If you look in a Philadelphia telephone book from 1968 you’ll find an entry for Ra, Sun. If dialled, a voice at 5626 Morton Street- a communal home in Germantown where the former Herman Poole Blount and members of his Arkestra lived- would answer: “You have reached outer space”.
So says Wax Poetics in its February issue, which grandly features Philly not only on its front cover but also on every page of the issue. You get a Teddy Pendergrast story (in which he humorously nails the interviewer on a couple of points of naivety), one on the legendary vibes-meister, Vince Montana, and a multi-page interview with Gamble and Huff, who, as I’ve been known to say before repeatedly, are the owners and musical masterminds behind Philadelphia International Records, perhaps the most important post-Motown soul label, bar none, and much more. It’s obsessive.
And that obsession was one of the more wonderful things that I came face to face with in NYC over the past weeks. I’d forgotten, or rather I’d found myself a little detached from such minutiae breathing musical obsession in recent years, mostly because I’m in a nation where if such a thing exists it’s in a language I don’t speak well and because the history of this nation has meant little exposure to the edgier, more interesting genres that exist beyond it’s shores.
Across much of Asia, excluding of course Japan – where they obsess about everything – little steps musically outside what we would call painfully mainstream in the west. There are no record shops, that I’ve found at least, of any real worth in Indonesia (although I found myself talking myself into believing Aksara in Jakarta is, but the reality is the shelves are rarely thrilling when put next to even a below average indie record shop in NYC), Malaysia, Thailand or Singapore. There is, however, a killer in Hong Kong, if you can actually find it, but it’s the exception.
But NY more that gave me hope, it thrilled me day and day again. The record stores (and the vinyl!) were better than I remember and, mostly, very busy and thoroughly inspiring.
As an aside, there are two different worlds in music retail in NY (and pretty much everywhere else outside Asia) and with the closure of the last old school superstore it’s pretty clear that’s not who I mean. I actually went to both the Virgin Stores in Manhattan, a couple of times (partially because the one in Times Square has the only clean toilets that I could find in the area!). Neither shop deserved to be open as they had shitty stock, mostly uncaring and useless staff and seemed topped up, randomly and desperately, with tack being passed off as merchandising and quirky novelty items – although I did buy a Snoop Dog bone for our dogs (who love it BTW) – like the dirty playing cards in there for Valentines Day. You have to ask what that sort of thing is doing in a so-called record shop.
It was the little stores, the passionate ones who understand why people buy music, who ask if they can help and then rave interminably about that lost B side or the Japanese mix, who were doing well. The other stores are just the retail front for the bean counters who increasingly took over the music industry in recent decades and who now are mumbling on about piracy – forgetting that the music industry was built by pirates and rogues and without people like that there is no industry.
You can fight passion with lawsuits all you like but you kill the passion, you kill the industry.
I spent days wandering stores, buying some, but mostly just taking in places like Rebel Rebel in the West Village (Do you know where everything is? I asked, looking at the boxes and piles. Yes, everything…) to Other Music just off Broadway (who extracted a bit of cash from me for a bunch of indie NY bands), to Turntable Lab, hip hop heaven in the East Village, to Halcyon with al the techy and dubstep bits (more cash spent) over in Brooklyn, to the all vinyl Sound Library in Nolita (a copy of It’s Yours , which I had to have), to the basement of a junk store in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where the owner had, in no order at all, stored some 200,000 12” bits of vinyl, all, if you have the time, for $2 each.
But the ultimate goldmine was across in Myrtle Ave, once again in Brooklyn, where Dope Jams, behind an almost anonymous façade, had a copy of every 12” I’ve ever wanted to own – well almost – all beautifully filed, by label and genre, from disco to funk to house to techno, under the biggest muthafuckin’ pair of bass heavy speaker stacks I’ve ever seen in a store.
It was, of course, far too much. I can’t carry vinyl across borders, it weighs far too much and I’m in the tropics without a turntable. Instead I looked, touched softly and cried a little inside.