Flimsy toilet scrub. Check. Day old bread. Check. Offbrand toothpaste. Check. Sonny Sharrock CD. Wait. What? In the relentless glare of the 99 Cent Only Store, which makes any face look blanched with a hangover, I grip this little gem by the uber jazz-noise guitarist buried in a heap of discount CDs tilting precariously forward on an overstocked shelf next to videotapes. Yes, those relics of the age of plastic, when John Hughes’ teenage angst movies filled living rooms.
This is beyond weird. Sharrock has played with everyone from Miles Davis and flautist Herbie Mann to hip producer Bill Laswell. He was obscure and legendary, not some used-up, no-name, cookie cutter musician. This CD represents agile, disruptive art in the aisle of discount city.
I’m a staunch cheap ass when it comes to buying music. Raised by frugal German descendents—the budget-or-die minded sons and daughters of truck drivers and hobby store proprietors—my DNA practically dictates this. Working at record stores for half a decade just made it worse.
The industry is mostly a sham, my conscience prods. I’d rather thumb through ratty, dog-eared thrift stores for a plain sleeved, rare as hell U2, Ramones, or Saints 45 single, a still-wrapped Motown platter, or a forgotten novelty record like Banana Splits or Tubby the Tuba, than spend $15 on a disc of aluminum that retains less status than 8-tracks I shoved into the player of my sister’s rusted Chevy Nova back in 1980.
99 Cent Only Stores always seem to be rife with music that alternative record stores should envy, all for the same price as packets of fake cheese slices. During a brief heyday five years ago, I snatched up out-of-print 3” CD single castoffs from SST records (indeed, the storied label behind Black Flag), like EPs by HR from the Bad Brains and the once brazen Meat Puppets. Then I stumbled on solo records by Greg Sage of the Wipers and even a mid-‘90s outing by proto-punks Suicide, along with hardcore punk compilations from England.
This was before I ventured to Oregon, where Portland offers a smorgasbord of ma and pa record stores with boundless cheapo bins. I let the 99 Cent Only Stores languish in my imagination, like a kind of urban consumer lore.
A few months after returning to Houston, I decided to revisit the store chain. The news was bleak: one prime locale had been replaced by none other than an “upscale” Goodwill store where shirts sometimes cost more than a Target sales rack item. Luckily, others still loomed at the far ends of ozone city, reeking with possibility. In fact, the outer limits of any metroplex often bear the best fruits, both in terms of food and music. Real hipsters know this.
Soon I was squished between mounds of holiday trinkets, “Santa Stop Here!” signs, no name soap, and bottles of honey syrup, not actual honey. I saw the makeshift CD bins ahead. Sure, a few vapid Elton John singles loitered on the shelves, almost ruining the mood, but much more enticing nuggets were piled high, ready to trip the triggers of musophiles. You know, those of us struck by an urge to seek out new or old music of any shade or shape. We’re not mere passers-by with an itch for more ear candy, the glib pop muzack pumped by speakers seemingly imbedded in skin of stores.
For far-out, transfiguring jazz-rock, the shelves offered not one but three albums featuring Sonny Sharrock projects, the kind of music that makes run-of-the-mill soft jazz or jazz-fusion feel like aural wallpaper for a woozy dentist office. Instead, in his bleeding finger guitar work, one can detect nimbleness: a coarse yet sublime, mysterious yet scattershot beauty that places him alongside luminaries like free jazz horn blower Albert Ayler.
Other notable titles included the pun-rigged album Anonymous Botch by Chris Mars, the rock-solid drummer of the Replacements, whose no-frills records teem with panache and steadfast Midwest sensibilities. Plus, Mars’ output ranks well above the work of other former skin bangers like Grant Hart of Hüsker Dü, from the same Minneapolis scene. The title is an ironic stab at the painter Hieronymus Bosch, well-aimed since Mars, a painter himself, has become quite the beacon of contemporary “grotesque” artwork, which graces the cover as well. Again, this signified artiness in the air-conditioned cave of hyper-bargain consumerism.
Other 99 Cent Only stores featured a bevy of labels that anyone with a Trouser Press guide would easily recognize: Restless, Sympathy for the Record Industry, Frontier, TVT, and Ardent. These were once the backbone of college radio, the labels that made indie rock infamous during the era when mainstream FM radio shoved rock ballads sung by men adorned in spandex and hairspray onto the airwaves. On the stuffed shelves, the choices were not exactly breathtaking, but definitely worth the loose change: Mordred and Kreator for the heavy metal crues; Barbara Manning and Sonic Youth to rekindle the geek chic memories of years past; and Thin White Rope and Martin Atkins (PIL, Killing Joke) projects for those seeking murky and experimental visions. Plus, a small batch of cassettes yielded Red House Painters amid a generic new age music pile that would make even George Winston cringe.
No doubt, people will not stop going on pilgrimages to half-empty urban record stores or try to find a worthy CD in some lifeless vault at Borders, let alone forego iTunes’ digital frontier. Still, as they slide down the bustling aisles at their neighborhood 99 Cent Only Store, grabbing batteries and Mexican yogurt, they might just find some restless or rewarding music right in the hubbub of bargain bin USA. I salute them.