The resurgence of interest in vinyl records in the last five to six years is astounding. 9.2 million records were sold in the U.S. in 2014, a 260% increase since 2009.
To be sure, this resurgence is a complicated beast. Many view it as pure and utter gimmickry propagated by big business (Urban Outfitters and Crosley “retro inspired” record players) to capitalize on hipster culture (googling "vinyl hipster" is a dangerous move). They’re not entirely wrong: many people just want a few records around to earn some cool points with friends. The true vinyl nerd, however, is genuinely drawn to a format that is completely foreign to the digital age, where you have to search for the music you want to hear, rather than just instantly downloading it from the internet with a click of the mouse. For this breed, the challenge of finding the perfect record is motivated by the desire to have what you’re listening to be a tangible object that you can hold, with art and text you can flip through. For many vinyl lovers, looking for that perfect record is like going to church, and with listening to music comes a ritual carrying a vast history that is lost in the internet age: going to your local record store, talking about music with others, finding something that speaks to you, placing a needle on the same spot it was placed by someone thirty years ago and in doing so, feeling connected to a lost past.
“How do you know what you’re looking for?”
This is the question posed by Josh Rosenthal’s daughter Emma, in the introduction to his new book The Record Store Of The Mind. Rosenthal, distracted by looking for records, is stumped by this “probing philosophical question.” When Emma then pulls out an LP and asks “What about this?”, Rosenthal is surprised by her attention to the same details that he looks for: something he’s never heard of, from the early seventies, relatively cheap, perfect condition, with an “air of authenticity emanating from the liner notes and song descriptions,” (the record turns out to be disappointing.) Though Rosenthal never fully answers his daughter's question, The Record Store Of The Mind provides probing insight into the method and madness of a true vinyl-junkie, and how his musical searches have literally shaped his life. Part memoir, part unapologetic love letter to a music lover's unsung heroes, it is the story of someone who's devoted his life to searching for lost and forgotten records that went relatively ignored at the time of their release.
Though the book is by no means a how-to guide for working in the industry, Rosenthal demonstrates how obsession and persistence can alter the course of one’s life. While working as the music director for the Albany State Radio Station, Rosenthal heard Elvis Costello was playing a concert nearby and decided to set up an interview. The Warner Brothers rep told him he was sorry, but Costello couldn’t make it.
"I found this entirely unacceptable, so I found out where Elvis was staying and dropped off a bunch of cassettes for him (yes, cassettes—Pierce Turner, Neville Brothers) along with a note inviting him to come up and do a mellow DJ set with me before his gig. He called me at the station, and I arranged for a stretch to pick him up. His wife at the time, Cait O’Riordan of the Pogues, was in tow, but didn’t say a word all afternoon. Elvis pulled stuff from the library (Randy Newman, Yo La Tengo), and we spent a very fun hour on the air, although I was pretty nervous. I bought a block of tickets, invited my label rep friends from New York City up for the show, and made a big party out of it."
The Record Store Of The Mind provides probing insight into the method and madness of a true vinyl-junkie, and how his musical searches have literally shaped his life.
Because of the “chutzpah” he displayed, Rosenthal was offered a position as “promo guy” at Colombia Records a few months later: his gateway to the industry. Fittingly, he would eventually start his own record label in 2005--Tompkins Square--a label that reflects his unconventional tastes in American Primitive guitar, gospel, hillbilly and Americana. Among their releases was one of the finest albums of 2015: Remembering Mountains: Unheard Songs by Karen Dalton--a collection of songs written by Dalton that were never produced, interpreted by a range of musicians including Sharon Van Etten, Lucinda Williams and Josephine Foster.
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Part memoir, part unapologetic love letter to a music lover's unsung heroes, The Record Store Of The Mind is the story of someone who's devoted his life to searching for lost and forgotten records that went relatively ignored at the time of their release.
The bulk of The Record Store Of The Mind consists of in depth looks at some of Rosenthal’s favorite artists, including Ron Davies, Tia Blake and Bill Fay.
The love Rosenthal has for these artists is palpable in his writing, and the work he’s put into researching them (and, in some cases, contacting and interviewing them) is that of a true archivist in the Numero Group vein. The book will, of course, primarily appeal to those familiar with the artists Rosenthal venerates. I was especially excited to reach a brief section on Michael Hurley (who is playing at the Flywheel in Easthampton on April 15th), and a chapter devoted to Alex Chilton, whom Rosenthal interviewed in 1987 while working at Albany State Radio, the entirety of which is reprinted in the book. Even those unfamiliar with these artists who share a love for discovering obscure musicians, and an interest in the process of documenting them, will find plenty of captivating substance in Rosenthal’s work.
One chapter of particular interest was that on Robert Lester Folsom, an obscure singer/songwriter whom I only recently discovered. Folsom got his start releasing private press records in the seventies: his 1976 album Music and Dreams, relatively ignored at the time, has become a cult classic after being reissued several times since 1996 (most recently by Anthology Records in 2014). Though Rosenthal claims this to be his favorite record of 2014, he also uses the record as an example of some of the more negative connotations of the recent vinyl renaissance: the hipster quality inherent to the interest in reissues of obscure records:
“Some of these releases get so lathered up in hipster media hyperbole, you wonder if the writer actually listened to the record. There is a forced cool assigned to some of these releases, and the original intent of their creators gets distorted beyond recognition.”
Though Rosenthal’s point has some validity, he does a poor job of illustrating it. The example he uses is of a concert Folsom played at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, after being asked to do so by Mexican Summer--an indie rock label that reissued Music and Dreams in 2010. To show the extent of the “generational mismatch” at a venue “mobbed with young hipsters”, Rosenthal quotes a young, drunk (and seemingly not too bright) blogger in the crowd, who is confused by the old men on stage, only to finally validate them when he is informed the band was “big in the seventies” and reunited by Mexican Summer. The anecdote is amusing, but a lazy attempt to prove an exhausted point: hipsters are dumb, and their tastes aren’t genuine. While the question of whether many reissues from obscure artists are venerated for their obscurity instead of their music is an interesting one, here Rosenthal stumbles into the pitfall of sounding like the cranky old music snob, scoffing at “youngsters” whose musical tastes aren’t as genuine as his. He redeems himself, however, by then diving into a fascinating study of Folsom’s life and music, the details of which have been shrouded in mystery for many years.
Rosenthal will be reading from his book at Feeding Tube Records in Florence this Sunday, April 3rd, at 3PM, accompanied by local guitarist and luthier Trevor Healy.
The reading couldn’t come at a more perfect time, with the Flywheel Record Fair in Easthampton happening on Sunday as well from 10am to 3pm. You might even see Rosenthal there, obsessively searching for the elusive, perfect record. Because he is about as knowledgeable as they come about music (particularly obscure music), he is likely someone you would want to consult in your vinyl hunting. But like many veteran vinyl-junkies, he is very opinionated (he believes "a deep cultural chasm" exists between himself and fans of the Beach Boys and Arcade Fire), and a bit nettlesome and meandering in his writing (one of the more tedious sections of the book is a long list of some of the concert stubs he’s held onto over the years). As such, you might need to extract yourself from him after a little while, when his influence becomes irksome and you just have to make up your own mind.
"The soul and character of a city or town is reflected by the record store (and/or the bookstore), a central point of community for the culturally engaged."
What is most compelling about Rosenthal is his deep understanding and appreciation for the record store as a center for cultural engagement, and hearing him speak will likely convert any who might still be skeptical about this notion.
"When I look at a map of the USA, I see record stores. I look at a state and think about the stores I’ve visited there, and how I can’t wait to go back someday. Given how our world has changed since the ’70s, when I was a kid, it’s heartening to see so many of these points of light still beaming out across our nation. The soul and character of a city or town is reflected by the record store (and/or the bookstore), a central point of community for the culturally engaged."
The Record Store Of The Mind is available through Tompkins Square Books. Below is a playlist for the book: a collection of some of Rosenthal's favorite songs.