Interview by Josiah Titus Photos by Eilon Paz
ickey McGowan’s reverence for cultural relics is contagious. It awakens a desire to daydream and play.
Mickey is best known as the man behind the Unknown Museum, a pop-culture repository he opened in Mill Valley, California, in the 1970s. The museum, famous for its tableau vivant exhibits cluttered with twentieth century toys, knick knacks and curios, became a favorite stop for media outlets and tourists alike. When the museum closed its doors in the late ’80s, much of its contents ultimately wound up in Mickey’s San Rafael “Culture Cave.”
The day before our photo shoot with Mickey, we had some concerns. The location he was sending us to sounded more like a warehouse than a home. We wondered if he didn’t have any records at his house, explaining that our goal was to feature collectors in their record rooms. “But this is my record room,” he insisted.
Our arrival the next morning did little to appease our misgivings. We found ourselves navigating a suburban office park, lugging our equipment from one generic building to another. That anything interesting might be hiding within these walls seemed unlikely, that we were going to find a “record room” seemed altogether impossible. Of course, we were about to be proven very wrong.
To step into Mickey’s studio is to experience a felt shift. Outside is listless suburbia; inside, you find an aesthetic richness born out of patient, thoughtful work. The large room, with record shelves that reach well over a dozen LPs high, somehow feels cozy, even intimate. The table fills with records played, marking the day’s aural path. Bird songs, space travel, music with a beat, music that’s more cerebral. You ride along, happy to be where you are. Some of it’s the music itself and the space you’re in, but mostly it’s Mickey.
Let’s start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Los Angeles. It was a town full of stucco pop art buildings. The Big Donut, Brown Derby. Places that were just crazy architecturally. It was the fifties, near the beach, a good place to be raised. My father was a firefighter, there were two of us kids, we had a little lawn, a nice school, we stayed out late, watched Science Fiction Theatre, Twilight Zone, Leave it to Beaver.
Were there record stores where you lived?
I went to Westchester Music. I don’t remember who owned it, but when The Complacent Americans record came out, with an atomic mushroom cloud on the cover, he plastered forty copies in the front window. I could always find weird records there. And then there was Wallichs Music City, where you could take records into a booth and listen to them.
I was really looking for anything to do with outer space, or monsters. I had a turntable above my headboard and I would lay in bed, listening to records. Then came the surf craze. “Bulldog” by the Fireballs, Dick Dale. That was ’58 to ’62.
This was also around the time when my cousin, who was just a year older than me, introduced me to Ken Nordine’s Word Jazz. I heard it and I was like, “What in the world?” I was not even sure what jazz was. The sound changed what I perceived music to be.
Word Jazz has been a part of my life for six decades. I’ve had ten copies. Some have worn out, some I’ve lost. Sometimes you just want to say it out loud: “Thank you, Ken. Thank you for recording the perfect square foot for us.”
Ken Nordine – Flavour Bud: In Way Out Sounds from Shirriff. “Great word jingles.”
Do you remember your first record?
Outer space has been a life-long fascination for you. What was it that captured your imagination? What were the seminal “outer space” records?
When you were a kid in the fifties, you thought you would someday go into outer space. There had never been any tragedies. No Challenger. We thought we could just take our helmets off. Russia didn’t play around with space like America.
Count Down! by Jimmie Haskell, for example. Everyone in space suits, not worried about how they were going to breathe, they were just going to be floating in space. Of course, that didn’t work out. This came out in ’59. There had been nothing like it before. Then the Moog synthesizer changed things.
Journey to Infinity was another one. It’s almost religious in nature. It’s about the hope that we all get off earth and find a facsimile. It’s not pushy or Christian, really, but heaven is represented in the planets. “We will find happiness in outer space.” That’s basically the thesis of the album. “The beginning . . . of the beginning . . . of the beginning . . . ”
Sheldon Allman, Folk Songs for the 21st Century. He was in a Twilight Zone episode. David Axelrod produced this for Hi-Fi records. Genius. There’s a song about a computer love affair between a UNIVAC Mark II and a humanoid. Harry Revel’s Music From Out of Space has the greatest cover ever. It’s an ethereal record, with soft movements. Then there was Willy Ley’s A Child’s Introduction to Outer Space. This was the greatest—a true masterpiece. I found my first copy for 25 cents in a thrift store.
Were you a collector from the very beginning?
I collected a lot as a child, all kinds of things. Anything I could find, really. I had bottle caps nailed to a board, cigar labels, toy cars, games. etc.
Terry Riley – A Rainbow in Curved Air. “A mathematician friend first played this for me in 1968. He sat me down in front of his big stereo and said ‘listen to this.’ I was immediately hooked. Another masterpiece that really opened my ears.
You traveled and moved around for a few years, leaving most of your possessions behind. Was this a philosophical decision? An adventure?
I hit the road in ’68 with my friends. We drove a VW van down to Mexico, our surfboards strapped to the roof. I didn’t want any possessions at the time. I wanted the sun shining through the trees, nature.
Baggage can be good, as right now I’m very deep into it, but at that time I didn’t have any real interest in worldly possessions. I was interested in eden ahbez’s record Eden’s Island. Here he was, in perfect health, and one day he walked out of his house and lived in the wilderness, or so the legend goes.
eden ahbez – Eden’s Island. “eden ahbez wrote the song “Nature Boy,” which Nat King Cole covered. He did a number of 45s and 78s, but this is his only LP. It was recorded after leaving civilization behind and retreating to nature.”
When I returned from that trip, I moved to Laguna Beach then to Maui. I bought a one-way ticket, thinking I had a place to stay on the island. Turns out, I didn’t. This was a turning point in my life. I suddenly had no plan, no money, but I was in paradise. I walked north up the coast and wound up in Honolua Bay, alone and sleeping on pine needles. The next day I headed into Lahaina, spotted an acquaintance working on the old missionary home, and went to work there, mortaring lava and coral walls. Perhaps this is why I love exotic and tropical music so much.
Not until late ’69 did I end up in the Bay Area, in Sausalito, which was the new Haight. It was a wonderful time to be there. Artists, filmmakers, dancers. I was in heaven, sleeping out under the eucalyptus trees and working at the Sausalito Art Center.
How did the Unknown Museum get started?
I started acquiring things again in 1973 and along with Dickens Bascom and others, we opened the Unknown Museum in December of 1974 in Mill Valley, a much quieter town at that time. The original museum was in an old radiator shop where we had 1,800 square feet with windows all the way around. People used to pull up in their cars at all hours and stare in the windows. We lost our lease in 1985 and I moved the collection to a nearby house, where I installed the collections in a domestic setting of the typical American home. It was a walkthrough assemblage of crazy American pop culture. Open for free every Sunday. It closed in 1989. My current home of twenty years in San Rafael is an ongoing continuation of this theme.
What kind of records were you looking for at this time?
I had left my record collection in Laguna Beach in ’68. It wasn’t too big, maybe five hundred records. I started buying them again in ’72-’73. Mill Valley had a store called Village Music. I started buying birdsong records, softer electronic, early Kraftwerk, Klaus Schulze’s Picture Music, Tangerine Dream, Martin Denny.
I found that there were certain records I could use to control the experience of visiting the Unknown Museum. I would put on Philip Glass, for instance, and it would clear the room.
Terry Riley – Persian Surgery Dervishes. “This is my personal favorite of Riley’s albums. I used to leave this record on in the museum for eight hours at a time.”
Was there a communal aspect to record collecting in the ’70s and ’80s?
It’s different now than it was. There were a few record shows. Castro Valley had one. The stores, for me, were both great and not so great. If they even had the easy listening bin, or the budget bin, you could go in and find amazing records, but there was no one in my circle to talk to about them. Most of my friends were rock ‘n’ rollers. These were solo Lindbergh-Earhart experiences.
Collecting is a personal expression within something that is tribal and universal. That’s why you go to a show or listen on the airwaves. You like it, you know that someone else likes it. The idea of collecting is just beautiful, and with music, it’s a triple threat: images, music, the process of playing it.
Taking a record out of the jacket, focusing first on the spindle hole, then on dropping the needle. It’s like wine or chocolate. It’s a sensual thing.
I’ve hung out with collectors of all forms—cards, toys, etc.—but record collectors seem to be some of the most focused and eccentric. The record people are all over the map, including myself. They’re interested in the minutiae. As an idea, there are so many qualities of a record. It supersedes almost all other objects. The jacket, the liner notes, and then you get down into the grooves and the music itself.
The internet is making everything move so quickly. I’m trying to “catch-down,” not up. I think it’s the cellphone radio waves. I’m pretty sensitive to them. We get impatient if things take a second to load. We’re way ahead of Dick and Asimov.
How has the internet changed record collecting?
I had to find records pre-internet. I appreciate that I got to experience “the age of innocence.” You really couldn’t read about music online or listen to mp3s, or sometimes even talk to anyone, but on the other hand you could go into stores and find inexpensive vinyl. Collecting is a bit more complicated now, with the matrix numbers and everything.
I used to be concerned about records and objects not being preserved, but the internet changed that. Now I don’t have to worry. It’s great that someone can search for music-related information so quickly, but do they absorb anything?Folkways 4251, Healing Songs of the American Indians. Better than aspirin.Folkways 2951, 2952, 2953. Anthology of American Folk Music. “Harry Smith documented deep roots that are still growing.”
These are the building blocks of our culture. We all know about this and that, but do we know about the man with the microphone who just recorded beautiful sounds. He might not have influenced a lot of things, but it’s pleasant to sit and listen to him, and I hope all of that doesn’t just get swept away in the digital stream.
Would you consider yourself obsessive?
I try not to obsess over any one thing, but you might laugh at that if you saw my house. There’s no reason to apologize for it. It’s like gardening—you want to have more flowers in your garden. Or astronomy—you want to see more through your lens. I see a record and I’m like, What is that? The great thing about record collecting is there’s always room for another record. Or, you can always edit them to fit your current tastes.The Culture Cave.
Anything particularly unusual or unknown in your record collection?
Wilcox-Gay Recordio discs. Private, one-time recordings. Record your memories, record it to relive it. There were stores where you could go into a booth and they would record it for you, then mail it for you. It would just be a man talking, or a couple of people. All updates, like they’re reading a letter. You’d stand around and talk into it for posterity, or just to send something interesting in the mail. Or someone would have a machine and they’d record something at home or at a party. I have one from 1949 of a guy going around a party, asking people to introduce themselves.
I used to work with the coroner’s office and these would sometimes appear. Some of them are great. They’re not good for a lot of plays, as they break down, but it’s a window into a specific moment in time.
Tell us about your collection of bird recordings.
They fascinate me. Their movements, their nesting rituals, their songs and communication. I’m wired and high strung and birds slow me down and comfort my rhythms. I love that there are birdsong recordings from around the world. They’re all just birds, of course, and we are not sure exactly what they are saying, but it’s great to think about.
Kenneth Marier – Crickets. “Beautiful cricket recordings. On the back he wrote: ‘I started out with a simple idea and I finished with one.'”
Is there a cutoff year to your collection? Do you buy new records?
I have a few from the ’90s, but it mostly ends in the early ’80s. Grandmaster Flash, later disco. Some electronica and mood things. 1946-76 is really the heart of my collection.
I’ve been grooving on disco a bit lately. Very pure mood. People just dressing to the hilt, pre-AIDS, just going out, dancing and whatever. The feeling of a discotheque, Saturday night lights—euphoria.
The 4 Instants – Discotheque. “A record that makes you dance. Mostly covers, a few originals. It really grooves.”
The ’70s were hugely underrated. Glam, early electronica. New Wave, punk, prog rock. Kraftwerk. Eno. The arts. Early video. All that happened then. Much of it was all new.
How many different records are there in the world? Do you think it’s possible to learn about everything that exists?
There will always be thousands of records you’ve never heard. If it’s new to you, then it’s new. I recently bought a world music collection and kept about a hundred records I’d never seen. These are recordings made in the ’50s and ’60s, and I had never heard or seen most of them. It was all new to me.
What do you want to happen to your collection when you’re gone?
I spent a long time trying to establish a permanent location for the Unknown Museum and everything I’ve collected. I thought maybe the Smithsonian could acquire it. I have always felt like these are artifacts that have to be saved, and through my life I have seen many huge collections go to the wind. But who knows? It’s self-centered to think that your collection is going to supersede you, and it’s hard to find people in this day and age who are willing to devote their lives to your life’s work. The internet has changed that. Almost everything is being documented thoroughly, so in that way, maybe my work is done as an archivist.
You’ve mentioned Kraftwerk several times now. Can you say something about why they matter to you and to music as a whole?
One of the most important post-Beatles bands was Kraftwerk. The way they influenced music, the dance scene, that they didn’t touch instruments. At one performance, they just sent computers out on stage. Ralf and Florian kept refining it to the manikin look, the robot look, writing very early songs about things like computers. No one else was doing that, not like they were.
Kraftwerk – Computer World. “A visionary tech masterpiece.”
Is there anything you’re not looking for in a record?
I mostly try to avoid music that intimidates me.
Decongestants for the mind. That’s what I’m after: “decongestants.” A good record should be great both at low volume or high volume. We owe it to ourselves to listen to our rhythms and to music that affects us.
What about a comfort record? Any favorites?
Brian Eno’s Discreet Music is a good example of what I look for in a record. He conceived of this album while he was recovering in a hospital. The radio was on, but it was barely audible. This album was made to be played at low levels, as if someone down the street had music playing. I met Eno in ’88. He came into the museum. He was very friendly and we spoke briefly about doing a project pulling ambient sounds from the objects in the Unknown Museum, something I wish we could have followed up on.
What role does nostalgia play in your life?
We’ve been told our whole lives: don’t look back. That’s crazy. It’s wasting good knowledge. It’s all relevant.
So yes, I’m nostalgic. I deal with the past. That’s my medium—how I can manipulate the past in the present context. The past is a force to be reckoned with. It’s a mistake to think that nostalgia is all about bad thoughts. I’ve been battling that theory all my life. But you can channel the past into positive energy.
There’s so much comfort and healing within the great moments in our lives. Psychotherapists keep poking at you until you remember something that was bad for you. They should be looking for what was good, going back to the moments that were pure and good.
Mickey and many other vinyl collectors are published on the Dust & Grooves: Adventures in Record Collecting book.
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