A Song From Under the Floorboards
by Tom Körp
It was the smell that hit you about halfway down the steps: the cloying, sweet sickness of musty curios, mildewed walls, and particles of dust too heavy with moisture to dance in the dull light provided by a dozen or so fluorescent tubes. It was an earthy smell of decay, the kind one comes to expect from an old garage, a dilapidated tool shed, or, as was currently the case, from a basement. Specifically, I refer to the basement of Galvanize at David’s, a now-defunct thrift store that specialized in the “retail sale of retro and vintage clothing for guys and dolls.” Commonly known as Galvanize, the store was located in the Hampden Village area of Baltimore. Nowadays, it’s little more than an empty husk of a building, blacked out windows and broken panes where once you could catch the twinkle of retro, the coy hint of a discounted discovery.

It was there amidst the chaos of chic castoffs and bizarre bric-a-brac that you could find Christian: local DJ, music aficionado, and curator of one of Hampden’s best-kept secrets—specifically, an ad hoc record shop in the basement of Galvanize. Christian himself was something of a cartoon, a thirty-something caricature of the working-class underground music enthusiast. His overlong hair curled in thick clumps created from a combination of genetics and a thick layer of grease; it lent him a sophisticated mystique not unlike that of a 60’s-era roadie. The image of the carefree rocker was further endorsed by Christian’s five-o’clock shadow, readily visible at twelve noon. His teeth, tar-stained by cigarettes and browned by coffee, had most likely not seen a dentist in many a year.

A man of middling weight around 5’5”, Christian’s sense of fashion—or anti-fashion, depending on how you looked at it—tended toward the modishly urbane. Black patent-leather shoes with slim, dark-wash jeans; a dark-blue, almost-black dress shirt paired with a similarly dark tie; a thick black leather cuff/wristwatch, and a close-fitting vintage leather jacket that had certainly seen better days. It was an oddly anachronistic combination that somehow managed to walk the fine line between classy and dilapidated, like a well-tuned 1955 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud with rusted door panels, dented fenders, and a missing hubcap.

Me, I was dressed like a wannabe musician: frayed Adidas sambas, worn-in standard-fit jeans courtesy of the Gap, a grey t-shirt, and a retro-minded button-down shirt purchased at random from American Eagle Outfitters. You know, the rancher-esque kind with the faux mother of pearl snaps and the two breast pockets—standard issue for a college kid trying his damnedest to look like those underground Midwestern rockers in all of their album sleeve glory. My hair was a bird’s nest as usual, a shaggy mass of uncontrollable protein strands that practically screamed out nonchalance.

In short: I was a walking stereotype. Arrayed in the style of those whose music I enjoyed, I carefully walked down the steps to Christian’s domain, mindful so that my awkwardly skinny 6’4” frame did not careen into the dingy collector’s plates and other random curios that lined the stairwell. I recall that Christian looked up from the pages of his newspaper at the sound of footsteps, giving me a quick once-over before nodding his assent:

“Hey. What’s up?”

It bears noting that I had been to Galvanize before. The first time was during my annual thrift-store Halloween costume scavenger hunt, a time-consuming yet cheap alternative to dropping upwards of fifty dollars at the nearby Towson Mall on some threadbare cheesecloth that may or may not disintegrate within five minutes of wear. After sidestepping around a rack of old shirts that occupied more than half of the entrance to the quirky-looking boutique, my roommate and I had quickly set to work rummaging through the shop’s hodgepodge wares in search of some vintage costume inspiration. Oddly enough, we were soon greeted by Christian, looking much the same then as he would during my later visit (stubble, greasy hair, dark shirt and tie, leather jacket). Granted, Christian’s “greeting” was done in his own perfunctory way—less a question than a statement of (supposedly) obvious fact:

“Hey... you guys like music? Like, old vinyl and stuff?”

Turning away from the racks of 80’s-era Members Only jackets and answering with an awkward but affirmative “um, yeah,” my roommate and I soon found ourselves following Christian down into the basement of Galvanize. He introduced himself as an album collector and local club DJ, then proceeded to give a brief rundown of his musical inventory: over 1000 albums arranged in a variety of packing crates.

“Right. So you’ve got your classic rock, funk, jazz, and folk on the left. Alternative, new wave, prog, and punk’s at center. The new stuff—I haven’t got around to organizing it yet. That’s up front.”

With a sweep of his hand, Christian had glossed over roughly 40 years and upwards of $10,000 worth of musical history. I later learned that all of that was only a portion of Christian’s wares, and mostly duplicates of what he already owned in his private collection. I imagine that his abode was comprised mostly of album crates and overfilled shelves, probably with a turntable set in some corner near a blinded window, plus or minus a chair inhabited by an ashtray and an enormous pair of headphones. It would all be dimly lit, and with a decidedly potent stench of aged mold, stale coffee grounds, and dusty carcinogens—no doilies, potted plants, potpourri, or home-assembled Swedish furniture for this guy. Then again, maybe I’ve read High Fidelity one too many times...

I was intimidated, to say the least. My own music collection—over 11 days worth of music if my mp3 player could be trusted—paled in comparison. Even worse was the nagging feeling that I really had no reason to be standing in awe of Christian’s extensive collection and exchanging bits of rock trivia with the man himself. After all, Halloween was little over a week away. I had a costume to find, and time was a-wasting. Besides, I did not even own a turntable, and therefore I had absolutely no means with which to play anything that I might be compelled to purchase. But I couldn’t exactly say to Christian that I didn’t own a turntable, or any records for that matter. Hell, he must have thought that my roommate and I looked like fellow vinyl enthusiasts, fellow initiates in the world of underground music. Granted, my appearance—then, scruffy Converse All-stars, unkempt hair, weather-beaten jacket, and an obscure band pin—most likely did nothing to dissuade this image. Besides, who was I to disappoint such a gracious host?

So I played the part of the highly-selective customer, the anti-impulse shopper who has an overly specific list of a few wanted items permanently logged in the back of his mind. I asked Christian if he had a copy of the limited-press split 12” LP by Prosperity Wallet and the Ghost, a long shot and a therefore a safe bid to avoid an unwanted purchase. After all, few people outside of the Chicago area have even heard of either Prosperity Wallet or the Ghost. Fewer still know that they recorded a split album together, let alone care enough to own it.

Not one to be discouraged, Christian responded to my inquiry by playing Ghost’s (not the Ghost) 1999 album Tune In, Turn On, Free Tibet, a Japanese prog-turned-folk odyssey featuring vocals by Masaki Batoh and guitarwork by Michio Kurihara. Though an interestingly discordant piece of psychedelic post-rock from the Far East, Ghost’s Tune In, Turn On, Free Tibet was “not what I was looking for.” Ergo, I could safely reject the album without hurting Christian’s feelings or revealing my own vinyl deficiencies.

To my credit, I had acquired a turntable and a handful of albums since my October visit, all of which were relatively recent releases from small record labels who found pressing vinyl a cost-saving alternative to mass-producing CDs. Initially, I had only planned on a few albums to supplement my ever-growing CD collection. Maybe a few early or rare releases by bands I already knew and liked, perhaps some classic rock staples purloined from my father’s own record collection, which was currently collecting dust (though hopefully not mold) in my parents’ basement. What I hadn’t anticipated was the visceral appeal of vinyl: its rich, textured sound, and the care needed to store and handle the albums themselves. Not to mention the obscurity, expertise, and patient dedication to music that those black discs imply. Useful not only for its cheap production, vinyl records also have the uncanny ability to separate the appreciators from the opportunists—the “true” fans from the fickle bandwagoneers. After all, what casual listener would go to the trouble of owning Minus the Bear’s 2002 LP Highly Refined Pirates on both CD and vinyl, let alone do so in order to compare the sound quality of the two formats?

But vinyl isn’t only about hipster status, audiophilia, and ego-massages, attractive as these things may be. Oddly enough, many of the smaller bands that I and others like me listen to are on smaller labels that cannot always afford to release their albums on CD format. Sure, the bands and their labels may have one or two mp3 demos available on their seldom-updated websites, but that still means that there are anywhere from one to ten songs per band that I will never hear. So, if I really want to listen to the music (which I do), I need to buy the vinyl.

Item: First pressing of Billy Bragg’s 1986 LP, Talking With the Taxman About Poetry. Purchased at the defunct Hampden record shop, Own Guru. Embarrassingly, I had dropped the album itself whilst checking its surface for scratches (it escaped unharmed).

Item: Limited press self-titled 7” by Los Angeles folksy post-punk outfit Fingers-Cut, Megamachine!, released in 2002 by the now-defunct independent label Aggravated Music. I purchased the album via AM’s online store, due mainly to the fact that the songs “Laughs Per Minute” and “I Have What You Want” were not included on either of the two early Fingers-Cut, Megamachine! CD releases.

Item: The Ghost & Prosperity Wallet, A Split Twelve Inch Recording. A 2003 release from LA-based independent label Grey Flight Records, the limited edition Split Twelve features five songs from two notable Chicago bands. Unfortunately, Prosperity Wallet’s two included tracks were the last songs recorded by the band before their dissolution.

Item: Dianogah’s two-song seven-inch, “Hannibal” / “A Bear Explains the Right and Wrong Ways to Put on a Shirt, Shoes, Pants, and a Cap,” recorded by Steve Albini with jacket art by band member and graphic artist Jay Ryan. Initially purchased on eBay for $16; due to some goof, the wrong album was included with the proper sleeve. After a few e-mails to the band, I managed to get a legitimate copy for $4.

Expositional lists and segues aside, back to my return trip to Galvanize. I was a college student stuck in the semester lull between midterms and final papers. It was the weekend and I had cash to burn, so naturally I was bored and in desperate need of a musical fix. Consumerist tendencies notwithstanding, I had also come to seek Christian’s advice, to pick his brain for pieces of music history lost in the cracks between Rolling Stone and the Top of the Pops, to find any number of dust-covered vinyl relics hidden in that thrift store’s basement. But things had changed since October of last year. Once an invited guest, I was now an unexpected intruder. Sensing this altered atmosphere as I approached the bottom of the steps, I forwent my urge to immediately dive into the nearest crate of records with the eager ambivalence of a compulsive shopper at a Virgin Megastore. Moreover, I felt it proper to ask Christian’s permission before disrupting his collection.

“Mind if I have a look around?”

He stared at me with a mixture of surprise and barely-concealed pride. After all, it’s not as if Christian advertised through any means other than word of mouth, and this typically only extended as far as a casual mention from the woman who operated the main floor of Galvanize. His visitors were usually the twenty-something local-area hipsters who stopped in upstairs in search of a retro outfit or a kitschy piece of yesteryear; they may have browsed, as was their wont, but they didn’t ask permission. Though an outsider, I’d be damned if I had to be rude about it.

Eyebrows raised, Christian pursed his lips as he scanned his collection in consideration of the question. Well, not the question itself, but what the question signified: a gesture of respect, an invitation for him to share some of his personal favorites.

“Sure, help yourself. Anything in particular that you’re looking for?”

And so it began. Yellowed by nicotine and cached with grime, Christian’s fingers eagerly sifted through crates of records arranged haphazardly on the floor and surrounding tables, a mix of everything from the Dead Kennedys and Pink Floyd to Leadbelly and Chick Corea. Upon finding the desired record—Flamingo by the Flamin’ Groovies—Christian carefully released the vinyl from its plastic dust-cover and well-used cardboard sleeve before placing it on an archaic turntable/receiver/tape deck, a 70’s-era chrome-colored monstrosity that predated my own existence by at least ten years. Dirty as his hands may have been, they were remarkably gentle when working with records. Lifting the tone arm as though it were made of gossamer, Christian grasped the head between thumb and forefinger before placing the needle onto the slow-spinning 33 1/3 rpm record with the same analytical tenderness shown by surgeons during their first incisions.

After the expected snaps, crackles and hisses made by the initial collision of diamond needle-tip and vinyl disc, music began to pour from speakers located on the secondhand desks, barrister cases, and end tables that lined the walls of Christian’s makeshift office. At first glance, I thought that the speakers were for sale—surely those dinged, dust-covered pressboard boxes with black mesh faces had not seen use in years? They were fairly well-hidden in the makeshift maze of human detritus, lost amongst Dædalian ingenuity and camouflaged by knickknacks of indeterminate age and origin. At times, it even sounded as though the music was emanating from the shelves and walls, that the faded porcelain figurines and faux-china tea sets possessed the powers of speech and song.

It was a warm sound. The guitars had a grainy twang, unaltered by effects pedals and unfiltered by digital soundboards. The bass and percussion were vibrant, providing a low-lying reverb that caused the speakers to hum and the china to clink. Crouching in front of a copy-paper box full of alternative and new wave albums, I nodded my head in assent at Christian’s band of choice and made a few intentionally brief comparisons to latter-day Stiff Little Fingers and the Clash, comments which give him the impetus to launch into a brief history of the Flamin’ Groovies and their unfortunate anonymity in the United States.

“They’re such a great band, too,” he began, “But all their record labels and managers, they just kept fucking them over.”

“Yeah,” I murmured in a mixture of confusion and obligatory agreement—after all, this was my first experience with the Flamin’ Groovies, and I couldn’t exactly play the role of fact-checker. While I would later learn that the San Francisco-based Flamin’ Groovies did indeed have a variety of financial problems—among them a manager who ran off with the rent money for the band’s practice space—at the time I could do little else but nod. In retrospect, they also sounded a lot like the Beltways, a local band that had played a number of shows in and around Baltimore, including Hampden Village’s annual Hon Fest.

“It’s like prophets,” I continued with my vague, almost rehearsed commentary, determined as I was to provide some sort of incisive and witty remark to make up for my relative ignorance, “they’re respected in every country but their own.”

Christian chuckled and shrugged before resuming his lecture, all the while pulling out random albums that he thought I might find interesting. To his credit, he was on-target about 80% of the time, but I didn’t exactly have the funds to follow through on my end of the deal. This is not to say that Christian played the part of the salesman. Hardly; his voice contained a certain presence not found in an experienced seller of goods—an eager honesty touched with a hint of nervousness, like the barely-restrained enthusiasm of a small child seeking his parents’ approval. Besides, Christian was as much an evangelist as he was a historian. He wanted his customers to enjoy what he had to offer, for them to find something to take home and play for others. It was his way of keeping music alive—the bands he loved may be dead and gone, but he made sure that people were still listening.

Cracked by cigarettes and stifled by what sounded like a persistent head cold (or allergies, since the basement’s overwhelming population of mold had long since begun to aggravate my own), Christian’s nasal drawl hung overtop the music. He stopped at points and stared off into space, lost in thought or simply lost altogether. We went back and forth, discussing a variety of punk, new wave, prog- and post-rock bands ranging from Pink Floyd and Magazine to Pitchblende, from the Suicide Commandos to Colossal and Turing Machine. It was like verbal tennis, though we could rarely sustain a decent volley. We both tended toward the obscure, but Christian’s taste in music was too old, and my own taste was too new. He was a lifer, a man who had been absorbed in underground music for the better part of his adult life, whereas I was barely pushing five years of experience with the independent music scene. We lost each other in the translation, awkward pauses punctuating band references that fell flat. Still, we made a good show of it, and at the end of our half-hour-long repartee we both walked away bettered by the experience—Christian $13 richer, me with the New Pornographers’ Mass Romantic and Magazine’s Play.
Posted by: Tom Körp

Prose (June 16th, 2006)