Star Tribune music critic Jon Bream parts with his 25,000-piece record collection
When the door at 425 Portland Avenue clicks shut behind longtime Star Tribune music critic Jon Bream today, he’ll not only be saying farewell to the building where he started his professional journalism career 40 years ago. He will also be parting with a monstrous collection of 25,000 vinyl albums and thousands of CDs that he began accumulating when he was still in college.
Known around the office as “Bream’s record vault,” the collection has been moved around the Star Tribune’s sprawling headquarters a few times but has been housed for the longest stretch in a dingy, dusty room in the furthest back corner of the building’s basement, where the steel tracks that once guided giant rolls of newspaper toward the printing press still zigzag across the floor.
“When my wife got pregnant, she said, ‘We don’t have enough room in this house to have a child.’ We had a walk-out basement, and the entire basement was filled with records. This was like a third of our house,” Bream recalls. “So I talked to the editor at the Star Tribune at the time and said, “I have this vinyl collection that I use as a library and reference, any chance we could move it to the Star Tribune? Is there space there?” And he got back to me and he said yeah. So I hired a bunch of people, we moved it here in 1991.”
Bream is seated in a shiny conference room on the building’s first floor which, along with the rest of the headquarters, will soon be turned to rubble to make way for a park to complement the new Vikings stadium. After this week, he will relocate to the Capella Tower complex in downtown Minneapolis with the rest of his newsroom colleagues. But the record collection won’t be coming with him.
Bream began accumulating the records in the early 1970s when he worked as an arts editor and music critic for the Minnesota Daily. In the mid-’70s, he got a job selling used records at the head shop Pasha Poi on Grand Avenue in St. Paul and started picking up freelance work at Minneapolis’s afternoon paper the Star—two gigs that contributed even more albums to his growing collection. By the time he was working full-time at the paper he had amassed a serious collection that spanned rock and pop, country, R&B, disco, and jazz. And due to the nature of his job, he was adding dozens of new albums to his shelf every week.
When he learned about the Star Tribune’s relocation plans last year, Bream knew he’d have to figure out what to do with his collection. Logistically, the idea of moving all of those stacks of records to a storage facility or warehouse sounded like a nightmare. And ethically, Bream knew he couldn’t sell promotional copies of the albums he’d been sent and keep the profits for himself. So what does a journalist do with a lifetime of albums that suddenly don’t have anywhere to go?
“I kind of weighed all these alternatives and thought, what would be the best legacy?,” Bream says. “We’re selling it, and we’re going to set up a scholarship for arts criticism. And I will mentor the recipient every year. I didn’t want to make it just music criticism—if you want to study theater criticism or movie criticism, fine. So that’s the goal. Judging by the bids we got, we’ll have the money to start a decent scholarship fund. I thought that was a good legacy.”
Standing up from the conference room table, Bream seems eager to show off his stash before the dealer who purchased it comes to move it out of the building.
“We didn’t roll out the red carpet for you,” he warns, explaining that the steady stream of collectors and dealers he’s had in to assess the collection have left the room in disarray. But still there is a childlike wonder and a bit of a sparkle in Bream’s eye as he leads us down into the basement and side-steps stacks of abandoned furniture and filing cabinets to unlock his vault’s door.
Bream flips on the lights and ducks behind a towering shelf of records to pull out some of his favorites for a show-and-tell. With my host out of eyesight, digging, I’m left to stand there and attempt to absorb the magnitude of it all: unending rows of record spines stacked five rows tall on shelves that barely have enough room to walk between them, with pretty much every album I’ve ever heard of and thousands more I didn’t even know existed waiting to be pulled from their spots on the shelf and examined, touched, loved.
Bream’s been getting records sent to him at such high volume for so many years that most of the records have only been played once or twice, if at all. Everything is in mint or like-mint condition, with some albums still sealed in their original shrink wrap, and every single record has a story.
I pull out a New Kids on the Block record and Bream groans, griping about having to cover them several times in one year. A Captain Beefheart record reminds him of working at the old head shop; he can practically remember putting the price tag on it. And a stack of records by the Stooges and Big Star are handled so gingerly and bring such a tender smile to the typically stoic journalist’s face that it’s a wonder how he can bear to part with any of this at all.
“Sure, I’m going to miss a lot of it,” he says. “The weird thing is, a lot of it is visual memory, and not aural memory. Because that’s what vinyl is. And you know, everyone’s fandom or geekdom is over something different. Some people, it’s just like, ‘Oh I gotta have it! I just want to possess it!’ But it’s like, what good does it do you? Share it. If you can recirculate it, at least someone will get it, enjoy it, and like it.”
After the visit to the vault, Jon takes me upstairs to the cafeteria and leads me to almost the exact spot where he interviewed Morris Day—who showed up to the newspaper headquarters dressed to the nines in a full suit—way back in 1982.
We sit near a window and look out at the enormous cranes that stretch like giraffes’ necks over the top tiers of the new Vikings stadium. The wallpaper behind Jon’s shoulder is peeling and dull, and there’s a pile of dust and debris that no one’s bothered to brush off the windowsill. It doesn’t really matter, anyway. In a few months it will all be gone.
Andrea Swensson: I’m curious how the format has evolved as you’ve been sent music over the years. Are you still sent physical items? Or has that gone away?
Jon Bream: You don’t get as many physical. If they give me a choice, I prefer physical. Sometimes I use the line, “Well, if you send me digital I’ll write it up for our website. If you send me physical, I’ll write it for the paper.” I much prefer CD for just audiophile reasons. I mean, the compression on digital files is such that you really can’t appreciate the sound. And I will tell you this: I don’t do iTunes. I’ve purchased two iTunes songs in my entire life, and the only reason I did that is I was interviewing Taylor Swift and they would not give me an advance copy of her album, but two songs were available on iTunes, so I bought those two. And then I told her in the interview, “They wouldn’t give me an advance copy of your album so I bought these two tunes on iTunes,” and she said, “Thank you for buying them.”
I think for me it’s just easier to keep track of what I have when you can put them in piles on your desk and kind of visualize what’s going on. With digital files I lose things.
Well I’m like you, I keep the piles of CDs. And I have a system, you know. Like if it’s coming to town it goes in a certain pile, if it’s not it goes in another pile. That kind of thing.
When you started, were you the only music critic here?
Well, first of all, the papers were separate when I started. So there was the Star, which was the afternoon paper, and then there was the Tribune, which was the morning paper. Mike Anthony was the music critic of the morning paper, he covered all music. I worked for the Star. We had a classical music critic, I covered the rest. In the early days I did some jazz, too.
Would you try to cover things that Mike Anthony wasn’t writing about?
We were competitors, in the same sense that you would be a competitor with City Pages or the Pioneer Press. And it was real competitive, even though they were down the hall. I mean, I took pride in the fact that my review appeared the afternoon after the concert. His review wouldn’t come out until two days after the concert. So yeah, you’re competing that way. You’re competing for interviews. It would be a coup if I could get an interview and he couldn’t. He had the Sunday circulation—I didn’t. But you would go in there and fight. Those kind of political games, whatever you want to call them, seemed to have more effect back in the day. Whereas now they’ll give an interview to City Pages and not to us, and they don’t care. I mean, the publicists, the artists, they don’t care.
When you started, was it common to cover local artists in the paper?
It was a part of my job, yes. And it was one of those things where you would get reaction from the artist saying, you know, “My parents finally realize that what I’m doing is legitimate because I got written up in the paper.” I mean, guys in the Suburbs told me that. Suicide Commandos, all those kinds of early bands. So yeah, I covered it as part of my job. It was always part of my job. You know, I remember one of the first more interesting stories I wrote about was when the Commandos did their first trip to New York to do a show in ’76, I think. I covered the album releases. They didn’t necessarily have album release parties, but I’d write about it. And then the local scene became bigger and bigger and bigger, and finally we convinced them that we needed to hire a person to cover local music. So they did, sometime in the ’90s.
Is that when Chris Riemenschneider came on?
No, there was a person before him, Vickie Gilmer. She worked on the music beat, and when she left they hired Chris. So I think he came in 2001. And that’s his primary responsibility, covering the local music. And I still do some local music coverage—especially if it’s artists that I’ve covered for a long time.
Was there a difference in the way you’d approach listening to a local record? Or was it all the same for you?
I would assess a record based on what they were trying to do. So if you were on a major label and you made a major label record, I treated you like I treated any other major label artist. I’m not going to cut you slack because you’re local. If you made a homemade lo-fi record, I’d treat it for what it was. Do you want to hear some stories?
Well–it’s hard to tell the story without naming the person. But I’ll just say that there was one artist who I’d known since junior high. We’d gone to the same junior high school. And he was upset about a negative review I wrote about a major label album that he put out. And I’d been real supportive of his work at first, because it was great and groundbreaking, and all of a sudden it became pretty garden variety, and he felt that I should have cut him some slack because he was local. And so he got mad at me and didn’t speak to me for several years.
Are you able to listen to Prince objectively, having followed him so closely for so many years?
Oh, absolutely. Objectively and subjectively. No question. The thing is, if you follow someone that closely, or if you’re a big fan of someone, you’re a lot harder on them than you are on other people. It’s about context, and perspective. So as someone who’s followed Prince that closely, I’ve got a different context and perspective. And that’s my job, and that’s my responsibility. And I don’t cut him any slack because he’s local or I know him, and he knows that.
Do you think he respects you because of that?
I think he respects me. I don’t know why. You’d have to ask him why he respects me. [laughs] You know, I think he respects me for a lot of different reasons, but also because I’ve been there and I’ve paid attention. You know, has he gotten upset? Sure. I mean, he banned me from clubs. He burned my review live on TV, on Arsenio Hall. I happened to be in the studio audience that day, which he didn’t know. So is that showing respect? I do know he reads the stuff I write.
Right. So is that flattering? Maybe. But it’s reality. The thing is, I’m not writing the review for him. I’m writing it for the readers.
Would you say you have a thick skin?
Very thick. You have to in this job.
Did you at the beginning?
I think it’s something you have to learn to develop. But yeah, you definitely have to have a thick skin. And the reality of the situation is, you’re dealing out criticism so you’d better be able to take it.
Right. I think I have a medium-thick skin.
Well, yeah. I mean, it takes a little time sometimes. But don’t take it personally. I would say 95 out of 100 times, if a person calls and I talk to them on the phone, then by the end of the phone conversation they understand where I’m coming from and maybe even agree with me. Because a lot of times the nuances are misunderstood. They read what they want to read. If they read one negative thing, they’re not going to notice the positive things you say because they like the artist. So they don’t read carefully, is what the bottom line is. But I don’t respond to comments online. I’ll respond if it’s a factual thing, but I’ve had my say. It’s fair game for them to have their say. I don’t need to have the last word.
Have you ever had someone get mad at you in an interview?
Miles Davis hung up on me. I’m not sure why. I can tell you the question I ask that prompted him to hang up. He doesn’t like to do interviews, you have to understand, and didn’t do many. And I think he was coming to play, I can’t remember what the gig was, but somehow the promoter got him to do a phone interview with me and it lasted maybe six minutes. And you know, I could tell I wasn’t getting much out of him. I was trying to get Prince stuff out of him, because they had done some stuff together that hadn’t been released. So we talked a little bit about that, and then, to just sort of change the subject, I said, “Which of the young cats are you enjoying today?” And he goes, “Cats? What do you mean, cats?” And he hung up on me. You know, I mean lots of people say jazz cats, don’t they? That was it.
I mean, I had one band that you’ve probably never heard of. They were called New England, and they were kind of a ’80s corporate rock, very generic band. And they were opening for Cheap Trick, at the old St. Paul Civic Center, so I wrote a preview blurb about Cheap Trick, and then I said, “Opening is this generic corporate rock band,” or whatever it was. And at the show I went backstage to see the guys in Cheap Trick, because I’d gone on the road with them and knew them a little bit, and I was standing backstage and some guy came up to me. And I didn’t know it at the time, but he was in the band New England. So he said, “Are you Jon Bream?” And I said, “Yeah.” And then he grabbed the pens out of my pocket and broke them in half and said, “That’s what I think of you.” So is that assault? I don’t know.
Assault on your pens.
I mean, he didn’t push me, but it’s a degree of assault, I assume, if you were a legal officer. But you know, I mean Prince has burned my reviews. He’s had me thrown out of his club. So yeah, that kind of goes with the territory.
Do you have the opposite happen, where people give you shout-outs in positive ways?
Well, Sheila E did once at a Dakota show. She said, “We should name this song after Bream.” Lyle Lovett said some nice things about me several times from stage. But you know, I know him better than I know most artists. Who else? There was one from KD Lang, where we had done the interview and she had insisted that I had given her a negative review the time before. And I said, “No I hadn’t. I have the review right in front of me.” And she said, “No, you didn’t like the show, I remember.” And then when she came to town, she said, “I have a message for Jon: You were right. It was the guy in Milwaukee, not you.” And that was all she said. [laughs] So that happened. I mean, I’ve had Prince shout-outs several times, and not always in a negative way. There was the time at the Minnesota Music Awards, and the night before had been the Motown 25th anniversary show, when Michael Jackson introduced the Moonwalk. And Prince had gotten an award, and he was up there performing, and he said, “Watch this move, Jon Bream.” And of course he didn’t know I was out in the hallway sending in my write-up of who had won the awards. But people told me about it.
More photos of Jon Bream’s vinyl vault by Nate Ryan:
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