The first record shops of any consequence in my life were both in Staten Island, New York, a place not often immediately associated with counterculture in the public consciousness. That assessment is understandable if unfair.
My family moved out to Great Kills on SI’s South Shore in December 1990, two weeks before my 11th birthday. We’d lived in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn prior; I don’t remember being thrilled to leave, as I’d just started 6th grade at McKinley JHS 259, had all my friends there, and was scared to be uprooted and start over. Staten Island was 45 minutes away but felt like Juneau, Alaska to me. We were apartment dwellers moving into what I now recognize as a modest suburban ranch house, postage stamp patch of grass out front, fenced in weed field out back. Back then I thought we’d moved into the mansion from “Citizen Kane.”
Sixth grade was equal parts thrilling and lonesome. I showed up to my entrance interview with my new public school principle brandishing a dossier with my test scores from Brooklyn. Most of the week I wore blue sweatpants, a Guns N’ Roses t-shirt, and spent a lot of time in my room doing homework and listening to a Rush tape my brother John bought me. I fumbled around on a red electric guitar, a Christmas present, and a tiny battery powered amp no larger than a 45. My brother and I reenacted professional wrestling matches in our basement (OUR BASEMENT!!!). I was kind of a dork and didn’t have many friends but was generally pretty happy, I think.
Seventh grade came and brought jeans, a fashionable spiked-to-the-side haircut, a badly sprained wrist earned falling off a bicycle, some more socialization and friendships, and Nirvana. I saw “Smells Like Teen Spirit” watching an MTV special hosted by Axl Rose (before he declared war on the band, he was a huge fan), and, like millions of other 12 year olds in 1991, was totally mindfucked. It took me a few years to fully annex G’N'R, but Nirvana almost immediately destroyed all the cock rock garbage I’d been ingesting – I know that’s become a subcultural cliche at this point but for me it was absolutely true.
Nirvana opened the door, first to bands like Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains, but eventually to Sonic Youth, to hardcore music, punk rock, Superchunk, Helium, and maybe most deliciously, to Pavement. I bought “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain” on cassette at Tape World in the Staten Island Mall, and sat there listening, amazed that people were allowed to sound so sloppy on recording. I was in love.
So all that pretext let me eventually, via the suggestions of the cooler indie rock / hardcore kids putting on shows at catering halls around the Island, to Our Music Center on Hylan Blvd. There was a guy who worked there named Freedom; he was smart, tough, opinionated, had tattoos, he had a record label called Struggle Records, he promoted shows and brought out of state bands (to FUCKING STATEN ISLAND), he was Marxist, straight edge and vegan, and he ordered and stocked independent vinyl and, perhaps most thrillingly, local bands. It was a mark of honor to have your record stocked there, complete with a decorative review stickered to the upper left hand corner of the 45 slipcase. I had recently started a band and immediately equated that honor with the outer reaches of definable success.
The first time I walked into Our Music Center, one day after 10th grade, 14 years old, I found Freedom, walked up, and asked him if they stocked Radiohead’s “My Iron Lung” EP on vinyl. I was impressed with my selection. He, less so: “Yeah man, they printed 1000 of those and sent some to our shop in Staten Island. (beat) No.”
Kevin Devine – Off Screen
I shuffled off, resentful and embarrassed, and bought some Nirvana bootleg cassettes from a glassed-in container up front, and left. I think I cursed him out to every person I knew, on his pretensions, rudeness, etc.
But I didn’t stop going to the shop. How could I? It was the coolest thing we had going for us. I bought Sunny Day Real Estate’s elusive 2nd record there (on cassette), the first Promise Ring and Texas Is The Reason 7″s, countless regional hardcore records I barely listened to (I loved the politics and energy and egalitarian nature of that scene, but always wanted to listen to Matthew Sweet instead). We got our records stocked, and reviewed (seriously, to this day, one of the most exciting moments of my life was reading Freedom’s take on our first 7″: “Staten Island alterna-rockers move away from the Nirvana-isms of their earlier work towards a more Superchunk meets Sunny Day vibe”).
And of course, over time, Freedom would become one of my longest and in some ways closest friends, a complicated and beautiful person who majorly informed my formative years, which in turn still informs the way I see the world and my career. He opened a shop / distro in his goddamn HOUSE after leaving Our Music, called it the Dagobah Cafe (from “Star Wars”). We hung there, had shows in the basement, barbecues, interned…it was really, really fucking cool, in retrospect, and I can say with total certainty I wouldn’t be here now if I wasn’t there then.
Later, Free opened a vegan fastfood restaurant in Williamsburg called Foodswings. I was on the opening staff – delivering food, cleaning, doing some light kitchen prep, working the register when needed. This was in 2004, a messy time for me, and it was a highlight, endlessly fun, an adult extension of those high school experiences. He sold it a few years back. I stopped going there when he did.
Kevin Devine – Awake In The Dirt
Luck on every finger – something scribbled in a Pavement record’s liner notes. Kind of says it all, for me, about that dude and those places.