Here’s Part 1 of our profile and interview of Troy legend Jim Barrett. We’ll publish the second half tomorrow.
River Street in Troy is a funky place: Its early 20th century buildings with their unique architecture, clothing and antique shops are the reason why so many filmmakers have used it for location scenes. If there’s a street that can be called ‘artsy,’ this is it. And if you’re hungry for music, there’s one place that’s a must see: The River Street Beat Shop (#197). Stepping into the venue is like being in a time capsule, possibly reminding one of London’s Soho district in the ’60s.
From the street, you’re immediately drawn in by the sights and sounds. On any given day you might hear rarities from Howlin’ Wolf to the Ramones to a new CD by local virtuoso Maria Zemantauski. Visually, there’s the psychedelic bric-a-brac, which is surrounded by stacks of vinyl ranging from the unusual to the unknown. This is augmented with rare original posters of the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Velvet Underground, ? and the Mysterians, the Clash, or behind the counter a rare Elvis or even better yet, AJ Weberman LP. It’s a veritable musical nirvana.
A booming voice bellows: “All vinyl is half price today.” Immediately followed by, “Hey, this just came in. Check it out, have you heard this ’67 bootleg of Cream? It’s unreal.”
No one is a more passionate booster of music – most notably, local music – than the inimitable Jim Barrett. His passion for rock ‘n’ roll and those who play it has led him on a mission, filled with stories and adventures about the local scene and those who comprise it. If you’re looking to find who or what is the real deal, Barrett will give it to you straight. He has an innate sense of the cutting edge, backing it up with reviews, raves and remembrances. Quite simply, he’s seen and lived through most of it all. As ‘eclectic’ as you think your tastes might be, you’ll never top him. Pick any genre: blues, jazz, reggae, folk, doo-wop, bluegrass, ska, punk, electronic, Cajun, R&B, soul, Latin, metal, world beat, or even Broadway show tunes, Barrett will humble you with his encyclopedic knowledge of dates, times, people and places.
Taking a page from national rock radio pioneers like Murray the K, Cousin Brucie, Wolfman Jack and the Hound, Jim has been a radio man and record collector since his childhood. And whether you’re a native or a newcomer to the Capital Region, there is no better resource for local music than this gregarious Irishman whose mind (and mouth) both go a mile a minute (as he excitedly reminisces about Bob Dylan and ‘Handsome’ Dick Manitoba all in the same sentence)!
Since 1967, Barrett has been the biggest cheerleader on the block; hard to believe in a business run amuck with egos, insecurities and self-serving agendas. Some say that if he didn’t create the rock scene in Troy, he sure as hell brought it to the people here. With him, it’s all about the greater whole, which means his satisfaction is derived from every time a record lover walks out of the store with a most amazing find, or by giving a local solo artist or band a platform to play with an in-store appearance. On a random Saturday afternoon the vibe in RSBS feels like a “love-in” without the dope. Instead, a wide array of music connoisseurs revel in the ‘kitsch’ while enjoying more modern-day mood enhancing substances (pizza and Pepsi Cola).
To this day, countless musicians (both local and national) continue to stop-in and talk shop with JB. Whether it be a Johnny Rabb, Ernie Williams, Lonesome Val Haynes, Super 400, Ramblin Jug Stompers, Sarah Pendinotti and Sean Rowe, or a rock ‘n’ roll Hall of Famer like the Rascals’ Gene Cornish, the ‘hang’ is always a fun one. That, along with inviting them to promote their latest music on his legendary radio show, “Kaleidoscope,” (in its 40th year on the air, currently on 88.3FM “The Saint”), makes the visit rewarding for any artist – veteran or beginner.
Never one to seek notoriety, Jim has always shunned the spotlight in lieu of devoting most all his time to promoting others. We here at Nippertown.com, however, thought it high time to rectify that: Not with any formal award, but instead with a timely conversation; a tribute more befitting the man who has actively remained one of our favorite, albeit un-sung, heroes on the local musical landscape. Enjoy the ride…
Jim, you’ve been a mainstay in the Capital Region music scene for over four decades. How and when did you develop a passion for rock ‘n’ roll?
Well, my mom was actually a musician. As a kid, I had asthma, and every summer part of my annual therapy was going to visit my grandparents in Rutland, VT. My grandfather was a very colorful character who bought me my first radio, a crystal radio. I loved it, and listened to every style of music that I could. On Sunday nights, my favorite DJ was “The Hound” out of Buffalo. He opened the show with his trademark: “You’re listening to The Hound… O’ww-ooh.” In the ’50s, when you’re ten years old and hear something like that it sticks! It was phenomenal: traditional blues, jazz, R&B, doo-wop, you name it. I was completely hooked.
Back here at home, I started collecting 45s at places like The Disc in Troy, Bea’s in Albany, and also from a guy named Pee-Wee Harris. I couldn’t get enough. I was also fascinated with all the old radio shows like Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, “The Shadow,” “Captain America,” etc. To this day, I think radio is still the coolest medium in the universe.
Did you want to become a musician?
No. I mean, I love performing, but I’ve always preferred to be a disc jockey.
What was the first band you joined?
1965: The Legends of Sound (laughs!). I was actually one of the singers. We played – maybe ‘mutilated’ is a better word – everything that was popular: British Invasion stuff like the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Animals, and naturally, American rock ‘n’ roll like the Rascals. We weren’t very good, but we sure cleaned-up, money-wise! My claim to fame was that we were working a place called The Lion’s Den. I dove off the stage – thinking how cool I was – and crashed right through this huge piano below (being rented for a jazz guy named Rueben Mitchell) and ripped my legs to shreds. Goodbye summer, goodbye band! Ha! Ha!
Is that where you developed your stage persona years later when you created the highly popular and musically outrageous band, the Lawn Sausages?
I always loved guys like Spike Jones, Iggy Pop & the Stooges. The whole purpose when we put together the Lawn Sausages was to make people laugh. Everybody around here took themselves so seriously! So many great bands, but a lot of them were very stuffy. We wanted for better words, to ‘take the piss out of that’ and shake people up, much like Blotto did when they came out. We wanted to attack and shock. I think we succeeded.
Your tastes run from the eclectic to bordering on the absurd. How do you, yourself, define the meaning of rock n’ roll?
In one word, it’s happiness. It’s any music that affects you. The problem with the term “rock ‘n’ roll” is that it pigeon-holes everything. To me, it’s all about the energy. For example, the MC5: I saw them at the Aerodrome years ago, and they were ridiculously talented. Their records didn’t reflect the quality of their live show, but just the same the belief in what they were doing is what impressed me. I don’t like shallow, you know?
Story by Bob Girouard, an Albany musician/writer, who currently writes for such magazines as Modern Drummer, Classic Drummer and Elmore Magazine
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk