“A lot of people need to be punched in the face to actually realize that being punched in the face feels a certain way.”
John Westhaver, owner of legendary local record store Birdman Sound is explaining why it’s good to get a little freaked out by new music experiences every so often. He could just as easily be making a case for ditching chain stores and commercial radio when it comes to discovering music.
Walking through the door of Birdman Sound is like crossing into a parallel universe of recorded sound. Even the well-listened sort are likely to find themselves standing before the racks without a familiar album cover in sight, the swirl of colour on the postered walls heightening the disorientation. It can be intimidating, overwhelming and even slightly uncomfortable. Fear not, for in the fine tradition of independent brick and mortar record shops, there’s a guru to point you in the right direction. He’ll be there on the other side of the counter and his name is John Westhaver. Come curious and ask questions.
In late July, Birdman Sound celebrated 25 years of championing great music. For such a milestone, it wasn’t made out to be a huge deal but that may have been due to the sweltering heat. John had Montreal’s Pachyderm and a former bandmate, Mark Alexander MacIntyre, in for a show broadcast live on CKCU. Fans of the store gathered from near and far. Strangely, the local press didn’t pay it much mind. More heart, less hype. Some things are just better that way.
Sure, Birdman’s a business but as an indie shop, it plays a different game. For John, it’s always been about finding the best music he can and sharing it as widely as possible. It’s the same drive behind his radio show, the bands he’s played in and all the live shows he’s booked over the years. It’s more than that though too. The shop’s a meeting place where regulars know each other by name and take the time to share discoveries and shoot the breeze. “It’s kind of a universal personhood thing where it’s a common meeting ground and that’s the importance of brick and mortar record stores, really it gives people to meet and exchange ideas.” John knows this firsthand. All the guys he plays music with in The Band Whose Name is a Symbol met through record shops.
While this isn’t the place to find your Dad’s classic rock, what you can count on is an abundance of what you didn’t know you wanted. It’s like a library or a candy store that way. Birdman is where you’ll find an eclectic selection of new and used wax covering everything from classic ‘60s and ‘70s progressive psych and hard rock to funk and soul to underground punk and free jazz. If there’s unifying theme, it might be independently motivated, higher consciousness stuff to challenge and enlighten. The goal is to deliver total killer and leave the filler behind. It’s that dedicated curation that sets Birdman apart.
“When I opened my idea was I would just be a really good music store that would cater to people with a more discerning taste,” Westhaver says. “I mean there are people who come in here who are totally lost. Fuck, I have regular customers that are actually telling me that they’ve never heard of half the shit I’ve got in here. I just say to them simply if it’s here, it’s good. It’s my hard-earned money that brings this shit in and none of it is returnable so it’s on me. I’m specialized in that I’m dealing with really excellent music from a different perspective and a variety of genres and you gotta trust me on that. End of. And some people do obviously, or I wouldn’t be here twenty five years.” It’s the way it’s done too. From the ever changing selection to the hand-printed labels with a few lines about each record, there’s an evident commitment here that’s rare these days.
John’s got a reputation for turning people onto what they’ll be into with personalized recommendations. It’s an instinct for reading people honed over years in the business and it’s one reason people keep coming back. “That’s the most common thing I hear, ‘if I had a thousand dollars I could spend it every week in here.’ Sadly, that’s never the case. No one ever has a thousand dollars to spend on records. However, having said that, you know you’re on the right track if you’re getting that sentiment expressed to you and not just by the odd person but by a lot of people.”
Opening Birdman was kind of a logical extension of an immersion in music that started when John was a kid. “I got bitten by music and records stupidly early in the late ’60s mostly due to an older cousin who had long hair and played in an acid rock band in St. John, New Brunswick back in those days,” he says. “I got a snare drum and a cymbal and was in a band when I was 11 in 1971.” A few years later he broke into record retail with a job at Sam the Record Man. “For the most part I’ve been slinging wax behind a counter since 1978 except for a couple of years when I was in CKCU as program director,” he says:
“I’m a junkie for it and I’m obviously a junkie for having started a business and experienced the brutality of keeping a small business going through thick and thin.”
And there have been some thin times. “When I opened in ’91, all my friends thought I was fuckin’ crazy. We were in a full bore recession, named so by the CBC and the government.” On top of that, by ‘91 the music industry was already turning its back on vinyl and pushing CDs as the way of the future so it was a funny time to start an all-vinyl shop. Eventually he did start selling some CDs but that was rocked too when customers started downloading. Shifts in formats, road construction and recessions – Birdman’s weathered some storms. You might say it’s still here on the strength of John’s stubbornness and unwavering faith in records.
It’s also been a long time of business as usual, which for John is “constant reading, researching, drawing connections and sending emails. I actually still use a landline to phone people in the business and say so I see this is coming out, what’s the deal with that?” There are good days when regulars come in for their fix and musicians in bands big and small stop by. Birdman’s reputation abroad has brought the likes of Jello Biafra, The Helicopters, Yo La Tengo, Barrence Whitfield and many others to shop and hang out. Just the other day Robert Pollard from Guided by Voices came in before playing CityFolk. Other days it can be eerily quiet, a couple of people who had meant to go to the head shop next door, another couple who distractedly flip through nine records at a time between glances at their phone.
Birdman is an organism: “It changes, it evolves all the time and faces change consistently. I have had people that I had way back regularly when I first opened and then they vanish for whatever reason.” But inevitably some come back. “The fun thing for me is when those people reappear out of the blue and it’s like ‘I don’t know if you remember me but I used to come here’ and you know 90% of the time I do remember them. Many people are astounded when I can say yeah, yeah you were the one that had the big thing for whatever band. Again, because I do this every day that’s something ingrained.”
When I ask if there’s a record that captures what Birdman was like back in ’91 John offers Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain. You can hear the title track below:
“That’s one of the biggest selling albums since I opened the store and I still sell it regularly,” he says. “I think it probably embodies many aspects of what this store is and what it has been about for very many people over the years. It’s got a good, funky, psychedelic vibe, George Clinton, good lyrics, great record, a desert island disc.” As for what Birdman does today John points me to Psychic Ills’ Inner Journey Out. “It just came out. It’s on Sacred Bones which is a cool label I sell a lot of product of. It’s a great record. It’s has a really good summer vibe, psychedelic but it’s got a groovy laid-backness to it.” .
Business-wise, lots has changed in the quarter century since Birdman opened its doors at the edge of the Glebe. The area used to be hotter for business before other trendy neighborhoods cropped up. Birdman’s end of Bank has also got quieter since the liquor store moved to Lansdowne. Overall, the future isn’t looking sunny. Not that John’s a worried man. It’s not his style. But he is sizing up the changed landscape with eyes wide open. “Trying to do small business retail when you’re standing in your business and you can feel the floor and the ceiling getting closer and closer and closer – that’s how hard it is to keep going financially and it’s constantly like that. In this specific business the cost of the product’s going up and so is fucking overhead.” Many record stores are facing the same tough realities. John’s distributor tells him this past summer’s been exceptionally quiet countrywide. “No way it’s economically feasible continuing on the path that it’s going,” says John. “It’s lost its even slightly predictable, occasional comfort level in the past two years. It’s a struggle. I guarantee you a physical record store will not exist in 20 years.”
Precarious work, the lure of downloads and digital distractions have changed the clientele. Despite all the talk of vinyl’s resurgence young people aren’t coming around like before. “I can count on one hand the number of people that regularly come into Birdman Sound – I mean every week or two or three weeks – under twenty five. I kid you not. It’s been that way for a long, long time. Was not that way when I opened the store in ‘91. All the guys from the Million Dollar Marxists grew up in this store. A lot of local bands grew up in this store back in that time period.” A lot of local underground bands also cut their teeth rehearsing in Birdman’s basement over the years. While it’s quieter these days, “years ago it used to be at least five if not six nights a week I had somebody down there,” John says. “Loads of people have made music in that basement.”
25 years on John’s as smitten with records as ever. “I’m still learning. I hear new shit every day that excites me, old and new. My excitement level’s bigger now at fifty six than it ever was when I was a fuckin’ teenager. As a teenager I was just dumb with excitement. Now, I’m truly excited because I know how much brilliant shit is out there for music and good people making it all over the world. I can’t do anymore than I do to tell people about it than what I’m doing. My radio show (Friday Morning Cartunes) which is all about that, the record shop which is all about that and my band (The Band Whose Name is A Symbol) which is weird but we’re doing something that not many people are doing either. I’m not a teacher but it’s like here, learn this, dig this, choose this path don’t go down the dark path, follow the light.”
Here’s to John Westhaver and Birdman Sound for 25 years of killer wax. If you haven’t been before I hope you’ll take a chance and check it out.
You can find Birdman Sound at 593 Bank st. in the Glebe. Hear more deep tracks from John on Friday Morning Cartunes every Friday from 9:30-1 on CKCU 93.1 FM.