Book Feature: “Buy Me, Boston” — A City of Ads

The volume is devoted to print ads and event flyers for local eateries, concert venues, theaters, stores, and community events that were printed in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.

By Noah Schaffer

Author and historian Brian Coleman’s prior books were filled with pages and pages of prose detailing cultural history. His newest, Buy Me, Boston, contains only a few paragraphs. The rest of the volume is devoted to print ads and event flyers for local eateries, concert venues, theaters, stores, and community events that were printed in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Everything from gospel programs and Filene’s to the punk rock underground is represented. Many  of the images are lifted from the pages of the Boston Phoenix and Bay State Banner; others were unearthed from the archives of cultural activists like Kay Bourne and David Bieber.

The book’s release party will take place November 11 at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge. Besides featuring projections of selected images from the book, the evening will include two different full-length video presentations of music made in Boston from the ’70s on. A panel discussion will include Bieber, hip-hop journalist Dart Adams, Blowfish of the local rock chronicle Boston Groupie News, and pioneering R&B producer Prince Charles Alexander.

Recently the Arts Fuse questioned Coleman via e-mail about what inspired his book of ads. Full disclosure: Earlier this year I co-produced with Coleman a radio documentary about local record store owner Skippy White for the Afropop Worldwide podcast.

Arts Fuse: There seems to have been a lot of interest lately in websites, books and record comps that document 1960-1990 Boston. Do you think this is being driven by gentrification?

Brian Coleman: That’s an interesting question, I hadn’t really thought about that. But I’m sure that’s part of the equation. Generally, though, I think that people are always going to be drawn to nostalgia, in a Citizen Kane “Rosebud” kind of way. In a lot of ways, Boston is a better city now, but there are still things I miss, and a lot of those things are places. Buildings don’t really matter as much as what went on inside those buildings and spaces. The Western Front, The Channel, the Hilltop Steakhouse, etc.

Hopefully what people also take away from what has been compiled in Buy Me, Boston is that they should also celebrate the distinctive establishments that are still around. It’s not easy for a mom-and-pop store or restaurant to stay in business for five years, never mind 40 or more. So the fact that one of my favorites, Kowloon, is still around decades later means they deserve that much more respect. There’s a 1974 ad in the book for Legal Sea Foods, which started out with one homespun location in Inman Square, and look at them now. Then again, one of the swankiest places that you figure would be there forever, Locke-Ober (also featured), is gone. And of course credit is always due to the unfadeable Skippy White, who I hope will still have a store in 2050!!!!

Being a small business isn’t easy, and the ones that are able to fight to stay afloat and even thrive in that atmosphere have to run a pretty crazy gauntlet. And sometimes the ones that are gone were defeated by forces beyond their control. Some of that is thanks to gentrification, which makes the nostalgia that much stronger, if you ask me.

Bostonian Brian Coleman. Photo: Mary Galli.

AF: There are a number of contributors to the book, but I wanted to focus on two, David Bieber and Kay Bourne. Both are well-known in their communities but might not be familiar names outside of their scenes. Can you explain who they are and what their archives are like?

Coleman: I’m glad you asked! Those two are the main reasons that Buy Me, Boston came to be – it would have been nearly impossible for me to have put it together without their inspiration and generosity.

Kay Bourne was the Arts Editor for the Bay State Banner for decades, starting in the mid/late ’60s. Along the way she kept a ton of source materials that went into her articles, which focused on the musicians, playwrights, visual artists, and community shapers from Roxbury and Dorchester (but not exclusively). Photos, press kits, flyers, brochures, award show banquet programs, and so much more. Kay isn’t writing as much these days from a press / print perspective. She has shifted a lot of her cheerleading for the arts and for people making important change in the world to Facebook, where she’s very active.

Kay’s Archives are actually at Emerson College now, but when I had access to them they hadn’t been sent over there yet. So I had a very rare chance to take it all in without the pressures of being there during library hours. And I can’t thank Kay enough for trusting me with her Archives. I would encourage anyone who is interested in her work and her source materials to inquire with the Iwasaki Library at Emerson.

David Bieber is one of the other important pieces of the Buy Me, Boston puzzle. David is one of the most important behind-the-scenes people in Boston’s arts — and especially music — scene in the past 30-40 years. He was at WBCN as the promotions guru for many years, and then with the Boston Phoenix and WFNX. But that doesn’t really begin to describe David; he is one of the great connectors in this city. As soon as he meets someone new, his instinct is to introduce them to another like-minded individual (or five), so that they can combine energies and create new things.

Besides the professional work he has done, David is also one of the most amazing historians and collectors / archivists I have ever met. It’s hard to describe how many amazing popular culture artifacts he has collected in the past 50+ years, but I promise you that it’s more than you have ever seen in one place at one time. (His website claims more than 600,000 items). His Archive is based in Norwood and isn’t open to the public. But he is always finding new ways to share his collection with the outside world — namely his exhibits at the Verb Hotel in the Fenway (fully open to the public) and the new Music Hall event space at the Wang Theater. He has a good site that tells all about the Archive and his activities.

Knowing both of them — in addition to other local legends like Reebee Garofalo, Wayne Valdez, and Chuck White – inspired me create the book, which is partially a tribute to their archival work. It’s just another way to give them the props they deserve; and also to let the public know that their respective Archives can be a resource for someone who has the right project.

AF: The book includes both flyers from underground punk shows and ads from mainstream retailers like Filene’s. Did you have any kind of parameters? How many ads/flyers did you have to leave out of the book?

Coleman: I honestly didn’t have any strict parameters, which was a good thing. I know a lot of writers / authors who get stuck in second gear because they put a ton of pressure on themselves to tell the full story, and to not leave out anything important. For better or worse, I am not a perfectionist, but that only comes from years of writing articles and books. You are never going to get it all; hopefully you’ll have another shot to do better next time.

I always envisioned this as a multi-volume series. I still have more than 1,500 pages scanned from my frenzy earlier this year, so I could put out two more volumes right away if I wanted to. With this first volume I really just wanted to put a stake in the ground to see what people thought, to present an opening salvo. Next time around maybe I’ll go heavier on an era or subject that was overlooked in Volume 1. It’s actually a great feeling, knowing that I can never present everything that went on in Boston from the ’60s to the ’80s, so I am just mixing things around until it seems like I have given people a feel of what it was like to be in town.

The only thing I kept in mind as I was culling things is that I wanted to create some kind of balance — making sure that despite me being a music fiend the images weren’t just about music; making sure that the businesses were not just in Cambridge and Boston; making sure that happenings and clubs and businesses that served the LGBT community were represented. Hopefully I achieved that, because that was, honestly, that was my goal, more than trying to find an ad or flyer for every possible place. That’s what volumes two through 10 are for!

AF: What did you learn about Boston working on this book?

Coleman: I learned a lot of addresses of clubs and restaurants, that I can say for sure. I’m not sure I learned a ton more about Boston itself because I have been here for such a long time, but it did give me even more pride in our town. So many unique places and people make up Boston and its surrounding towns.  Going through a “this is your life” type of experience will hopefully makes people proud of that. That’s the feedback I have been getting so far, and it’s gratifying.

Beyond just the pages of the book, looking back, I wish that there had been more barrier-breaking and people mixing things up. Looking through the music listings in the ‘70s and ‘80s as well as talking to people leaves the impression that there wasn’t as much unity and diversity as there should have been. People were still in their own boxes. Entertainment bills were generally homogenous within a genre. And, honestly, that still happens today. I understand why, in a way, because people generally go to a certain show to see the headliner and then groups that make sense as support, genre-wise. But it’s a shame. Boston never really had a Mudd Club.

And I’m not just talking about a black / white thing. I have talked to people who also lament the fact that the punk rock fans and artists who made The Rat what it was in the ‘70s were resistant to hardcore groups when they first started in the early ‘80s. For any scene to thrive — beyond music, of course  — the established people should always encourage the up-and-comers, even if they are doing something different and new.

Boston’s not unique in this, of course, but we should always strive to be better and more welcoming, no matter where we are and who we are dealing with.

AF: Why is the release event for a book presenting films? And can you explain the significance of Prince Charles, who is featuring in numerous flyers and who will be appearing at the release event?

Coleman: Haha, that’s a great question. And I have an easy answer – it’s my party and I love watching things up on a big screen! The release event on Nov 11 at the Brattle isn’t all about films, but I thought that showing some Boston-centric videos I have dug up in my archival digging would be a great way to add to the mix and bring things even more alive. Just sitting and watching a bunch of people talk about the old days isn’t very exciting.

Some of the videos have been seen before, but just on your home TV or computer screen, as far as I’m aware. Some of them have probably never been seen on a big screen, ever. And I’ll also have more traditional elements that night, like a slideshow with images from the book and the panel with some really amazing people: David Bieber, Dart Adams, Prince Charles and Blowfish from Boston Groupie News. In the end, the night is all about celebrating Boston, and if my book can be the fulcrum for that, then I couldn’t be happier.

As for Prince Charles Alexander, he is indeed featured in Buy Me, Boston on several occasions — sometimes alongside the great Tony Rose, his producer and longtime collaborator. Tony now lives in California, but I have been keeping him apprised of what’s going on, and he’s definitely glad to have some of his videos shown.

When it comes to Prince Charles, I have to be honest, I’m frequently insulted at the lack of respect he gets in Boston, never mind outside of town, for the music he and his crew created in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He went on to be part of the Bad Boy Records crew in the ‘90s as an engineer (with a Grammy to prove it!) and is now a beloved and important faculty member at Berklee. But too many people forget that — alongside with the Johnson Brothers Band and Maurice Starr — Prince Charles put out some incredible funk music, including albums like Gang War and Combat Zone. I am not going to let people sleep on his music, dammit!!!

I have a couple different Prince Charles-related short video segments to show at the Nov 11 event, and I have even more stuff from the Charles / Tony Rose universe that I hope to show elsewhere in the future.

AF: Today many events never even get a print flyer or ad — just a social media posting. Do you think someone will be collecting those efforts 30 years from now?

Coleman: That’s a very good point. Ironically, I’m not sure if I will even print up all that many flyers for this event. (Although I’m making a mental note now to at least print up 10-20 to give to David Bieber, for the Archives!)

I think that as long as the evil forces in the world don’t crush net neutrality completely, someone in the decades to come will figure out a way to save — even celebrate — digital-only elements, even if they are only holograms projected onto our brains somehow. The fact that everyone going to an event in 2018 takes 700 photos on their cell phone means that a lot of these happenings will receive more documentation than ever. So, although the number of cell phones raised in the air getting in my sightlines at a show annoys the hell out of me now, maybe someday I’ll be glad about it.

Over the past 15 years Noah Schaffer has written about otherwise unheralded musicians from the worlds of gospel, jazz, blues, Latin, African, reggae, Middle Eastern music, klezmer, polka and far beyond. He has won over ten awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association.

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