When working at MadCity Music Exchange from 2002 to 2010, Kim Johnson-Bair got to know the unassuming eccentrics one meets in local record shops.
"The punks would come in, and they're easy to recognize, but what about the guy standing way over there in the Carhartt jacket and the baseball cap?" she asks.
Questions like this led her to write an oral history of people's encounters with records. She titled it 400 Saturdays: An Anthology of Vinyl Folklore in tribute to her Saturday shift at the shop. Published this year, the book is available at MadCity, B-Side Records and A Room of One's Own.
Beginning in 2004, Johnson-Bair spoke with many of the local music community's usual suspects, including WORT-FM music director Sybil Augustine, who recounted the bizarre glory of seeing Toots & the Maytals open for the Who.
But concert memories aren't the only focus. Johnson-Bair also gathered accounts of her subjects' formative experiences with music. In the book's first interview, a woman recalls her family buying their first radio in Portage, Wis., in the 1930s. In another, a friend's father talks about growing up in Calcutta, India, during World War II. There's plenty of Madison in the book, but also experiences that span from an East Texas farm to Chicago's wondrous Jazz Record Mart. I recently asked Johnson-Bair why she embarked on the project.
In your introduction to 400 Saturdays, you talk about the "active listening experience." What does that phrase mean to you?
When I was growing up, when you put on some music, you sat there and levitated with it. You didn't do anything else. It's just a different experience now. Now I use music to elevate my mood, so in a lot of ways, that means I'm listening to much lighter stuff. I remember when I used to specifically want to listen to Deep Purple's Machine Head, but I can't get stuff done listening to that. If I'm going to listen to that, that's what I have to be focused on. I really tend to use music more, and before I used to be kind of enraptured.
It seems you really wanted the book to have a sense of history, especially in the first chapter, where a lot of people talk about listening to jazz and country on the radio in the '30s and '50s.
I drew on some personal influences and references. The lady from Portage is my neighbor. She told me about her family being the first in Portage to have a radio, and how she used to listen to Dick Contino's accordion music. That was her favorite.
Other interviews are a little more Madison-specific. Tony Endless is a noise musician who runs the Earjerk label. Eric Teisberg sells used vinyl from Resale Records, a little Quonset hut on the north side. Yet a person could spend years in Madison and not have a conversation with either of them. How did you choose your subjects and get them to participate?
Most people, I just bugged them. In most cases, I had a feeling about them. I was looking for some eccentricity and enthusiasm and unique experiences. And there were some times when I thought I would have a great interview, and for whatever reason, it didn't go off like that.
Which interviews took you furthest outside of your comfort zone?
I was a little intimidated talking to people like the Professor Mighty Manfred from the Woggles and Mick Collins [of Detroit garage band the Dirtbombs]. And Ygarr [Ygarrist of Los Angeles glam band Zolar X] because I was asking him about real stuff, and typically Ygarr is kind of a Plutonian elf. I almost want to say some of the MadCity regulars, people who came in the shop that I just kind of thought, "Wow, this person is really astute." It really is a hodgepodge.