Sunday, December 30, 2007

(Twenty Years) Part 6: We're Movin' On Up

November 30, 2007 marked 20 years to the day since I started at Record Den, which has inspired some thought and reminiscing on the person I was then, what the job was like as the years went by, and what has kept me around until now ...

At the time of its construction in 1961, Great Lakes Mall, incredibly, was the biggest enclosed shopping center in the country. Over the years, that title slipped away after newer and larger mega-malls opened across North America as an explosion in retail construction changed (or, some might say, defined) the face of suburbia over the two decades that followed.

The renovated interior of Great Lakes MallBy the late 1980s, however, a more "open," brighter aesthetic to mall design had arrived in town that stressed atrium-like skylights and a less purely functional, more vaguely ancient Roman look to the support columns and tiled floors. Compared to these polished new locations, Great Lakes Mall began to less like a trendy shopping destination and more like a dim, drab cave. In order to keep their million-square foot property up to date (and their anchor tenants happy), the DeBartolo group set in motion a complete renovation of the common mall area that spanned most of 1989. Construction proceeded during open hours, of course, and for a few months during the summer, the constant muzak piping through the mall's PA system was completely drowned out by power tools wielded by workers up on scaffolds or hidden by giant drop cloths. When everything was finally finished before the start of the next Christmas rush, the mall certainly looked far more modern, well-lit, and "trendy" than it had before.

Another new concept that most new malls had glommed onto (including Great Lakes) at the end of the 1980s was the "food court." Before the start of the renovation project, several restaurants and fast-food locations were scattered about the "main drag" of the complex, and nearly all of them wound up moving into the newly-created food court almost immediately after construction was completed (the one or two chains that did not opt to relocate quietly vanished when their leases came up for renewal). Happily for Great Lakes Mall, this reorganization of available space added some more greatly-needed slots for the one or two sellers of pointlessly expensive shoes and foofy women's accessories that were not already renting there. Huzzah.

Right smack in the midst of all of these newly refaced store fronts and brightly colored exteriors stood the J.J. Newberry's store, which had overnight turned into a once-quaint eyesore. If the rest of the mall represented a clean, immaculately maintained street in a quiet suburban subdivision, Newberry's was the dumpy house with the pink flamingos on the grass and the old Chevy truck up on bricks next to the cracked, oil-stained driveway. In their mad dash to keep up with the Joneses (better known as Beachwood Place and Great Northern Mall), Great Lakes Mall had no need for a five-and-dime straight out of Hooterville cluttering up the busiest part of the main strip. At the end of 1991, Newberry's had finally reached the end of their lease, and there would be no renewal.

For the Record Den and the two or three other tenants sub-leasing space around the department store, it was suddenly time to find new digs, and fast. Obviously, the big news was not being taken well by Newberry's employees (my girlfriend at the time numbered among them), who were understandably upset that their jobs were about to vanish into thin air. We at the Den were a tad apprehensive as well, especially when we discovered that we had nowhere to go: it appears that our home office had been caught off guard by the news as they would not have a new location ready for us to move into until late summer 1992. Ruh roh ...

As the 1991 Christmas season wound to a close and Newberry's began to noticeably empty of product, we found out that the Den would be allowed to remain in operation for the time being in our currently-leased space. Asking to stay where we were for the better part of a year would likely have been problematic, so a temporary location would be necessary to move into until our permanent digs were finished and ready. As it happened, the wait until we made our way to this temporary location was about 4-6 weeks, and during that time, our store space was gradually "walled off" from the rest of the disappearing Newberry's location by a series of 6 1/2' tall cassette racks, with the only possible entry to our store through the same massive sliding glass doors the department store had once used, now opened just wide enough for a couple of people to walk through at a time.

The Great Lakes Mall: present anchor stores labeled as indicated
To follow the events of the next few months, I hereby supply you with a rough map of the Great Lakes Mall floor plan. Until January of 1992, the spot taken up by J.J. Newberry's was the letter "H" on the map above, with the exact location of the Record Den a tad to the right of that letter and directly on the "main drag" of the mall. OK, off we go ...

At the end of March, our first temporary location was ready: an old shoe store near the center of the mall (about parallel to the top of the letter "G" in the Dillards wing), sporting two large, bay-window type display cases and an actual back room for shipping, receiving and overstock. This news alone had us over the moon: in our ridiculously-cramped previous location, there was a space behind the miscellaneous product wall where coats, import posters and a vacuum cleaner were kept and that was it ... all other storage space was a few hundred feet away in the Newberry's shipping-and-receiving department. This temporary store was going to feel like a freaking warehouse in comparison.

Jim looks into the camera (next to Greg, with Nate in the background) as the old Record Den empties out once and for all.The move itself could have been a lot worse, but it certainly wasn't anyone's definition of "fun." I'm guessing I speak for everyone who showed up to lend a hand that, pleasant or not, none of us would have missed this night. We all felt a deep connection to the history of the Den (or at least a morbid curiosity to see it empty), especially Greg, who had been working there since the end of 1973. I don't remember there being any outright sadness expressed at the time, but more of a resigned feeling of letting go and moving on.

Me in back of those shitty waterfall racks with my shitty waterfall haircut.Being that we were on the eve of one of the biggest release weeks of the year, closing our doors for a day or so in order to tidy ourselves up was not an option. There wasn't an awful lot of time to screw around, particularly since our company's owner had provided us with these horrible new "waterfall" display racks that, on one hand, "faced out" a lot more titles than was possible with our old converted vinyl bins, but also were a royal pain in the ass to work with and took a lot of extra time to set up.

I am happy to report that we junked these ungainly bastards by the time we reached our permanent digs.

Jim was completely in lust with the girl playing the Easter Bunny at the mall that year. Sadly, this is as close as he would come to realizing his carnal ambitions with her.The whole process from start to finish was a grueling all-nighter: we started breaking down the old store shortly after the mall closed at 6:00 on Sunday evening, boxing up thousands of CDs and tapes and then getting the fixtures themselves ready to move. It was nearly midnight by the time we were ready to start shuttling boxes and fixtures down the mall in two-man teams, after rigging up some clunky old four wheelers to support the damn things. From there, the rest of that night was spent transporting the guts of the old store down to the temporary location, punctuated by some horsing around with the mall's Easter display during our few moments of downtime. By the time we called it a night, the store wasn't exactly pretty, but it was ready to run and that was all it needed to be: we had weeks to do the rest of the fine tuning ... or so we thought.

Temporary Location #1: Moving Night (that is long-haired me in the jean jacket)I think it was on the following Saturday that we were visited in our store by the mall manager, a grim, buzzard-like man who always dressed in a soulless, slate gray suit. As was his style, he came right to the point: the space we were inhabiting had actually been slated for someone else and we would have to vacate in seven days. To say we didn't take this very well might be a bit of an understatement ... I think "thunderstruck" better approximates the feeling of that moment.

The next move took us across the Dillard's wing to a point about parallel with the bottom of that letter "F" on the supplied mall map. Our second temporary location had previously been a jewelry store and, judging by the huge, cavern-like back room (a handy place for making out with your girlfriend during lunch breaks, it turns out) with rows of wooden shelves extending well over our heads, most likely a shoe store before that. Unfortunately, this new location was also as nearly invisible to mall traffic: the polar opposite of our previous location. Instead of two huge glass bay windows, we were now completely shut off from the mall, with an almost comically-small front doorway about as wide as two people standing side by side. In fact, the only space we had to offer any clue we were a record store (besides the garish-looking sign we had strung up directly over the name of the previous tenant) were two enclosed case-like window displays that were more suited to showing off engagment rings and necklaces than promotional displays for, say, the new Ride or Wire Train release (though I do recall Beth coming up with a pretty cool underwater-looking "Weird Al" Yankovic display that exploited these little spaces to their limit).

About the only way we'd benefited from this latest move was that the new store was far bigger than the last. It was so wide that we had to use the tape cassette racks to divide the floor space (and in effect create a second back room). Even when cut in half, the floor space dedicated to shopping in that store was spacious almost to the point of absurdity. Lastly, in a pretty cool touch, the store was primarily lit by a huge chandelier hanging overhead (another leftover from the previous tenant) that added a weird, faux-classy feel to your shopping experience that resonated wonderfully whenever Nate threw on a CD by Social Distortion or They Might Be Giants.

Record Den's final Great Lakes Mall incarnation.After four months as Record Cave, we finally moved into our permanent new location about halfway farther down the Dillard's wing. While we had been able to loosen our belts a bit with the last two locations being as open as they were, the new digs were located in a narrow, cylindrical box of a space, completely enclosed in white slat wall and red neon (with some very 1980s mirrors over the middle ceiling: the remnants of the store's previous tenants who had specialized in, get ready for it, foofy plastic women's fashion accessories).
The new Record Den location was all about maximized space: from the double-decker CD bins that lined the walls to the yards of plastic and metal shelving running up and down the length of the store. Even our back room was greatly decreased in size from before, but it did feature a two-way mirror that allowed a person to watch over the rear half of the store while seated at the desk (we also devised a pretty sneaky way to run surveillance on the import section from an alcove space above the bathroom that was reachable by stepladder and looked directly down on browsers through a grated section of acoustical ceiling). Sizing up the available square footage, it felt like we'd need a shoehorn to get the move done, but by now we were getting experienced with this kind of thing and the moving of materiel from point A to point B went pretty smoothly in comparison to the first two times.

In addition to the reduced space, there was another drawback to our permanent location: an enforced dress code. I realize this sounds like a ridiculously petty gripe, but the dress code was the most visible (and nagging) manifestation that we were no longer in direct control of our own destiny (I will come back to this point in the post called "The End Is The Beginning Is The End") and were starting to turn in a more faceless direction. Greg had been fighting this concept off for years, trying successfully to let the store and employees retain an identity and letting our expertise market itself. Our owner, in his desire to show that we were one of the big boys (just like Camelot and NRM), felt very strongly otherwise, and we had been engaged in little rebellious actions against his edicts for years, making such a fuss over, say, being forced to wear silly name tags that our owner would finally drop the issue in exasperation and move on.

This about sums it up.With a newly designed Record Den awaiting a grand opening, we figured our owner wasn't going to be letting us off easy anymore, but none of us had any idea we'd run into this new enforcement policy on the very first morning we were setting up shop. As the actual "moving" was winding down and we'd started arranging displays and product in the new bins, our future disaster of an indie buyer (who had been helpfully dictating marching orders to us lowly idiot retail workers) waspishly advised Greg that we should all be written up for wearing tennis shoes and jeans (jeans!) on the job. Greg got her to back down in no uncertain terms (telling her in the most tactful way possible to go piss up a rope), but not before word of this little exchange had spread amongst us grunts, nearly precipitating an angry confrontation right then and there. To say the least, we were in no mood to hear about this shit at 6 in the morning, having spent the previous eleven hours hauling cassette displays, CD storage bins and dozens upon dozens of leaden boxes stuffed with product across the mall without any moving equipment or professional assistance for the third freaking time in six months (not to mention figuring out a way to make all of this shit fit in a far smaller space than we'd just occupied). As we would find out over time, there would be a lot more bullshit where this came from.

Any worries we might have had about losing ground due our constant changes in location (not to mention getting farther and farther away from the busiest part of the mall) proved unfounded as Record Den hit the ground running in its new location. Not only did the store start off well, we'd even managed to flourish in our new hole in the wall, as the year 1993 represented a high watermark of sales the likes of which we had never seen before or since: a million dollar year, capped off by a Christmas shopping season so intense that we still look back upon it and wonder how on Earth we pulled it off. Even looking at the figures as I write this, the numbers are staggering in comparison to what we are used to now, most notably that Monday, December 23, 1994 when we did $25,000 in sales from open to close. Unbelievable.

And, as we later found out, unsustainable.

(Pictures of the store in this post were originally taken by Jim B. and Dave M.)

Sunday, December 23, 2007

(Twenty Years) Part 5: Good Times

Time, flying.November 30, 2007 marked 20 years to the day since I started at Record Den, which has inspired some thought and reminiscing on the person I was then, what the job was like as the years went by, and what has kept me around until now ...

What I once thought was half-senile nonsense has revealed itself as incontrovertible truth: time moves a lot faster as you age. I'm sure most of this sense of temporal distortion has to do with increased, competing demands on what free time I have by added responsibilities. Beyond the background noise of everyday life, however, lurks a growing acknowledgment in the back of my mind that time itself is no longer necessarily in infinite supply, especially now that entire months seem to be stealthily zipping on by with distressingly increasing frequency. While it seemed I could while away an entire day tooling around aimlessly listening to OU812, ...And Justice For All, or A Momentary Lapse Of Reason during the middle of 1988 (and this is something my friend Rob and I did quite a bit that wonderful endless summer, come to think of it), such freedoms seem frustratingly luxurious and out of reach nineteen years later.

I still love what I do, though these feelings of lost, carefree days of youth sometimes extend to the job as well. Due to the fact that we had four or five full-time workers on the schedule at Record Den into the mid 1990s, I was able to learn how to perform many of the necessary duties to run the store, yet at the same time I remained far enough down the pecking order that my actual responsibilities were few and it was difficult sometimes not to think of work as a minimum wage giggle. Getting days or whole weekends off was never a problem as there were always more than enough employees handy to cover whatever time you needed off. Boy, do I miss that flexibility sometimes.

Beth: one of the biggest sweethearts on the face of the Earth, faces the camera sometime in 1989.Then again, vacation time was never much of sticking point for me: for most of my time at the Den between January 1988 and December 1991, working was often more like hanging out with a group of similarly-obsessed friends, which is basically what we all were. To this day, I have hundreds of pleasant memories of cutting up during the days or going out to shows or movies (or bars) on odd nights over those years with Don, Dave, the Steves, Greg, Beth, Jim, and Theresa.

A few favorite recollections spanning the end of the Old Record Den era ...

''Big Steve,'' from a distance, early 1980sThe 1988 Record Den Christmas Party: the one and only time during my tenure that we got together for the holiday at a place other than the store. "Big" Steve hosted the shindig at his house (we had two Steves on the payroll until late 1989, you see, one was "big" and one was "little"), and I clearly recall most of us sitting in his living room late that evening, listening to his homemade "best of Howard Stern" compilation tape, and laughing so hard we could barely breathe (The King Of All Media was still 5 years or so from his Cleveland radio debut at the time, so this was something we'd never even heard of before). I don't think to this day that I have ever seen the usually-reserved Greg losing it like he did that night.

Customer Torture: Record Den was not physically walled off from Newberry's per se: only a long, chest-high row of album bins separated our floorspace from theirs. As a result, anything we played on the stereo also went blaring well into their store. Once in a while, we'd forget this little fact of life while playing something particularly brutal/obnoxious (Ministry's "Jesus Built My Hotrod" or Nine Inch Nails' Pretty Hate Machine), lewd (pick a Blowfly track), or just plain strange (Laibach, Madhouse, Was (Not Was)). I also remember a time Greg threw on Monty Python's The Final Rip Off CD during one slow afternoon, regaling Newberry's shoppers with such classics as "I Like Chinese," "Cannibalism," "Sit On My Face," "Bookshop," and "Lumberjack Song."

''Little'' Steve and me, sometime in 1990/91Send In The Clowns: Pretty much any night Dave, "Little" Steve and I worked together was a regular laffalympics. Between sales, we'd spend most of the time simply doing our best to crack each other up, either by amateur physical comedy or with the aid of silly-ass cheap-o toys we'd snag from the Newberry's bargain aisle. The most memorable of these toys were these little beady-eyed pneumatic skulls (you squeezed this little bulb and their mouths opened and closed). While the Cocktail soundtrack was red-hot during the second half of 1988, I'd often line 3 or 4 of these guys up on the counter and make them "lip-sync" to such future karaoke classics as "Don't Worry Be Happy" and "Kokomo," which never ceased to reduce "Little" Steve to stitches. Also in this category would be "Big" Steve's amusing penchant for playing records at the wrong speed (one of the stunts I miss the most from the age of vinyl). Listening to a capella works by Bob Rivers, Shinehead or Prince at 45 speed (or just about any George Michael song at 33 1/3) always made for a great way to speed along a dead shift.

Me, stoned (if I were a cat).Half-Baked: My first few attempts at getting stoned over the years hadn't really panned out, probably because by the time I ever got up the nerve to puff on a joint at a get-together, I was already pretty well bombed, which tended to dull (if not completely obliterate) the effects of the grass. That said, one of the best highs I ever had was after work one Sunday night after work when Jim and I were hanging out and shootin' the shit at Garfield Park. The late great Bill Hicks used to talk about "getting (his) third eye thoroughly squeegeed," and that is exactly the effect of Jim's stinky, very high-grade weed. As I pulled out of the parking lot to go home afterward, I felt like my head was about six feet tall from chin to crown and my mouth had been stuffed to bursting with packing peanuts. I had to straight-arm the steering wheel on the way home as it seemed to be just out of my comfortable reach (which was odd considering that I never adjusted my drivers seat that day). Upon reaching home (miraculously in one piece), I donned a pair of sunglasses to conceal my eyes, which felt like they were bugging right out of my head. Without a word, I slipped upstairs, devoured half a box of Ritz crackers, and fell asleep in a boneless sprawl. Only the time that I mistakenly ate three of my sister's altered brownies and wound up listening to my own heartbeat for an hour surpassed that feeling of utter and total bonelessness, both mentally and physically.

Imagine: John LennonSteppin' Out: It was a rare non-holiday occasion when a bunch of us would meet somewhere outside of work, but the release of a Beatles-related movie provided one of them. So it was that four of the resident Beatlemaniacs in the Den crew (even notoriously cinema-phobic Greg) headed out one weeknight after work in October 1988 to catch Imagine: John Lennon at the theater. The night started off as a merry lark as we tapped our feet and smiled throughout the segment devoted to the Fab Four and made snide remarks whenever Yoko Ono appeared onscreen. Of course, history then ran its course, and we ultimately got up from our seats after the shattering conclusion, mute and saddened, each of us re-living the loss of one of our heroes once again.

Fantasia: One of the all-time greats. JUst leave the bottle at home.Stupid Drunk Human Tricks: I saw the 1990 re-release of Fantasia probably three times, but the most memorable was the night I attended with a lady friend who was working for Camelot Music at the time (yup, fraternizing with the enemy, that's me). We had managed to sneak a couple of drinks into the showing in her purse and the both of us got pretty well lit by midway through, which unfortunately made the rest of the film feel a lot longer than 2 hours ... in fact, it felt fucking endless. Anyway, at some point during (or just after) the bit with the hippos in ballet dresses gallivanting around with the alligators in capes and fezzes, I was feeling all flushed and dopey and started to doze off in my chair. Just as the music dropped down to a low ebb, a nearly-empty bottle slipped through my relaxed fingers. Thank Goat there weren't any ushers around, because the sound of that nearly empty glass container hitting the uncarpeted floor was shockingly loud in the sparsely-populated theater, and I felt myself sinking low into my chair, mortified (while my companion started giggling helplessly), as my lost contraband began a long, deliberate, and excruciating roll down to the very front of the theater.

The Haunting Of Morella: I am going to blame this one on Kris. Ha ha.At The Movies: I'd be remiss to not mention one of the biggest benefits of my job in those early years (and a big part of the reason I saw Fantasia a bunch of times): all the free movies I could watch, and then some. Sometime before I'd started at the Den, Greg had made deals with two local multiplexes to regularly trade VIP movie passes for CDs (mostly classical titles that were played softly over the lobby PA or in the theaters themselves in between showings while the multicolored psychedelic blobs wandered about on the screen). I kept seeing passes being dropped off and traded for over the months, and gradually realized after a while that hardly anyone at the store ever used them. Thus, my friend Kris and I, both filling the nighttime vacuum in our activity-bereft lives, started seeing a lot of movies together (probably a sizable balance of the entire 1989-1991 Hollywood release schedule, really). Whether it was a spectacular summer blockbuster (Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, Honey I Shrunk The Kids), a big-name comedy (The 'Burbs, Hudson Hawk), some miserable, deservedly-forgotten dud (Gleaming The Cube, Let It Ride) or even an excursion into lesbian-leaning soft core porn disguised as period horror (The Haunting Of Morella, which I have yet to stop hearing about), we made time to see a little bit of everything, and we nearly always wound up in a booth at Denny's for hours afterward. Yes, there were oceans of time to waste back then ...

I certainly am not trying to imply by this list that all good times at Record Den ended when the old Newberry's store closed for good, but looking back from now, the whole atmosphere at the store began to change very soon thereafter. After twenty years and change of doing boffo business in the same corner of the same department store, the end was nigh for our old location, and the clock was rapidly winding down ...

Sunday, December 16, 2007

(Twenty Years) Part 4: Black Sabbatical

Shift change at Adanac, sometime in the summer of 1990.November 30, 2007 marked 20 years to the day since I started at Record Den, which has inspired some thought and reminiscing on the person I was then, what the job was like as the years went by, and what has kept me around until now ...

It's difficult for me these days to remember a time when I was not working at Record Den: a little more than half my life to this point has been spent in that tiny bump on the retail end of the music business. I'm pretty sure I wasn't intending to stay in the biz this long when I was eighteen years old (I must have been thinking that I would only be able to put off finishing college for so long), but the way time seems to slip on by when you aren't paying attention coupled with a never-ending desire to work around music has stretched this job through two decades now, with a third looking like a decent probability as of this writing.

I think I've mentioned before in this arena what a terrible slog January can be at retail. Going from December, a month that progressively increases in volume to a deafening roar, you suddenly drop within a week to a near total lack of activity as the industry enters a month long post-holiday siesta and the pace of everything slows to a tortoise-like crawl. Frazzled. twitchy, and fed-up with people (and retail in general) after being put through the wringer yet again, you stumble into January in what amounts to a mild state of post-traumatic shell shock. If you can hold it together for those first four weeks afterward, you can start to feel the biz returning to life and the pipeline begins to spit out interesting new releases once again. Until that happens, however, January at retail can feel like you are damned to walk an endless, featureless desert with no water in sight.

There have been three Januaries where I had become so bored and dispirited and burned-out from the Christmas before that I wound up squarely in Greg's cross hairs as a result. On two of these occasions, I found myself reduced in hours as a punishment and was forced to find additional employment elsewhere to make ends meet. In early 1994, I wound up working mornings (and the odd afternoon) for a local family-owned computer business, basically doing a lot of phone/desk work and occasionally going out on-site to help with network installations when needed. A couple of years later, I put in time over the spring and summer at the local Suncoast outlet, doing a lot of the same things I did at Record Den, but with a much different, far more corporate-organized feel to the proceedings. In both cases, I left these jobs amicably after a few months when I was asked for an increase in my availability, but both times the Den wound up winning my loyalty.

Early Donnie, Joe, Jordan, Mark and Jonathan. The bane of my existence: 19891990, on the other hand, was something altogether different. Christmas of 1989 had been awful, and taking some time away from the store (and Great Lakes Mall in general) was a move suggested to me by Greg during a walk through the mall one morning a few weeks after. His grievances were dead-on: my mind was no longer on doing the job, and I wasn't even trying to pull my own weight anymore. For me, the fact that the Record Den had transmogrified from a record store to a New Kids On The Block accessories outlet at the same time that a lot of personal shit hit the fan had made working there an exercise in masochism. Trying to find some kind of solace and healing in music that winter wasn't working when all I was doing was selling New Kids tapes, CDs, buttons, shoestrings, posters and pillows all day and night. Coming out of that holiday season, I was a fried, hollow shell running on autopilot and Greg, in effect, fired me after a few weeks had passed in the new year and I had still not snapped out of it. As I left work that day, he made it clear to me that the door was being left open once I had figured out what I wanted to do, but for me, it felt like the end of the line.

A quick bit of advice for those of you in the midst of bleak emotional turmoil of your own design: don't move away hoping that a new setting will miraculously make everything all better, because it won't. The idea of actually moving out of the area hadn't occurred to me until my best friend asked if I wanted to move in with him down in Columbus that spring. At the time, this seemed like a great idea, and I accepted, but my problems were still attached to me on a very long, invisible, elastic string and they eventually caught up with me a few weeks later.

I wasn't completely miserable in Columbus, but it was obvious this arrangement was not going to work out long term. Luckily, my roommate delivered the "I'm moving to a new place ... alone" ultimatum before I had the opportunity to damage our friendship, but the question of what I was going to do since I couldn't afford an apartment on what I was making had to be answered quickly. The idea of asking for full-time hours at the nearby Drug World (the place of my employment) made me blanch immediately: I had not cottoned to that place at all in the two months I had worked there. Worse, none of the other job ideas I'd applied for back in April had ever panned out. In the end, the only choice left was to come back home to Mentor, tail between my legs, admitting to myself that this had not been a greatest idea ever.

Luckily, I had barely finished moving back in to my old room when a friend of my dad offered me a job at his business over that explosively hot and rainy summer. I took the offer, more under pressure from my dad to do something than from any real enthusiasm on my part.

A day on the job at Adanac (bilge-like industrial coolant not pictured).Initially, I sorely regretted my acquiescence: working at Adanac Industries meant another factory job, which I'd sworn three years previous that I would never do again. But this time, with my dad on my back and a boss who had once been a good friend and neighbor to the family, I knew I couldn't do half-ass two weeks and bail out like I had at Rainbow Plastics. No matter what, I was pretty well stuck for the time being. Worst of all, this was the kind of hellish factory work that you see in bad movies or music videos: sloppy, smelly, dirty, mindless, loud and, being second shift, during the hottest part of the day. This was not shaping up to be a fun summer, to say the least.

All that said, Adanac was also a solitary job: only one other person worked with me during that shift, and he was usually on the other side of the shop floor from me. With only two 15 minute breathers and a half hour lunch to make small talk with my co-worker, there was little for me to do besides feed pieces of metallic slag into the roaring machines, inhale the horrid spoiled-milk stench of machine coolant, listen to WNCX or WMMS on the tinny factory PA, smoke (a habit I'd idiotically picked up while living in Columbus and would keep at for another 16 years) and reflect upon what an immature antisocial dick I'd been over the previous nine months.

Over time, Pete (our once-neighbor who'd offered me the job) started pushing me towards learning CAD and other functions of the company's computer system. For some reason, I had this reputation with my parents as some kind of tech-whiz (probably since I was always programming the family VCR and helped wire up the stereo), and that undeserved reputation had apparently reached Pete's ears. While I relished the chance to recline in the crisp, air-conditioned peace of his office, I had absolutely no clue what on Earth Pete was talking about with the computer half the time. After a week or so of being shown around the system, we both agreed that I should get back to school in the fall and take a load of computer courses to get myself up to speed: if nothing else, getting off that shop floor once and for all made for one hell of a carrot on a stick.

It was a deliberate act on my part that I picked out a school schedule that had me in class during the afternoon three days a week, which would cut down my hours at Adanac considerably. I wasn't trying to be obstructionist, but the idea of working for 40 hours a week in that hellhole while taking on a full course load of was not how I wanted to spend that fall, especially considering that I was taking on what might as well have been a foreign language. Also, I also wanted to make an impression on Pete that I was serious enough about learning computer languages and programming to take a hefty pay cut while doing so.

In reality, the reduced schedule wouldn't be so hard, financially: my social life had been pretty quiet over the summer, I wasn't driving (though that changed once I had re-enrolled at Lakeland), and all I did on most weekends was sit around and get lit with my brother and a few of his friends. I had been pretty well paid at Adanac, so I felt like I could focus directly on school and not spend a lot of time worrying about how I was going to get by on a week to week basis. A good plan all around.

Starting up at Lakeland that fall for the first time since the spring of 1989 was probably the most excited I have ever been to go back to school. While I certainly had not been enjoying myself at Adanac, the psychological seclusion of working on the floor all summer long in those conditions had managed to leech away that choking aura of self-pity I had been carting around for nearly a year. I felt refreshed, motivated, and ready for a new start.

Then, a problem arose: Pete's boss at Adanac (a gruff, hulking old man with whom I had never exchanged a word with in my entire time there) was not at all pleased with this new schedule of mine and wanted that changed, pronto. This demand might have been workable if I'd been informed of it before classes had started that quarter, but it became a severe stumbling block being told a week or so later.

Incensed at this development (and greatly miscalculating my importance to the future of Adanac Industries), I told Pete that I was taking these classes in an effort to learn what they wanted me to be able to do, after all, and that it was a little late to switch all of this around. You guys wanted me to go back to school, so I did, damn it! You can't have it both ways! Pete, in the nicest way possible, then told me that his boss would not be needing my services if I could not be available five days a week.

I had always liked Pete and none of this was his doing, so I calmly accepted what he said, and then informed him of my decision to stick with school, hoping I was calling their bluff by doing so.

The cards were laid down. Adanac wasn't bluffing. Oops.

The decision on what to do next was obvious, but tucking my tail between my legs in order to carry it out took a bit more self-coaching. It was a few days after leaving Adanac that I realized for the first time in months that I was missing the Den, missing the flexibility of the schedule, missing the beehive of activity and excitement as another fourth quarter drew near, and missing the camaraderie most of all, since I'd experienced none of that since the day I was let go. A few days later, while visiting a friend at work in the Mall, I headed down to the store and went to lunch with Greg. We sat in the newly-finished food court of the now slickly-refashioned mall and discussed the previous year, the previous Christmas, and what had happened with me over the past few months and how I missed what I had lost. Finally, I asked him if I could have my job back. After a few moments of thinking about it, Greg thankfully said yes.

Starting work that following weekend felt like coming home. As with school (and life itself), I felt restored, improved, relatively serene, and ready to face to world from behind the retail counter once again ... this time, apparently for good.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

(Twenty Years) Part 3: Digital Daze

A CD collection. Everyone point and laugh at Evanescence.
November 30, 2007 marked 20 years to the day since I started at Record Den, which has inspired some thought and reminiscing on the person I was then, what the job was like as the years went by, and what has kept me around until now ...

If Christmas 1987 felt like a trial by fire, the following year at the store felt a bit like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books come alive as I started to broaden my musical horizons and learn about what I'd missed in the years before my "musical awakening." The chief catalyst for this process was my dad going out one night in January and buying a spiffy, imposing-looking rack stereo system to replace the one he'd had since I was a kid. Best of all, this new setup included a spiffy, sleek compact disc player, which thankfully erased the need for me to 5o out and buy one of my own ... at least for the time being.

With the means of playing these shiny five-inch platters now easily available, and being that I worked in a place that sold them (and could thus buy as many as I liked at a sharply reduced rate), I felt no need to test the pool water with my toes: I just did a cannonball right into the deep end. The day after the new stereo came home, I had picked up the entire Pink Floyd catalog and a handful of other longtime favorites on CD. What eventually turned into an almost embarrassingly large music collection was now off and running.

While I had taken some of the most tentative steps into so-called "classic rock" during my senior year at high school, what comes mind when I think of my first year at the store was a complete immersion into the form. Part of this was a re-discovering of familiar touchstones from my childhood: listening with different ears to such evergreens as Simon & Garfunkel, The Beatles and Steely Dan. From exposure at work, I started falling into the dense, winding catalogs of Led Zeppelin, Tangerine Dream, Jethro Tull, Todd Rundgren and Yes: bands I'd heard people going on about throughout high school, but never paid much attention to as I was too busy keeping up with the state of the art in contemporary rock and Euro synthwave pop.

Four TDK SA-90s from various eras of designLargely as a direct result of this sudden shift in my tastes and buying habits, my primary indicator of an artists' true worth finally shifted from individual songs to full albums. Until 1988, like nearly all teenagers, most of the bands I'd followed through high school had been on a song-by-song basis and only rarely did I ever obtain a full album by even my favorite artists of the time (I had maybe 50 full albums in my collection when I turned 18, and maybe two-thirds of that total were dubbed onto TDK SA-90s from high school acquaintances or the vinyl collection of the Mentor Public Library). In effect, this shift in my listening and buying habits was exactly the way the whole music industry used to work back in the days when it was being run by maverick record men and not Ivy League-bred accountants.

For all you whippersnappers who came of age after the mid-1990s, this is the way it was: waaaaay back before there were mp3s, streaming audio and P2P networks, perpetually broke young teenagers such as myself would have to listen to the radio most of time to hear the music they loved. Occasionally, some kids would spend some of their allowance money on the songs they really liked in 45 RPM vinyl form (or, after 1987, cassette and CD singles). This early buying of singles was a crucial step for the industry in developing a viable customer base, especially on the occasions when a customer wound up picking up 2 or 3 singles from the same album. Perhaps emboldened by hearing 2 or 3 songs they liked, our young budding music fan might splurge one day and purchase the whole record (or ask for it as a Christmas present). If that whole record turned out to be good, the seed was then planted for the fan to start buying more full-length albums, especially once he or she started working and accruing discretionary income.

Ideally, a typical music fan's "graduation" into album buying would keep them in the habit for 7-10 years (typically throughout college and into bachelorhood). After the age of 25, though, the herd starts to thin considerably as customers begin to grapple with reduced leisure time and the intrusive, expensive realities of adult life: marriage, children, mortgages, and individual tastes or lifestyles greatly dictate how long a person will remain a regular music buyer. Not everyone gives up: some adults keep on buying music past the age of 30, and even fewer still past the age of 40. It's mostly the people at these latter points that become our most valued regulars at the store: these are the junkies, the lifers, the hardcore. What has changed the most since 1987 is the importance of these dedicated followers of the groove: without these people, Record Den in its current form would almost certainly not exist since the youngest sect of the old music buyers market has all but disappeared over the last eight years.

(OK ... getting ahead of myself here. We'll come back tackle this again later: for right now, let's stick with back then ... )

The horizon, circa 1988.If there is one feeling that was prevalent in the music industry in 1988 from the top echelons of power all the way down to a lowly retail clerk like me, it was of facing endless flat horizons in all directions, with no end or obstruction in sight. Following a period of sharp contraction from 1979-1983, this new era of booming sales and across-the-board upward momentum felt like music had been given a second chance and we were soon going to pick up right where we had left off in those heady, disco-fueled boom years of the mid-to-late 1970s. I can't stress enough how profoundly different this feeling was from the way things have felt since sometime around early 1997, (by which time the business was tangibly and unpleasantly different in character than the one I'd joined a decade prior). Sure, I might have missed the true "golden years" of the record biz by dint of being born too late, but I did manage to catch the "second wave" as it was building to a peak, and it was a helluva ride while it lasted.

Of all the sales rung up at the Den during my first year on the payroll, most were dominated by cassette tape (which at the time had been the biggest selling audio format nationwide for about 5 years), with a healthy dose of good ol' vinyl albums and a rapidly-growing share of compact discs in the mix as well. While tapes and vinyl were seen as "mature" formats, the market for CDs was still in its infancy, with many people only just then starting to come aboard as selection began to improve by leaps and bounds (spearheaded by the release of the Beatles' catalog throughout 1986 and 1987) and the prices of CD players (and even some of the discs themselves) drifted steadily downward.

Only a year before had CDs regularly started hitting the shelves day-and-date with their vinyl and tape counterparts: until then, most CDs were issued up to six months after their initial LP/Tape release since most of the production facilities were still overseas and only audiophiles were buying them in any kind of volume anyway. By the middle of 1988, CDs of older titles were finally starting to appear at "mid line" pricing ($11.99 MSRP instead of the standard $16.99), as the labels began digging into the vaults at last after years of having their hands full simply meeting demand on current hot product (never mind worrying about what Blue Oyster Cult and Beach Boys records were available). Perhaps most amusing to reflect upon now, used CDs were rare and valuable enough to us that we offered a flat-rate of 2-used-for-1-new title for any trade we were offered (a deal that was absolutely unthinkable only a few years later).

A record store full of CDs. Punk ones, too.With so many factors working in their favor, compact discs began to overrun the business. Over the next year and a half, in what was kind of like watching a month-by-month time lapse process, CDs gradually ate up more and more floor space at Record Den, encroaching upon the domain of vinyl albums and forcing them from three aisles of display space down to two, then to one, and finally to a specialty/cut-out section off to the side. For many businesses, it was an easy transition to make, really: CDs were still being sold in cardboard "long boxes" that stood neatly side by side in the old album bins, so no expensive refitting was necessary (and albums themselves were vanishing so quickly that they didn't need the space anyway).

Yes, album sales were dropping as people stampeded for the clarity and durability of the compact disc, but the near-total extinction of vinyl in the first half of the 1990s from nearly all chain stores was also a case of self-fulfilling prophecy: vinyl albums didn't "die" so much as they were pushed off a cliff by an industry completely dazzled by mushrooming CD profits. One of the great dirty secrets about the CD boom is that nearly all artist contracts signed in the years before CDs became available in mid-1983 contained a "new technology" clause which basically said "you the artist/band are being paid royalties on sales of albums and cassette tapes that typically sell at 8-9 dollars a pop ... but if we, your record company, should happen to find a new way to sell your music that costs, say, twice as much at retail, you will still be paid as if they were being sold at the same prices as albums and tapes until it comes time to draw you up a new contract or until you get enough clout to negotiate a better deal. So there. Ha ha."

With profits soaring to the moon and beyond and sales of LPs slumping as chain stores devoted more and more space to CD, record companies quietly started to cease production on record albums, which didn't exactly slow their decline. At the end of each fiscal year, the labels would then point at the resulting decreasing amount of vinyl sales and say "hey look, LPs are dying even faster than we thought! Let's get out of this and move on!" And move on, they did: by the end of 1991, I don't think there were any record albums being sold at the Den or anywhere else in the area, for that matter. Even 45 RPM records and 12" singles had by then been largely supplanted by cassette and CD singles and were mostly being sold to DJs and hardcore collectors only.

Cassettes were very stackable, weren't they?Cassette tapes, on the other hand, persisted for another decade. The biggest ace in the hole that format boasted was portability, and with portable CD players still on the expensive side (not to mention very prone to skipping) and car CD players still a luxury option, cassette tape had a captive audience all its own for most of the 1990s, though sales steadily decreased as the years passed. At the Den, tapes had moved from behind the counter to a series of towering display cases arranged down the Newberry's wall in the middle of 1989, all of them housed in clear plastic cases to dissuade folks from trying to load their coat pockets with them.

The cassette format survived to the very end of the 20th century before we quietly made the decision to simply stop buying them, as sales and availability were finally reaching a point where it was becoming impractical to set aside the funds for them. With nary a whimper of protest from customers, we abandoned ship and opted to sell used cassettes only. Funnily enough, there will at some point come a time when we start to shrink down the huge selection of used cassette tapes we sporadically sell and use that space for a resurgent format with a far more important role in Record Den's future: vinyl albums.

Funny how the worm turns.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

(Twenty Years) Part 2: Into The Fire

A very crowded Christmnas somewhere.November 30, 2007 marked 20 years to the day since I started at Record Den, which has inspired some thought and reminiscing on the person I was then, what the job was like as the years went by, and what has kept me around until now ...

Christmas 1987 at Record Den, like many that followed, was a nonstop blur of activity from the moment you clocked in until you finally staggered out the back door of the Newberry's pet department at a few minutes past ten (or eleven). You drove home feeling beaten, winded, and looking forward to nothing else but getting some sleep before getting up the next morning and starting all over again.

My only experience with this kind of retail craziness before this had been bagging groceries at Fazio's, and even a busy streak on a Saturday afternoon at the supermarket was nothing like the weekend before Christmas at the Great Lakes Mall. Hours tended to fly on by when you weren't paying attention, and it and the pace rarely slackened. A second cash-only register was set up on the opposite end of the counter from the main register that helped split the crowds into two, but it was still all you could do to keep up with the flow while ringing out and writing up sales one right after the other.

At first, I was mainly consigned to the floor with a couple of other co-workers, answering questions and helping direct the people jostling up and down the aisles (2/3 of which were still taken up by vinyl albums, incidentally) towards whatever items they were after. I am told that during even busier times (if such a thing can be imagined), we would have employees stationed near the entrance to the store who would simply relay requests from customers who didn't feel like braving the crush of humanity in that little hat box of a record store.

Even with this kind of teamwork happening, you could still only go so fast at the main register as any credit card or check transaction had to be phoned in to an authorization service (usually one person did this for most of the day), and every single piece of product sold had to have its stock number scribbled down on an old-school duplicate sales form: one for the customer as an itemized receipt, and the other for Beth (or Dave) who would do the subsequent inventory adjustment by hand.

A Telxon computer, naturally.At the time I was hired, there was still no computerized inventory system at the Den (that wouldn't get going until 1989, if memory serves), and every album cassette and CD we kept in regular stock thing was tracked in a large bin of stock tickets, each one roughly the same height as an old CD long box. These tickets, at times, dated back well over a decade, though records that had been cut-out or quickly dropped from inventory would often have their cards flipped around and re-used when the occasion warranted. During slow times, I'd sometimes idly flip through these cards (some perennial sellers had 3 or 4 tickets stapled together and recorded sales and orders going back what seemed like prehistoric times) and goggle at the days in the go-go 1970s when new releases were ordered (and then sold) in the hundreds, rather than the dozens I had became accustomed to. I wish these cards still existed, but they were all tossed out and lost forever when the company adopted the Telxon as our store inventory manager and moved towards a more centralized buying system ... but we'll come back to that later.

At the risk of sounding cocky, I felt pretty good at the time about my musical knowledge, though looking back from now, I barely knew my ass from a hole in the ground as far as rock music was concerned. Sure, I was comfortably fluent in the music of the years 1982-1987, but almost anything pre-dating that time (not counting Pink Floyd) might as well have been Bulgarian folk music for all I knew. Regardless, my mastery of contemporary pop music gave me a pretty good feeling of confidence to do this job and answer questions from customers, and I began to learn the older stuff through osmosis and an ever-growing respect and admiration for classic rock and pop over the years.

There had been no discussions or hints as to what would happen to my job once January 1 rolled around and, quite truthfully, I had not yet decided what I'd wanted to do, either (this was largely due to a certain person I worked with back then whom I did not get along with at all). With school off until the middle of January, I was able to commit to a 40+ hour schedule at the store over the holiday break, and it was long, breakneck slog, but it was also a hell of a lot of fun (even the days I worked with the person I had a problem with). One factor that was working in my favor was that Greg had given me a shot at learning and running the main register after a couple of weeks of getting acclimated to the job. Luckily, I'd picked up the hang of it quickly enough to "graduate" from a warm body on the floor to someone who could quickly help knock down a line of people at the counter. I figured that, if nothing else, this would be experience that could come in handy elsewhere.

Another hint that this might not be a temporary gig dropped on Christmas Eve. To my considerable surprise, I found myself offered a Christmas gift from Greg in the form of a 12" single and import CD single (though I had yet to even own a CD player) for Pink Floyd's current hit "On The Turning Away." There was a longstanding store tradition of a brief after-work gift exchange on the night before Christmas, and I discovered over the following years that being asked to work on Christmas Eve was usually a sign that you had been accepted into the Den crew. Though I didn't know it just yet, I had passed the audition and was about to be offered a regular job after the holidays were over. My temp job was going to be anything but.

Monday, November 26, 2007

(Twenty Years) Part 1: A Foot In The Door

The old J.J. Newberrys store at Great Lakes Mall, as seen in 1989.November 30, 2007 marks 20 years to the day since I started at Record Den, which has inspired some thought and reminiscing on the person I was then, what the job was like as the years went by, and what has kept me around until now ...

"If you reach back in your memory
A little bell might ring
'Bout a time that once existed
When money wasn't king
If you stretch your imagination
I'll tell you all a tale
About a time when everything
Wasn't up for sale"

-- Tom Petty, "Money Becomes King"

In the middle of October 1987, I was an eighteen year old kid attending classes at Lakeland Community College during the days and dividing my free time between writing short stories and motoring about aimlessly, listening to WMMS at stupendous volume in my reconditioned 1977 Camaro (a birthday gift from my father that summer). Despite what it sounds like, life wasn't exactly a non-stop party: I was a pretty square kid who was still years away from drink and smoke, I kept out of trouble barring the odd speeding ticket, my circle of close high school friends had recently broken up as everyone scattered to their respective universities at the end of August and I was really only going to school out of lack of anything better to do.

A 1977 Camaro. Sigh.That said, I still think back on this period as one of the happiest times of my life. I suppose most of that feeling has to do with a near-total lack of things to dwell upon and worry about: I didn't have a care in the world, I was living at home rent-free, Lakeland was being paid for by my parents (as long as I actually went, of course), and I was absolutely giddy with this new and completely alien feeling of being able to do whatever I wanted whenever I pleased for the first time in my life. Hell, I didn't even have a full-time job for crissakes (the one great benefit of going to school). I might have been a bit bored, perhaps, but I certainly had nothing to complain about otherwise.

I had only started working about six months earlier when, sick and tired of being flat broke all the time (and unwilling to do housework for an allowance), I applied around a few places within walking distance of home and wound up being hired as a bag boy at the corner grocery store. It wasn't glamorous work, wearing a tie and slacks while filling shopping bags, gathering carts and cleaning up BBQ sauce spills in aisle six, but I could have just as easily been slaving over a fry vat at Mr. Hero instead, which is what made dealing with the indignities of the supermarket job tolerable.

What really soured that first job, however, was that I wasn't happy at all with being forced to join the UFCW and giving up a portion of my earnings to them, especially when this was going to be nothing more than a summer gig before I started school. Despite the exhortations of our local union head, I had zero interest in joining a strike line (which was on the horizon as the summer got going) and standing up for my fellow bag boys nationwide. By early July as the strike date began to approach, I was ready for a change of scenery and started looking for a job where I could not only keep all the money I made but also have more free time to hang out and see movies with my friends before we all went our separate ways.

In a flash of insane inspiration, I settled on the idea of trying third shift factory work. I was already a night owl and hated getting up in the morning so the hours would be no problem at all. Better yet, I would be completely free to spend some glorious sunny days hanging out with my buddies. The little fact that I had forgotten to schedule time for such silly things as, you know, sleep didn't cross my mind initially. Only when I started conking out in the middle of a matinees and being unable to remember what day it was most of the time did I realize that maybe third shift work wasn't the answer, but by that point the romance of being up all night every night was enough to keep me going, if the work itself wasn't so hot ... and it wasn't.

My first third shift factory job was at a true portal to Hell called Rainbow Plastics. This was one of those jobs that you knew was going to be a bust about halfway through your first day. Even on cool, dewy nights, that shop floor was hotter than the tropics and the air was thick with the stench of vulcanization. With the machinery always running, it was jet-engine loud in that place at all times: conversation at anything less than shouting volume was impossible. My nights were spent repeatedly opening a sliding metal door, donning a pair of oven mitts, peeling a plastic blob off of a steaming hot metal mold, closing the door of the machine and starting a new plastic mold running, and then breaking off usable plastic widgets off the hot mold I just removed from said machine before the new mold completed. Rinse, spin, repeat. Amplifying all of this misery was the fact that the shop floor was lit by the same kind of orange sodium vapor lights you see lining freeways and major roads, which really drove home the idea that I was chained to a blast furnace in Hades instead of some nondescript industrial plaza on Tyler Boulevard.

Needless to say, I didn't even last two weeks at Rainbow Plastics: in fact, I think I called in "sick" the first Friday after I started. Using a temp agency, I switched over to another factory gig at TriDelta, which was far more accommodating a work environment in that it was well-lit, air conditioned, and far quieter (if also twenty times more boring than even my previous job).

Most of my duties at TriDelta involved piecing together metal and plastic widgets or assembling/testing furnace gaskets via computerized workstation (which often involved a few minutes of downtime while the system ran tests and sorely tested my ability to stay awake and alert). While having the muzak system locked onto a local "lite rock" station meant hearing Suzanne Vega, Cutting Crew, Carly Simon, and Los Lobos' version of "La Bamba" about 600 times apiece, I managed to stick it out there for the rest of the summer before achieving the dubious honor of getting myself canned on my last day of work: I'd finally succumbed to circadian rhythms and dozed off at my testing desk, just as the first shift manager was making his early rounds. Ha ha.

While at Lakeland, I pulled in a little bit of weekly spending cash from a temp gig folding Sunday papers at the Lake County News Herald every Saturday night, while other expenses were drawn off money I'd saved over the summer. As with my summer jobs, this wasn't exactly fulfilling or challenging work, but at least now I was allowed to wear headphones while I worked, and believe me, that made plenty of difference on its own.

As I mentioned earlier, my attitude for school was all wrong, and it didn't take more than a couple of weeks for me to drop my first class. I can actually remember that first instant during a typically interminable Psychology lecture when my I suddenly realized that I didn't really have to be there at all as attendance was elective and no one had a gun to my head (the fact that it wasn't my money being thrown about here, of course, had never crossed my mind). That first day I skipped out was the beginning of the end of my college career right then and there, though I would put in the odd spurt of activity off and on over the next six years as circumstances arose. Looking back from now, I probably should have taken a full year off before even attempting college on any level: I was too intoxicated by the absolute freedom I'd felt after 12 years being forced to attend school to get myself into any kind of serious learning mindset.

With my savings starting to dwindle, I knew a full-time job over the approaching month-long Christmas break would be a must. I also knew that I couldn't return to factory work (or any facet of the food industry, for that matter), and I decided that I wanted to try working in an area I felt I'd actually be good at for a change, which is when I started seriously considering applying at a record store. I'd been gravitating towards this idea ever since graduation, really, and seeing as how my life had been utterly dominated by a fascination with music for nearly six years to that point, I felt I had a pretty good chance of getting at least a foot in the door at any place I tried.

Much as it shames me to think about now, it would be a cop-out not to admit that I'd applied at all three record stores that were in the Great Lakes Mall at the end of 1987. Slick and modern and tucked away in a far distant corner of the Higbees wing, Camelot Music was full of striped ties and collared shirts, coming off as pretty tight and regimented, while the more austere, neon-lit National Record Mart made little to no impression on me at all. As eager as I was for a shot to work in music, however, I would have jumped at the chance to work in either of those places.

It was to my great relief that it was the smallest, oldest, and dingiest record store in the mall that gave me a shot. Unlike the other two stores in the mall, Record Den was the kind of place I felt I could hang out in even if I wasn't behind the counter. Despite being located in a leased space at the front of J.J. Newberry Co. (an old-school department store-sized five-and-dime that went from "quaint and old fashioned" to "eyesore" over the summer Great Lakes Mall was being noisily renovated), there was a "cool" cachet about that tiny little store that had seduced me the first time I set foot in there a couple of years earlier. Record Den was not at all slick and modern, and the aisles weren't patrolled by mannequins with perms; it was a rundown-looking hole in the wall stuffed to the ceiling with CDs, records, tapes, buttons, posters and whatever else could be squeezed into their alotted floorspace. Best of all, the people working there were fellow music freaks, nearly all of them regular, approachable people who happened to share the same passion as me.

Getting a gig at the Den wasn't easy. While Camelot and NRM basically handed you a blank application and handled the whole process in the fashion I'd been used to with other jobs ("thanks, we'll call you if something comes up"), Greg (the manager of the Den) seemed to make it a point to continually blow off potential employees in a kind of psychological test to see how badly they really wanted the job. It was frustrating to be told to come back next week time and time again, but with NRM and Camelot not making any offers of their own, I was up for the challenge. Finally, during one visit I was handed a pen and a xeroxed "rock aptitude" test Greg had devised years earlier. It was 100 questions, mostly in the vein of "Who recorded Dark Side Of The Moon?", "Name all four members of The Beatles," "Name 3 current Top 40 songs" (heh, God help me on that one these days), "Who recorded 'Maggot Brain'" and the like. I took the test on a bench outside the store, hoping to make a dramatic impression and sell myself as the temp they were looking for. My plan worked: I absolutely nailed the sucker and was officially hired a few days later, with a start date of the Monday after Thanksgiving.

My Christmas job was locked in.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Batman Franchise

In an effort to get caught up with the massive backlog of DVDs and DVD-Rs stacking up in a silently mocking fashion in the office and on the shelves downstairs, I am attempting to start watching these things at a more accelerated pace (say, more than one every few weeks) for as long as is feasible and writing about the ones I feel are worth passing along. Perhaps this way I'll keep myself writing and hopefully lose this nagging feeling that I am unwittingly turning this condominium into a museum full of pretty silver discs. I'll also try to keep the spoilers to a minimum. Promise.

The batsignal and its intended recipient, sometime late last week
I think it was due to a used copy of the current 2-DVD version appearing in the used bin at work that I decided to revisit Tim Burton's original blockbuster take on Batman. Watching that movie for the first time in well over a decade sparked a desire to re-experience his follow-up Batman Returns a bit later, and from there I got the rather masochistic notion that I should re-experience all of the films in the series (as well as the recent franchise "reload" project Batman Begins) for a review project. Obviously, there are times when I should stop listening to my brilliant creative impulses.

Yes, I knew in advance what I'd be getting myself into with those two mid-1990s entries in the series as I had seen them once apiece in the theater upon their release, and loathed them enough that I made the mistake of not even bothering with Batman Begins when it appeared in theaters a couple years back, despite the coaxing and protestations of friends (in meat-life and otherwise). What can I say? We all make mistakes.

Batman and The Joker have a difference in opinion.
To get in the frame of mind that people experienced Batman when it was new, you have to put yourself back into the early summer of 1989, which is the time period when that movie was the single biggest marketing power on the planet. Long before such things as viral campaigns and the modern 24-hour media news suite that is now the primary component in the entertainment promotion machine, Batman was perhaps the most anticipated movie event since Return Of The Jedi in that it was impossible to go anywhere without seeing something or someone sporting that ubiquitous "bat signal" logo. Even amongst such high-flying roman-numeral-heavy competition as Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Ghostbusters II, Honey I Shrunk The Kids, and Lethal Weapon 2, Batman was the movie event of that summer, and an unstoppable cultural juggernaut that squashed everything in its path.

This is hardly the first time anyone has said this of a summer blockbuster, but it's far more interesting to talk about Batman as a commercial/cultural powerhouse (not to mention how much shit hit the fan when Michael Keaton was announced as Bruce Wayne/Batman instead of, uh, I dunno, Sylvester Stallone or something) than it is to discuss it as a movie since there isn't an awful lot of substance to dive into here. That said, I have been informed by quite a few people over the years when drawn into discussions of comic book movies that Batman represents one of the all-time peaks of the genre. Mmmhmm. I'll respectfully disagree there. I will, however, allow that Batman was certainly the crowning "event movie" of that decade and the template for nearly all of the superhero films that were made in the years since ... but it sure hasn't aged very well.

Despite an attempted "love triangle" storyline and a drawn-out ending set piece atop an old clock tower, there is never a tangible feeling of tension built up during any point in this film. It's also impossible to take most of Batman seriously when it seems like Jack Nicholson's portions of the movie bend over backwards trying to be as screwy and over-the-top as possible. So, this is a comedy, right? Well, no ... Keaton's half of the movie is weighty and ponderous and has only Michael Gough's splendid interpretation of Alfred the butler to provide any kind of subtle (though no less welcome) relief. It's all so very complicated being a hero, you see ...

The plot of Batman, luckily(?), is far less complicated: The Joker appears, kills the crime boss of Gotham City, and then poisons some cosmetics products while Batman occasionally beats up his hired muscle. There is also a lot of forced exposition we have to sit through whenever Nicholson and Keaton are off screen, and we are left to deal instead with Big 80s Hair-wearing Kim Basinger and the woefully under-used Robert Wuhl. The other name actors spread about the flick in order to give this movie some kind of clout (Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Jack Palance and, uh, Jerry Hall) are used so sparingly in window dressing roles as to almost be highly-paid cameos.

Like I said before, you have to put yourself in our shoes at that time to derive enjoyment out of this movie on any level. In 1989, we all believed the hype and convinced ourselves that Batman was, like, the bees knees. In retrospect, I'll stick with that Indiana Jones film instead, thanks very much.

Batman Returns
Everyone knew a sequel to Batman was inevitable from the instant it smashed its first opening day record, and when Batman Returns arrived three years later the anticipation for it was nearly as feverish as the mass jonesing that had greeted the first movie. This time, however, the results actually seemed worthy of the hype, though the overall tone of the film was perhaps a tad too bleak for Warner Bros. (not to mention thousands of freaked-out youngsters who were treated to one of the most relentlessly schizoid and melancholy superhero films ever created). Burton had been talked into returning to the director's chair once again only on the condition that he had free reign to make exactly the kind of Batman film he had wanted to make the first time around. Warners, seeing nothing but stacks of profits in their heads, said "Sure, yeah, whatever" and gave him the green-light with no strings attached. With Burton back on board, Keaton returned as well, and in an inspired bit of casting, Danny DeVito was announced as The Penguin.

Given a creative license to kill and pots of studio cash at his disposal, Burton may not have delivered the biggest movie of all time (as I'm sure was the idea from corporate), but he certainly made one of the most visually arresting films of his career. The exteriors, all of them reflecting the grim, obsidian metropolis of Gotham City plunged into wintertime (to reflect the movie's Christmas setting), look like a ravishing cross between Blade Runner and Edward Scissorhands. Whether or not you are into superheroes or action films, Batman Returns is impossible to take your eyes off of: the luxuriant amount of detail in the sets and costumes make this the most expensive piece of Gothic eye candy ever released.

If the rich production design alone made this film worth a look, the performances and more character-intensive script helped sealed the deal. Batman Returns also sets up the pattern of a revolving love interest for Batman that would continue throughout the rest of the series to date, with Basinger replaced by the infinitely-more talented Michelle Pfeiffer (who, by the way, looks absolutely delicious in skintight PVC). Portraying Selina Kyle, the harried secreta ... sorry, executive assistant to Wayne's corporate adversary Max Schreck (points for those who spotted the reference the first time they saw the flick), and also the double-identity of Catwoman, the newest semi-crazed anti-hero in town. As expected, DeVito's Penguin chews scenery every bit as loudly as Nicholson's Joker did, but this time there is a second villain to counter weigh his showboating in the form of the icy smooth Schreck. Brought to life by a hilariously deadpan Christopher Walken, Schreck is the true villain of Batman Returns, seeking to play Batman, Gotham City, and the victimized and misguided Penguin against each other for his own future gain, all other priorities rescinded.

Commercially, Batman Returns did pretty good bank over the summer of 1992, but "pretty good" was not the kind of box office cume that Warner Bros. had in mind following the utter world domination that the first film had managed three years before. While Burton's vision was certainly guaranteed of drawing a hip and devoted following, Warners decided that they really wanted someone with a far more "safe" and crowd-pleasing approach to helm the Batman series for a while, and they eventually settled on none other than Joel Schumacher ...

The Riddler and Two-Face attempt a ''subtle'' emotional scene.
Batman Forever marked a turning point in the franchise as the stars and creators of the first two films were successfully replaced with more marketable personnel (and Tommy Lee Jones). To his credit, Val Kilmer makes a surprisingly good Bruce Wayne/Batman (being much younger and more energetic, though somehow less charming, than Keaton's haunted recluse), and could have easily made the part his own if he had stuck around for longer than one movie. Along with the new Bat comes a new love interest: Nicole Kidman plays a criminal psychologist named Chase Meridian, and she lays it on hot and heavy right from the start, doing her utmost to make even Vicki Vale look like a prude.

I'll be totally honest here, Batman Forever was nowhere near as awful as I'd remembered, though it certainly is no monument to bravura film making. Despite Burton's name seen in an executive producer's capacity during the opening credits (I guess this was a kind of symbolic passing-of-the-torch), the feel of this movie couldn't be any more different from the previous two. Schumacher takes wheel and puts the pedal firmly to the metal in a blatant attempt to create a Batman movie that appeals to nearly every possible target audience. Cranked to eleven, stuffed with crowd-pleasing jokes and double entendres, and possessed of a sense of breathless momentum throughout, Forever makes the first two films in the series seem like Masterpiece Theater in comparison.

Now here is the weird thing: somehow, this almost works. But it's with the twin villains (or perhaps just the villains themselves) that Batman Forever starts to come apart at the seams. I suppose these new baddies were a direct reaction to the truly creepy Penguin from Returns; instead of a true sense of twisted, psychotic menace, Jones plays Two-Face as a complete bumbling idiot (or at least a hapless buffoon with a .45 and a hair trigger) while Jim Carrey taps into an even more obnoxious version of his usual shtick as Edward Nygma/The Riddler. These two are supposed to represent a challenge for Batman? Hell, they're no more than cartoons, as safe as milk and never posing any kind of real threat to anyone or anything aside from their henchmen. Considering how kiddie-friendly this movie was, it's somewhat startling that ancillary characters still manage to die onscreen (though nearly always in utterly bloodless fashion), which apparently was one of the biggest issues parents had with the first two movies. It appears, though, that this particular issue more of that had to do with the depictions of death more than anything else. Surprise.

Gotham City itself is also noticeably transformed by the change in directors. While Tim Burton's vision was pretty much what you might expect from a sad-sack, black-clad college art student type, Schumacher's tendencies seem to come straight from modern Broadway extravaganzas, particularly his penchant for utilizing gaudy, brightly colored lights to fit different moods in different scenes. In Batman Forever, Gotham City is a garish, day-glo cityscape so MTV-like in appearance that you're almost expecting characters to start singing (or packs of choreographed dancers to spring from every doorway along the strangely de-populated looking streets). The neon lights and lasers flashing about randomly in the background look pretty silly on their own, but things get really over the top when we reach the Riddler's hideout at the movie's climax, where so many VariLites are twirling about in programmed unison that it feels like we just wandered into a Pink Floyd concert by mistake.

Another remarkable change Schumacher institutes in Forever is the daring use of daylight once in a while: we are actually shown exterior shots of the city and Wayne Manor basking in the sun, which somehow makes them even more surreal than they were under Burton's watch (now that we can actually see it, Gotham City looks a hell of lot more like New York City by way of ancient Rome with phallic columns and statues of beaten, slumped figures scattered hither and yon). We also get a redesigned, blue-lit, one-seater Batmobile with a silly mohawk-like fin on top: watching this flytrap on wheels taking curves during chase scenes gave me the distinct impression that it handled more like a box kite than an armored car.

Finally, Batman Forever heralded the introduction of Robin to the franchise at last (Burton, who was no fan of the character, delayed this development for as long as he was in the director's chair). Of course, having another poseable action figure to license must have pleased the Warners shareholders, but casting the nearly charmless Chris O'Donnell in this role was probably not the greatest idea ever. At first, we sympathize with the character: the scene in which we are introduced to young Dick Grayson just before we get to see Two-Face kill his entire heroic family in one fell swoop is handled better than could have been expected. It doesn't take long to figure out why: O'Donnell has hardly any dialogue in it. Once he starts snapping and whining, our good faith sours in a hurry. I never figured I'd miss Burt Ward as Boy Wonder, but I sure do now ...

(Incidentally, I'm guessing that the above murders are considered as "lighter" in tone than anything in the Burton films since none of the deceased are ever seen spitting black and green fluid out of their mouths, but if I'm wrong on this, lemme know. )

Batman & Robin.
Released a lightning-quick two years later, Batman & Robin starts off in very unpromising fashion: we get to watch the Dynamic Duo suiting up for their next mission in a series of whoosh-y, tightly-edited flashes that make sure we get a very close look at their chests, asses and crotches (all encased in rubber, thankfully). From there, we're off and running with the film that killed the whole franchise for nearly a decade.

As dopey and silly as Batman Forever was, Batman & Robin was a thousand times worse in every possible category. Serving up two hours of extreme audience punishment that should have resulted in a class action lawsuit, Batman & Robin is a true freak of cinematic nature: the kind of unbelievably atrocious product that only a large multinational entertainment corporation can create with an unlimited budget, a callous attitude towards their audience, and a belief that simply throwing money around willy-nilly will result in box office gold (and that will then translate into a half-dozen highly successful satellite revenue streams from action figures, breakfast cereal, "music from and inspired by" soundtrack albums, fast-food promotions, et cetera). Sadly, of course, this kind of movie making actually works once in a while, but every now and again a stinker as ruthlessly calculated as this one falls on its face and restores, however briefly, a sense of faith in the American moviegoer.

The chief characteristic of a truly dumb digital-age blockbuster is to function like a kind of theme park "thrill ride," which is to say that the object of the film is to entertain the audience by continually assaulting them where they sit. Once beaten into submission, some ancient reptilian part of the human brain makes the audience believe they are having the time of their lives when all they're really doing is watching buildings and vehicles exploding while characters yell lines at the top of their lungs at each other in order to artificially raise the level of tension. Finally, movies like these must have at least one sequence, ideally in the third act, where the heroes race against the Countdown Clock Of Doom and save the day with only seconds (or less) to spare.

If this, dear reader, sounds like your ideal movie experience (or if you have a terrible case of Attention Deficit Disorder), then grab a copy of Batman & Robin and enjoy the ride. Here's the best of what lies in store ...

*Just about every moving object in this movie that does not respire will either explode, sprout wings, or turn into a rocket ship. A chase sequence of some kind usually ensues shortly afterward.

*Lights in Gotham City (whether in the streets or indoors) are always twirling or twinkling busily away and never standing still.

*The music (whether the score or a song by whatever Warners artist's manager begged the most for screen time) utterly dominates the mix when there aren't sound effects aren't going off cannon-like all around us.

*The Batmobile looks even more like a flimsy fiber-optic toy than the last one did.

*Something, or someone is always flying through the air (and making noise while doing so).

The whole effect of this complete overload is a feeling of odd dislocation when we break away from the cacaphony to see how weak Alfred is looking and how worried Bruce Wayne is becoming over his father figure's worsening condition. The drama of these scenes is leavened somewhat by our knowledge that Alfred's death in this movie is about as likely as Fred Durst winning the Nobel Science Prize for biochemistry.

The character overload factor that became a real problem in Forever was actually upped in Batman & Robin: Batgirl is added late into the mix almost as an afterthought in order to help our heroes face two more idiotic and incompetent villains in the monstrously irritating form of Poison Ivy, (played by Uma Thurman as the retarded offspring of Mae West and Emo Phillips), with Arnold Schwarzenegger (in his kinder, gentler post-Terminator 2 form) portraying the gullible, blue-skinned moron Dr. Victor Freeze.

If these new villains weren't lame enough, George Clooney's Bruce Wayne/Batman is so detached and phoned-in that one wonders if he was channelling Dean Martin for inspiration. This was at a time when Clooney was still busy playing variations on his Doug Ross character from ER, and he makes perhaps the least-believable Bruce Wayne yet. Meanwhile, O'Donnell is, if possible, even more irritating than he was in Forever, while dependably pouty Alicia Silverstone plays the rebellious, motorcycle-lovin' Batgirl whose biggest contribution to the movie is being in the obligatory "catfight" scene with Poison Ivy. All of this leaves Michael Gough as the only actor to come out of the last two films with his dignity intact (Kilmer had a few too many silly lines during his turn as Batman to qualify for this award), though it might have been more fitting if Alfred had been allowed to expire instead, as Goat knows the entire rest of the franchise did after this dog was over.

Random thought that popped to mind while Batman & Robin was blaring continuously in front of me: it certainly seems like a lot of people in the comic book universe must be privy to Bruce Wayne's dual identity. Consider that one of the first things we see in this movie is a brand new, gleaming Batcave (which had been pretty well trashed at the end of Forever). Sure, Alfred, Bruce and Dick have loads of free time and swimming pools full of money to spend whenever the mood strikes, but I just don't see this kind of large-scale rebuilding and refurbishing happening without an awful lot of farmed-out handiwork, and unless it was a bunch of illegal immigrants installing all the computer systems, dressing rooms, and cutting-edge electronic hardware (not to mention building a new Batmobile fer crissakes), these workers had to know exactly what they were building underneath that big ol' mansion on the hill.

I may have had a bit of fun pissing all over this movie, but please don't get the idea that watching it was enjoyable on any level. Seriously, Batman & Robin is really bad, people. We're talking Mystery Science Theater 3000 minus-the-robots kind of bad. Even for standard summer action movie fare, this is an aggressively stupid and annoying movie that will either damage your brain or partially dissolve your soul. Move along, folks. Nothing to see here ...

Batman Begins
For nearly half a decade after Batman & Robin, no one dared attempt another Batman film, as the stink left behind from that fiasco lingered for years. Eventually, enough time must have passed, for Warners decided to return to the well once again. This time, however, the company took an interesting approach by forgoing A-list action directors in favor of a more intellectual, measured approach. Ultimately, Christopher Nolan (a man with meager box office clout) was selected for the directing job, and the studio allowing him to pursue his idea of a prequel/"origin film" instead of a chronological "follow-up" to Batman & Robin.

While technically a prequel in that most of the film takes place years before the events in the original Burton movie, Batman Begins is actually a "reboot." Unlike in the Superman series, where we were asked to simply believe that the third and fourth movies never happened (and believe me, that was something the audience was all too happy to do), Batman Begins wipes the entire damn series out and starts all over again from Bruce Wayne's childhood. While such a complete revamp might be a bit confusing to people who might only know the character from the previous films themselves, such bewilderment shouldn't last long, as Nolan does a smashing job re-establishing the Wayne backstory with situations both familiar and previously untold (particularly in regards to the years between the death of Wayne's parents and the public debut of his alter-ego).

While not entirely bereft of humor, Begins restores the reverent, graphic novel tone that Burton drew upon during his tenure. That said, Nolan also cuts sharply back on the sleek, technological sheen that Schumacher inflated to ridiculous proportions: gone is the sleek, electronics-laden Batcave, replaced with something far more inherently believable (and fitting of the character). Gotham City still resembles a tricked-out Manhattan, but the lines have been blurred and the silly circus lights tossed out to achieve something not terribly far off what Burton had in mind, though far less fanciful and far more run-down and forbidding. The same can be said for the Batmobile, which has been replaced by something so completely counter to our expectations that I'm not even sure we can use that familiar name on this vehicle: it seems too imposing and deadly to be saddled with a flippant sounding suffix as "-mobile."

If all of that weren't enough, the cast of Batman Begins is incredible, with the magnetic Christian Bale now in the title role and allowing Bruce Wayne a biting, urbane wit (and Batman a glowering, nearly unhinged rage) unlike anything previously seen in the series. Also shining brightly in a cast brimming with big names, the always-dependable Michael Caine brings his usual charm as a less-grandfatherly Alfred, Morgan Freeman plays Lucius Fox as a sly and not-unwitting corporate partner to Bruce Waynes' crime-fighting ambitions, and Gary Oldman plays very against type as the someday-to-be Commissioner Gordon.

While I was fairly liberal with dispensing plot details to the previous Batman films, it's really for the best that not I not go too far into the plot machinations behind this entry, many of which are plainly hinted at as the movie progresses, yet tied together beautifully by the time it's all over. I sorely regret skipping Batman Begins at the theater, but you can consider my ticket punched for the next chapter (especially since Nolan and Bale are both returning for a second round).

Batman Begins is, without reservation, the best film of the series and, despite the hugely different tone and overall aura of versimilitude, is also quite possibly the equal or superior to Superman and Spider-Man 2 as the best superhero film in the history of the genre. Even for those who normally avoid these kind of movies, I would recommend a viewing of this remarkable film without hestitation: it really is that good.

Batman rating 2/5

Batman Returns rating 4/5

Batman Forever rating 2/5

Batman & Robin rating 1/5

Batman Begins rating 5/5