January 17, 2013 6:18 pm

Bricks, mortar, Stones and Ramones

Online stores cannot replace the visceral experience of buying live

Developments this week in global retailing have left me remembering one of the great moments of my formative years – the day I first ventured into New York on my own to buy a punk rock record in the 1970s.

I didn’t cut much of a figure back then. But I listened to a lot of radio and that inspired me to leave my mother’s house on Long Island and head to Greenwich Village in search of a shop called Bleecker Bob’s that sold hard-to-find vinyl.

It was summer, and I arrived early by downtown standards, meaning the sun was out. There were only three people inside: a sullen guy behind the counter playing records and two young women looking at T-shirts bearing slogans such as: “All the way with Lenny Kaye!” (Kaye being Patti Smith’s guitarist and co-conspirator, then and now).

My life changed when the women began trying on the T-shirts. Since there was no dressing room and neither favoured observable undergarments, the process involved considerable periods in which they were topless. I was only hours removed from my mother’s kitchen and the implications were clear: I had to get out more.

I thought of my maiden voyage at Bleecker Bob’s this week, when I found myself in London and saw that HMV, one of the last big bricks-and-mortar chains selling music in the English-speaking world, was going into administration, the UK term for a company seeking protection from its creditors.

There was a time when I would have welcomed HMV’s demise. I used to hate music chains because I blamed them for the disappearance of so many local record shops. But the growth of online retailing means chains such as HMV are now in the same boat as Bleecker Bob’s (which remains open at the time of writing, but could close any day now if it fails to find a cheaper place to rent).

I realise many of you like buying music in cyberspace. But what’s missing these days is the experience of searching for sounds that move you in the company of actual people. That used to create possibilities, because at a place like Bleecker Bob’s you never knew who you might meet.

Once I popped into the store and spotted a guy rummaging through the rare albums who had skin so translucent he resembled one of those pictures in an anatomy textbook that identifies the blood vessels of the human body. We made eye contact and I said to myself: “That’s Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones.”

I’m sure I was right, and here’s why: every time the see-through man found something he liked, he would say, “Fantastic” in an English accent and fling the album cover over his shoulder (they kept the vinyl in the back so you couldn’t steal it). A big man wearing a sweat suit would then pick it up from the floor and pay for the record using a roll of bills as thick as a Chippendale’s bicep.

Another of my rock ’n’ roll moments involved Dee Dee Ramone, late bassist of punk rock group the Ramones. Resplendent in a black-and-white leather jacket with western fringe, Dee Dee proved every inch a Ramone as he engaged in a lengthy circular conversation with the sullen guy behind the counter.

At issue was Dee Dee’s rap album (described by at least one reviewer as “one of the worst recordings of all time”). “You like it?” Dee Dee began. “Yeah,” was the response. “Really?” Dee Dee asked. “Yeah,” the guy replied. After a pause to collect his thoughts, Dee Dee returned to his opening gambit. “You like it?” he asked – and the colloquy was repeated, more or less verbatim.

Today, as I look back on those punk rock days, I realise that the people I most wanted to meet at record stores weren’t celebrities but people who were like me – and might like me because of that. If these people happened to look like Julie Christie, or the women at university who did their homework in the art museum library, so much the better.

Things worked out differently for me, as they probably did for many other young men who took their music seriously in those days. But I remain grateful to those old record stores for giving me a reason to move about in the world and see what I could find. As William Blake put it in a not altogether different context:

Such, such were the joys/When we all, girls and boys/In our youth-time were seen/On the echoing green.


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