“A solo acoustic guitar is—when it’s played right or, rather, when it’s played a certain way that reaches me—the most expressive instrument in the world,” Josh Rosenthal tells me on a pleasant October Tuesday.
We’re sitting outside at the Battery, a club in San Francisco’s Financial District, where Rosenthal sometimes works when he feels compelled to escape the confines of his nearby home office. “I’ve been thinking about opening a record shop in Gold Country [in Northern California], which would be the perfect spot. But that would never work—because I hate people,” Rosenthal says, laughing at the irony of his working in the Battery to escape isolation.
As the owner of the multiple-Grammy-nominated Tompkins Square Records, the boutique label he founded in 2005, Rosenthal champions underdog and idiosyncratic musicians, a good number of them working in his preferred setting of solo guitar. Through his imprint—whose small but extraordinary catalog now includes about 130 full-length titles, half of them archival—Rosenthal has done much to contribute to the renaissance of fingerstyle guitar and vinyl albums in recent years, bringing to light the work of John Fahey contemporaries like Max Ochs and fresh voices like Gwenifer Raymond.
On the Battery’s patio, obviously well-heeled people sit gazing into their electronic screens, some of them wearing headsets and teleconferencing, and at least one enjoying a surreptitious afternoon palliative. Rosenthal is dressed casually but sharply in an untucked blue button-front shirt. He is a kinetic presence as he talks animatedly about his work and his fondness for the acoustic guitar, all the while jotting down ideas that come to him on an old-school lined notepad.
Long Island Sounds
Still youthful at 51, Rosenthal grew up in the 1970s and ’80s in Syosset, Long Island, not far from New York City. He credits his life in music—and his archival inclinations—to time spent as the program director of his high school radio station, WKWZ. “Radio was really a cutting-edge medium in a way that it’s not today,” Rosenthal says. “And it was incredible to be at that age—you know, 15, 16—and have access to so much music, when you didn’t have it at all at your fingertips like you do now.”
With his friend and fellow disc jockey Judd Apatow—the future comic, producer, and writer—Rosenthal used media credentials to his advantage. “Even though the radio station was only ten watts, we pretended to be big shots, and we would get backstage passes to clubs. I would interview bands like R.E.M. before they were signed to the majors, and Judd would interview all these incredible comics, like Henny Youngman and Jerry Seinfeld. He’s still got it all on tape,” Rosenthal says.
At 16, Rosenthal scored an internship at Polygram Records, taking the train into the city after school once or twice a week to work for a few hours. “You’re talking the mid-’80s, which was such a crazy time in New York. My parents let me go alone to the city, despite all the crazy, coked-out guys who were walking around,” Rosenthal says. “It was an amazing time. During my first year there, we put out three Van Morrison records, and all the Velvet Underground stuff got reissued for the first time.”
After also interning at CMJ New Music Monthly, where he learned the editorial ropes and wrote album reviews, Rosenthal attended SUNY Albany. In his senior year, he served as the musical director of the campus radio station, WCDB, and this set him up for high-level work in the music industry. When Elvis Costello came through town in 1989 to support his album Spike, Rosenthal reached out to a record label representative to ask if the singer-songwriter would appear on his radio show. The request was denied, but Rosenthal, undeterred, found out where Costello was staying and delivered a collection of cassette tapes and a handwritten invitation to his hotel.
“He called me at the station to accept, and then I had a stretch limousine pick him up,” Rosenthal said. “We spent a very fun hour on the radio, and later—probably because of the chutzpah I’d demonstrated in going around him to get Elvis on my show—the record label rep who had said no actually hired me at Columbia. I took the gig, even though I’d already accepted a job at A&M Records in Los Angeles.”
Starting at Columbia in 1989 as a manger in alternative radio promotion and ending in 2005 as a vice-president of marketing and sales at parent company Sony Music, Rosenthal was at the company during a golden era of sorts. He worked on projects like Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings, which sold more than 500,000 copies, the first archival set of its kind to go gold, drawing many new listeners into Johnson’s shadowy music and to country-blues guitar in general.
“Kate Bush, the Psychedelic Furs, Bob Dylan, the Robert Johnson box set, Public Enemy, all the Def Jam stuff—that whole run was amazing,” Rosenthal says. “I was also able to do a lot of stuff with jazz, and that’s where I kind of got a taste for the whole reissue thing. So then, I started Tompkins Square nine or ten months after I left Sony—the absolute bottom of the industry, when things had gotten very corporate—and, admittedly, not the smartest time to start a label.”
Unsure of what to do next, Rosenthal started what he assumed would be a one-off private project—a compilation of obscure solo recordings by guitarists whose work he admired. Rosenthal says, “I loved those old [solo acoustic] Max Ochs and Harry Taussig recordings so much, and I got to wondering: Who are these guys who haven’t recorded in decades? Where are they now—and what’s their story?”
Answering these questions took considerable effort on Rosenthal’s part; in the mid-2000s, far fewer musicians had online presences, and the Google searches he tried led him nowhere. But Rosenthal did eventually track down Ochs and Taussig—the latter by noticing that his 1965 album, Fate Is Only Once, was recorded in Costa Mesa, California, where the guitarist still lived—and both were delighted to be rediscovered. “They were so cool,” Rosenthal says. “I recorded Max playing his tune ‘Imaginational Anthem’ and then found out he had previously recorded it for [record collector] Joe Bussard’s Fonotone [the last 78-rpm record label, which he ran from 1956–1970]. We found the original version, from 1969, and I was able to put it on my first album, along with the new version. So Max is like the godfather of the label.”
That compilation—Imaginational Anthem (2005)—offered a neat prototype of what the Tompkins Square label would be all about. The album combined archival recordings alongside new works by young players like Kaki King, whom Rosenthal had signed when he worked at Sony. Rosenthal says, “The concept was—and is—to combine the old and the new. I actually had no intention of doing anything with that record, other than enjoying it for my own pleasure. But a guy I knew from Sony—Tom Overby, who wound up marrying Lucinda Williams and being her manager—was working for this indie distribution company, and he convinced me to meet with him and sign the distribution deal that I’ve now had for 13 years.
“So that was just really lucky to have that deal fall into my lap,” Rosenthal continues. “And my luck was compounded by the fact that the album immediately got featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday. At that point, back in 2005, if you were on NPR, you’d immediately sell thousands of records.”
Connecting the Dots
As the sole proprietor of Tompkins Square Records, which he named after the colorful public park near his old apartment in downtown New York City, Rosenthal has never had any full-time employees. The label has always been, more or less, a reflection of his personal listening habits and preoccupations, a record of the dots he’s connected between music and musicians over the last four decades.
“My first taste of it was when I was a teenager and heard Jimmy Page playing ‘Black Mountain Side,’ on the first Led Zeppelin album,” he says. “Then I read about how much [Page] liked Bert Jansch, and that opened up a window into the acoustic world. There used to be this bookstore on Long Island—talk about what a dinosaur I am!—where I would order John Fahey cassettes and things like that. So that’s really where all this started.”
In connecting the dots, Rosenthal has gravitated toward the obscure and the uncanny, often rediscovering unknowns, like Rick Deitrick, who privately released his own work in the 1970s. “Literally no one knew who Rick was before Imagination Anthem came out,” Rosenthal says, referring to the eighth volume of this compilation series, featuring the track “Missy Christa,” a delicate, harp-like instrumental by Deitrick.
“Rick had an album, Gentle Wilderness [reissued on Tompkins Square], which came out in 1978 and was totally out of print—but it was never really in print. He would take it out onto hiking trails, leaving his records for someone to find. Now he’s just a chill old dude who lives alone in L.A. All of a sudden, people care about his music and maybe someone will come out and use one of his records in a movie or commercial. It’s amazing to have helped with that.”
Deitrick tells me via telephone, “Much of the music I recorded was on cheap or borrowed tape recorders. I just sent Josh this tape I found not long ago, where I was sitting at the kitchen table and playing a piece that I’d written for my wife, while she was making dinner. You can hear a pan drop in the middle of it. It’s been surprising and great to learn that people all around the world are enjoying my music. I just found out that I have a big following in Denmark—and in Japan!”
Rosenthal’s knack for unusual sounds has also led him to work with young and ascendant artists, like Daniel Bachman and Gwenifer Raymond, whose work is singular but clearly indebted to the American Primitive tradition. (See a full transcription of Raymond’s “Requiem for John Fahey” in this issue.) “Jeff Davidson at WFMU tipped me to Gwenifer,” Rosenthal says. “She struck me as a sort of unicorn—a young woman from Wales who channels John Hurt and Skip James. Then I found out she’s an astrophysicist, so throw that in. She’s a really cool person and is clearly very proficient, but brings in her own ideas, too. I gravitate toward folks who put an original spin on traditional music, and she certainly does that.”
“Working with Josh—who feels like a genuine renegade in the contemporary corporatocracy of the music industry, a man out of time—has been a pretty life-changing experience: going from playing glorified open mics with two men and a dog to getting really positive press from publications I respect; heading over to the States; putting a record out on real, honest-to-god vinyl. It all seems a little alternative universe sometimes,” Raymond says via email. “I had a lot of Tompkins Square records before any of my association with it started, and I really think the world needs a label like it, hipper than hip and stone-aged.”
As Rosenthal reflects on his work for the label, the subject of his own music comes up. A guitarist since he was a teenager, Rosenthal keeps his Healy Tompkins Square guitar (see below) in his office, a few feet from his desk, for easy access. Playing the instrument is part of his daily ritual, but he downplays his skills. “I don’t have any training; I stopped learning when I was like 15,” Rosenthal says. “I play purely for pleasure, hunting for chords and ideas. The only thing that’s good about not being any good is you can’t copy anybody. So my playing actually sounds very original because it’s not based on anything real.”
Still, Rosenthal confesses that he has an ambition to make his own guitar album—not a solo outing, like many of his favorite records, but a collaborative effort. “I think it’ll be a collection of guitar patterns, because I don’t even want to call my pieces songs, but I’d love to come up with some halfway decent ideas and put them on tape. Then, I’d ask some other, more skilled musicians to incorporate my ideas into something bigger—and make it grand,” Rosenthal says excitedly, before excusing himself to take a call from one of his artists.
NOTABLE TOMPKINS SQUARE ALBUMS
For a good overview of Tompkins Square Records—including the music and musicians referenced in this feature—check out these albums, presented in the order of their release or reissue.
10TH ANNIVERSARY SPECIALNESS
This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.