This summer, I got invited to emcee a wedding reception in Italy for an old friend from art school and his fiancee. I was honored to be part of their union and especially stoked for the chance to get some weird vinyl.
I don't consider myself a DJ; this would be an insult to those who have spent their lives digging and scratching for mere clout or actual prestige. I am a selector. And in this, I am proud of the selections that I have acquired, from a rare posthumous single by Daymon Dodson to stripper records from southern Taiwan. If you come out to one of my nights when I'm in a booth, you can Shazam all you want, you're not gonna hear some of these cuts ever again.
I don't buy records online. It's lazy and dangerous, and going to a shop forces me to get out of the house.
Buying vinyl on vacation is a bit like gambling: you can go in for a quick round but leave without the shirt on your back. In this, I have found that self-limitations are required. In this instance, I would only buy 4's, and they could only be Italian. And, frankly, no matter where you're buying vinyl, 45s tend to be less picked over than LPs and way easier to pack for long flights.
The nearest city to the wedding was Florence, which the locals call Firenze. The town is infested with tourists this time of year, as massive clots of human cattle gunk up the museums and squares.
Contempo Records, Florence:
The owners stand and smoke cigarettes in the doorway like proper shopkeepers. One of them asked me what I was looking for. I didn't know how to tell him in Italian so I said "musica di farfisa" as I did a little shimmy go-go dance. He pointed towards a pile of loose, cruddy stacks in a corner. A couple of hours later, my fingertips had turned gray from soot, but I found an unintentionally hilarious 007 Goldfinger knockoff called "Gold Snake", a killer cover of "Paint it Black" by Caterina Caselli, and a single called "Arrontino" by what I can only equate as the Italian version of Tom Jones. I have played the latter as a wake-up song for the last week and a half.
It should be noted that when I asked for the wifi password, the guy at Contempo gave it to me. This really does help with needle drops on the YouTube app if you're in western countries with Latin-based languages. You may look like a skinflint, but it means you won't take home any stinkers.
Sleeve Records, Florence:
Tucked away in the northeast corner of a clothing boutique in the historic district, you can pass by this vital spot if you're not paying attention. The owner is a brown-eyed cutie who rides his bike to work and wears little earbuds in his shirt neckband like functional jewelry. Most importantly, he has Technics listening stations. "Why buy what you don't like? That is like not seeing the bread at a bakery, yes?" I nodded as he slammed down stacks of dusty 45s from a mystery space behind a door.
After my first round of picks, he clicked his tongue. "Ahhh, these are beats. You want beats." And just like that, the vibe is no longer that you're in a shop; you're now in a friend's basement, and that friend has some shit that you need to hear. He gave me a deal on an old local release by a band called I Ragni, explaining the personal significance of some tracks. His compulsion for music is infectious and has little to do with commerce, the kind of energy that first drew me into shops like Used Kids and Lost Weekend back in my days at Ohio State.
It was the best record shop that I found in Italy and I hope to go back someday.
We pause now for an important message about packaging: you can't just toss your precious vinyl in a bag helter-skelter and hope that it won't be damaged. On the other hand, I'm not one of those psycho collectors who brings a dedicated box just for records. That sets expectations, man. Line crossed.
The secret downsizing of food packaging has been as craven as it is stupid, and just one more thing to be sad about in our current, gentle apocalypse. But it turns out that the European version of a Cheerios box is now the perfect size for your 45 records. Get your funk and get your fiber, my friends.
The last four days of my trip were to be spent in Rome, since that was the cheapest spot to fly home from…um, I mean…I'm classy and wanted to spend time in the cradle of the Renaissance. That's it. Yeah. I'm classy. Renaissance stuff.
The thing about buying records in Rome, and I assume in places like Paris, is that the "City of Seven Hills" is a sprawling landscape of old structures and civic foibles, all folding in and over and under each other without a fuck given for your dumb Google Maps app.
I mean, the entire overhead layout of Rome looks like an impact spot where somebody tried to punch through shatterproof glass. Not as rough as São Paulo, sure, but you aren't gonna conquer this place. So in terms of shops, a person should be happy with whatever they can hit within a given trip.
Radiation Records, Rome:
I had to take the subway and hop some funky green trolley cars that ride through ruins of the grand arches of Piazzale Labicano. You feel like you're on a tour through the shelled remains of post-WWII Europe for a hot minute.
You can tell the legitimacy of a record store by the layers of old band stickers and burlesque posters that encrust its doorway, and Radiation is welcoming in this regard. For the most part, it is a depot for punk both foreign and domestic.
They only had a few long boxes of Italian 45s. By this point, I had started to become familiar with which artists to suss out, ones with cornball names like Mina and Little Tony. Acid rock groups like New Trolls, I Nomadi, and Formula 3 are usually keepers. Radiation also has a new shirt designed by indie comics legend Peter Bagge (of Hate comics), so I bought one on principle alone.
I was hoping to make it over to Mangiadischi in the neighboring San Lorenzo district, but they were closed by the time I schlepped up the hill. I strongly recommend stopping off for a spliff and a drink in San Lorenzo as a balm to the tourist yuppery in the center of town. An outdoor cafe called The Blue Bell sits in the shadow of an old church that has been overrun with graffiti. There is raw garbage piled up next to tables of chattering coeds, abuzz in their own caprices. The neighborhood is slightly rancid and completely alive, and as close to having a beer inside of Escape from New York as I'll ever get.
My dad asked me if I saw the Colosseum. I told him that it was a bus stop on the way to Millerecords, so does that count? He just sighed.
Millerecords is a fairly standard shop, with a tidy layout and a nice mix of classic rock, punk, and pop. If you want 45s, you have to ask the guy at the counter, and he will bring them out to you. And he will keep bringing them out to you until you tell him to stop.
After an hour, my head started to spin. My fingers began to tingle, and I had to go outside for air. There was too much. It was too good. I made two stacks, a "wait-and-see" and a "must" pile, depending on how the owner would price me out. The little bastards didn't have prices on them.
As I was checking out, he gave me a reasonable total for the musts. He also tossed me a decent price for the "wait-and-see" pile, but I had to say no. I told him about my constraints, that I only wanted 45s and only Italian music so I wouldn't buy too much.
And like the devil himself, he got a nice, slow grin on his face. "Ah, I went through this, some years ago. Seven-inch records are their own kind of sickness."
He's right, of course.
There's this random single from 1980 that I picked up in Florence that I keep coming back to. It's a disco biscuit called "U.S. America" by Romina Power, who spent her childhood in LA but later became a teen actress and pop star in Italy. The melody apes the style of Olivia Newton-John and sounds like the theme song to a lost TV pilot. "U.S. America" is a relic from a bygone era, oddly familiar and yet also completely alien. I vaguely remember this brand of patriotic cheese from my days as a Cub Scout in the Reagan era. When my plane left American soil for this trip, flags were at half-mast for Uvalde, a third of my country didn't give a shit about the Big Lie, and gas cost more than weed. Depending on the day, this song can either make you cry at your laptop or shake your ass in the shower. I guess that speaks to the enormous power that can come from such a little seven-inch record, and I'm here for it.
I'm driving home to Iowa for the Fourth of July, so I'll be spinning these strange treasures in the midwest along the way. I'll be in the booth with DJ Flagrant at the Skylark Lounge in Denver on June 29th and on my own at Black Sheep in Des Moines on July 7th. Both nights have no cover, so if you're in the neighborhood, come by and say "ciao."
Lee Keeler is a writer and educator living in Northeast Los Angeles.