Ten Thousand Saints and the Nostalgia of the Record Store

March 12, 2013 § 2 Comments

Last week I read Eleanor Henderson‘s excellent début novel, Ten Thousand Saints.  This was a book I randomly came across, and, like most books I randomly come across, I was lucky.  Ten Thousand Saints tells the story of Jude, a disaffected teenager in Burlington, Vermont (disguised as Lintonburg, for reasons I don’t quite understand since the rest of Vermont gets to keep its names), a sad sack little city about two hours from Montréal on Lake Champlain.  Jude, I should also point out, is about a year older than I am.  His best friend, Teddy, dies of an overdose on New Year’s Eve 1987, after he and Jude huff pretty much everything, including freon from an air conditioner, but Teddy also did coke for the first time, introduced to him by Eliza, Jude’s step-sister, who’s in town for a few hours from NYC.  Teddy’s older brother, Johnny, also lives in NYC.

The novel then follows Jude, Johnny, and Eliza through the hardcore scene in the NYC underground in the late 80s (looking at Henderson’s picture on her website, she does not look the sort who would).  Jude transforms from a pothead huffing high school dropout in Burlington to a straight-edge hardcore punk in NYC, frontman of his own band, the Green Mountain Boys (a clever play on their Vermont roots and Ethan Allen during the War of Independence).  Henderson does a great job of illuminating the culture of the hardcore scene of the late 80s, both in NYC and around the rest of the East Coast, as well as issues of gentrification on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan, especially around Tompkins Park in Alphabet City, where Johnny lives, and around St. Mark’s Place, where Jude sometimes lives with his father.

Ten Thousand Saints made me nostalgic.  At the other end of the continent, in Vancouver, I was starting to get into some of this music, if not yet the scene.  Many of the bands Henderson references were in my cassette collection by 1989-90, a couple of years after Jude and Johnny were rocking out in the Green Mountain Boys. Though I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why the standard bearers of the straight edge scene in the late 80s, Fugazi, are not mentioned, though Ian McKaye’s earlier band, Minor Threat, are the gods of Jude, Johnny, and their crowd.  What made me nostalgic was record stores.  This is how Jude got into the scene in NYC in the first place, hanging around the record stores of the Lower East Side.

As I mentioned in my last piece here, on the Minutemen, Track Records in Vancouver was where I began to discover all these punk and hardcore bands in my late teens.  Track stood on Seymour Street, between Pender and Dunsmuir, and as you went up the block, there was an A&A Records and Tapes, then Track, then A&B Sound, and then Sam the Record Man.  Two indies and two corporate stores.  And between the four of them, you could find anything you wanted and at a reasonable price.  Zulu Records also stood on West 4th Avenue in Kitsilano, a short bus ride from downtown on the Number 4 bus.  Of those stores, only Zulu remains.  I’m in Vancouver right now, and I think I’m going to make my way over there today.

But it was in record stores that kids like me learned about this entire universe of punk and alternative music in the late 80s.  In places like Track and Zulu, we heard the likes of Fugazi and the Minutemen, as well as the Wonderstuff and Pop Will Eat Itself and the Stone Roses playing on the hi-fi.  This is where we could find the alternative press and zines, I found out about all these British bands from the NME and Melody Maker.  You’d talk to the guys working in the stores (and it was almost always guys, rarely were there women working in these stores), you’d talk to the older guys browsing the record collections about what was good.  Some of these guys were assholes and too cool to impart their wisdom, but most of them weren’t.  And then you’d rush home to the suburbs and listen to the new music, reading the liner notes and the lyrics as you did.

For the longest time, I held out against digital music.  I liked the physical artefact of music.  I liked the sleeve, the liner notes and the record/cassette/cd.  In part, I liked it because of the act of buying it, of going into the record store, even the corporate ones, listening to what was playing in the store, looking around and finding something.  There’s not many record stores left.  The big Canadian chains are all dead and gone.  Same with the big American ones.  In Boston, the great indie chain, Newbury Comics, isn’t really a record store anymore.  The flagship store on Newbury St. has more clothes, books, movies, and just general knick knacks than music.  Montréal had a bunch of underground stores up rues Saint-Denis and Mont-Royal, but they’re slowly dying, too.  And here in Vancouver, the only one I know of is Zulu (though I’m sure there’s more on the east side, on Main, Broadway or Commercial).

I miss the community of music, it just doesn’t exist anymore.  I suppose if I wanted to, I could find it online, discussion groups and the like.  But it’s not the same.  There’s no physical artefact to compare and share.  There’s just iTunes or Amazon.

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