Josh Rosenthal thinks about listening

Tompkins Square founder explores musical taste with Record Store of the Mind

Josh Rosenthal has been in the music business for more than 30 years. He worked in various capacities at Columbia Records, and at Sony Music for 15 years before leaving the label in 2005. But his true predilections lie outside the industry's mainstream. The same year he left Sony, Rosenthal founded his own label, Tompkins Square Records, which has been nominated for a Grammy seven times for its eclectic output of archival oddities and newly produced material by artists such as Roscoe Holcomb, Daniel Bachman, Charlie Louvin, Ran Blake, and the Georgia Sea Island Singers.

Along the way Rosenthal has wandered through many a record store, and scoured countless shelves and stacks. His personal music collection is likely several times larger, and a great deal weirder, than what most people will ever encounter. He's been called "A record man's record man ... a musician's record man" by no less an authority than T Bone Burnett. Yet Rosenthal isn't entirely comfortable being labeled a record collector. "I'm more of an accumulator than a collector," he says.

That distinction — between collector and accumulator — is one of many associative topics discussed by Rosenthal in his new book, Record Store of the Mind. The book is a thoughtful rumination on music as art and business while explaining the acquisitive mind and curious habits of a bona fide music aficionado. "The book is a meditation on how we develop an aesthetic and why we listen to what we listen to," Rosenthal says. "A lot of that goes back to our childhood. Parts of the book talk about hearing my uncle play the piano and how that turned me in a certain direction, particularly as it relates to jazz."

Rosenthal admits to collecting certain categories of music, particularly anything on early American blues, country, and jazz label Yazoo Records. "I don't know if I have all of their releases, but it's pretty close, maybe a hundred, hundred-and-fifty."

He also has an eye out for anything recorded by guitarist John Fahey. "I have some records that are so rare they're not even listed on Discogs," he says. "I have a couple of Joe Bussard's Fonotone albums. I have a weird Fahey album, which is called something like The Early Sessions. It was released on Takoma, Fahey's label, and it's a brown and yellow cover, but I've never seen one like it."

Nevertheless, Record Store of the Mind is more than a collection of geeky anecdotes about snagging choice rarities among the vinyl rabble. Rosenthal offers insightful observations on folk singer/songwriter Tia Blake who released only one album. It was recorded in Paris in 1971 and released on a tiny French label. There's also Jeffrey Cain who cut two albums, For You and Whispering Thunder, for Jesse Colin Young's Warner Bros. Raccoon imprint.

For those inclined toward brushes with rock 'n' roll royalty, Rosenthal recounts buying a pair of Doc Martens Union Jack boots for Ray Davies, which the Kinks' co-founder dearly loved. "He signed my copy of The Great Lost Kinks Album with the words 'I do not wholly approve of this album,'" Rosenthal says. "Reading from the book is like if you came to my house and I was showing you my record collection: 'Look, here's a record by Ernie Graham!' And I'd tell you the story about Ernie Graham, or Robert Lester Folsom, who was raised in Adel, Georgia, and grew up with producer Don Fleming."

Record Store of the Mind revels in that vibe and will strike a similar chord in anyone who feels its reverberations. "We're all looking for that weird thing, something that smacks of authenticity," Rosenthal says. "We're drawn to things that most people have never seen, private pressings and labels that look intriguing for some reason. You just get a vibe off of something."