The Black Circle
Bob Gamber likes his vinyl, the old and the new.
Thursday, June 3, 2004
Vinyl Revolution is the record shop with the purple sign
located on the edge of New Monterey, right where Lighthouse
Avenue comes out of the tunnel.
I must have been one of the first customers in the store when it opened on New Year’s Day in 1994, because I was 12 years old and had just stopped listening to KDON’s throwaway pop and was getting into music that was a little bit heavier.
The first few times I went into Vinyl Revolution I was on guard. I had never seen or heard anything quite like it: the purple theme collaged with psychedelic gatefold album covers, performance flyers, posters, yellowing publicity shots and other clippings; the smoldering incense and the smell coming from the stacks of records, an ancient compound of garage-sale, darkened attic, and cobwebs; the huge, concert-sized speakers blasting harrowing death-metal while in an obscure corner an elderly Italian man leafed through dusty opera discs.
No less a curiosity to me was owner Bob Gamber, a large man with long, straight brown hair and an equally long, gray-streaked beard. He’s something like what I envisioned when I learned about the heroes of Norse Mythology in high school.
Over the years, utilizing an irresistible marketing strategy, Gamber largely shaped my friends’ musical tastes, starting us on Black Sabbath, graduating us to Blue Cheer, Pentagram, and other more esoteric musical revelations. The first thing I bought from him was a 13th Floor Elevators record that took me about six years to fully understand. He still has new suggestions just about every time I wander in.
Born in Coral Gables, Florida, Bob grew up listening to rock ‘n’ roll on the AM radio. He told me about his first experience with live music. “I used to go to this slot car track that all of a sudden one day turned into a discotheque. I showed up with my slot car and there was a hearse parked outside, and go-go girls, and this garage band called The Undertakers was playing. So I went in.”
Because he was in second grade at the time and didn’t have any frame of reference he was initially “kind of pissed off, ‘cause the slot car track wasn’t there. But then I thought ‘wait a minute, this is kind of cool.’”
At 14, Gamber got his first record store job. He also played drums in several garage bands but stuck with records because they were more fun and not so hard on friendships.
He moved to California in 1978. When I ask him why, he says, “‘cause California.”
He made his way to San Francisco and after some drifting got a job at The Record Vault, a heavy metal specialty shop and epicenter for the burgeoning Bay Area metal scene. It was there that he hung out with Motorhead and where a pimply teenaged Metallica stayed as guests in the back room. If he wasn’t so generally modest I’d never believe it when, confirming a local rumor, he admits to having shown Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich a thing or two on the drums back in the day.
After the Record Vault gig he worked in a series of California record stores, places with names like Record Factory, Odyssey Records, Universe Records, Record Exchange and Record Asylum.
Then, in the early ‘90s, his girlfriend found out she had terminal cancer. She told him to take her record collection and use it to open a shop of his own once she had gone. “I was in denial,” he says. “I kept telling her ‘you’re going to make it. I’ll just take these and hold on to them until you get better.’”
But she didn’t make it and so, as per her instructions, he used what she left him, supplemented it with stock he picked around town and opened Vinyl Revolution on a day ten years ago when most of Monterey was busy nursing its collective New Year’s hangover.
Although today’s emphasis seems to be on digital music formats (chintzy CDs and intangible MP3s—a trend that makes music seem more disposable than ever), people do still listen to records. Whether it’s collectors, nostalgics, or kids who listen to new underground music that’s proudly released on beautiful, shining 180-gram audiophile-grade virgin vinyl, there is enough business for Vinyl Revolution to have survived in a town that has seen the struggle and failure of many small businesses.
“I do all the edge stuff,” says Gamber. That is, hip-hop, hardcore, doom, psychedelic, garage, metal, and new independent label rock.
“Edge” seems to be the key word; it calls to mind one of the few facts that I remember from biology class a few years ago, which is that “evolution occurs at the edge of an organism.” That’s what Bob Gamber does for Monterey—he pretty much single-handedly keeps us in touch with the “edge,” the musical frontier where things are as brilliant as they are crazy and turbulent.
The last time I saw him he was standing in his usual place behind the counter, wearing an Alice Cooper “Love It To Death” T-shirt. I had a question for him—I knew it was a stupid question but I asked him anyway: What keeps him at it? “Rent,’” he responded. That, and he doesn’t want to go back to Florida.
Records are what he knows and cares about, so he’ll keep at it.