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New York City Record Store Memories
Punk! Rock! Heavy! Metal!
The year was 1985, and my brother and I were hooked on a radio show called HELLHOLE. Broadcast every Thursday night from 9 PM to midnight on WNYU, the student radio station of New York University, the show specialized in the newest, hardest, heaviest hardcore, thrash metal and punk rock . Hosted by two genial fellows who were known only as "Deathrider" and "Corpsegrinder" (yes, really!) this blast of obnoxious radio mayhem was essential listening for hordes of shaggy haired high schoolers such as myself, who were trapped in the boonies of the Jersey suburbs but still wanted to feel like they were part of "the scene" going on just across the river.
Hellhole had an eclectic playlist, to say the least. In 1985, the heavy metal and hardcore scenes hadn't been fully "integrated" yet; fans of both genres were still casting suspicious glances at one another (and occasionally, beating the crap out of each other) across crowded concert halls, and maintaining your underground "cred" was everything. Relatively big name bands like Metallica - who were well known in the metal scene at the time, but hadn't broken through to the mainstream yet - were considered "sell outs" or "rock stars" on Hellhole since they were signed to a major label (the ultimate underground "sin!") and therefore they didn't get much play on the show. You were more likely to hear cuts by metal newcomers like Agent Steel or Kreator, mixed in with tracks by D.R.I., the Dead Kennedys, Suicidal Tendencies, the Mentors, and hometown boys Anthrax, who were regular in-studio guests. One fateful evening the Anthrax boys even chose Hellhole as the venue to "world premiere" tracks from Speak English or Die, the now-classic debut by Scott and Charlie's hardcore-influenced side project, Stormtroopers of Death (S.O.D.). Little did we know how that release would radically change both the hardcore and metal scenes, not just in New York but around the world, in the years to come.
Spinal Tap - "Hell Hole"
Every week, Deathrider's voice would kick off the show with the following announcement: "Some of the music heard on 'Hellhole' was supplied to us by Bleecker Bob's Records - 118 West 3rd Street, in the Village," and I would think to myself, "Wow, if they're supplying this show with THAT music, then it must be the coolest record store in the WORLD!" From that point on, visiting Bleecker Bob's Records went straight to the top of my teenage "bucket list," right next to "become Lita Ford's love slave." In my mind's eye, I imagined a punk and metal Graceland, with stacks of imported vinyl, picture discs and rare 7-inch singles piled to the ceiling. I wasn't far off.
Bleecker Bob's on "Seinfeld!"
Metal Geeks On Safari
My first chance to visit Bleecker Bob's came on a hot August afternoon in 1988. I was only a few weeks away from starting my freshman year at Wagner College in Staten Island, New York (go Seahawks!) and naturally I wanted to know where all the cool New York City hot spots (record stores, comic book shops, concert venues, etc.) were ahead of my arrival. A high school buddy who knew Manhattan was more than happy to be my tour guide, and since we were both music geeks, Bleecker Bob's was our first stop. The store was just as delightfully scuzzy as I'd imagined it, with bins and crates of obscure rock n roll records and tapes squeezed into every corner of the narrow space and plastic-wrapped collectible 45s from days gone by hanging on the walls. Punk and metal t-shirts hung on racks in the back and glass display cases held buttons, patches, spiked leather wristbands and other "gear" intended to make teenage metal dorks swoon. This is my kinda place, I thought. I'm home. My heart skipped a beat when I saw an imported 12-inch single of Metallica's "Harvester Of Sorrow" in the front window, from the not-yet-released ...And Justice For All album. It even had two non-LP cover songs (Budgie's "Breadfan" and Diamond Head's "The Prince") on the B-Side, so naturally I had to have it. When I arrived at college a few weeks later, I was The First Guy On Campus With New Metallica ... for whatever that was worth. Nobody else was impressed (or even cared), but as far as I was concerned, I was the man, dammit.
The Record Store Tour...
Once I got settled in at school I befriended a fellow metal geek and rabid music collector named Sean, and soon we began a semi-monthly tradition that came to be known as the "Rock N Roll Record Store Tour." We'd hop the Staten Island Ferry into Manhattan on a Saturday or Sunday morning and head for Greenwich Village on a mission to hit as many record stores as we could before our money ran out. Bleecker Bob's was usually our first stop, but it was only the beginning, because in those days, Manhattan was an absolute paradise for record-collecting geeks, with dozens of hole-in-the-wall shops to pick through as you traveled from one end of the Village to the other. Moving on from Bleecker Bob's on West 3rd, we'd head to Venus Records and Revolver Records (both on West 8th Street) and then Second Coming Records on Sullivan Street, a favorite haunt which was a haven for vinyl bootlegs; I bought my first-ever Metallica boot there of an '87 European festival gig. Second Coming was also our first encounter with that peculiar creature known as the Record Store Cat, a resident feline who had an uncanny ability to be sleeping atop the section for whatever band I was looking for every time I visited. Fortunately, Second Coming Kitty was good natured and never seemed to mind being picked up and moved out of the way.
Another "hot spot" we always made sure to hit was It's Only Rock N Roll, a record store/museum that sold not only records and tapes, but high end collectibles and memorabilia. Every inch of the cramped second-floor walk-up was packed with framed platinum albums, autographed photos and posters, tour books and instruments (I remember gazing longingly at a guitar signed by Ace Frehley of KISS on numerous occasions). Even cooler, they had a small room in the back that served as a mini Rock N Roll Arcade, with working KISS, Ted Nugent, and Rolling Stones pinball machines and even a Journey "Escape" arcade game (remember that?). We always made sure to have a pocket full of quarters when we visited!
We'd usually finish our tour (assuming we still had money left) by hitting the big Tower Records store at 66th and Broadway. Tower also had a store on 4th Street but the Uptown store was absolutely massive, with 2 sprawling floors of music, books, and videos to peruse. To this day, Tower is the only record store I've ever been in that was big enough to need an elevator!
I can still remember the first time Sean and I went to Tower Records. We literally spent hours browsing through the stacks and finally Sean walked out of there with a Poison CD or something similarly mainstream. Naturally, I picked on his choice all the way back to campus, saying, "I don't get you. We just went to the most famous record store in the universe, they've got all kinds of obscure and hard to find stuff, and you bought a CD that you could've picked up in any K-Mart!"
Heavy Metal Daze
All good things must come to an end, of course, and unfortunately that included the Rock N Roll Record Store Tours. I graduated from college in 1992 and moved far enough away from New York City that such trips became more hassle than they were truly worth. (Besides, I had plenty of record stores in my own area to scrounge around in.) Sean got married and moved to Oregon, but we still joked via e-mail about getting back together someday to "do the record stores" one more time. As the years went by, I began hearing about our old record shopping haunts closing their doors, one by one -- victims of Manhattan's gentrification (and the rent hikes that came with it), or of the declines in sales that affected the entire music industry due to Internet piracy. It's Only Rock N Roll was gone by the early 90s, eventually resurfacing as an online auction service for music collectibles. I heard that Second Coming Records went out of business in the mid-90s after being busted by the RIAA for selling bootlegs -- which had been their claim to fame. When the Tower Records chain went belly up in 2006, the writing was on the wall - the record store was fast becoming an endangered species.
"The Last Days of Bleecker Bob's"
Bleecker Bob's Records was one of the last stores standing but even they could no longer stand against the winds of change. After 45 years in business, the venerable Village institution's final day of business came on April 13, 2013. Ironically, the closing date came exactly a week before the annual Record Store Day events that celebrate indie record shops like Bob's. Last I heard, their space on West 3rd Street was filled by a frozen yogurt shop. Seriously? At the time of its closing, the store's Facebook page stated that they were hoping to re-open in another location in Manhattan (possibly in the East Village) but to the best of my knowledge it never happened. (SIGH)
As record stores disappear from the landscape at a frightening rate, I feel bad for future generations who will never be able to make Rock N Roll Record Store Tour memories of their own. Screw online shopping, kids. Get your asses into a REAL record store!!