Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Grievous Angel & His Ramshackle Cathedral (Happy Record Store Day)

Today is National Record Store Day.  In an effort to help keep struggling independent record stores alive, artists put out vinyl-only rarities today, stores offer sales and in-store performances from local heroes.  Aside from going to pick up a copy of The Strypes' debut or the new Band of Horses, I thought perhaps the best I could offer (in spirit, at least) is a story from my new book about a struggling record store owner.  It's one of my personal favorites from the collection and seems to be a favorite of many of my friends as well.  

Please goo support your locally owned CD or record store - not just today, but whenever you can.  They may have to charge a little more, but they know and love music in a way that Best Buy and Walmart "entertainment section" experts never will.  

And please enjoy "The Grievous Angel & His Ramshackle Cathedral." 

The Grievous Angel & His Ramshackle Cathedral 

“We learned more from a three minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school.”      
-  No Surrender, Bruce Springsteen

“One thing's for certain: if Joshua trees go, the whole ecosystem will suffer.”
 -  NPR report, 2008 

Eddie and I used to run around together -  movies, concerts, trips to the record store - all the things you did to kill time when the school bell had rung and you didn’t want to go home.  But the record store was the best.  It was called RPM, and we’d go in and spend hours thumbing through vinyl, usually with no intention to buy, and just listen to what the clerk was playing.  They didn’t mind.  We bought the occasional LP and enough 45’s to keep from being perceived as full blown loiterers.  But mostly, we were there to take a free ride on the music.  Deep cuts you couldn’t hear on the radio.  Zeppelin’s “Rain Song”, Steely Dan’s “Any Major Dude”, the entirety of “Reckoning”.  This store was the first place I heard Prince’s erotic moan and yowlp, first place I heard cuts from Springsteen’s “Nebraska”, an album that shook me so much, I would go home and listen to it in my bedroom with the lights out and a pen flashlight to read the lyrics off the record sleeve as the walls closed in around me.  

I didn’t need drugs in high school.  I had music.  Eddie and me, we had music.  We had XTC, the Violent Femmes, X, Bowie, The Replacements, The Who, The Stones, The Misfits, Tom Waits, Talking Heads, Siouxsie Sioux, Iggy, and Dire Straits.  And we also had Dwight Yoakam, John Lee Hooker, Run DMC, Stevie Ray, Paul Simon, the Pixies, Marvin Gaye, The Police, Clapton, The Clash, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, The Attractions, Steve Earle, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Emmylou, and Gram Parsons.  Eddie was such a sucker for Gram Parsons that I used to call him the Grievous Angel.  There was no form of music that was alien to us, nothing that wasn’t on the table for consideration.  Eddie could find beneficence in any chord structure, any arrangement of notes and mix of voices.  He marveled at sonic architecture, from the three chord grind to the symphonic overreach of prog rock.  His four favorite words were always, “Hey, listen to this...”  It meant he had something to share, something that moved him beyond words.  There was so little we could articulate back then.  The yearning, the inexplicable sexual rush certain girls gave us, the impulse to push the accelerator to the floor, the lonely echo of some grown-up voice in your head sighing that you’d never amount to much.  Music filled those holes.  “Hey, listen to this” was our incantation that opened up unseen passageways to other worlds. 

All my best memories of those days are album cover art and sonic snatches of brilliance, the needle sinking into a groove and lifting us out of our awkward innocence, dropping us into a world where the heroes were the misfits, and the future was brighter than a crazy diamond shining on.

“These are our poets,” I remember Eddie saying.  “Lou Reed’s our William Blake,  Paul Simon’s Rilke.  Hey, listen to this...”  He set the needle down on the second song, side one of “Graceland”, the title track.  “The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National Guitar,” sang Simon.  Eddie picked the arm up off the spinning album.  “There.  Right there.  One line and I’m transported to a different place.  I’m on a journey.  Where else does that happen?”

You’d think a romantic like Eddie would have girls lining up at his doorstep, but Eddie was shy around most people.  Brow tilted at his Chucks when he talked to you, always a sweet smirk on his lips, a perpetual “aw shucks” hovering in a cartoon balloon over his head.  I was one of a handful of people he’d look in the eye, and even that was through a greased cat’s cradle of hair drooping off to one side.  While I was making mix tapes for girls I had crushes on, he obstinately refused saying, “Who wants to shrink the music down onto those compressed cassettes, man?”  But the fact was, he was just terrified of the rejection.  

So, he was classified a loner, and though he never reeked of pot smoke or instigated a fistfight, he was always one of the first suspected when trouble visited the school, be it graffiti on the gym walls or a smoke bomb in the band room.  I guess when you look back at the kids who looked like Eddie, who carried themselves in this sort of isolated, disenfranchised manner, it makes sense.  I mean, there’s Columbine, right?  But Eddie was gentle and sweet. Unassuming.  If he created trouble, it was only because he gave the jocks an easy target for a quick takedown.  Even I gave him shit sometimes, just because it’s what guys do, but he took it harder than he should’ve.  I never got a solid view of what was going on in Eddie’s world at home, but I figured he’d been knocked around enough - physically or emotionally - that he was more comfortable in the world that existed between his headphones than in the one outside.  By senior year, he was fragile and, more than ever, music was his only solace.  He was that guy going to the midnight showing of “The Wall” every weekend, not because he wanted to bliss out with the stoners, but because he really found something there, something that told him he wasn’t the only one. 

I sensed how adrift he was and tried to talk to him, but the wall metaphor was an apt one, because he wasn’t letting anyone in.  Still, I made a vow to myself to stay in touch with him, even as I filled out student loan applications and visited campuses while he just sat at home with his 4/4 time philosophers. 

But I guess shit happens.  You go off to college - or in Eddie’s case, you don’t.  He stayed home and worked on a technical degree for a couple of years but it never took.  So, where I came out of college with a B.S. in computer science, Eddie took a job at the record store we both loved.  We stayed in touch, but less so over time.  My world kept getting bigger and his, well, I guess his didn’t.  Anyway, soon it was the annual holiday drop-in or phone call on a birthday until it wasn’t anymore and then we just lost touch.  

Of course, record stores had to adapt or die, the CD coming on like a California wildfire in the late 80’s.  Convert or close, but RPM hung in there as long as it could, carving out a niche for purists who would not go quietly into that diminished fidelity.  I would drive past it when I visited home.  Then, one Thanksgiving, I noticed the storefront of RPM was empty, a “For Lease” sign taped to a window most recently populated by Nirvana and Pearl Jam posters.  I asked my dad about the place and he said they weren’t out of business, but had moved to a smaller location, part of a strip mall now, in a narrow shopfront once inhabited by a sandwich shop that got shut down because of rats.  I asked him if he’d ever heard from Eddie’s family and he said no.   But he had heard Eddie now ran the record shop, that the guy who owned it had gotten sick or something and left it in Eddie’s care.  That sounded right.  If anyone would take good care of those LPs, it would be Eddie.  

A few more years come and go, I passed through town less and less.  Now there was Shannon, and we’ve got a kid.  I’d made it back for high school reunions numbers 5, 10, and 15, but no Eddie.  Just girls who once ignored me now comfortable enough in their own skin - and me in mine - to talk in ways we’d never talked before.  Guys who used to make it their daily duty to hassle me now drinking and laughing at how we were all idiots back then and talking about how sorry we were for being assholes to the next lowest guy on the social totem.  That’s the way it was.  Elliot was a shit to Matt, who then made fun of me, and so I, well, at one point, I guess I made fun of Eddie.  Managed to find the meaningless differences between me and him that I could exploit for a good laugh at the lunch table, in the parking lot.  His acne, his apparent disdain for combs and brushes, and his fierce abiding love for “that Gram Parsons shit” that I decided to call out on a day I’d long forgotten until now.  I regretted that because I realized - at least now, probably even then - that Eddie and I had an unspoken understanding as audiophiles.  All music is sacred, even if you don’t get it.  Even if it is that boy-band crap that we hate - it’s sacred for some little kid and it’s their entry point into a world where they can start to discover who they are and what they feel.  Or it’s their exit ramp out of a world they can’t cope with or begin to understand.  Whatever the case, Alice Cooper or Randy Travis or Chuck D, you didn’t take a swipe at a good friend’s music.  It was worse than dissing their mother.  

Besides, I’d come around on the whole Gram Parsons thing.  I mean, it wasn’t like Eddie was listening to some Nashville-via-Vegas pop monstrosity; this was the birth of Americana that Eddie had introduced me to.  Gram was the unknowing stepfather of Uncle Tupelo, Lucinda Williams, Wilco, Ryan Adams, John Hiatt, Bright Eyes, Gillian Welch, Lyle Lovett, Son Volt, even Townes Van Zandt, whether he’d have admitted it or not.  The music that was speaking to me as a middle aged dad and half-hearted husband was just high lonesome echoes of this cosmic cowboy who was too pretty and tenderhearted to not become a legend.  But he’d have to die to do that.  Die young, like Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Hank Williams.  

Story was that Gram and Keith Richards were big buds, another reason to appreciate Parsons, because Keith wasn’t the kind of guy to buy into anything that wasn’t authentic.  They’d go out to Joshua Tree, lie on the rocks, and look for UFOs, listening for the whirl and hum of something otherworldly to invite them to take the ride of their lives.  Given their love of mind-altering chemicals, they likely rode a few, real or hallucinated.  It was that kind of mythology that drew Eddie to Gram, a guy always on a search for something bigger than himself.  They both looked for the answers in spinning saucers - Gram’s in the skies, and Eddie’s on turntables.

Anyway, when I got home from the school reunion, I decided to send Eddie a note wishing him luck with the store and letting him know I missed him at the reunion. I included a book I’d found about Gram Parsons.  It had a shadowy silhouette of Gram beneath a towering Joshua Tree.  It seemed apt, and even though I figured he may’ve already had it, it was the thought that counted, you know?  He wrote me back and thanked me, said he didn’t have it and couldn’t wait to dive in.  

Couple of years later, my dad was celebrating his 70th birthday, so I brought the family to town to visit and while dad and my brother were dissecting every play of a college football game on television, I decided to go for a drive.  Shannon and the kid were in the backyard with mom and it was a good time to soak in some nostalgia.  Autumn had always been my favorite time of year, and home brought that feeling closer to the bone than anywhere else.  The Presbyterian church with the huge sugar maples and dogwoods lining the perimeter of the chapel, defying you to deny God’s benevolence with their burnt sunburst majesty; an old courthouse bell that had a chime lonelier than the chorus of “Sunday Morning Coming Down”.  Storefronts that maintained their historic simplicity amid the big box homogeneity claiming dominion on the outskirts of town. There, smack in the middle of it all, wedged between a Mexicali restaurant and a dry cleaner, was RPM.  I decided to park and drop in, see if Eddie was around. 

He was.  The only one in the store, in fact.  Took me a second to recognize him, his mangy mane now shaven, the greasy tangles replaced by a minute tattoo on the side of his head, a single white brick.  


I was greying, doughier, but still the same me.  He knew me right away.  “Wow, what’s up, Bobby?”  Twenty years of going by “Rob” made hearing an old friend call me by my childhood name all the sweeter.  We shook hands, did the guy hug and stood in silence, trying to figure out what came next.  

“So, how you been?” I asked.

“Oh, you know.  Getting by.  You?”

“Good.  Good.  Man, how have you kept an honest-to-God record store going in the age of I-Tunes?”

Eddie laughed.  “Hasn’t been easy.  I gave in a long time ago and started carrying CDs too, but even that wasn’t enough.”

Eddie told me how he was surviving in the digital age, tracking down rare albums and memorabilia and selling it online via his store.  To keep things going, he’d even parted with some of his personal collection:  an alternate version acetate of “Velvet Underground & Nico”, a rare “Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” with added tracks, even his prized copy of the Beatles ‘butcher’ sleeved “Yesterday & Today”, featuring the Fab Four wearing white doctor smocks, covered in blood and baby doll parts.    “I’m lucky to do a couple hundred dollars in a day face-to-face, but on the internet, I can triple that.  With collectibles, I can make enough to get through a couple of months with one rarity.”

Eddie’d become quite the shrewd businessman, and though he was never going to climb out of his apartment dwelling lifestyle while running a record store, there was something beautiful about him keeping the flame burning.  RPM, the last bastion of our misspent youth, the crackle and hiss of our teenage soundtrack sustained by the last of the true believers.  

“So, I don’t know.  Can you close up shop, maybe go get some lunch?”

Eddie looked around.  The place was empty.  “Yeah, let me just make a phone call, then I can lock up.”  

Eddie went into the back and I browsed a bit.  Maybe I could buy a few old classics, help him pay a bill or two.  It was certainly all here for the asking, from A to Zevon, all cramped into a shop that would likely consider twelve customers a breach of fire code.  The memories were as thick as time-woven cobwebs:  Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”, Harry Chapin’s “Dance Band on the Titanic”, “Lawyers in Love” by Jackson Browne, a 12” single of “The Boys of Summer”.  

True to form, Eddie refused to categorize music as anything other than music, so rather than the store being separated by genres, it was merely alphabetical.  MC5 next to Branford Marsalis, The Dixie Chicks’ debut nuzzled up alongside The Dead Kennedys. Eddie hated labels, always had.  

I took it all in and suddenly the reality that I had a job and a wife and child fell away like the thin shrink wrap around a just-opened album.  This ramshackle cathedral housed a million four minute prayers, grace notes trapped in the walls, the promise of the rapture always possible on the flip side.

I found myself lost in the liner notes of “Highway 61 Revisited”.  I’d forgotten what a surreal voyage they were. Maybe they’d make more sense in my forties than they did in my teens, all of Dylan’s trippy wordplay about the logical poet and the beautiful strangers and Quasimodo and The Insanity Factory.  “Nietzsche never wore an umpire’s suit” and all that business.  Nope, I still had no idea what Mr. Zimmerman was talking about.  

I heard the front door of the shop inch open and saw a kid walk in - late teens, maybe - short and pale, cloaked in a hoodie.  He looked around, either didn’t notice me or didn’t care.  He slinked up to the counter, grabbed an armful of new CDs Eddie has in the front display bin and made a dash for it.  I tried to catch him, but I had to snake through a row of record bins to get to the door and by the time my middle-aged knees got up the speed to catch him, his fleet feet - likely adorned in stolen Air Jordans - had rounded the corner and were out of sight.  

“Eddie!  Eddie!” I shouted.

Eddie came out of the back, looked around.  “What’s up?”

“Some kid just ran in here and ripped off a stack of your CDs.  Those there at the counter.”

Eddie went and looked at the little cardboard bin they’d been housed in, now empty except for one CD that the kid missed.  “The new Jay-Z,” he said, sounding wearied. 

“You gonna call the cops?”

Eddie looked at the door.  “No.  No, I’m not.  Let’s go get lunch.”

Suddenly, and I wasn’t sure exactly why, I was incensed.  I think more by Eddie’s apathy than the kid’s brazenness. This wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear. “You realize that kid’s gonna be selling those CDs on a corner somewhere for five or ten bucks a pop and make his little fortune on them, right?”

It hadn’t crossed my mind that Jay-Z’s new CD was likely hovering on the internet on fifty different illegal file sharing sites for the taking by any young fan who knew how to boot up a PC.  That was beside the point anyway.  This kid had personally violated Eddie.  He might as well have reached in the register and grabbed a handful of tens and twenties, that’s what it amounted to.  But Eddie was giving him a pass.  Was it because the local cops wouldn’t do anything?  Was it too small an offense in a town that now had bigger fish to fry with pockets of growing gang activity, meth labs in vacated buildings? Did Eddie just not care to deal with the hassle of police reports and red tape?  Or was it that he just saw a kid who was as mixed up as we were at that age?  Because if that was the case, it was a bleeding heart copout.  We may have stolen time in the record store, tucking the songs away in the corners of our memories, but we never five-fingered an LP, never walked with anything under our arms or jackets.  This was shoplifting, for Chrissakes, a first rate felony. 

But Eddie insisted that we drop it, just let it go and enjoy our lunch.  I didn’t know what to say. Was he going to lock the door or just prop it open while we were gone, invite the marauders and desperadoes in?  Change the “Help Wanted” sign in the window to read “Help Yourself”?  It was hard to change the subject over our carnitas tacos and chips.  We were, after all, conjoined by music.  It was our shared blood type, and without it, we were now as different as Cain and Abel.  Or at least Noel and Liam.  

It was uncomfortable, but we managed.  We navigated our way through uneasy small talk about our families, the way the town had changed, former classmates, and then we finally came back around to music.  He told me he thought guys like David Grohl and Jack White made rock pure again, keeping it real in a world of Auto-tune and overdubs.  He asked what my kid was into, and we compared notes on how we felt our heroes were holding up, from admiration for Springsteen to pity for Guns ‘n Roses.  Then, he started talking about the store again and I couldn’t help myself.  It wasn’t as if I had turned into a member of Ayn Rand’s Collective.  This wasn’t about some greater societal ethos, it was about that kid in my friend’s store depriving him of something that was rightfully his.  

“Eddie, are you just unwilling to stand up for yourself?”

Eddie licked a bit of pico de gallo from the side of his lip and sighed.  “Bobby, you do pretty good for yourself, don’t you?  I mean, at your job?”

“This isn’t about me.”

“I’m just saying, you take home a check, pay your bills, take the family to the beach every summer.”

“Something like that, yeah.”

“Well, I have that too, in my own way.  Not the family or the beach, maybe, but I punch in six days a week.  I make ends meet, mostly.  I try to hire a couple of good part time people I can depend on to help me lighten the load.”

“That’s all fine, Eddie.  That’s good.”

“And we both do these things the same way.  We compromise.  We compromise a little bit of who we are and what we really want to make those things happen.”

“I guess.  But that doesn’t mean you let some punk get away with shoplifting.”

Eddie poked at the shredded lettuce falling out of his taco shell, trying to help it find a home again atop the mess of pintos and rice.  “People get away with it every day, Bobby.  And worse.”

“So, you let it happen?”

Eddie’s eyes rose to meet mine.  “I don’t let it happen, Bobby.  It just does.  Not very often, but it does.”

“So why not do something about it?”

Then Eddie said something that caught me off balance.  “Because we don’t live in those songs we listened to.  We live outside them.  They just let us visit.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m saying the only place life is perfect is between the grooves, the needle dropping inside pressed vinyl.  Everything else is compromise and we decided that was us a long time ago, both of us in our own way.”

“That’s not me. You maybe, but not me.”

Eddie looked me over, a judgmental stare I hadn’t seen from him before, his eyes always too soft, too framed by strands of hair for me to notice, maybe.  “Yeah, ok, Bobby.”

Suddenly, I was unwilling to accept being put in the same category with Eddie.  I wasn’t him.  I’d stayed in school, gotten a job, one with benefits.  I got married, had a child, then uprooted them and took another job in yet another town when the recession required it.  Why was he calling me out as one of those phonies Holden Caufield raged against?  How had I betrayed some unspoken standard, sold out my ideals by refusing the siren song of 70’s balladeers and 80’s punk battle cries? That was ridiculous.  This was real life we were talking about here, he had to know that as he scraped nickels together trying to keep a small business afloat.  Never mind the bullocks, this is the mortgage payment.  

“I better be getting back.”  

“Hey,” Eddie put his hand up, trying to keep me in my seat.  “I’m sorry, man, I didn’t mean it.  It’s just frustrating, ya know?”

I knew it was an olive branch, but all I saw was weakness, the weakness of a friend who’d decided life was too hard to ever confront eye to eye.  All the romantic notions I had attributed to Eddie somehow morphed at that moment to a lackadaisical inertia, a rebel wannabe devoid of wings and wheels.  

“You’re the one still stuck in those goddamn songs, Eddie.  You can’t spend your whole life out in the Mojave looking for UFOs.  There aren’t any.  You’re as idiotic and naive as Gram Parsons if you think there are.”  And that was a blow I couldn’t retract.  After I’d said it, I realized it was over the line, breaching the code we’d always had.  You don’t make fun of a friend’s music.  Especially when it’s what they live by. 

There wasn’t really anything left to say.  An apology wouldn’t find its way out of my mouth, and even a polite goodbye seemed disingenuous.  I just tossed twenty bucks down on the table to cover the bill and tip and walked out, Eddie’s head tilted down at the table like it used to toward his Chucks all those years ago.  

Shannon, the kid, and I went back home the next day.  We came back to town for Thanksgiving, and again at Christmas.  I’d thought about Eddie about a hundred times that first week after we’d had lunch, then less so as time went on and by Christmas, it never even crossed my mind to check in or try to make amends.  Whatever damage I’d done was immutable, and it was as pointless to revisit as it was to pull out some scratchy old warped LP and give it a listen, an archaic and romantic notion whose time had passed. 

But then in February, Dad had a pain in his arm that shot straight up to his temple.  He collapsed in the plumbing aisle at Ace Hardware and was taken by ambulance to Lettleton Hospital where he’s been ever since.  I came back right away, left Shannon and the kid at home until we figured out what was what, which turned out to be paralysis of his left side, some memory loss, and an aphasia that makes communicating frustrating and difficult for me and him.  It’s not what I expected for a man who was throwing spirals to my kid as recently as Thanksgiving day.  Of course, it wasn’t what he expected either. 

I settled into a routine after a few days.  Sit with Dad, go back to the house, check email and messages from work, check in with the family, run an errand or two, then go back and take another shift to relieve my Mom.  One of those errands involved keeping a vet appointment for Sam, my parents’ dog.  Annual vaccinations, that kind of thing.  As I was driving Sam to the vet, I found myself passing the strip mall where RPM was.  I wondered if I should go see Eddie, maybe make amends.  Nothing like having the fragility of a parent strike you in the solar plexis to give you some context about not having regrets in life.  It seemed like the mature thing to do.  Sure, I’d drop Sam at the vet and then swing over to the record store.

But when I pulled into the mall, something was different.  The Mexicali place was still there, a steamy aroma of cilantro and steak and lime lifted by the wintry air.  The dry cleaner on the other side had dryers spinning like the inner workings of a clock tower.  But in between, RPM was empty.  A sign on the front said “For Lease”.  I felt a punch to the gut as fierce as the one that came when I got the call about Dad, as direct as the one I likely gave Eddie that autumn day a few months before.

I wasn’t delusional.  I knew the demise of RPM had nothing to do with me or that kid who lifted a dozen Jay-Z CDs that day.  That was nothing, really; beside the point, though I’m sure Eddie was already aware the ship was sinking at the time, sinking with little recourse to right it. He was probably pretty used to body blows at that point.  Maybe that was the compromise he was talking about, the one he was about to have to face. The one where you let go of that last piece of your best days, step away from the only thing you knew with certainty in hopes something else is out there.  The day you look up from your Chucks to the skies above and hope - even really need - to see something there. 

I couldn’t imagine what Eddie would do next, what his plans were, or how he’d get by.  I couldn’t imagine - at the moment, anyway - what I would say to him if I were to seek him out, how I could make things right or repair the damage between us.  I couldn’t imagine what was going to happen next with Dad, or the house of cards this all created with Mom and my family and the future.  Suddenly, nothing seemed certain, and I realized that nothing ever really had been. 

And so, that night I allowed myself a brief respite, a hall pass.  I picked Sam up from the vet and paid the bill.  I walked across the street to a package store and bought a bottle of Savida Sangria, and I drove out beyond our sleepy little hometown and the lights to a state park an hour or so away.  There was a hill there I climbed as a kid, a quarter of a mile up, saplings growing out of the outcrop, patches of limestone sand soft and deep enough to give the illusion you were on some kind of ancient, decaying dune. With the right kind of eyes, you could almost dream up the silhouette of a Joshua tree in the clearing below.  

Sam and I climbed the hill and I opened the sangria.  I laid back on a slab and he agreeably curled beside me.  I watched the evening sky, and gave myself permission to imagine that I might see something out there, that I might hear a sound that offered the promise of something bigger than the world I’d chosen for myself.  That tonight, the universe might be merciful and forgiving enough to shine like a National guitar, and I might hear a voice whisper, “Hey, listen to this...” 

No comments: