A walk through the used record bins of some of San Francisco’s finest music stores with musicians, both famous and infamous.
When talking about the great music stores in the Bay Area, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a drive out 101 North over the Golden Gate Bridge for a visit to Village Music in Mill Valley. Most people say John Goddard has been running the place ever since he was hired on as a clerk in the 60s, even though he didn’t officially carry the title of owner/operator until 1978. In an era in history when computer kiosks have replaced the old music store employee, John is truly a throwback to a time when the trusted recommendation of your local record store clerk was as good as gold.
As you make your way through the front door of Village Music, you’re met with the store’s Music Hall of Fame and Sometimes a Cover Is Enough displays a subtle nod by store management to music collectors knowledgeable and inane. John is usually manning the desk, while a clerk runs around the store stocking and hauling in boxes of inventory. Nearly every square inch of wall and floor space is covered, be it boxes of 78s, records, CDs, tapes, 45s, videos, t-shirts, pictures or concert posters. I knew it was my kind of place when I saw a life-size cardboard cutout of Stevie Wonder tucked in a corner in the back.
John’s music memorabilia collection is vast, a direct result of his friendships with customers with last names like Garcia, Clapton, Crosby, Santana and Jagger. Most every picture he has hanging on the wall is signed personally to him, and it’s likely John has a good story behind it if you ask.
I probably wouldn’t have ever found out about Village Music if it weren’t for Rob Wasserman, bass player extraordinaire and local Marin County resident. Wasserman suggested we go visit the store shortly after he returned home from touring with the Willie Waldman Project, a jazz fusion quartet out of Los Angeles that is joined by a painter onstage each night to provide a visual background. Waldman’s musical credits range from playing the trumpet on albums with Snoop Dogg and Tupac to a 2001 Perry Farrell solo album, though his current band’s sound borrows heavily from Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew-era. Wasserman said playing with Waldman and company provides a nice escape for him musically, and to expect to see the lineup out touring this fall.
"Willie’s a good friend, and I love playing with him," Wasserman said. "Some people find playing without really talking about what we’re going to beforehand stressful, but I think it’s fun. It’s like a vacation."
As we make our way through Village Music’s aisles of vinyl, Wasserman pulls up at the Beatles section.
"My first big influence was the Beatles," Wasserman said as he leafed through the albums, pausing briefly to glance at the covers. "I really liked McCartney’s bass. I wasn’t playing at that age, but I heard it. I guess that was my hint to play. Records like Abbey Road and Rubber Soul, and then later on the White Album. I also remember listening to the Beach Boys on the radio when I was young, which was really cool when I worked with Brian Wilson for a song on my Trios album."
Turning around, Wasserman catches a glimpse of Billie Holliday’s face in a picture on the wall.
"I think Billie Holliday had the best female voice of all time. Ella Fitzgerald was more pop, but Billie was more soul," Wasserman said. "I love great singers. Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Patsy Cline, Chet Baker. I love Van Morrison’s voice. His Beautiful Vision album is great. Neil Young’s stuff is great. Dylan’s Nashville Skyline is one of my favorite records."
Despite his close friendship and musical history with Bob Weir, Wasserman was never a Deadhead growing up.
"I never really listened to the Grateful Dead," he said. "I started listening to them and hanging around that scene once I started playing with Bobby. He eventually wanted to start playing Dead tunes with RatDog, so we did. I was a hippie for a little while when I was younger, but then I turned into a classical player."
As we walk through the store’s folk section, Wasserman spots a Woody Guthrie album and grabs it.
"When I was a teenager, I bought all of Woody Guthrie’s albums," he said. "I really liked folk music, and I eventually read Woody’s book. I really just got into it."
As fate would have it, Wasserman is now working on a project based on the writings of Woody Guthrie that started from a conversation he had with Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, at a tribute concert for Robert Johnson at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s recorded three songs so far, including "Union Love Juice," a hip-hop and bass tune with Spearhead lead singer Michal Franti based on Guthrie’s journal entries about hanging out in Union Square in the 1940s. Wasserman’s most recent recording for the project reunited him with old friend Lou Reed on "The Debt I Owe." Wasserman played bass in Reed’s band from 1988 through 1994, and still remains a fan of his former band mate’s music.
"I like the Velvet Underground," Reed said. "I’m more into their melodic stuff. I didn’t get it at first really, but I really love it now…now that I’ve played with Lou, I understand it more."
Wasserman looked up from the Guthrie records and asked if I knew the name of the Charles Mingus album with a man carrying his bass over his shoulder. I didn’t, which sent him wandering over to the jazz section to find out.
"He played this tiny club in San Francisco, which I ended up playing early on in my career," Wasserman said as he searched for the Mingus. "He was just so far ahead of his time. He was brilliant."
Wasserman found Mingus’ 1964 album Right Now: Live at the Jazz Workshop in short order and jumped up the aisle to Dave Holland, a bass player second only to Mingus as a composer.
"I had a chance to meet him once and I asked him for his best advice," Wasserman said, laughing. "I was 18 years old, and I’d just bought my first string bass. He told me to go to New York. I didn’t do it."
Talk of different bass players from Willie Dixon to Charlie Haden to Stanley Clarke eventually leads us to Jaco Pastorious.
"I bought his first album and thought it was incredible, but I never really wanted to play the bass guitar," he said. "I met him once and hung out a bit. He was a crazy character."
Besides his solo work and tours with Waldman, Wasserman is currently on tour with DJ Spooky in collaboration the duo dubbed "Fresh Funk." Prior to the start of the tour on August 5, Wasserman had not yet met the deejay nor was really sure what they’d play.
"I haven’t met him yet. He doesn’t like to rehearse," Wasserman said with a smile. "I called to see if he might want to fly in a day early to practice, and they said he just wanted to show up and play. Sounds like fun."
Wasserman’s Picks of the Day
Charles Mingus, Right Now: Live at the Jazz Workshop
Beatles, Abbey Road
Captain Beefhart, Trout Mask Replica
Anything by Pablo Casals
Herbie Hancock, Headhunters