Off the Beaten Path
A day trip to Milwaukee reveals LPs by Dennis Coffey, David Axelrod and Muhammad Ali fighting tooth decay.
A bloke I’d never met told me to go to Milwaukee for records, so I went to Milwaukee for records. He figured that because Milwaukee’s a bit out of the way, it has better records than Chicago, for less money. Fewer people are out buying all the best stuff and pushing the prices up. I’m not sure I agree, as I think I’ve already found the perfect store hidden away in Chicago, which has an absolute ton of stuff lying there for next to no money at all. Still, it’s ace having a reason to get beyond the city and have a sniff about.
The day starts by traversing Chicago with a freakishly boney old madman of a taxi driver telling me to give up comedy because a). you need to start when you’re 15 or you won’t get anywhere, and b). all acts these days are filthy and nasty, not like Jack Benny used to be. I’m not sure I entirely disagree, but I know which side of the chat I’d rather be on. Soon he’s off into a rant about Michael Jackson, who was fine singing as a kid, but soon ‘just kept grabbing his balls… grabbing his balls… grabbing his balls.’ Every time he says this he grabs his own balls, raising his arse about six inches off his seat as he guides me down the expressway.
In the cab at the Milwaukee end the musical omens are better, first with a radio ad for one of the stores I’m heading for, and then with another ad telling me that Scarface, ‘rapper from the legendary Geto Boys’, is in town this weekend. In England we don’t have underground rap gigs promoted like furniture sales. MF DOOM at MFI.
In my limited online research I found three record stores all on the same street on the Lower East Side. First up is Off the Beaten Path records, a tiny store run by a friendly bloke called Chris. His stash is mainly mainstream rock, but there are a few gems dotted about.
I’m browsing the jazz when Snoop Doggy Dogg's 'Gin & Juice' suddenly comes blaring through the opened door. I look up to see a tall gawky white guy in a rigorously tucked-in polo shirt. He looks a bit like a postman, but judging from the two weed pipes he’s carrying in his hand it seems he’s doing the rounds delivering something far more amusing. So it’s not just the sun and lake breeze that makes Milwaukee so laidback.
Later I’m browsing the back section when a middle-aged man next to me suddenly looks across and emits the following: ‘I’ve got 1,000 LPs at home.’ Please God, even though I’m essentially doing exactly what he’s doing, don’t let me become one of him.
The records aren’t crazy cheap, but they’re good: Miles Davis’ 'Kind of Blue' and 'In A Silent Way' are both here, each for the equivalent of less than a tenner. Still, the find of the day is this:
Which would be hard to resist even if it didn’t come with an 'explicitly illustrated manual'.
Right across the street is Bullseye Records, which by the owner’s admission isn’t the den of unreasonably cheap delights that I’m looking for. As he puts it: ‘I do all the digging for you, and charge you $15 for the service of telling you this is what you need.’ He charges me $15 to tell me I need a copy of Dennis Coffey's 'Goin' For Myself'.
I knew that anyway, but that still doesn't get me a discount.
The lake’s only a few blocks away, so I take the records for a walk along the harbour, amid the boats. It's ace.
A short stroll back up the road leads me to Exclusive Company, which sits somewhere between the two other stores in terms of its stock – lots of expensive-looking shiny new releases, but also racks and racks of miscellaneous stuff for cheap too. I pick up a David Axelrod and Cannonball Adderley collaboration, 'Big Man'. Also I can’t resist spending 99c on an album called 'Hi God!' On the inside cover there’s a letter to the Lord that actually includes the phrase: ‘Thank you for making giant love balls who cannot keep our love inside’. Worth 99c for that alone. Also the Madvillain Instrumentals for $7. Gold.
I have another rare moment of sense, which only serves to bug me for the rest of the day. I had a Muhammad Ali vs Tooth Decay LP in my hand, but put it back figuring I’d save the cash. Cue rest of day spent going 'I definitely needed that LP'. I definitely didn't need that LP. [Note, as I read this three months later: I definitely need that record].
Buying records is weird. Still, it took me to Milwaukee, which judging from the lake stroll and the two-mile walk back to the Amtrak station seems a really attractive place. Loads of old slatty pointy-roofed houses with high porches. Even more mellow than Chicago. Well worth a visit. I then get to enjoy a train trip back to Chicago, the sun setting to my right off the sides of yellow school buses. Small-town America. Me Jack Kerouac. Albeit with a vinyl bent and a credit card.