Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud, Loud Music

john denver

I was 14 years old the year I bought my first vinyl LP and first vinyl 45.  The album was John Denver’s “Poems, Prayers and Promises”.  The 45 A-side was Carole King’s “The Right Thing to Do”, with the B-side “Corazon”.  Buying my own records with my own money and playing them on my first stereo system that I paid for with my own money was a big deal.  The stereo was a Harmon-Kardon receiver/speaker turntable package (The Magnum 100!) from Schaak Electronics cost $249.00 plus tax.  Funny what particulars one remembers from 1975, while at the same time forgetting what I went to retrieve from the garage 25 seconds ago.

Anyway…those purchases started me down some serious life paths.  Vinyl Collection #1 brought home rock, funk, soul and, yes, disco records, mostly purchased at places like chain store Musicland, and department stores like Dayton’s and J.C. Penny. My Dad had a substantial number of Bohemian/Czech polka and waltz LP’s around the house, along with a handful of country records including George Jones, Johnny Paycheck and Willie Nelson (Night Life and Me and Paul era).  That eclectic background gave me a better than average knowledge of recorded music (for a teenager, anyway), enough to get me a part-time radio job at age 17 at KWMB-AM 1190, “The Voice of the Valley” in Wabasha, MN.  Rather than dump one kind of music when discovering something hipper, I’ve always simply added the new stuff to the mix.  Later came jazz, punk/new wave (college), classic country (radio job), reggae/world (no comment), and on and on.  However, if I had to pinpoint the core influences on my music, and therefore my life and careers up to now, they would clearly be my friends, and the quirky, amazing universe of the Independent Record Store.  Which, actually, when I think back are really two elements of a single source.  You went to the record store most of the time with your friends.  You also met new friends at the record store.  And you certainly learned new things.  LOTS of new things.

I’d almost forgotten how much I loved record stores.  I’ve mourned them as one by one they disappeared, victims of the Mp3 and the stupidity, decadence and avarice of the major record labels.  You forget because it hurts too much to remember.  But then two cool things happened over a stretch of only four days which brought it all back, and in a really good way.

Tower Records



First, Joan and I attended a screening of the new documentary, “All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records” (www.towerrecordsmovie.com), directed by Colin Hanks, the 38-year-old son of Tom Hanks. (Note:  If Tom Hanks is old enough to have a 38 year-old son, we are all officially getting on in years).  The film was the last of the fall season of independent films brought together by “Cinema Falls”, of which Joan and I have been members the past couple of years. (www.cinemafalls.com). The movie does what most good docs do…tells a story and teaches (Quick Fact:  In three years, Tower went from $1 Billion in sales to bankruptcy).  I’d been to any number of Tower locations across the US (Hollywood, Chicago and Philadelphia stand out in memory), and they never disappointed.  But what I realized while watching the film is that Tower Records in many ways was the template for the thousands of local, independent record stores that followed.


While each great independent record store was unique, there were common components.  There was always something new playing on the in-house sound system.  There were at least a couple of people working at the store who were the “Keepers of Knowledge”.  They seemed to know everything worth knowing about past classics, hot releases, new bands, news kinds of music, etc. They had long hair and dressed cool.  Some wore sun glasses inside during the day.  The best record stores had huge promotional posters everywhere, row after row of bins overflowing with records, each categorized and alphabetized.  They had the coolest t-shirts and posters, cool hand-made flyers of bands playing in clubs and theaters in town, and tickets to all the hot shows. The more adventurous had a scent about them…incense, patchouli oil and who-knows-what-else…and sometimes, off to the side in a glass case a wide and exotic assortment of gift items sporting signs clearly stating they weren’t what they looked like but you knew they were EXACTLY what they looked like wink wink nod nod.  Each record store was filled with interesting people.  Some were your friends, some would become friends, some looked a little dangerous, and some looked even weirder than you.  The best of these stores could keep you entertained for hours.  These stores used to be everywhere, until one day you looked up and they were nearly all gone.


While akin in some ways to Moses wandering alone in the desert for 20 years, record stores nearly all disappeared, but records never really went away.  Just ask a collector who moves to a new house or apartment and had to move a collection of thousands of lp’s.  As some point you wish they would simply go away.  Collecting hot rod cars is probably a heavier obsession, but records can come in a close second.  Props most definitely have to go to Hip Hop DJ’s and their descendants whose use of vinyl samples mandated the continued manufacturing of vinyl, turntables, etc.

I had mentioned above my Vinyl Collection #1.  It was impressive.  A good many were pieces I purchased.  I also worked in several radio stations that were literally throwing away vinyl while converting first to CD’s and then to Mp3 files, and as a second-generation dumpster diver I had rescued countless titles, rarities, radio promos, etc. However, in between my years in Big Time Large Market Radio and my return to South Dakota, I needed to raise some cash.  Apart from keeping maybe 60 lp’s and a small box of 45’s, I sold everything else, and swore a promise to never purchase vinyl again.  Flash ahead, and in 8+ years in SD I have accumulated a collection 4 times as large as Collection #1 and in one-quarter the time.  I also began buying up old receivers, turntables and speakers, all of which were plentiful at garage sales and thrift stores.  I’ve even begun buying and selling the stuff, which leads us to last week’s Event #2.

Total Drag Records

Like many other 20th century consumer goods like old cars, books, movies  and anything baby boomers would have purchased over the decades, lp records are hip again.  Some of the partisans are boomers reliving their past, but many are those too young to have ever seen a record or turntable.  The resurgence has lead to new vinyl records being produced and released.  In fact, the demand for new vinyl has been so great that the six or so remaining pressing plants left over from the onset of the CD era cannot keep up. And with this resurgence of interest in vinyl comes the return of the Independent Record Store.  I have visited several, but last week I ran into a real treat.  It’s called Total Drag Records (www.totaldragrecords.com).  It has so much in common with the great record stores of my youth:  A bit off the main drag of downtown, about halfway between trendy eateries and the river.  Not huge, but big enough to house a wonderful collection of new and used and local releases (btw, their used inventory is as clean as any I’ve seen.  Ever.).   There are groovy sounds coming off a vintage turntable next to a small performance area where local and touring musicians play for a minimal cost and to all ages.  Heck, it even SMELLS like a cool record store should smell.  And the night I am there, while a couple of bands hustle in their equipment for the evening’s show in a couple of hours, is Liz.  Liz and her husband opened Total Drag Records, and tonight she’s there with what’s new, what’s cool and answers to whatever questions I might come up with.  Best of all, she’s genuine…authentic in her friendly approach to life, happy to show me around, and just glad I stopped by.  Liz is good people, and Total Drag is a great place.


OK, time for a little Reader Interaction.  If you share the passion, please respond with the names and a few details of your favorite record stores in the past, and names and details of some favorites you visit today.  Provide links and photos if you like.  If you own a shop, please share details.  As for me:


Favorites in the past:  Face the Music, Headquarters (Rochester), The Lost Chord (Mankato), Positively 4th Street, Roadrunner Records, Platters, Let it Be, Garage D’or, Oar Folkjokeopus (sp?) Electric Fetus, Wax Museum (Mpls), Northern Lights (Mpls and St. Paul), Eclipse (St. Paul)

Electric Fetus

Favorites today:  Total Drag, Last Stop (FSD), Electric Fetus (Mpls), Amoeba Records (Hollywood and San Francisco), Gift and Thrift, E. 10th and Bahnson Ave Sioux Falls (shameless plug: I have a few hundred there at any given time:  https://www.facebook.com/GiftThriftVintage2/).  No junk, all genres,priced to sell)…


Your favorites from the past?  Where do you go now?  And do they have any Jazz Butcher lp’s?

jazz butcher


4 thoughts on “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud, Loud Music

  1. I got a chance to check out Hymies in Minneapolis. I could have stayed longer but what I noticed was what I think is a perfect record store atmosphere/decorations, lots of jazz records and good prices. http://hymiesrecords.com/
    I go to Total Drag the most often (being from Mitchell, SD). Nice write up. I noticed that I have started not even looking at the record itself when I buy at Total Drag– they are always clean and in good condition!


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