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.

The End Of The Line

August 7, 2010

During my years in college and post-college, I spent a decade working in record stores and it was usually true that nothing could rekindle interest in a career like death.

A wave of customers searching for some act that had slipped from the radar of the general public usually didn’t bode well for the artist, especially if the customers making the requests appeared to be setting foot in a record store for the first time in years.

One morning, working with The Drunken Frenchman, we had several customers asking about Peter, Paul & Mary. I wondered aloud whether a plane had gone down with the folk trio on board.

As he had also worked in various record stores for years, The Frenchman realized it was entirely possible.

Ten minutes later, a customer came up to the counter asking him about Puff The Magic Dragon.

“Were they killed in a plane crash?”

He was quite concerned.

(in fact, a concert performance of theirs had aired on PBS the night before)

The store in which we worked was probably one of the thirty largest in the country. The top-selling albums each week would sometimes sell as many as five- or six-hundred copies.

The ripple effect when an act died was immediate.

I spent several years as the head buyer, responsible for ordering everything but classical and the news of a death would result in a phone call from one of the distribution reps.

Even for more obscure acts, I usually felt obligated to order – at least – a few token titles. If the artist had a catalog with releases on numerous labels, sometimes there would be three or four calls.

There were a lot of artists that shuffled on during those years who were quite notable – Frank Zappa, Kurt Cobain, Jerry Garcia – and a lot more of them who existed on the fringe.

(The Frenchman was particularly distressed over the passing of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s Viv Stanshall)

It could be difficult to predict the Dead Man’s Bounce.

Our store didn’t see much of an uptick in demand for The Dead after Garcia died, but, then again, each month we would burn through a boxlot of Skeletons From The Closet: The Best Of Grateful Dead; another one in combined sales from the rest of their catalog.

When Blind Melon’s lead singer Shannon Hoon died in ’95 – just three years after the success of No Rain – it couldn’t revive interest in the band’s recently released Soup.

(I honestly believe that everyone was still sick of “the Bee Girl” video)

In fact, of all the artists that died during those years, the one whose death seemed to goose sales the most was one that I would have never expected – John Denver.

Here are four songs from acts whose passing occurred during those years when I was living in a slacker’s paradise, working in record stores)…

Traveling Wilburys – End Of The Line
from Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1

Roy Orbison is one of the few artists that I vividly recall my parents playing while I was growing up, so I was somewhat more familiar with him than a lot of my peers in 1988.

As that year wound down, I was working in my first record store and Orbison was in the midst of a serious comeback. In December, a heart attack took the legendary singer.

In early ’89, two months after his death, Orbison’s Mystery Girl album was issued and would spawn the hit single You Got It. Several months prior to his passing, he had also found success as one-fifth of the supergroup Traveling Wilburys.

Orbison had just passed away when Traveling Wilburys had released their second single, the lovely End Of The Line, and his fellow Wilburys noted Lefty’s absence with several poignant visual nods in the song’s video.

Stevie Ray Vaughan – Superstition
from The Real Deal: Greatest Hits Volume 2

The circumstances are fuzzy now, but a roommate were either discussing guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan or, perhaps, even listening to him in the record store where we both worked when we learned of his death.

(for quite some time, we felt somewhat responsible)

Sadly, Vaughan had finally gotten his life untracked, was playing better than he ever had, and had just fulfilled a life-long dream of recording an album with his older brother and fellow guitarist Jimmie when he perished in a post-gig helicopter crash.

A month later, Family Style, the lone album under the Vaughan Brother moniker would arrive to commercial and critical acclaim.

Personally, I thought that Vaughan’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s classic Superstition to be a particularly inspired choice.

Blind Melon – Galaxie
from Soup

I might have been one of the few people at the time that didn’t reach a point where No Rain and the “Bee Girl” would provoke visceral, involuntary rage. I still find the song winsome and charming.

Their follow-up Soup had received good notices, but had struggled to find an audience when charismatic lead singer Shannon Hoon overdosed in late October, 1995.

As a fellow Hoosier, I felt especially bummed out at the news.

Galaxie, supposedly inspired by Hoon’s car, alternated between a melody that shifted from jittery to almost ethereal and back again with an effortlessness that hooks me again each time I hear it.

Jeff Buckley – Hallelujah
from Grace

I’ve told tale before of the good fortune I had to not only see Jeff Buckley shortly before Grace‘s release but to also have a few drinks with the remarkably talented singer.

Like Nick Drake, the discovery of Buckley by most listeners post-mortem seems to have gained momentum more so over the years and as a result of continued praise from critics.

And, like Drake, Buckley’s slight body of work – Grace was the only album he released during his lifetime – left those new fans with the nagging void of unfulfilled promise.

Thinking Of George

November 29, 2009

Years ago, half dozen or so of us who worked together at a record store would often go for a drink – “the odd one” – after (or sometimes during) our shift.

The odd one was never one and hours would pass with the conversation equally divided between music and nonsense.

For the musical portion, The Drunken Frenchman was usually the tour guide and, nearly twenty years later, I don’t believe I’ve known another soul possessing more knowledge of rock music (or pop culture) prior to 1980.

It was an education.

And, like many folks of his age, those who had actually watched the Ed Sullivan Show performances live, The Beatles were the touchstone for almost everything that had occurred during his life. So, the discussion of favorite Beatle was a fairly regular topic.

There was no debate as far as The Drunken Frenchman was concerned.

It was The Quiet One.

Although there was a time when I would have reflexively answered “John Lennon” as my favorite of The Fabs, having heard The Frenchman offer up innumerable reasons as to why George Harrison was his guy, that’s no longer the case.

I vividly recall waking on this date eight years ago and opening the paper. George had passed away.

I immediately thought of The Frenchman. Our clan from the record store had scattered in various directions several years earlier. Had we not, we would have likely been together that night. And, as we often would do on significant dates in music history, we certainly would have hoisted a few toasts to The Quiet One.

So, today, eight years later, here are a few favorites from George Harrison…

The Beatles – While My Guitar Gently Weeps
from The White Album

The Beatles – Here Comes The Sun
from Abbey Road

George Harrison – All Those Years Ago
from Somewhere In England

Traveling Wilburys – Handle With Care
from Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1