Saturday, August 15, 2015

Tales From the Dark Side: The Lust for Vinyl

The last time I wrote about buying vinyl, it was after a Record Store Day. I sent off early in the morning cruising a variety of shops to score some of the exclusive discs that are especially created one day in April for music hungry fanatics like myself. There’s another such day coming up in November. They call it Black Friday. Vinyl is black, you see. Although many of these special releases are pressed on coloured, even multi-coloured vinyl, to draw the rabid collector in even further. But somewhere back in the collector’s history there must be a beginning where this craving began. We all understand cravings these days. The proliferation of vampire and zombie stories, with their creatures’ cravings for blood and brains is just what makes people of a certain age, and bent, to wander the streets searching for a way to satisfy that vinyl-lust. I started to think about the first record stores I ever visited to see what it was that drew me into this dark world in the first place.

I grew up in the east end of Hamilton, Ontario, a hop, skip and a jump from The Centre. There was a store there called Hal Waggoner’s Melody Lane. Hal played seven years in the Canadian Football League with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, but injuries ended his career, and so he went into the record business. The store was small, but well stocked with popular LPs on one side of the shop, and 45s on the other. Down the middle were bins for older stock. Perfect for browsing. I can’t swear to it, but I’m pretty sure that Hal worked the store himself, perhaps with some help from his wife. Prices were higher there, MSRP was the key. You could pay less if you went to Woolworth’s or Kresge’s, Robinson’s or Hudson Bay, but their stock was limited. Melody Lane had everything and by the time my interest in records was building with the British Invasion they had just what I was looking for. I recall hearing about a new Rolling Stones LP (Their Satanic Majesties Request) which had a special lenticular cover. I heard that The Beatles were hidden in the background somewhere. The manager of the store told me, “If you can find the Beatles, I’ll give you the record.” I spent 10 minutes searching to no avail. I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for. Finally he said, “Time’s up!” and pointed to John and Paul buried in the image. I rushed home to tell my brother and send him on the mission. Point to these two spots, and get a free Rolling Stones album. He hiked over to Melody Lane and pointed them out but…the limited time offer had expired. We bought the record a day later at Hudson Bay.

The Hudson Bay record department was managed by a woman who really knew her stuff. One day as I was browsing she told me that the new Beatles LP (Yesterday...and Today) had arrived but they weren’t allowed to put it out yet. I asked to see it but she wouldn’t show it to me. “It’s a pretty weird cover,” she told me. I was twenty feet away from a box filled with the famous “butcher cover.” Downtown the store to try was Sherman’s Record Bar. My brother ended up working there for a while, but we shopped there for many years before that. Sherman’s had a huge selection of 45s, and promoted the latest rock & roll albums beautifully. They kept the classical music at the back, where the in-store playlist wouldn’t offend the Bach & Beethoven crowd. I bought Elvis Costello’s first LP (My Aim is True) there, the Monday after seeing him on Saturday Night Live. I bought Double Fantasy there a week before John Lennon was shot.

Until 1970 I hadn’t seen anything bigger than Melody Lane or Sherman’s. There were a few smaller shops, like the little place that opened up on Kenilworth where my brother and I discovered a handful of Moby Grape 45s. An independent joint appeared directly across from Delta High School where I discovered the first Led Zeppelin LP on my way home one evening. Then I took a trip to New York City with my friend Les. We stayed at my Aunt’s place in Brooklyn and took the subway in to the city. On our arrival we were met by hookers in front of the Port Authority. We wandered around Times Square and picked up The Band's Stage Fright and the soundtrack for Performance at a store with so many records my head was spinning. We went to a little theatre and watched Performance, we caught John Phillips at the Bitter End. I memorized the opening licks to “California Dreaming” by watching his fingers. We were offered dope in the middle of Central Park, and again in Greenwich Village where we shopped at Bleecker Bob’s. Every trip I ever made had a record store as a location.

In Chicago in the 90s I found a couple really interesting shops on N.Rush St. I bought some blues, Moby Grape’s 2-disc anthology and Julee Cruise’s first album which featured “Falling” the eerie tune from Twin Peaks. When I returned to Rush St. two years ago, the record stores were gone, replaced by high end fashion shops. In Austin, Texas last year, I took a taxi to Waterloo Records and spent an hour flipping through the bins. Marty Stuart, a Tribute album to Guy Clark, and The Last Temptation of Elvis which I’d let slip through my fingers a few years earlier at an impressive shop in Owen Sound! Back in Hamilton there are a couple shops still operating, and doing well. Dr.Disc supplements record sales with equipment rentals and ticket sales, but they also have a stunning collection of used records and CDs, new stock, and they offer the Raise the Roof live concert series on Friday nights from the roof of the store, overlooking the parking lot. Free music. A new basement shop called Hammer City Records is a few blocks along James Street, where they specialize in punk, and are only too happy to spend time talking about Teenage Head and the Hamilton scene. Records on Wheels in Dundas features a lot of ambient music along with latest releases and used vinyl, and Mike will order anything you want.

The record store isn’t dead. You can feel its pulse when you walk in to one of these shops. Toronto has a few, you just have to know where to look. It’s getting harder to find them but they’re out there. They tend to be owned and managed by people who care about music the same way you do. There’s nothing more depressing than asking for a new release by one of your favourite artists in a mall store and being asked how to spell “Beefheart.” I hear that August 12th was National Vinyl Record Day. I didn’t even know there was such a thing. It was a coincidence that I thought about record stores this week. I just miss the really good ones, where I was able to browse for hours on end. Hamilton never had anything like Sam’s on Yonge Street in Toronto but these smaller shops like Melody Lane or Sherman’s had enough stock to keep me interested. The existing stores like Dr.Disc and Records on Wheels helped keep my addiction alive. I treasure these wonderful musical destinations even as  one by one  they fight for their survival.

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.

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