Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Midnight ravers

MIDNIGHT RECORDS--263 W. 23rd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues (also occupied the adjacent storefront at 255). Though many in the record collecting and garage rock "communities" have mixed feelings about Midnight Records and its proprietor, most cannot deny the contributions J.D. Martignon's store/record label/mail-and-Internet-order business have made to the scene. Timothy Gassen's garage-revival reference book The Knights of Fuzz (Telford, U.K.: Borderline, 1996) sums up Midnight's influence succinctly:

J.D. Martignon's New York Midnight Records label and store became an important counterpoint to the California scene as well. Martignon released early efforts by the Fuzztones, Plasticland, the Outta Place, Plan 9 and a slew of others--continuing its mission into the 1990s. (The Midnight retail store and mail-order became a mecca for rare new garage/psych discs, and it has continued in its role as a candy store of goodies for this writer on numerous occasions.) Martignon points out that his widely circulated mail-order catalog, The Midnight Thymes, "had articles, a news section, and loads of hype on the garage/psych scene. It helped to propagate the music and the distribution of it worldwide." Midnight published one of the first books detailing the contents of 1960s compilation albums, which Martignon notes "was very influential on bands and collectors." Martignon also says rightfully, "Midnight became the inspiration for many of the (garage/psych) labels, mail-order companies, and distributors both in the U.S. and overseas--whether they will admit to it or not!"

Midnight deals in domestic and imported rock & roll, R&B, and blues, and particularly specializes in '50s and '60s sounds and revivalists thereof--on vinyl and CD. "Limited edition" live recordings and "rarities"--otherwise known as boots--are staples. The Midnight International label had a number of '80s garage bands and comps on its roster. The mail-order business, founded in 1978, has long been an essential resource for hinterlands garageniks (including my husband, who used to have $100+ orders shipped to his native Thunder Bay, Ontario home on a near-monthly basis). But the darkly atmospheric, intermittently open shop was shut down in early 2004, as reported in this Village Voice article by Hillary Chute from the March 17-24 issue:

On its last day, March 6, Chelsea's vaunted garage-rock record store Midnight Records was packed for the first time in recent memory. Owner J.D. Martignon—ever the enigmatic Frenchman, with cigarette, rattail, and paisley shirt—chatted with lightly eyelinered Rudolph Grey, who reminisced about using chainsaws in his late '70s band Red Transistor. Martignon's son, 10-year old Clovis—ever the '60s rocker, in a gorgeous mop-top and bemused expression—wandered crammed aisles. Shaggy-haired collectors, some spending upwards of $700, scoured rows of hard-to-find vinyl, grumbling "sad reflection" and "damn shame."

Part of the cult band Dagon in France, Martignon followed a woman to New York in 1973 and never left. A journalist for the underground magazine Parapluie, he covered the Stooges and the Dolls, interviewed the Cramps and Real Kids before they put out albums, and blew his mind on DMZ at CBGB. Punk bands were playing '60s garage, he noticed. Martignon began collecting records, but quickly amassed so many that he "had to sneak them into the house when my girlfriend wasn't around"—so he decided to start selling them. He kick-started a mail order business in 1978, and the store—which became the center of New York's garage revival in the mid '80s—opened six years later. Martignon even ran his own label from 1984 to 1993, putting out cult bands and Screamin' Jay Hawkins live tracks.

Now Martignon is fighting eviction and a lawsuit. The landlord wants to double the rent, and business has not been booming. (The current garage revival "generates zero sales" of his obscure inventory, Martignon says.) Meanwhile, Martignon is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's office in conjunction with the RIAA for the sale of, to quote one of his lawyers, "what they're alleging are unauthorized recordings of concerts." Midnight is the only store of its kind facing prosecution. "A collector's store that cannot sell some bootlegs is kaput," the owner sighs. According to store employees, when Midnight was busted in September, Martignon was led off in handcuffs, protesting, "We're not harmful people! We're music people!" For now, he's mired in his court case (famed Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig is working pro bono) and wants volunteers to revamp, where the store will now solely exist.

Seems like Ms. Chute had a soft spot for Monsieur Martignon. In the Voice's 2001 "Best of NYC" issue, she voted the shop as "Best Store for Rare Garage and Psychedelic Records," and praised its "supernice staff" and "long, easy-to-decipher catalog." In the 2004 "Best of" issue, she dubbed Martignon "Best garage-rock cran" (?), though she carefully notes that he "does not hesitate to get all Frenchman-bitchy on your ass." That may be something of an understatement. I never personally experienced his near-legendary surliness, but perhaps I'd been so intimidated by other customers' stories that I just knew to steer clear. He had a rep for unsavory business practices as well, but again, I always got decent service from the store. Read some of these accounts and decide for yourself.

In late September, 2004, Martignon made headlines when his federal indictment was dismissed on the grounds that the 1994 bootleg law was deemed unconsitutional. Google Jean Martignon for further details.

No longer a licorice pizza parlor, the storefront now serves up Ben & Jerry's ice cream.

1 comment:

Poose McGoose said...

Love your work. You're so very thorough. Midnight Records was a mecca for me in college - late nineties. Their catalogue was a sacred text. They made Kim's seem like Tower. I bought my first Pretty Things and Small Faces albums there, in fact I bought all the Pretty Things and Small Faces albums there. As well as Rainbow Ffolly, Velvet Fogg and any number of crazy-can't-find-it-anywhere-else type stuff. Never knew the imposing Martignon's story, only ever dealt with him at the register. Over all, I found the store intimidating, disorganized and confusing. I loved it, and dragged my sorry corduroys down/out of the Bronx at least once a semester. I do remember them calling me at odd times regarding a list I left with them of various holy grails. I even got a call when they were closing up the storefront telling me they would still be operating mail order. Anyway, great post. Keep doing what you do!