Best Music to Get Drunk To
Action Pat's Record-Shop Mining Obsession Is Your Bar-Going Gift
It's a cliché of City Paper stories that they note that the interview with the main subject of the piece takes place "in a Mount Vernon café." But the story of Patrick Griffin may be the first to involve a conversation that takes place in a Mount Vernon café with a record player.
On a recent sunny afternoon, Griffin pops open his portable, battery-powered Numark on an outdoor table and digs through the crates of 45s at his feet. Noticing there's no 45 adapter on the spindle, he jams a hand into his jeans pocket. Asked if he often carries a 45 adapter in his pocket, he laughs and says, "I usually have two." Properly adapted, he slaps on a seven-inch and drops the needle. The honking saxophone and horn section, the push-and-pull Latin rhythms, the unhinged lead vocals, and the gibberish backup vocals of "Anna Macora" by the Calvaes spill out of the speaker. Griffin, 26, raises both eyebrows, slowly nods, and looks across the table, as if silently asking, "Awesome, right?"
The rare 1958 single from a little-known Chicago vocal group is pretty awesome, if you're into that sort of thing, and Griffin most definitely is. Under the name Action Pat, he's spent the past six years spinning vintage garage, R&B, rock 'n' roll, rockabilly, and soul tunes, first on college radio, then Sunday nights at the Ottobar, and for the past two years or so on Wednesday nights at Joe Squared, plus the occasional soul night at Lithuanian Hall or private party. But Action Pat, a union organizer by day, isn't a mere oldies DJ; he's a collector/de facto archivist who specializes in seeking out lost vinyl treasures of '50s and '60s music--the wilder and weirder the better--and bringing them back alive for the barhoppers of Baltimore. "When it comes down to it, it's really party music," he says. "And I like to throw parties."
As a 4-year-old in Newport, R.I., Griffin says he told his parents that he wanted to be Stevie Wonder when he grew up. His early obsession with music, especially vintage sounds, stuck with him, blossoming into a full-on rockabilly fetish by puberty. Even today, he styles his hair in a sleek quiff. "In junior high I was doing my hair like this and listening to rockabilly music," he says. "And then I just didn't really have a new way to comb my hair after that."
Griffin wound up at Goucher College, where he split his time between studying anthropology and sociology and playing bass in "'50s R&B" band the Poisonares and spinning vintage soul and gospel on the campus radio station. As he spent more and more time digging up the roots of the music he loved through compilations of obscure rockabilly and R&B sides, he found himself more and more intrigued. "I was like, Well, there's all this crazy stuff out there on record that's been reissued--is there stuff that hasn't been?" he recalls. "And that was where the slippery slope downward began.
"I've always been the guy who, like, if you're driving with me or we're drinking beer together at a party, I'm like, `Hey, have you heard this song? Listen to this, listen to this, no, wait, listen to this,'" he continues. "I've always been the `listen to this' guy. When I was in college and going to parties, I'd be like, `Can I play the music?'"
So, shortly after graduating from Goucher, in 2004, Griffin joined the then-cresting wave of amateur DJs flooding local clubs. Most DJs, amateur or otherwise, pride themselves on their taste and the obscurity of their selections, but Griffin's DJ nights quietly set a new standard. Even in an era when music nerds obsess over weird old LPs or reissues of pop from Belize, Griffin mines new territory with his record-finding expeditions as he flips through 45 after 45 until he finds copies of records that no one may have listened to since the week they were released 40 or 50 years ago. And the particular sort of record he favors isn't just old; it's out of its mind. Asked what he looks for when sorting through stacks of obscure 45s, he answers an old-looking label, good condition, and "a crazy name, like something about chickens or biscuits or something."
He cues up more records. "Mama Get Your Hammer," by the Bobby Peterson Quartet, the chorus of which goes, "Mama get your hammer/ there's a fly on the baby's head"; "Chicken Grabber," by the Nite Hawks, a brief blast of strip-club sax and demented clucking; "Jibba Jab," by Tick and Tock, an unsubtly pounding entry in the "jungle" school of R&B that Griffin particularly prizes. It's typical of the trademark salvo of throwback beats and hollers and twangs that make up an Action Pat set.
"When people heard Elvis or any of the early rock 'n' roll on the radio, it sounded pretty crazy," he theorizes. "I think the logical response people had was, if that guy did something crazy and he got famous, maybe I could do something stupid and crazy and I'll get famous. So there's all these great stupid records out there."
Griffin estimates he has about 2,500 45s to draw from for his sets and is collecting more all the time, through record shows and dealers, the increasingly rare thrift-store find, and, more and more, the internet. "Now to get a lot of really rare early rock 'n' roll music I have to go on eBay and buy it from a French guy who bought it here [years ago]," he says.
Indeed, Griffin is, in many ways, a fully modern guy. He listens to music via MP3s and CD, not just vinyl, and not just music made when his parents were young. He says he likes Southern hip-hop like Lil Wayne and Three 6 Mafia; as he puts it, "I really am open to all eras of crazy music."
But it's clear that it's the rare 45s grooved with wild sounds that he collects and spins that fascinate and inspire him. Even though the Joe Squared nights are sometimes slow, Action Pat says he loves playing the music for other people who might dig it, too. One gets the idea, however, that he'd still be searching out singles like 1963's "Wig Job" by Johnny Niles even if no one else got to hear them.
"The thrill of it to me is you go somewhere and you get a bunch of stuff that you don't know what it is," he says of his record-hunting trips. "You sit down with the record player and put 'em on, and just say, `Whoa, what is this?'"
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