Sunday, April 15, 2012

Music Lessons from The Pit: Blue Monday

This is an excerpt from my in-the-works music-themed novel tentatively titled Music Lessons from The Pit. In 2007, The Pit (a music store) could no longer compete in the digital age. As a last hurrah, Gil and his college friends from the ‘80s are reuniting to celebrate their favorite hangout from 25 years ago. While driving to the reunion with his buddy Declan (Dec for short), Gil plays songs from the era which bring back old memories. Think of the book as a sort of High Fidelity meets The Big Chill.

In 2007, on the way to the reunion at The Pit:

“Do you remember the first time you went in The Pit?” Dec asked.

“Yeah,” I replied, drifting off fondly. “Blue Monday.”

New Order "Blue Monday"

* * *

Fall 1983. Freshman year.

I had little to show for my first two weeks of college. I knew that a jaunt through the administration building shaved precious seconds when madly dashing to General Ecology. Hitting the student union for lunch was a bad idea without allowing twenty minutes to stand in line. A trek through the art building offered umbrella-free travel when thunderstorms soaked the quadrangle, but it also led to a tardy entrance into World History.

The struggle to arrive at classes on time was a minor obstacle. I would soon master the art of arriving when and if I felt like it, an important tool to crafting my apathetic persona. My greater frustration was with my failure to dig up similarly-minded souls with whom to feign aloofness and cynicism. So far everyone seemed pretty committed to something – becoming the super student or the supreme drinker or the one most likely to catch a sexual disease within the first month of college. I had yet to find someone devoted to the pursuit of apathy.

Wrapped in my blue funk, I strolled aimlessly out of my last class of the day. I wasn’t gung ho to get back to my dorm room, but wasn’t inspired to head anywhere else instead. I wandered in the general direction of my home-away-from-home, my eyes peeled for some diversion.

Chelsea Drive was my last hope. The road that separated my dorm from the rest of campus also served as the town’s primary artery. Instead of taking my usual left, I veered right to see what the ol’ burg had to offer. Thus far my off-campus exploits had been limited to a late-night Hardees run and a painful evening navigating the frat-and-sorority-dominated bar scene.

Lo and behold, there were actual non-collegiate-affiliated businesses mere blocks away. Well, that’s a matter of perspective in a university town. The local shops leaned heavily on the co-ed population as both customers and employees. My stroll down Chelsea turned up a tea house cleverly titled “2 a Tea.” Without even stepping in, I could sense the artsy student vibe wafting onto the sidewalk. Actually, I think it was the smell of cinnamon.

I didn’t go in, though, because beside the tea house was the Holy Grail for music obsessives – a used record store. A battered green awning with “4 the Record” in white lettering sheltered a large display window in which album covers were propped up on a window seat inside. Naturally the big hits of the day were prominently featured: The Police’s Synchronicity, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man, and the Flashdance soundtrack.

However, alongside the music for the masses were more left-of-center features – Elvis Costello’s Punch the Clock, the Fixx’s Reach the Beach, and the Talking Heads’ Speaking in Tongues. Sure, all had songs climbing the Billboard Hot 100, but these were still albums more suited to hip college students than bubblegum teeny-boppers.

The door was plastered with D.I.Y. flyers for bands coming to local clubs. I didn’t recognize any names, but hoped I’d know many of them soon.

I tugged at the handle of the wooden door swollen by the humidity. Instead of the bell on a string familiar to many a Mom-and-Pop shop, a well-worn tambourine announced my arrival, a bit louder than necessary considering the sudden jolt with which the door popped open.

A slight mustiness greeted me. It was as welcoming as the cinnamon from the tea shop. Few things authenticate a used record store more than the proper degree of dust and dirt.

A much abused hardwood floor with a noticeable warp splayed out toward shelves of cassettes and crates of records. Hand-lettered cardboard dividers separated albums alphabetically and into various genres.

Posters and album covers decorated the brick walls. Occasionally a corner of a poster drooped where the old masking tape had given out.

To my left was the front counter. Atop it was an old cash register, a plastic cup with incense for sale, and a textbook sprawled open. Huddled behind the book sat a thin-faced, sullen-looking guy. The rattling tambourine failed to budge his stare; his eyes remained downward, hidden behind a pair of round, John Lennon-esque sunglasses that hung on the bridge of his nose.

The purple tint of the shades was the only bit of color about the guy. He wore dark jeans and a long-sleeved grey button shirt over a black T-shirt. In the still-80-degree weather the unseasonably out-of-place outfit was a defiant statement that even Mother Nature couldn’t tell him what to do. In fact, this guy was modeling the quintessential, although ironic, “I’m Independent” uniform of the outsider.

Being a model of color coordination, Mr. Black’s hair was dyed to match. I muffled a snicker at how carefully it was coiffed to suggest that he’d just rolled out of bed.

The music pumping from the speakers hanging on the wall behind him had a detached vocal backed by a strong electronica beat. It reminded me of British synth-pop like Human League. The song had a vague familiarity – one of those “I think I’ve heard this before” kind of songs – but I couldn’t place it. I was curious enough to disrupt Mr. Black’s studies to inquire. “What’s this that’s playing?”

Seemingly innocent questions evoke absurdly detailed answers from true music geeks, which Mr. Black clearly was. Forgetting his commitment to looking perpetually bored, a twinge of glee sparked his expression as he peered above his rims. “‘Blue Monday’ by New Order,” he said with an air of disgust that a nuisance customer would dare to be musically illiterate. After what I’m pretty sure was a roll of his eyes, they dropped back behind his purple shield, practically commanding me to go away. I excused myself to rifle through the album crates. “Cool,” I said. “Thanks.”

Back home, Rich and I played the roles of faithful suburbanites and did most of our music shopping at the local mall. Occasionally we’d trek downtown to the handful of used-record stores within walking distance of each other. 4 the Record, however, had a charm beyond any other shop I’d seen. It wasn’t just that flipping through the old records left a coating of dust on one’s hands comparable to the residue after eating a bag of Cheetos.

The back corner is what sold me. The sunken seating area, like homes with a couple steps down into the living room, gave the store its nickname “The Pit.” It was decorated with second-hand furniture that looked like it had been passed over at a garage sale. In fact, The Pit likely was furnished by discards college students were unwilling or unable to cart home at the end of a school year.

A pair of unmatched couches fervently competed for ugliest fabric. The beat-up throw pillows looked to be specifically chosen to clash with the couches as much as possible. A slightly lopsided brown leather recliner leaned against one wall, propped up to keep the back of the chair from collapsing. It all wrapped around a battered wooden coffee table that looked so heavy it had seemingly been carved out of a tree trunk which had grown up right through the floor of the store.

Littered across the table were music magazines. The standards were there – Rolling Stone, Billboard, Creem – but there were also some British mags with which I was unfamiliar – Melody Maker and New Musical Express. I plopped down on one of the couches and scooped up the September 10 issue of the latter. It was in newspaper format and featured The Clash on the cover. The headline read: “The Clash Crash: Joe and Paul Sack Mick.”

A stereo system also graced the pit area. A pair of headphones made it clear that wary buyers could listen to potential purchases before plopping down dollars begged from parental units back home.

I leafed through the magazines before hitting the record crates. Never an audiophile, I favored cassettes. For browsing, however, records were the way to go. I did like “Blue Monday” but felt like buying the New Order album would be a transparent attempt to stroke Mr. Black’s ego. It was silly that I wanted to impress this guy, but he represented the musical identity I thought I wanted. Despite his aloof and apathetic exterior, this guy cared about music.

With The Clash on the brain, I headed for the C section. Their newest album, Combat Rock, came out the year before and I knew a couple cuts.

However, I was more interested in the older London Calling, despite not knowing any of the tracks. It spawned top 40 hit “Train in Vain (Stand by Me)”, but since it was an unlisted track, I wasn’t aware it was on the album.

I’d heard enough about what a great album it was to be curious. The cover featured a shot of band member Paul Simonon smashing his bass in the spirit of The Who’s legendary instrument-bashing antics. The graphic layout mimicked the lettering on Elvis Presley’s debut. It captured the duality of rock ‘n’ roll’s destructive vibe and respect for the genre’s forefathers.

Still, who buys an album for the artwork? I had albums with great covers – The Police’s Synchronicity and Duran Duran’s Rio came to mind – but I’d never bought an album because of its art. However, I couldn’t put it down. Well, I did, but only to seek out the cassette version instead.

I trotted up to the counter. Mr. Black begrudgingly set his book down, miffed that I dared to make him to do his job. Given his indifference when I entered the store, I assumed he would ring up my album with little or no conversation. I was wrong.

“This,” he said, pausing dramatically, “is a classic. Nice choice.”

I was pleased yet amused that it should matter to a customer what the seller thinks of the purchase. Still, Mr. Black represented exactly the kind of aloof “my musical tastes are better than yours” quality which I was seeking so his approval did mean something.

“You won’t be disappointed,” he continued. “You can’t get much better than The Clash.”

* * *

Back in 2007:

“So,” Dec said, after I’d finished playing the song. “That was your first trip to The Pit, eh?”

“Yep. Amazing how vivid that memory is, considering how many hundreds of times I was in the place after that.

“Ah, yes,” Dec mused. “Nothing beats that first time. Your virgin trip to The Pit.”

I sighed. “And now we’re going to visit it for the last time. Another ‘Blue Monday.’”

No comments:

Post a Comment