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Lend them your ear

Times Staff Writer

He quotes Nietzsche or Furtwangler in casual conversation, and describes recordings with swooning praise or corrosive disdain.

He clutches his heart over one piece of music, shakes his head in weary resignation over another. He’s got theories -- miles and miles -- on why British sound engineers are the most sonorous, on the ruthlessness of mobile society, on why conductors get more action than the rest of us. What starts out as an innocent question can leave you intellectually worn out.

He’s neither a tenured professor nor a nationally syndicated commentator, but a clerk. A lanky, shorts-wearing Tower Records clerk named Eric Warwick, an early-music and chamber-group enthusiast with features so Germanic he seems better suited for lederhosen.

In his heart, he’s a rebel and an idealist, but also someone in humble service to the music.

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“Some of the older guys here have seen [Maria] Callas and [Franco] Corelli!” the alarmingly boyish 58-year-old says of his customers at Tower’s classical annex on the Sunset Strip. “They’ve heard the old-timers -- they know it all.”

But sometimes dedication requires getting tough. “This is just not good!” he says, grabbing a newly issued disc by the late, much-revered pianist Rudolf Serkin and launching into a rapid-fire barrage. “Plain, tawdry, not very refined! Mediocre! Amateurish!”

Like their counterparts at book and video stores, record clerks shape our experience of culture as decidedly as any critic, curator or culture-industry executive. They’re street-level tastemakers, part of a breed that’s entered pop mythology: Kevin Smith’s first film was set in a New Jersey video store, and Quentin Tarantino went from South Bay video clerk to indie auteur. Nick Hornby’s novel “High Fidelity,” which became a 2000 film, was narrated by an obsessive, emotionally stunted London record salesman.

Endangered species

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But despite these glamorous associations, serious clerks have become an endangered species. The Internet, with outfits like book and CD merchant Amazon and DVD service Netflix, is put- ting stores, which offer the joy of browsing, serendipity and human contact, out of business. And in a city that increasingly draws people with its promise of fame and fortune, erudite members of the service economy become harder to find. Warwick and others, including a young clerk at Dutton’s Brentwood Books named Hammurabi Kabbabe, have removed themselves from the rat race but have found, perhaps, something more valuable. What they represent, though, may be fleeting.

Sales of CDs in all genres are falling about 8% a year. Although classical music isn’t pinched by piracy as badly as rock music, and concert attendance shows a modest rise, classical’s share of the market is low and getting lower. Last year, according to sales tracking firm Nielsen SoundScan, U.S. buyers shelled out for 21.5 million classical CDs -- only 3.3% of the discs sold by an ailing recording industry.

Tower Records, in particular, is having a hard time: After several years of bleeding money -- it’s posted a loss every quarter for the last three years -- the company defaulted on $110 million in bond debt in June and is now up for sale. It’s hard to imagine a new owner maintaining the West Sacramento-based chain’s attention to classical music, which includes large sections in many stores and classical annexes not only on Sunset Boulevard but near San Francisco’s North Beach. (The company did not return calls seeking comment.)

“People like Eric are becoming a real rarity,” says Richard McFalls, former classical coordinator of Tower Records in the L.A. area and now a sales and marketing rep for Universal Records. He wonders how retail will survive as the music audience dies off. “In another 10 years, it could be completely devastated.”

With his superhuman memory and a record collection to match, Warwick is a classic American autodidact and the quintessential record salesman. For some, a stint at a record store is a bridge between college and grad school, or a way to wait out a recession; for others, like Warwick -- who grew up in Santa Monica, studied psychology at UCLA, took jobs that didn’t catch and celebrates 20 years of clerking for Tower this summer -- connecting fans with the perfect recording is a life’s calling. He sometimes wears shorts, which he describes as “kind of a trademark,” even when attending concerts.

“Eric is an institution,” says Joe Lawrence, a Beverly Hills restaurant manager who loves 20th century music and has bought discs from Warwick since the mid-'80s. “He’s led me down a lot of paths.”

“They’re important acolytes to the artistic muse,” Michael Ward, a Westside collector of CDs and 78s, says of clerks, after dropping $200 on a Wagner box set and other recordings at Tower Sunset.

Especially as music education recedes from public schools, many people learn about music in informal ways -- from older relatives who saw a famous performer, or from a relentless salesman like Warwick. “Take them away, and it’s gone,” Ward says of this door into music. “All it takes is a generation. So I’m not being sentimental when I say that record stores are important.”

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But a classical record store can be a baffling experience even for someone who knows something about the music. The bedrock pieces -- Tchaikovsky concerti, Chopin’s piano music -- are available in dozens of versions.

Passion for their work

Today, as he races around the store, Warwick’s especially excited about a disc that takes a Beethoven piano concerto and reduces it for a chamber group. “To reawaken a masterpiece,” he writes in a staff-pick box, “is what music making is about.”

“I trust more what I hear, and what collectors tell me, than the [expletive] I get from Gramophone,” he says of the English magazine that he thinks hypes British artists. He considers Simon Rattle, the celebrated British conductor who recently recorded a complete set of Beethoven symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic, vastly overrated. “He homogenizes their sound, their character. Why not just use another orchestra?”

Non-Brits draw his fire as well. Murray Perahia, an American pianist noted for his golden tone, has recently released a two-CD set of Schubert’s late piano sonatas, notoriously difficult pieces. The pianist floored an audience at Royce Hall last year. But the recordings don’t convince Warwick.

“There has to be grief in that,” he says. “You have to capture that -- you should be crying at the keyboard! [Stephen] Kovacevich can capture that!”

In general, Warwick aims to make people who ask his advice “less market-driven,” less reliant on the same heavily promoted names. Much of his day in the store, though, is entirely market-driven, as he stocks compact discs, runs a register, returns CDs that haven’t sold and takes inventory every month.

Much of the time, too, he serves as the store’s authority, as when browsers ask for advice or when a young clerk approaches with a customer and asks him if a word printed on a Stockhausen CD is German for “synthesizer.” (Despite a German immigrant father, Warwick doesn’t speak much German.) Ask his opinion, and he’ll launch into a monologue about what he does and doesn’t like, what’s in print, what should be in print, whose engineer is likely to screw up their recording session, and which records make him see God.

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He’s like a walking radio show. The 1950s and ‘60s, he says, were a Golden Age for the music -- a period where the players and conductors hit new peaks, and recording technology blossomed. He prefers labels like Mercury Living Presence and Decca that thrived in the early stereo years.

“This is what good engineering is about,” Warwick insists. “It’s not spectacular. It’s very lucid and transparent to the back wall without drawing attention to itself, or hyping the upper midrange and being bright. It doesn’t need kick-[butt] bass.” In contrast, the German label Deutsche Grammophon is, to him, “Deutsche Grunge-a-phone.”

There may be as many ways to sell music, though, as there are to make it. If Warwick is a kind of classical Catholic, whose connection to the spirit is mediated through a network of saints (serious collectors) and sinners (bad engineers), the sad-eyed Hammurabi Kabbabe is a classical music Puritan, or mystic: He’s fed directly by the source, and tries to bring the fire directly to those who come to him.

The Los Angeles area has about half a dozen veteran record clerks, each with his own following. Kabbabe, who runs the small record department at Dutton’s Brentwood Books, is the young clerk most likely to inherit their mantle. Like Warwick, he’s an aficionado of philosophy and literature whose first love is music. He also has the advantage of working for a bookstore owner, Doug Dutton, who is a trained musicologist.

“I don’t let anyone leave without giving them a barrage of my words, of the history,” says Kabbabe, 25, a University of Redlands alum who wears a faded maroon Taco Bell T-shirt and a young bohemian’s beard. “The story makes a piece accessible.”

He has a knack for outlandish but strangely effective metaphors: “If a score is something you feel, he touches it with burnt hands,” he says of conductor Herbert von Karajan’s treatment of Sibelius. Of Sviatoslav Richter, the protean Russian pianist: “He plays from his jaw. When you see him play, you see he has that Russian jaw -- big, it’s got weight, it almost ricochets when he hits the keys.”

Unlike Warwick, who is outgoing, almost hyper, and grew up surrounded by classical music, Kabbabe is self-contained, internal, and sees music like a secret -- built of “forbidden knowledge” -- passed from one believer to another. When customers ask for suggestions, whether for themselves or a friend, Kabbabe asks a battery of questions, some quite personal: What do they read? Are they early risers or night owls? Where do they live? Do they have conservative or progressive tastes? What’s going on in their lives? What other music, classical or otherwise, do they like?

“I wait for something -- it’s almost like free-associating -- until they come up with the answer themselves.”

As sensitive as he is to his customers’ tastes, Kabbabe has a special commitment to 20th century music -- especially composers Igor Stravinsky and Olivier Messiaen -- and sees himself as a champion of unjustly overlooked composers from all eras. He plays this stuff so that people can have the experiences he has.

“There are a few pieces that seize you, take you out of what you’re doing,” he says. “I almost feel morally obligated to show them one that I think is superior.”

Today he’s playing Dmitri Shostakovich, which is piped throughout all three buildings the store inhabits, and discussing a piece with the guy behind the store’s coffee bar. Some days it’s a single composer all day, other times it’s a specific era or country. “I develop a theme based on my mood in the morning,” Kabbabe says. “I get to put on Shostakovich all day -- in how many other jobs could I do that?”

Kabbabe, who was raised in a nearly music-free household in suburban New York and now lives with a roommate in Hollywood, says he’ll continue working at Dutton’s as long as he can afford to. While he’s considered pursuing a graduate musicology degree, he doesn’t feel as comfortable in academia as he does at the store. “I don’t have any short-term plans,” he says. “I don’t have any long-term plans.”

Sometimes clerking can be a bridge to something else. David Mermelstein started working on the classical floor of Tower in Westwood in the mid-'80s, as a college student who enjoyed music but felt no special commitment to it. “Not someone,” he recalls, “who had strong opinions, even.”

But as he and his fellow clerks blasted different recordings of the same concerto three, four times a night -- Tower was open until midnight and later back then -- his understanding deepened.

“It raised the idea of interpretation, that a piece could be played in different ways,” he says. “It was a way of thinking more like theater -- that you could see ‘Hamlet’ done seven different ways even if it’s the same play. So you can have on your shelf 10 different versions of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, each with something personal.”

Learning from the masters

The other clerks were an important part of Mermelstein’s education. “They tended to be older: grad students, men in middle age who’d given something else up to do this out of love for the music.” He now runs the cultural programming on KUSC-FM and contributes reviews to the New York Times.

“In music school, they don’t teach anything like that,” says Timothy Mangan, who also learned about interpretation while toiling behind the counter at Tower Westwood, where he worked with an organ freak who played “air organ,” a Liszt maniac and a die-hard fan of conductor Otto Klemperer.

“I never had any courses about interpretation or performers,” says Mangan, who earned undergraduate and graduate music degrees and is now classical critic at the Orange County Register. “It was all music history and theory, classes on composers, training your ear to recognize intervals and chords. I’ve known a lot of music students, and none of them were trained this way.

“But the guys who weren’t going to music school, who were working in record stores, were,” he says. “They were like monsters of the gramophone.”

Even in sturdier times for the classical music world, the difficult side of clerking has been making a living at it. Warwick takes the bus to work, lives with a roommate in Santa Monica and says he doesn’t own anything of monetary value besides his stereo. Some days, he regrets not choosing the road of a philosophy or political theory professor: A serious Buddhist and follower of the American pragmatists, he wishes he had more time for these interests.

His job, though, is more than just a way of making a living. He calls it “a quest for personal enlightenment.” But Warwick remains a pessimist in a lot of ways. “Recordings are documents that hang around, so we can hear these great people,” he says. “If we have to worry about preserving the past so much, it’s because of what’s going on in the present.”

He’s talking not just about the decline of performers and conductors, but about what he sees as America’s growing materialism.

“With music, I can give them an experience with something beautiful,” he says of his customers. “It gives them another value -- the beauty of music.”

Music has clearly changed his life, filled it, given him purpose and meaning. Even here, though, he has no illusions.

“You can appreciate this stuff,” he says, “and still be a schmuck.”


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