In a New York State of Mind

[14 March 2010]

By Dann Gaymer

Musical musings from a used record shop that could exist almost anywhere…

Jim rubbed his temple with his left hand, squeezing the cardboard coffee cup. The acrid smell of the cheap black coffee rose into his nostrils, the rising and falling inside the cup as he applied a tiny amount of pressure and then slowly released. The coffee pulsed like the throbbing pain inside of his skull, as if someone had smacked him upside the head with a two by four. In fact the truth was much worse, as the night prior Jim made the fatal mistake of attempting to be sociable.

Sid, a middle-aged quasi-hippy, had convinced Jim to join him at the working man’s club for a “few quiet ones”. This had translated into pint after pint of real ale, turbulent storms in a glass and later in Jim’s stomach. Sid managed to spend the whole evening rambling on about the Ozric Tentacles and their contributions to the British slap bass scene. Jim personally felt that particular group was on par with leprosy as far as its contributions to humanity went, but he couldn’t really be bothered to start an argument and so he allowed Sid to ramble the night away. Now he wished he had excused himself and returned with a hand grenade to put the both of them out of their misery.

Jim stroked his unshaven cheek as he gazed upon rack after rack of vinyl records that lay in front of him, enclosed within Black Coffee, Black Vinyl, his gloomy shop. What a mistake last night had been, yet at least it had made him 100 percent sure that attempting to be socialable was a complete waste of energy. Especially when he had better things to do, like make genre specific lists of the top ten records ever released. He found new wave and hip hop relatively straight forward, short listing what he deemed the ultimate ten in a matter of months, but the list for acid jazz become somewhat of a stalemate over the past few years.

He clumsily placed the coffee on the counter, a few drops splashing onto the abused wood that was already a patchwork of stains. He pulled a Camel cigarette from a crumpled packet that sat next to the till, rolled his thumb over the flint of a cheap lighter, and offered the end of the cigarette to the fire gods. He took a deep drag and almost instantaneously began to splutter on the chemical laden smoke. He looked up again at the velvet goldmine of vinyl records that made every morning a time of intense inner torment. From old school house to Cuban jazz, from J-rock to Norwegian metal, Jim firmly believed that he had the very best of every genre worth listening to, which made choosing a point of departure no small task. 

He took another long drag on the cigarette and decided that, given his rather fragile condition, it would be best to play it safe and go for something calm yet energizing. Normally he would venture from behind the counter and select a LP; this time he set his cigarette down in a mountain of ash that hid a tray beneath, kneeled behind the counter, and began rummaging in one of the many cardboard boxes stashed below.

After going through a few separate boxes Jim caught a glimpse of his prize. A jewel CD case with If I Were a Carpenter printed on the inside paper cover in colourful but plain font on a mellow yellowed background. Beneath the title was a cartoon image of a man and a woman both with giant, goldfish-like eyes; the man’s green, the woman’s brown, accented by their blond and brown hair respectably, coy all American apple pie smiles, sitting on the floor and in the process of placing an LP on to a phonograph.

Jim stood up, opened the case, removed the CD and carefully inserted it into the monolith like hi-fi on a shelf next to the counter.  He clicked through to track three, picked up his coffee and the smouldering cigarette, took a sip and drag, closed his eyes and waited. From the speakers suspended on either side of the shop came a flood of buzzing feedback, accompanied by a pinched Spanish guitar line plodding bass and deep groans from a grand piano. Whispered vocals drenched in reverb emerged from a brooding storm of static,

Long ago,
And oh so far away,
I fell in love with you,
Before the second show…

Sonic Youth’s cover of the “Super Star”; calming melodies mixed with buzzing feedback and lifeless synthesizers. His still eyes closed Jim felt a shiver run up his spine, a rising euphoria as the song built up. He took another deep drag from the cigarette just as the chorus hit, a cascade of android synthesizers, noisy guitar, rolling drums, the vocals picking up beyond a whisper,

Don’t you remember you told me you love me baby,
You said you’d be coming back this—

A piercing electronic whine interrupted the song. Startled, Jim opened his eyes, the cigarette falling for his lips while Sonic Youth descended into a vortex of ear bleeding broken guitar. The whine came from the primitive door bell perched on the left wall of the shop between an Iggy Pop poster and a framed black and white photograph of Elton John. Jim fumbled around, trying to catch the cigarette and focus on the figure standing in front of the slowly closing door.

His eyes adjusted to the daylight that flooded in and he realised that the intruder was in fact a girl, no more than a teenager. She was dressed in a black leather biker jacket and cut-off denim skirt, black leggings disappearing into a pair of hi-top Nikes. Her hair was a bleached blonde mop, travelling in every direction yet still managing to fall over her eyes, eyes with a textbook deer-caught-in-the-headlights quality. 

She stood somewhat nervously for a moment, clasping her leopard print handbag and offering an apologetic smile. Jim contemplated giving her the stone wall treatment but decided he wasn’t in the mood, so instead replied with something that was not exactly a smile, more like the skin on either side of his face being stretched out, accompanied by a slight nod.

Permission granted, the girl stepped over to one of the racks and began carefully fingering through the records on display. She was looking at the section labelled ‘Glam’, which Jim incidentally felt was representative of that particular genre, almost as satisfying as the neighbouring ‘Hair Metal’. He stabbed the dying cigarette into the ash mountain and watched her lazily, squeezing the cup of lukewarm coffee. He doubted she was going to try and nick anything. He also doubted she was going to buy anything, either. Most likely she just here for the kudos of being able to say she went record shopping because that what’s NME said was a cool thing to do, these days. 

Sonic Youth’s version of “Superstar” came to a close, followed by the Cranberries rendition of “(They Long to Be) Close to You” .The girl turned to inspect the rack behind her, labeled ‘East Coast Hip Hop’. As she turned, Jim noticed the t-shirt beneath her jacket—it was the cover of the New York Dolls self titled debut, the band’s name inscribed in pink lipstick, the five dolls sitting on a sofa, heavy makeup, high heels, pouting for the camera. Jim had not anticipated this.

The New York Dolls

The New York Dolls

Did she actually know about the Dolls or was the t-shirt just a fashion statement? Maybe she discovered them through Morrissey? Or through reading into where Malcolm McLaren got most of his ideas for the Sex Pistols? That first Dolls record, he hadn’t listened to that in a while, but what a record! A pillar in the New York underground, trashy faux glam, over the top rock ‘n’ roll, a sleazy a blueprint for the early punk bands and a vital piece in the musical lineage of the Velvet Underground, Television, the Voidoids, the Talking Heads, the Ramones and Blondie, even leading through to the new comers like the Walkmen and the Strokes.

New York’s Glitter and Grime

New York’s Glitter and Grime

New York as a tale of two cities, the one presented on the records of the Velvets, the Dolls and the Ramones, all of them giving little musical vignettes of the dark and dangerous metropolis that sat in complete disparity to the mainstream presentations of glitz and glamour, Frank Sinatra and all the rest.

Suddenly Jim felt very awake and no longer in a sedated Carpenters tribute album kind of mood. Inside his head, a projector fired up, casting moving pictures against the back of his skull, a New York movie reel flickering into life. CBGB’s, Max’s Kansas City, silver balloons floating around Andy Warhol’s factory, basement art galleries and yellow cabs cruising around while dark and unspeakable things happened in their back seats. Dark and smoky clubs in which garage bands bashed out buzzy blues and rock covers.

Away from the shiny happy psychedelic people on the West Coast was the biting cold of the East, where art and rock combined with the junkie scene that endured from the early jazzers to Lou Reed and beyond. The look, the sound, the danger, and the low brow character that has made the New York scene a definition of cool again and again—the records sitting in his shop were testament to this fact alone.

When the children of the West Coast were busy putting flowers in their hair the underside of New York was descending into the murky realms of the junk and transvestite scenes. When just about everyone else was pulling on their flared pants and frilly shirts members of the New York underground were pulling on their skinny jeans and black leather jackets. When everyone else was obsessing over manufactured boy bands and teen idols the New York anti was asking, “Is this it?”

Jim spent much of his adult life marveling at records just like the Doll’s first album and yet he still was never been able to pin point what made the New York scene so cool and why a teenage girl in England would want to don the t-shirt of a band that disintegrated after two albums 30 years previous in a place far, far away. Without question there was a vibe underlying it all, something uncountable that went deeper than mere songs about jacking up.

The internal movie reel continued. New York as a tale of two cities, the one presented on the records of the Velvets, the Dolls and the Ramones, all of them giving little musical vignettes of the dark and dangerous metropolis that sat in complete disparity to the mainstream presentations of glitz and glamour, Frank Sinatra and all the rest. Audrey Hepburn sitting down to breakfast in a Fifth Avenue jewelery store with a cat draped around her shoulder, while on 53d and 3rd a young man tries to turns tricks to buy his next fix. The old Times Square of transvestite prostitutes versus its recent Disneyland face lift; the ultra dark undercurrent against the sickly sweet gloss, the rotting underside of the Big Apple, dark sunglasses shielding tormented eyes from the harsh realities of the cold streets the morning after. Sure enough, every New York diamond had its rough.

The movie reel ended suddenly. The girl was still browsing, yet now she was into the swing of it, no longer nervously leafing through the records jammed in the racks but instead digging into the crates beneath, where the real gems where to be found. Jim turned and stole a glance at the shelf that ran along the back wall of the shop behind the counter.

An altar of memorabilia, a haven for his most prized trinkets, safe from grubby hands was his favourite: a Johnny Thunders action figure. As far as he knew only nine had ever been made and to find one intact with the miniature replica of Thunder’s banana yellow 1958 Gibson Les Paul Special was paramount to placing ones hands upon a first edition of the Old Testament. Saint Johnny, hallowed be thy name.

Leather jackets and torn off t-shirts and then later dressed like a suave Broadway star with enough hair wax to cause an oil spill of apocalyptic proportions, a vicious guitar tone and a ferocious heroin addiction to match, the original junkie punk prototype for your all the Sid Viciouses and Pete Dohertys that followed. The stark contrast of New York right there, the ungraspable cool, a distillation of some evanescent force, the fumes rising from the bonfire of the New York vanities

“(They Long to Be) Close to You” faded into Bettie Serveert’s version of “For All We Know”. Jim wheeled around and began rummaging through a stack of crates that sat up against the back wall of the shop beneath the Saint Johnny alter. He franticly dug through a box of dog-eared records, pulling out one with a black cover peeling at the edges, bearing an image of the Gothic picture show that was Lou Reed in the early ‘70s. He grasped the edge of the record with finger tips and whipped it out of both the cardboard cover and paper inner sleeve.

Shuffling over to the hi-fi stack, he flipped the plastic lid on the record player, carefully aimed the central hole of the LP over the stainless steel knob in the middle of the spinning platter, and laid it down. Carefully picking up the stylus arm with his thumb and fore finger, he guided it over the record, counting the deep grooves like valleys cutting into the crust of some obsidian alien planet. Hovering the needle over the fifth groove closest to the centre he carefully lowered the needle while pressing a button marked “phono” on the amplifier.

“For All We Know” was abruptly replaced by a silence punctuated with crackles as the needle rode its way across the record. A faint barely audible hiss emanated, a sound that Jim had learned to cherish, the sound of an LP about to begin its song. Then came the first low slung note of one of the most famous bass lines ever recorded , followed by gentle strummed guitar and brushes stroking against drum skins, Lou Reed’s voice echoing out of it all,

Holly came from Miami, F.L.A,
Hitch-hiked her way across the USA,
Plucked her eyebrows on the way,
Shaved her legs and then he was a she…

The glitz, the glamour and the wild underside of New York, it was all laid out right there. The girl did not glance up from the copy of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures she was handling, but Jim saw the corner of her mouth creep into a smile. She started to tap one over sized Nike in time with the song’s hypnotic beat. Jim smiled and gulped down the last of the cold coffee.

Dann Gaymer is a writer, editor and columnist from the UK currently living and working in South Korea. He writes and edits for publications in Asia, Europe and the USA. http://www.danngaymer.com/


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/121968-in-a-new-york-state-of-mind/