[Author’s Note: Good God, I’m really starting to think of myself as some kind of Mickey fucking Spillane with all the novelistic bullshit this feature is starting to peddle. All I can say is, if you’re not into it, I’m sorry, thanks for sticking with it this far. If you’re just into the music and the YouTube clips, simply scroll down to the end. I’ve linked this site to a lot of other things over the summer, so if you’re new and want to start from the beginning — and why wouldn’t you — go to April 2009 for Part 1.]
Late August, 1993 — The manager of the video store sat enshrouded in a permanent fug of blue cigarette smoke. Basics. Two more packs rested on the desk. He could have been forty, he could have been sixty, his appearance betraying no hint of anything beyond a middle age where appearance is no longer a going concern. His tinted aviator-style glasses and drooping porn-star mustache were topped off by a truly heroic, unselfconscious Afro, the likes of which had been unseen on a white man since 1975. He jabbed a nicotine-yellowed finger at my resume.
“I liked your introduction letter,” he said. Which was a damn good thing, because the Employment History of the resume was a bit of a wasteland. The manager, Joe, had made a career out of managing small retail establishments — a Men’s Wearhouse in Pomona, a 7-11 in San Luis Obispo — and I’m sure he’d given many neophytes their first shot at cash-register jockeying. My letter, written in an embryonic, eighteen-year-old version of the chatty, verbose prose you’re reading right now, was my only chance to differentiate myself from the pimply herd.
Skipper Joe (as it turns out, a Navy vet) confirmed he’d like to have me “come aboard,” and thus began my introduction to the great dysfunctional family dynamic known as “co-workers.” As he popped open the door, great clouds of Basic smoke billowed out as if a pile of Christmas trees was burning somewhere in the depths of the manager’s office. Joe ushered me out moments before my blood turned into a sticky sluice of nicotine and tar.
I don’t know if you, Faithful Reader, recollect how you felt on the very first day of your very first “real” (as in, not working for a friend or family member) job. I was terrified. Feeling very much the babe in the woods, I showed up the next day at the appointed time and donned the First Run Video uniform of blue vest and yellow engraved name tag. My tag read “TRAINEE.”
It was the store’s third or fourth day of being open for business, and it was like feeding time at the monkey house (entertainment options in Yuba City are, shall we say, limited). Every customer was a new customer, and had to laboriously fill out a card which a new employee had to laboriously enter into the computer. Lines streched far back onto the sales floor. The other employees could not possibly have worked there more than three or four days, but they all seemed like grizzled veterans. In addition to Skipper Joe, Franchise Owner (“Admiral”) Dave was also on hand, all the way from the home office in Redding. He looked like — remember the pompous, clueless principal on Head Of The Class, Dr. Samuels? Admiral Dave looked like Dr. Samuels if he had been put through Willy Wonka’s juice-squeezing machine.
But, the first person I encountered was one of Admiral Dave’s two twenty-something daughters, who were assisting at this Grand Opening. I believe her name was Candace (?). She would be training me, and I latched onto her like a lamprey, dogging her every step. If she stopped short, I was liable to break my nose. It was unseemly. If she had been willing to carry me around like Joan Embrey with the baby orangutan on the old Tonight Show, I would have jumped at the chance. To give herself a break from my neediness, she put me on my first solo duty: handing out free popcorn and promotional balloons. After an hour of not screwing up the holding of items in an offering gesture, I was promoted to register trainee. Once again, Candace (?) was my patient sensei, showing me how to guide the laser wand over the bar codes on the VHS rentals, and how to make change.
[Wait, wasn’t this supposed to be about music? Soon, I promise…]
I was two hours into my epic four-hour shift (remember, I had never worked anywhere for longer than two hours in a day in my life), when Dave and his lovely daughters called it a day. The Yuba City branch of First Run Video could now walk and talk on its own, and the big shots began preparing for their long drive back to Redding and its August temperature of 1000 degrees. I felt a lump coming to my throat. I was being abandoned! I was stunned at how quickly I became attached to Candace (?). (Is this common to first jobs? I’ve only had one first job…)
My distress only lasted a moment, because I was introduced to my new mentor — Skot (a spelling of his own invention, he managed to get it on his driver’s license). Shift Supervisor Skot was about 22 to my 18, and had worked there since opening day, so that qualified him in my eyes as the Grand Old Man.
“Matt, you’ll be working with Skot now,” said Skipper Joe. Skot wrapped one arm around my shoulders and gave me a “just-you-and-me-kid” squeeze, and I was in immediate hetero man-crush heaven.
I seem to have been born to be a protege. My most significant friendships have been with guys a few years older than me. There was first grade, when third-grader Sean taught me about the joys of Universal monster movies and how to turn your eyelids inside out. There was seventh grade when ninth-grader Joey introduced me to Stephen King (he related the entire thousand-page plot of It to me on an epic cross-town walk from the library to the mall, and this was before the cheap, cheesy TV miniseries) and pretended to believe the lies I spun about all the middle-school tail I was getting. There was the previously-mentioned Brian Cunningham and his Chevy stepside in high school, and now there was Skot.
Also coming on at four o’clock was Peyman, who worked his very first shift the day before when I had my smoky interview, and never let me forget he had four hours of “seniority” on me. Peyman was twenty, of indeterminate Middle Eastern ethnicity (Lebanese? Jordanian? He never would tell us. He actually kind of looked like Alan Cumming), intense and high-strung, and loved to make himself laugh. Later, I noticed if there was a particularly funny bit on something we were watching, he would make us rewind it and re-watch it no less than twenty times, laughing himself into tears, cramps, and near-incontinence.
Skot, Peyman, and I immediately formed a boisterous trio (me being the junior partner yet again), and the first job became less scary from then on. My yellow name tag with “MATT” on it arrived from the engraver’s after a week or so, and it was official.
I had a point with all of this, didn’t I? Oh yes, what were we listening to?
#101. Mr. Jones — The Counting Crows
Skot spent the better part of my first month at work singing this in a dreadful falsetto. (“Mista JOHHHHHnes an’ meeeeeee…”)
The Counting Crows are to R.E.M. what The Eagles were to Gram Parsons in a previous generation. They copied all the right poses, structured their stuff the same way, but missed the heart and soul by a mile. Everything about the Crows screamed FAKE and CONTRIVED. But the song was inescapable, and I remember the album was the big new release to get that Tuesday. Allen got it, and we talked about it that evening before film class. (Film class! I loved college!) I told Allen I didn’t like how the lyrics on most of the songs did not match the melody line of the music. I still think it’s a valid criticism. Singer Adam Duritz sounds like he’s singing (bad) poetry over completely unrelated musical backings. Yes, I did end up getting the album (hey, it was a big release), hating it, and selling it back. Gram Parsons summed up his opinion of The Eagles with the succinct phrase “a plastic dry-fuck.” So it goes with Patron Saints of Smarmy False Earnestness, the Counting Crows. (Oh, and Durtiz’s precious little dreadlocks? FAKE!) At least the Dave Matthews Band’s smarmy earnestness seemed genuine (more on those schmucks in a couple of years.)
#102. “River of Dreams” — Billy Joel
Another song with a heavy presence that summer/fall. I didn’t even realize it was Billy Joel until about 1997, although I probably should have guessed, because it’s yet another example of Joel’s obsession with filtering the “Brill Building” sound of the very early 60s through pompous, Paul Simon-style production. He wants so badly to be either a black doo-wop singer from the “streets,” or failing that, another Dylan or Springsteen. Sorry, Billy, it ain’t happening. (But I love “The Longest Time.” Go figure. I contain multitudes.)
#103. “Heart-Shaped Box” — Nirvana
The end of two eras. In late September, Nirvana released their long-awaited followup to Nevermind, recorded by (not “produced” he insisted) by professional Elitist Asshole Steve Albini. (Before you wags can say anything, remember that the Holy Bee is strictly an amateur Elitist Asshole.) Nirvana capitalized on their massive fame by releasing In Utero, the harshest, most dissonant anti-pop album they could possibly get away with. The radio-friendly sheen and massive hooks of Nevermind were long gone. Geffen did not want to put it out, but such was Nirvana’s stature at the time, they forced it out. I admired the album, but it would be a stretch to say I liked it. (I was kind of offended that the liner notes told me where to set the bass and treble knobs on my stereo. I mean, come on, guys, that’s stretching your oh-so-serious “musical integrity” a bit far.) It was the Seattle band’s final studio album, although, of course, no one knew that at the time.
The other era that was ending was my time with my high school friends. The last time I can remember being in Jeff O.’s room was when we listened to this album. I remember all the Giants/Will Clark posters on his wall, and, word-for-word, his review of In Utero: “This fucking blows.” Well, Jeff was drifting into Garth Brooks territory by then, so clearly our bond was weakening.
#104. “Daughter” — Pearl Jam
Nirvana’s Seattle rival Pearl Jam also had a follow-up in the chute, and it came out about a month later. Now gainfully employed, I could afford to get whatever was the big release of the week on the day it came out. Pearl Jam’s Vs. certainly qualified. When Peyman came into work that evening, we both said at the same time, “did you get it?” and then both showed each other the square outline of the jewel case in our cargo shorts pockets. (Although it wasn’t quite a jewel case, but an early form of a digipak that was a bitch to open.)
#105. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” — Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
One of my duties as a video store clerk was to drive around and collect returned tapes from several drop-boxes around town. This was the most coveted task of the evening shift, because it got you out of the store for about an hour, and you got a stipend for gas. As the lowest man on the totem pole, I rarely got the chance to be the “Drop-Box Runner,” and when I finally did, I almost never got another. The Mattmobile, long suffering from fatal congestion of the fuel line, finally gave up the ghost on my first drop-box run. About three miles from the store. In those pre-cell phone days, I had only one option…run back. When I finally staggered back into the store, gasping and sweating, I had been gone nearly two hours instead of the usual one. Skipper Joe was already writing up the official reprimand sheet. When I explained the situation, and everyone saw my exhaustion and the enormous half-moons of sweat under my arms, we all had a laugh and the reprimand was torn up. But I was never allowed on a drop-box run again for months.
My dad was a firm believer in owning more cars than you technically needed, so with the Mattmobile now out of action, I inherited one of his decrepit pick-ups. The Mattmobile Mark II was an off-white Mazda Sundowner, and once again, I was part of a fleet. Both Skot and Allen were driving Sundowners at that time. The Sundowner had a working radio, but no cassette player, so a radio-listener I became. My commute to the college from south Yuba City could run to thirty minutes, so ear-candy was a must.
I was driving home one afternoon, I forget exactly when, but I recall the atmosphere as being Halloween-ish. This song came on, and I thought it was Bob Dylan. Petty has always had a bit of a nasal rasp to his voice, but here, he’s really working it, and the lyrical phrasing is pure Bob, too. When the DJ announced it was Petty, and he had a new greatest hits album coming out, I was intrigued. My experience with Petty up until that time was thinking “Free Falling” was pretty okay, but when I got the Greatest Hits album, I became a hardcore Pettyhead. I still think it’s the best single disc “best-of” album by any artist.
“Mary Jane’s Last Dance” was recorded as a bonus track for the record, and Petty himself wondered how it could be a “hit” before anyone had ever heard it. Putting it on the “Greatest Hits” proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it became one of his best-known songs.
Although the practice of including a “new” track on a compilation had been done before, the success of “Mary Jane” made it de rigueur for any greatest hits album to have some new material.
#106. “Dazzey Dukes” — Duice
Another song I remember Skot singing incessantly. The weather was turning colder, and Skot and Peyman and I were socializing more and more. The store closed at midnight, but that was rarely the end of the evening. Sometimes Skot would boot us out so he could sit and play the store’s enormous collection of Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo games until dawn, but more often than not, he joined us at either throwing a football around the dark, abandoned parking lot in front of the store, or at Lyon’s, the 24-hour chain eatery for discerning wastrels.
As I spent the next several years employed at either a video store or movie theater — which frequently involved working until after midnight — Lyon’s was always the after-party, the late night Home Base. Low, low prices and a tolerant waitstaff the same age as us meant that you could nurse a single plate of fries and free coffee refills for hours, talk loudly, and engage in mild horseplay. Who were we bugging at two a.m. besides other college kids? If my life at the time had been a sitcom (and how I wish it was!), Lyon’s would have had to be one of the permanent sets. If we didn’t have class the next morning, we would push on even beyond Lyon’s, and watch a movie or listen to something at Skot’s apartment. One night, he played us the Jerky Boys crank call tape, which had just come out. Within days, our communication with each other at work was a strange patois of profanity, movie quotes, Ren and Stimpy dialogue, and Jerky Boys catchphrases. Good times.
Tune in soon for Part 13, where we close out 1993 and enter into the Holy Bee’s annus horribilis, 1994.