In my college years, I worked at Music Plus Records in Westwood. The store was a retail chain specializing in top-selling commercial music. CD’s were new and we were told to emphasize language not yet accepted into common parlance like “megabyte,” “digital quality” and “bit rate.” When customers asked how CDs compared to vinyl, we used a stock answer written by our corporate bosses. “CD’s are superior due to greater signal-to-noise ratio, less turntable hissing and better stereo channel separation.”
It was all bullshit. But we repeated the mantra to keep our jobs.
The staff was a collection of misfits and music fans. There was Ricky, a Vietnam Vet who played in a Thin Lizzy cover band. Alejandro was a cross-dressing pre-med student who loved singing Prince songs at Karaoke bars. Suzie was a hippy-ish Deadhead who practiced taxidermy on the side. “Bad Luck” Benjy was a punk rocker with a drug problem.
The store manager was an ex-metal guitarist named Dave Selznick. After struggling through a failed music career in the 1970s, he cut his hair, bought a few suits and supplicated himself to the world of corporate ass-kissing. His oft-stated goal was to lift the store’s profit margin over 30 percent. If he could sustain this for three consecutive months, he’d be promoted to corporate and bid the retail world goodbye.
Dave made us promote Billboard Top 100 Artists like Madonna, Culture Club, Hall & Oates and Rick Springfield. When a CD sat unsold in a bin, he’d mark it on his black list and never order it again. He allowed a limited choice of musical excrement to be played on the store’s sound system. Options included “Mickey” by Toni Basil, “Hold Me Now” by Thompson Twins and “We’re Not Going to Take It” by Twisted Sister.
The exception to music played in the store was when an artist died. Dave scoured the obituaries each morning hoping to find the latest rock casualty. When Dennis Wilson drowned in 1983, Dave was ebullient. “Death is a great sales tool,” he said before gathering Beach Boys albums to play for customers.
Dave preferred the deaths of top-selling commercial artists with easy listening styles. Karen Carpenter croaking from anorexia was great. So was Ricky Nelson dying in a plane crash. Marvin Gaye shot to death by his father brought Dave to the point of orgasm since he’d finally have a way to bring black customers into the store.
I tried taking advantage of this policy. When Klaus Nomi died in 1983, I begged Dave to let me play “Total Eclipse” as a tribute. He played 40 seconds until pulling the plug for fear of Nomi’s falsetto shattering store windows.
The best way to bring alternative music into the store was through placing special orders for customers. Using aliases like Darby Crash, Lux Interior and Jello Biafra, I fabricated customer orders for bands like Bauhaus and Sisters of Mercy. Somehow the “customers” never showed up allowing us to place the music in the bins. This made Dave crazy and trashed his bottom line. He’d dig up the special order forms and call the phone numbers I’d made up. We’d all laugh as he left a message for a Mr. Ian Curtis telling him his Meat Puppets CD was ready for pickup.
I didn’t hate Dave. I just felt he was violating his duty as a record store manager. Record stores were special places. The internet didn’t exist and other than FM radio, record stores were the best way to find new music. I considered it my responsibility to promote the music I loved. Dave couldn’t care less. He was addicted to sales figures and corporate obeisance.
One night after work, I went for drinks with Dave. We discussed music and I asked him about his favorite bands. He said the Yardbirds inspired him to learn guitar while Zeppelin made him want to become a rock and roller.
“What happened,” I asked.
“Life happened. I played for years in shitty clubs. I got tired of sleeping in my van and eating microwave burritos. I finally hocked my guitar and joined the real world.”
“You miss playing music,” I asked.
“If you want to know the truth, I hate music. It makes me think of all the years I wasted.”
“How come you never play Zeppelin in the store?”
“If anyone plays Zeppelin in the store, I’ll fire their ass.”
Dave discovered I was the source of the fake customer orders. If not for German film director Wim Wenders, I’m certain I would’ve been fired. One day, Wenders came into the store. (He was in town to promote Paris, Texas.) He asked me to recommend alternative music. I gathered all the special orders I’d placed the previous year including Nick Cave, Crime and the City Solution, Durutti Column, Cocteau Twins, Wolfgang Press, Gun Club and Tones on Tail. Many were imports and cost triple the price. The bill came to nearly $800. Dave stared in disbelief as Wenders paid cash. Afterwards I told Dave, “I told you this stuff sells.”
The assistant manager was Don Wilson. Don was Dave’s complete opposite. He respected staff and refused to enforce Dave’s petty policies. Dave liked Don because they both listened to metal. Don confessed to me he didn’t actually like metal. He’d lost his hearing in a childhood hot air balloon accident and the only music he could discern was heavy metal and yodeling. He admitted to owning a few Slim Whitman albums but swore me to secrecy.
Don worked nights and let us play any music we wanted. This allowed us to have fun with customers. If a Madonna lookalike entered the store, we played “Lucky Star.” When a man in cowboy regalia asked about Waylon Jennings, we played the gay cowboy song by Ned Sublette (“Cowboys are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other”). We had a strategy to deal with creepy homeless people who came into the store. While they spewed their psychotic drivel, we blared the helicopter sequence from Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The thunderous sound always drove them away.
During quiet periods when no customers were around we discussed our favorite subject, music. We took a “Beatles or Stones” poll among staff. The results split down the middle with Ricky (the Vietnam Vet) saying he hated them both. “The Stones are posers and the Beatles were fags.” Given his unstable nature, no one debated him.
Alejandro (the Prince fan) shared his theory about why Latino men loved The Smiths. “Latino culture is macho. Morrissey is macho but he’s also sensitive. He gives men permission to admire other men. In the song ‘Cemetery Gates,’ he says, ‘Keats and Yeats are on your side while Wilde is on mine.’ He’s referring to Oscar Wilde who was queer as a three-dollar bill. Morrissey says he’s not gay but my Latino Gay-dar says otherwise.”
Suzie (the Deadhead taxidermist) created a Beatles Astrology Chart. She theorized a person’s favorite Beatle is like a horoscope sign revealing one’s true character. If you like Paul, you’re an optimist with delusions of grandeur. John represents a rebel lacking emotional control. Ringo is the clown yearning to be accepted. While George means you’re into spirituality with a penchant for depression.
I asked Suzie what it meant if your favorite Beatle was Pete Best. She said, “It means in your previous life you were a dung beetle and now you’re paying penance.”
My closest friend among staff was “Bad Luck” Benjy. Benjy was lead singer of a punk band called Tetraplegic. He was a lovable guy openly struggling with heroin addiction. One time I found him asleep on the staff toilet with a needle in his arm. Alejandro and I woke him and got him to drink a pot of coffee. We covered for him the rest of the shift so he wouldn’t get fired.
As his name suggests, misfortune followed Benjy wherever he went. One day there was a minor earthquake. No one in the store felt it but it was strong enough to knock a piece of concrete off the building onto Benjy’s Chevy Corvair. His windshield shattered. Another time, we went for Italian food after work. Everyone ordered pizza except Benjy who opted for linguini and clams. He attracted a batch of bad clams and spent the rest of the night in the bathroom.
Benjy played gigs at local punk venues like Cathay De Grande. I owned a video camera and told him I’d record his shows if he supplied the tape. Rather than buying a few VHS tapes with his employee discount, Benjy decided to pilfer them. During his break, he snuck into the parking lot with a box under his jacket. Dave witnessed the incident and called police. An hour later, two cops entered the store and arrested Benjy.
The moment he was bailed out of jail, Benjy drove to the store and made loud figure eights in the parking lot. This was his nonsensical way of getting revenge. What Benjy didn’t realize was that masked thieves had just robbed the store and told employees to keep quiet and stay on the ground. When Dave heard screeching outside he looked and saw Benjy’s car. He concluded Benjy was responsible for the robbery and again called police. Benjy was arrested for the second time in a day. (He was ultimately cleared.)
Every few months the store held promotional events for artists releasing new albums. The Hollywood store got all the big stars like David Bowie and Elton John. We were relegated to B-Level performers like Tommy Tutone (“867–5309/Jenny”), Kajagoogoo (“Too Shy”) and Wang Chung (“Dance Hall Days”).
The most memorable promo appearance involved The Honeydrippers. This was the post-Zeppelin band formed by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. When Dave learned his musical heroes were coming to the store, he became a fan boy. He ditched his corporate duds and donned leather pants and a vest over a Zeppelin t-shirt. He also brought his Fender Stratocaster to be autographed. (He hadn’t hocked his guitar after all.)
By the time the Atlantic Records rep showed up there was already a line of fans in the parking lot. Dave was a basket case, pacing as if his wife was in labor. Just before three, a black limousine appeared. We watched as the back door opened and a reed-thin rocker with long hair strutted into the store.
“Who’s that,” Dave asked the A&R rep.
He was referring to Ernie Chataway, the Honeydripper guitarist who’d also played for Judas Priest and Black Sabbath.
“When are Robert and Jimmy coming,” Dave asked with a hint of apprehension.
“Oh they’re going to Tower,” the rep said. “They’re not coming here.”
Dave’s face melted. He vanished into the back room and stayed out of sight until the event was over. Alejandro claimed he saw Dave crying. That was something I couldn’t process. A few weeks later, Dave was finally promoted. He stopped by the store every few months to tell us he loved and missed us. I couldn’t process that either.
At the start of my junior year, I quit the record store. I was tired of being paid minimum wage to shill for music I didn’t like. Before closing time on my last day, Don (the new manager) asked me to pick a final song to play over the store speakers. Feeling sentimental, I chose “Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac. On the verge of tears, I hugged everyone and walked out of the store. My record store days were over.