A great record shop is like a time machine, a portal to another world. In the right hands, these spaces are capable of fostering a deep connection to the overlapping worlds of music and art, and nurturing a community around expression. In our ever more technological world, they stand as meaningful anachronisms made modern by new generations of listeners, reaching beyond the digitizing of music and performance and grounding us in the aural physicality of music.
Such is the scene at Dark Entries, a new shop and gallery in the Tenderloin. It’s the work of Josh Cheon, a longtime DJ and founder of the archival and reissue label Dark Entries Records. Housed inside a former tattoo parlor at 910 Larkin St., not far from where Cheon has lived and worked for a decade in the historically queer Tenderloin neighborhood, the shop officially opened its doors to crate diggers Saturday, Dec. 10.
“I always imagined this as being a place where someday we could host events,” said Cheon, who acquired the space in early 2021 when rents dropped amid pandemic uncertainty. “It’s a modular space, and I want to keep it in flux.”
This block of Larkin has become something of a “corridor of art,” Cheon said, anchored by the Magazine SF (home to the Bob Mizer Foundation) and the Moth Belly Gallery.
“Before the Castro was gay, this was the gay neighborhood — the first gay pride parade in America was on Polk Street, and the first gay riot was here as well,” Cheon said. “The Gangway, the oldest gay bar in S.F., was right down the street. I knew I wanted to be here, in the Tenderloin, to keep it queer … and to host artists and events in the space that reflect this history.”
To further the art gallery aesthetic, the record shop’s visual identity is anchored by two original collage works from Gwenaël Rattke, a Berlin visual artist represented by Romer Young Gallery of San Francisco.
The shop will offer titles from the Dark Entries catalog — more than 300 releases since 2009 — as well as favorites from Cheon’s expansive personal archives, collected over his decades of work as an archivist and DJ. But of particular focus at Dark Entries is the music of Patrick Cowley, a San Francisco electronic music composer and recording artist. Thanks to several posthumous releases, his body of work — and influence — has only grown in the 21st century, some 40 years after his death.
An early victim of the AIDS pandemic, Cowley became famous as a composer and performer in collaboration with Sylvester, the renowned San Francisco disco chanteuse. Cowley composed Sylvester’s 1982 hit “Do Ya Wanna Funk?,” which rose to No. 4 on the Billboard dance music chart, and toured the world as a member of Sylvester’s live band in 1979. Other notable Cowley tracks from the era include a remix of Donna Summer’s Giorgio Moroder-penned single “I Feel Love” (dubbed the “definitive” remix by MixMag), as well as the original composition “Right on Target,” performed by San Francisco singer Paul Parker. It reached No. 1 on the Billboard dance chart shortly before Cowley’s death in fall 1982.
Exploring the sonic world of the late EDM pioneer Patrick Cowley
In his lifetime, Cowley released just three solo LPs: “Megatron Man” and “Menergy,” both from 1981, plus “Mind Warp,” composed and released in 1982. And things might have ended there, if not for Cheon’s label.
In 2007, Cheon, then a member of local queer DJ collective Honey Soundsystem, was introduced to John Hedges, the former owner of Megatone Records, the San Francisco music label founded by Cowley and Marty Blecman in 1981. By the mid-1990s, the independent label was sold to Unidisc Records, a Montreal company that owns the publishing rights to a diverse coterie of late 20th century performers.
But Hedges’ private collection included unreleased Cowley recordings on reel-to-reel tapes. Songs from those tapes emerged in 2009 as the album “Catholic,” issued by Berlin label Macro. Cheon avidly spun Cowley’s music at underground parties across San Francisco, and his work with Honey Soundsystem put him in contact with people from Cowley’s inner circle, including family members, patrons and collaborators.
One was Maurice Tani, who met Cowley in the early 1970s at City College. “We just called him Pat,” recalled Tani, speaking from his home in Berkeley. Together the duo collaborated during late nights at the campus electronic music lab, and later in studios and early home recording setups across the city. Tani contributed bass and lead guitar work to dozens of Cowley recordings, and kept several boxes of reel-to-reel tapes of Cowley’s compositions after his death.
Another collaborator was John Coletti, who in the late 1970s helmed Fox Studios, a gay porn company in Los Angeles. Coletti worked with Cowley on the soundtracks to several films, offering a home for the composer’s original instrumental and atmospheric works, music little heard outside of the late 20th century gay film subculture.
Over the past decade, Cheon has worked with Coletti, Tani and others to restore, digitize and release Cowley’s forgotten oeuvre to growing public interest. This work includes hosting nightlife events, promoting the music on social media, publishing Cowley’s intimate personal journal (“Mechanical Fantasy Box: The Homoerotic Journal of Patrick Cowley”), and making his work available to streaming services, all of it under the Dark Entries Records banner.
Along the way, Cowley’s life and work have been reappraised by the contemporary music and cultural press, with major features in Pitchfork, the New York Times, the Guardian, Art Review and on NPR. There are nine Cowley albums now available via Dark Entries, all prominently featured on the shelves at the new shop.
The latest, “Malebox,” released last month, is a collection of demos — whose origin story reads like episodic television.
Tipped off to their existence by a follower on social media, Cheon went from haggling with distant descendants of a Megatone Records owner on Craigslist to poring over decaying boxes of tapes in a South Bay storage shed.
“The roof was collapsing, raccoons had made a nest inside, and every single box had some kind of excrement in it,” Cheon recalled. “It’s a miracle we were able to get any tracks from it.”
For Cowley fans, it’s roughly the equivalent of pulling a van Gogh painting from a garbage can.
The album’s centerpiece is “Low Down Dirty Rhythm,” recorded in fall 1979. The track wobbles and thumps with a palpable, unshakable sense of rhythmic sleaze; thrilling and sensual, it’s impossible to dislodge from one’s head, requiring repeat listenings. Accompanied by vocalist Jeanie Tracy (a backup singer in Sylvester’s live band), this track anchors Cowley not just as a burgeoning hitmaker cementing his powers, but as a pop compositional auteur nonpareil, evoking the better-known work of multiplatinum greats such as Nile Rodgers, Giorgio Moroder and Prince.
Tape loops and layered hand production help provide an organic feel essential to these recordings, what Tani describes as “a frothy combination of synth-based beats with traditional percussion layered on top.” Cowley’s music is a reflection of a place and time, of overlapping San Francisco subcultures and gay liberation, but it also expresses the fascinating sonic milieu of pre-digital dance music in the 1970s and early ’80s.
Tani calls it “a melding of art and science — experimental music in every sense.” A time of four-track analog tape recorders and magnetic tape sequencing cut by razor blade and splicing block, of great hulking synthesizers like something out of Mission Control. They say each of us now walks around with more computing power in our pocket than it took to land a man on the moon; one can only imagine what Cowley might have done with a copy of Pro Tools.
Cowley was just 32 when he died, with multiple songs on the dance charts and a herculean body of work already on tape. Cheon is keenly aware of the reactions his reissues have engendered from Cowley’s contemporaries: his bandmates, his surviving family, the people who knew him throughout his too-brief life as a composer, friend, brother and son.
“It’s like a double-edged sword,” he said. “There’s excitement but also incredible sadness because he was stolen so early. I feel like I’m a custodian for lost and unreleased music.”
Indeed, Tani said he believes “this music would have been lost without him. Without Josh, Pat’s stuff would still just be in my attic. He’s the curator. His work has been so incredibly important.”
A great record shop is like a time machine, but no glimpse at the past is truly meaningful without the context of the present. Dark Entries Records serves as a hub of connectivity to San Francisco in an earlier era, drawing a through line to the role of art and music in city life today. It is a reverent platform for the work of Cowley, who at last is being recognized as one of San Francisco’s great composers.
“For a gay man who suffered from AIDS, whose music sat in boxes for decades after his death, the depth and range of his sounds are incredible,” Cheon said.
Forty years later, inside a new record shop on Larkin, San Francisco can continue listening.
Dark Entries Records Grand Opening Party: DJ sets by Carlos Souffront, Topazu and Jeremy Castillo. 6-9 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10. 910 Larkin St., S.F. Updates on Instagram @darkentriesrecords. www.darkentriesrecords.com