The first thing you might have noticed upon walking into Other Music was how small it is. Its reputation preceded it in a way that might have made you imagine high walls plastered in rare records or long alleyways caked in fading promo photos, but Other Music was a different kind of beloved record store. It was manageable. It was fun. It was friendly. Even their filing system seemed to offer a bit of guidance and ease: marking old releases “then” and new releases “in.” One of the first times I entered Other Music, I was looking to brush up on the Flying Nun roster. Not only did they have all the key releases, but all their Flying Nun releases were even grouped together in their own section. As such, shopping in Other Music was a bit overwhelming, but not in the traditional sense. It was more like having a casual conversation with the coolest, smartest person you know. You wanted to simultaneously stop and write everything down, while also staying alert and covering as much ground as possible.
Other Music was not the last great record store in Manhattan but it was the last of its kind. As its name implied, Other Music focused on, since it opened in 1995, new and upcoming records: a noble if archaic pursuit in a time when physical editions of new releases come long after their more affordable streaming counterparts (and that’s if they are to be released at all). Regardless, Other Music maintained its mission statement to its final days. In the ’90s, this meant stocking records like Belle & Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister or Air’s Moon Safari — the shop’s #1 and 2 all-time best selling albums, respectively, according to a list recently circulating on Twitter. More recently, it’s meant being among the first to champion unclassifiable young acts like avant-saxophonist Matana Roberts. Performing last night at Other Music Forever, a tribute concert at the Bowery Ballroom, Roberts took to the mic to thank the shop for the “room they made for me in the city … When I sent my music into labels, they were always like, ‘What is this?,'” she laughed. “Other Music never asked me any questions.”
Roberts’ remarks rang true. There was an intuitive nature to Other Music’s selection; they carried a lot of records, but everything felt at home. Even their used bin — a fairly recent addition — was never dusty or random. It seemed lively and new, a selection of records that you maybe couldn’t find new copies of, offered at reasonable prices. In the face of the changing music industry, Other Music always felt righteously old-fashioned. There’s something stubborn and fitting about the fact that it lasted as long as it did before closing on its own accord, instead of succumbing to some kind of villainous buy-out. The show carried in that spirit. “We didn’t want to mourn something past,” said owner Josh Madell in a heartfelt speech at the end of the show, “We wanted to celebrate together.”
The night’s acts were clearly there to celebrate, but there was also a palpable feeling of loss in the air. Several of the acts ran through older, beloved material — songs you might have first heard on the airwaves at Other Music, convincing you to buy a copy of the record — that seemed transformed by the context. Bill Callahan’s traveler’s lament “Riding For The Feeling” felt particularly apt, with its sorrowful ruminations on saying goodbye and listening to tapes in a hotel room. Other material was prepared specifically for the occasion, like Roberts’ gorgeous improv piece and Sharon Van Etten’s slow, devastating take on Leonard Cohen’s “Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye.” Following a speech about her relationship with her father and his pride upon seeing her album in Other Music’s display window, her set was a sad, touching tribute to a record shop that clearly meant as much to the artists as it did to the fans.
A more triumphant spirit carried Yo La Tengo’s “Ohm,” a song introduced as being “almost named after Other Music” and featuring Madell on bongos. “This is it for all we know, so say goodnight to me,” the group sang in unison, “Nothing ever stays the same, nothing’s explained.” It was a tour de force performance, and if Madell had been the band’s aforementioned “special guest,” it would have been enough. But shortly after “Ohm’s” feedback faded, the band welcomed Yoko Ono, graceful and charismatic in dark black sunglasses, to the stage.
Arguably the patron saint for Other Music’s individualistic artistic spirit, Ono performed two songs with Yo La Tengo, simultaneously summoning a sense of finality (“Will I miss the city lights?” “Will I miss touch?”) and celebration (“We are all together,” “We are rising”). It was a show-stopping performance — the kind of thing you’d imagine would be saved until the end of the evening. But in the spirit of Other Music, there was more.
“I feel like we’re all in a record store now,” spoke Helado Negro between songs, wearing a shirt that read “Young, Latin, And Proud.” He had a point. With the quick 15-minute sets followed by friendly audience discussion (an overheard remark suggested a potential hashtag for the Yoko Ono/Yo La Tengo collab: #YokoLaTengono) and the sea of band T-shirts and familiar faces, the event did have the unmistakable feeling of a particularly busy night at Other Music.
Even the roster itself, from the proggy metal of John Zorn’s Simulacrum to Julianna Barwick’s stately ambience, showed the range and dynamics of Other Music’s selection. It was a reminder that, upon entering, you were just as likely to hear Basinski’s Disintegration Loops as you were to hear Yes’ Close To The Edge. Things made sense at Other Music that wouldn’t anywhere else. “I hope they make a festival out of this,” Helado Negro suggested to rapturous, encouraging applause.
Throughout most of the show, comedian and actress Janeane Garofalo served as its host, introducing bands and making small talk. Somewhere between a talk radio DJ and Christopher at Livia Soprano’s wake, Garofolo’s deadpan non-sequiturs seemed to ease the crowd’s nerves, avoiding the elephant in the room and opting instead for subjects like Brexit, Game Of Thrones, and Selena Gomez (“Are the kids calling her SelGo yet? No? Let’s make it a meme, people”). But one story hit particularly hard, told fairly early in the evening, about a teacher friend who used the expression “like a broken record” in front of her young students, only to receive blank stares. “They didn’t know what it meant at all,” Garofolo explained stoically. She shrugged, took a sip from her water bottle, and followed up the remarks with a fitting bit of wisdom for an evening that celebrated the past while still keeping a cautiously optimistic eye on the future: “I think it’s time to update our idioms.”