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I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org).  As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia!  Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton.  I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times.  I also wrote the liner notes for the four THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me?  My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored.  Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Road To GOLDMINE, Part 5: A Shaft. A Light.

I freelanced for Goldmine magazine for twenty years, with my first GM reviews published in November of 1986. Thirty years later, I'm taking a look back at my road to Goldmine, remembering my life in Buffalo 1982-1987. I recommend you start reading with Part 1: Approaching The Minefield, then continue with Part 2: You've Got To Pay Your Dues If You Want To Write Reviews, Part 3: Fools Gold, and Part 4: A Rockier Road. The road rolls on here....

My store. My store. And not just any store: a record store!

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.
Except for the older couple (who may or may not have been teetotalers), there was much beer involved in the relationships between Brenda and I and our neighbors. Party on, man. One winter week, when the snow basically shut Buffalo down for several days, Cheryl F's boyfriend Chris and I trudged through the frozen murk the half mile to the Bell supermarket, just to be sure we had an adequate supply of Miller High Life. Unable to go to work, I spent much of that week in the apartment, growing a beard and drinking vodka.

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.

WHEN The Road To GOLDMINE RETURNS: Buffalo Mining Disaster 1986

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