Shea Stadium, the 55,000-seat home of the New York Mets, closed in 2008 and was torn down the following year to make way for the parking lot for Citi Field. In 2009, a DIY venue the size of a large living room or small office and named after the demolished baseball stadium opened in East Williamsburg. To visit the other Shea Stadium from the Grand Street L stop, you have to walk around a high school football field and past a row of warehouses, including that of a wholesale scarf purveyor and a balloon factory. When you reach 20 Meadow Street, you find two silver, unmarked doors — performers enter the first one, while concertgoers use the second. For nearly a decade, I’ve made this walk dozens of times to see live music and comedy.
Shea Stadium’s future is currently in jeopardy — pressure and fines from the city have made it impossible to host shows there. And even though the team behind the venue has successfully raised the money they need to become a legal art space, their landlords have decided to start their own venue without them. If they can’t successfully relocate, Shea Stadium may cease to exist.
Shows at places like Shea feel special because you’re surrounded by fellow fans who are also there to support the performers. You can buy merchandise directly from the artists before or after their set, as they’ll sell T-shirts and records just a few feet away from the stage. Shea is especially unique because it allows people to revisit a favorite performance any time by posting high-quality recordings on its website. I can’t think of any other venue I’ve been to that consistently documents every performer that appears on its stage.
You also don’t have to be eighteen years old (or older) to attend events at Shea. All-ages, creative spaces are increasingly essential in fostering artists who aren’t considered to perform at traditional live music venues that have age restrictions. Some of the acts that have been booked at Shea have gone on to play bigger venues, but they needed to perform in smaller spaces first to gain an audience. Bands like Future Islands, Parquet Courts, and Titus Andronicus, and comedians Julio Torres and Chris Gethard have all graced the stage at 20 Meadow Street. Shea gives local and nonlocal talent a community where they might not otherwise have one. Making money isn’t the bottom line for the team behind Shea Stadium. They create and maintain the space because they love it.
In late March, the team behind Shea began a Kickstarter campaign with a goal of raising $50,000 to help reopen their space legally. This money would help them bring the space up to code, pay legal fees, acquire bar and other permits from the city, and more. Before the end of the day the Kickstarter campaign went live, they were fully funded. Over the next few weeks, they nearly doubled their goal. But on the morning of April 19, despite having the money it would need to resume operating, Shea announced in a Facebook post that it couldn’t continue at its current location because its landlords want to turn the space into a nightclub of their own. The Shea Stadium team promised to use their campaign money to move and reopen elsewhere.
I have attended and photographed shows around New York City since I turned eighteen in 1998. These days, I favor venues with smaller capacities. There’s nothing like seeing your favorite artists up close with only a couple of hundred other fans sharing the same experience with you. Over the years, there’s been a definite shift where nightlife events have become less Manhattan-centric and have started spreading to other boroughs. (My first show outside of Manhattan was at Southpaw in Park Slope. That venue closed five years ago and a children’s enrichment center took its place). DIY venues tend to crop up in areas that are more affordable than Manhattan, and as the city becomes an increasingly expensive place in which to exist, places like these won’t be able to thrive. Landlords will prefer to lease their spaces to businesses that can pay them more in rent (like a bar, restaurant, or nightclub) than what artists can afford.
Shea’s closure is a familiar story, unfortunately. The New York City DIY scene has lost many independent music venues over the years, but I know that the Shea team will do whatever they can to record and host live events again. All-ages spaces like the Silent Barn and Secret Project Robot have also closed but managed to continue operating elsewhere, with the latter slated to open its third location in Brooklyn on May 4. I’m hopeful that this isn’t the end for Shea Stadium. Mostly because thousands of music fans are counting on it surviving.
The last time I was at Shea Stadium was in early March, for the release party of Friends Live #1, a live album with a set from comedian Catherine Cohen on one side and a set by Band Practice (Jeanette Wall) on the other. The show featured performances by the artists’ friends, including a solo, acoustic performance by Ben Hopkins of PWR BTTM. During his set, Hopkins told the audience how he had met and befriended Jeanette in a corner during a Bad Cello concert at Shea Stadium in 2015. When the show was over, Cher’s “Believe” came on, and the crowd danced and sang along to the music that played until everyone left.
Last June, beloved Bushwick legal-DIY venue was shut down permanently, with little explanation other than a vague mention of building code violations. It came as a shock to fans, who loved the venue’s sweatbox basement dance parties and sold out shows from international stars like Skepta. The venue’s owners and bookers kept mum about the details , and more rumors floating than fact.
But in the latest issue of the local-music zine AdHoc, the venue’s founder Leeor Waisbrod and main booking agent Ariel Bitran speak to AdHoc founder Emilie Friedlander about the short life of one of Brooklyn’s more exciting venues, expounding upon the reasons for its demise in the process.
In short? Palisades was never actually legal, despite popular conception to the contrary. Sure, they had a liquor license and a certificate of occupancy, but they were still in early stages of acquiring a public assembly license, and their paperwork with the city listed them as a bar/tavern, not a music venue. The space didn’t have enough exits, and the ones it did have were not up to code. In the interview with Friedlander, Bitran said they had been meeting with lawyers and architects to build two more exits along a side wall of the venue, but “the Department of Buildings was just not cooperating.” In hindsight, it’s a wonder it lasted as long as it did.
Waisbrod explained their familiarity with the city’s MARCH program, or Multi-Agency Response to Community Hotspots. “The MARCH program is when all the different departments — the Fire Department, your local police department, the Health Department, and the State Liquor Authority — raid your place on the same night, shutting your event down and all fining you for every possible violation they can find,” Waisbrod explained. “We got marched three times.” Bitran put it quite bluntly: “Legally speaking, I think the best way to describe why it was shut down was like a combined violation between departments, misrepresentation of the use of the space and the space just being a death trap.”
Palisades may have been winging it, but the city’s bureaucracy has proven that if it wants you shut down, there’s no amount of hoops you can jump through to satisfy them. Just ask the folks at Market Hotel, who were served a “gotcha” citation for “warehousing alcohol” after months of above-board, legal operation. In the end, the bureaucracy succeeded in destroying the venue founder’s hope that any amount of compliance would have sufficed. “There was meeting after meeting, inspection after inspection, and every time you hit a milestone, you would be asked to do something else,” Waisbrod told AdHoc. “I can’t speak for the city, but there was definitely a feeling of, ‘We don’t want this to happen for you.’”
When Olivia Russin, Stuart Solomon, and Zack Wheeler first opened the makeshift Greenpoint venue two years ago in the echo of the Death By Audio’s swan song, it was to replace Emet, a loft in that nebulous neighborhood where Williamsburg bleeds into Bushwick. When it closes at the end of this month, it’ll follow East Williamsburg’s Acheron and Bed-Stuy’s Palisades as another loss of space this year for Brooklyn’s underground. It had the dusty, unpolished atmosphere of much-loved predecessors like 285 Kent or Party Expo. The drinks were cheap, you could smoke inside, and in such a raw space it felt like anything was possible.
The reasons for Aviv’s departure are mundane: As they told Bedford + Bowery last month, their lease is up, and “our landlord doesn’t want to renew for his own reasons, which are pretty reasonable.” They found this out over the summer and began planning their exit in secret. They promise to return, eventually.
It’s a familiar story now: Land—any land—in New York City is so valuable that even the gentrifiers are getting priced out with rapid speed, but three venues closing in a year does not a crisis make. The kids going to shows at Palisades and Acheron didn’t pack up and leave town, they just started going to more shows at Aviv, Shea Stadium, and Silent Barn. The Aviv crew admits they got lucky scoring the Greenpoint space, and while they’re short on cash and credit, they hold out hope their luck will return. In the meantime, upstarts like Sunnyvale, in East Williamsburg near the Queens border; Bushwick’s truly residential Bohemian Grove; and The Gateway, lurking in the shadow of the Gates Avenue J station, will try to fill the void.
Todd Patrick, the former DIY Don gone legit, is trying to prove that DIY can be done both legally and without a million-dollar budget. He’s transformed the old Silent Barn space at 915 Wyckoff in Ridgewood into Trans-Pecos, leasing part of the storefront space to a cafe and hosting daytime programming. But even he needed a $100,000 from a silent partner, 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, and endless patience for bureaucracy to resurrect Market Hotel, the former illegal DIY commune at the intersection of Myrtle Avenue and Broadway.
Even after dotting all their I’s and crossing all their T’s, they got caught in a gotcha by the NYPD, who seized hundreds of bottles and cans of the club’s booze two weeks ago, seemingly just so they could gloatingly tweet about it. The culprit? Their application with the State Liquor Authority for a full liquor license, an essential part of going legit. Once it officially came under review, the temporary permits they typically applied for were immediately denied, forcing them to host dry events until the SLA reached a decision. The cops arrived at the venue before the organizers did, and within two hours of receiving notice of their permit being denied, they were cited for illegally “warehousing alcohol.” It’s unlikely to close permanently, but until the matter is sorted with the SLA, all of Market Hotel’s imminent shows have been moved to other venues.
Despite all of the headaches and bureaucratic hoops to jump through, legal DIY appears to be an achievable compromise that could add some permanence to a scene that’s forever shifting. But even if they didn’t spend millions, the startup capital for spaces like Market Hotel and Palisades still came from somewhere. Solomon says he started Aviv with $1,200 he borrowed from “my one friend with a tech job.” Even after two successful years of shows, without outside financial backing, a legal space is outside the realm of possibility for them, as it is for so many others.
And so the venues creep further and further out, to the edges of industrial Williamsburg and almost into Queens (Sunnyvale), and down the L and J train lines, deeper into Bushwick (Bohemian Grove) and Bed-Stuy (The Gateway). The rooms change, but it’s the same scene. The newcomers are mostly white; their incumbent neighbors, mostly brown. They’ll be fine for a couple years, until the new luxury rentals get filled with twentysomethings carrying expensive gadgets who don’t realize they just moved to a neighborhood where a fool and his Macbook are soon parted. Reports of felonious theft increase along with insurance claims, leading to increased police presence, and yes, more busted DIY venues. It’s what took Market Hotel down the first time, back in 2011—look for it to continue as the gentrification train chugs down Broadway, towards East New York.
Aviv’s final shows run October 20-31. Don’t miss out.
Days before the Williamsburg DIY venue Death by Audio closed, in November 2014, the electronic composer Dan Deacon announced from its stage that “they’re gonna turn [this place] into a really progressive orphanage.” This was, of course, a bitter joke: DBA was about to go the way of so many Brooklyn venues, displaced from its crumbling, mural-covered home by new tenants with deeper pockets.
Deacon’s performance is immortalized, alongside valedictory sets by Deerhoof, Future Islands, and other bands that usually play bigger rooms, in Matt Conboy’s Goodnight Brooklyn: The Story of Death by Audio, which premiered in March at South by Southwest. The documentary isn’t the only DBA memorial to emerge this year. August brings Start Your Own Fucking Show Space, Famous Class Records’ compilation of tracks recorded there, and photographer Ebru Yildiz’s book We’ve Come So Far: The Last Days of Death by Audio, a collection of dreamy black-and-white snapshots she captured over its final 75 days.
The film is uniquely personal, though. Conboy co-founded and ran DBA with Oliver Ackermann (guitarist-vocalist of the eardrum-busters A Place to Bury Strangers) during the seven years they spent living in its South 2nd Street building. Beyond preserving the venue’s last performances, Goodnight Brooklyn traces its origins (a classic case of artists hustling to make rent in the warehouse they’d just moved into) and doesn’t shy away from capturing occupants’ tension with their successor — Vice Media, ironically enough. At one point, the famously friendly sound guy Edan Wilber gets choked up, chiding himself: “I can’t be upset, because I’m so rich with memories.”
Watching this burly, bearded man break down, I cried too, even though I thought I’d gotten over Death by Audio’s demise. As a decade-plus New Yorker, I’ve become inured to the endless news of similar spaces closing: Monster Island in 2011, Dead Herring in 2013, DBA’s more spacious neighbor 285 Kent earlier in 2014. The constant upheaval felt too inevitable to mourn heavily for any one venue. But I still found myself, along with so many others, bewailing this latest loss, because DBA fostered a scene so welcoming, so apathetic to trends and antithetical to insularity, that it challenged the very idea of “scenes.”
It’s tempting to proclaim that New York will never see DBA’s equal, but as Conboy notes in the film, talking about your own heyday like it was the last golden age is obnoxious. It’s also myopic. Yes, DIY spaces are still getting displaced; Secret Project Robot is searching for a new home, and Palisades is on pause indefinitely after a police raid. But Aviv, a dusty warehouse in Greenpoint, and Alphaville, owned and staffed by 285 Kent veterans, opened just as DBA was closing. Silent Barn and Market Hotel made comebacks years after they were shut down. Shea Stadium has been hanging on since 2009, which makes it a stalwart by Brooklyn’s standards. Each of these places is someone’s Death by Audio.
Which means that fans of these new spaces should prepare themselves to one day say goodbye. The story is almost always the same: Proprietors pour their whole selves into a space, then get evicted and burn out. Wilber moved to Florida when DBA shuttered, and in a subsequent interview with Bedford + Bowery, expressed understandable reservations about founding a new venue deeper in Bed-Stuy or Ridgewood. He didn’t want to become “the gentrifying force” there, as some suggested DBA was in Williamsburg.
If there’s an upside to this cycle of venues turning into offices and condos, it’s that New York’s musical underground can’t ossify. Start Your Own Fucking Show Space takes its title from a homemade T-shirt Wilber wore at one of DBA’s final shows, and surely some kids will do just that. There’s always a fresh crop of young musicians in need of practice space and rent money, forcing the old guard to either adapt or stay home. Over the years, that’s brought more diverse performers, bookers, and venue staff into local punk and indie circles, where they’ve driven positive changes like Silent Barn’s “safer spaces” policy.
That doesn’t mean we don’t lose something when a singular atmosphere disappears, though, and that’s why, two years later, we apparently aren’t done talking about DBA. It’s why we paused to mourn the defiantly eclectic Bushwick venue Goodbye Blue Monday, whose owner, Steve Trimboli, went bankrupt and ended up in Detroit in 2014 after three decades of operating bars in New York. These were not run-of-the-mill places, and what they offered will never quite be offered again. “Nothing in this world lasts forever, especially weird punk warehouses,” Conboy says in Goodnight Brooklyn, and although he’s right, that doesn’t make losing them sting any less.
On Thursday afternoon, the New York Times announced that the owners of Glasslands, the beloved Williamsburg DIY venue forced to close in 2014, are opening a new space, Elsewhere, this fall. Glasslands was one of three such venues felled by Vice‘s buyout of a building on Kent Avenue, and each had a distinct identity: Death by Audio offered an expanded version of the sweaty basement punk show; 285 Kent was a raw, empty box where literally anything could (and did) happen; and Glasslands felt like a dreamworld, full of protean installation art and with a booking policy that was wonderfully agnostic as to genre and audience.
The announcement of Elsewhere was met with widespread excitement, not least because it signaled the survival of a piece of the Brooklyn music scene thought to be irrevocably lost. The new venue is a continuation of the philosophy that guided Glasslands, though in very different form. Elsewhere is bigger, and it’s also a 100 percent above-the-board proposition — a DIY ghost in a by-the-books machine. To find out more about this surprising new chapter in the Brooklyn music scene, the Voice spoke by phone to Jake Rosenthal, a co-owner of both venues, about the origins of Elsewhere, its relationship to Glasslands, and exactly how the hell you’re supposed to keep a venue open amid New York’s absurd real estate climate.
When did you decide to go forward with this big-venue idea?
[Elsewhere co-owner] Rami [Haykal] and I started having conversations about a new space in the summer of 2012. It was open-ended and off-the-cuff. It started getting more real in 2013 when Dhruv [Chopra], who had spent time at Glasslands, offered to formalize the advisory role he was playing unofficially and join the team as a partner. We knew we wanted a bigger space and started mapping out how that would work from a business perspective.
What made the search so drawn out?
In a lease negotiation like that, with the size of space we wanted, negotiations are really in depth because the landlord knows you’ll be working together for a long time, so it’s a very long process. We’d get emotionally invested in a space, and for some reason an impasse would get reached and the whole thing would fall apart. We learned to keep looking for more spaces, even if we were having a good conversation.
It sounds like it was a lot of learn-as-you-go, since you hadn’t had to do this with Glasslands.
It was. Now we know this is just a normal part of negotiating a lease of that length, especially if you’re dealing with someone who takes their property really seriously, and we wanted to find someone like that. Everyone says they want an easygoing landlord, but there’s no telling how it will play out if they’re like that.
You want what amounts to a fair lease, and that’s what we learned with Glasslands. We had signed the lease there because we were young — I was 24 and Rami was 23 — and so excited that we even had the opportunity to run a venue. We didn’t know what we were doing, not that we’re experts now, but we were doing our best. We didn’t have the resources to have it looked over [by a professional], and so we ended with a lease that was really difficult.
Our experience has taught us that real estate in New York operates at this higher level that a creative space of any scale has absolutely no hope of influencing or protecting itself from. You just get a lease and hold on for dear life. It’s like the Titanic.
So you had gone into this thinking you’d be running the venues concurrently. At what point did you learn you were losing Glasslands?
It was July of 2014 and we found out from the media — we read a story on Gothamist or something — that Vice was moving into our building. We hit up our landlord to ask what the hell was going on.
Did that totally mess up your whole plan?
When we found out Glasslands would vanish, we didn’t want this larger venue floating by itself; that was contrary to our vision. [At Glasslands] we were trying to build somewhere where we take chances on artists who are on the ground level. The idea of Elsewhere was to build a bigger space so that, once we form those relationships, we can keep supporting an artist in a bigger room. It was clear that if we wanted this new thing to work, we would have to add another smaller space to what we were building already. We didn’t want to lose our connection to emerging music. And luckily we had great investors who were willing to support that.
It’s notoriously difficult to open a venue in New York. What’s been hard for you so far?
The process in general is incredibly difficult to do at a large, proper scale. Construction is expensive. Permitting and licensing is caught up in so much red tape, I think some people would argue unnecessarily. On the other hand, you can look at it and say: This is the reason buildings don’t fall down very often here. It’s a real pain in the ass, but at least it’s not rife with corruption and falling buildings.
At Glasslands the philosophy was to do what you want and apologize later. When you’re doing something from the ground up, you have to do things painstakingly by the book so that you can open successfully and stick around. But I think the positive takeaway here is that, as much as people say New York is still a big pain in the ass, at least you can still [open a venue] here. For us that has been a dream. We didn’t have to make too many compromises. We just had to be really patient.
People really, really loved Glasslands, and that’s been the source of a lot of the excitement around your opening a new venue. How are you bringing that feel to Elsewhere? I saw you said you’re not spending a lot on “interior design,” but that was a big part of what made Glasslands great.
What I meant was we’re not splurging on fancy wallpapers or trying to cover up the rawness of the building. We’re more focused on what you referenced, re-creating the visual art and creative community that made Glasslands awesome. It wasn’t [painted] drywall; it was a slow process of artists adding layers to the space organically over a long period of time. You can’t create that artificially; it speaks to the layers of people who came in and out of Glasslands while it was open. It was a permeable community.
So how had you gotten involved, since you’re not artists?
We started working there because the original founders — Brooke Baxter and Rolyn Hu — were nice enough to let us do that. They gave us a sandbox, when we were only 21, to throw parties and experiment. It’s not a kind of generosity you forget, and we want to pass that feeling on at Elsewhere. Yes, it’s a business, because it has to be, but it’s also something anyone can add to and contribute to. It’s as much the community’s as it is ours.
What are you most nervous about, other than the fact that you’re still not open yet?
One of the big things we’re trying to do with the venue is [making] that friends-and-family art effort on a bigger scale at Elsewhere. We want it to be a seasonally rotated, commissioned art program that will fit alongside the art as a second pillar. We think we’ve found ways to make both the artists and the musicians happy in how they dovetail. But that’s unknown and it’s an experiment, and it’s what we like doing — experimenting. We didn’t want to just build another box; we knew we wanted to try something new, but in trying something new it’s always a little nerve-racking.
On Saturday, April 16, record shops throughout New York wedge open their doors for Record Store Day. The nationwide annual event began in 2008, at the height of record store colony collapse disorder, to “celebrate the unique culture of [independent] record stores and the special role [they] play in their communities.” Its creator is Chris Brown (no, not that one), the marketing manager at Bull Moose Records, a chain of indie shops with twelve locations throughout Maine and New Hampshire. As he said in 2014 of the ever-growing blowout, “We want to let people know that great store in your town would be there as long as you want it to be.”
If the Record Store Day website is to be believed, though, the only stores worth supporting are ones whose customers would swoon at the idea of waiting hours in line to buy Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, one of this year’s RSD-exclusive releases. It turns out this holiday is really a sort of Black Friday for music obsessives who keep Pitchfork tabbed continuously open on their browsers, right next to the Pirate Bay and Spotify. Record Store Day exists to remind them to support their local shops instead of just streaming or stealing — that is, as long as those shops fit within hip confines. Stores that sell to other listening demographics are left to celebrate unofficially on their own terms, if they celebrate at all.
We don’t think Big Indie should have all the fun. There are dozens of shops across the boroughs just as deserving of the spirit of Record Store Day, even if the main festivities exclude them because they dare not to be trendy. So, to help you plan your holiday, the Voice sent its music contributors to check out the unsung heroes of local record store culture. While some of them are offering special sales and events, none will sell you the much-hyped official releases (when we called Human Head to ask if they would be offering RSD exclusives, “Absolutely not” came the acid-dripping reply). But they will sell you almost anything else, and your collection will be stronger for it. Happy Record Store Day, and happy digging. — Zoë Leverant
Casa Amadeo 786 Prospect Avenue, Bronx 718-328-6896
Casa Amadeo is not unlike your abuelo’s living room. Owner Miguel “Mike” Angel Amadeo’s record shop has been a community space for makers of Latin music to shop and schmooze for nearly half a century. “Forty-seven years have passed and I’m still here,” he says with a smile.
The store is the longest chapter in Amadeo’s musical career, which he began at sixteen, when he wrote his first song shortly after leaving Bayamó?n, Puerto Rico, for New York. He shared his romantic lyrics with Latin acts, penning hits like “Que Me Lo Den en Vida,” which was performed by Puerto Rican superstars El Gran Combo. Amadeo also wrote all ten tracks for his Latin Grammy-nominated nephew Tito Nieves’s album, aptly titled Entre Familia (Among Family). The shop opened in 1969, when he purchased the storefront from famous Puerto Rican composer Rafael Hernandez and his sister Victoria.
Amadeo has been a mentor, inspiration, and songwriter for generations of Latin musicians. Framed and signed photos by stars from Ray Barretto to Selena line the walls. He prizes an autographed copy of Celia Cruz’s hit “Son con Guaguanco,” a gift for contributing two songs to her album. Amadeo is also a keeper of traditions, preserving a range of classic Afro-Latino sounds — bomba, plena, son, guaracha, and the New York blend of those rhythms we call salsa — on cassette, CD, and wax. Crate-diggers at Casa Amadeo might find cuts from obscure merengueros from the 1960s, or from an upcoming local singer.
Now in his eighties, Amadeo has a full head of snow-white hair and plenty of energy to continue running his business, which was landmarked in 2001. “I’ll be 82 in May, but I seem 28, right?” he jokes in Spanish. With another birthday coming up, will he close up shop soon? “No,” he says. “I don’t think about it.” — Desiree Brown
Deep Cuts 57-03 Catalpa Avenue, Queens 646-399-9139
Despite being a baby in record-store years — the place celebrates its first birthday later this month — Deep Cuts adds more to its neighborhood than the average shop. It’s open from 1 to 8 p.m. Thursday through Sunday for relaxed mornings and after-work digging hours. In addition to being wildly well stocked, Deep Cuts abides by a buy-sell-trade ethos that puts the emphasis on the “trade” part to keep locals coming back. In the summer, it hosts a record lovers’ barbecue every Saturday in the backyard.
What else would you expect from a store whose logo is a giant, stuffed, cheese-grinning, Velvet Underground-meets-Peter Tosh rasta banana? A shop that posts memes to its official Facebook page instructing fans and followers not to “judge people by skin color, religion, or sexual orientation” but instead on the content of their record collection? The folks at Deep Cuts take fun seriously, without compromising either work ethic or quality.
Its quickly growing fan base cites how super helpful the staff is — look elsewhere for the elitist iteration of “chill” that’s the punchline of every joke about dudes who work in record stores. Here, you’ve got folks psyched about barbecue, photographs of Slayer holding rescue puppies, and tribute altars to Selena (R.I.P., baby girl). Their stock is ridiculous, too — a total lack of wallet-punishers and a healthy quantity of reasonably priced rarities and foreign pressings. If you show up wanting new-to-you wax but without a sense of what exactly you need, don’t worry: Just start in the “Weird Shit” section and work your way out to heaven. — Meredith Graves
House of Oldies 35 Carmine Street, Manhattan 212-243-0500
Fancy a piece of paper containing John Lennon’s handwritten “want list” of 45s for his personal jukebox? Tough — you can’t have it. It’s reserved for Bob Abramson’s kids and grandkids. But many other gems can be gleaned from the packed-to-the-gills Carmine Street store, run since 1969 by Abramson, still youthful at 73.
House of Oldies Rare Records offers up to 250,000 pieces of collectible vinyl — and only vinyl. As the sign in the window states: “No CDs, no tapes.” Don’t look for $2 bargains, though. “I used to buy record stores that went out of business, thirty, forty years ago, when the stuff was new,” says Abramson. “We pride ourselves on the condition of our records.” You won’t find Adele or White Stripes vinyl, either: Nothing in stock has a pressing date past the late Eighties. But if you’re flush, you can grab a complete set of Elvis Presley’s Sun recordings, or Buddy Holly’s 1957 debut album, which goes for about $800. And, if you’re not feeling spendy, it’s fun — and encouraged — to gawk.
Up to 60 percent of Abramson’s sales are to out-of-towners, and he doesn’t sell over the internet. He will answer questions about his stock via email, though, because he likes to be a fount of knowledge for any and all record lovers, which these days means a lot of teenagers. “I handle everything myself. That’s my desire,” he explains. “This is a labor of love, and it’s a lot of fun, and I’m trying to keep it that way, so I don’t have to retire.” — Katherine Turman
Human Head 168 Johnson Avenue, Brooklyn 347-987-3362
Weekend afternoons mean shoulder-to-shoulder action in the aisles at Human Head. On a recent Saturday morning, it was packed less than an hour after opening. Surveying the crowd, co-owner Travis Klein laughed with one customer about the “relaxation” possibilities provided by the rare (and massive) rolling paper that’s included in an original copy of Cheech & Chong’s Big Bambu.
Human Head has been fostering this active but homey vibe since 2013. With sizable sections of Latin, reggae, and jazz titles bolstering a boatload of classic rock, Klein and partner Steve Smith want to make sure every customer can find something cool. The stock is forever fluid, and the owners’ hunt for interesting wax is perpetual. Klein’s voice gets animated when he talks about heading to a Connecticut record fair to bring back the good stuff. “I never want people to walk away disappointed,” he says, “never be like, ‘Aww, man, that place really didn’t have anything.'”
He has nothing to worry about: Here, rarities mix with bargains, with dollar finds ranging from $2 to $6 a pop. The place goes full tilt on Record Store Day, albeit on its own terms, since it’s proudly unaffiliated with the official event. Last year it was a guy cutting digital files into records on a lathe. This time it’s 20 percent off everything, 6,000 albums for 25 cents apiece, and burgers on the grill. “Selling records in NYC is great because [people from] all walks of life come in,” says Klein. “I’m from Wisconsin. If I was [there] right now I’d only be selling rock, country, and polka. This is lots more fun.” — Jim Macnie
The Thing 1001 Manhattan Avenue, Brooklyn 718-349-8234
Before I moved to New York City, I told a friend that my life here would be complete when I had three things: an apartment of my own, a bicycle, and a typewriter. A few months later, looking for a sign that the move was a good choice, I stumbled across a red Olivetti typewriter for thirty bucks outside the most cluttered disaster of a store I’d ever seen. I’d found The Thing, Greenpoint’s ongoing Hoarders-inspired performance art project and one of the city’s best, and weirdest, record stores.
Yelp reviews for The Thing are both spot-on and vaguely terrifying, mentioning excessive dust (“Have some tissues and Benadryl ready”), which only worsens once you start digging (“If risking your respiratory health is something you are OK with, then The Thing is a must”) and sometimes includes gifts from the locals (“I had to blow mouse droppings off any records I took from the very top of the stacks”). Bragging rights aren’t just about what you unearth there, but the simple fact that you made it out alive.
So what makes it worth it? All the records are just $2, for starters, which is a great price whether you’re shopping for rare gems to add to your DJ set or stuff to flip on Discogs. There’s the fact that it has zero qualities of most “cool” Brooklyn record stores (meaning it’s comfortable and not socially exhausting). Plus, there are the bragging rights: You’ve got to be a vinyl addict to make it through, willing to spend the hours required to suss out the gems you will inevitably find in the basement of this lovable shit-show. — Meredith Graves
VP Records 170-21 Jamaica Avenue, Queens 718-297-5802
Entering the retail outlet for VP Records is like walking into the video for Sean Paul’s “Get Busy,” but with better lighting and fewer people. Nevertheless, the vibes here are on point, with owner Patricia Chin’s great-nephew spinning vinyl behind the register in between ringing up customers.
When Chin and her husband, Vincent (the V and P in “VP Records”), moved to New York from Kingston, Jamaica, in the mid-1970s, they already had an ear for the best music from home and a knack for business. At the time, reggae producers and artists sold their own records directly to customers. Chin and her husband opened VP as a storefront in 1979 to help artists distribute their music more widely and efficiently. Aaron Talbert, who runs sales and marketing for the label, says they stood out because “they bought and sold to everybody.”
VP Records expanded to become a label in 1993, becoming home to popular acts in the reggaesphere and putting crossover artists such as Sean Paul, Beenie Man, and Gyptian on the map — and, in the cases of Sean Paul and Gyptian, on U.S. charts. The store and label have both morphed as the tastes of their audience have evolved. Now collectors from across New York and sometimes visitors from around the world come not just for reggae but for dancehall and soca, too.
Much of what VP sells is hard to find anywhere else, and that’s what makes the store both historic and still relevant. “People come here to see the original stuff, and get the feel for the actual location,” Talbert says. “To get a feel for the home of music.” Big ups. — Atiba Rogers
Westsider 233 West 72nd Street, Manhattan 212-874-1588
Walk into Westsider Records on 72nd Street, just off Broadway, and a bric-a-brac vibe hits you: This neighborhood fixture is a mecca of the miscellaneous. Albums, CDs, and books reach to the ceiling, with hand-lettered dividers designating micro-sections that include “POETRY” and “KEYBOARD” (Carl Sandburg in the former, Handel in the latter). With discs spread out on the floor and stacked in tipsy cairns, a sense of possibility dawns: You realize you could find all sorts of stuff here.
Westsider’s sometime manager, full-time enthusiast Bruce Eder, a music and film maven who wrote pop criticism for the Voice in the 1980s, is proud of the shop’s scope. He can advise customers on which Psychic TV title to choose, with the Sibelius Concerto by Heifetz playing in the background. Above the cash register is a copy of The Consummate Artistry of Ben Webster, a jazz classic. In front of it, one of the silliest records of the Eighties: Shimmy Disc’s Rutles Highway Revisited.
There are two Westsider locations; this is the one with the records (80th Street is just books). Regardless of its longstanding rep as a haven for classical and jazz items, there’s plenty of pop, too. Tourists turn up often, and last week a family visiting from Washington State picked up a Sinatra title they’d been hunting for (and the Shimmy Disc, too). Though the shop doesn’t carry new pressings, the recent upsurge in all things vinyl has increased traffic. “Now instead of people looking for a cool cover to decorate their dorm room, they’re actually buying these things to play,” Eder says, grinning. “And they’re discovering a lot of history along the way.” — Jim Macnie
When the dance music record label and distributor Downtown 161 started up in New York in 1991, house music was hitting its stride. The imprint specialized in sometimes-hard-to-find records from across the U.S., fueling DJ sets and influencing the scene locally and nationally. While it never had a full-fledged store, it opened its Lower Manhattan stockroom once a week to fans, who could browse and buy at their leisure. In 2005, as record sellers transitioned to the internet, Downtown 161 became Downtown 304, an online shop that includes a wide variety of dance music imports from today’s centers of electronic music, like Berlin and London.
The shop still has no storefront, but through its Brooklyn headquarters, buyer and warehouse manager Federico Rojas says, it develops relationships with customers, who often pick up purchases in person. “It’s very one-on-one,” he says. “It’s just me and the owner, Joe [D’Espinosa]. So we’re kickin’ it. I see what [they’ve] bought and maybe make suggestions.” This personal touch, along with Downtown 304’s wide variety of new electronic releases in genres like techno and house, makes it an essential resource for the electronic music community in New York and beyond. “In our subculture, we’re part of what creates the vibrancy and the diversity,” Rojas says. That also means embracing competition. “There’s so much variety, you can’t expect to monopolize everything,” he says. “It’s better to be positive and encourage growth across the board. We all do well from that.” — Sophie Weiner
For music nerds who weren’t at SXSW last night, the Warsaw — a Polish community center turned rather-big venue in Greenpoint — was the place to be. Headlining was Daniel Lopatin, the producer who has gone by the name Oneohtrix Point Never since 2011. This tour has seen Lopatin, joined by longtime visual collaborator Nate Boyce, focusing on material from his most recent album, 2015’s Garden of Delete. The record departed from his earlier work by focusing on nu-metal sounds and live guitar, so I came to the show expecting noise, earplugs in hand.
Lopatin met these expectations at first, offering nearly an hour of harsh, fast, disjointed experimentations off Garden. Save for one or two brief interludes, there was nothing accessible or approachable about this part of the show, and the difficulty of listening quickly thinned out what began as an oversold room. At least a third of the crowd had left by the time Lopatin shifted the tone. They missed out.
Following the barrage of sound, he played some of his earlier compositions, including a few off 2013’s R Plus Seven, which featured stuttering samples of eerily familiar, breathy synths and digitized organ. With these sounds, the concept of Oneohtrix Point Never coalesced — it felt worth the time and noise we’d stood through to get there, and the context of the harsher earlier half enhanced the more accessible music. Lopatin addresses the dehumanizing and destabilizing force of technology, but unlike his contemporaries PC Music or Holly Herndon, he presents little to temper the darkness. Though the music he played later in his set was easier on the ears, he paired it with more unsettling visuals: The grainy video that played over his last song appeared to show men digging up a grave.
Lopatin’s genius is in juxtaposing childhood nostalgia with our dystopian present. His compositions often sound like the dreams of Redditors, shards of fantasy video game music mixed with gentle Eighties soft rock and the campy drama of nu-metal. Yet by combining these elements with incessant high-BPM drums and never allowing any one musical phrase to go on for long, the comfort of these references is impossible to grab on to, always fleeting, leaving the listener anxious and wanting. With Oneohtrix Point Never, Lopatin transposes how we experience living in the world today: Overwhelmed by images, sounds, and information, simultaneously experiencing everything and nothing.
Le Butcherettes came out onstage last night dressed in red — a nod to the crimson cover of their latest album, A Raw Youth. And while Chris Common kept perfect time on drums and Riko Rodríguez-López commanded his bass, Le Butcherettes shows are always all about Teri Gender-Bender. The band’s singer, songwriter, and sole original member (she started the group in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2007) was dressed like a post-apocalyptic Almodóvar heroine, half covered in puffy tulle. She wore her hair long to maximize the drama as she headbanged over her keyboard and guitar.
It didn’t take long for Gender-Bender to get drenched in sweat — the small room at Rough Trade was far too hot — but she never lost her audience, some of whom whipped up a frenzied pit at her feet. A few songs in, she took a palm to her lips and smeared her red lipstick across her face. Between songs, she opened her mouth wide and deepened her voice to speak in Spanish, at one point mentioning a black gun wielded on the street. A cover of Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” came as a shock to the crowd, but Gender-Bender made it hard and she made it her own.
Onstage, Gender-Bender employs feminine trappings — dress, tights, kitten heels — to explore the grotesque. Last night, she did everything in her power to break down that prettiness, but she did it with honesty instead of winking self-awareness. She was a giddy girl with the air of a demon, her eyes rolling back into her head repeatedly while she played “Your Weakness Gives Me Life,” “Demon Stuck in Your Eye,” and “Henry Don’t Got Love.”
As I watched her walk this tightrope, I found myself wondering why she isn’t one of the most famous women in the world. She should be plastered on the walls of teenagers’ bedrooms, a model of what happens when a contemporary poet/rock star sees no bounds — she’s post-music, post-gender, even post-language at times. She’s charismatic enough to get Iggy Pop to sing with her in Spanish (“La Uva” off A Raw Youth, the song that closed last night’s show) and have Shirley Manson guest on her album (“Shame, You’re All I’ve Got” off 2014’s Cry Is for the Flies).
Gender-Bender is a formidable force on all her albums, but it’s live that we get the full effect of her revolutionary aims. She deserves a bigger stage, and I’m sure anyone who saw her last night left the show feeling exactly the same way.
For more glimpses of Teri Gender-Bender’s formidable stage presence, check out Jason Speakman’s full slideshow of Le Butcherettes here.
After seven years as a cornerstone of Brooklyn’s DIY scene, Death by Audio was forced to shut its doors on South 2nd Street in 2014 so that Vice could turn the building into a mega-office. The venue used its last days to remind everyone of what the underground was about to lose, booking a series of “secret” shows that brought back the biggest and most beloved acts that had once called DBA home. Future Islands, Lightning Bolt, A Place to Bury Strangers, and dozens of smaller bands played farewell sets, opining between songs about the tragedy of the closure: Les Savy Fav’s Tim Harrington ripped off his shirt mid-set to reveal “FUCK VICE” scrawled in black marker on his torso. Funeral and riot in equal measure, the shows were the last great shudders in what’s become known as the “death of DIY.”
Today Rolling Stone announced that DBA co-founder Matthew Conboy has taken footage from those final days and fashioned them into a documentary, to premiere March 14 at SXSW. Goodnight Brooklyn mixes video from the shows with interviews with key bands and the rotating cast of musicians who lived at the space, which also served as an effects-pedal studio of the same name. (If this sounds familiar, it’s almost exactly the same formula LCD Soundsystem used for their farewell doc, Shut Up and Play the Hits, only to rise from the dead five years later. Those of us who loved Death by Audio should be so lucky.)
Billy Mitchell’s first encounter with the Apollo Theater came about entirely by chance. It was 1965 and he was fifteen, living in the South Bronx with his mother and eight of his fourteen siblings. The family had been reunited after an eviction from their Mount Vernon home five years prior, but now Mitchell’s mother was struggling to keep her children clean and fed. As the oldest, Billy was sent off one afternoon to borrow grocery money from an aunt who lived on 126th Street.
Taking shelter by the theater’s back door, a hungry and thirsty Mitchell was found by Frank Schiffman, the Apollo’s original owner. Terrified, Mitchell assured the man he wasn’t causing any trouble, just waiting for his aunt to come home. Instead of shooing the kid away, Schiffman asked if he’d like to make some money while he waited.
“I got so frightened, because I didn’t know what he was talking about. You’re told, ‘Don’t accept money, gifts, or toys from strangers,’ right?” Mitchell reflects from the theater’s empty stage. He is, on this Saturday in January, decked out in a three-piece gray suit. “He saw the look on my face, and he said, ‘Son, I’m not gonna bother you. I’m asking you, do you wanna make some money? There are people inside rehearsing and they’re so busy, they’re gonna need somebody to go get their food, their coffee, their shoes shined. If you run these errands, they’ll give you a little tip.’ ”
Mitchell’s one-off errand turned into a weekend and occasional after-school gig — chicken dinners for the Temptations, who liked to dance while placing their orders; lunches for comedian Flip Wilson, who would slide his requests under the door of his dressing room. “I got to make money, lots of money, because they all felt sorry for this poor little dirty kid. So they would put five dollars, ten dollars in the hat,” Mitchell says. “I started meeting all these stars that really, really influenced me and told me [about] the importance of education.”
It was Apollo mainstay James Brown who really set him straight. “I was failing all my subjects because of my low self- esteem,” Mitchell says. “I was one of those kids that never raised his hand in class and asked the teacher to explain.” Education was already on Soul Brother Number One’s mind (his song “Don’t Be a Dropout” was released in 1967), and he asked the young Mitchell to bring in his report card. “He said, ‘If you don’t start raising your hand in class, I’m sorry, son — you’re not allowed to come here and run errands anymore,’ ” Mitchell recalls. “I thought the world was coming to an end.”
He panicked at the thought of losing the new life the Apollo had given him and his brothers and sisters. “As a result of James Brown threatening me to not be able to come back here, I started raising my hand in class and I got the knowledge I needed,” he says. “My grades went up immediately.”
Somewhere along the way, between getting shoes shined for tips and auditioning performers for Amateur Night on his own, Mitchell became the Apollo’s institutional memory. He summons its history through personal anecdotes; the mention of certain artists will send him into a full-on performance. Mitchell doesn’t just tell you you’re standing where Nat King Cole once stood, but croons “Unforgettable” to you in perfect Cole pantomime. His passion for history isn’t limited to the confines of the theater, either. Referring to the Apollo staff’s recent outing to ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange, he offers details of Wall Street’s origins, then of the African Burial Ground mere steps from the Exchange — the largest colonial-era cemetery for immigrants of African descent. Later, he is just as quick to point out that the Apollo has never been an all-black theater: “In my experience [at the Apollo], I found out the truth is that every race, every culture, every ethnic group, has expressed their culture here — white people, black people, Latinos, Asians, Indian. However, the African-American experience has probably been the most dominant.” And because of the theater’s segregated origins, it’s important to Mitchell that its multicultural history be known.
The neoclassical landmark was originally erected as the whites-only Hertig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater in 1914, only to be shut down in the Thirties when infamously conservative New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia refused to renew most burlesque theaters’ licenses. “He thought it was becoming too vulgar, too risqué, that it was promoting immoral behavior,” Mitchell says.
The venue re-emerged as the Apollo on January 26, 1934; actor Ralph Cooper, known for his James Cagney–like roles in black cinema, was tapped to fill the stage with talent and immediately established the theater’s mission of supporting performers of color. The first show he produced was an all-black revue called Jazz a la Carte featuring the Benny Carter Orchestra, ballet dancers, opera singers, and other sophisticates. The white audience, which had been expecting a minstrel show (despite the Harlem Renaissance having already reached its peak, but that’s another story), was astonished. “They saw black people reading music, playing the violin, dancing ballet, and singing opera. And they were like, ‘We didn’t know they could do this stuff!’ ” Mitchell says. “We [had not been] allowed to be shown [in Hertig and Seamon’s]. It came as a surprise — and they wanted to see more.”
The interest from outside the neighborhood led Cooper, in October of 1934, to move his popular WMCA program, the Harlem Amateur Hour Radio Show, from radio to the Apollo stage — in the process creating the country’s first ever live talent competition. The first female contestant to win what came to be known as Amateur Night was a teenage Ella Fitzgerald, who was slated to compete as a dancer just a month after the competition’s inception. But Fitzgerald never delivered her routine. “On the night of the show, during the rehearsal, she saw these other two girls dancing,” Mitchell recalls. “She thought they were so much better than her.” But Cooper wouldn’t allow the deflated Fitzgerald to walk away. He asked her what she could bring to the stage instead. “She said, ‘Oh, some of my family friends say I can sing a little bit.’ And she went out there — she started singing a song and was so nervous that [she] forgot the words. She started scatting,” Mitchell says. It was a star-making moment for one of the greatest jazz singers of all time — and served early on to establish the Amateur Night stage as a place that launches legends.
The list of people who braved the Apollo’s raucous, ruthlessly critical Amateur Night audiences charts a history of breakthrough black performers in entertainment: Billie Holiday, the Isley Brothers, Luther Vandross, Dionne Warwick, D’Angelo, Lauryn Hill, Dave Chappelle, Jamie Foxx, and Tracy Morgan are all alumni. Even the Jackson 5 took a crack at Amateur Night when Michael was only nine years old. Many return to perform later in their careers, paying the place back for the crucial momentum it provided them: Last June, Hill performed at the New York premiere of the Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, joined by r&b singer and fellow Amateur Night veteran Jazmine Sullivan, who performed Simone’s “Baltimore.”
Despite its illustrious reputation, Amateur Night has struggled to compete in the age of America’s Got Talent, Last Comic Standing, and American Idol. There’s a lot of money out there, a lot of ways to gain more exposure faster. Harlem’s gentrification has played a part in that decline over the past decade, too, as the surrounding community has become less interested in the show than it was in the Sixties and Seventies. Marion J. Caffey, Amateur Night’s producer since 2008, has made it his mission to extend the Apollo’s reach beyond the neighborhood. “I think the Apollo, itself, is a worldwide brand,” Caffey says. “Why [weren’t] we advertising to the world?” He condensed the program to a snappier two hours, revived the emphasis on the personality of the Apollo itself, and reinvigorated the audience’s pivotal role in the proceedings. With a larger marketing department focused on promoting Amateur Night and refreshing the Apollo’s image as a New York–wide institution, the 1,500-seat venue now seems to be on the rebound, especially as it is discovered by tourists visiting the city. Its audience on any given Wednesday, Caffey says, hails from “Russia, Bangladesh, Japan, and India to Philadelphia to 127th Street.”
“Our audience is what makes us unique, in that they get to be so vocal: Are you good or are you gone?” Caffey says of the Darwinian environment that prevails on Amateur Night, when an unimpressed crowd can get a performer yanked in the middle of a song or mediocre stand-up routine. Dismayed by the passive turn the audience had taken in the early Aughts, he implemented a party vibe that starts before the show, adding a DJ to warm up the crowd. “The live experience is what we can offer that no one else can, from the ushers welcoming you into the theater, to passing under the chandeliers and the murals of all the legends and stars that have come through the Apollo,” he says. “When the DJ comes on at 7:30, there are people dancing in the aisles.”
But if Caffey is the man bringing everyone together — the multigenerational and cross-cultural audience, the performers, the Apollo crew — in both body and spirit, it is Mitchell who embodies the history of the place. His knowledge of the underlying mythology and untold truths of the Apollo, and passion for spreading it through the tours of the venue he guides throughout the week, keeps one of New York’s most valuable legacies clear and vital.
Ralph Cooper’s tutelage was instrumental to Mitchell’s enduring knowledge. “We’d be in his dressing room talking about things that happened in the Apollo before I was born,” Mitchell says. “And for some reason, God made me soak up all this info like a sponge, not realizing I would need it.” He kept on learning about the theater and the neighborhood long after Cooper was gone: “I don’t just talk about history; I talk about the truth. Part of the reason I created the tour was because there wasn’t any information out there about the Apollo and its history. It was a little bit contrary to what Ralph Cooper used to tell me. I learned these things about Harlem that were different. I grew up thinking only black people performed at the Apollo, because that’s what it was labeled.”
One thing’s for certain: Those looking to fudge the truth or the history better be on guard. “Sometimes, tour operators doing walking tours in front of the Apollo Theater, they have people from other countries and things. They’re out there giving their narrative on the history of the Apollo and Harlem,” Mitchell says. “I’m standing there going, ‘Where the hell did they get that from?’ These guys, they know me. They’ll see me and say, ‘Hey, Billy, how you doing? Hi, Mr. Apollo.’ But they do not speak while I’m there.” Perhaps they’d rather not compete with the man whose education began on the theater’s back doorstep. Or maybe they realize that, just like the losers on Amateur Night, if they’re no good, they’re gone.