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.

Peppermint Rainbow

I have heard lots of complaints about the Collectors Choice label, about the sound quality of their CDs, and the cheapness of the packaging. But I love this label, because they reissue all kinds of obscure music, from various decades and genres, that nobody else would. My latest Collectors Choice find is the album Will You Be Staying After Sunday, by the late 60s Baltimore soft rock band Peppermint Rainbow. This is Spanky and Our Gang meets The Lemon Pipers, and is 30 minutes of pure pyschedelic bubblegum bliss. The title track, which seems to be referencing Spanky’s "Sunday Will Never Be the Same," is rich with soaring harmonies and vocal hooks. "Pink Lemonade" picks right up from there, with its candy-coated acid vibe. And although those are the best two songs on the 11-track album, it is all pleasant and there is nothing on the record that you mind hearing again. I love the photo of the band on the back cover of the CD almost as much as the music inside. All five members (three guys/two sisters, one of the sisters married to one of the guys) look out of place in the gaudy hippy clothing they’re wearing, the men with sky blue ascots and the women in matching-colored dresses and white go-go boots; they look like a pack of hillbillies who got invited to a party at a drug house and went to the hippy boutique and asked what they should wear. But when they play and sing there’s no confusion at all. They are masters of melodic soft rock and this album goes on my all-time list of greats in that style, alongside records by people like The Sandpipers, Lemon Pipers, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Merry-Go-Round, Cowsills, etc.


Just sitting on my ass, getting my Alton Brown fix, and the commercial comes on for Totino’s pizza-flavored something or other. I’m not paying any attention, but there’s something about the spot that’s getting under my skin. Is it the music? Yeah, some spirited doot-dooting going on there. What is it? I Tivo back a few seconds. Weird, it sounds just like Irving.

Holy shit. This is even weirder than Radio Birdman and Big Star popping up in a car ad. It’s leagues weirder than Nick Drake in that VW commercial.

So, nice going boys. I’m sure that some will say you’ve sold out, but I say you’ve arrived. Hope you can sleep with the stench of pizza sauce filling your nostrils.

Check it out:
Death in the Garden, Blood on the Flowers

My Best of 2006

I bought 50 albums that came out in 2006, if you include reissues and compilations. Following is a list of the 15 or so I enjoyed the most. It was also a big DVD year for me. I have been buying movies – mostly double feature B-movie packages distributed by Something Weird Video – like a fiend, so I am including a short list of video favorites which came out this year. My main reading kick has been the crime novels of British writer Ted Lewis, who wrote the book the film Get Carter was based on, as well as seven other tough guy novels that are both harder and better-written than much of what is considered to be great pulp fiction. Early 2007 album releases I am looking forward to are the new one by Lee Hazlewood, Cake or Death, and The Go-Go Music of The Mark Wirtz Orchestra & Chorus, both of which are due to come in late January.


New Records

*His Name is Alive-Detrola: After releasing two criminally underappreciated soul albums, the diverse Michiganders return to left-of-center pop, with a little jazz thrown in. Think of the more indie rock stuff on Ft. Lake.

*Sid ‘n’ Susie-Under the Covers, Vol. 1: Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet record a jukebox of cover versions of their favorite 60s songs. When “Susie” hits the crescendo on the Stone Poneys’ “Different Drum” every hair on my arms stands on its end.

*Gnarls Barkley-St. Elsewhere– Uncategorizable, genre-bending mini-masterpiece from Cee-Lo Green and Danger Mouse. Hip Hop, Trip Hop, Rock and Roll, Power Pop, Psych Rock – they do it all, and it all comes off with energy and urgency.

*Sonic Youth-Rather Ripped: Everything that’s good about Sonic Youth bottled up in one long-player. Somehow perfectly accessible and dissonant at the same time. Both Kim and Thurston are on here.

*Of Montreal-The Sunlandic Twins: Precocious psychedelia with hooks around every curve.

*Neko Case-Fox Confessor Brings the Flood: By many accounts she is a prima donna. So don’t have her over for dinner, but the power of her voice is undeniable.

*Persephone’s Bees-Notes From the Underworld: Girl-fronted, Euro-sounding power pop, that has both a 60s and 80s feel. Kinda like The Primitives/Darling Buds (but better than them) meets Shocking Blue (but not as good as them – nobody is).

*Grandaddy-Just Like the Fambly Cat: Jason Lyte & Co.’s swan song is their best album. Gorgeous melodies that make your head feel funny in a pleasant way.

*The Essex Green-Cannibal Sea: A notch below their previous record, the excellent The Long Goodbye, but any album with a song as catchy as “Don’t Know Why (You Stay)” needs to be on this list. They still sound like the Go-Betweens with a girl singing half the songs.

*The Tyde-Three’s Co.: Ditto what I said about Essex Green. This doesn’t match the band’s last album, Twice, but if you took the four or five best songs, you’d have a fine EP. Sun-drenched surfer boy rock with some Britpop spliced in.

Reissued Records and Compilations

*The Hoodoo Gurus-Stoneage Romeos: The Aussie psych-rockers got more pastoral on their second album, but this debut was all fuzz blasts and tribal chants.

*Various Artists-Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited: Most tribute albums are crap, but this one rises above. The highlights are versions by Jarvis Cocker/Kid Loco and Marianne Faithful.

*Buck Owens-21 #1 Hits: What to say? Buck was the coolest guy around, without ever trying to be cool. His songs are so simple, yet they hit at a deep place.

*Delaney & Bonnie-Home: The white Ike & Tina, with Booker T. the MGs backing them. This is like Exile on Main St. meets Otis Redding’s Greatest Hits.

*The dB’s-Like This: When Chris Stamey left the dB’s they got less spastic and more a straight-ahead power pop outfit; both versions of the band were excellent. This is Peter Holsapple peaking as a songwriter and frontman.

*Various Artists-The In-Kraut Vol. 2; Hip Shaking Grooves Made in Germany 1967-74– The subtitle says it all. Beat Club, psychedelia, soundtrack sounds . . . Includes a track by an early version of what would become Can.

Best DVDs Released in ‘06

*The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder: Punk Icons: The whole two-disc set is worth the price, if not just for the opening segment, where the quirky Snyder discusses “this new punk rock thing” with an uptight Bill Graham, an exuberant Kim Fowley, and a professorial rock critic. Throw in memorable performances by, and interviews with, Elvis Costello & the Attractions, The Ramones, et al, and you’ve got a party.

*Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel: A documentary on GP that doesn’t mind pointing to his foibles while shining a light on his greatness. The first time I’ve heard his wife and family members talk about how hurtful it was to them when Phil Kaufman famously stole Gram’s dead body and took it out the desert.

*The Last American Hero aka Hard Driver: Compelling 1973 race-car drama. Jeff Bridges is convincing as a North Carolina boy from a moonshining family who decides to become a champion driver. Able supporting cast includes Ned Beatty, Gary Busey, and Valerie Perrine. Two-Lane Blacktop meets Rebel Without a Cause.

*Alley Tramp/Over 18 & Ready: Drive-in double feature from Something Weird is on this list for Alley Tramp. The scene where the rebellious teenage girl hysterically tells her parents they can no longer control her features some of the most delightfully horrid acting ever committed to film.

*The New York Dolls: All Dolled Up: The Dolls in their heyday, being followed around by a crude camera. See them drunkenly carry on backstage, take Hollywood by storm, and play their rears off in cool-looking clubs.

*Red Lips Double Feature: Two Undercover Angels/Kiss Me Monster: Two of Jess Franco’s best films. A team of hottie detectiives solve art-related crimes in exotic locales. Lots of great clothes, great music, and one of the most riveting cage-dance scenes ever. Plot-lines? Who needs ‘em?

James Brown, R.I.P.

I suppose it wasn’t a total surprise to wake up this morning and read that James Brown had left the building. He was, after all, 73 years old, and when you advertise yourself as the hardest working man in show business, you, well, you work hard at it. And there was never any doubt that James worked hard.

I got to see him up close once, in one of those random moments that happen when you least expect them. My friend TV Tom used to be the publicist for the Parliament-Funkadelic organization in their heyday, around 1977-78, which meant that there were several James Brown alumni on the bus: bassist Bootsy Collins, who fronted his own amazing band which included his brother Catfish (who’d played alongside Bootsy in the Brown band), saxophonist Maceo Parker, and trombonist Fred Wesley. Bootsy was always grateful for the protection the man he called “Mr. Brown” had given him as a young, green, but phenomenally gifted 16-year-old bass player, on the road with the “Sex Machine”-era Brown band. Catfish, Maceo, and Fred, however, would just give you the evil eye if you asked them about “Mr. Brown.”

Anyway, Tom and I had flown in from the East Coast, since I was doing a story on the band and, with Tom, would follow them from Savannah, Georgia to Washington D.C. over the course of four or five days. We’d flown non-stop from L.A. to Atlanta, and were going to get some tiny plane to cover the last leg, but the weather coming in had been very unpleasant, and I’m a fearful flyer at the best of times. (Almost Famous wouldn’t be made for years, but I am so there during that airplane scene.) Tom and I looked at the map, saw how close Savannah was, and decided to blow off the flight and pick up a rental car instead. We were going to have to do this anyway, and the chances were better that Atlanta would have a “floater,” a car not assigned to a pool, and, thus, not subject to dropoff charges. And hey, it was the record company’s money.

So we approached the Avis counter, which was next to the Hertz counter and maybe one or two others. As we were standing in line, Tom gripped my arm. “Don’t look, but that’s James Brown standing over there in the Hertz line!” So I casually rolled my eyes, and there he was. He was very short, very black, and had ridiculous hair. James Brown, all right.

Our line moved pretty quickly, and it became evident, the closer we got to the counter, that the black guy at the next counter was working for James Brown, because the dialogue was repetitive. Clerk: “I’m sorry, sir, but the card’s not going through.” Guy: “I’m certain there’s some mistake. We always use you people. The name is Brown, James Brown.” Clerk: “Yes, that’s the name I show, but the card’s not going through.” Guy: “Could you please try again?” Clerk: “Yes, sir. Let’s give it a minute.” And there would be some more business, and the card wouldn’t go through. “Do you suppose we should go vouch for him?” Tom wondered, more idly than asking a serious question. “Naaah, it’s the card that’s the problem, not the Godfather.”

Our business took a while, because we insisted on a floater, and civilians aren’t supposed to know about them. And we got to hear that dialogue several more times. The guy was just not going to give up. I think Tom was on the verge of taking his card over and putting it down for the beleaguered star when the clerk said “Well, how about that? It came up fine this time! I don’t know what the problem was, but it’s solved now.” At this point, James hustled up to the counter and said “It’s the car we always have reserved for us. The Lincoln. The purple Lincoln.” Tom made a face and tried not to laugh.

But I’ll tell you one thing: as we walked with our keys to the car we’d rented, we passed James Brown and the guy in the hall, and neither Tom nor I was brave enough to open our mouths and say a thing. Short, black, ridiculous hair, but the man had one powerful aura around him.


Actually, in the middle of writing that, I remembered the time I didn’t meet James Brown. In the early ’70s, John Goddard of Village Music, arguably America’s greatest record store, bought a warehouse full of King Records, and I discovered, through him, a goldmine of American music. I bought dozens of them, and one thing they all had in common was the address: 1540 Brewster Avenue, Cincinnati, Ohio. I became obsessed with King and its amazing hillbilly and R&B artists, although I didn’t bother to pick up any of the albums John stocked by the man who had saved the company’s life in the late ’50s by being the only person on the label to have substantial hits: James Brown.

A lucky gig found me working in Chicago and picking up a nice check for it, so I arranged (back in the days of “triangle fares,” which let you add on a destination to a round-trip ticket for a negligible amount) to visit friends living near Dayton, Ohio. And, I reasoned, while I was there, I could drive to Cincinnati and visit 1540 Brewster.

Which, of course, I did. And found nothing. Well, not literally nothing, but the huge space was empty except for a little lady behind a desk. John had asked me to find any memorabilia, particularly photos, but also press releases, point-of-sale material, anything they might have, and, if there was a lot of it, to call him collect so he could arrange to pay for it and have it shipped. Naturally, I asked her about that first. “Oh, we got rid of all of that. Just threw it out. We saved some of the more important stuff, though.” Oh? I brightened up. “Like Steve Lawrence’s first contract. Did you know he started with us?” I almost passed out. Threw it out???

Just at this moment a string-bean with an explosion of orange hair walked into the room, obviously back from lunch, asking if he’d had any messages. “No, but there’s this young man who’s come asking about King. Maybe you folks have something he’s interested in?” “Sure,” the guy said, and said “Come with me.” We walked down a hall, and he stuck a key in a door labelled James Brown Enterprises.

Even with that warning, I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. The room froze as I walked in, and the redhead said “It’s okay, he’s with me.” He then introduced himself as James Brown’s road manager. (Note for historians: I remember his last name as Jaffee, although I note that Alan Leeds was Brown’s tour director at this time. Anyone out there can straighten this out?)

He showed me to a seat, and everyone went back to what they’d been doing. In the case of the couple over at the next desk, that was (him) counting $20 bills into an attache case and (her) languidly puffing on a cigarette. This action was even more noticeable than it might have been because of the very short skirt she was wearing and the huge emerald that had been pierced into her left nostril.

“Those people out there,” the roadie said, “they don’t care about anything! We were the only asset they had, and now James is with Polygram, and they had to give James Brown Enterprises all his files but the rest of it? Pfffft! They don’t have any idea what they’ve got, they don’t know what to do with it, and it’s driving everyone crazy. All I can say is, it’s great your friend got all those albums, because if they weren’t pressed on such cheap plastic, they’d probably already have recycled them, too. Sorry, I’d like to help, but…” and he shrugged.

As a naive white kid in my mid-20s, I was freaked out enough by the scene around me, so I thanked him, shook his hand, and went back to my car. The last I saw of 1540 Brewster was in my rear-view mirror.

The good news, incidentally, is that a lot of the King tapes and acetates were, in fact, saved, and are being sorted through by people who do know what they’re doing. The bad news is, the people who own the label still don’t have a clue. But James Brown’s legacy is safe, thanks to the aforementioned Alan Leeds.

The very bad news, though, is that his legacy is now at an end. Thanks for everything, Godfather.

Another Odd Berlin Christmas Story

Had my third annual Christmas dinner at the dancer’s last night — kabocha squash soup followed by an excellent wild-hare ragout — followed by a troll through German television looking at Christmas stuff (and a remarkable documentary about people who escaped over the Berlin Wall — or tried to — on what must’ve been the Burden of History Channel, since what’s that got to do with Christmas?) but, alas, nothing on the way home to match the delightful aftermath of our first annual dinner, which I recounted here.

Actually, this Christmas had a weird edge to it. Saturday, walking to stock up at the store (Berlin doesn’t open again until Wednesday morning), I heard rapid footsteps approaching me from behind. My New York instincts took over, and I looked over my shoulder to see a little guy in a green hooded windbreaker, arms filled with boxes of awful Glühwein, running like crazy. His face was flushed, and he had a full beard, which, as he passed me, made me think of a garden troll, since he had his hood up. I heard more footsteps, and saw a skinny young guy running after him. It was too late for me to do anything, and I’m not sure I would have if I could have, because the situation looked pretty ambiguous. At Bergstr., the little guy hung a right, and the skinny guy passed me, panting audibly. (New Year’s resolution for you, dude: it involves cigarettes). As I turned left, I saw the skinny guy, almost doubled-over, grab a cell phone and make a call. I guess it was just a larcenous wino and maybe a guy from the store where he stole the wine, but it was an odd sight.

Not to mention that last night, getting out of the U-Bahn by the dancer’s, there was what appeared to be a flaming cocktail parasol burning brightly on the platform and some Arab-looking guys walking away from it. I took the wrong exit, which was fortunate, because by the time I got to where I saw the exit I should have taken, it was awash with police cars and vans, and cops interrogating a large crowd of these same Arab-looking guys, who might have been rousted out of the Internet cafe on the corner. Guess this year was Crimesmas.

But I did have a story for today in readiness, something that happened to me about ten years ago. It doesn’t make me look particularly smart, for the most part, but it does have a weird ending.

I was walking to the store, along the same route as Saturday, when a white van pulled up and the passenger-side window rolled down. A youngish guy asked me, in German, if I needed speakers. Well, it just so happened I did, since the ones I’d cobbled out of a defunct stereo system a friend had given me had crapped out. One didn’t work at all, and the other was iffy. What luck! But…what was going on?

The guy started speaking rapid-fire German, and I asked him to slow down because my German wasn’t that good. “English?” he asked, and I said sure. “Wow, that’s good; we’re from Holland and our German’s not so hot either. Listen, we’ve been working on a club here in town, setting up the sound system, and this guy’s not sparing anything; it’s a great system, and he’s paid a lot for it. Anyway, we ordered the equipment, and somehow they shipped us double the number of speakers we needed, so we’re making a little extra Christmas money on this job and we’re selling them super-cheap. These are great speakers: look at this.” He pulled a loose-leaf notebook out from somewhere and showed me an article from some high-end stereo magazine I’d never heard of. The speakers he had had come in third, just beneath two brands I’d heard of. Interesting!

“Look, every penny we make on this deal is free money, so we’re not going to rip you off,” he said. “We’ll sell them to you for DM 200 a pair. Hey, you have any friends who need speakers?” In fact, I did. I’d been bitching about mine going out while I was at the radio station where I worked, and one of the guys there said he’d just blown one of his and didn’t know if it’d be cheaper to get it fixed or just buy new ones. “So why not buy two pairs and sell him the other? That way, you make money on the deal, too.”

I looked at them, and the address on the boxes was a company in South Carolina. But I wasn’t sure. They might have been stolen, for one thing, but by Dutch guys with their own van? That didn’t seem plausible. But the facts were the facts: I had some extra money, I needed speakers because mine were dead, and here was an opportunity. So they drove me to my bank around the corner and, at my insistence, stayed in the van while I hit the cash machine. We drove back to my place, I paid them, and they helped me unload the speakers into my front door. I asked for a receipt, since it was a professional expense, and got one, with an address in far north Berlin on it. “Just remember,” the guy said, “if for any reason you’re dissatisfied, just bring them back, opened or not, and we’ll refund 100% of your money.” So…how could I lose?

After I got back from my trip to the store — I still had to eat, after all — I hooked them up. They sounded okay, but I was suddenly feeling weird about the whole thing. There was one person I knew who’d have the skinny on these things, a guy in Austin who had sold high-end stuff to unimaginably wealthy Texans, so I fired off an e-mail to him. Almost immediately, he wrote back. “Were the guys who sold you this in a white van?” he asked. How bizarre, I thought. How could he know that? I said yes, and he sent me back a URL for something called the White Van Speaker Scam. From looking at it, it seemed like I was the only person in the world who didn’t know about this. I’d let my greed and my desire to get my stereo working again — and, let’s face it, my wanting to buy myself a Christmas present, since nobody else was going to — cloud my better judgement. I felt like a moron.

So I packed the speaker back up, and looked at the receipt, then checked the map. It was in Wittenau, which was a long ways away, and I’d have to take a cab, but I was going to do it. The next morning, I hailed a cab, and the driver let me load all four speakers into the car. About DM 20 later, I was at an industrial park of some sort out in the middle of nowhere. It took some doing, but we found the “suite” listed on the receipt — by now, the cabbie had gotten into it and was hoping I’d get my revenge on the scamsters. Anyway, I knocked on the door, and guy opened it and said “We’re holding a meeting. We’re not open.” I responded in English and told him that I had a receipt in my pocket that said I’d get a 100% refund within three days, and I was returning the speakers. “You’re returning them?” he said, amazed. “You’re the first person who’s ever done that!” Yeah, well, I was returning them. We hauled them into the space, and sure enough, there was one of the guys who’d sold them to me, dressed in a suit, standing in front of a blackboard with diagrams labelled in English: “Sales Talk,” “Customer Satisfaction,” stuff like that. “You’re not returning the speakers?” he said. “What was wrong? Were they defective? We’ll replace them.” No, I said, I just got a better deal. He goggled. “You did? Where?” Ah, I lied, my little secret.

At that point, he reached in his pocket and pulled out a couple of bills. Just a couple, but high-denomination. “Man, this is all the money that’s in the place. You’re going to leave us penniless.” Like, by then, I cared. It was exactly enough, and I thanked him and left. The cabbie was still there, although I’d paid him. “You got your money back?” he said. “Great! I’ll drive you to the U-Bahn for free. It’s good to see that sometimes you can stand up to the gangsters and win!”

Two days later, the guy who buys my used CDs showed up at my house. I told him the story, and even he had heard about the White Van Speaker Scam! “If you want good speakers, though, I know where you can get JBL studio monitors for 1/3 their normal price.” Oh, yeah? “Sure,” he said, and named a huge electronics chain. “They price them cheap to get you in there and hope you buy more stuff. But this price is only for 24 hours.” And a couple of hours later, I had a new pair of excellent speakers, made by a firm I’d heard of, set up and working in my house. I’m still using them, in fact.

Remember, this was ten years ago. Today, all you have to do is Google “white van speaker” and you get a handful of pages. I’m still very grateful to the guy in Texas for making the connection. Not to mention the righteous cabbie and the honest scammer.

Ho ho ho, as they say.

Corwood 0783


                          NEWCASTLE SUNDAY
                          ASPECT RATIO  4 : 3

1.   DEPRESSION                                                   (11:11)
2.   OTHER END OF TOWN                                        (5:18)
3.   EVERY MORNING                                               (6:50)
4.   ALL OF A SUDDEN                                             (6:56)
5.   LOCKED UP                                                       (4:23)
6.   PUT IT UP                                                          (5:58)
7.   MANGLED AND DEAD                                         (6:00)
8.   SOME OTHER NAME                                           (6:19)
9.   TELEPHONE BLUES                                            (7:04)
10.  COTTAGE IN THE RAIN                                      (6:25)
11.  SHEBA DOESN’T HAVE                                      (8:39)
12.  SHADOW OF THE CLOUDS                              (12:41)


                  P.O. BOX 15375
            HOUSTON, TEXAS 77220

Early Christmas Present?

I just came back from a brisk walk, stockpiling coffee before our coming 4-day weekend (after Saturday, nothing will be open until Wednesday morning, at which point there’ll be nothing in the shops because they won’t have re-stocked yet), and on my way back up Friedrichstr., almost to Torstr., I saw that a new business had opened in a bad-luck location that’s been a half-dozen things in the past few years. This one, though, might make it.

Its predecessor was a store called Come In, which sold, uh, jewelry and stuff, just another un-thought-out business waiting to get pounded into the ground, which happened in due time. The new joint has just as cute a name: Yum Mee. Irritating as that is, it both advertises what’s for sale and shows off the horrid Orientalism which holds forth here in those two words. However, what it sells (in part) could be a godsend to the ‘hood: bánh mi. Half the menu is regular baguette sandwiches, the other half a somewhat timid approach to this classic Vietnamese snack.

My own introduction to bánh mi came in Honolulu, whence I’d gone to do a story on Hawaiian music, which is a much harder assignment than you’d think. Still, I had a motivated researcher in the person of my friend Margaret, who’d moved there with her new husband, Rollo Banks, one of America’s leading tattoo artists. (Please note this was before every idiot teenager in the world had a tattoo. Rollo had inherited the designs of Sailor Jerry, and was still poking them out at China Sea Tattoo on Army Street in Honolulu’s Chinatown.) The day I’d arrived in Honolulu, I’d done something very smart: not fought the jetlag. This was Margaret’s idea: “If you wake up at 6 and go to bed at 10, you’ll be keeping local time, and you’ll never see the tourists.” She was right.

One morning, then, Rollo offered to take me on a tour of Chinatown at 6 in the morning, and I of course jumped at the opportunity. They tell tourists Chinatown is dangerous, and if you’re asked, you should echo that opinion. It’s not, of course, true, but Chinatown is sleazy — or it was back in 1990. at any rate. Rollo was an inspired guide to the sleaze, too; we went to a dime-a-dance place where there was a live orchestra of Filipinos. The drummer — and I can swear to this, having stood right next to him — was asleep, keeping perfect time (all he needed to do was whack the snare), and picking a scab on his neck in his sleep. On the periphery of the dance-floor were little booths where the dance-hall girls — Okinawans, Rollo said — gave blow-jobs for five bucks. There was an antique shop (and why was this open at 6am?) where I bet someone who knew his Chinese or Japanese stuff might well uncover a bargain: it looked like the stock hadn’t been added to since about 1920. Various closed bars were passed and their legends commented upon, and then we went to the wholesale fish market, where multi-ton tuna were being wheeled in straight off the boat while the sushi chefs from the best hotels in the state swarmed over them bidding on the choicest bits. Outside the fish market was a fruit and vegetable market, and Rollo bought a perfectly ripe mango, whereupon he pulled out his knife, stabbed it, and started carving it with careful in-and-out motions. He withdrew the knife, wiped the blade on his jeans and popped the mango open, its flesh falling apart into discrete bite-sized chunks, much to the admiration of the young Vietnamese woman who’d sold it to him. “I learned that trick from a teenaged whore in Bangkok,” he said, and she turned a very unusual color.

We ended the tour in a Vietnamese coffee-shop whose name I carefully wrote down, only to discover later that the two words meant “coffee shop” in Vietnamese. And there, for breakfast, I had a paté, shredded daikon, shredded green chile, homemade mayonnaise, cilantro, shredded carrot and lettuce bánh mi on a perfect baguette, with two cups of that rocket-fuel Vietnamese drip coffee with condensed milk to wake me up. By the time we got back to Army Street, there was a line in front of China Sea that led around the block. “Oh, hell,” Rollo sighed. “Fleet’s in.”

Anyway, with that kind of intro to bánh mi, no wonder I’ve been waiting for them to show up here. I doubt Yum Mee will be that good, but I’m also intending to head down there tomorrow at lunchtime.

Ruthann Friedman – Hurried Life: Lost Recordings 1965-1971 CD (Water)

Medium Image

Though best known for writing the Association’s infectious smash “Windy,” on these home demos Friedman is revealed not as a pop songwriter, but as a jazzy, abstract seeker of answers, love and vision. With her sad, husky voice and often convoluted imagery of nature and the human zoo, these rediscovered tracks evoke a tough yet sensitive hippie lady struggling to define herself, survive and occasionally triumph. The original demo of “Windy” swings nicely, “To Treat A Friend” haunts and “Southern Comfortable” is an intriguing period piece exploring American racism on the coasts and elsewhere. Don’t tune out before the closing tune, the fully orchestrated Tandyn Almer composition “Little Girl Lost & Found,” a psychedelic swirl of children’s book characters gone marvelously mad. The glossy booklet includes Friedman’s memories of each song and some evocative vintage snapshots.

Once Upon A Time

Today, partially goaded by a blitz of recent postering, I headed to Berlin’s brand-new DDR Museum, located in a truly odd underground bunker beneath the Radisson SAS Hotel on Karl-Liebknecht Str., with a branch of the Spree River separating it from the Berliner Dom. It’s a brand-new, wired kind of bunker, though, with a flat-screen displaying the museum’s logo to catch the eye of anyone who might be walking alongside the Spree in the rain these days. (A noodle restaurant a little further along had tables set for about 150 people and was completely empty).

It’s an odd place. To call the lighting “muted” would be an understatement. It’s not quite gloomy, but it sort of forces the eyes towards the exhibits, not all of which are on eye-level. Some of its displays aren’t very intuitive, either: I walked in and saw a very good model of the Berlin Wall, with all of its between-the-wall barriers and security devices, and wanted to know more. It wasn’t until I’d spent some time in the museum that I noted that these bars fixed onto the wall with captions on them were actually handles for various drawers and cabinets which contained exhibits, so I had to head back and check the one by the Wall model. It’s a good way to conserve space, but it can also block aisles and cause congestion.

But what’s even odder is that it doesn’t really seem to take a stand on the DDR — which I admire. (For you Americans, DDR stands for Deutsche Demokratische Republik, the name given to the East German nation. The museum has it as GDR, German Democratic Republic, in the captions, but I’ve always preferred the German abbreviation). It may be a bit naive to assert, as they do, that “the DDR never knew misery and poverty,” since that sure wasn’t the case if you lived outside a handful of cities which were kept (relatively) well-provisioned by the central government, but they give equal treatment to the upside and the downside. There’s a Stasi secret-police listening-post in an obscure corner as well as an exquisitely fitted-out model apartment, its TV showing a nice sample-reel of DDR TV shows, and all of its cabinets and drawers filled with artifacts and consumer goods. One wall of the kitchen has some great old DDR cartoons dealing with women’s place in the daily life of the country, and the bookshop has a DDR cookbook for the very brave. There’s also a couple of exhibits about resistance to the regime, from the rather apolitical punks to the “environmental” magazine (really part of a nationwide movement centered in Leipzig) that was secretly printed in the basement of the Zionist movement’s office. The sports section has a drawer which opens to show one box of anabolic steroids, the killer drug which the nation’s sports officials used to try to bring their athletes to Olympic glory, but backfired into cancers and weird gender-altering problems.

One particularly educational exhibit is a Trabant automobile, which you can wedge yourself into if you’re so inclined, with an unsentimental account of the problems of ownership (mechanics were apt to ask, if you brought yours in, whether you’d brought the parts; they were apparently very difficult to obtain). There’s also an unusually large part of the museum given over to the FKK (nude beach) movement. Was the DDR really so big on nudism?

All in all, it’s an odd thing to see this impeccably preserved collection of artifacts so lovingly assembled, and then to step outside, gaze slightly to your left, and see the skeleton of the soon-to-vanish Palast der Republik, the DDR’s main administrative building, in its last throes of demolition. And to walk back home, musing on the things you didn’t see: the DDR and foreigners, the DDR and minority groups (including Jews), the DDR army… In some ways it’s a counterweight to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. In others, it’s yet another odd statement of the Burden of History.