Skip Groff has gone the way of the neighborhood record store. He’s dead.
According to his family, Groff died after suffering a seizure earlier this week. He was 70 years old. If you didn’t grow up in the D.C. area in the ‘70s-‘90s desperate to get that imported 7-inch before anybody else, Groff wouldn’t mean anything to you.
But his store, Yesterday and Today Records in Rockville, Md., meant the world to generations of cool kids. He left a career as a major label and pop radio guy to open a store that steered kids away from both in 1977, just as punk was taking off on American shores. He turned an otherwise drab suburban strip center outside the Beltway into a cool-kids hangout for the next several decades, offering customers a chance to get the rarest vinyl that he’d bring back from his record safaris in England.
In a 1997 interview for Washington City Paper to mark the store’s 20th anniversary, former Y&T clerk turned punk icon Ian MacKaye recalled a tragicomic moment in the the outlet’s history, the time Groff brought influential British macabre rockers the Damned to the store to do a record signing. Groff expected an onslaught of first generation goths, and sweated everything about the appearance, having moved record bins around inside and warned everybody around of an imminent mob scene.
But Groff, who had produced the 1981 debut disc from MacKaye’s band, Minor Threat, scheduled the event for a Tuesday, and hadn’t factored in the impact the school week would have on attendance. “Maybe 10 or 15” people were on site when the band’s tour bus pulled up.
The Damned were peeved—until they went into the store and saw Groff’s operation. “[O]nce they went into the record store they were pretty amazed,” MacKaye said. “If you’re going to get stranded somewhere for an hour or so, Yesterday and Today isn’t the worst place.”
Back to me: Groff’s record store will always be special personally because that’s where I went to report as memorable a story as I ever worked on. I got a call from an editor at the Washington Post in the spring of 1994 and was told they’d just found Kurt Cobain’s body. The editor wanted me to get reactions from young people about the news. She figured the coolest record store would be the best place. She sent me to Y&T Records.
This was also a school day, and I left my house in D.C. a little before schools would be letting out. The store was emptier than at the Damned’s record signing debacle when I arrived, but a steady stream of young punks soon started showing up.
This was before the internet or cell phones, so I would be breaking the bad news to the kids. Cobain’s death made me sad, but not sadder than any celebrity suicide would. I really had bought Nevermind the day I first heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (really!) but soon after I had given that and my punk and cool records away to my Danish cousin, because I felt too old for the adolescent angst. So by the time he died, I was listening to new, more grownup-friendly country acts like Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, and the Mavericks.
But I quickly learned nobody was more important to the kids I met at Groff’s store than Cobain. They reacted as if I’d told them that JFK had been assassinated. The first kid I approached was dressed in a Vietnam-era army fatigues jacket with punk slogans all over it, a way cooler outfit than anything I’d ever put on, and looked about 14 years old.
“What do you think about what happened to Kurt?” I asked.
“He deserved it!” the kid says. So I’m thinking, Wow, that’s kinda harsh, but a fine punk pose. “He deserved it?” I ask. “Yeah, he’s messing around with drugs, and he overdoses. He’s gotta stop.”
I realized then that the kid thought I was asking about Cobain’s OD in Rome a month earlier, which was still the talk of the rock world. “No, he’s dead,” I said. “They found his body.”
And the blood just rushed from the kid’s face as he stares at me and starts crying. He asked me if I was telling him the truth, and when I said yeah he ran to the payphone outside Groff’s store to make some calls. Every other kid I spoke with over the next several minutes reacted with similar shock. And soon enough there’s a line at that same payphone of about five kids, all in punk regalia, all crying, all waiting to make the same call. I had to wait ‘til they were done to phone in my quotes for the early edition. Pearl Jam played a show in the D.C. market that night, and the Cobain story in the next day’s Post used quotes from that show and scrubbed mine out. The only record I have that I even worked on that story is the pay stub.
A photo of the line of young punks waiting for the payphone outside Yesterday and Today Records on The Day Kurt Cobain Died would have been some amazing artifact, especially this week. But back when Skip Groff’s record store was the place to hang out, there weren’t cell phone cameras to take that shot. It was a different time.