As I look back I remember it as an idyllic time. Nineteen eighty-one. I was seventeen and working at the largest record store in Albuquerque.
Sound Warehouse was the coolest place in town and you couldn’t even think of getting a job interview if you didn’t know someone. I didn’t know a soul and there was nothing useful I could put on my resume. Until then I’d only had a few jobs: working with Arabian horses when I was thirteen (and by “working with” I mean shoveling horse manure and doing embarrassing clean-up chores after breedings that would haunt me forever), a summer landscaping job (still have my herniated disc from swinging a pick-ax into hard concrete and carrying 200-pound railroad ties) and one eight-month nightmare as a waiter for Bob’s Big Boy (the previous jobs were a dream compared to this).
Sound Warehouse gave music-lovers the same feeling book-lovers get when they go to Powell’s Bookstore in Portland – rows and rows of classic vinyl (before it was considered “classic”), foreign special editions, laser discs, New Wave, rock, acid rock, experimental. It was big on popular rock, but all styles of music were represented. There was even a large, glassed-in section for classical purists and, as a customer, I often hid there to escape the cacophony of life and soothe my own teenage angst.
There weren’t really specialists at the store. Just the classical guy, who’d been there for a decade. The rest of the employees catered to what was hot in the rock scene. Every high school kid who could carry a tune wanted to work there. The competition was fierce for a new guy without any references.
I took a different tack. I targeted their lonely jazz section and told the manager that, if he gave me a job, I’d build it into an enviable collection. This was before Kenny G single-handedly turned jazz into the syrupy, elevator goop we hear today. At the time, Kenny G still played for The Jeff Lorber Fusion, a kick-ass fusion band with chops. When I was in college I saw Kenny perform with Jeff Lorber in Dallas at the Kool Jazz Festival and he was nothing short of brilliant. A few years later he became the Pied Piper of sap, forcing the death of hard-core fusion under an avalanche of C-grade “soft” jazz artists.
In 1981 the jazz scene rocked with new music from innovators like Chick Corea, Weather Report, Return to Forever, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, The Dixie Dregs, Jean Luc-Ponty, The Brecker Brothers, Spyro Gyra, Manhattan Transfer, John McLaughlin, Pat Metheny, Dexter Gordon, Jan Hammer, Jeff Beck, Keith Jarrett, Chuck Mangione, Gary Burton, Tom Scott and the L.A. Express, George Benson, David Sanborn…and so many more. I’d been introduced to this music by my high school jazz band instructor, who boasted a huge collection of the above and would play these records on a classic Bang and Olufsen stereo system which he babied like a baby, only more so.
Unfortunately, Sound Warehouse wasn’t begging for a “jazz guy” to come onboard. But I figured it gave me an edge, or at least something to differentiate me from the other high school kids who dropped their applications at the front counter every day.
I targeted the manager responsible for writing the work schedule and hassled him every week. And always the same response – “Try again later.”
Finally the day came when I had to quit stalling. I picked up an application for McDonalds and prepared myself for the worst senior year I could imagine.
Although I’d been disappointed every time, I decided to swing by Sound Warehouse one last time before making the fast-food commitment. The moment I stepped in the manager looked up from his paperwork and said, “I think I can use you.” I’ll always remember those words, because they saved me from the embarrassment of working for McDonalds. (However, in college I broke down and took a job at Jack-in-the-Box. Never say never, I guess. I still can’t say I’ll never be a minimum-wage fast-food worker again – I am a writer, after all).
I began the job the very next day.
Over the months that followed I used my employee discount to build a personal jazz collection that rivaled the ever-growing jazz section I managed at the store. At that time I was dating a girl who performed in her high school’s modern dance ensemble. She was always looking for unique music to set their routines to. I volunteered to schlep my giant stereo and speaker system, along with a hundred or so albums, to her school where I introduced the girls to the kind of music they never would have heard on the radio. I think they settled on Kraftwerk and Manheim Steamroller as the soundtrack to their state championship dance routine. Suddenly, I found myself popping up at the different high schools around town to “do my thing” for the modern dance troupes, drill teams and cheerleading squads. What a perk!
I worked at Sound Warehouse for over a year, chalking up loads of memorable experiences. Like the night Lisa, my manager, encouraged me to try Skoal. I liked the buzz until the retching began. I spent the next three hours with a paper bag taped to my mouth. Or the time she accidentally kicked the silent alarm switch under the cash register and the parking lot filled with members of the Albuquerque Police Department, their guns drawn. I answered the phone to the voice of a police negotiator saying, “Send one representative into the parking lot with his hands in the air…”
The place was filled with the drama of young love, fast cars, faster music, alcohol and pot. It was “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” with a time-clock. It would’ve been “Footloose” if any one of us could dance.
Sound Warehouse also subjected me to my first polygraph test. It was discovered that the Ticketmaster cash register had been relieved of a couple dozen concert tickets and everyone was a suspect. Bigwigs from the corporate office in Dallas showed up to polygraph all twenty-five employees, including the managers. They never discovered who took the tickets, but they were surprised by the amount of slippage that occurred in the form of pens, pencils, t-shirts, pins, and other merchandizing paraphernalia.
Every night at closing we played touch football, knocking over cardboard displays and racks of cassette tapes. The ceiling was probably three stories high and the walls were filled with giant styrofoam images of musical artists and band logos. The company actually employed an artist who designed and cut the styrofoam images using a specialty heating tool and a selection of spray paints. One of these giant renderings featured an image of Chuck Mangione playing his trademark flugelhorn. Beneath the image was his name, in bold, green letters.
A week before I left for college, a week into my two-week notice, our nightly football game resulted in a direct hit on the Mangione display. A large, styrofoam “Ch” fell from the sky.
The temptation was too, well, tempting.
I slipped into the artist’s work-space and disappeared from the scene. I rummaged through discarded sheets of styrofoam until I found a usable sample. I plugged in the heating rod and let it warm up. I cut a jagged form and softened the rough edges with a piece of dull sandpaper. I shook the spray paints, tried a few greens until I found the one that was used on the sign before.
I dragged the largest ladder in the building to a spot under the broken display and climbed to the top. I carefully glued my work of art into the space where Chuck lost his “Ch.”
I did all this under my manager Lisa’s watchful eye. She was a Southern rebel, a lesbian Texan who didn’t mind kicking the establishment in the balls. She was taking a risk, but she knew that life was short and it didn’t pay to play by the rules. And, personally, I think she was pissed about having to take that polygraph test along with everyone else.
“Fuck Mangione” stayed up for two full weeks before Lisa’s nerves got the best of her.
And yet no one noticed a thing. It even survived a surprise inspection when the company bigwigs came into town. Lisa watched as their eyes scanned the store, gazing past my work and settling on the Ted Nugent display to its right.
That night, she dragged the ladder under the display and removed the “F.” She placed a work order with the company artist for a new “Ch” and things were back to normal the very next day.
Was it all so fun because I was young and stupid, or was it all just so fun?
Ah, memories. I too remember the Jeff Lorber Fusion because my friend Pat's attic room was a frequent destination for me and the guys I hung out with. Pat was a jazz musician who liked to mix in some JLF, Weather Report, et. al with the gang's usual Pink Floyd and Led Zep while we chatted, drank beer and indulged in, shall we say, pastimes of a vegetable nature. And yet, I never knew the hated Kenny G was a member. Maybe that's why I never took to JLF, but I did go through a brief Chick Corea/Return to Forever phase because I was learning to play bass and Stanley Clarke blew me away.
And those stereo systems…these kids today with their tiny little iGizmos and their earbuds will never know the joy of fiddling with the speakers, getting them placed just right, or hunting for the right needle to fit your turntable…
Thanks for the blast from the past, Stephen.
By far one of the best commentaries of life in the past lane. Our own "Sound Warehouse" type store – SPEC'S, in Miami, closed its doors last week, once again reminding me how much times have changed and that those changes may indeed, not necessarily be so welcome. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. It was a fun voyage.
No one noticed? Apparently that ad failed miserably!!
Your escapes sound similar to the movie "Empire Records." Have you ever seen that one? My daughter subjected me to it numerous times, and it's probably still one of her favorites. I think she would have loved to work in a store like that.
When I was in college, there were two record stores on Franklin Street, the main drag in Chapel Hill. The Record Bar was a regional chain (The Record Bar, The Record Bar, That's Where All the Records Are") . But the "cool" one was Schoolkids Records down the street. The best part of vinyl records as opposed to CD's when they first came out was that vinyl was cheap…4.99 to 6.99 was pretty standard at Schoolkids, and for that price, I'd take a chance on something that looked interesting but that I hadn't heard. I couldn't do that for CD's which were 16.99-17.99 when they fist came out.
Oh, Stephen: remember "Japanese Pressings"? Supposedly they were made on better vinyl and mastered more slowly, so they were "audiophile" quality–and expensive as the dickens. I had a bunch of those.
Stacy beat me to it–you definitely had an Empire Records thing going. Lucky you–most of my retail experience resembled certain scenes from Deliverance.
Kenny G was a real musician once? Whoa.
JD – Gawd, wasn't Return to Forever the best? I used to buy every Al Dimeola album I could find, including the Japanese pressings (crystal clear!) and concert bootlegs. Remember Al playing with Paco De Lucia? And bass players – of course, Stanley Clarke, but also Jaco Pastorius from Weather Report. And the bass player from Dixie Dregs – was that Andy West? It was an era when music was, well, musical. I didn't even mention all the great rock n' roll from that time – Talking Heads, Led Zep, Floyd, Van Halen, Blue Oyster Cult, Steely Dan, Santana, etc. And the sound of a diamond-head needle landing on that first, empty groove…and boy do I remember those $4.99 cent albums, I bought a ton of them and was introduced to music I never would have found otherwise.
Pam – I can't believe SPECS survived this long! When I lived in Santa Cruz I worked at this great little record store called Universes Records – we sold all these great bootlegs and Carlos Santana would come in and buy them from us. Those were some great memories, too.
Stacy – It amazes me that no one noticed the sign. I bet Oliver Sachs would have something to say about the mind's desire to see things as "normal," how we hide unnatural stimuli from ourselves if it appears unpleasantly out-of-place. Or it could just mean that no one notices Chuck Mangione.
Sarah – It pains me to think of what Kenny G did to the music. Instead of educating the listener to what is great about complicated, syncopated jazz, he played down to the lowest common denominator. I think it killed the careers of some of my favorite artists because they couldn't get air time after that. It reminds me of that scene in Clint Eastwood's film, "Bird," when Charlie Parker hears his friend playing on-stage with a Chuck Berry-type band and, afterwards, Charlie grabs the guy's sax and whips out a wild, jazz lick. He hands it back to the guy and says, "I just wanted to see if it could play in something other than the key of C."
During that time I was in San Francisco and the first wave of the punk movement was going strong. The Mabuhay Gardens among other clubs. I was writing art criticism and following the beginnings of folks like Laurie Anderson who was mixing art and music. Talking Heads, the B 52s and others followed that era. But the Dead Kennedy's and Jello Biafra were special treats during that time and sometimes they even played on the street. It was also a big time of gay rights and the disco clubs. I remember some wild, crazy dance music, flashing lights and and chemicals at the I-beam and other places in the City, and Fife's in Russian River. We hung out at Tower Records in North Beach, where vinyl was coveted, and then taped everything we could. Crazy times.
Damn, Allison – those sound like fun times. I listened to Laurie Anderson quite a bit; loved her work. San Francisco is such a great place to be in any era – I wish I'd been there in the 60s and 70s. I never really did get into the punk scene, though it was getting pretty huge when I was in Santa Cruz, with the Dead Kennedys, Sex Pistols and such. You might remember Universes Records in Santa Cruz, where I worked for about a year. It was THE indie record store at the time – 1983. On Pacific Avenue, in the heart of things. I was paid a whopping $3.57 an hour – a whole 25 cents over minimum wage.
Bob's Big Boy. Oh, you brawny lad, you.
I learned about Chuck Mangione from five guys working the nightclub and cruise circuit who, due to alimony obligations, decided against a week off and took a gig in — I'm not joking — Beckley, West Virginia. We shared the stage with them for four nights. Our first gig ever. They indulged us very kindly. And got high with us and turned us on to Chuck Mangione.
You know, the "creative destruction" of capitalism will someday be rightly blamed for the destruction of much more than outmoded business models. Whole communities, ways of life, that meant more than low prices and high productivity.
Something very important has been lost in the elimination of indie book stores and record stores. Social media has picked up some of the slack, but it can't replace the very real communities that developed around stores like this. Still do, where they haven't gone under.
Great piece, Stephen. And yeah, it truly was so much fun..
You mentioned Albuquerque. My memories are of the Frontier restaurant. Ahh, eggs and green chili with warm tortillas.
David – that's why I hang out at cafes, I guess. It's the community I used to find at record stores and book stores. It's a village of creative people.
Brian – I used to eat at Frontier all the time. Great, hot chile, red and green. I eat at The Range now when I'm in town, and hang out at the Flying Star Cafe. The food is only getting better in Albuquerque!
Try Easy Street Records in West Seattle. Good food there too.
Brian & Stephen:
Fresh warm tortillas at Frontier with a bowl of pozole. Deelish.
Stephen, are you saying you're too good for the Frontier now? Have you gone foodie?
Maybe one too many nights of the Frontier Runs, David.
Jeff Lorber Fusion? Yeah! Going way back. Kenny G also played with Earth, Wind, and Fire for a while when they still had funk. Went by Kenny Gorelick, his given name, back then. Saw Jean Luc Ponty at UCSB, David Sanborn a few times. How about The Crusaders, Grover Washington, and Ronnie Laws. Great stuff! Thanks for taking me back.
Matt – I can't believe I left out The Crusaders, Grover and Ronnie Laws! I love their work and whenever I pull out the sax I always play their songs. Especially The Crusaders, whose song "Sweet Gentle Love" is a saxophone favorite – I've been playing it since high school. Great music!
Wilton Felder, from the Crusaders, played the most soulful sax I ever heard. He could make that soprano sax weep.
Sounds like fun no matter how old you are, Stephen (I'm withholding comment on the wisdom aspect).
This brings back college memories, when I was dating one of the DJs at the campus radio station. Talk about a record collection. All the standards of the time, but some really unusual stuff as well. I really enjoyed John Klemmer, but I'm no music critic and maybe he's not edgy enough for your taste. They had duplicates and sometimes three or four copies of some albums. So I ended up with a lot of free albums. The deep voice with an Australian accent wasn't the only perk of dating that guy. 😉 He went on to be a DJ for real stations that actually paid people, and for a while (years ago) was the official radio voice for Outback steakhouse.
Ah, memories. These days, I no longer even have a device that could play all that vinyl sitting upstairs in boxes.
Whoa, that was some musical trip down memory lane. At Berkeley we had Rasputin's Records. The most domineering record store staff you could ever imagine – they would snatch things like Chuck Mangione out of customers' hands and refuse to ring up anything they didn't approve of. And the drugs? Oh, don't get me started.
Alex – record store with an attitude – sounds like a lot of the cafes I go to. I get the same response from Logos Books and Records in Santa Cruz – to this day. It's that Soup Nazi thing, I guess.