John Lennon, Tower Records, Billy Strings and Don Julin
Now that right there is a trio of random thoughts, providing I can group together the duo of Billy and Don, which is my intention. These thoughts each came to me one at a time, rattling around inside my head like marbles. The first occurred as I enjoyed a sea of tunes behind the wheel of my car on a bright and sunny Sunday morning drive around Manhattan. I cruised south along the Hudson, circled around Lincoln Center, and turned north on Central Park West. The Dakota was barely recognizable at 72nd. It’s wrapped in scaffolding in the midst of a masonry rehab, but still attracts the selfie-sticked tourists who want a photographic memory of the spot where John Lennon was murdered, 35 years ago this coming December.
If he were still alive, Lennon would have recently turned 75, and I’d imagine there are many people who’ve taken a moment to ponder or write about what sort of man he might be today. Would he be involved in social justice issues of one sort or another, live in New York City, and be seen around town and in the Hamptons with Yoko while hobnobbing with other celebrities and the elite? Or would he have perhaps taken a different path altogether?
I’ve always fantasized that he would have grown into a songwriter and performer whose work would fit somewhere between that of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. Perhaps he’d have a sprinkle of a journeyman like Steve Earle, and the wisdom and spirit of Pete Seeger. He wouldn’t be appearing as host on Saturday Night Live and participating in witless skits, nor strolling onstage at either a Taylor Swift or U2 concert, as if on a whim, for a “surprise” duet. He wouldn’t be a judge on American Idol, nor would he need to have a Broadway musical based on his life and music. He would be neither cloistered nor idolized, but respected and beloved. This is simply a speculative daydream of course, and should these words be written on paper as opposed to being read on a screen, no doubt we wouldn’t have bothered to kill the tree.
Depending on when you are reading this, about 500 former employees of Tower Records — with some friends and associates — have come or gone from an October reunion in Sacramento, California. There, from 1960 through 2006, was the home base of the world’s finest music retail chain. Put together by a handful of people, fueled by warm memories and enduring friendships, and with the assistance of social media, it is or was a couple of days celebrating a different time and place, when music consumption was driven by human interaction rather than solitary clicks; when businesses were built on relationships and shared goals. I’m also guessing, having read through the weekend’s agenda, there might be time for a few drinks, a couple of smokes, and a safe and sane rekindling of relationships. How’s that for political correctness?
One highlight will be the screening of All Things Must Pass, a film by Colin Hanks that documents the unique connection so many of us had with Russ Solomon’s Tower Records, and how it all came to an end. The expected tagline of course is that it was “The Internet” that killed it off, but the story really runs far beyond that.
The film debuted at SXSW earlier this year and is currently in limited release. Although I have yet to see it myself, as a vendor and partner of Tower Records for over 20 years I was an eyewitness to what many business writers at the time called the “perfect storm” of events. It was such a despicable, sad, and ugly ending, that I recall walking out of one of the L.A. stores on their last day open, feeling as if someone shot a hole in my heart. Here’s a clip … and an imaginary toast to all the friendships I made along the way that still live on.
From the fantasy and reality of afterlife, I’ll move to the third act.
When I saw Billy Strings and Don Julin perform almost a year ago at City Winery, I wrote that their set decimated the room and left the audience dazed and staggering. After 10 months on the road, which builds on one’s musical chops like nothing else can, they recently came back to New York State and headlined inside one of the several intimate venues at Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts, which has established the exceptional American Roots program that musicians and audiences alike have grown quite fond of over the past few years.
For over an hour, I watched and listened as this road-tested duo — plus one: Kevin Gills on upright bass — offered up a repertoire of original and traditional songs with more energy than a case of Red Bull. It’s always special when a group has one outstanding virtuoso, but both of these guys deliver top-shelf guitar and mandolin interplay that probably hasn’t been heard since David Grisman’s projects with Tony Rice or Jerry Garcia. At the age of 23, Billy already has the six-string sensibilities and vocal precision of someone decades older, and Don is the older, Buddha-like mandolin master who steers the ship forward with rhythm, speed, and his melodically delicate touch. Of all the dawgs on the road, I’m runnin’ with these guys.