Like so many other aspects of rock 'n' roll, the independent record store enjoyed a golden age in the 1960s.
Some of my most vivid memories are set in the type of record store that has become an endangered species in this day of high-tech, mass-market music/video/soft-ware/blank tape/greeting card outlets.
Those memories were stirred last weekend at a revisit-the-'60s party/counterculture reunion marking the 20th anniversary of Sound Spectrum in Laguna Beach, one of those stores that had given us rock fans a whole new environment in which to discover and explore our music.
Until those stores came along, we'd been forced to search out the latest Bob Dylan album in totally unhip places like J. C. Penney or Wallich's Music City--where, for God's sake, our parents shopped. The new breed of store devoted exclusively to rock--Perry Como and Xavier Cugat be damned--had the pungently scented, zoned out, black-lighted ambiance that only a true rock 'n' roll fan could love.
In the next two decades, however, rock would become a fairly legit business. Underground FM radio stations, once piloted by foggy-brained Deadheads, would turn into hugely profitable businesses, with play lists dictated by foggy-brained demographics experts.
Record companies once run by lousy businessmen with great musical instincts would someday be controlled by respectable college grads in three-piece suits whose names end with CPA or MBA and who wouldn't recognize a hit song without an accompanying three-month marketing survey.
Rock stars would shill for Coca-Cola, American Express and Levi's.
And the quaint, spacey record stores of yore would eventually give way to chain store "music merchandisers" with their shiny strip-mall shoppes tailor-made for the squeaky clean, digital '80s.
The record store of the '60s was my generation's answer to the speakeasy of the '20s or the juke joint of the '40s: a seamy, vaguely illicit den where angels--and adults--feared to tread.
One I used to frequent was Clear Sound, a tiny red shack in Orange (now a plant nursery supply store) where I would furtively thumb through forbidden albums by Juicy Lucy or the Fugs while inhaling the pervasive incense and wondering what went on after closing in that back room behind the tie-dyed curtain.
Another personal favorite was Heavily Heard in Orange, which stocked loads of bootlegs--unauthorized LPs usually taken from surreptitiously recorded concerts, and occasionally drawn from purloined master tapes of studio recordings. That was years before record companies brought down the iron heel of corporate power and effectively remanded bootleggers to selling their fraudulent wares at swap meets and out of the backs of station wagons.
When tapes of the Beatles' "Let It Be" album, originally known as "Get Back," were circulating in bootleg form in 1969, the guy behind the counter at Heavily Heard told me his shipment was late because one of his operatives had his arms broken for distributing the bogus LPs. I don't know whether the story was true, but it added a sense of mystery, a dash of derring-do, to the simple quest for musical enrichment.
By contrast, the biggest Beatles controversy that record stores of the '80s have faced is whether the compact disc versions of the Fab Four's old albums would be released in stereo or mono. Please, someone call in the FBI.
It's not that the maverick record store has vanished completely--though it is a dying breed--but that the whole raison d'etre of such stores is no more a part of contemporary culture than are love beads or paisley Nehru jackets. They were born of a time when rock 'n' roll was integral to our lives--in a way it will never be again--because the music was maturing along with us.
Thanks to Bob Dylan, we were listening to lyrics seriously for the first time. Performers were trying to make albums into cohesive wholes instead of just random collections of singles--injecting even more Meaning into the music.
At the same time, the advent of stereo gave recording engineers two channels of sound to play with, and many went wild making voices zoom from left to right, crisscrossing with guitars and, later, with the mind-blowing, consciousness-expanding sounds of the new Moog synthesizer.
All this made rock albums special , works to be anticipated and treasured. Today, even though there are plenty of artists writing lyrics worth reveling in (John Hiatt, Elvis Costello) and music worth wallowing in (Dire Straits, Crowded House), it's no longer the great revelation it once was.
Don't believe me? Consider, then, the CD stores in Orange County that recently opened at midnight for new-release sales--not for Michael Jackson's new "Bad" album or Springsteen's "Tunnel of Love" but for the CD versions of "Sgt. Pepper" and "Abbey Road."
Time it was, and what a time it was.