Saturday, December 30, 2006
End Of An Era
One of America's best record stores -- hell, one of the world's best record stores -- will close on Sept. 30, 2007. Village Music, in Mill Valley, California, has fallen victim to the high price of doing business in Marin County, and proprietor John Goddard has decided to sell off his stock, as well as the mind-boggling array of memorabilia which covers his walls.
Actually, it's not just the expense. As John notes in a press release I got the day after I got my annual (and treasured) Christmas card from him, this year's featuring a photo of Little Jimmy Scott and Ruth Brown standing in front of the shop, "While the deciding factor in this decision has been the rent levels necessary to maintain a business in Mill Valley, this is only one of several reasons I've reached this decision. Basically -- it's time. I've had a great time here for a great many years. The things I've learned, the people I've met, and the ways in which my musical horizons have expanded (and, on some levels, solidified) have been probably the major focus of my life for 40 years. It has been, for the most part, wonderful."
I'll say. When I moved to California to work at Rolling Stone, it was my great good luck to rent an apartment in Sausalito, the town which lies at the other end of the Golden Gate Bridge. Not on the tourist side, but on the side overlooking the Bay where the fishing fleet (what was left of it), the houseboat community, and the residents' shopping district on Caledonia Avenue were. My place had a stunning view of Mt. Tamalpais, at the foot of which Mill Valley sits.
Naturally, being in the business I was in, I got loads and loads of records, many of which I didn't want. Just as I was about to be choked out of my home, one of the record reviewers I worked with mentioned a place where I could unload them, just a few miles away. That place was Village Music. John's policy was simple: you got credit, or you could take cash. He bought stuff for half what he sold it for. New albums in the store were $3.88, three for $10. Used albums went from a dime to quite a lot of money if they were rare enough. And there were lots and lots of albums.
Not only that, John knew a lot about most of them. He seemed to treasure American musical history more than anyone I'd met to that point, and he was evangelical about the stuff he liked. "You've never heard that? Take that home today!" But John, I've only got $16 credit, and I've got this other stuff... And out would come one of the mysterious pieces of paper that lived in and around the cash register. "Okay, now you owe me." And accounts would, inevitably, get settled. But this music wasn't just something that lived on round pieces of vinyl for John. He had an unbelievable network of people alerting him to out-of-the-way clubs and concerts and churches where the people who'd recorded those records were playing. You'd get a telephone call if you were among the lucky inner circle: "Mighty Clouds of Joy, Tuesday evening, church in Oakland. Interested?" "Ernest Tubb is playing in Morgan City tonight. It's kind of a haul, but I'm going." And, of course, if you heard of something, you'd call him. I was plugged into the zydeco circuit and always passed that news along.
Eventually, his knowledge and his stash of records increased to where expansion was inevitable. One night, I cooked a big pot of gumbo at his house and we drove it to the store, where a number of people waited with sledgehammers and a case of beer to knock down one of the walls. He'd acquired a lease on the store next door, and was going to double his space. It took about a week for that to fill up, but it did relieve the congestion somewhat. Nor were these just record collectors with the sledgehammers. John's clientele included a great number of people for whom access to the information in the grooves he sold was a matter of vital interest: professional musicians. And, this being Marin County and the '70s, the great majority of them could be filed under "rock stars." It wasn't at all unusual to be shopping with Mike Bloomfield, Nick Gravenites, Marty Balin, Jerry Garcia, David Crosby, or Maria Muldaur. I'm still pissed off at Bloomfield, whom I met when we both reached for the same Barbara Lynn album at the same time. "I need this," he said. But I saw it first! "Well, I'm Mike Bloomfield and you're not and I need this." We eventually became friendly, but that was also the only copy of that album I ever had a chance to own. I still haven't heard it. And, just as with the live music, these people passed on the knowledge they got: one day I walked in on a warm spring day and the most beautiful acoustic guitar music was playing. I asked what it was and he said "Slack key. Ry Cooder found a bunch of it in Hawaii and brought some back for me. I don't have any for sale, but I've got some ordered. Want me to save you some when it comes in? It's expensive..." It was, but it was worth it.
The knowledge that performers existed who didn't perform in California got John to thinking, and this led him to start throwing his famous parties. There was a bar at the other end of town called the Sweetwater where a lot of the local musicians hung out and sometimes performed, and John started renting it twice a year for private invitation-only parties. One was for the store's birthday in September, and the other was a Christmas party. Customers clamored to perform, and were nearly always routinely turned down; John had an iron-clad idea of who he wanted every time. Sometimes, of course, this meant building a backup band, so there was never any trouble finding musicians for that. But other times, the performers brought their own bands. The parties would be catered by barbeque joints or some of John's customers in the food business, and there'd be a cash bar.
John sought out performers down on their luck, performers who he felt should have wider exposure, and he cannily invited people who could improve their fortunes to these parties. Within weeks of a story appearing in the Village Voice about the all-but-forgotten jazz vocalist Little Jimmy Scott playing rat-holes in Newark, he was on the stage at the Sweetwater astonishing a crowd that had never heard of him. Six months later, his first Warner Bros. album appeared to a swarm of enthusiastic, I-didn't-know-he-was-still-alive reviews. The Christmas parties always featured Charles Brown, who, before Michael Jackson appeared on the scene, had the best-selling single by a black artist ever, "Merry Christmas, Baby," recorded in 1947, and selling seasonally every year thereafter. Mr. Brown hadn't been such a good businessman, and when he made his first Sweetwater appearance, he was eking out a living in Oakland teaching piano lessons. He, too, was amazed that this crowd knew him, and played one after another of his hits. Finally, he said "A very long time ago, we recorded a song that's been very good to us ever since. It's called 'Merry Christmas, Baby.' Would you like to hear it?" The crowd roared. Mr. Brown faked a double take. "Really? You do?" Pandemonium. His career saw an uptick, too, not long afterwards.
Not that contemporary performers were neglected. There was always something good to drink there, but I swear I wasn't hallucinating when I saw Elvis Costello backed by Commander Cody, James Burton, Jerry Garcia, Sammy Hagar, Austin de Lone, "Teenage" Steve Douglas, and one or two others I'm spacing on at the moment. The audience was just as diverse. Carlos Santana and John Lee Hooker always shared a table, and I saw one show from a seat at the bar, where I was between Tanita Tikaram and Pearl Harbor -- babe city!
The main thing, though, was that John has never thought of music as a product. Records, yes. Music, no. He's always been a fan, which is why he nearly passed out the first time B.B. King (a major record collector himself) or Cab Calloway walked into the store. I can't speculate on what he'll do next, but I bet he'll be doing something to do with his passionate love of American roots music.
As for me, I'm hoping I can get there once more before the place closes, and maybe even treat myself to a souvenir. The real souvenir -- the word is, of course, the French verb "to remember" -- is the education I got in that store and through knowing John Goddard all these years. You can't put a dollar figure on that, but if you want, we can figure out a way to do it with credit.