A Special Circle Of Retail Hell

January 20, 2013

(a rebroadcast from January, 2011…)
The first time that I ever participated in a store inventory was in college. It was a small record store – a dozen of us, max – and it lasted until about two o’clock in the morning.

It was a drag.

Several years later, working in a record store so large that we had a staff of sixty or so to cover the fifteen hours we were open each day, I gained a dose of perspective.

This store took inventory two times a year and each and every one was a unique experience with terrifying surprises and maddening twists.

One was in the winter and, the other, was in the summer. Both were feared and loathed, but I found the one in winter – coming less than a month after Christmas – to be particularly excruciating.

While the store opened at nine, an hour which – for those who worked opening crew – was early but not painful, inventory began at six.

Six translated to three and a half hours past when the bars and clubs had closed.

Six, unlike nine, was both early and painful.

Winter inventory took place over a couple days – yes, days – in January and, at that time of the year six o’clock was also dark and frigid.

Our entire staff – all sixty or so of us – would stumble in and mill about our receiving dock. As certain pairs arrived together, it was a good time for everyone to freshen up their mental lists of who was hooking up with who.

As some of us worked completely different schedules, the event was a bit like a reunion of the living dead and a little like rival prison gangs having a summitt.

Doughnuts would be provided because there’s nothing like adding an impending sugar crash to a lack of sleep and/or a hangover.

And, then, the fun would begin.

Even though it was the ’90s, everything was counted by hand, one rack at a time, written down on paper, and, then, counted again to verify. If the counts differed by more than some nebulous amount, that rack was scrapped and redone.

By mid-morning certain racks had already earned a reputation and were referred to by number much like hills were referred to in a military operation.

Upping the degree of difficulty was that we engaged in this effort while the store was open and customers were shopping and, even on a slow day, we’d do ten grand in business.

It was a two-day death march – rifling through thousands of vinyl imports crammed into understock – with complete hopelessness setting in at the end of the first day, knowing that the next day was more of the same.

Usually, mercifully, the first day usually ended by six in the evening, but, during the mother of all inventories, we adjorned day one at two in the morning – twenty fun-filled hours after we had started.

(one quiet Goth chick actually cracked and quit – I’m surprised no one ever got shanked)

Often, there were must-see shows on that night between that many of us had to see. A dozen or more of us once went straight from inventory to see World Party and 10,000 Maniacs at an outdoor ampitheater.

During 10,000 Maniacs set, we learned that World Party was going to play an unannounced gig at a small club. So, most of us ended up being out well past three and needing to be at work in a few hours.

Somehow it was all far less exhausting than a typical day at the office these days.

Here are four songs by the vastly underappreciated World Party…

World Party – Ship Of Fools
from Private Revolution (1986)

I had immediate interest as soon as I learned of World Party in 1986. The band was, essentially , a solo venture for Karl Wallinger who had been a member of the highly regarded group The Waterboys for two albums.

Private Revolution was, like the music of The Waterboys, literate stuff, but Wallinger infused the music with elements of funk, soul and ’60s pop that gave his debut effort a far less somber vibe. Much of the album was focused on the ruin being done to the planet.

Though not explicitly mentioning the environment, Ship Of Fools warns of impending trouble on planet Earth, but it’s so damned catchy that it could have been Wallinger singing his shopping list and it would stick in the head.

(and it somehow got aired enough by mainstream radio to make it a Top 40 hit)

World Party – Way Down Now
from Goodbye Jumbo (1990)

I had the chance to meet Wallinger at another small, private show and he struck me as a fascinating character – a tiny, slightly impish, rock and roll leprechaun.

He still had a lot on his mind when he released Goodbye Jumbo in 1990 and Way Down Now found him still quite concerned about the future. Whether he’s paranoid or prophetic, it’s impossible not to get sucked into a song so sonically engaging.

World Party – When The Rainbow Comes
from Goodbye Jumbo (1990)

And then, here and there throughout each record, there would be a song like When The Rainbow Comes, a glorious, flower-power blast of sunshine and optimism. Oh, there’s a few grim references like “It’s be-bop-a-lula, then baby you’re dead.” but the sun is most definitely poking through the clouds.

When The Rainbow Comes might be my favorite song by World Party. I dig it’s granola-munching vibe and the guitar that reminds me of George Harrison.

World Party – Is It Like Today?”
from Bang! (1993)

Is It Like Today? was another pretty stellar number. The music has always made me think of a slightly more pop Don’t Go Back To Rockville by R.E.M, jangly and twangy, tinged with regret as it chronicles mankind – “out in space, hey, fixing all the problems” – meeting God.

God, understandably, expresses concern.

Summer Of The Mall Rat

May 19, 2012

As the school year came to a close in 1984, synchronistic events were occurring that would shape that summer for me and my friends.

By that May, all of us had obtained our drivers licenses, giving us the ability to escape the limited boundaries of our small hometown.

The fledgling MTV had become available in our area and, as it still hadn’t been co-opted by the major labels, those of us that had access to the channel had exposure to acts that we wouldn’t hear on the radio.

Those of us without MTV had become devotees of the newly-minted alternative rock station 97X from across the border in Ohio and though reception was maddeningly intermittent, it too provided a chance to hear new and exotic music.

With few responsibilities stealing our time, we took every opportunity available – usually when our buddy Beej would “borrow” his brother’s Datsun B210 (known as The Invisible Jet) – to hit the road for the bright lights of the dirty city known as Cincinnati.

We usually stuck to the malls. The malls had everything we didn’t have in our hometown – record stores, book stores, arcades, food courts, escalators – in one place.

And a lot of girls.

(there were, obviously, girls in our town, but we had known most of them since first grade – mall girls were exotic and mysterious)

The record stores in the malls, though chain stores, had more music than we could imagine and more than enough stock to quickly deplete our meager funds without venturing beyond the climate-controlled confines that became frequent haunts that summer.

However, we did wander about enough to discover Globe Records, the first indie record store I’d ever been in.

Globe was located in a part of the city that had little else to take us out of our way. It was a funky, little store, deeper than it was wide, tucked away in a strip mall setting.

It was a low-key place, lots of simple wood bins and racks. I seem to remember an open upstairs level which must have served as a good perch to monitor potential shoplifters.

There were large posters on the walls, haphazardly arrayed. I think the store’s backroom (and the stairs leading to the loft) might have been separated from the floor by a curtain of beads.

I can almost picture the place.

(I couldn’t have shopped there more than a dozen times and it was twenty-five years ago)

But I vividly recall the air musky with the scent of incense.

It had to have been the most bohemian place my friends and I had ever been up to that time in our lives.

Here are four songs that I remember well from that time…

Thomas Dolby – The Flat Earth
from The Flat Earth (1984)

She Blinded Me With Science was a Top Ten single in early ’83, but the song was mostly ignored by the radio stations in our area. I had a cassette of its parent album, The Golden Age Of Wireless, dubbed from a friend, though, and was captivated by Thomas Dolby’s quirky style and songs like One Of Our Submarines and Europa And The Pirate Twins.

My buddy Streuss quickly purchased the various incarnations of The Golden Age Of Wireless and snagged the follow-up, The Flat Earth, upon its release. The manic Hyperactive! – a minor hit in the States – had short-lived appeal to me and I found the rest of the album difficult to embrace.

(it would really be Paloma who would help me rediscover the album a decade later)

Dolby’s reputation as a techno boffin might be well-deserved, but, despite the gadgetry, he somehow imbues his songs with more humanity than more traditional acts and the title song from The Flat Earth is strange and lovely.

“The earth can be any shape that you want it to be.”

The Psychedelic Furs – The Ghost In You
from Mirror Moves (1984)

My buddy Beej was the first of my friends to have cable. And, even before MTV arrived with the summer in 1984, he was discovering new bands watching WTBS’ Night Tracks late-night video show almost a year earlier.

He’d tell us of the videos he’d see by then-obscure acts like Red Hot Chili Peppers and those who would remain unknown such as Burning Sensations. The more unusual the name, the more likely it would catch his attention and he took note of The Psychedelic Furs.

(the rest of us had heard The Furs on the soundtrack to the movie Valley Girl)

The Ghost In You would be the lead track on Mirror Moves which Beej played into the ground throughout the summer, but I never tired of the lovely and dreamy song.

(and still haven’t)

Big Country – Wonderland
from Wonderland EP (1984)

Sandwiched between Big Country’s debut, The Crossing, and its follow-up, Steeltown, which would arrive in late ’84, was a four-track EP released that spring. I had taped The Crossing from a radio station’s late-night airing and finally snagged a cassette of it and the Wonderland EP on one of those record-shopping trips.

The highlight of the EP was the thunderous title track which became a minor hit for Big Country but I heard often on 97X.

The Alarm – 68 Guns
from Declaration (1984)

Earnest and idealistic, The Alarm had a lot in common with U2 when both bands emerged as part of the post-punk scene in the early ’80s. The Alarm served as a support act for U2 as the latter was breaking in the States with War in ’83, but as U2 marched onward to superstardom, The Alarm remained a fringe act.

Though their albums were inconsistent and their range somewhat limited, the Welsh quartet proved more than capable of delivering some stellar moments such as the bracing anthem 68 Guns.

We Could Have Murdered Him (But That Would Have Ruined Christmas…I Suppose)

December 7, 2011

Over at The Hits Just Keep Comin’, JB notes the reaction of listeners to Mannheim Steamroller’s A Fresh Aire Christmas during a stint DJing at an easy listening station in the late ’80s.

(“You wouldn’t think that the elevator-music audience would use language like we heard on the telephone.”)

I remember A Fresh Aire Christmas being released for the holidays in 1988. I was a junior in college and it was my second Christmas working in a record store, having earned the gig as seasonal, part-time help the year before.

Our manager prodded us to mix in some holiday music to little avail until our assistant manager discovered Mannheim Steamroller’s collection of seasonal music that was whiter than the whitest of white Christmases.

His repeated playing of the stuff drove most of us to a murderous rage.

He was a dimunitive graduate student studying French and had floppy hair and long fingernails. He would stroke his goatee, yammering in a language none of us spoke and then, invariably, launch into an impassioned argument with himself on why Quebec should secede from Canada.

(this diatribe was delivered, unfortunately, in English not that we cared whether Quebec remained part of Canada or not)

In truth, most of us wanted to murder him year ’round, but that December he truly risked death each time he put on A Fresh Aire Christmas.

Here are four songs from albums I recall we favored that holiday season…

Traveling Wilburys – Handle With Care
from Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 (1988)

The one word that always comes to mind when I think of The Wilburys is charming. That first record was one that you just wanted to spend time with.

(it actually seemed to ease any tensions amongst the staff when we’d play it in the store…is it even possible to contemplate bludgeoning a co-worker while listening to Nelson, Otis, Lefty, Lucky, and Charlie T. Jr?)

Not that there wasn’t a bit of melancholy around the record with the death of Roy Orbison – Lefty – that December just as the album was becoming a a must-have. And the gorgeous Handle Me With Care is a bit wistful (though not defeated).

Let’s Active – Every Dog Has His Day
from Every Dog Has His Day (1988)

Actually, I doubt that we played Let’s Active in the store. The jangly, Southern power-pop trio never got beyond cult status and a little play on college radio and middle-of-the-night MTV.

I knew a couple of the band’s songs and I certainly knew guitarist Mitch Easter for his production credits including R.E.M.’s Murmur and Reckoning. Years later, I’d realize that I’d grown up with the band’s original drummer

Steve Earle – Copperhead Road
from Copperhead Road (1988)

One of the first celebrities I encountered in the large record store where I worked post-college was Steve Earle. It was pleasant but a bit strange as he came through the doors ten minutes before closing with the lights down, the music off, and us ushering the remaining customers out the door.

He politely asked me if we had his new album, a live set wonderfully titled Shut Up And Die Like An Aviator. As we walked through the dimly-lit aisles to the E section, he lamented that his label hadn’t given him a copy.

The rest of the conversation is long forgotten, though I do remember him seeming to be geniunely appreciative as I handed him the CD and told him how much a lot of the staff dug the record.

“You should make sure they get you a copy.”

Three years earlier, we were digging the tale of the ganja-growing Vietnam vet in Copperhead Road in that college store.

Jane’s Addiction – Mountain Song
from Nothing’s Shocking (1988)

I can’t hear Jane’s Addiction without thinking of my late dog and how he would spring to attention whenever he heard the dog barking at the beginning of their song Been Caught Stealing.

Mountain Song appeared on their full-length debut, though, and it was the first thing I’d ever heard by the iconic alternative rock band. My buddy Streuss threw the song on while I was hanging out with him during his shift DJing on our college radio station and we were duly impressed with the avalanche of sound.