Streissguth captures his subject as he runs the current incarnation of Joe’s Record Paradise in downtown Silver Springs, Md., as various customers drop in to soak up the nostalgic vibes and thumb through shelves of out-of-print long-playing platters, with turntables used for listening purposes and friends discussing the “warmer sounds” achieved by the old analog albums. Lee regales his customers with factoids (“Elvis Presley used to listen to Little Milton records all the time!”) and he certainly knows the vast musical mythos backward and forward, which has led to his cultish celebrityhood in the Beltway’s back yard.
Still, don’t expect the usual rockumentary: Streissguth isn’t aiming for down-memory-lane simplicities, as this devoted record-spinner’s web indicates. Turns out Lee is quite an eccentric character amid a family of straight-arrows that shares a considerable historical pedigree. (The American Revolution’s Light-Horse Harry Lee and the Civil War’s Robert E. Lee are some of the names dropped here.) Joe Lee didn’t follow the traditional family path into politics, however, with one pot-in-the-piano incident leading to a narcotics bust that resulted in much consternation for his dad, the then-governor of Maryland. Problems with concentrating in school (perhaps because of a learning disorder that wasn’t realized at the time) led to a temporary exit to California and enjoyable employment at a Hollywood Boulevard record store, so he returned home with a newfound sense of happiness and plans to start his business.
Lee betrays twin fondnesses for rockabilly and funk, making him a soul brother from a different mother (he anoints the Ray Charles LP In Person as “the best record of all time”). Still, what keeps this documentary interesting is its unexpected tangents, as the movie detours into the histories of Maryland’s regional rock’n’rollers, where Streissguth himself was raised. Lee points to where a tree once stood, then tells about the time in 1954 when the rock’n’roll bug first bit him, as the young boy witnessed a neighborhood concert performed by pompadoured local rocker Vernon Taylor. Another segment features Lee’s jones for the music of D.C. wildman Root Boy Slim, best known for the immortal “Boogie Till You Puke.” Toward the end comes the most tender reminisce, in which Lee hired an aging record collector named Leon Kasarine, whose one-floor ranch home was so crammed with shelves of LPs that you had to “walk like an Egyptian,” as Lee recalls, just to get deep inside the residence.
Streissguth, 45, who was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Maryland, has his own vinyl memories: “I can remember buying records in Salvation Army stores in D.C. as a child, and playing them on an old beat-up RCA Victor player that folded up into a little case.” With the likes of Elvis, B.B. King, Bobby Bland, The Monkees’ Michael Nesmith and others vying for turntable play, it naturally led to Streissguth’s interest in music history. And writing books about country music stars such as Johnny and Rosanne Cash, Eddy Arnold and Jim Reeves led to making documentaries, such as his previous entry about Cash’s 1968 show at Folsom Prison. “I’ve always admired cinema-verite directors, so documentaries like Taylor Hackford’s Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock’n’Roll! (1987) and Bob Smeaton and Frank Cvitanovich’s Festival Express (2003), about Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, Buddy Guy and company rolling across Canada to make a string of tour dates in 1970, left a big impression.”
Record Paradise went into production two years ago, with a number of Le Moyne students from the Communication and Film Studies department—including Luke Baker, an editor and co-producer; sound recorder Carrie Carpenter; and cinematographer Scott Pugnetti—who assisted Streissguth throughout the production. Streissguth didn’t experience any problems with his leading man, either. “Joe was a willing subject,” he recalls. “He loves an audience, and on and off for three months, we were his audience. We followed him throughout his record store, into the recording studio, into basements where he bought record collections.
“And nobody is ambivalent about Joe,” Streissguth continues. “Everybody we spoke with had passionate feelings about him, mostly positive. I soon realized that Joe builds community. Everywhere he goes he draws a crowd of people who are passionate about music. Truly, music builds relationships.”
Streissguth has been a professor at Le Moyne since 1998, so he wasn’t around these parts when vintage vinyl shops like Desert Shore Records were in vogue. He does champion the LPs that can be unearthed at Eastwood’s Books and Melodies, however: “You haven’t lived if you haven’t descended into the basement to sift through the discs.”
And he’s always amazed at Syracuse’s connections with big-time musicmakers. “One neighbor in Strathmore won a teen magazine contest whose prize was an interview with Elvis Presley down in New York City during the 1950s,” Streissguth says. “Another neighbor made hats for Minnie Pearl. And did you know that Johnny Cash used drums for the first time at the Three Rivers Inn? It never stops!”
The Buffalo Niagara Film Festival and the Memphis International Music and Film Festival will screen Record Paradise: The Musical Life of Joe Lee
in April, but locals get a sneak peak on Friday at 7 p.m. at the Coyne
Center, 1419 Salt Springs Road. Admission is $5, with all proceeds going
to the Denise Gasiorowski Award in Creative Writing. Also at the Coyne
Center will be a performance by John Cadley and the Lost Boys, who have
three bluegrass songs on the soundtrack. The band will also play during
an after-party at the Library Lounge of the Crowne Plaza Hotel, 701 E.
Genesee St., with the first drink free when patrons show their ticket
stubs. For details, dial 445-4523.