Looney Tunes

Looney Tunes was a little sanctuary-cave for me in Boston while studying at BU. Located within the Berklee bounds, the record store seemed to fit among the swarms of young musicians – and yet, it didn’t. Looney Tunes was one of those record stores that used to thrive off its mere existence, when, decades ago, patrons used to come in, spend money, and keep the store running without distraction from digital music format. By 2010 it was obvious it wouldn’t last, and it didn’t, at least not where it was: in 2012, Looney Tunes merged with Store 54 in Allston. By 2016, Store 54 closed, too, recently leaving Looney Tunes to apparently reopen solo in that space. I’ve also moved: I’m not even in Boston anymore, so I’m not around to see for myself how the Allston revision of Looney Tunes is doing.

You’ve probably been around to see a record store close for good. For me, the closure of record stores in general isn’t just a reflection of how we consume music, now prioritizing Spotify instead of vinyl, or even preferring new vinyl purchased online to the old stuff. The pushing out of stores like these represents the decline in interest in the arts, itself part of a broader trend bigger than gentrification or the digitization of music: it’s of apathy and exhaustion, of people too tired and sad to be passionate about music (or anything, really) anymore.

A retrospective of this interview still has me wondering whether that apathy is real or not.

Sliding his leathered, sun-worn hands along the neck of the guitar, punching the nylon strings with callused fingers, an aging man sits in front of a small crowd of about three or four, plucking the syncopated romance and harmony of a Spanish guitar.

His head does not face his listeners, but stoops close to his guitar, his neck arched so he can stare each note in the face, inspecting each one, before letting them wander off into people’s ears and into the dark tunnels of Boston’s subway system.

This guy has probably been doing this for decades. Those calluses are probably thick as potato skin.

Suddenly, the deafening shrill of a train smacks itself in the way of the music, and the small crowd that had gathered peels away from the performer to catch a ride to another T station.

“That guy was pretty good,” seems to be the highest praise of the day – that, and a few dollars in his guitar case. 

Sometimes on the Blue Line, sometimes on the Green Line, this musician can almost always be heard at Government Center. And he’s good. Like, really good. But you’ll never see him on a stage at Symphony Hall, or even at a venue like Great Scott or the Lizard Lounge. He’s a street performer, and today, he embodies a particular facet of the Boston music scene, driven literally underground into T stations or smoky, one-room dive bars. This side of the city’s music culture may be subterranean, and has remained stagnant for the last few years. But it isn’t lost.

Just ask Pat McGrath, the owner of used record store Looney Tunes.

“Music forces your mind from the tyranny of conscious thought that bedevils us,” he told me in 2010. Even then, it was hard to believe people still talk like that – like they’re Russell Hammond being interviewed by William Miller. Or like they’re at Woodstock, not Coachella. Or like they recognize their lives have been impacted by music, not that they ignore that impact, too anxious to admit something like that.

Having owned the Back Bay record store for more than 30 years, McGrath is one of the few remnants left of a music scene that many say used to have stronger presence than it does today.

In the ‘70s, McGrath had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. After working as a landscape artist and as a clerk at a sex shop, both of which he remembers as being “the dullest thing in the world,” he decided to head to Boston to study English at BU. Boston, at the time, had a flourishing music scene; not only were musicians experimenting with sound and playing of every possible location, he said, but people actually wanted to hear it all.

In 1978 McGrath took ownership of Looney Tunes. Sandwiched within a strip of buildings across from the Berklee Performance Center, the store only hints at McGrath’s music obsession. Plastered with posters of Hendrix and Louis Armstrong, Looney Tunes is a long cave with music packed into every crevice. At the end of rows of CDs and vinyl are hundreds of stacked cardboard boxes, each filled with more records.

Stepping into it for the first time is overwhelming. You can smell the dust and frayed record sleeves. The rows and rows of records are overstimulating. It’s difficult to know where to start. But there’s a method to it all.

“I go through every single record I get and only put the best ones out,” McGrath says. “The rest go into storage in warehouses, in sheds in my backyard. I keep a bunch of boxes in an old van at my place.”

By “rest” McGrath means thousands of records. People contact him from all over the country to pick up record collections, sometimes in an effort to declutter, but often an act of “letting go,” with collections being given away in the midst of a family crisis or after the death of a family member.

We all know music can be therapeutic, but McGrath gets to experience this effect on a different plane.

“When I’m buying a collection off someone, I assume the role of therapist. There’s a history behind [the collection], a past,” McGrath says. “I often go to people’s houses and look at their lives. I get to have an extra life by examining someone else’s through their music. I can tell by your records who you are.”

After the catharsis, McGrath lugs the records back to Boston to help someone else build up their own collection and add pieces to their life story.

But Looney Tunes is not a bumping hotspot where everyone goes to get the latest music. At most, there may be four customers in the store at one time – much of the business has gone to Newbury Comics just a few blocks down. So when people pop out of the Hynes Convention Center T stop having just ignored those underground musicians, they come up to the surface to ignore what Looney Tunes is offering, too.

But not all of them.

Looney Tunes has actually been frequented by music greats like Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, B-52s’ Fred Schneider, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, and Blur/Gorillaz co-founder Damon Albarn, all of whom are friends of McGrath’s – and a reassuring fan base for the store, which seems to hold onto its Baby Boomer roots.

But juxtaposed against Berklee, where just across the street McGrath lectures students on occasion, you can’t help but notice the world outside that music cave modernizing and moving forward – and Looney Tunes isn’t along for the ride.

As the landlord of Looney Tunes, Berklee College of Music dominates Boston music in more ways than one. With its beginnings founded in 1945, Berklee has focused Boston’s Back Bay as the nation’s epicenter for music mastery. Melissa Etheridge, Joey Kramer of Aerosmith, Pat Metheny, and John Mayer all passed through its classrooms.

But even Berklee isn’t immune to musical apathy. With a focus on music theory and technique, the school’s reputation remains as the guardian of musical sophistication, quality and respect. But not everyone sees it that way – not even some of its own students, who have told me they view the school as a cash cow, a machine that grew too big for itself and now feeds of reputation, not actual music.

If that’s not an apathetic view, I don’t know what is.

Today, the music industry itself is a money machine, too, as it was in 1978, and as it always will be. All those white Apple earbuds in the T, the Berklee student playing ragtime tempo on a standup bass on the platform, the concerts and the promotions and the merch – all of it is for cash.

But there was a time when fans could ignore that. I’m not sure if I’ve even ever lived in that time, but it existed. Instead, by some astrological fate, I’ve landed in a time where the clothing lines and new photo filters coinciding with desert music festivals are as important as the festival itself. In today’s numb world, rare are those who truly appreciate music; even rarer are those who can make someone else appreciate it.

McGrath is one of those guys.

“I’m around music all the time and I never get sick of it, the infinite variety of music,” he told me, seven years ago. “Listening to a record is a like a ritual. The turntable is like a little altar. You have to turn the record over halfway through, and it refocuses you.”

Today, what I feel about music is resignation and passivity (it’s what a lot of us feel about a lot of things right now). But when a guy from one generation tells a girl from another generation that there is a religiosity to music, you can’t ignore it. So when I feel apathy creeping up on me again, I’ll come back to this retrospective, and try to remember.

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