The other day, I biked the length of Forty-eighth street from Seventh Avenue to Sixth Avenue and encountered an unusual view. In the middle of the south side of the block, where a clutch of music stores had once been, was rubble. An enormous expanse of rubble. The municipal version of a tooth that has been knocked out. If that wasn’t surprising enough, the space directly across the street, on the north side of the block, which had also been home to several music stores, was also rubble.
Forty-eighth Street was once famous for stores that sold musical instruments. Those stores catered to musicians of every stripe, but the vibe was very rock and roll. The names that stand out for me are Manny’s and Sam Ash, but there were several others, packed together, one next to the other, each a world unto itself. In my own private atlas of the city, that street was also notable for the degree its character changed in the course of one block, from Seventh Avenue to Sixth Avenue. The music stores, like the support of a seesaw, were the point at which that character made its pivot.
I was a drummer. I went for supplies: sticks, a cymbal stand, felt for cymbals. I’d ogle drum pedals. As I recall it, one first encountered huge stacks of amps upon entering. But the guitars, in the store as onstage, were the show. They hung from the walls, a profusion of colors and styles. The salesmen glared at you as you walked in. They had the aura of roadies. They’d seen it all. Weathered road dogs of rock.
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These places were theatres of humiliation, or small-scale virtuosity. Someone was always noodling on a guitar, trying to imagine an intimate relationship with this instrument, weighing the cost of it, hearing its sound. It was a kind of foreplay. Doing it in public. Sometimes they were doing something impressive. But even then one passed by with a twinge of embarrassment on their behalf, thinking, Get a room!
It was in these stores that I first understood the importance of learning a riff. The customers who were trying out a guitar were not pleasantly strumming chords. Certainly for those buying an electric guitar this was not done. He or she—although it was, it seemed to me, almost always he—would try out riffs. Bursts of a lead. Or some other, more subdued, but still searing riff. “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?” by the Rolling Stones—that opening. Once, twice. Again. It was supposed to be an audition for the guitar, but it always felt like an audition for the guitarist. Listening became an exercise in discerning where on the pro spectrum the player was: sometimes you would hear a spectacular riff and think, Wow, this guy is really good. Only to hear it falter. And then repeat, and falter again. Like someone declaiming a poem to which they know only the first few lines.
There was also the question of style and taste—the look of the guitar being tried out. The dress of the player. The kind of music the potential buyer was interested in. It was an exercise in both “Name That Tune”—because usually, the riffs were famous riffs—and name that style. This guy is into Kiss, this guy into the Byrds, this one into the Clash. There was a lot of metal. I was going to these stores from the late nineteen-seventies until the mid-nineties, a time when the hard crunch of metal was prevalent in one form or another. Maybe I shouldn’t say metal. Maybe I should say rock and roll, in all its glorious young-dumb-and-full-of-come stupidity. Or just rock.
I don’t have a need for the music stores of Forty-eighth street. I don’t play the drums anymore, not really. For a while, when my kids were little, I would find myself in a house with a kiddie drum set. I would hang in the main room with the other parents for a while and then sneak off and hold forth, rock out. The kids would come in. They loved it. Even the parents were amused, popping their heads in the room, wondering if there was a child prodigy in their midst, a tyke with attitude, only to discover a very large man sitting behind the very tiny drum set.
But wait, wait one second. That last time I visited Manny’s, years ago, I went into the new—to me—drum room, the soundproof box. I played on a snazzy set for a few minutes. When I came out, two teen-agers asked me to “go play that beat again.” It was like a live-action version of finding an old record in a vintage store, the one with the breakbeat that you need. They were about eighteen years old. Bomb Squad protégés, for all I know, who are now laying down tracks and making big money. You walk into those stores as an absolute nobody. But you are a nobody with potential, which is almost everything. It was invigorating.
Writing about this minutia brings me back to the spirit of those music stores on Forty-eighth Street: they weren’t merely a place to buy musical equipment. They were an immersive world where all this stuff was highly important. There were photos on the wall, the trappings of fame, money, the sense that giants had strode into this place, that the gods bought instruments here, or just strings and picks. Just by walking into these places you became a part of the ecclesiastical grit of rock music in New York.
Which sends me back to the two ends of Forty-eighth street. I would usually approach from the west, from Seventh Avenue, by bike or subway. That area always held an atmosphere of unreconstructed old Broadway. The movie theatres with their porno marquees. The famous Brill Building was across the street (a block or two away), as was Colony Records. I tended to carry cash on these excursions—the money always felt a little dirty and exciting, as cash does. The Seventh Avenue end of Forty-eighth street, with the old sooty buildings filled with small offices with the smoked glass and gold lettering, a hive of press agents, private detectives, hustlers of one kind or another, was, by the time you got to Sixth Avenue, completely effaced.
Forty-eighth and Sixth was a place where I liked to linger in the late afternoon, a habit that dates back to my days as a bike messenger. In one sense, a bike messenger hanging around midtown after work is like a cashier at a grocery store who is still hanging around after their shift. But I really did love the strange vacant open spaces of midtown at the end of a summer day. Instead of the clotted, hidden warren of offices, instead of lewd porn and tourist traps that hung “Going out of Business! 90 percent off!” banners year-round, you were standing at the base of a canyon of glass towers, each built with some special zoning easement that its developer acquired with promises for public space at the base of the building. And the space is, indeed, available to the public. And there are even benches and some trees and other places where one can, in theory, sit. But it’s all stone and marble—a public place completely devoid of hospitality. A poem of emptiness. The fecund sleazy clutter of old-world New York finds it opposite here, in the cold, transparent, but equally sleazy world of corporate-H.Q. America. The building on the corner of Forty-eighth and Sixth houses Fox News. The red news zipper rushes by in its endless river of disinformation.
The music stores in between these two poles were commercial establishments. You came here to get what you needed and left with your booty, the tools of the trade. Soon you would be in your own private space—your room, your rehearsal space—plugging in whatever you had bought, setting it up. You would be free to make your own music and get away into a world of your own making. That is the city paradox, one that the music stores of Forty-eighth Street embodied in their own way: you have to go right into the center of things, immerse in the crowds, and there you find the very tools that allow you to vanish.