The Wreck of the Record Rack

The fabled 2100 block of Lexington has been razed, and nearby on Shepherd, things aren't looking a hell of a lot better for the Houston music scene. For one thing, the CD Warehouse near Westheimer is going out of business. Much sadder than that is the loss of the Record Rack, the tiny store that first opened in 1957 and for the last three decades has served as a nexus for the dance music and gay club scenes. (Rumor has it that at least two prominent record store chains are about to go into bankruptcy and/or liquidation as well, but more on those cases when their times come early in the new year.)

Now is the time to talk about the Record Rack, the oldest record store in Harris County. Owner Bruce Godwin blames a litany of villains for the Rack's downfall, chief among them CD burners and the people who use them. "We've been here so long it didn't put us under when a record store opened across the street," he says. "Cactus didn't put us under. Soundwaves didn't put us under. Wherehouse didn't put us under. Doesn't matter. It might fluctuate 6 or 7 percent, but it didn't fluctuate 60 or 70 percent in 24 months and every customer that walks in the door goes, 'Oh, I already burned that.' The people who are downloading don't realize that if they put all the record companies out of business, there won't be any music to download because there won't be anybody to pay the musicians to record it."

Of course, music business bigwigs and the lame bands they're trying to sell don't get off scot-free either. "The music business in general is sorely lacking in talent," Godwin says. "The teen pop thing is over, it's a turning of the tide in general, and for the worse. There are no new superstars. Madonna's getting a little haggard around the edges, there's no new Cure, Cult, Ministry, no new Pearl Jam, nothing like, 'Oh, this new band is so fuckin' awesome.' There's a few okay bands, but that's not enough."

Godwin fires a salvo at the dance music industry as well: "Club music is in a death spiral of horrible music. Even the Roxy's broadcast went to rap because trance got so tiring."

Then there are the politicians, both local and national. The city and Metro have screwed up downtown, which has indirectly affected Godwin's bottom line. "The downtown club scene's dead because of the parking situation. [Former Hyperia DJ] Michael DeGrace was one of my best customers," Godwin says. "He used to come in here and buy a bunch of his records, and now he's out of a job. All the people that worked there can't buy records now because they're broke."

Godwin's no fan of Dubya, either. "Normally when we get a Republican administration, we get better music," he says. "But two years of Bush have proved just the opposite. He's killed the culture of the whole world, and now we're fed pabulum out of baby food jars. And with sabers rattling over the war with Iraq, consumers are pulling back on every kind of product, not just entertainment."

Young people come in for a bashing, too. "Anyone under 30 thinks it's their right to have everything free," Godwin says. "I was at Best Buy the other day, and I bought Star Wars and Lord of the Rings on DVD. And all the kids in line were like, 'Dude, I'm gonna burn you a copy.' People are there the morning these things come out ready to make copies for their friends."

And then there's pretty much everybody else. "People are just so much more easily distracted by their computers, their DVDs, video games, world events. They're just so much more self-involved, and they're not willing to listen to music as a pastime rather than a background activity," he says. "Used to be you'd put on Dark Side of the Moon and you'd listen to it all the way through. Now kids put records on as the background to something else."

Godwin believes that even the few records that have sold well in the past year have grossly overstated sales figures. SoundScan -- the cash-register-monitoring, bar-code-reading system the record companies use to measure sales -- can be abused. "SoundScan is not infallible," he says. "I know that record buyers for smaller record stores go to Best Buy and buy up 200 or 300 copies of things like the Springsteen album, which Best Buy sells below cost. Then they sell that album again at their store. Do you think the record companies are gonna admit that they are overstating their sales by 15 or 20 percent? It's just not gonna happen.

"It's just one thing after another after another," he sums up.

Boy, this was one of Racket's more depressing conversations. "But it's the truth," Godwin says. "This store has been in business for 45 years."

Maybe, Racket says, it's the End of Times.

"Could be," Godwin replies, only half-joking. "I mean, it's conceivable. People come in here and say, 'I thought you guys would be like algae, that you'd survive through an ice age.' And I tell them that I used to think that, too. But I can't compete with free. There's no other industry where the product you sell can be gotten anytime, day or night, with just the minimal amount of technology."

But don't let it be said that Godwin doesn't have some fun memories. In 1995, Morrissey dropped by the Record Rack for an in-store appearance. "We had 3,000 people spending the night in our parking lot," Godwin says. "The line went six blocks down the street all the way to Richmond. It was unbelievable."

There was also a sense of, shall we say, exhilaration, when the store was visited by a certain band of muscle-bound men who liked to dress up. "There was nothing more exciting than having 500 queens in here all trying to blow the Village People!" Godwin says, laughing uproariously.

Now Godwin will be turning his attention to the other irons he has in the music-scene fire, such as running Numbers. But he's also considering a career change. "The new year in the music business is definitely gonna be interesting to watch," he says. "I'll probably be selling crack in the hood, though. You can't download that for free, and Best Buy won't lowball you on the price!"

Scuttlebutt Caboose

The bad news isn't confined to the Shepherd Square area. Mars Music, the instrument megastore with locations in Meyerland and Memorial, is also in the process of liquidation. According to employee John Egan and manager Steve Baker, the Houston stores were profitable. The problem was with many of the company's 39 other stores. "We were doing fine, that's the ironic part," says Egan. "The two Houston stores last year made 17 million bucks between them, so you can be sure somebody else is gonna come in -- one of the other big chains is gonna come in. There's been some talk that Sam Ash would come in at those locations, because they're already proven." Still, a lot of Mars employees -- many of them, like Egan, working musicians -- are at least temporarily out of a day job…Billy Joe Shaver will release Freedom's Child, his debut on Houston's own Compadre Records and his first album since the death of his son Eddy, at two shows on November 22. He's playing an in-store at Cactus Music and Video at 6 p.m. before trundling on down to the Mucky Duck. Freedom's Child was recorded in two weeks in Nashville with roots music producing whiz R.S. Field. Though the album doesn't reach the same heights attained by two of the records Billy Joe made with Eddy -- last year's harrowing The Earth Rolls On or the 1993 all-time classic Tramp on Your Street -- it still ranks among Billy Joe's best work and is one of the strongest country releases of the year. Cool tracks include the rockabilly tribute to Johnny Cash "That's Why the Man in Black Sings the Blues" and the timely remake of Tramp standout "The Good Ol' U.S.A.," a gently patriotic tune of a type the world could use more of. (Toby Keith take note.)…A nervous Little Joe Washington headed for the gig of his life last Thursday, when he got on a plane for the first time in his life and jetted off to Holland. There, the pint-sized bluesman played at the 23rd annual Blues Estafette in Utrecht -- Europe's blues event of the year -- in front of tens of thousands of people. Washington had San Antonio's famed West Side Horns (one of the late Doug Sahm's backing bands) at his side. Expect a full report when Washington comes home.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax