Early days at the Electric Fetus: fuzzy memories and 'rock criticism taken to the extreme'

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Shopping for records
Customers at The Electric Fetus in Minneapolis browse for new music. (MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel)

I was the third record buyer for the Electric Fetus, back in 1972-'73. I got the gig at the recommendation of the second record buyer, Jim Gillespie, back when the Electric Fetus was on the West Bank. Jim was something of a mentor, as a music critic for the University's Minnesota Daily, and as the record guy at the Fetus. His written reviews were wandering narratives with surprise endings that sometimes had nothing to do with the record at all, in the grand style of Lester Bangs and R. Meltzer. Behind the counter, he may as well have served as inspiration for that Jack Black character in the film High Fidelity. If you bought a record at the Fetus, you had to pass muster. Jim would signal approval with a raised eyebrow or half-smile, or give a thumbs-down with a nasty bad-taste-in-mouth grimace. This was not the typical buyer-seller transaction, but rather rock criticism taken to the extreme. I distinctly remember feeling immense relief when I purchased Bob Dylan's Self Portrait, Van Morrison's Moondance, the Allman Brothers Band, and Leon Russell in one fell swoop and Jim gave me the raised eyebrow and the ever-so-slightest semblance of an approving grin. I will admit to passing judgment on customers in a similar manner sometimes when I first stood behind the counter, but I quickly learned I was no Jim Gillespie. By the time I'd left a year later, I concluded a thumb's up or thumb's down at the cash register might not be the best way to maintain good customer relations.

Working at the Fetus allowed me to quit my ice cream truck gig and launch my so-called writing career. Rolling Stone magazine, the music bible, was sold at the store, and I read it religiously. I added Creem magazine at the suggestion of a distributor. Whenever there was downtime at the store, I was either listening to all the new music I cared to listen to or was reading about it. On a lark, I sent in an unsolicited review to Creem of the Sir Douglas Quintet's Rough Edges, a quickie release by Mercury Records meant to capitalize on Doug Sahm's Atlantic album for Jerry Wexler, which featured Bob Dylan. My review deemed the duct-taped compilation superior to the much greater hyped Atlantic product. A few weeks later, I received a check for $30 and a letter from Lester Bangs egging me on to write more. That, and snow in early May, prompted me to go back to Texas, to Austin, to write about music, which I've been able to do.

Memories of my days at the Electric Fetus are appropriately fuzzy: Danny and Keith, the elders; Dean, the cheery floor manager; Bob and Debby working the Other Side; Nancy the administrator watching the Watergate hearings on a tiny black-and-white TV down in the basement; the transcendent day Stevie Wonder's Talking Book was released; discovering the wonderful world of cut-outs; getting to know Dougie at Select-o-Rax and the other record wholesalers sales people; exchanging ideas with Vern from Oar Folkjokeopus and folks from all the other indie record stores around the Twin Cities; being a willing guinea pig to consumer road test hash oil pipes for the Fetus sales reps who worked the Upper Midwest; hanging out at Keith's farm up in the lake country (OK, that's a joke; all of Minnesota is lake country); witnessing friend-of-the-Fetus Dave Snaker Ray playing deep Delta blues at the store's fifth birthday; tackling my first shoplifter. I remember a whole lot, actually, considering my tenure was brief.

My successor, Bill Wade, was more stable. He put in more than 40 years at the Fetus.

I've been back three times. In 1981, the band I managed at the time, Joe "King" Carrasco and the Crowns, played Minneapolis and I dropped by, just as I did last summer. In 2008, I did a talk and signing at the store for the Willie Nelson biography I wrote, and had a moment. As I walked inside the door, I caught a big whiff of Nag Champa incense, that distinctive dank patchouli scent, and I got all weepy. "It still smells the same!" I said, surprised that I felt so emotional. The record department manager told me he didn't even notice the smell anymore unless he goes on vacation and is away from the store for at least a week.

So I'm returning to the North Country for the Big Five-Oh, even though I won't know or recognize all but about five people. I'm going to be staying with Jim Gillespie and his family and hopefully go with him to First Avenue and to the gathering for past and present staffers. Showing up is the best way I can express my gratitude. Working at the Electric Fetus really was one of those "best job I ever had" kind of deals. I'm coming back because it's where I really learned about music. And I'm coming back because I want to know if it still smells the same.

Joe Nick Patoski is the author of biographies about Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Selena, and the Dallas Cowboys, and the director of the music film documentary Sir Doug & The Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove. He is host of the Texas Music Hour of Power 7-9 central Saturday nights on Marfa Public Radio.

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  • Interview with Electric Fetus co-founder Ron Korsh In 1968, Ron Korsh co-founded the Electric Fetus with his friend Dan Foley. The Current recently caught up with Korsh at his home in Washington, D.C. Among several interesting facts and recollections, Korsh talks about the inspiration for the name 'Electric Fetus,' about what made him leave retail for architecture, and how - coincidentally - how he designed the house where drummer Bobby Z now lives.

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  • More than music
    The incense selection at the Electric Fetus (MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel)