change and could afford to splurge, I just never could pull the trigger.  But I always liked hanging out there.  The clerks were cool, the store played the best music (heard “Skylarking” playing over the speaker system there and pretty much spent an hour in the store just so I could hear all of it) and other shoppers were always up for a conversation.  I spent lots of wishing and a’hoping breaks between classes there.  The store was still there after my graduation, but by ’93 when I was back in Minnesota (briefly) and taking a few classes at the U in prep for grad school, it had long since been plastered over.  I think there was a coffee station there or a row of lockers.  Progress?  Cruel.

Something even better than an expensive vinyl store was also in the Coffman Union; they had an honest to god listening station.  I can’t quite remember all the logistics of the listening stations, and I’m not really sure how I heard about it (probably Alan, my year older college roommate, probably mentioned it sometime during my freshman year) but it was pretty cool.  I think it was on the second floor of the student union, on the side facing the Mississippi River.  You’d go up to what was practically a DJ booth (glass fronted office in reality),   select an album (from a binder maybe?) hand over your ID for a pair of headphones and a listening channel and make your way out into the spacious opium room where there were plenty of super uncomfortable space age circle chairs, couches, ledges and floor space for seating.  After hunting down an available channel jack and finding the correct channel, you’d plug your headphones in and just wait for the music to enfold.  Of course, the whole system was run by work study students, so sometimes you’d wait quite awhile for a student to remember to start up the music, but it was always a great way to kill some time between classes, especially in the winter and fall of 1984.  Although I never utilized the listening booth to it’s fullest, I clearly remember enjoying both The Fixx’s “Reach the Beach” and Mannfred Mann’s “Watch” albums at Coffman and I think it was here, based on a tip from one of the guys manning the headphone booth that I took a chance on John Cale’s “Paris 1919”.  And there was always that great view of the river out the back patio too.  I never noticed when it closed down.  Once, late junior year I went by there and it was gone. 

The Musicland on 14th avenue in Dinkytown was another regular haunt during the first couple of years and beyond,  in college.  A much more “proper” music store than the one in Coffman, it had a surprisingly good music selection and being just a few blocks away from our dorm provided a convenient excuse to browse (surprised they never kicked me out for how often I shopped but never bought.  I’m pretty sure other customers must have thought my name was “CanIhelpyou?”.  Musicland was not exactly inexpensive either (I feel like this was the era of the 8.98 list price, but I could be wrong, and when cds first came out there were insanely expensive there), but they had some regular sales, you could always find coupons in the Mn Daily or some other newspaper, and they actually had a ton of cutouts (and I’ve always been fine with the bargain bin).  I can’t say it was ever my store, and I don’t have any particular fondness for the place, or regret that it’s gone.    But I do have some good memories.

 I think during our sophomore year, my down the hall dorm neighbor, Arden and I gave plasma one Saturday afternoon (as broke as I frequently was, I could not do the plasma thing more the 3 or 4 times….of course it didn’t help that one of the times the needle went right through… wonder I’m squeamish about blood and needles) and then took our ill-gotten gains to Musicland for a bit of impulse buying.  I know I bought Slade’s “Keep Your Hands Off My Power Supply” and I feel like Arden bought some Motley Crue album, but I might be unintentionally insulting him with my lack of memory (but it definitely would have been something in the hard rock vein.)  I really dug that Slade album.  I still am delighted when I run across that album on cd when I am picking music (has always been a nice flip) and can’t help but put on the player to give it another run through.  Eventually, I found better (cheaper) sources for music than Musicland.  Didn’t we all?  And Musicland eventually folded.  But it was nice to have that store so handy during college and for awhile, shortly after I graduated in 1987 they had some super cheap cds on clearance (Hanoi rocks, double’s blue and about 100 copies of Kansas’s “Power” album that I would buy and then trade in for a buck at the Digital Only stores in favor of something else I wanted.)  I can’t even recall if I was still around for the store closing sales.  Probably not, or I’d like to think I’d have some memory of something I picked up (certainly remember some of the scores I made at the MediaPlay store down in Bloomington when they closed down…come to think of it, I think I even drove up 94 (maybe to St. Cloud) to dig through the closeout sales at that store too. 

I know this is sacrilege, but I never really hung out at Let it Be records.  Might have stopped in once or twice at the downtown (Nicollet?) location, but for some reason it never really fit me.  Once they moved to Loring Park, I went more (even bought my first cd there, 10,000 Maniacs’ “In My Tribe”) but although I did go there for a few in store band performances, it never really was my place.  I never really knew it well enough to miss it.

Likewise, Northern Lights off Hennepin only warranted a couple visits from me.  I sure did love all the imports they had, but either it was about going downtown, which I didn’t do all that much of in college (unless we were going out on the town, which isn’t really compatible with music shopping), or there was just something too intimidating about going into those kinds of college music stores.  Never had a bad experience at Northern Lights (or Let It Be….ok, one bad experience at Let it Be, but it was brief) but they never were my stores.

There were certainly plenty of college-ish music stores to choose from during my college years besides Let It Be and Northern Lights.  At various times, there was you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting an Oarfolk, a Garage d’Or or even a Platters in the back of the Tatters stores.  There was that super cool store in St. Paul right on the corner of St. Kate’s.  There was the Fetus, but despite Joni’s purchasing for the library (or because of) I never really went there.  There was/is Down in the Valley, although then and now, I’ve always been a little disappointed by that place.  There was Rockit Records, which deserves an entire story.  And there are probably a pile of places I have forgotten about that I visited and hated, liked or loved but all went by the wayside in my mind.  (And there is the story about that time when Banks up in Northeast had a whole pile of fire and water damaged cds, and, well, I don’t know how to even start that one, or if I even should say, but for sure that DEFINITELY is another entry)

But even though I hit most of them once or twice at least, during or shortly after my college career, there were really only three music stores (or chains really) that were part of my regular shopping rotation.

Positively Fourth Street was on 4th street on the northeast side of Dinkytown, just on the other side of 35W.  I’m sure of the three, Positively Fourth Street was the first local record store I heard about and visited.  I was not naïve enough to think Bob Dylan might be in town and hanging out there, but I’m sure some wishful thinking propelled me to wander over and check it out (that and it was only 4 or 5 blocks from our dorm).

I sure loved the place.  It was more than just a record store.  It was music.  Dimly lit, creaky wooden floors (think fine line without the over-serving and the threat of trampleation), lots of exposed beams with just the windows facing 4th Street for illumination (or so it always seemed at least) made P4S murky but surprisingly welcome.  There were two main areas when you walked into the door.  To your right, towards dinkytown, was a bigger room with taller racks and bins perpendicular to 4th Street running along the walls and a divider rack or two, running the same way, taking up the middle of the floor.  To the left was another, smaller room, with short bins along the front, middle and back running parallel to the street outside.  I seem to recall the counter being in front of the window in the bigger room, but the magic eight balls says “unclear, check back later.”  The place always had a great vibe; friendly clerks/owners, friendly shoppers and great music playing in the background.  I’d heard “Brass in Pocket” of course, but the first time I heard a Pretenders album (Pretenders II as it was) was at 4th Street.  They were also open until midnight which always provided an easy opportunity to go for a ramble when a study break (or otherwise) was needed.  Even better, in the summer of 1985, we lived in an apartment on University, a block away, so a visit through the vinyl after picking up a late night snack at Ralph and Jerry’s next door was always in order.

I have to admit that I never really bought all that much at 4th street and I’m not sure why.  They had a pile of cutout vinyl in the smaller room and I was endlessly fascinated by the wild vinyl versions I would find.  Una Historia de Velvet Underground, Una Historia de Procol Harum, flimsy British vinyl that would warp from the heat of your hands, but filled with tracks that I couldn’t find anywhere else (yes, I was a great collector of greatest hits in those days, especially for bands that I didn’t really know that well).  I was poor, sure, and I did buy a few things there, but never that much, never, apparently, enough to keep the place in business.  Not really sure when it closed and moved, probably after college, but could have been during my college years for all I know.  Just know that one day I was randomly driving by and my record shop was gone, nothing left but parking spaces and for the laundromat next door.  Packed up and moved to South Minneapolis under a new no name I done heard.

The Wax Museum was off Cedar in the West Bank area off the U of M.  It later moved to the heart of Dinkytown, just across the street from the Varsity Theatre.  There were other Wax Museums around town.  There was a great one halfway between the east bank of the UofM campus and Snelling Aveune in St. Paul that was bikeable from campus.  There was another one in Robbinsdale kind of where the Eagle’s Nest is today.  I recall there being one down in Richfield too, maybe south on Xerxes or Penn, but I can’t have hit that one that often because it was too far to bike and I didn’t have a car until my Junior year of college.  And maybe there was one in Wayzata, but that might have been a Down in the Valley and I am sure I only went that one time.  Off all the record stores in the cities, the Wax Museum contributed the most to my musical education and I certainly spent more of my per capita income (such as it was) there. 

And of all the Wax Museum locations, the West Bank location might just have been my favorite record store of all time.  There was a lot to love just about the look of the place.  The store was long and narrow with windows facing the street, but not a lick of natural light anywhere else in the place.  Vinyl bins ran parallel along the walls, with a double row of bins in the middle of the floor.   There was about 10 inches of space between the bins and it was practically impossible to get around someone with getting to second base.  There were layers upon layers of promotional poster shellacked to the walls of the place (and the ceiling for all I can remember).  Some day, some way, some business rehab HGTV crew is going to inherit the building and as they start to tear off the layers of paint and spackle, they are eventually going to find treasure; xeroed copies of a Replacements show at the Longhorn, a glamour shots Prince promo, Billy Joel posing for An Innocent Man (ok, they won’t find that one because I stole it).  You could spend all afternoon just reading the posters.  The check-out was in front, in the corner towards the 400 bar (towards Triple Rock for you damn millennials), basically blocking one of the windows.  Not that the windows, being covered with posters and poster paint themselves, were really providing that much light.  New vinyl was in the bins in the front half of the store.  Used vinyl was in a weird little nook at the back of the store.  The place had such a funky aroma; a little pot, a little b.o. (not mutually exclusive), ten year old nicotine (oh wait, maybe that wasn’t shellac holding the posters in place) a little incense, a little indian take out mixed in.  If you want to know what “Year of the Cat” smelled like, the West Bank Wax Museum was the place to sniff (and perhaps gag).  But I loved it. 

In that little hole in the wall, they had everything I could ever have wanted.  An album I had never heard of from Ali Thomson was just one section down from the album by Sneaker that had “More than Just to Two of Us.”  Did you know that Lindisarne had a LOT more albums than “Back and Fourth?”  And did I mention that the west bank Wax was where all the music critics dumped off their unwanted vinyl review copies (or at least it seemed like that).  It seemed I’d only have to wait a week after a new release to find a gently used copy of whatever mainstream rock album I was wanting to hear.  Before I really got the gravy train rolling with the library (and oftentimes in spite of) the Wax was my go to place to find cheap copies of recent releases.  Promo stamps?  Meh.  I built almost all my album collection from that place (as well as the St. Paul University one).  Even better, they had a super liberal return policy on Used stuff.  you could return anything within three days for an exchange.  I have to admit that I took full advantage of that policy in ways I might not want to admit, but I’m sure you can imagine.  A few clerks gave me some grief and accused me of taping, and there was a little taping going on, but mostly to fill in gaps in home-made greatest hits collections.  Regardless, I was always going to buying an album (3.75 and under) and it was a great way to pick up, say the latest Barry Manilow album I wanted to listen to for a couple of days (with headphones on natch), but didn’t want to be caught in the dorms with and then exchange it for the much more socially acceptable Bryan Adams “Cuts Like a Knife” release.  Mild bait and switch, but I prefer to think of it as two for the price of one. 

I think I might have told the story of my Billy Joel concert line experience in a previous.  It was at the West Bank Wax the next morning that I actually stood in line with PEOPLE and got tickets.  I think I bought tickets to a local show or two at that Wax Museum as well.  They had ticket selling down to a fine art.  I barely ever waited in line for tickets once I figured out where to go and when.

By Junior year, the Wax on West Bank closed and the stock had moved into a rehabbed location in Dinkytown.  I think it might have even changed to a Great American Music store.  You’d think being closer to me (by now we’d all moved out of the dorm and into housing in the Como neighborhood) I’d have been all in favor of the relocation, especially as I didn’t have any more classes on the West Bank campus.  But the new location never appealed to me. As much as I appreciated all the new foot traffic the store size and location had, something was missing and I’m not just talking about all the coincidental body contact I was getting at the West Bank store.  The walls were clean, the posters were new, the “used vinyl” in the spacious basement had tons more space for all the “new” used vinyl coming in, and there was way more selection from which to choose.  About the only thing the new location had was this super friendly downstairs clerk named Ann who always chatted pleasantly about my used music choices.  I very fondly remember her telling me about how I should be embarrassed about my ABBA anthology purchase, because their recordings were impeccably written and produced.  But I didn’t go as often to the Dinkytown or really any other location and I stopped buying vinyl pretty abruptly (and pretty much sold off all my vinyl by the time I took off on my hitch-hiking journey and 1989.  Even my cd shopping wasn’t happening at the traditional music stores, and more so at Best Buy which actually had prices on CDs I could afford.  Not sure what the last vinyl I bought was (could have either been Lions and Ghosts “Velvet Kiss, Lick of Lime” or Deacon Blue’s “Raintown”) but it wasn’t very long after I graduated college. 

Now that the 400 has closed, I really don’t make my way to West Bank much anymore.  But when I do, I still pour out a little of the 40 for my deeply, dearly departed (although for the life of me, I don’t even know what is in that spot these days.)  I haven’t thought about any of the other locations in years.  If I knew when they closed, I’ve long since forgotten it.

And then there were Cheapos; maybe too many Cheapos to mention or keep track of.  There was one in Uptown, off Hennepin, then down Lake Street around Lyndale, then back towards Hennepin and now over by Nicollet (although it isn’t nearly the same, and who needs another effing condo in Uptown).  There was a Cheapo in St. Paul off Snelling across from O’Gara’s then switching sides a few blocks south and then switching sides again right across the street.  There was a cheapo off Central that moved to Blaine.  Baby gets around.

And so did I.  Unlike my other favs, Cheapo was not a 10 minute walk away.  Uptown and St. Paul were both more like a 20 minute bike ride away, one way, uphill any which way I went, always against the wind, with a rusty chained bike that liked to slip exasperating me (but at least no one ever stole that bike, unlike the new Raleigh I bought as my first real job reward, which got stolen from a backyard chained up location 2 months after I bought it).  But as much exercise as it took (probably not that much for a healthy 20 year old in retrospect), I went to both locations pretty regularly.  If you’ve ever been to cheapo, you know the volume that is to be had.  Even the first location I went to, across from O’Gara’s, which was a smaller store, had more vinyl than I could ever get my head around.  And of course, being poor, especially the first two years, put a crimp on what I could buy as well (isn’t there a song about don’t look at what you can’t buy?).  So pretty quickly, I started gravitating towards the bargain bin vinyl.  Most of it was beat up and sounded kinda bad, but my ears weren’t that picky (not that they are so much more discriminating these days).  Those fifty cent albums were a great way to dig in past the greatest hits and explore some acts I’d only heard or read about.  I tried out a lot of classic rock in those days.  Some took, (Almost every Steve Miller and Steely Dan album I gave a listen), some did not (I will never understand the love for the Allman Brothers and only a little understanding for Lynyrd Skynyrd) but I had a lot of fun going deeper into albums.    If I liked it I kept it, if I didn’t I tossed it or gave it to someone else in the dorm.  When I sold most of my albums by 1989, I was a little outraged that no one wanted these old beat up, worn out, no inner sleeves, despoiled album jacketed vinyl albums, they had come to mean so much to me. 

It’s somewhat funny that for all the time (and money) I’ve spent in the various cheapos over the years, I’ve never really cottoned to the stores themselves.  They are very utilitarian in the most Spartan of ways.  Nothing much to all their stores, across all the time they have been in business, but bins and racks and media upon media. There used to be a music retail chain called cd warehouse that had stores in the twin cities, but they folded, probably because the business model changed and their business couldn’t (that and the fact that they overcharged for crappy used cds) but I like to think the real reason is that the REAL cd (and vinyl) warehouse has always been cheapo.  Despite my antipathy to the design and aesthetic of the place, and to say less about the generally unsupportive clerks at the place, cheapo has been my companion for most of these 30 odd (and some very odd) years.  I certainly go often enough, (and I have a ledger that tells me about all I’ve spent there, although I really hate to think about) there have been enough finds, but in the distant past, and some more recent holy grail items (that initial friend ep is still mind-blowing) that I just can’t quit cheapo yet. 

Faithless and wildly indifferent, but whatever, we have what we have, right? So I guess we’ve just decided upon mutual support and indifference and will go together to the bitter end? 

As much as anything on this list, though, it really does come down to people.  I had the most amazing time in college and shortly afterwards with so many great experiences and so many great people.  Pretty much everyone I knew (and liked) loved music and it was an inescapable soundtrack to our lives then.  So, I shouldn’t neglect to mention all the great music I got turned onto then.  Most of the music store trips were with friends.  And so much of the listening (other than the socially unacceptable musics of the day) were listened to in the company of friends, at parties, in the dorm rooms, just hanging out playing pool with U2 playing in the background.  We used to sit in one of the dorms rooms while a couple of the guys would do a big dance team routine to the opening of “Let’s Go Crazy.”  Everybody played air guitar to great facility.   Right up there with the library (and sometimes feeding each other), 7th floor of Sanford Hall (and later our house on 13th) was as much of an education (musical and otherwise) that I got in college.  Somebody always had something new to share, and freely share it they did.  Prince and Madonna in the Tom’s double on the other side of the floor, the triple down the hall from Al and I (they played everything under the sun man), the triple up the hall from us with Arden, Paul and Dave (Van Halen, Led Zeppelin and the Beatles), Nolan’s Jackson Browne obsession, Dave F’s habit of blasting George and Dire Strait’s at all hours and for every bbq at their house just down the street from ours on 13th Avenue, Tom S’s second year roommate who finally got me on board with U2 (via “The Unforgettable Fire”), Dan B’s brief stay in the dorm gave me Trio and an abiding appreciation of Yello, the Urban Guerillas and the Wallets at our spring dorm party, the cool upper classmen who introduced me to the Violent Femmes at a dorm meeting (and where I am pretty sure I first met Julie Tapper although it would be decades before I’d actually met her again), Tammy S. who kept up a steady stream of new music and concert tickets courtesy of her friend who worked for Warner Brothers Records.  And of course, Alan, my college roomie, who loved his Journey and Styx and Kansas, but was and is, always up for a good listen of anything.  I don’t see anyone from then nearly as often as I should, but it is fun to revisit the memories and appreciate them all the more as tides turn time. 

Of course, I really do miss all the stores.  They maybe weren’t just stores, but they were something cultural, social and even emotional.  I felt so very much at home there.  It wasn’t so much about buying something or even about finding something to buy.  It was maybe something already found as soon as you’d step into the door at Positively Fourth Street. How when the right songs came on over the speakers, you don’t just have a High Fidelty, buy this song moment, but you really feel communion with everybody else grooving to that very same song in that very same moment and even though none of you know each other and you’ll never meet each other again, for 3 minutes and 28 seconds you just maybe believe that we are all the same and everything is gonna be all right.  I know it is, of course, but it was just nice when there were all these great records stores to remind me of that now and again.

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