My back pages

Joel Bellman, formerly an award-winning radio reporter and editorial writer for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, is a longtime journalism instructor for UCLA Extension and the communications deputy for county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. He submitted this piece as an individual.

"The past is never dead," William Faulkner wrote, "It's not even past."

I beg to differ. A significant part of my past is dead, buried, never to be exhumed and resuscitated. Missed, mourned, lost, lamented, certainly not forgotten. But gone, baby, gone.

I read recently that a young filmmaker has gone public to plead for funding to complete his documentary "Rhino Resurrected," an earnest and reverential attempt to evoke and recapture the spirit that animated the celebrated Westwood record store. I saw the rough cut he screened at a local art house last summer, and it wasn't bad. His fundraising window has only a couple of days left to run, and I wish him luck. I hope he finds his audience. But really telling that tale will be harder than capturing lightning in a bottle.

Let me offer a personal chapter you won't be seeing in that film: my three-year stint working at the Rhino Records sister store out in Claremont, about 60 miles east of the uber-hip Westwood location. Not exactly a canny career move for an aspiring journalist marking time between college and grad school, I grant you. But in some ways it wasn't that different than what I trained to do, and what I've done in every job I've had for the last 30-plus years. Spreading knowledge. Hipping people to what's happening. Trading information. Learning new things. Championing the underdog. Arguing endlessly with genuine passion.

And I wouldn't trade it for anything.

"Happy to be a part of the industry of human happiness," Andrew Oldham's Immediate Records label used to boast. Well, I certainly was. Back in the day - especially in a college town like Claremont, where I grew up - the record store in The Village downtown seemed like the coolest place around. With seven private universities within walking distance, we rarely lacked for customers. They were smart, eclectic, and as besotted with music as we were.

What a gig! Sit around in a rock t-shirt and jeans all day playing whatever records we wanted, hanging out, spewing opinions, and getting paid for it! I still can't believe it.

But like I said: Dead. Past. Gone.

I don't remember when I first discovered the place; it opened in 1974 or 1975, a year or two after its more famous Westwood counterpart. The original location on Second Street (directly next door to the police station!) was barely larger than my living room today. Tiny two-person counter, manned by a taciturn young guy and his wife. Cash box. Little carbon note pads to write up the orders. Credit cards? Forget it. Checks? Each one had to be called in to a credit service individually, the bank routing number read aloud, and cleared. Modern retailing, it wasn't.

Inventory, maybe a couple thousand LPs. But what albums they were! British and European imports. Out-of-print and overstock cut-outs. Deep catalogue stuff, not just the latest releases. Obscure jazz and blues reissues of uncertain provenance. Used and promo copies (price tags plastered, hilariously, on top of the "Promotional Copy - Not for Sale" sticker). This wasn't your parents' Wallich's Music City.

Did I mention the bootlegs? Live concert recordings, outtakes, unreleased studio sessions, out-of-print B-sides - many featuring superb covers by William Stout, today a recognized master of commercial and fine art - they were a record geek's delight. For pop music acolytes, the place was a holy shrine. And about as anti-corporate as it was possible to be while still turning a decent profit.

So when Rhino finally outgrew its space and decided to relocate to larger quarters a block away on Yale Ave., I was astounded when the taciturn manager offhandedly offered me a part-time job. Summer of '77, I'd just graduated college with a degree in communications, desperate to become a radio journalist, and no job in sight.

I took it.

The pay was modest - the first day, my wages included a second-hand copy of Neil Young's "American Stars 'n' Bars" - but I would gladly have paid them for the privilege. If there was ever a dream job, that was it.

If you remember the film "High Fidelity," that was us. Yes, we, too used to run people out if we didn't like their music, like the poor fellow who came in one day looking for a Village People album. "We don't carry that kind of stuff," I sneered. "Why don't you try The Wherehouse." And if they ever argued with us about our trade-in appraisal - they were dead. We almost bodily threw one grumbler out of the store - to the lusty cheers of the other patrons.

Now if, on the other hand, you came in looking for Kevin Coyne, or Kraftwerk, or Holly Near, or virtually any pub-rock, punk, New Wave, progressive rock, minimalist jazz or '50s and '60s reissue compilations - you were our kind of customer. It really was like a family. And Amazon algorithms that today cheerily inform us, "People who bought this also bought these" really can't compete with the human factor when it comes to sussing out the needs and wants of the discriminating record buyer.

There was the dapper little guy who dropped by every few months and collected only soundtrack albums - we'd always stash the rare trade-ins for him, which he'd delightedly snap up. One day he showed up, and handed me a mint copy of an impossibly rare import pressing of Pino Donaggio's score for "Don't Look Now," which he remembered I'd been looking for. "That's just to say thanks," he said. Another regular customer - a bluegrass and folk fan - appeared one Saturday and handed me a paper bag. Inside were mint copies of two out-of-print John Fahey albums I'd once mentioned to him. "For you," he said simply. And I still fondly remember the older guy with the duck's ass haircut whose face lit up when I handed him a copy I'd found for him of a rare Coasters anthology with "Idol With the Golden Head" that he'd been searching for since his high school days back in the '50s.

One Saturday morning, I'd just opened and the store was still empty when a kid wandered in with an old Beatle album he wanted to trade in: "Yesterday and Today" - the first pressing, with the notorious pasted over "butcher cover" I'd only heard about but never before seen. Another Saturday morning, the singer Iggy Pop unexpectedly walked through the door, joined by one of his former bandmates in the Stooges who'd become a friend of one of my co-workers. Among our other customers, a young Ben Harper, whose grandfather founded the legendary Folk Music Center across the street that today Ben owns.

I worked at Rhino part-time and then full-time for two years, and when the manager who'd hired me left to take a job with a record company, I took over. But by then, I already knew that my record store days were numbered. I'd enrolled in graduate school, had ramped up my writing, and soon landed the radio internship I'd long been seeking. When it turned into a paying gig in another radio news department in Los Angeles, I quit the store for good and moved west to be closer to school and the job.

Rhino grew from a couple of stores into an independent record label, and eventually into a major-label division that set a global standard for high-quality archival reissues. But the big wheel keeps on turning, and eventually the label's founders were bought out, the division downsized, and the business increasingly migrated into little more than digital downloads. The old business model has almost entirely collapsed, and the retail music store is today virtually obsolete.

I never again worked in any aspect of the music industry, or ever wanted to. But my passion for music - and my vinyl addiction - have never abated. My voluminous record collection has survived intact one divorce and half a dozen moves. Those long, lazy days I shared with my fellow employees - Mark and Linda, Jeff, Karen, Eva - are among my most cherished.

There was a time when it took me more than 30 years to hunt down another copy of the obscure British 45 I once briefly encountered in a dusty little record shop on a back street off Caledonian Road in North London on my first trip to the UK. Another time, it took several miles of walking through some pretty dicey New Orleans residential neighborhoods far from the tourist-friendly French Quarter for me to finally locate a rare original local-label version of a minor R&B favorite of mine by Big Sambo and the Housewreckers. I may be nuts, but I've got at least a dozen stories like that.

In today's world, when virtually any song anyone's ever heard of can be streamed and downloaded within seconds, legally or otherwise, most music fans would surely find such behavior unfathomable, if not psychotic. How can a little scrap of plastic with a hole in the middle in a paper sleeve or cardboard jacket possibly mean that much to anyone?

But once upon a time, there was magic in those grooves. And for those of a certain age, they cast a spell that still enchants - and always will.


More by Joel Bellman:
You can call him Al
Ed Edelman and his sense of decency
The Scapegoat *
My back pages
Watergate, reconsidered
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