The Old Man and the Sea Level
Having grown up in LA, I didn't need a big article in Billboard to remind me that practically every single record record store in town, save for Amoeba has gone out of business over the past five years. One by one, the music stores of my adolescence have shut their doors. From the old Rhino Records in Westwood triggering memories of an overcast winter Saturday, 14 years old and mystified by the cover of Liquid Swords; to the Tower Records on Sunset, June 2, 1997, waiting in line to buy Wu-Tang Forever, at Midnight (with a free Wu jersey handed out as a bonus for our dedication;) to the countless Wherehouses, Sam Goodies, and Penny Lane's that used to lurk around every sun-splashed corner.
That was a decade ago, antediluvian in instant Internet time, before the music biz slid off a cliff of illegal downloading, Best Buy bulk buying domination (how else do you think they sold Fishscale for $6) and the black hole known as Amoeba Records. A great record store for sure, but one who by sheer awesomeness of size, taste and buying power further accelerated the decline of the little guys. Little guys like Echo Park's Sea Level Records, one of LA's last standing independent record shops, who closed up shop last night.
Sea Level owner, Todd Clifford made the decision to send Sea Level to that great record pasture in the sky about a month ago, but I waited to write about it, accepting the bad news the way I always do: refusing to believe it until the tangible concrete evidence looked me dead-on in the eyes. Which happened to me at about 11:15 p.m. last Friday night, when the boys from Division Day, aided by some special guest helpers, did a cover of the Boyz II Men school commencement staple, "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye" (which my 8th grade graduation. class was actually forced to sing). Nice work guys, you did a whole lot better than we did.
Sea Level Owner, Todd Clifford, Showing the Rugged Work Ethic And Abstemious Values Required to Survive a Day As a Music Store Clerk
Sea Level started in 2001, so it certainly wasn't the first place I ever bought a record at, but it was the sort of place I wished I'd bought my first album at. A cluttered and cramped High Fidelity-esque playground, papered in old concert handbills, 90s Matador Pavement and GBV promos and tons of dusty old vinyl. The ideal spot for Junior High kids to rush in with weekly allowances tucked into their palms, filled with the nervous anticipation of buying a record, rushing home to put it into your stereo, hoping it as good as they'd heard it was.
About three or four months ago, Todd went off on tour to sell merch for the Silversun Pickups and thanks to Sea Level's other employee, Sylvia, I got to fulfill every music geek's lifelong dream: being the jerky guy behind the counter making snide remarks about used Kenny Loggins records. All things considered, it was pretty awesome getting the opportunity to see the way in which Sea Level fostered a true sense of community for the Eastside music scene. It was a rare anachronism in Los Angeles: an oasis for music junkies ranging from music writers like Duke, Jax and Kevin Bronson, to nearly every indie band east of La Brea, to the packs of Mexican and Phillipino teenagers that came in off their skateboards to read magazines and kill time talking about music for hours, to the weird ripped old dude that used to come in every week, hoping that his Ibiza Volume 6 album had finally come in.
(no Buggles.) I suppose it's the impersonal nature of the digital age, with its inexorable inertia to reduce all bits of information into 0's and 1's, forever stripping away the personalized touch of buying physical copies of records. Maybe it's more efficient, but I think I can speak for all us music junkies when I say that I'll always miss the instant connection you used to feel when you'd buy an album, studying the liner notes, reading the album lyrics and trying to figure out the over-arching meaning of it all, if there was any. Most of all, I'll miss going to Sea Level and all the places like it, those last bastions of an actual community that feel like relics of a by-gone era. Maybe I'm just growing old and crotchety before my time, or maybe I'm just a little biased, but it feels as though the city is losing something that won't be easily replaced. RIP Sea Level. You will be missed.
MP3: Boyz II Men-"It's So Hard to Say Goodbye"
MP3: The Beatles-"Hello, Goodbye"