If there’s one thing to be said about Josh Rosenthal‘s book The Record Store of the Mind, it’s that I wish I’d read it sooner. Sometimes a feeling occurs when you work with or around music that you’ve reached the end of the interesting. Then, as soon as you’ve grown comfortable with the thought, some new music, or story about music, comes along and shocks you from complacency. Often it’s a bolt out of time, an old record, a new voice, or instrument, a different guitar phrasing, an unheralded genre. The things to be said about music, to be learned, to be heard are a vast inconceivable expanse, that only becomes apparent through digging. Digging through crates, emails, press releases, cities and towns, crowds at shows, interviews, improbable leads, and unheard tales. Josh Rosenthal has, by instinct, made this his career.
The Record Store of The Mind opens with a chapter on Ron Davies, the only-mildly-successful musician who is a devastating songwriter (something typical we like to believe is an anomaly). A Bremerton kid (hey, that’s where I live!) that grew into a Nasvhille songwriter, rubbed shoulders with Townes Van Zandt, and wrote songs recorded by Three Dog Night and David Bowie. In those days that’d keep your head above water enough that you could write and record some songs on your own, and Davies did so skillfully, despite tepid reception. It’s a fitting start, an act who fell through the cracks, over-shadowed by his own accomplishments.
The book is full of stories like these, in comfortable, conversational style that prevents you from shirking at the learning you’re being given. Rosenthal does several things in The Record Store of the Mind. Divining weird, old American tales interviewing Tia Blake, resurrecting Racoon Records, and appreciating Harvey Mandel. As a record aficionado he’s included an interview and discussion about Ernie Graham, the rare artists produced by Jimi Hendrix, concisely listed “giants of acoustic guitar,” and even found a likable Eric Clapton record. He wrestles with his hometown of Syosset, grapples with a cantankerous Alex Chilton, and tenderly recalls his time working with an elderly Charlie Louvin.
The Louvin chapter is touching for a couple reasons. It demonstrates that taste, talent, and appreciation are meaningless in a music industry sense. Wide appeal and record sales have mostly trumped effort, and only occasionally have luck and well-earned effort achieved fame or even critical acclaim. Just ask Alex Chilton. You can get an artist all the way to the Grammys, but without good marketing and universal appeal, you can’t make anyone give it to them. It also shows Rosenthal’s (nearly blind) dedication to music. Rather then setting Louvin on a path where an ad campaign would successfully run him into a new generation of consumers, after signing him to a recording contract (can you imagine!?) he did something mind boggling in its brilliance: he supported him as a musician. In his own words: “Throughout my time working with Charlie, my goals were to facilitate whatever it was that he wanted to do, to find opportunities along the way, and to help him add to his incredible legacy.” Sentences like this shouldn’t be out of place in music history books, but I tripped over that one, read it thrice, memorized the page number, made the sign of the cross (for Charlie, I’m atheist) and imagined the Louvin Brothers just-a-smilin’ down from some higher plane, every atom of their energy beaming in cosmic waves, relieved of all that pain and anguish of one and half life times because their message really got through, like, all the way through. And Ira knows it now too, because Charlie came to him with a story to tell about a man who wore the whole armor of God, and stood against the schemes of the devil with him for years, touring and scheduling shows, and recording him any way he wanted –including with a black gospel choir just like they’d dreamed– just because he’d heard some of their old records.
Such is music. Painful, truthful, the stuff of fantasy, hard work and hard play. His list of gigs is ridiculous and fascinating. Green room for Nirvana on SNL, gifting a book to Bob Dylan in person, early Smiths shows, early Billy Bragg, bootlegging Elliot Smith concerts, his dad taking him to Tom Petty in the early ’80s. Willie, Merle, George Jones, Pearl Jam in every imaginable configuration, chatting with Lou Reed, the psychotropic experience of Ornette Coleman at Carnegie Hall. Equally entertaining is one of the last chapters, “Start a Record Label If…”.
As a devout record dude, Rosenthal can’t help but end with lists of records, both modern and old-timey. Which sounds boring but the choices are cutting, perceptive, telling of the tenacity with which Rosenthal curates the record store of his mind.
If you are a music lover in any way, then Record Store of the Mind is for you, it embodies the thrill of the hunt for the next groovy thing, follows the map through history left in liner notes, closes the gap between undiscovered songs and you. The familiar scent of something great, the dusty trail your fingers ride across record sleeves to the vinyl you didn’t know you were missing, the artists you haven’t heard of yet, and acquaintances you’ve yet to make dwell here.
Rosenthal is on a book reading tour in April with guests at each stop. Buy The Record Store of the Mind here.
About the label, Tompkins Square Records:
A cursory look at Tompkins Square’s catalog reveals critical discoveries, old and new. Roscoe Holcomb‘s San Diego State Folk Festival recording –literally a found object on a subject we thought we knew all about. Alice Gerard –pining away as a teacher in North Carolina. Smoke Dawson –virtually invisible Takoma fiddle player and pivotal folk revival figure. Ryley Walker –Chicago based avante-jazz kid with a gregarious wit and the oddball talent of John Fahey. And Dillard Chandler –a ghost of Appalachian music.
On the surface Tompkins Square seems like a record nerd’s reissue label, full of esoteric artists from bygone days, for the discovery of deep cuts. On further inspection it’s tapped into a vein of precious artifacts that shoot through our memories. Rosenthal is the guy quietly researching the back of the library, slogging through history looking for a new point of view. Rosenthal is one reason you can safely say hindsight is 20/20.
What separates him from your everyday record heirophants is his ability to apply his research of old, undiscovered gems to new ones. Able to spot a classic looking forward or back Rosenthal has quietly released work from new artists like Ryley Walker and William Tyler, seen the genius in M.C. Taylor‘s wish to produce Alice Gerard in his vision, and even revamped careers of legends-in-their time like Charlie Louvin, helping them become sought after festival acts.