John Henry is Dead.

Posted: December 7, 2012 in Life, Mom, Music
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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The doors at Colony Records – I always thought they were pretty cool.

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Colony Records, NYC, circa 1980

I just got news that an old friend has passed. It may be unusual to think of a store as a friend, but it was a big part of my childhood during that time in NYC. For those that don’t know, Colony Records was a huge music store in NYC – one of a kind. It had records, cassettes, CDs, sheet music, and books. It was the size of a city block, and it was THE go-to place if you were auditioning for a musical and needed some new songs. I feel like Mom and I were there often – navigating the narrow aisles of tapes and music books. During my time as a musician, I’ve amassed a fairly significant number of music books and sheet music – probably in the hundreds. 3/4 of that was probably bought at the Colony. What made the place unique – aside from the fact that it was freaking huge – was that you could get anything you wanted there. If they didn’t have it, it didn’t exist. Looking for an obscure song from a forgotten 1800’s opera? They probably had it. Hell, they might have even had the original manuscript (I joke…mostly). Whenever I had an audition for a show, or when my voice teacher would inevitably give me a new song – they’d say “Run down to the Colony and pick it up. I’m sure they have it.”

I won’t go into how the place succumbed to the inevitable advances of technology – about how people began buying songs and music through digital downloads. Or about how music stores in general have bravely stood against the rising tide, facing a sad, inevitable end. Just suffice it to say that when I was a kid, and I had time to kill, I was at a record store or a book store (and those won’t be here much longer either – don’t delude yourself).

New York in the 80’s and 90’s was a place of filth and wonder. As someone fairly sheltered, I saw some real eye openers there. I was eating pancakes in a diner when I saw a biker get into a fight with a cabbie. The biker pulled a chain from his backpack, the cabbie had a crowbar. I think the argument was over the fact that the bike tried to pass the cab while it was turning right, but really…does road rage ever have a good reason? I saw a homeless woman with a babydoll in a carriage, asking for help to feed her kid. People gave her money, not realizing the baby wasn’t real. I saw hookers wearing next to nothing trotting up and down the street. We were attacked by what Mom used to call The Squeegees – they used to stand outside the entrances to the Lincoln or Holland Tunnels and assail your windshield with squeegees. After they cleaned your window, they’d ask for money. Psychologically, this worked phenomenally better than straight up begging – people felt guilted into giving them at least a buck or two usually. Sometimes they’d wash the window and Mom wouldn’t have any change to give them. I remember one bearded and disheveled looking gent screaming at Mom and beating on the car door as she drove away.

One day, I came out of the Colony clutching a newly acquired book – the Complete Hits of Irving Berlin. I had heard of some of his music, and thought it’d be fun to learn to play it. On the way out the door, I was heard a voice mumble something barely intelligible.

Man: EES A FEET. A FEET.

I was perplexed, wondering if there was something wrong with my feet or his. Mom was straggling, making her way out of the building, so I stopped.

Me: What?

The man barely had any teeth, which is probably why I couldn’t understand him. His level of sobriety probably wasn’t doing much to help the situation either – I could smell his breath from 3 feet away. He was holding a very nice, but worn looking violin, however, and I pegged him as someone who probably wasn’t a threat. Street musicians were sometimes crazy – sometimes even crazy talented – but usually harmless as far as I knew. Besides, we were both musicians – members of the same tribe. The man angrily pointed to my book and enunciated.

Man: Irving Berlin. He’s a thief. A thief.

Me: Oh, really? I didn’t know that.

Man: He stole EVERY ONE OF HIS SONGS.

The guy was getting really worked up. I wondered if he knew Irving Berlin personally, or maybe had one of his songs stolen. He began gesticulating wildly, his violin in one hand and his other waving in the air.

Man: He’s a con man. Ask anybody. Fuckin’ thief. Fucking JEW THIEF.

Mom had come out at this point, and grabbed me by the elbow.

Mom: Lets go.

We walked quickly to our car – we had found a good parking place on the same block as the store. The man didn’t try to follow us, but he screamed invectives against Irving Berlin until we were out of earshot.

We learned very quickly not to acknowledge anything on the street but what was right in front of us. Ignore the people – especially if they seemed crazy – walk fast, and don’t gawk at the scenery. Keep up with the crowd.  If someone spoke to you or asked you for help, pretend you didn’t hear. I hear a lot of people talk about how New Yorkers are cold or indifferent – they’re not, it’s just how you survive in the city.

I think I still even have some of that sheet music in bags from the Colony. Heh. I still remember the logo – it was a drawing of a girl, perhaps from the 40’s, jumping in the air and holding a record. In script below, it said: “I found it! at the Colony” (the grammar mistake always irked me a little).

My kids – and maybe yours – won’t know what the hell a record store even is, probably. That makes me said. Like Uncle Richard once told me, though…time is a son of a bitch.

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