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CHAPTER ONE: Approaching The Minefield
Recently, it occurred to me that November marked the 30th anniversary of my first published appearance in Goldmine magazine. I wound up freelancing for Goldmine for nearly twenty years. I'd be remiss if I didn't take this opportunity to look back. But before I can even start to talk about my time with Goldmine, I also need to look at the precarious path I had to follow just to get there: a minefield called the 1980s.
In 1986, I was twenty-six years old, married, and the manager of a record store in the greater Buffalo area. I was seeing concerts when I could--The Ramones, Prince, The Kinks, The Animals, David Bowie, The Bangles, The Searchers, The Lords of the New Church, Culture Club, Lyres, Let's Active, The Waitresses, The Chesterfield Kings, Talking Heads, The Clash, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, The Fleshtones, David Johansen, The Peter Tork Project, The Monkees, Red Rockers, The Joe Perry Project, The Restless, The Reducers, The Mystic Eyes, and Johnny Thunders were among the many acts I was able to experience live since moving to Buffalo in '82--and I was buying records and comic books at as great a clip as my budget would allow. (I passed up a legit chance to purchase a copy of Batman # 3 or 5--I forget which--for the unbelievably low price of just $50, because I couldn't spare the friggin' $50.) I had been trying to write in my spare time for years and years, and had finally started making freelance writing sales in 1984.
|My first sale! A history of DC Comics' The Secret Six.|
|My second sale! A speculation on a shared DC and Marvel Comics universe.|
It was also the first time I saw my work available on a newsstand. Amazing Heroes was sold mostly in comic book stores, but Comics Collector was a mass-market zine, and the little shopping-mall newsstand right next to my record store in Buffalo's Main Place Mall carried it. It was even available at Wegmans grocery stores! Best of all, the Comics Collector article earned me my very first fan letter, from someone named Jennifer Jones.
Jennifer, honey, I don't know who you are, but I'll love ya forever.
I continued to write for Amazing Heroes, and to send proposals to the Thompsons. I was also trying to write comics, and not just write about them. I sent many spec proposals to DC Comics, both for original creations and existing properties; they were all rejected because of their common trait of outright sucking. These were bad; I was pretty good at the non-fiction commentary and retrospective stuff, but my fiction was terrible. (I have improved significantly since then.)
And, of course, I loved rock 'n' roll as much as I loved comics. Concurrent to my comics-related efforts, I worked on ideas for Creem and Trouser Press. The latter magazine folded before I ever tried to submit anything, and I received a pretty nice rejection letter from Creem editor Billy Altman; I still regret never placing anything with Creem.
And then there was Goldmine.
Goldmine was, at the time, a bi-weekly tabloid for record collectors. I had picked up one issue of Goldmine a few years back--May, 1982--drawn to it by an interview with former Monkee Peter Tork. I saw that issue on sale at World Wide News in Rochester, a large indoor newsstand near the Greyhound bus station, where copies of Goldmine were stacked about midway between the British rock tabloids on the right side of the store and the wall of porn on the left. I enjoyed the Tork interview, and a few other aspects of the magazine; I specifically recall being entertained by a letter from Marshall Crenshaw that was published in that issue. But each issue of Goldmine contained more advertising than editorial content; that was Goldmine's raison d'etre. The ads didn't interest me as much--I didn't have enough spare cash to buy anything in the ads--so I didn't purchase another issue of Goldmine for about three years.
Like Comics Collector and The Comics Buyer's Guide, Goldmine was also published by Krause; CBG and Goldmine had similar formats, both tabloids dominated by advertising, but still containing some cool articles and features related to their respective areas of collecting. In 1985 (I think), I took out a subscription to CBG, and therefore started to receive advertising mailers from Krause, hawking the company's other collecting-oriented publications. One of these ads hooked me on Goldmine.
In 1985, I was approaching a crossroads, and I didn't even know it. How had the first half of the '80s brought me here? I feel a digression coming on....
|Boost Buffalo, it's good for yoooooooooou...!|
The transition to this new life in Buffalo in '82 was intimidating; we were alone in an unfamiliar environment, a city where we didn't really know anyone. We claimed to be married, fearing discrimination from prospective landlords; we rented a place in a rattrap old building with four other apartments. Brenda got a job at a day care center, while pursuing graduate studies at the University of Buffalo; I snagged a part-time morning shift at a McDonald's, and looked for something better.
"Better" was an arguable description, I guess, but I wound up as an assistant manager at Mighty Taco beginning in January of 1983. More responsibility! More money! Adulting! It was a disaster. The hours were terrible--Mighty Taco was open until 5 am, catering to the bar crowd--so I would frequently get home from work, reeking of hot sauce and failure, just as Brenda was heading out to the day care center. Hi. Bye. Mighty Taco's customers during the wee, wee hours were often drunk, belligerent assholes; one of 'em, dressed in a three-piece business suit, went wee-wee at the counter while waiting for his order. One night, a customer threw a napkin dispenser at me; I saw red, and stormed out to the lobby and started punching him. The jerk grabbed a fistful of my hair and pulled it out; that spot of hair never grew back, earning me a widow's peak at 23. I remember coming to work for a morning shift once, and seeing Patti Rogers, the overnight cleaning girl, still cleaning blood off the wall from a fight that had broken out the night before.
(I was still young enough--or so I thought--that I could burn the candle at both messy ends. Radio station 97 Rock started a weekly series of free live lunchtime concerts, and I made it to most of them. This meant coming home from work around 6 or 6:30 am, air-kissing Brenda as she went off to start her work day, and grabbing a couple of hours sleep on our mattress; we couldn't afford a bed. Then it was off to the club for the noon show. The first such show, starring Red Rockers, was outdoors at The Tralfamadore Cafe, which required travel; subsequent shows were at a recovering former disco in University Plaza, a mere half-mile or so walk from our apartment. The situation saved me from having to make an unwanted choice one evening, when both The Searchers and The Lords Of The New Church were scheduled to play in Buffalo on the same night. Nooooooooo!! But the Lords added a 97 Rock free lunchtime show, so I caught them during the day and then saw The Searchers at the Tralf that night. Serendipity!
And yeah, I might have had a beer or two at those lunchtime shows. When I lived in Bufalo, it is possible I may have been drinking a tiny bit more than I should have been.)
Brenda lost her mother in 1983. It was not unexpected, but it was devastating. We went down to New York for the funeral, and I tried to be a comfort. Afterward, Brenda's father and older sister remained on Staten Island, while Brenda and I returned to our responsibilities in Buffalo. A year later, when the tombstone was unveiled, Mighty Taco would not allow me the time off to attend the ceremony. Brenda had to go without me. I should have quit that goddamned job right then and there.
In '83, I realized I was ready to marry Brenda. We were still too young, really, but it was time, and neither of us could think of a good reason to wait any longer. After a July '84 wedding in Syracuse and a honeymoon in Toronto, we returned to the tenement apartment we shared with the rodent squatters, and we tried our hands at being Mr. and Mrs. Adult.
And, in October, I lost my job.
It wasn't a great job by any means, but it was my only real income. Luckily, I found a new job within a month: working at a record store! It was a management-track position, I was eminently qualified, so this was a match made in Cheektowaga. The store was a chain called Cavages. I trained briefly at the Seneca Mall store, and was transferred to the Thruway Mall location in time for Christmas. At Thruway Mall, one of my co-workers was a terrific guy named Fritz Van Leaven; Fritz and I have remained friends ever since, and he keeps track of our playlist statistics for This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio with Dana & Carl. We can't do a year-end TIRnRR Countdown Show without Fritz.
After Christmas, Cavages needed me at its Main Place Mall location in downtown Buffalo, so I spent most of '85 working there. The atmosphere at an urban mall was decidedly different from the suburban outlets: looser, funkier, more chaotic. Rules? HA!!! I didn't create that environment, but it would come back to bite me nonetheless.
In the '80s, I became a passionate devotee of garage/psychedelic rock 'n' roll, in both its original 1960s form and its then-current Paisleyfuzz revival. My co-workers at Thruway Mall gave me a Chocolate Watchband LP as a birthday gift. While still at Seneca Mall, I bought The Vipers' Outta The Nest! album just because I liked its cover graphic; a co-worker showed it to me, laughing, Who would ever buy something like this?, prompting my immediate response: I WILL!
And that interest in garage is what got me into Goldmine. In 1985, Goldmine partnered with the ROIR label to produce Garage Sale, a cassette-only compilation of '80s acts trying to pretend it was 1966. The cassette was only available to Goldmine subscribers. I became a Goldmine subscriber.
But the minefield was still stretched out in front of me.
CHAPTER THREE: Fools Gold
As much as I now protest how much I hate '80s music, I was okay with a lot of it at the time. It was only in retrospect that I realized how fake it seemed, how sterile the sound, how lifeless the drums, how meatheaded the guitar, how synthetic and phony the...well, the everything. But, in the midst of it all, contemporaneously, it sounded like pop music. And I like pop music.
Don't get me wrong: I was still pissed that radio wasn't playing The Ramones, and I still thought '60s music was better than '80s music. But there was quite a bit that I liked, even loved: Prince. R.E.M. The Bangles. The Gap Band. Eddy Grant. Talking Heads. Hell, I went to see Culture Club in concert, primarily because I thought "Church Of The Poison Mind" sounded like Smokey Robinson & the Miracles. Sure, I detested Lionel Richie, Van Halen, and all the mellow crap on Buffalo's WBUF-FM, and the soulless hard rock on 97 Rock; but there was a whole world of great music out there, too. And it wasn't hard to find.
When Brenda and I first arrived in Buffalo in '82, we relied on public transportation. When I accepted the job at Mighty Taco in '83, I had to promise to get my own set of wheels. My Dad "sold" me his '69 Impala (for $5 or something, so it couldn't be considered a gift), a car that had previously belonged to my maternal grandfather. The Impala had an AM radio, so I listened to a lot of Top 40 on 14 Rock while driving to and from work. At home, my station of choice was WUWU-FM, a wacky, maverick free-form station that encompassed rock, Top 40, reggae, and seemingly whatever else its jocks felt like playing that shift. Woo-Woo's built-in obsolescence caught up to it immediately, and it crumbled to dust in short order. My allegiance shifted to WBNY-FM, the student station at Buff State, which worked a New Music Radio format developed by a young man named Tom Calderone. The format was fresh and exciting, open to a plethora of tangents (from show tunes to hip hop), but still demonstrating a discernible, marketable format. It was compulsive listening, and Calderone went on to a successful career as an executive with MTV, VH1, and Spotify. Calderone put the lie to the stupid myth that college radio needs to be an innocuous, cookie-cut entity, that a strict, bloodless format is the only way broadcasting students can learn The Radio Business, and not be distracted by, I dunno, playing something they might actually wanna play. Bullshit. Calderone was right, and naysayers were (and remain) narrow-minded ninnies. Screw the lot of 'em.
My favorite shows on WBNY included The Tom Calderone Variety Show, as well as shows hosted by Tina Peel, Heather The Coffee Orphan, and Cal Zone. Tina Peel's Hullabaloo au Go-Go was particularly (and unashamedly) enamored with pop music of the past, and Cal Zone's Down At Lulu's and Rock Or Roll Memory Bank embraced garage-trash with a manic fervor that spoke to my fuzz-drenched soul. BNY was where I first heard Husker Du, X, Lyres, Run DMC, Grandmaster Flash, UB40, The Hoodoo Gurus, The Nomads, The Long Ryders, Suicidal Tendencies, The Reducers, Black Flag, The Time, "Baby Judy" by The Hawaiian Pups, "What People Do For Money" by Divine Sounds, "Everywhere That I'm Not" by Translator, and "Don't Slander Me" by Roky Erickson. It was also where I did my first-ever radio shows, as a guest-host on two episodes of the station's amateur-hour show, Ha! Ha! I'm On The Radio.
For me, garage just ruled in the mid-'80s. It didn't matter if we were talking about '60s sounds by The 13th Floor Elevators and The Lollipop Shoppe, or the now 'n' happenin' sounds of The Chesterfield Kings--I was in. My music purchases reflected that.
I had a number of record retail options in Buffalo, even before I started working at a record store myself. There was a stereo store in University Plaza--don't recall the name--with a decent selection of new and used stuff; I remember buying Tell America by Fools Face (which became one of my all-time favorite LPs) and singles by The Scruffs and The Mod Frames there, and it bugs me that I can't remember what the damned place was called. There was also The Record Mine in Kenmore, run by a guy named Dave Wolin; Dave would later co-found the Big Deal Records label in the '90s, home of Cockeyed Ghost, Gladhands, and the Yellow Pills pop compilation CDs, among others.
But the two best record stores in Buffalo were both on Elmwood Avenue: the legendary Home Of The Hits, and the smaller Apollo Records. The latter was owned 'n' operated by Gary Sperrazza! Sperrazza! (always with the exclamation point) had worked with Greg Shaw on Bomp!, which was probably my all-time favorite rock 'n' roll magazine. Sperrazza! worked extensively on Bomp!'s landmark power pop issue in 1978, so I can't stress this point enough: Gary Sperrazza! was one of my heroes. I met him, unexpectedly, one day in the early '80s, as I was shopping for comics at Queen City Bookstore on Bailey Avenue. Queen City owner Emil Novak also owned a second store--Weird Fantasy, I think--on Elmwood, which he was planning to change into a record store, Bop Street Records. The guy sorting records at Queen City's counter that day was going to run Bop Street. Carl, meet Gary Sperrazza! Carl, Gary. Gary, Carl.
|You are my biggest fan!|
I can't say that Gary and I were ever exactly friends--we didn't hang out together, or go to baseball games, or antiquing, or anything--but we were on friendly terms during the time I knew him. He hooked me on "Beg, Borrow & Steal" by The Ohio Express when he played it during a DJ stint at Buffalo's left-of-the-dial nightclub, The Continental. Emil and Gary came to a parting of the ways, and their Bop Street Records became Gary's Apollo Records. Apollo's wares increasingly reflected Gary's own interest in black music--soul, r & b, hip hop--but the back room at Apollo remained devoted to garage, punk, psychedelic, power pop, et al. I shopped there as often as I could afford to. I also did a lot of trade with Gary, and I later made a deal for him to dub me VHS copies of reruns of The Monkees on MTV in 1986. Gary Sperrazza! earned his exclamation point over and over.
(After I moved to Syracuse in 1987, I still made occasional, infrequent stops at Apollo, though I really didn't get back to Buffalo all that often. Alas, our final contact was mixed; I wrote a massive history of power pop for Goldmine in 1995, which included interviews with Greg Shaw and a number of other key power pop figures, and which certainly credited Sperrazza! right along with Shaw for the role Bomp! played in the power pop story. After the article appeared, I received a postcard from Gary: "Um--I'm not dead or anything!" Gary was miffed that I hadn't interviewed him for the article. And I should have found a way to do that; it was purely a logistical decision on my part, juggling multiple interviews in a short period of time, and therefore preferring to stick solely with e-mail interviews that wouldn't require transcribing. I didn't have an e-mail contact for Gary. But Gary's story would have been an integral part of the power pop story, and I regret that I didn't find a way to include him. I don't think anyone ever really interviewed Gary about power pop, and that's such a damned shame. And now, no one will ever do that interview; Gary passed away earlier this year. 2016 can go straight to bloody Hell.)
Eleven paragraphs into what is theoretically another chapter in a series chronicling how I came to write for Goldmine, and I've finally gotten around to mentioning Goldmine. But, see, this is all related, all a part of my titular journey, The Road To GOLDMINE. Without everything else that came first, I don't get there at all.
And, ultimately, it came down to garage-bred, '60s-style punk rock nuggets. As I mentioned in Part 2, I took out my first subscription to Goldmine in 1985, when the magazine offered its subscribers Garage Sale, an exclusive cassette compilation of contemporary garage rock. Garage Sale was a great, great comp, with new tracks from The Pandoras, The Mosquitos, The Cheepskates, and Buffalo's own phenomenal pop combo The Mystic Eyes, among many others. God, I loved that tape--I still do! I was particularly taken with "I Tell No Lies" (itself a cover of an obscure '60s pebble by The Escapades) by a Swedish group called The Shoutless; my This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio co-host Dana Bonn has a similar affection for another Garage Sale track, "Place In My Heart" by The Crickle. Garage Sale is long, long overdue for reissue.
But Garage Sale's most enduring gift to me was as a gateway to Goldmine. I started to read the magazine, and saw the potential for me to participate. Goldmine was already covering the great rock 'n' roll of the past, and was also clearly interested in the great rock 'n' roll of the (then-) present day; I was already writing about comics for periodicals put out by Goldmine's publisher, Krause Publications; this was an opportunity. Gold! I could write about rock 'n' roll. I could write for Goldmine. I knew I could.
Well, maybe I could, as soon as I figured out what to do with the rest of my life. I knew I could do the one thing; I wasn't so sure what to do about the other.
Charles Dickens didn't live in Buffalo in 1985. Nonetheless: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Indecisive bastard, that Dickens.
Working in a record store was the best job I'd ever had. I'll pause now to allow everyone to reply with a passionate Duh. Other than writing--and even that might have been a maybe at that point in my life--this seemed to be what I was born to do. Hey, ya got that record...? Yessir, right over here. Do you know that Bob Dylan song that goes, "You've got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend?" Yep, it's called "Positively 4th Street," it's on his Greatest Hits album; no, you can't return it if I'm wrong, but I'm not wrong. Watching a teenaged girl blush and giggle while asking if Animotion's "Obsession" was the 45 she was looking for, the one with that line, y'know...? ("What do you want me to be to make you sleep with me?," I replied helpfully in song; DON'T SAY THAT OUT LOUD! she protested, blushing even more.) Or the time a customer tried to return a 12" single of Madonna's "Into The Groove" because it was, like, Tears For Fears on the record instead of Madonna; not realizing it was a 45 rpm single, she'd played it at 33 1/3, slowing Ms. Ciccone's normally-chirpy vocals to the point she sounded like a mopey British guy instead. We shared a laugh, and I told her not to be embarrassed. No big deal, right? Here you go, ma'am. Thanks fer shoppin' at Cavages!
I was still trying to write, too. As noted waaaaay back in Part 1, I made my first freelance sale to Krause Publications with a history of the Batman TV series, published in the Summer 1985 issue of Comics Collector. I continued to write for Amazing Heroes. I tried my hand at more submissions to Creem magazine, to no avail. I wrote a short story, "Thicker Than Water," which I tried to sell to a sword & sorcery anthology book edited by Marion Zimmer Bradley; I missed the submission deadline, but it wouldn't have mattered--the story was abysmal (though the first few paragraphs were pretty good; I should salvage those and start over some day, ditching the rest of it). I wrote an unpublished script for an original superhero called The Electric Angel, intended for a fanzine published by Queen City Bookstore. I worked on a number of submissions to DC Comics; over the course of my time in Buffalo, my DC submissions included pitches for original characters--Captain Infinity, Lawman--and the occasional stab at existing DC properties (The Justice League of America in "The Trial Of Doctor Light!"). The only thing that warranted anything more than a perfunctory rejection slip (if that) from DC was a pitch for a character called The Trident, a World War II-era hero I envisioned as "what if Joe Simon and Jack Kirby had created a two-fisted black superhero in the '40s?" In a letter accompanying a bunch of rejected stuff returned to me by DC, I was informed that my plot outline for The Trident's origin story, "A Trident Glows In Brooklyn!," was being forwarded to the editor of DC's New Talent Showcase for further consideration--"can't promise anything," though. I never heard any more from DC about The Trident, so I'm sure it's still under consideration. Gotta be, right? Hope springs infernal!
And I was also doing a lot of artwork. As a kid, I wanted to become a comic book writer and artist, but my art didn't develop at the same pace my writing did. My eighth grade art teacher encouraged me; my ninth grade art teacher did not, and that was that. But I still have my mid-'80s sketch book, and I tell ya--there was something there. It was raw, undeveloped, and it's doubtful I could have ever done much with it. But I had some basic potential; with time and effort at an earlier age, maybe I could have honed that skill into something worthwhile.
|I was experimenting with swipes in my '85 sketches, trying to learn from the best. The bottom two Batman images are copies of Marshall Rogers, my favorite Batman artist. Main figure is probably original, with an idea dating back to my teen years.|
|That bad guy? He is so screwed...!|
I was 25. I felt like a kid again. Good times? Maybe.
Working in fast food is a peculiar experience, and everyone should do it at least once in his/her life. It can be more physically demanding than critics would concede; one needs to actually work if one expects fast food to be...well, fast. We need twelve regs! Twelve bun crowns in the warmer, twelve frozen, 1/10th of a pound frozen patties slapped on the grill, timer hit. First timer sounds, you sear the meat to the grill. Second timer sounds, you flip the burgers over and apply diced onions. Crowns come out of the warmer, heels go in, and you apply ketchup, mustard and pickle, while yelling out, "Cheese on twelve regs?" Cheese seven, please! Seven slices of cheese on seven almost-done patties, tray of buns now affixed next to the grill. Final timer sounds, patties come off the grill, two at a time, and meet their whitebread partners. Heels are removed from the warmer and are placed, in one movement, atop the finished burgers. The tray of twelve burgers is passed to the guy or gal calling bin. "Regs are up!" Thank you. And on to the next order.
Elapsed time: 90 seconds.
If you were working grill alone, as I usually was, you would also need to take care of the quarter-pounder grill, the Filet-O-Fish vat, the pie vat, and the Chicken McNuggets vat. Workers at the counter took care of the fries. You develop a rhythm. You work fast, but precisely--just like The Ramones! You clean as you go. If you have time to lean, you have time to clean! I'd been an assistant manager at McDonald's of Brockport years before, and had once considered making that my career. Now, I just wanted to work the grill and collect a paycheck. One busy night in '85, I saw that the cashiers were falling behind, so I snuck up to the counter, took one quick order, and then moved back to the grill to keep things moving. The manager on duty saw me, and said, Carl! You know how to work register?! "No, Bill," I replied firmly. "No. I don't. You didn't see that." I could have counted out the registers, done the books, and taken care of the ordering--I had experience in all of that--but now I just wanted to make some extra cash workin' the damned grill. Period.
My most memorable McDonald's shift was one summer night in 1985, as I stood at the grill fryin' up some Big Macs, and I heard a fight break out in the lobby. During my time in Buffalo, I'd have to say that fights were not an unusual occurrence. Like, at all. I ignored it--I was just the cook, man--until someone cried out, He's got a knife!
I grumbled and tossed aside my spatula, forsaking the Big Mac patties that I would have to discard in a few minutes. I saw the knife-wielder--big guy--already restrained by, I think, three other people, who were struggling to stop him. He still had the knife. I jumped behind him, put one hand behind his head and another around his neck, and started pounding his goddamned head against the counter, calmly but firmly telling him, "Let go of the fucking knife." Rhythmically! Like, "Let go [WHOMP!] of the fucking [WHOMP!] knife [WHOMP!]" A friend of the assailant tried to order me to let him go, to which I replied, "As soon [WHOMP!] as he lets go [WHOMP!] of the fucking [WHOMP!] knife." Police arrived, crowd dispersed, order restored, Big Macs ruined. Waste twelve regs, please? Thank you.
This McDonald's closed at...11 o'clock? Midnight? I forget. Bars in Buffalo were open until 4 am. Jimmy J's was literally right across the street from my McDonald's. So, after we finished closing, I would often join some of my co-workers for a beer or several. Although I was only 25, some of the girls at McDonald's thought I was a cute and engaging old guy. I bantered and joked, but kept 'em at arm's length. One of them joked that I was the only guy at McDonald's she hadn't slept with yet. I'm pretty sure she was kidding--I think--but I especially kept her at arm's length, just in case. I was married. I wanted to stay married.
|Dream on, old man--no fries for YOU!|
The downtown Cavages was...man, what can I say about this? Awright: the manager was selling drugs in the store, grass at least, maybe more. I knew it, my co-workers knew it, everybody knew it (except maybe--maybe--the cop who worked security for us every day). We all either looked the other way, or shrugged, or just accepted. Indifference is bliss. In retrospect, I guess I should have ratted him out. That was inconceivable to me at the time--who was I, Zal Yanovsky?--and I still can't really picture me doing that. But I'd have been better off in the long haul if I had.
|Don't blame me or the rest of the Spoonful, man--we just asked IF you believed in magic. Sucker.|
Bad times? I would have denied it at the time. Looking back, however....
It was a pretty wild 'n' wooly place to work. Some of the customers were crazy, all of the staff was loopy in some way (present company included), and the bar upstairs at the mall could count Cavages employees among its regular clientele, even during work hours. Call me a stick in the mud, or call me Ishmael, but I can honestly say that I never--never--worked a shift under the influence of anything stronger than Mountain Dew. I cannot honestly say that I never worked a shift hung over.
The most notable regular at Cavages was a colorful guy named Lou Biondi, aka Mad Louie, or Louie the Mad Vinyl Junkie. Mad Louie worked at City Hall or something, I think, but no one cared about that; no, Mad Louie was a legendary record fanatic, an irascible guy with whom I got along famously. He was thrilled that Cavages had someone like me workin' the retail shelves, someone who actually knew who The Chocolate Watchband were. This would eventually be another brick in my wall, dammit, but it was cool at the time. Mad Louie met his pal Bernie Kugel every day for lunch at the mall; Bernie was the leader of a swell garage band called The Mystic Eyes, and a good guy in his own right.
As much as I loved working in a record store, I knew I needed to make more money. McDonald's wasn't filling in the gap sufficiently, and the writing sure as hell wasn't paying any bills, so I started to look elsewhere. I somehow got an interview, and even a follow-up interview, with the local public television station for some kind of writing job. Because of my lack of any discernible experience, the woman I spoke with there was unsure about me, but reluctant to rule me out for the job. She saw...something in me, it seemed. I wasn't qualified. But maybe...maybe....
In the end, it didn't matter. I had to withdraw my application with the station; Cavages was promoting me. The circumstances of the promotion were troubling: the staff at Cavages' Thruway Mall location, where I'd worked before transferring to Main Place Mall, had been dismissed en masse, for reasons that seemed petty and insignificant. My best pal there, Fritz Van Leaven, had already been let go for even stupider, pickier reasons. Hey, was that some kind of warning shot that just singed my widow's peak? But I went along with it. I needed the money, I'd earned the promotion, and I was getting my own store. I quit McDonald's, and I apologized to the woman at PBS who'd been so nice to me. This ain't no Mudd Club, no CBGB's--I ain't got time for that now. I was managing a record store.
The best of times? The worst of times? Yeah. Both true, I fear. There were better times to come, but there were worse times coming, too.
CHAPTER FIVE: A Shaft. A Light.
I had been an assistant manager with Cavages for about a year, and an assistant manager with Mighty Taco for over a year and a half before that. As 1985 rounded the turn for its final lap, I was set to take over Cavages' Thruway Mall store. This was...September, I think? Thereabouts. Their need was immediate, so I bid seeya-bye to my downtown mall, and headed back to the suburbs.
My store. It was a happy time. It was over and gone before I knew it. I tried to hold on to it. It slipped through my fingers like smoke, no more corporeal than a phantom, as elusive to my grasp as a fading shadow. But, for an all-too brief time, it was mine. For a tiny, fleeting moment, it was real.
I already knew this store well, but this wasn't the homecoming it should have been; all of my friends and former co-workers at Thruway had been jettisoned, for reasons that were never explained to me. Knowing what I know now, I'm prepared to believe they were shafted by the chain, and I probably thought so at the time, as well. But I was in no position to decline this promotion, no matter what I thought about it. Bills to pay. Records to play. Music is your best entertainment value! Welcome to Cavages.
By the time I arrived back at Thruway, Cavages had already assembled my new team. My assistant, Cheryl Dunn, was capable, resourceful, and likely the best single factor in this new arrangement; she soon graduated to a position of greater responsibility at Cavages' warehouse, and later joined her husband Dan Dunn in running their own floral shop, Dunn's Enchanted Florist. I mention that just because I love saying "Dunn's Enchanted Florist." Cheryl and I are still in touch on Facebook, and she and Dan remain among my favorite people.
The sales staff was mostly young, and included Lisa (who had previously worked at the warehouse), Margaret (a pleasant girl who suffered from diabetes, and whom Lisa called "Cookie"), Barb (a singer), Mary (an aspiring fashion model), and Marie (a teacher). There was one additional member of my staff, her name long since forgotten, so I'll just call her Sparky. Sparky got into an immediate conflict with Cheryl over something trivial. We hadn't yet revealed that Cheryl was to be the assistant manager, but Sparky never had a prayer of getting me to side with her in any dispute with Cheryl. Sparky quit instead. Hasta la vista, Sparky.
Mary also didn't quite belong, and she knew it. She had no interest in record stores, and had wanted to work at Cavages' card and gift store instead. She was sweet, and I wish she'd felt more comfortable working with us, and with me. Looking back, I'm sure she thought I was ridiculing her when I corrected her on music-related things (like informing her that George Harrison LPs would not be filed under "Jazz;" he was, y'know, in a rather famous rock 'n' roll group). It was never my intention to alienate her or put her down in any way, but I know I did my part in paving that particular highway to Hell. She quit, and I doubt she has ever looked back on the experience with any fondness whatsoever. I regret that.
After Cheryl, Mary, and--of course--Sparky moved on, my core crew remained Lisa, Margaret, Barb, and Marie, with various other personnel filtering in and out over the ensuing months. I think Barb and Marie also left eventually, and I remember relative newcomers Kathy (who came from a fundamentalist background, so her family disapproved of her working in a place that sold the devil's music), Kathleen (an immensely likable young woman whom I nicknamed KB), Marco, and...I forget the rest. I can picture one other young man, a black guy who was horrified when I told him I didn't like The Police; nice guy, really, and I wish my dyin' brain cells could conjure up his name right now. It was a well-run store. Where the downtown store had a large urban and hip-hop clientele, this suburban outlet sold far more hard rock and metal than the Main Place Mall location ever did. We were clean, we were stocked, and we knew what we were doing. When MTV's embrace of The Monkees led to resurgent Monkeemania in '86, no one could answer the questions of newly-minted Monkees fans with more authority than we could ("No, sorry, that's out of print" might not have been the answer the fans wanted, but hey-hey....)
Honestly, I'm trying to remember some bad stuff to balance out all this kumbaya, but the contented memories overwhelm all such attempts. I was in my heaven. All was right with the world. Hell, my Island Records display--"Cavages Island: Just Sit Right Back And You'll Hear The Tale"--won the competition for best in-store Island promotion. Warner Brothers rep Jack Riehle got it into his head that I was a metal fan (though I really wasn't), so he always brought me a bunch of metal promo LPs each time he visited the store; knowing he was a jazz fan, I rewarded him once by having a Benny Goodman live LP playing when he arrived, and he appreciated that gesture. One day, Columbia Records rep Teddy Marche came in and asked me, "Carl, what are you doing Sunday night?" I dunno, Ted, probably watching TV with the missus, I guess. "No, you're going to see Eddie Murphy," and he put two tickets to Murphy's show in my shirt pocket; he also offered me a chance to see Heart another time, but I was tired and let Cheryl have those tickets instead. Gotta share the wealth--a happy staff is an efficient staff.
At home, my work hours and Brenda's work hours were still out of sync--that has been the case for the entire time we've been together--but at least there were no more late, late nights. We had occasional parties in our apartment, and most of the Cavages staff (and their plus-ones) came to those. Barb quoted Cheap Trick and wrote "I Want You To Want ME!" on a banner for one of the parties, and then was mortified that Brenda might misinterpret her intent. No worries there--we were all friends, and life was good.
During the time that Brenda and I lived in the crappy little converted storefront that our landlord called an apartment building, we were the only constant tenants. The place was full when we first moved there in August of 1982; I don't remember the tenants of the main apartment at all, but I remember an elderly woman (Dolores) who lived upstairs from us, and a student couple (Priscilla and...her anonymous boyfriend) who lived over the main apartment next door. We were cordial to Dolores, and she appreciated the fact that we never gave her any trouble. She didn't get along with Priscilla and Mr. Priscilla, but the young couple had Brenda and I over for dinner once, a fun evening of chatting and listening to Otis Redding's Live In Europe; Priscilla's guy, I may not remember your name, but I remember you turning me on to Otis, and I'm forever grateful for that.
Wait--Mark! That's it. Mark and Priscilla. Thanks, Mark!
But all of them moved away. For a long time, Brenda and I were the only people living in that drafty, rodent-infested firetrap. In the winter, we wound up paying the heating bill for the whole damned, empty place; one $600 National Fuel bill nearly broke us like a butterfly on a wheel. I would often have to go down into the basement and try to light the pilot for our errant gas furnace, usually with a roll of newspaper which I'd set ablaze with a cigarette lighter, stick into the gas jet, and pray for the best. The place was filthy--Brenda was fastidious, and I was no slob myself, but it was just impossible to erase the dust and grime. I remember once discovering a dead rat the size of a tennis shoe, floating in a pail of (presumably toxic) water under our leaky sink. It is conceivable that our absentee landlord could have cared less, but difficult to imagine how much less that could have been.
There seemed to be a potential light on the horizon when this luxury hovel was sold to a new landlord--a local landlord! The slum's new owner did make some minor repairs and upgrades, and we could at least get him or his wife on the phone when we had an issue. And the other apartments were rented: an older, mixed-race couple took over the main apartment; a divorced woman, Jeanne, moved into the apartment over them; and two cute girls, Joanne and Cheryl F, moved in above us.
Brenda and Jeanne hit it off pretty quickly, and they remained buddies for the remainder of our time in Buffalo. Jeanne didn't get along with her downstairs neighbors at all, though I remember them as basically friendly and easy-going (if a bit too religious for me); I think the husband helped inept li'l me install a rear-window defogger on the awful '78 Mercury Bobcat that had replaced our intrepid '69 Impala. God, I hated that Bobcat. And we hung out occasionally with Joanne and Cheryl, both of whom were pretty easy to get along with.
|Our crappy 1978 Mercury Bobcat, parked in the driveway of our apartment building.|
Joanne moved out, but Cheryl F stayed. Cheryl and Chris broke up, and Cheryl met a new guy, Chuck. It turned out that Chuck was an asshole, but we didn't realize that at first. Initially, he was just Cheryl's guy, so we saw him around the apartment socially.
One night, as Brenda and I were sleeping, we woke to a weird banging sound coming from...somewhere. The front of the house? I got up to investigate, walked out of our apartment into the vestibule, and opened the door to the apartment building. It was Chuck.
Confused, I said, "Chuck! What's going on?"
He said, "I don't know what's going on." He pushed me aside, and ran upstairs to Cheryl's apartment. More pounding, Cheryl screaming from behind her door for him to go away, and then the crack and thud of Cheryl's door breaking. More loud voices. And I realized with horror what was happening.
Brenda appeared at our apartment door, her face white. I told her to call the police. Now. And I started up the stairs. "Carl, NO!," she cried.
And I turned and said, "Brenda, I'm afraid he's going to kill her."
I reached Cheryl's apartment and walked in. In her bedroom, she was in her bed, Chuck looming over her, his anger simmering, his fists clenched. They were yelling at each other. Cheryl screamed at him, Get out! Go back to your wife! Chuck called her every venomous, sickening name you could think of.
In my life, I have never been more scared than I was in that moment.
Chuck was a big guy. I'm a pretty big guy, too, but I'm not a fighter; Chuck could have snapped me into pieces before I could even formulate a witty, self-effacing quip, and he'd still be free to hurt Cheryl. But I hoped I could at least stall him long enough so that wouldn't happen.
I mustered whatever faux authority I could put into my voice. "You've said your piece, Chuck. Now go."
"Are you gonna make me? You?"
"Am I gonna have to? Just go. This ain't worth it. The cops are on their way. You can leave on your own, or you can go with them."
Chuck hurled more verbal abuse at Cheryl, but didn't lift a finger. Maybe the gravity of the situation finally penetrated his thick, stupid skull. He pushed past me again, and left the apartment. He was met outside by the police, just arriving at the scene. Brenda and I got dressed, and drove Cheryl to the police station to press charges against his sorry ass. I called the landlord the next day, informing him of the damage to the apartment building. Not only had Chuck broken down Cheryl's apartment door, he'd also damaged the front entrance with his attempts to break in. Schmuck. Thirty years later, I'm still angry. And I'm still scared, thinking of all the ways that it could have been even worse.
I don't remember many specifics about my writing attempts in 1986. I sold a couple of capsule TV reviews (of Remington Steele and The American Music Awards) to The Buffalo News, and probably did something for Amazing Heroes, I guess. My favorite TV show was actually Late Night With David Letterman, and my staff was sick to death of me going around the store saying, "He'p me! I'se been hypmotized!" I also wrote my first-ever submission to Goldmine in early '86; we'll talk more about that in our next chapter.
Working and partying took up most of my time. And, contrary to my initial memory of happy Cavages memories, there was some work-related tension: early in '86, the entire staff of Cavages' Main Place Mall store--my alma mater, and my co-workers from just a few months ago--were summarily dismissed in a company house-cleaning. I'm not sure what specific impetus prompted the purge, but the store manager's not-so-secret in-store drug-sellin' sideline either prompted it, or came to light because of it. Either way, that store was scorched earth. And a particularly humorless, unfriendly Cavages executive phoned me to ask if I had any knowledge of this illicit activity taking place during my time at Main Place Mall.
Drugs?! I feigned surprise, perhaps even convincingly. No!! There was no good answer, no acceptable route out of this one. Lying wasn't good, but if I told the truth, the next question would be about why I hadn't come forward with this information myself. And why hadn't I? Because that manager had been a friend at the time, and because I was part of a collective social upbringing that says ya don't freakin' tattle on someone. You just don't. Hell, when I worked at Mighty Taco, I had to fire people because of chronic shortages in their cash drawers, and not a one of 'em would roll over on the guy who was actually pilfering from the register, even though it might have saved them from losing a job in a tough economy. That's how deep the don't-squeal mentality went, and I wasn't immune to it, either.
The Cavages exec took me at my word, at least for the time being. Were things back to normal then? Probably not. The sands were starting to fall faster and faster; you could see a harsh light glaring through the top of my hourglass as it emptied. No refills. No future. No way out.
CHAPTER SIX: Buffalo Mining Disaster 1986
I've written previously about my Goldmine audition (detailed here), my first, failed attempt to sell my writing to GM editor Jeff Tamarkin. It was an unsolicited review of two then-recent albums--Stop! by The Chesterfield Kings and Different Light by The Bangles--which I mailed to Jeff on January 29th, 1986. It was quickly rejected, for a whole bunch of reasons: it was too long; it was unsolicited; both records had already been assigned to other reviewers; and it contained many, many violations of Jeff's editorial edict for writers to keep their first-person references out of the damned review--the word "I" was virtually verboten in Goldmine reviews.
But it was the most encouraging rejection slip I ever received. Jeff liked my style in general, and he thought I demonstrated knowledge of the subject matter. He was open to having me write for Goldmine; we would just need to agree on an assignment first.
1986 was, for me, the year of The Monkees. If you needed proof of the extent of MTV's influence in '86, just ask someone who was running a record store at the time. Kids--young kids, teens, preteens--had seen reruns of The Monkees on MTV, and they were hooked on Micky, Davy, Peter and Michael. These new fans didn't care that this was an act from twenty years ago, nor that it was an act that was dismissed by serious arbiters of cool from the friggin' get-go; to them, The Monkees were as cool as anyone--Duran Duran, A-Ha, anyone--and maybe cooler. The new fans were the young generation, and they had something to say...thanks to MTV.
I didn't have MTV--Brenda and I couldn't afford cable--but our neighbor Cheryl did. On days when I had the afternoon off, I went upstairs to watch the noon rerun of The Monkees with Cheryl in her apartment. After our confrontation with her neanderthal ex-boyfriend Chuck, Cheryl seemed to think of me as a friendly big brother, and she was fine with having me hang around to watch The Monkees. (Cheryl was a blast. I remember one time that she accompanied Brenda and I to a show at The Continental, and she realized that she hadn't brought any ID. She laughed it off, and said if anyone tried to card her, she'd just open her jacket and say, Do these tits look like they belong to a minor? She got into the club just fine. I think I was carded.)
A Monkees reunion--even one without Michael Nesmith--was a dream come true for me. When I discovered that their concert tour would include a stop at Chautauqua, about 80 miles from Buffalo, I bought a pair of tickets immediately. But Brenda couldn't go. The Monkees' show was the night before Brenda's big state teaching certification test, and she couldn't risk a late night prior to such an important exam. I made the drive solo--a longer drive than I anticipated in those days waaaaay before Google Maps--and dispatched the extra ticket to this sold-out show at face value as soon as I arrived. I wished that Brenda could have accompanied me, but I understood, and she was right to skip it.
Things continued to cruise along at Cavages. The uncertainty following the Main Place Mall pink-slip jamboree had given way to confidence, security. My Thruway Mall store was a well-oiled machine. I felt like Cavages' golden boy, referred to by warehouse personnel as a walking musical encyclopedia, and called upon by upper management to run their Boulevard Mall store for a week while its manager was away. Issues? None! I believed that. Once upon a time, I also believed in Santa Claus.
The Main Place Mall location wasn't doing as well. I didn't know its story first-hand, but I gathered that it was chaotic, disorganized, insufficiently maintained, and in need of stronger managerial guidance. One of that outlet's best and longest-standing customers complained, and suggested with great conviction that there was only one guy for the job: Louie the Mad Vinyl Junkie wanted Cavages to make me the new manager at Main Place.
Mad Louie, wherever you are: I know you meant well. It wasn't your fault.
The customer has been known to be right on occasion. Cavages listened to this customer, and I was transferred back to Main Place as its new store manager. Adieu, Thruway Mall. You were the best job I ever had.
But I felt no sadness or trepidation at the time; it was a fresh challenge, and I was sure I was ready for it. I was welcomed back by Mad Louie and The Mystic Eyes' leader Bernie Kugel, and then started re-organizing the store immediately. I would accomplish my goals here quickly. I was certain of it.
And then my Spider-Sense finally warned me of danger, too damned late. And I heard the unctuous tones of the stiff, humorless suit who ran the chain, trilling in my ear: Oh, by the way, Carl: we do need you to take a lie detector test. We're giving you a lot of responsibility. We just want to make sure that we can trust you.
Ah, hell. Hiya, Spider; I'm the fly. But I guess you already knew that.
Would this have occurred if I hadn't returned to Main Place? I'd guess it would have, eventually. Another Cavages executive assured me that the polygraph findings would not be used against me, they just wanted to clear the air. I told myself it was a chance to clean the slate and move forward as the company man I wanted to be. It would be a good thing. It...it....
Cavages asked for my immediate resignation.
I try to look back on it objectively, and I have to concede that Cavages had a right to toss me aside. I had known that the previous Main Place Mall store manager was selling dope in the store, and not only had I not snitched on him, I lied to an officer of the company when asked about it. I had also once pocketed $20 when a cash drawer was over--a singularly stupid move on my part--though I had also kicked in money from my wallet when a drawer was short, so I thought it kinda balanced out. It was still wrong, and I'm not trying to excuse my action. And I should have known better than to believe that above-mentioned store manager when he said a bunch of sidewalk sale bargain LPs had already been written off and paid for as far as the company was concerned--go ahead and take as many of 'em as you like, Carl, and all you guys. I took a stack, some of which I kept, and some of which I traded to Gary Sperrazza! at Apollo Records in exchange for more garage fuzz. It wasn't until much later that it dawned on me that these "free" records still belonged to Cavages, and it wasn't the manager's call to let me have them.
I was a fucking idiot. My blood still boils at the thought of what a cretin I was.
So yeah, you could say Cavages was right to give me the ol' heave-ho. I still think it was a mistake. I'd been trying hard to do things better, to do things the right way, and I'd succeeded in doing all of that. They'd seen my success, seen the results of my efforts. I was worth keeping.
But I was gone.
I didn't see it coming. I'd convinced myself that I'd be allowed to continue with the company from that fresh point--see above reference to "fucking idiot"--and I was blindsided when the axe fell. I picked Brenda up from work, and I just broke down sobbing when I told her I'd lost my job. I felt desperate, depressed, and...lost. Just lost. Lost. Loser. Stupid, pathetic loser....
Before my sudden exile from Cavages, Jeff Tamarkin and I had agreed on an assignment for two reviews: Laughing At The Pieces by Doctor and the Medics, and a garage compilation called Beasts From The East. I owned a copy of the first record, and had planned to buy Beasts From The East at work that weekend. Now, I had no work, and no money to buy the record I was supposed to review. (Also no money for rent, food, gas, or anything else, for that matter; there would be no unemployment benefits, either, given the disgrace and shame that now clung to me like a shroud.) And I kept asking myself, in absolute, awful terror: What am I going to do?!
I have gone through bouts of depression in my life. This was one of the worst of them. I did not see any way out. I still can't articulate, or even understand, how I got through it.
The Goldmine part was easy; Mad Louie felt terrible about what had happened, even blamed himself for it (which was nonsense). But, because of the circumstances, he broke his personal rule of never lending out any of his records, and let me borrow his copy of Beasts From The East. I wrote the reviews, mailed them off to Jeff Tamarkin, and quickly returned the Beasts From The East LP to its rightful owner. Louie also tried to get me a job over at Record Theater, but it was to no avail. I'm not sure whether it was just a matter of no openings, or if I was now considered tainted. I suspect the latter.
I looked for work, and I wasn't too picky about what I considered. I found myself applying for a job selling major appliances at a local store; I didn't get the job, but I listened carefully to some of the things my interviewer was telling me, about how he required his employees to do things differently from sales staff in other appliance stores. I committed his words to memory, and thought to myself, Maybe these other stores will want a salesman who does the things this guy says his salesmen aren't allowed to do.
That knowledge paid off in my next interview: I said the opposite of what that other store's interviewer said he wanted, and I was hired on the spot. I could be a fast learner when I had to be.
My subscription to Goldmine had lapsed, and I hadn't yet been able to afford renewal. My debut as a Goldmine freelancer hit the stands in October, cover-dated 11/21/86. I tried to keep an eye out for the issue, but I missed it; I didn't even see a copy of it until many years later.
The new job sucked. It didn't matter. I didn't have a choice, anyway. It was a new store, a chain from Rochester and Syracuse trying to break into the Buffalo market. I was inexperienced, but earnest, hard-working, desperate. I made it through Christmas. Money was still tight, but I made enough for us to get cable and a VCR, albeit all on a shoestring. I survived the chain's purge of excess employees, and was still working there as spring approached.
And I hated it.
I'd enjoyed a teasing taste of what it was like to do something you loved and get paid for it. I'd run a record store, and life had been good. Now, I was trying to convince reluctant shoppers to purchase a new refrigerator or television set. But it was a job. I reminded myself: it was a job. It was not an easy time. It wasn't going to get any easier. We needed to do...something.
We had to get out of Buffalo.
CHAPTER SEVEN: Workin' In A Goldmine
By early 1987, our time in Buffalo was nearing its end.
Brenda and I were in dire need of another fresh start. Brenda had passed her state teaching certification exam, and had completed her graduate degree at the University of Buffalo, but was still stuck working at a day care center, with little pay and no discernible benefits. Me? I was selling appliances on commission, and hating every second of it. All of this should have been plenty bad enough already. But no, no, no--just when you think you've reached your lowest point, a smug, mocking cosmos often reserves one more vicious kick to the head, just for special little you. Our specific boot to the skull was the predicament of Brenda's dad on Staten Island. Brenda's dad had never really recovered from losing his wife, Brenda's mom, to cancer in 1983. Who really does recover from this? The memory of what you had--what you cherished--can warm you, comfort you, but it can also torture you with the ache of what's been so cruelly taken away. He'd tried, and he'd made a go of it, but by '87 it was clear that he could no longer take care of himself. He needed to get out of Staten Island even more than Brenda and I needed to get out of Buffalo.
But where could we all go? Brenda came up with the answer: Syracuse.
It made sense. I still had a lot of family in the Syracuse area, including both of my parents, so we'd automatically have a support system in place. My folks loved Brenda, so there was no danger of friction there. Yeah, Syracuse was where we needed to be, stat! We just had to figure out the logistics.
I answered an ad for a store manager position at a Record Theater near Syracuse University, and traveled there for the interview, but it was not to be. The appliance chain I worked for had stores in Syracuse; seeking a quicker transition, I asked a company executive if I could be transferred to one of those stores. Yeah, sure, we'll look into that! was the response, followed by the unhelpful sound of crickets. A month passed. Nothing had changed.
So I called another executive--the guy who'd hired me on the spot at my interview the preceding fall--and explained my situation. Well, which store did you have in mind, Carl? I replied that my parents lived in North Syracuse, and there was a store about a half mile from their house--howzabout I look into a transfer there? Can you start Monday?
This was Thursday.
Yes. Yes, I could start in North Syracuse on Monday. Okay, Carl--be at the North Syracuse store Monday morning at 9:45.
We couldn't move out of our apartment quite that quickly, so Brenda stayed in Buffalo while I packed a few things and moved back to my parents' house on an interim basis. We notified our Buffalo slumlord of our intent to vacate within the month; he was none too pleased, and screwed us out of much of our security deposit, charging us for damages that predated our occupancy (and certainly predated his ownership of that goddamned rat trap), and for the defective wall oven he'd had to replace while we lived there. Bastard. Brenda served notice at her job, worked to tie up loose ends, and joined me in Syracuse on the weekends to go apartment-hunting. We found a place we could afford, a second-floor flat in a beat-up apartment complex on Syracuse's North side.
In late March of 1987, we said goodbye to Buffalo. It was indeed bittersweet. We'd had some good times in the Queen City, made more friends than enemies, and perhaps even grown up--just a little--while living there. But we'd failed. Really failed, me especially. We had no future in Buffalo--none. It was tough to leave. We had to leave. We should have left sooner.
On the drive from Buffalo to Syracuse, as we neared our new home, Brenda noticed more and more cars decked out with orange trim and trappings; the Orangemen, the Syracuse University men's basketball team, were in the Final Four, and people were celebrating. Syracuse's embrace of its college team was infectious; neither Brenda nor I were sports fans at the time, but we got caught up in the enthusiasm anyway. In our empty little apartment, we hooked up an antenna to our tiny TV, and watched SU compete in the national championship game. In the final seconds, the good guys lost to Indiana, 74-73, thanks to a miracle shot by Keith Smart (whose name remains a curse word in Syracuse to this day). But the seed was planted, and Syracuse basketball would eventually rival rock 'n' roll and comic books as one of my primary obsessions.
|"Cold man?" No--COLEMAN! Derrick Coleman!|
In Syracuse, I started writing more. I continued to write reviews for Goldmine, including a review of the Groove In CD by The Flamin' Groovies, which sticks out in my memory for some odd reason. I submitted an unsolicited--WILL I NEVER LEARN?!--poison pen review of the eponymous album by The New Monkees, but editor Jeff Tamarkin batted that one aside with the casual ease of the original Monkees shrugging off Jann Wenner. My first feature article for Goldmine was a history of The Bay City Rollers ("Rollermania: A Hard D-A-Y's Night"), published in the 9/25/87 issue; I later expanded that piece for the 2001 book Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, and reprised it here.
One Sunday night in 2014, when my This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio co-host Dana Bonn took the evening off, I devoted the entirety of that week's show to a retrospective of the music I covered in my twenty-year Goldmine career. I invite you to read that playlist and commentary--Workin' In A Goldmine--but I'll be repeating a few points here.
The main point? I loved writing for Goldmine. It was a terrific freelance gig for me, and it was the gateway to whatever notoriety I eventually achieved. I wrote about my rock 'n' roll passions, from power pop to bubblegum music and The Flashcubes. I interviewed one of my teen crushes, Joan Jett, and the framed, autographed two-page title spread of that article is perched on the wall in my office at home. I met KISS, who were the subject of my first cover story. I got a freakin' phone call from Joey Ramone, a week after I interviewed him and his brudder Ramones. I got praise. I got criticism. I got fan mail! And, y'know, free records. It was a delight to work with Jeff Tamarkin, and it was never quite the same for me when he left the magazine in the late '90s. I soldiered on for several years after that, but with decreasing frequency; I finally decided it wasn't fun anymore, and just stopped sending stuff to Goldmine. There were no hard feelings; by then, I doubt anyone still with GM editorial even knew who I was, so no one noticed I was gone. Goldmine will always loom large in my legend, and I will always be grateful for the experience.
And I don't get to my Goldmine experience without the life in Buffalo that preceded it.
I wrote the above paragraph in September of 2010 as part of This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio's tribute to the late Joe Bompczyk, veteran of legendary Buffalo bands The Enemies and The Restless. For years, I swore to myself that I would never write about my life in the '80s; I still sometimes feel in danger of buckling under the weight of the emotional debris I accumulated in that unfortunate decade. Plus, a lot of the music sucked. Even now, I look back on my time in Buffalo with both a cringe of regret and a glow of pride. I've written about some of those memories in this series, and still more tumble forth now:
I remember our first evening in Buffalo, sleeping on the floor of our bedroom in this unfamiliar place. I was 22, Brenda was 23. We didn't know anyone in this strange new city. As we tried to sleep, every odd noise, every random bump in the night, felt like danger, like impending disaster, the malevolent intrusion of the witching hour. We held each other more tightly, and prayed we hadn't made a grave mistake in coming here.
At the McDonald's company picnic, I remember coming up to bat in the softball game. Strike one! Fine. Bring it. My coworker Dwayne shouted out, Come on CC, this one's for the rock 'n' roll albums! My bat caught the next pitch square 'n' solid, sending it sailing far over the heads of the outfielders for a home run. This calls for more beer! Another coworker certainly thought so, and she cracked the front end of her car when she tried to drive home after the party. No one hurt. We were a collection of dumbasses nonetheless.
Brenda was a new driver; she didn't get her driver's license until we were living in Buffalo. To force her to acclimate to driving, I took her to work one day and then took the bus home--sink or swim, baby! Before I left for home, I noticed a rummage sale going on in the basement beneath the day care center, and picked up a stack of used soul 45s, including gems by James Brown, Solomon Burke, Sam & Dave, and Wilson Pickett's cover of "Hey Jude" (which quickly became my favorite version of that song). Brenda made it home okay, and was able to drive with greater confidence thereafter.
We saw The Peter Tork Project play at The Tralfamadore Cafe, and we were somehow able to get backstage to meet Tork and get his autograph. We were starstruck. And I told Tork, "I used to watch you on TV when I was six years old!" When The Monkees reunited in '86, that very line became a (sarcastic) part of Tork's live performances of "Your Auntie Grzelda," and has remained there ever since. So, yeah...my work. Sorry about that, Peter. And so sorry, fellow Monkees fans!
At Mighty Taco, there was an employee named...er, let's call him "Malcolm." Malcolm was amiable and friendly, but you could tell he had a temper. During one shift, he confessed to me that he'd--no shit--killed a guy some time before he'd taken the job at Mighty Taco. This was not a case of a coworker just makin' up a story about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die. Malcolm had been in a phone booth, and an older guy startled him. Malcolm panicked, and he beat the guy to death with his bare hands. Malcolm was arrested, but I believe he was acquitted; self-defense. It weighed on Malcolm's conscience enough that he wanted to talk about it, but he begged me not to tell the manager. I said...well, I think I knew better than to say Are you out of your flippin' MIND? right then and there, but I told him he'd best tell the manager immediately, or I would indeed tell her myself. He told her within a few days, and was terminated immediately for lying on his application ("Have you ever been arrested?"). I was reprimanded for not telling the manager as soon as I knew about it.
Punk-funk superstar Rick James strolled hurriedly by the Main Place Mall Cavages one day, not stopping nor slowing down as onlookers called after him, Yo', Rick! RICK!! Brenda also saw some members of James' group The Stone City Band at the airport when she was catching a flight to New York.
Also at Main Place, we had r & b group Womack & Womack for an in-store. Just like Spinal Tap's infamous in-store with Artie Fufkin, nobody showed up to see them.
I caught a career shoplifter trying to swipe cassettes at Thruway Mall. The arresting officer remembered me from a previous visit, when he was trying to return a radio; I wasn't authorized to accept returns on radios--all such returns had to be processed by Cavages' main office, no exceptions--but it didn't seem like he accepted the quaint, laughable idea of rules applying to cops. On this subsequent visit, he was more interested in insulting me than he was in taking the suspect into custody.
While still employed by Cavages, I came this close to quitting in favor of a job with a local management company. Starstruck Promotions handled booking and publicity for a number of local rock 'n' roll acts, including powerhouse Buffalo group Talas (with bass virtuoso Billy Sheehan). The money was negligible, and the hours were long, but it could have been a stepping stone to bigger things. The more I thought about the job and what it entailed--hangin' out in bars until 4 am, schmoozing (and presumably boozing) with performers, fans, and their attendant pretty young things, all while trying to seem both in charge and part of the crowd--the more I was convinced that this was not a job for a married man. I declined the job before it was often offered, and the guy I'd been speaking with at Starstruck was pissed. One wonders how different my life would have been if I'd taken that job, but I don't believe it would have been better. And I'm not sure my marriage would have survived it. I'm not sure I would have survived it.
Brenda and I did survive Buffalo. We have some fond memories, and we cherish the friends we made there. The misery and uncertainty of the most difficult times subsided over time. We're still married. We still love each other. She's the lead teacher and support person in an inclusive early childhood classroom. I still sell appliances, but at a different store than the now-defunct chain that hired me in Buffalo; I've been at my current job for over twenty-five years, and I've been much happier since I finally realized that people don't have to be defined by what they do for a living. Once I embraced that, I became a more contented person.
So, what am I? First and foremost, I'm a husband and a father; our daughter is the best thing that ever happened to us. At my core, I also remain what I've always been: I'm a writer. I enjoy writing, and I'm good at it. I felt disconnected from that for years, ever since I bid farewell to Goldmine. I missed it. So I started this blog. I consider Boppin' (Like The Hip Folks Do) the true heir to whatever the hell it was I did for twenty years with Goldmine. Buffalo brought me to Goldmine; Goldmine brought me here.
When Brenda and I moved to Buffalo in 1983, I guess we were hoping to find a path forward. We wanted to find ourselves, to find each other, to find our future, and to find out who we were meant to be. And we found the one thing inside of us that encompassed all of that, and more:
We found gold.
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