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Volume 39 Issue 22 • Nov 23, '09-Jan, '10
now in our 39th season

Man Behind the Music

by Andrew Spencer

When I was a kid spending my summers on Nantucket, there were a few things you could always count on. Air New England would lose at least one piece of your luggage.  The Juice Bar’s homemade cones would cost you an extra quarter.  The band concerts on Straight Wharf would be on Sunday nights.  And you were guaranteed to hit your head the first time you descended the stairs to Musicall.

I can remember the first album – actually it was a cassette tape – that I ever bought from Charley Walters, the owner of the basement-level music store across the street from the police station.  It was Synchronicity by The Police.  I’d saved for weeks to buy that tape and, on the day I realized that I’d finally made the requisite eight dollars and ninety-nine cents, plus an extra dollar for tax, just in case, I rode my bike down to Musicall and bolted down the stairs.  Suffice it to say, I’m fortunate to still be alive with more-or-less full brain function intact after the skull-knocker I got that day.  And I swear to you that I heard a muffled laugh come from the guy at the counter, whom I silently cursed as I picked myself up and went to the wall of cassette tapes to get my desired treasure.

But things change as time goes by.  I don’t get yelled at anymore from behind the counter when I balk at paying an extra twenty-five cents for my cone, and Cape Air is far superior in terms of making sure all of my bags arrive with me.  The Sunday night band concerts have gone the way of the Opera House and the Mad Hatter.  And Musicall is, alas, no more.  Today it’s one of the latest additions to the Nantucket dining scene. But those of us who owned a Walkman and thought it was the single coolest piece of technology ever to make its way to the western world will always think of that building as Musicall.

Charley Walters closed the door on Musicall at the end of 2006, and in the time since then he’s been embarking on a true labor of love.  He spent two months driving cross-country on United States Highway 20, the single longest road in the United States, running coast-to-coast from Boston, Massachusetts, to Newport, Oregon, a distance of approximately 3,365 miles.  Following that odyssey, he spent a year writing a book about the trip, the highway, the people, the whole experience.  And despite the fact that he’s not reporting to any specific office these days, don’t use the “R-word” with him just yet. “I don’t consider myself retired,” Charley said. “I’m not retired, I’m just not employed at the moment.”

Sitting in his living room as we spoke one afternoon, I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of reading material on the shelves.  Being surrounded by all those books got me to thinking about the writing process in general, which Charley was himself all too familiar with.  Writing a book is not something to be undertaken lightly by those not well-prepared for the travails that lay before them.  Sounds like the warning you hear at weddings.  But Charley is not just some guy off the street who had a third-grade teacher who liked his writing.

He began coming to Nantucket to spend the summers in 1958, and moved here year-round in 1971.  In 1973, he began working in a subterranean record shop called Nantucket Sound, and bought the business in 1982.  Not a whole lot of writing experience there, unless you count the hand-written ledgers that detailed who’d bought what.  But Charley wasn’t just managing a record store.  His love of music that made him want to buy the business in the first place also drove him to become a music critic.

From 1974 to 1979, Charley wrote freelance reviews of the latest music offerings from particular bands, and most of his work was published in Rolling Stone magazine.  “I wasn’t a staffer,” he explained.  “Most of their reviews are done by free-lancers.”  The process was relatively straightforward.  Charley contacted the record review editor at Rolling Stone – at the time it was Jon Landau who once referred to Eric Clapton as “a master of blues cliché” and then went on to be Bruce Springsteen’s producer (of whom he famously said, “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen”).  Charley would provide Landau with a list once or twice a month of records he would be interested in reviewing. Jon would then request certain reviews which Charley would, in turn, write for him.

Back at the shop, Charley found that owning the business was a love-hate sort of set-up.  He loved the business itself and he loved running it, but as he pointed out, he worked alone for eight or ten months out of the year. “Except for June, July and August, I didn’t really need anybody else in there,” he said.  “And in the really dead part of winter, there wasn’t really enough for me to do.”  Many a summer week saw him in the shop seven days a week for ten or twelve hours a day.  “It was worth it, but it was hectic,” Charley recalled.  “I like the slower pace.”

When I asked if there might be an incongruity in the fact that a self-professed lover of slower paces had also supplemented his living by writing record reviews for Rolling Stone, Charley replied, “I guess there might be a contradiction in there somewhere.”  And it was then that I began to realize how complex this man truly is.  But he pointed out that his reviews were about the music, not the rock-and-roll lifestyle glamorized in so many Hollywood renditions. He even admitted to never having seen Almost Famous. “The music came first and the journalism came second,” he said.

Given the tremendous amount of money and recognition the average freelance writer receives for his efforts, I wondered why Charley opted out of the business.  As it turns out, he’d had a particularly busy summer in 1979, and when Labor Day finally rolled around and the island began to shutter itself for another winter, Charley hit the clutch and decided not to ask for any assignments for a month.  “And I realized during that time that it was more enjoyable to listen to the music when I wasn’t thinking about how to write a review of it.”  And that made his decision to leave the freelance writing business pretty easy for him.

Returning to the book he’s writing, I asked Charley what it was like to be married to a famous author (his wife is author Nancy Thayer).  He laughed before saying, “She’s just Nancy to me.  She’s very down-to-Earth and she’s the woman I’ve been married to for twenty-five years.”

After spending time with Charley, I discovered that the guy who routinely smirked every time a kid came speeding down the stairs and bonked his forehead was far more multifaceted than I’d ever imagined.  The revelation reminded me of a record review published in Rolling Stone in July of 1977.  It was a review of Cat Stevens’ current offering, an album called Izitso.  The reviewer wrote of Stevens, “Izitso is good proof that behind Cat Stevens' sentimental and somewhat naive persona there exists a musician and composer more far-reaching than the wistful but cloying singer/songwriter who relies largely on soft acoustic instrumentation.”

That reviewer was Charley Walters

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