Legendary Eastside Records Is Closing Its Doors
It's an ordinary afternoon at Eastside Records, which usually means the following is happening: an obscure punk song is blasting way too loudly out of the tiny shop's decrepit stereo (in this case, Television's 1975 single "Little Johnny Jewel") and Michael Pawlicki is hard at work behind the glass counter.
While the gaunt 40-something shuttles between opening boxes of new stock and placing orders over the Internet, a middle-aged jazz aficionado approaches the register holding a dog-eared Billy Bang LP.
As Pawlicki haphazardly scrawls out a receipt, the bearded gentleman utters an oft-repeated phrase that the clerk and co-owner has been hearing about 50 times a day lately.
"It sucks that you guys are closing."
Sad tidings have been expressed ever since word spread a few months ago that Eastside would close on New Year's Eve after 23 years in business. Though appreciative of the sentiment, Pawlicki grimaces slightly each time a customer says it.
"It's really tough sometimes, hearing people getting all mushy," he says. "It makes it where it's hard to leave and you don't want to go."
Such sorrow is to be expected, given that Eastside's been revered for nearly a quarter century. No other record store in the Valley (save, perhaps, Stinkweeds) is as beloved and respected among vinyl geeks and musicians as Eastside. The store developed a statewide, even global, cult following after it opened in July 1987.
Regulars and casual customers withstood the store's ever-present musty stench and cramped aisles to dig through fruit crates and stained record bins for obscure and rare records, as lithographs of beat poets and bizarre-looking Mexican papier-mâché creatures gazed down from Eastside's wood-paneled walls.
Musical titans, including Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and The Beastie Boys' Mike D, visited Eastside when they were in town, and Pawlicki claims that Paul McCartney came in before his 1990 Sun Devil Stadium concert and punk icon Henry Rollins gave the place a shout-out a few years ago on an episode of his defunct IFC talk show.
Eastside has also served as one of the last vestiges of underground culture in Tempe, a quaint throwback to the mom-and-pop days of Mill Avenue in the 1990s. Long before the rise of the Internet, it also functioned as meeting ground and epicenter for Phoenix's music scene. The magazine rack was filled with local fanzines, and Valley bands could both stage gigs and sell their music at Eastside.
That includes local musician Ryan Rousseau of Destruction Unit.
Rousseau recalls driving three hours from Yuma in his 1978 Datsun pickup to drop a couple hundred bucks on Killed by Death compilations and other records he couldn't find anywhere else in the mid-'90s.
"There were places that were closer, like Toxic Ranch in Tucson, but they never had the good stuff, like rare punk and reissues, that Eastside did," he says. "It was also cool going in there and shooting the shit about records, hanging out after hours drinking beer, or watching a show by the Motards."
Those shows got wild, too. Some people, including original owner Ben Wood, fondly remember when The Dwarves played Eastside in the late '80s, a gig during which lead signer Blag Dahlia attempted to put a folding chair through one of the store's televisions.
"That was fucked up. A friend of mine basically put the drummer into a professional wrestling move — what many will know as the suplex — right over the drum kit," Wood says. "The whole live thing just became a quirky experience."
Unfortunately, such antics were the reason Eastside's landlady halted live shows at the shop after a wild performance by Man or Astro-man? in the mid-'90s. It's one of the reasons why you could expect the unexpected at the store, says local legend Cris Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets (a "bestest buddy" of Wood's).
"Anything could happen at Eastside and often did," he says. "My memories of the place are nothing but fun. One night like 20 years ago, me and Ben were getting drunk at his house and wound up at the store hanging those dinky-winky Mexican figurines. Eastside has always been a cool counterpoint to places like Zia for music, a personality-driven place where the guys working there are like institutions themselves. People like Mike were built for that place."
Local vinylphile Tim Neilson, who DJs at Yucca Tap Room under the moniker Johnny Volume, estimates he's purchased more than 1,100 records at the store over the past decade. And while he says Eastside's selection brought him into the store, he adds that his rapport with its employees was also a big draw.
"I lived around the corner for five years, and if I had a bit of extra cash, I'd skate over and always find something. Eastside had everything: old soul, country, punk, metal, reggae. Whatever mood I was in, they always had some gem I had to have. For a little while, the thing I kept my stereo on was covered with the store's price stickers that I'd peel off the records," Neilson says. "But the number one importance of that place has always been the people working there. They know so much and are so passionate. You could ask them about any record and they probably know something. Michael has so much info off the top of his head, it's crazy."
While the Zias of the Valley offered the latest discs, Eastside carved a niche as being the place to go to pick up all manner of rare gems. And if Eastside didn't have a record, its clerks most certainly could order it.
And chances are good that the person placing the order was either Pawlicki or co-owner Steven Gastellum. Each brought his own area of expertise to the job. While Gastellum is what Wood calls a "walking encyclopedia of classical music, jazz, and funk," Pawlicki has been a diehard punk fan since his teens. A veteran of the early '80s punk scene and regular at shows at the Mad Gardens and Calderon Ballroom, he started haunting bygone local record stores at age 16. He was later hired by the late Brad Singer (founder of Zia Records) as a clerk at the chain's Tempe location, which is where he met Wood.
The two became friends, and Wood eventually asked Pawlicki to work at Eastside three months after it opened. Gastellum came along in 1991, and both have been there ever since.
"I wanted a work environment where you could drink beer on the job and wear your pajamas. Who gives a fuck, right?" Wood says. "Do what you want to do, not because you're in it for the dough, [but because] you're in it for the love of music, especially on the level that Michael and Steve have been. When you're selling a beloved art form, you should have a comfortable environment, and you should make it comfortable mostly for you because customers will come once they realize those niches of music were here."
At one point, he even made them co-owners.
"In my mind, they deserved it. I wanted them to be part-owners because they were worthy of it and were responsible for the store's success," he says. "My whole idea with opening Eastside was because I thought, 'Music's fun, and it should be fun for everybody all the time.'"
And what fun it was, whether it involved playing their favorite music or conversing with customers about musical minutiae. At any given moment, the patter inside Eastside could encompass anything from debates about CDs versus vinyl to which band, The Ramones or New York Dolls, launched punk.
Then there was the mischief. A group of former Eastside employees is somewhat legendary for pulling pranks, including reportedly having hundreds of gallons of ice cream delivered to the Tempe Zia location during a Vanilla Ice in-store in the early '90s.
"That prank has been built up a lot over the years," Pawlicki says. "I met Vanilla Ice later on, and he's a totally nice guy."
Such pranks helped the staff weather the dramatic changes that befell the record industry in the past decade.
Pawlicki says the owners fought to keep Eastside afloat for as long as they could after the music landscape began its irrevocable change with the arrival of MP3s and peer-to-peer services like Napster. Eastside even survived some scary financial crunches and a few near-closures over the past decade.
"Since 2000, when the music business kinda hit a pinnacle and went over a hump with all the downloading, it's been a rougher game, and we've had to do a lot of changes ever since," he says. "Closing became a constant discussion. We've come close a couple times, where for two or three weeks we didn't know if were going to stay open."
Pawlicki decided enough was enough. Wood says he was heartbroken when his partner (whom he calls "the heart and soul of Eastside") informed him he was moving to another city to open a record store.
"And it got to the point in Tempe . . . that, yeah, we could stay open, but we would have to sell a bunch of shit we don't like. None were willing to do it and I wasn't, either," Wood says. "At a certain point . . . It's kind of like putting Old Yeller down. I've gone through the anger and the upset and the sadness, but there's also a sense of relief for me that now it's gonna be over soon."
That doesn't mean that they're not gonna go out with a bang. In true Eastside style, it involves an obscure song.
"When this thing ends, 'Baby's on Fire' by Brian Eno will be played as the last song at Eastside, because it's the song that started the joint."
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