What do they call the cutting-edge stuff these days? Do they still call it New Wave? I don’t know anymore. At New York’s Finyl Vinyl — my kind of joint — they don’t know, either.
What they do know is that there were great, glorious waves long before anybody heard of Elvis — waves wilder and wickeder than anything since. Charles Brown, the Dominoes, Louis Jordan, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Amos Milburn, Big Joe Turner — these and the other R&B masters who rode those waves in the late 1940s and early ’50s are the characters whose music fills the bins and spills over to the floor at Finyl Vinyl. To be sure, there are other voices in stock. But it is Finyl Vinyl’s eminence as a source of hard-to-find classic R&B that sets it apart. Here, the mention of ”Good Rockin’ Tonight” doesn’t bring to mind Elvis’ watered-down version of 1954 but the earlier R&B thunderings by Roy Brown and Wynonie Harris.
Robert Cohen, one of the store’s owners, shows me the cover of an album by Rose Maddox, a country singer whose style foreshadowed rock & roll things to come.
”Looks just like Madonna, doesn’t it?” Cohen says.
The resemblance is uncanny. I tell him he should put it in the window next to a Madonna cover.
”Yeah. But we don’t have any Madonna albums.”
Finyl Vinyl is likely the only record store in New York that can make such a claim. And that, too, sets it apart.
Cohen, a former art-and-antiques appraiser for the U.S. Customs Service, and his partner, Irwin Kahn, a former vice president at Manufacturers Hanover Trust, grew up together in Brooklyn. When they opened Finyl Vinyl, in the fall of 1985, they knew two things: They would sell only what they liked, and they would stand in holy defiance against the rise of the compact disc (hence the store’s name). Cohen gestures deprecatingly to three small boxes of promotional CDs beside the overflowing ashtray on the counter: ”Current corporate commercial garbage.” He and Kahn think that theirs might not be a losing battle. The first half of last year was their worst ever; the second half, their best.
Finyl Vinyl is more than a last stand against soulless modernity. It’s an air-conditioned, smoker-friendly sanctuary for those who don’t know or care what they call the cutting edge these days.
— Nick Tosches is the author of the original and the revised editions of Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll.