Rather Ripped Records gets a new life in Lawrenceville

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Pittsburgh is an old-school city nicely dotted with record stores, from the venerable Jerry's in Squirrel Hill to the versatile Attic in Millvale, with Eide's, Sound Cat, Mind Cure, 720 and plenty of Exchanges in between.

Only one will be able to claim it was the inspiration for the name of a Sonic Youth record.

On Saturday, Lawrenceville welcomes Rather Ripped, a new store that comes with an old story.

Rather Ripped Records opened more than 40 years ago and 2,500 miles away in Berkeley, Calif., where it became a hot spot on Euclid Avenue. Patti Smith played her first West Coast performance in its loft, it was the scene for autograph parties for The Police and Blondie, and Sonic Youth named its 2006 album after the defunct store.

So why is it coming to Lawrenceville?

Its owner is Russ Ketter, who grew up here on the South Side and left for the West Coast in 1969 to pursue a songwriting career. "Instead of going to Woodstock, I went to Berkeley that weekend."

He has no regrets about that.

He got a job at a record store called Leopold's and then moved across town two years later to open Rather Ripped, inspired by a stoned friend's description of his condition at a particular moment. The store was well timed with the punk scene that was about to explode in the mid-'70s.

"Everybody came through that store, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the glam rock scene. As soon as The Police came to the U.S., they did an autograph party at our store" -- partly because drummer Stewart Copeland went to UC Berkeley.

Rather Ripped was also the scene for the first West Coast performance by rising punk poetess Patti Smith, just after releasing her first indie single, "Piss Factory."

"I had a partner who was really into New York punk, which was just starting out, and we had the whole San Francisco punk scene coming through the store," Mr. Ketter says. "He wrote a letter to Patti Smith and signed it in blood and said, 'You gotta come out here and play.' Jane Friedman, her manager, the person who [helped promote] Woodstock, wrote back to us and said, 'We'll come out there if you give us a place to play.' "

That place was the record store loft, where Mr. Ketter jokes must have held 10,000 people that night. Actually, "everybody says they were there, but the place could only hold a hundred people."

The store would stick to mostly acoustic performances, while also throwing birthday parties for its customers at local clubs, featuring such artists as Eddie Money, The Residents, Roky Erickson, The Mr. T Experience and Greg Kihn, who worked at the store.

Befitting its name, Rather Ripped was the subject of what Mr. Ketter calls "the biggest bootleg bust in history."

Like a lot of indie stores back in the day, RRR stocked those essential bootlegs of live concerts and outtakes (long before the artists started bootlegging themselves). Mr. Ketter says they were marked with a caution about the sound quality and a note to the effect of "Don't buy this until you've bought all the records by this artist."

Mr. Ketter says he and his partner made the mistake of approaching the bootleg manufacturers about setting up a fund to kick some royalties back to the artist. One day, eight FBI officers showed up and seized $10,000 worth of bootlegs. "The headline in the paper," he says, "read 'The FBI has the biggest collection of bootlegs on the West Coast.' "

Mr. Ketter recalls a meeting with the DA and the FBI, where the DA, who shopped at the store, scoffed at the bust: "I have murder, rape, robbery, grand larceny, and you bring me this civil case, like they're criminals?"

They got their records back, but the DA, under pressure from the record labels, prohibited them from selling them, so they instead became prizes for joining the Rather Ripped fan club.

Rather Ripped's undoing, in 1980, turned out to be fire and water damage from an incident next door. It ruined the store and most of its contents. Mr. Ketter and his wife, Dale, ventured into the mail order business under the names Rather Ripped and Dedicated Fool, and six years ago he moved back here to take care of his mom, who recently died.

For the past two years, Rather Ripped/Dedicated Fool has had a spot at Trader Jack's flea market in Collier.

"I sell most of my records at a dollar, because I brought some with me and I buy lots of them," he says. "I have collectibles, but at a flea market you sell one collectible a month. And I sell [used] CDs two bucks, three for five. The sealed ones for five bucks.

"Most people come up for Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, but I found there is a little market here for, shall I say, weirdness, that goes back into the '50s, '60s, '70s. I sell a lot of bands that I would have sold in Berkeley."

Realizing that the flea market trade had limited growth, the Ketters recently decided to go storefront in Lawrenceville.

"I've always liked Lawrenceville since I came back to Pittsburgh," he says. "It slowly has been building up the last five years, and I like it because there's only two chains there -- a Wendy's and a Subway. It's like Berkeley used to be, it's like South Side used to be. It's a much more personal thing."

The new store, below Arsenal Bowl at 4314 Butler St., will be open Thursdays through Mondays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. It will feature cheap records and CDs, collectibles, 45s, DVDs and posters, along with vintage shirts and jackets.

Mr. Ketter never became a successful songwriter, but he did write and produce for a few Bay Area bands, including Monet's Gardens and Cement Trampoline.

As for the Sonic Youth album, the band and the store had a common connection. The band's former A&R man at Geffen was Ray Farrell, who did a stint at the legendary indie label SST and went on to become the vice president of eMusic. His first job, from 1976-79, was a store manager and buyer for Rather Ripped.

With your record purchase at the new Rather Ripped, you might get a good story -- for no charge.

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Scott Mervis: smervis@post-gazette.com; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg.


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