Then . . .

Matthew Lasar


erhaps a few people will still recall Gunther Kossoto as the man with the cultured German accent who, once a year, hosted New York City's annual day-long airing of Richard Wagner's "Ring Cycle" on listener-sponsored WBAI-FM. This event took place through most of the late 1970s.

An eloquent lecturer, Gunther would take his audience through the history of Wagner's four-part opera, offer various interpretations of the work, and add intriguing anecdotes about performers historically associated with the opus. Usually he'd broadcast the London Records version of the piece, conducted by Sir George Solti. It was always quite a day.

If you listened on a regular basis, you might have concluded that Gunther resided in some university as a musicologist, or wrote for a magazine, or ran a publishing house. In truth, Gunther Kossoto worked as a manager at Sam Goody records. He was my boss.

At least in his middle fifties, Gunther was a man of modest height with tortoise shell glasses. For work he consistently wore a dark red blazer jacket, a white shirt, and a thin black tie. In fact, he once came to a company picnic dressed in the same outfit.

Gunther clocked in religiously at 8:30 am. I usually had already arrived myself, performing some clerical task like changing the prices on records. "Good morning," he would say with a somewhat rueful tone to his voice, "ready for another day?" Then he would reach for a Marborough, and smoke it in that marvelous reverse-handed manner that Germans use. I felt like I was in a Humphrey Bogart movie.

I most vividly remember Gunther surrounded by adoring followers, usually much younger than he, who were eager to hear his opinion about some operatic recording or other. Gunther had a marvelous way of browbeating his clients. I recall one man saying he didn't want to buy a recording of some pianist because the performer "wasn't exciting."

"Ach, you Americans!" Gunther spat. "You always want everything to be exciting!" This sort of Eurocentric arrogance had the suckers eating out of his hand. I saw it many times, although I always kept my distance from these soireÚs, since they inevitably involved subject matter I thought of as too esoteric.

I remember one afternoon an elderly man arriving at the store. "Where's Gunther?" he asked. "Sorry," I explained. "He's gone to lunch." The man sighed with irritation. "Perhaps I could help?" I offered. The customer gave me a supremely condescending look. "Would you care to recommend a good imported recording of 'Die Frau Ohne schatten?'" he asked. I never offered to help one of Gunther's patrons again.

But there were many hours when no one of any consequence would walk into the store. During these lull periods, Gunther and I would talk at length, and over the years he told me many episodes of his life. Gunther liked to brag about himself, so some of this material may be exaggerated, but I take the liberty of reproducing much of it in the first person, as I recall him telling it to me:

"I was born in Germany after the First World War. My father was an official in the Weimar government that emerged after the collapse of the wartime Chancellery. My mother and father lived with one another for some years before getting married. My mother hailed from a highly placed Protestant family. My father was Jewish. It became clear in the middle 1930s that we could not stay in Germany."

I do not remember Gunther explaining how his father escaped, but his mother's story will always remain with me. "Because she wanted a tourist visa, she managed to gain a personal audience with Goebbels," Gunther said. "They met one day in his office. Heil Hitler! Goebbels said. Good morning, my mother replied. When asked about her politics, she declared herself a Christian. 'Give unto Caesar what is Caesar's,' she intoned. 'Well,' Goebbels replied fondly, 'we still consider you one of us.' My mother got her visa.

"The difficult part was getting our money out of the country. My mother traveled by car, two suitcases full of cash in the back trunk. She knew that some kind of search would take place at the border. When a Nazi border officer demanded that she open a suitcase, my mother handed his assistant the bag with the German currency. 'Not that one!' the officer barked. 'Check the other.' The other was laden with clothing. This little trick worked; my mother traveled to Switzerland, where my father awaited her."

Gunther lived in a refugee camp in Switzerland for a while, then studied piano and mathematics after the war, eventually earning a Ph.D. in the latter. I do not know how he came to the United States, nor do I know why a man with a Ph.D. in math wound up working in a record store (although as someone with a Ph.D. myself, I can all too easily understand why it would happen today). I did not question these things at the time.

I enjoyed his gallows humor. "Matthew, do you know what day it is today?" he would always ask on April 12th.

"No," I would respond, untruthfully.

"You don't know? Really? Well . . . it is the Fuehrer's birthday!" he would cheerfully explain, and then cock his brow. This mock neo-Nazi horseplay could not obscure Gunther's deep bitterness towards Fascism. During the Skokie, Illinois controversy, when a group of American Nazis demanded the right to march through a Jewish neighborhood, Gunther resolutely held to the position that Nazism should be banned in the United States as in Germany.

Gunther taught me how to listen to music --- that is, how to really listen to it. Once he invited me to his comfortable home in Long Island. He poured me a big glass of brandy, and put on an old recording of Chaliapin. He sat down in his easy chair and went completely silent. I quickly realized that he expected the same from me. Then he brought in two huge 78 rpm versions of Bruckner's 4th and 9th symphonies, conducted by Bruno Walter. "Walter was Bruckner's student," Gunther explained in a near whisper. "But he once confided to me that Bruckner probably learned more from him. Bruckner's genius was intuitive. He could not pass it on . . . "

We audited the Bruckner/Walter recordings, then Kirsten Flagstad's performance in "Das Rheingold," Schnabel's version of the "Hammerklavier," and two versions of Mahler's "Songs of the Wayfarer." We spent the entire weekend drinking and listening. We hardly spoke. Even more than I recall the music I remember the hushed, resolute quality of our attention .

§     §     §

here's an old gag about the man who was asked why on earth he spent his productive years shoveling circus elephant manure for a living. "What?" he replied incredulously, "and leave show business?" By my third year at the store, I could see the future. Older, experienced clerks were being replaced by people like myself: kids with relatively little background and knowledge, paid next to minimum wage, expected to do little else besides change price tags, open boxes and replace shelf inventory. And the inventory system began to change. Buyers now put their emphasis on a small, reliable array of fast moving items, returning any stock that didn't move in two months back to the manufacturer. The irony of Sam Goody's current motto --- "Goody got it" --- is that Goody doesn't got it, and hasn't had it for at least two decades. In fact, that's how Goody/Musicland/American Can makes its money.

I cut the cord in the autumn of 1979, moving on for my first attempt at a Ph.D. in history. Gunther and I went down the block and we had a drink. We both knew that without the daily experience of the store to bind us, we'd gradually lose touch. "Don't worry, Matthew, you will do quite well," Gunther promised while smoking a cigarette and sipping a scotch. "You'll write a good thesis. It will even be original." I smiled at this dry, been-there/done-that assurance. The end of Gunther's road coincided with the beginning of mine. "So!" he abruptly exclaimed, signaling the conclusion of our meeting. He stood up. We shook hands. It was evening. He marched back into the store, and through the glass entrance door I watched him regale a couple of Callas worshippers with his vast knowledge of her opus.

I walked away and would like to flatter myself that I never looked back. But of course I look back. I look back all the time. I know that some of it is an exercise in nostalgia. But some of it isn't. Sometimes I wonder what it would take, in this age of wired and unaffordable cities, to have a record store where elderly and educated people held endless conversations on the difference between bad music and good. Where managers saw themselves as librarians and archivists as well as money takers. Where, for all reasons better and worse, people stuck around for years and years.

That is what I wonder as I peer into the windows of Sam Goody records today and try to make out the good ghost of Gunther Kossoto holding court.

Matthew Lasar is the author of
Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network
(Temple University Press, 2000).
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