A lot of ground was covered during the hour-long conversation, which was followed by Endless Boogie jamming on cuts from its new album, Vibe Killer. The chat was fairly one-sided, as Malkmus’s contributions were limited to mush-mouthed expression of awe; for New York nostalgics, the highlight was undoubtedly Major’s recollection of working at Village Oldies, the legendary record store that later became Bleecker Bob’s.
When Major moved to New York in 1978, in search of the punk rock scene, he already understood the romance of the record store. While scouring bargain bins during a brief stint in Los Angeles, the Kentucky boy had discovered Kenneth Higney’s Attic Demonstration, an amateurish limited release that has now reached mythical status among collectors of “outsider” recordings. “The record went so brilliantly wrong and was so honest to him in his mind, I felt like I was inside his head,” recalled Major, who subsequently became obsessed with so-called “real people” music.
Despite being told that New York City was going to eat him alive, Major found a two-bedroom apartment that cost him and his roommate just $198 a month. “I’m thinking, whoa, I don’t need to work,” he told Malkmus. “I can just go to one record store and buy a few records and take them to another store and then my rent’s paid.” After all, those were the days when the musically savvy could “walk into the store, in the 25-cent section, and find a $1,000 item.” Nevertheless, he got a job working at Village Oldies, just a block from his house. His pay: “$2 an hour and all the beer you could drink.”
At the time, the store was still owned by “Broadway Al” Trommers and “Bleecker Bob” Plotnick. But gone were its glory days, when Lenny Kaye was a clerk (the guitarist famously met future bandmate Patti Smith there) and regulars included Zappa, Bowie, and members of Led Zeppelin. “Half the shop was a head shop run by junkies,” Major recalled. “There was this crazy stuff going on there all the time. Records did sort of get sold.”
For employees, the shop was mainly “a place to blast punk rock and party all day. It was the kind of job you want to go to,” Major recalled. After all, there was a fridge stocked with beer that Broadway Al bought from wholesalers for 9 cents a bottle.
Despite its name, Village Oldies became a punk-rock mecca—it was the place to buy the Clash’s import-only debut record after Robert Christgau called it the “greatest rock ‘n’ roll album ever.” But with “all kinds of strange customers,” things started getting hairy.
At the time, Major said, the Village was a mafia stronghold. Among the store’s frequent visitors was a debt collector who, at one point, “came in and demanded to hear ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ 25 times in a row.” The guy ended up putting two of Major’s colleagues in the hospital—“he beat them up with hubcaps,” he said.
Major managed to avoid trouble with the mafioso, but he found himself in hot water when a city inspector came into the store and informed him that its pinball machines were unlicensed. Here’s what happened after Major received a court summons:
Turns out the pinball machines were owned by the Genovese family. So Broadway Al says, ‘Don’t worry about it, just go over there and see the Chin– Vincent Gigante– over there at the Triangle Club and he’ll write you a check [for the fine]. So I went over there into the club and he writes a check and says, ‘Kid, why did you give [the city inspector] your real name? He said, ‘That guy won’t be back. It was a new inspector. We’ll get him reassigned, the old guy’s coming back.’”
Village Oldies “got pretty brutal after a while,” Major said. “I had to leave— scary stuff started happening. The junkies were getting out of control and threatening to shoot each other and stuff like this.”
By 1981, Broadway Al had left the business and Bleecker Bob opened his eponymous record store on West Third Street. The rest, as they say, is history; Bleecker Bob’s closed in 2013. Major managed to outlast the many friends in the Village Oldies scene who died of infections or overdoses. He attributes this partly to a childhood rabies shot that left him with a lifelong fear of needles. It meant he couldn’t shoot heroin when he was hanging out with his idol Johnny Thunders, but it also means he’s in his early 60s and still rocking out. You can buy his book here.