Music News

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."

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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.