Out with the new wave

Three years ago, Neal Caldwell sold VVV Records and thought he was done with the store forever. Caldwell, among the key members of Dallas' new-wave scene of the late '70s and early '80s as a member of N.C.M., had opened VVV in 1979 to import impossible-to-find British and Jamaican albums, but 14 years later, he had become simply burned out on running a record store. He wanted to get on with his life, and he preferred the idea of making music with old friends--including Bart Chaney and Chris Dirkx, his bandmates in the Enablers--to the everyday business of watching pennies.

"I pursued a life of grace and beauty," he says now with a deadpan smile. "It succeeded for three years, and I had a great time. I explored the world and my inner self."

But just when Caldwell thought he was out of the record-store business forever, he got sucked back in: David Douglas, the man who bought the store from Caldwell in 1993, found he could no longer make a go of the Cedar Springs store. He got behind on the rent, and when the landlord threatened to shut the place down, Caldwell stepped in and resumed ownership of VVV Records.

But he doesn't want it, not anymore.
And so within the next few weeks, Caldwell will shut it down for good. He's selling everything--every import CD, every T-shirt, every book about the Cure, every damned last object that isn't bolted to the cement. At least this way, Caldwell figures, he could give VVV Records its proper burial instead of allowing the landlord to just padlock the doors and forever turn out the lights.

The closing of VVV marks the end of an era in Dallas music. In the early '80s, it was perhaps the premier independent record store around--a safe haven for the pre-alternarock indie-record buyer, the only place in town where you could ask for a Gang of Four or Peter Tosh or Tackhead record and not be given a blank stare by the record clerk. Along with Metamorphosis (which opened earlier on Routh Street in an old house and finally moved to Exposition Park in the space that would become Direct Hit) and, to a lesser extent, the Record Gallery and even Bill's, VVV was a record store for people who actually knew something about music and who cared about what they bought; it was the alternative to the likes of Sound Warehouse and Peaches, the chains that were nothing but weak links.

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It was a forerunner to a store like Direct Hit Records, the now-defunct outlet in Exposition Park that also doubled as a label showcasing some of the best young musicians in town--including Bedhead, Slowpoke, Baboon, and Dooms U.K. Like Direct Hit, VVV also was a small independent label, and it documented the burgeoning new-wave movement in Dallas during the early '80s.

The Telefones, N.C.M., the Doo, Quad Pi, the Schematics, the Ejectors, the Devices, and the Fort Worth Cats all released full-length albums and singles on VVV--many of which now sell among collectors for hundreds of dollars. VVV's Live at the Hot KlYb compilation should also be regarded as something of a local-music landmark: Featuring most of the aforementioned bands, even now it offers a glorious and rough-edged portrait of the local new-wave scene at the time. VVV also released a handful of cassettes, most notably the Whiteman tales featuring Caldwell, Chaney, the Dirkx brothers, and Mark Griffin.

Caldwell opened the first VVV in a small house on Monticello and McKinney, then moved it into its current Cedar Springs location a year later. He took the name from the VVV magazine founded by the Surrealists after they escaped Paris fleeing the Nazis--appropriate enough in a town called Dallas. But back then, VVV was an asylum for the musical refugees who came to the store on Sunday nights to drink beer with the Fall or the Stranglers or some other visiting band with a gig at the Hot KlYb and an hour or five to kill.

If nothing else, VVV became known as the store that birthed MC 900 Ft Jesus: Mark Griffin worked for Caldwell from 1983 to 1991, and it was during his tenure there he decided to start his own project. "By the time I had worked there four or five years, I was listening to all these records," Griffin says. "After so much time, you get jaded and cynical hearing so much stuff. It all gets to be derivative, and I found myself in there thinking, 'I could make a better record than that,' and it dawned on me to put my money where my mouth is."

It's no surprise, though, that VVV should be closing after 17 years. Over the course of its existence, the store withstood competition from the likes of Oak Lawn Records and Autobahn--both of which specialized in 12-inch dance records from Europe, an early staple at VVV---till finally Caldwell and then Douglas were forced to expand the breadth of the store's selection. And a specialty store can't be all things to all record buyers: The used-vinyl selection, once the best in town, dried up; the imports got skimpy; and the alternative music could just as easily be purchased at the Best Buy for five bucks less than VVV's indie-poor price tag.

Even more to the point, the so-called mom-and-pop record stores--the independent and specialty outlets--are a dying breed, stomped into extinction by the likes of Best Buy and Blockbuster. Quality has vanished in the wake of quantity, and even the chain outlets have gotten into the import business, for better or worse. In the past year, both Direct Hit and 14 Records (which specialized in eight-track tapes and used vinyl, the food of dinosaurs) have closed down, and though Direct Hit continues to function as a label, its output has dwindled since the demise of the store.

The few remaining specialty stores are also feeling the impact of the chains: R.P.M. in Garland is in danger of having to move because of the impending arrival of another Blockbuster store; Pagan Rhythms on Greenville at Lovers Lane must now compete not only with CD Source on one side and CD World on the other, but the new Borders Books and Music across the street; and Last Beat in Deep Ellum has almost become a secondary business to Last Beat's record label and recording studio.

"It's great I can walk into Best Buy and can find offbeat stuff and it's cheap," Griffin says, "but they still can't be a store that can stock some scary industrial records with rotting corpses on the cover. If you want something eclectic, you have to go to a place like VVV, and it's bad when the marketplace squeezes stores like that out of existence."

So now Caldwell will sell off the remaining stock with a clearance sale, then turn the property back to the landlord and resume his life of grace and beauty. He made a good run of it, but in the end, VVV probably lasted longer than it should have: Metamorphosis and Direct Hit came and went in Exposition Park, and VVV outlasted them both.

"I went into this with more of a creative purpose in mind than the other record stores," says Caldwell, who will now concentrate on finishing the Enablers' debut. "It was more out of a need to bring alternative culture into Dallas rather than to make a killing. A lot of it was done unpremeditated. I never studied business. I was always just a musician. Everything was done by the seat of my pants, pretty much. I loved doing it, and I hate to have to do it like this, but I do want to give it a proper burial, and I think I'm the only person fit to do it."

Scene, heard
Local guitarist Regina Chellew has landed a pretty damned decent gig--playing guitar and keyboard with Ruby. Chellew, who has played in such local bands as Neurotica and Spitfire landed the job after Last Beat's Tami Thomsen introduced her to the band--which just so happened to need a guitarist--and she will join Ruby for shows at the mammoth Redding Festival in England this summer.

Tips and comments for Street Beat can be sent by e-mail to robert_wilonsky@dallasobserver.com.

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