When I was seventeen, I spent a month in New York.
My father had a teaching post at NYU for a semester and flew the family over for an extended holiday. It turned out to be a memorable break, not least because I witnessed the city erupt in an very scary racial cauldron following the assassination of Martin Luther King. That was the first time I saw guns waved at me in anger, not an experience I would recommend.
Equally memorable was a visit I made to a small record store in Greenwich Village. A half-hidden staircase led to a magical emporium of albums, posters of local gigs (Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Joan Baez, Spider John Koerner and dozens more) and mlling hippies – sandals, straggly hair and flowery shirts. For an hour or more I browsed, engrossed, a kiddy in the proverbial candy store, until, overwhelmed and bedazzled by choice, I asked the guy behind the counter to suggest four albums that he particularly recommended. On his advice I scored a collection of music that quite literally shaped my musical life for ever.
1. Mothers Of Invention. Child Is Father To The Man
My least played choice. Although I was already a fan of the Avant Guard, my tastes were more for Coltrane and Archie Shepp in those days. However, Zappa opened my mind to later passions such as Soft Machine and Captain Beefheart by proving that rock music was as adept as jazz in breaking the mould and exploring new pastures.
2. Buddy Guy. A Man and The Blues
‘If you want Chicago Blues, this is the guvnor,’ I was told, and it was no word of a lie. Without belittling BB or Albert or any of the other masters of the electric blues, Buddy Guy spoke directly to my guts in a way that none of the others ever have. Any maybe my love affair with Mr. Guy was the reason why I could never take the note-perfect vanilla of Clapton seriously – it’s not the lines you play…it’s what they say.
3. Gary Burton. Duster.
This album totally blew me away. Beautifully recorded and presented, I had never heard playing like this in my life. To me, the vibes had always been a somewhat saccharine instrument, tinkled politely by Milt Jackson or Red Norvo, but always veering towards the cocktail lounge. But Gary Burton was a totally different animal, somehow squeezing emotion and beauty from his instrument. He was (and is) one of those rare, rare musicians for whom technique is a given and music becomes an extension of his emotional expression. And behind the maestro stood a group that were ground breakers in their own right, including the amazing Larry Coryell on guitar, Steve Swallow on bass and Roy Haines on drums. ‘Duster’ is an utterly extraordinary album that sent me in a musical direction, both as a listener and a player, that inspired me for decades.
4. Hamza El Din. Al Oud.
What a weird recommendation to have made to a stranger, but what a revelation this turned out to be. Hamza El Din was a Nubian student who dedicated his life to preserving the culture of his ancient nation when it disappeared beneath the Aswam Dam in Egypt. And what a beautiful musical culture that country had. ‘Al Oud’ features Hamza El Din’s soft, throaty voice accompanied only by his Oud – a fretless Egyptian lute. The singer is a virtuoso of the instrument and although the lyrics are in Nubian, the emotions – love, pain, beauty, heartache – come through as clearly as ever they could. More than forty years later, I still listen to this album and find new nooks and crannies to lift the gloom of a stressful day.
One hour spent browsing the shelves of a basement record store in Greenwich Village led to years of pleasure and opened doors to a lifetime of musical discovery, all because the place was run by a human being, a music fanatic, who had the extraordinary ability to match a visitor to a bunch of perfect albums after sixty minutes of conversation, trial and error (there were other suggestions followed by listening that were discarded, I guess).
I’m not exaggerating to say this was a life changing experience.
Now, then, stuff that in your computer, Mister Amazon. I bought a couple of CDs from the tax-dodgers last year and paid the price of endless spam emails from an automated server assuming that those two purchases accurately define my taste. The fact that I bought an African album doesn’t mean I want press releases about every bloody CD emanating from that continent. In fact, if truth be told, I’d like Amazon to bugger off and leave me alone.
I recount this tale in the aftermath of the (hopefully temporary) demise of HMV, to prove a point. Downloads have not and never will provide a substitute for the best record stores and the personal service, advice and choice they offer. Sure, maybe HMV wasn’t a particularly good example, (but that’s a different issue). Such places are about people, after all, and I’ve never found a level of personal service in any corporate enterprise. But the best independent record stores can steer the browser into exciting unknown territory. Even today, I’m a sucker for shuftying through the racks of every record store I come across and I guarantee that the titles I come out with were nowhere in my thoughts when I went into the shop. I find things in the racks I’d forgotten or didn’t know about but fancy from the producer/musicians/songwriters on the credits. (Credits, for you download fanatics out there, are the words that tell you who did what in making the album. And an album without credits is a bit like a book without a story as far as I'm concerned...)
For me, the excitement of shopping for music is precisely the joy of discovering something new and unexpected. Yes, if I know precisely what I want, Amazon (or HMV on the rare occasion they have it) are useful resources, particularly when I need a present for a friend or relative. But they’re on a totally different wavelength when it comes to my musical needs. Last weekend, for example, I picked up a Sheila Chandra CD on spec. I saw it and grabbed it and it’s hardly been out of my CD player since. But I bought it because it was there and a lightbulb lit in my head, recalling an extraordinary vocal percussion track I’d heard ten years ago. There is no possible way that I would ever have deliberately chosen and bought that album on-line, and I would have missed what has been a richly enjoyable week immersing myself in the intelligence and pleasure of Sheila Chandra’s beautiful music.
So please support your local record store. Don’t believe what the mainstream media scream at you. Neither the CD, the Album nor the record shop are dead yet. Far from it. Indeed, I’d stake a bundle upon some gradual revival over the coming decade, as off-centre record stores reopen and take the place of their dying high-street competition.
At least, I hope so.
At least, I hope so.