Sunday, March 07, 2010

My First Record Store or, Go Ahead Judge an Album By Its Cover

I went to college at the University of Chicago, located in the idyllic integrated enclave of Hyde Park on deeply segregated Chicago's south side. I spent only my first year in a college dorm, in a tiny room with a succession of odd roommates: we were all uncomfortable with each other in that dorm, from weirdly diverse cultural backgrounds and all suffering some kind of cultural shock. It was 1976 and how I, a radicalized Russian language student arrived too late for the student revolution and itching to come out of closet wound up surviving with a farmboy from southern Indiana, a jock from Michigan, a failed Jesuit student from lord knows where, and a motley crew of nerds, managed to hang on to sanity I'll never exactly know. Before I fled the dorms for the warmer geniality of shared apartment life the one thing I discovered was that my brand new mushroom-shaped plastic stereo record changer with an 8-track deck built in could transform my dreary dorm room into a private oasis with music no one else I knew could stand.

I had discovered my first record store. In high school I ordered plenty of records from Columbia House (where I was destined to work years later), and was developing the rudiments of my taste. But I lived in a suburb without a record store and didn't have much money.

I had always wanted a Joni Mitchell album: somebody I knew used to play "Court and Spark" for me all the time, but I didn't own it. When I got to college and found that nearby record store I'm pretty sure the first thing I got there was "Hejira," Joni's jazzed up album with Jaco Pastorius that turned her into an enemy of her longtime folk fans and made me a lifetime Joni worshipper. The trippy composite photography on the gatefold sleeve sucked me in. It was the first thing I played on that record changer, and this record has remained a favorite. Her tales of change and longing became a refuge for me; someplace to sink in and retreat from the stresses of the world.

On my next trip to the record store they were playing this crazy record from some singer I had never heard of. She was Brazilian, named Flora Purim, and "Nothing Will Be As It Was...Tomorrow" was like nothing I had ever heard before. It had Al McKay, the guitar player from Earth Wind and Fire on it--I loved them!--and what I heard in the store won me over completely. Again, a completely trippy album cover with a giant bird and some naked lady covering her face with a mirror. I bought the record and put it on my record changer. Flora Purim was queued up second. As I was doing school work expecting to hear the record drop instead I heard something dragging catastrophically on the record needle. The stereo was sitting in the window and the sun was shining; before the record had dropped the sun had wilted my new Flora LP like a floppy hat. I rushed it back to the record store after trying to straighten the disc out before it hardened again. "Hey! This album is warped!" I complained back at the store, and got a new one. Believe it or not I went home and, stupidly, repeated my mistake. The store clerk eyed me suspiciously when I returned my second "warped" copy for a third one. But I learned my lesson. "Nothing Will Be As It Was" never melted again, though it soon became my favorite album.

I was really hooked on the record store. I would listen to the albums I had bought and just get lost staring into the artwork. Those 12-inch cardboard sleeves are more satisfying than a tiny CD booklet could ever be. Anyway, I was convinced that trippy album artwork was the ticket. On my next trip to the store I saw the wall covered in $1.99 cutouts, most of which were from the Impulse! label, which had just collapsed. I picked out Sun Ra's "Nubians of Plutonia" with its epic imaginary Plutonian landscape and reclining nude goddess. The price was certainly right. Oh my God. When I got this home I had no idea what I had discovered. It was unlike anything I had ever heard. For years I would put this album on for new friends. It made many people run from the room, but for me its crazy off center jazz beats, afro-drumming and weird chanting transported me. It usually transported my roommate out of the room, which was convenient as well.

It took me a while to understand that this incredibly modern and avant-garde music had actually been recorded in the late 1950s: it was a long time before I understood how Impulse! had licensed and repackaged Sun Ra's original catalogue. Impulse!'s marketing completely won me over. Every time I went back to that record store, it was straight to the Impulse cut-out wall. I wasn't ready for all of Sun Ra, I know I picked up one and couldn't make it through the dense and screechy wall of cosmic sound. But "Angels and Demons At Play" became my second Sun Ra score. It sounded almost like what most people called jazz, but with a freaky freaky edge that sucked me in.

Next up was a two-record set: Alice Coltrane's "Reflection on Creation and Space, a Five-Year View." Who was this lady with the distant stare? This album really changed my life. I didn't understand it. I didn't understand what she was talking about on the liner notes for this or the other Alice Coltrane cutouts I proceeded to buy. But it was incredibly compelling stuff. She's playing Indian music; she's playing jazz; she's playing the harp for chrissakes. She's doing these incredible string arrangements; she got advice for one of them from Stravinsky's ghost. If John Coltrane's version of "My Favorite Things" from the early 1960s was a musical revelation for a generation, and a kind of violent retribution against "The Sound of Music" and the saccharine world of showtune innocence and the cult of the jazz standard, imagine what it was like for me to hear Alice's version of John's version first. There's that percussive carnival organ she played; there's her cosmic harp and the strings that always seem to want to soar off into outer space.

My next attack on the cutout wall was Pharoah Sanders. I grabbed "Elevation" and "Village of the Pharoahs," which, this being the cutout wall, were generally not considered to be his A-list. Listening to the bells and flutes of "Mansion Worlds" or "Memories of Lee Morgan" on "Village of the Pharoahs" or to Joe Bonner's rhythmically percussive piano playing on "The Gathering" on "Elevation" transported me. I didn't even smoke weed to this music to become completely high on its deep spiritual vibe. Being able to push myself through the inevitable cacophony on a Pharoah Sanders or Alice Coltrane record became the most rewarding challenge: I couldn't always do it at first but when I mastered the art I could practically feel my mind expanding. None of my peers could tolerate this stuff, but to my satisfaction some of the slightly older guys I soon met among the radicals I had begun to hang out with dug it all too.

Sure my taste expanded and diverged afterwards. When I moved away from Hyde Park up to the north side, and eventually away from Chicago, there were new record stores and new musical directions. I got pretty hooked on disco, and even some rock. But I remained a sucker for a trippy album cover, and honestly, I don't think that has lead me wrong too many times. It's sad that record stores are such a thing of the past, and sad that album art has gone from being a 12" gatefold wonder to a 5" booklet, and now to a two- or three-inch jpg in the corner of iTunes. But all the music is still there, and that's not so bad.

Thankfully, the music mentioned here has all made it to the digital age and isn't too hard to find on CD. Jazz Supreme has lots more info on the Impulse! artists and cosmic jazz. There's some Sun Ra, including a compilation I created, on my music blog Ile Oxumare, with links to downloads.

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