It is easy to get down on Austin sometimes. Overpopulation, traffic, the fact that it is located in Texas, interminable heat and interminable festivals… Damn. Makes it easy to take the good things for granted.
Having just left town for a few shows, one thing I can better appreciate after going elsewhere: the record stores. After stopping at eight different record stores in three states a couple of weeks ago, and only buying one 45 from a 99-cent bin, I can say that the stores in Austin slay those in other towns. Some stores sell records like Ross sells socks – no aesthetic, no sense of curation in what is stocked, no feeling that what they are selling is actually valuable (pet peeve – if you are going to try to sell a record for thirty bucks, you could at least put it in a sleeve!). Why bother putting a price tag on a record that should just be going straight to the landfill? Cut out the middleman, I say.
Austin has some of the best record stores in the country: End of An Ear, Antone’s, Breakaway, and even Waterloo put the stores in most other towns to shame. We’ve got the record convention, too. Easy to take the local stores for granted when you live here, but not after you see what passes for a record store elsewhere. No wonder people just download everything now! But the main thing that made Austin seem not-so-bad was the semi-annual 45 party at Dom’s house soon after my return to town.
Every once in a while, maybe once a year if not farther apart, Dominic Welhouse invites a select group of 45 collectors over to his pad to spin some sides. Highlight of the year. The living room becomes a little theater. He’ll have some chairs lined up in back for the peanut gallery – people will show up just to watch other people spin records at this party – and a couple of couches around the stereo for those who brought records. 7-inches only. And they’ll go around, each guy (or gal) taking a turn to play a 45 from their pile. Dom serves as master of ceremonies. Beers are downed and minds are blown. No dance floor, just people actually listening to music. In my experience, this is a pretty rare thing. Eugene Chadbourne has talked about the fact that most people, even those who claim to be music fans, won’t actually listen to music:
I learned a sad lesson about audiences the day my radio rabble-rouser friend Charles Rosina played me a bootleg tape he’d made at a live Neil Young show in Boston. Fans had paid about $50 a ticket see Neil Young solo with his guitar. He doesn’t do that very often, and he has a lot of fans. The hall was packed.
We got to a part of the tape where Young announced that he was going to play a new song, one he wrote last night. Then he went into it. That’s when the audience started blabbing away like there was no tomorrow because they haven’t heard the song before!
Most musicians starting out would like to be Neil Young, have his kind of long career, big following, the respect from many different generations, and a ranch that looks pretty darn nice from the pictures I’ve seen. But he doesn’t have an audience willing to listen to his music.
– Eugene Chadbourne, I Hate The Man Who Runs This Bar
This was written before smartphones were ubiquitous. Now you can add texting and surfing the web to the list of things people would rather do than listen to music. At the 45 party, people actually listen to the music.
Not that everybody is sitting quietly and nodding as they stroke their goatees. It is a party, after all. People are drinking, laughing, talking, having a good time, but the music is the center of attention. A good song will elicit shouts of excitement, laughter, maybe a round of applause at the end. Whoever brought the 45 will perhaps take a bow. A doff of the hat. “Yes, thank you, I own that record.”
You’ve probably been over to a friend’s house to listen to records before, but this is a little more hardcore than that. The people who bring the records to this party are the hardest of the hardcore, when it comes to 45s. The caliber of the record collections involved raises the stakes considerably. There is a sense of healthy competition – everybody wants to top the previous selection, to wow the room with what they’ve been able to unearth. There is a spreadsheet tracking every 45 spun, so that there are no repeats. This keeps each get-together interesting, and also ups the ante for each subsequent one, making it yet more difficult to play something that hasn’t already been heard. I told you it was hardcore.
I had heard through the grapevine about these throwdowns before I had even met Dom, and I attended a couple as a spectator after getting the secret handshake from Mike Mariconda. When I moved from the peanut gallery to actually spinning my own records – quite the honor, I assure you. Mariconda split for Spain, and his presence has been missed at the last couple of parties. Some other regulars were sick or otherwise indisposed this year. At the most recent throwdown, you got:
- Mike Buck and Eve Monsees, owners of Antone’s records and rock and roll power couple. Buck is the only man on the planet to play drums for both Jimmie Vaughan and Jack Oblivian. Eve is an ace guitar player who also owns an original copy of Cat Squirrel by Doctor Ross on Fortune (!). They both have more and better records than we mere mortals can possibly imagine.
- Tim Murphy, longtime dj at various record parties in Austin such as the Second Sunday Sock Hop, who also has quite the pile, himself.
- Gabe Vaughan, owner of the aforementioned Breakaway Records, and also a popular local dj about town who spins at the SSSH. Owning your own store gives you a bit of an unfair advantage, ya know?
- Jason Chronis, musician and obscuro Texas garage aficionado. He tracks down these insane records from small towns across Texas that leave you asking: Who? Where? How did he find this?
You don’t have to worry about the usual DJ stuff there. There’s only one turntable. You don’t have to make a smooth segue into the next song, or match beats, or even follow one record with another that’s remotely similar. Things can do a complete 180 from one turn to the next, a stomping r&b tune can be immediately followed by some goofy novelty record.
Since at the record party, we aren’t worried about keeping the dance floor filled, it opens things up quite a bit. Country fuzz guitar, crazy novelty records, underplayed sides by well-known artists, harmonica rockers, New Orleans r&b, hillbilly rockers, 60s guitar instrumentals, low down vocal groups, spaghetti western soundtracks, girl group pop, mod soul, records sampled by the Geto Boys, punk rock, garage, singles by Italian disco producers. And that’s just the stuff that happens to be on Youtube, so that I can provide you with an example.
The stereotype of a record collector, as is generally portrayed in the popular media, is some kind of socially-awkward, borderline Aspergers type with no social skills, leading a bleak existence. Think Steve Buscemi in Ghost World, or Harvey Pekar’s endearing grumbling. This record party is light years away from that. It really is a joyful experience, to hear all these different sounds in one night. Some of these records are so bizarre, you wonder how it ever came to pass that anybody paid money to press them up, much less that these maniacs were allowed into a recording studio. Some of the records are so great, it just makes you angry at the cruel injustice of fate. Why did X never become a hit, when clearly it is superior to most of the supposed “hit” records that everybody has heard a million times? It definitely makes you appreciate how random and non-homogenized the pre-internet era was. Records from different towns, different states, different decades, sounded different. After a particularly good side, Dom will turn to ya and say, “I. Love. Records!”
One of the great things about the record party is that, even though everybody is into different stuff, there is a core of similarity to the tastes involved. Someone will play a record that you never would have found in a million years. Next, somebody will play one that everybody knows, but that everybody agrees is great, and that you don’t mind hearing again. These can be great moments, too: “Oh, yeah, I forgot about this song!” Most of the records are from the golden era of 45 rpm recordings, from the 1950s to the 1970s. Some later stuff can sneak in, but it will still fit with the aesthetic. Nobody will ruin the groove by trying to play some contemporary indie rock bullshit.
In fact, I haven’t really found anything that compares to a record party at Dom’s house. I had high hopes that I might find similar kicks at the Association for Recorded Sound Collections annual conference, the first academic conference I ever attended. They had a “collector’s roundtable,” which I thought was going to be an amazing night of record collector one-upmanship, with a bunch of 78 collectors playing obscure stuff I’d never hear in a million years. Instead, it was mostly those collectors endlessly kvetching, and they hardly played a record. I was sorely disappointed.
For awhile, there was a “bring your own records” thing going on at a bar, and some of the folks with good singles would come. But just like everything else in Austin, it got popular, and next thing you know people are showing up with Billy Joel and Styx records and it was ruined. The Alamo Drafthouse has even tried hosting a similar event, in a big theater with stadium seating. I just don’t think it would work. Some things are better left alone.
We dig it UNDERGROUND. Being “successful” means just so many more IDIOTS pretending to like something. Why crowd things?
– Tim Warren, liner notes from Cheapo Crypt Sampler
Now, I shall scrounge around, and start building up my stash for next time…