I was feeling like a pickled chinchilla the afternoon I first became utterly bobo besotted with, over the moon for, Duane Reade. Truly I had only wanted to stick my head into a pot of Noxzema when—shazam!—they played Tracey Ullman’s “They Don’t Know” at the checkout counter. When that sweet, cherished song was backed up with the velvet cream of “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” I practically lost my gordita contemplating the dottiness of this revelation: Despite being a chain of 212 drug stores across New York City, Duane Reade is also—Duane Reade, just imagine!—a sporadically splendid venue to hear free music. Particularly if you are indifferent to throwing devil’s signs amid Scooby-Doo Chia Pets and Binky pacifiers.
And so I decided to investigate. Phone calls to Duane Reade’s corporate office seeking comment on how soundtracks are chosen—personal mix tapes? prefab compilations? DJ?—were not returned by press time. Requests for interviews were also declined by store managers, who referred all questions to Duane Reade headquarters. Thus what follows is strictly what I gleaned during the course of proselytizing a pharmacy as the next dark-horse Mercury Lounge.
And so, first dispatch: The Duane Reade on 14th Street and Seventh Avenue is the living end if you happen to be the recently jilted Fifth Horsewoman of the Apocalypse. During my last field trip, Natalie Merchant’s “Just Can’t Last” was trailed by “Alone,” the brooding Heart lamentation about no answers on telephones. Then, pinky swear, an r&b version of Journey’s opus melancholia “Who’s Crying Now” wailed from aisle to aisle.
Nearly as achy-breaky, but on the opposite side of downtown, Duane Reade’s 24-hour store on Broadway and East 9th Street seduced a couple of weeks back by shadowing “Love on the Rocks,” Neil Diamond’s rotten-amour dirge, with a Muzak rendition of Dionne Warwick’s “That’s What Friends Are For.” It swooned orchestral and glorious, sprinkling fairy dust from Feminine Hygiene/Baby clear across to Stomach/Stationary/Tissue.
Second datum posited: Too much Paul Simon, if shopper Linda Suarez’s response to “Loves Me Like a Rock” is any indication. “You get dizzy walking around here because the music’s so boring,” she snapped. Tattled her friend Amber Smalls, “She just wishes they were playing 50 Cent. He’s all wanksta-ish.”
Now, both the Duane Reade on Broadway, between 83rd and 84th streets, as well as the one tucked near the corner of Broadway and Houston, tune their speakers to CD101.9 “Smooth Jazz.” As intrepid reporting rarely concludes without the intrepid reporter imperiously inserting her three cents about the report in question, here is mine. Heavens to Betsy Ross, this is the most sanitized, elevator-bland radio station on the planet, and just because Duane Reade is an advertiser does not mean it has to inflict a lobotomy via Kenny G.’s “Paradise” on its patrons. “This is pretty smoothin’; you can work through it,” said Robert Taylor, who stocks shelves at the Broadway and Houston store. “But I’m 24 and I like Biggie and Jay-Z and Nas, you know?”