Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Niche in Time

I bought my first music recording in the basement of H.C. Pranges department store in Sheboygan. It was a 45 – “They’re Coming to Take Me Away”, a ridiculous novelty record that makes President Obama’s gaffe about the Special Olympics look like a heartfelt tribute to the disabled (the B side of the record was the same “song”, played backward). I bought my first album – the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour – in the same basement.

I got caught trying to steal a Monkee’s record from a small music rack at a New Holstein appliance store – it fell out from under my shirt as I got on my bike and rolled pathetically to the concrete while the patient woman who knew what I was up to watched with her arms crossed. Police were not called. I got my first break out of the way early parents and police were not called (that I know of).

Eventually, there was an explosion of record stores in big and small towns; from groovy boutique stores that doubled as head shops to square mall staples like Musicland. There was a lot of economic activity during the late ‘60s until the late ‘70s as rock music changed the world or rested on its laurels (depending on your perspective), even at $3.99 per album.

I rode the wave for a couple of very interesting years with Peaches Records and Tapes, a national and very temporary chain of deliberately oversized stores that took over a dead Red Owl grocery store on West Silver Spring and filled it with wood paneling and all sorts of musical paraphernalia in 1976. It wasn’t easy to squeeze your way into the major local stores like 1812 Overture – you had to know someone, or so it seemed. Peaches came in with managers from other parts of the country, who, not knowing how pathetically unconnected I was, hired me as a cashier.

The chain, based in Los Angeles, was expanding rapidly – opening a new store in the Midwest every couple of weeks at one point. I ingratiated myself enough with the powers-that-be somehow and was invited to travel to other cities to help them open their stores. Dayton, Indianapolis, Pittsbugh — I got to spend a week in each city, training cashiers on primitive machines (no bar codes – manual entry for everything) during the day and taking advantage of a very generous go-ahead-and-order-anything-you-can-sign-for policy in some pretty nice hotels at night.

In the summer of ‘78, they moved me to Cincinnati to be the #2 manager in a new store. It was the ultimate experience in T-shirt capitalism, where I spent a couple of months in a hotel (same rules), hired a full staff of strangers, got invited to all sorts of free concerts and promo events (a non-performing Tom Waits bought me a beer; saw the Police in a small club with ten other people; met Springsteen backstage), met a bunch of wonderful people and, eventually, figured out that I never wanted to live outside of Wisconsin again. I strapped the pieces of my waterbed to the top of my Celica exactly a year later, made a bee-line straight for Madison and went back to school.

I worked for Peaches during the height of post-Beatles record sales. Saturday Night Fever (“Disco Inferno” – yes; Bee Gees – no) came out while I was there and we had pyramids of the product to go along with the 6'-by-6' reproduction of the cover art (a Peaches specialty). The enormous cross-media success of that monster led to all kinds of excess that eventually managed to strangle popular music. I was working in the warehouse when we returned crates of the Grease soundtrack, not to mention the ultimate insult to music listeners everywhere – the soundtrack to that abomination of a movie, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. By that time, the music had already began to splinter with the punk rock movement, whose records were far more comfortable in the dirty bins of places like the recently-late, lamented Atomic Records than on the cheesy tiled floors of Peaches.

By the time of my move to Cincinnati, it was already over for the music business, but nobody knew it. Peaches was bankrupt within a couple of years (I’d like to think my reckless hotel bills helped). Music continued to drift and divide into niche audiences, with brief hiccups of decent art with mass appeal by major artists like Prince, Springsteen and Madonna in the mid-‘80s. From LPs to 8-tracks (sold at Peaches when it opened) to cassettes to CDs, the software changed until, now, it has disappeared all together. You can’t hold your music cover art in your hands any more, but you can look at it on a computer screen. But, no touching!

The internet revolution and reality continues to extract its legacy-market victims. Record stores, bookstores, newspapers, car companies, hedge funds, Republicans – all so 2004. But it was fun while it lasted, wasn’t it?

1 comment:

caieva said...

My Peaches memory was buying my very first album on a trek over there with my bf and his best buddy.
It was to purchase my first album -Street Legal- by Dylan. Bf had a EC disc and best buddy had Who Are You?
Then I looked up and on the wall on one of those great big posters was this scruffy looking guy in a black leather jacket. And I honestly didn't know who it was, I was musically a babe in the woods -but there was something about those eyes. So I picked it up - even though bf honest to god wanted to fight me on it -
it was Darkness :)