Echoes and Reverberations: The Twisted Fate of a Lifetime Crate Digger
Many of them were tucked away in suburban strip malls, their storefronts always the black sheep of the retail family. They were usually owned by a single lifelong music fan, someone who relished the opportunity to dog-paddle in the eye of the pop culture hurricane. Sometimes they smelled like incense or cigarette smoke. You could hear the music coming out from 100 yards away.
Most of the formative moments of my life happened inside a record store. My grandfather bought my first album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, at the Melody Shop in Northpark. In 1977, the managers of Sound Town at Promenade in Richardson gifted me with free copy of Never Mind the Bollocks... and introduced me to punk rock. A year later, I met the guys in Van Halen at Disc Records in Valley View Mall.
When I was 22 years old, Bill Wisener at Bill's Records bought me a bass guitar so I could try out for a band called The Doo (aka Group Six). I got the band gig, which inevitably led to a job at Theatre Gallery in Deep Ellum.
Fast forward to 24 years later in 2009: As I write this, there is a band practicing in the back of Bill's Records.
In honor of National Record Store Day, I figured this would be a good occasion to look back at many of the people and places that helped shape who were are as a culture.
This collection of proprietors, record collectors ("crate diggers"), musicians, store clerks and myriad characters represent a small cross-section of our particular underground phenomena.
Bill Wisener (Bill's Records): "The first place you used to buy records in Dallas was at the corner five-and-dime store. They would have the stands on the ends of each aisle that were stocked with 45rpm singles. The rack jobbers (record wholesalers) would come by once a week and keep them all stocked. Then a few years later, actual record stores started popping up all over town. I remember a music store downtown that was on the first floor of a building and had doors on two different blocks. I used to pass through there almost every day. Then an older woman who had a store called Preston Records at the corner of Preston Road and Northwest Highway--she used to have these big stand-up cardboard cuts of the artists at the end of each aisle. It really was exciting back then. After the '60s kicked in, there were record stores and head shops all over town."
Richard Ross (artist): "Back in the late '70s, there was a little record store hidden in a shopping center in Irving called The Crate. I loved this place. I worked out how much of my daily lunch money I could save by forgoing different items, so that by Saturday I could have enough to go and buy an album each week. The Crate was a new and used record store, and had every type of music you could imagine. Big bins of albums and records everywhere. At the time, it seemed you might have to go to VVV or Metamorphosis to find punk albums, but The Crate already had them. I got my first introduction to the Dead Kennedys and Circle Jerks there, and bought my first album by The Clash at the store. After several years they moved to a bigger location up the street, but it only lasted about a year. I miss The Crate, and wonder if it just disappeared, or was absorbed into another bigger store. Its disappearance happened about the time Forever Young opened in Irving. That was a great record store, but didn't have the charm of The Crate; the guy behind the counter treated you as if you were stupid if he didn't agree with your musical tastes."
Darin Robinson (musician): "The Crate in Irving was a true labor of love for the owner Roger, who I think was a Marine. It was messy, somewhat disorganized, tiny and perfect. I bought my first The Jam record there. On my birthday he'd allow me to go find 'something' and take it home. I walked in one Saturday morning and he just handed me 'Discipline' by Robert Fripp and King Crimson and said, 'Here you go... it's right up your alley...' I became a Japanese import vinyl snob because of the place, and his taking the time to point out the differences by playing The Wall side one domestic, then playing the Japanese import. Sure, it costs twice as much. The Crate just disappeared one day. I wish I knew what happened and where Roger went."
Peaches' grand opening flier.
Alan Levy (Peaches/Melody Shop employee): "For a record geek like me, coming from Abilene in 1978 and getting a job at a store with the size and selection of Peaches was an eye-opener. For one, it was still the height of the disco era, and we were mere feet away from two of Dallas' premiere gay bars that are there to this day: Zippers and the Crews Inn. I reiterate, coming from the somewhat repressed atmosphere of Abilene, something like that was a big eye-opener. But we were the destination point for every walk of life, including local musicians and national touring acts. Working with people like Mike Haskins of the Nervebreakers, the late Will Clay of The Telefones, the late David Lee of The Toys and The Doo, and amazing characters like James "Bucks" Burnett, was not just an honor to me, but I learned so much from all of them. We were a family and it was the norm for us to gather after our midnight closing at watering holes like The Old Church or the original Knox Street Pub and talk about--what else--music. There were in-store appearances by great folks like Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson, Robert Fripp of King Crimson, and one of my early faves (ahem) Foghat that were just thrilling. Sure, there were some stinkers--The Police were assholes, The Cars (except for Elliot Easton) had no personality whatsoever, and Parliament-Funkadelic sent so many people in that it took awhile to realize that people were getting autographs from ancillary band figures at best! But it was without question the best way for someone like me that's kinda stayed a part of this whole Dallas deal, whether it be from the sidelines or not, to get their start--their baptism of fire, as it were. I stayed at Peaches for three years until Sound Warehouse took them over. About a month after that, I got a job at Melody Shop at Northpark, where I worked for 8 years."
Frank Campagna (artist): "I was working at Peaches at Fitzhugh and Cole on the day after John Lennon was shot. Every freakin' Beatles record sold out in no time. Q102 was in there trying to get folks to comment on the air, but they would not allow me to air my opinion because I said to the DJ, 'Who cares about the Beatles? It was terrible to loose such a great human being.' I guess he really hoped they'd get back together. That was a really tough day to work at a record store. Overall, I miss record stores to kill time and mill around in. Sometimes you could find great, hard-to-find stuff, and sometimes you could get to know good friends and/or make connections."
Gerald Iragorri (musician): "Every time I'd come to Dallas to visit my brother, we'd go to Northpark, and Melody Shop was my first stop. I loved looking at the records and instruments as a kid. I bought some 45s and some LPs there but it was the instrument department that seemed like Shangri-la. Since we came to Dallas quite often before we moved here, I'd become friends with a cool guy who worked there named Buddy Berry (RIP) who was the drummer in Feet First. When we moved to Dallas, I was 16 and my first order of business was to buy a new drum kit with the money I'd been saving for a year. Buddy saw to it that I got a great deal and some excellent cymbals, and later became my first formal drum teacher. During my high school years, I would make it a point to go to the Melody Shop every Saturday looking for records to pad my collection, and to check out cymbals, guitars, basses, and to hang out with the guys in the music department. Guys like Alan Levy and musicians who played in bands like Loco Gringos, The Telephones, Feet First worked there at the time. I learned quite a bit about music, being in bands, and gigging from those guys. It was a community center for young musicians. Later one day, after not having been to Melody Shop for some months, I went to Northpark wanting to chat with the guys and check out the latest wares. The store had closed. It was surprisingly sad seeing that the store had closed for good."
Clint Phillips (musician): "My first indie record store experience was with a place called Wray's Records in historic downtown Grand Prairie. It was right around the corner from where my mom and I lived at the time. I must have been about eight or nine years old. Every Friday after she got off work, she would cash her paycheck, give me five dollars and take me to Wray's. She would sit in the car while I shopped. Wray's sold 'singles', a 7-inch vinyl record played at 45 RPM. I would usually walk out with about 4 or 5 of those things... quite a nice haul considering how expensive shit is today. I scored some good stuff in that place: Blondie, DEVO, The Police, etc. Most I still have today."
Amy Turner (crate digger): "14 Records on Fry Street in Denton (and later on Greenville Ave. in Dallas) was The Shit! Witty as hell owner: Big Bucks; I'm still a huge fan. It was my own personal High Fidelity. Stopping by to shop then skipping class to hang there way too long; car seat behind the counter; digging your name into the back of the desk; people stopping by in the middle of the day with a blender to make strawberry daiquiris; hearing the
history of so many bands, albums and cover art; bad art museum in back of store, 3D pictures of Jimmy Page behind the counter, Robert Tilton Fan Club, 'Tinypolooza', Beatles 8 Track display... I could go on and on about this place and I'm sure others could too."
Gary N. Audirsch (musician): "Big Bucks Burnett was the kind of personality that inspired you to support his business. He might not have had the most stuff or the highest quality inventory, but he was choosy about what he did have and always had brilliant oddities. I remember hanging out in the afternoons discussing the merits of Tiny Tim (Bucks was the head of his fan club after all) or watching clips from his 8-track documentary continual work in progress or watching a news clip of him in Waco picking up a sample of the dirt from remains of the Koresh compound. Bucks is an unsung hero of local music. He's put so much of his heart and soul and blood into music and has gone largely unrecognized. The man knows Jimmy Page personally, he's been to Andy Partridge's house where Andy gave him a preview of a forthcoming album at the time and provided support for Ronnie Lane in his times of need. Bucks is an invisible legend."
Bucks Burnett (owner of 14 Records): "Dallas currently is host to an astonishing NINE independent record stores--and four of them have been in business for over twenty years. The oldest is Top Ten on Jefferson Blvd in Oak Cliff, which opened in 1958. Most of the owners have told me that business is pretty good, all things considered, and that the renewed interest in LPs is not just hype. Let that sink in: Dallas, the supposed least of artistic cities, has nine independent music stores. We rock, even if we hate to admit it. My store is protesting Record Store Day. We're staging Underground Record Store Day instead. Undie not Indie!"
Frank Campagna: "Stacks o' Tracks was another killer shop. Curtis and Marsha Hawkins had this amazing rockabilly memorabilia in the store. To this day, I have one of Elvis' earliest promo shots because Curtis' Dad worked with Gene Vincent once upon a time. The story has it that his Dad grabbed a few because Sam Phillips of Sun Records was going to throw them away because it had the wrong street address on them. Lucky find and very collectible!"
Outside of VVV Records.
Jason Cohen (owner of Forbidden Books and Videos): "The first time that I ever walked into VVV Records, Mark Griffith (MC 900 FT Jesus) greeted me with a smile and immediately started recommending one amazing band after another to me. VVV was always was very clean and organized, so I never had a problem sifting through tons of crap to find the gems as It seemed to only have a very focused selection of music. I remember one day I walked in and Mark handed me this 45. He said 'Just buy it--you will like it!' I still own that first single by Jesus and the Mary Chain! Music suggestions like that one were the greatest asset of independent stores to me: It created an instant bond and friendship that lasts forever."
Raine Devries (crate digger): "Bill's Records had the most robust collection, but for some reason I felt a particular affinity with VVV. It was a fraction of the size of the other stores but it seemed to go deep in the particular genre of music I most liked. Neal Caldwell, who owned VVV, was knowledgeable and gracious about setting aside magazines and records for me until I came in. After a while, the only competition for my affection was the Sound Warehouse on Greenville and Lovers. That location started bringing in bands like Berlin and Thompson Twins to do autograph signings. The music was the common denominator for us at that time--which albums did we have? Which releases of which albums? Which concerts did we attend and then always making sure we sported the ticket stubs on our school binders. There was no Internet or cable TV. The music was it and I feel kind of sad for kids these days not having that in their lives."
Inside VVV Records.
Brad Sigler (Bill Records/RPM employee): "I worked at Bill's and RPM between 1985 and 1991. What a great time for music retail! I spent all my money on records and couldn't get enough. I think VVV and Metamorphosis were my other favorite stores; although I loved Record Gallery and Seldom Seen, too. I remember Randy at RPM had a friend from the UK that shipped over around 2,000 45's and LPs--punk, post-punk, new wave--stuff I'd never seen before (and since). Jason Price and I stayed up until 2 am sorting through singles and albums trying to figure out what would actually make it into the bins, and what was going home with us. When CDs hit, the scene changed very quickly and it was never the same. Damn! I feel sorry for this generation--downloads, iPods, mp3s--boring! Nothing will replace the feeling of holding an album jacket in my hands, while I watch it spin on the turntable."
Frank Campagna: "VVV was also fantastic. Neil Caldwell had so many great records and would have all this excellent reggae dub tunes playing. I bought at least a dozen Japanese David Bowie singles just because I like the lettering, even though I already had most of the songs already. Eventually he started the VVV record label and began releasing local artists like Stickmen With Rayguns and the Hugh Beaumoint Experience. My first record cover ever came out on that label--the Telefones' 'Jerry Godzilla' single."
Jason Cohen (Bill's employee): "I started shopping at Bill's Records in 1982 and then I began working there in 1983 or 1984. My best memories from working there were of all the different characters who would shop there--and Bill of course! So many stories! What made his store great--no matter what your taste in music was--if Bill did not have it he would get for you quickly. It seemed like a golden age when records were beginning to get imported from overseas--every week was like Christmas when a new shipment of vinyl would arrive and there would be all of these amazing new bands popping up! U2, Bauhaus, Birthday Party, and so many more; I never made much money as It was all spent way before payday on records!"
Paul Riddel (crate digger): "Aside from going over to Direct Hit Records and going nuts in the 'zine section? I'd have to say that my weirdest one was seeing my fingers and teeth at the old Record Gallery on Lower Greenville. The summer of 1986, I was experimenting with serious theatrical makeup work, so I cast my hand in dental alginate and filled the mold with plaster. The plaster was really cheap, so the fingers broke off as I was removing the alginate. I later did something really stupid and cast my teeth and tongue by pouring a batch into my mouth and hoping that I didn't choke before it solidified, and put the resultant cast into plaster as well for an ashtray. About six months later, a goofball roommate stole both and put them on display at Record Gallery, and I was almost angry when the Gallery shut down without warning and I never got them back."
Peter Marince (photographer): "CD World at Greenville and Mockingbird was my haven. I started going there as soon as the original location opened. It was small, but the people who worked there were nice and well informed. They opened right around the explosion of grunge. I was able to purchase several live bootleg CDs from the old cardboard box hidden behind the counter. Such good stuff--most of which I still have! Then the store moved around the corner. Funland did an in-store show there for the release of their full-length CD. There was no stage--they just cleared an area by the door, and rocked out. Greatness! CD World was always a big supporter of the local scene. I was so sad when they closed, but saw the writing on the wall. CD World was a big part of my music buying life."
Bill Wisener with Eazy E.
Clint Phillips: "When I was about 13, my mom would drop me off at Bill's while she would go to her voice lesson. She was an opera singer back then. I would spend hours rummaging through tons of great punk and hardcore records. Bill's was great. I had never (save for the floor of my own room) seen so much shit in my life. It was a beautiful mess. Over the years, I would spend a lot of time and a lot of dollars in Bill's. It was great; so big and cluttered. Bill smoked like a fucking freight train back then--just one right after the other. You never knew what you would find there. You just had to be patient enough to dig. It was there somewhere."
Darby Orr (Musician): "I remember dropping off five cassettes of my band at Bill's Records. Every few weeks I'd zip by and take inventory and restock. I just thought it was so amazingly cool that I'd tell Bill 'we sold 3' and he'd pull 15 bucks out of his pocket. No accounting, no hassle... just a guy who'd do business on a handshake. I also remember pondering how and why someplace as hip as Bill's could be located in North Dallas/Richardson. It was like an oasis."
Chris Savage (Buck Pets): "To Bill at Bill's Records, I do believe that it is I who owe you a very sincere 'thank you'. Where else could I have found all the music, t-shirts, posters, pins, etc. that was such a huge part of my youth, and that I still love today? Just the fact that you were there, and it was a refuge for the cast-outs, freaks, punks, whatever we were at the time. Where else could I have skipped skool in the 9th grade and hung out and felt safe? I think you mean a lot more to a whole bunch of people than you could ever imagine. (Not to underestimate your imagination.) I'll definitely have to come in very soon to say 'hello'. Plus, I need some music. You take care of yourself, and if there's anything I can do, or my band can do to help in any way at all, just lemme know."
Peter Marince: "Pagan Rhythms was another favorite of mine. That's where I found my CD version of The Sound of Deep Ellum; I got the vinyl when it came out back in '87--that was a nice find, as I love that record. VVV on Cedar Springs was also very cool, but since it wasn't in my neck of the woods, I didn't get there very often, but I went there any time I was close. Got some cool NIN vinyl there back in the mid '90s."
Jimmy Holcomb (crate digger): "Mike and Barb Rainey of Metamorphosis Records allowed us to live in our own little world, completely oblivious to the crap that was on the radio. My friends and I piled into a car once a week, with either allowance or job money, to see the latest UK import 45s. Often, we'd never heard of the group and bought the $3 singles just on the basis of the cover artwork. (English Beat, The Jam, etc.) NME, Melody Maker, and Sounds were also there fresh off the plane... if we hadn't heard it on George Gimarc's radio show, we could at least read about it. One time, we were shopping and were asked if they minded if we locked the door while they 'lit one'; and when we said 'sure'. I think it was the first time I'd ever seen anyone smoke pot. They even let us put up a flyer for our band's 'forthcoming album,' which never materialized (other than a lone 45, which they carried, bless them). I still have many records with those little white Metamorphosis price stickers on them. I wouldn't scrape them off now for anything."
Good Records' current home.
Peter Marince: "Since it's inception, I've frequented Good Records. While I like the newer location more that the original one, that first place had a certain quality that was all it's own. Maybe it was the paint fume buzz from the place next door--haha! Saw many in-store performances there, and got the Polyphonic Spree to sign my copy of their CD when it came out. I remember all the tables set up outside the store for all the members to sit at while they signed. The line of fans got pretty long. I have some pictures of that somewhere. Have to dig 'em up. I've always supported the local indie record stores, wherever I've lived... they're the best!"
Chris Penn (Good Records): "Good Records was on Good-Latimer in Deep Ellum for six years. We were next to an auto paint store and the fumes would seep through the walls. (Maybe that is why I am extra crazy now.) We had some great in-stores that spilled out into the street at that location, including Death Cab For Cutie, Grandaddy, Queens of the Stone Age--and Daniel Johnston came in to do an in-store and had at least 12 sodas and hit on young girls. The Polyphonic Spree started after Good Records was founded and saw us traverse the globe for several years. I loved it. We got to visit several great record stores; either the band did an in-store, or I just sought out to buy some records. The Polyphonic Spree enabled me to feed my record store habit. In 2006, we had to make the decision to move Good Records to its current location. The city was making a DART rail stop on the outskirts of Deep Ellum, causing the rail line to run down the center of Good-Latimer. We were forced to move or close; the plans called for them to tear down two-thirds of our building via imminent domain."
These days, the last remaining crate diggers represent the heart of the faithful; the club DJs, the record collectors and producers, the wax tourists who go from city to city looking for rare grooves they can sample for new hip-hop artists. There is an art to it. The lifestyle requires taste, patience, time and money. It also requires the ownership of a functioning record player and needles. All of that stuff takes up space and requires attention.
In a world where people are downsizing and putting their lives on a hard drive, the commitment to collecting records usually means dedicating the extra bedroom in your house or apartment just for climate-controlled storage. You don't keep records in the garage.
Today is Bill Wisener's 65th birthday. The party is going on right now as we speak. His store has been a part of the Dallas music mosaic for over 30 years.
Tomorrow, Good Records celebrates its ninth anniversary and National Record Store Day, with a daylong concert featuring Erykah Badu and seven other artists.
This promises to be a weekend to remember. For the first time, Bill will close his store and venture over to Good Records and share in the festivities. Good owners Chris Penn and Tim DeLaughter, along with Erykah and her management team, felt that it was absolutely essential to invite Bill to their party and have him introduce her performance.
That's class, for those of you prone to disparaging anonymous comments about a 65-year-old man and his stubborn propensity to run a record store--his record store--like an old school booth at a flea market. This gesture on behalf Good Records and Erykah Badu is the kind of thing that still gives me real hope for the future.
When Badu released her album last year, she insisted to her record label on doing the release party at Bill's store. I love the idea that all of these people are coming together to show solidarity while the music business still scrambles for new retail business model.
These are folks who see the glass half full, not half empty.
Roger Daltrey at Sound Town.
National Record Store Day is a great reason to come together and celebrate the crate digger lifestyle and everybody who comes along with it: the DJs, the collectors, the musicians and producers. And also, most importantly, the people who still spend money to keep our record stores open.
This is the kind of thing that makes me happy to be alive.
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