My Career In Record Stores – Part II
By Ric Hickey
During that first Christmas season of working in the mall back in 1984 I was exposed to many different kinds of people, music, and cultures, more than I had ever before encountered in my young life. I had a couple of jobs before this one. But they were bullshit. I was learning that your coworkers can be a rewarding source of camaraderie and they often constitute the bulk of your social life. And people that work in record stores have always been some of the most interesting people I have ever met.
Everyone who worked at Record Bar was older than me, with years of experience in the business. I was in awe of them. Some of them would pass through my life for just a couple of months and then be gone forever but they all made an impression on me. There was this skinny New Wave chick named Kris who was the first real live lesbian I’d ever met. Her taste in music was almost as bad as her breath. I loved working with her because she was so unusual, so different than anyone I had ever met before. It was like working with an ostrich that spoke French. She played Depeche Mode in the store so often that I actually started to like it. The same goes for the Cocteau Twins and Pet Shop Boys. In the early ’80s, suburban Ohio was not known for its open-minded liberal thinking and acceptance of people of indeterminate sexual orientation. Looking back, I have a lot of admiration for Kris now. A fierce individualist, she was braver then than I’ll ever be.
Charlie was a hippie cherub from upstate New York. He was a few years older than me and he saw all the good bands back in the day. No wonder he was always smiling. Charlie said it was ten years between the first time he met Cheap Trick and the second time he met them. But at that second meeting the band’s legendary guitarist Rick Nielsen remembered Charlie’s name, where he was from, and the name of the club they were playing when the two of them first met. Even at age seventeen I already knew a lot about Cheap Trick. But I did not know that Rick had a photographic memory. Charlie said it was uncanny in more ways than one. The whole time the two of them were chatting, Nielsen kept flicking his guitar picks all around the club from his perch in the VIP booth, calling out the target he was aiming for and the guitar pick would sail across the room and strike a total bullseye every time without fail. Charlie had a boatload of stories like that. He was one of the many people I worked with for only a few months before they moved on. He was a sweet guy and I miss him.
My buddy Paul started working at Record Bar around the same time I did. Originally from East St. Louis, he too had a ton of tall tales to tell. Paul was and remains to this day a world-class raconteur. He’d seen and done some crazy shit, some harrowing, hair-raising, hilarious hijinks. Always just barely escaping the long arm of the law, he was like Bre’r Rabbit with a joint hanging out of his mouth. I learned more about music from Paul than any 20 people combined that I’ve met since then. When I was put in charge of ordering all the 45s, Oldies, and twelve-inch singles for the store, I know it was Paul who lobbied on my behalf to get the position because he felt like I knew my shit. It wasn’t a promotion. And I did not get a raise. But I was on top of the world.
Paul and I rapidly fell into a devious routine of Prank Wars around the record shop. One time after I returned triumphant from a successful thrift store trip on my lunch break, Paul simply put on the old faded Levi’s I had just bought and wore them home that night. After I took a staple gun to his ass cheek he wrestled the gun from my hand and shot me in the big toe with it, right through my Converse high tops. Another time he chased me through the store with a nasty wet mop that had been festering in a rusty old bucket of slime in the backroom for years. I made it to the safety of the men’s room and just as I was about to slam the door shut behind me the gnarly wet slimy mop connected with the side of my head. I wish I could tell you my mouth was closed at the time.
Our best pranks of course were when Paul and I combined forces to put one over on a co-worker. The best one ever was when we filled Alex’s coat pockets with severed lizard heads. A regular customer who was a biology student offered them to Paul and me one night in a giant Ziploc baggy. There must have been a hundred of them. As I recall, we knew right away what we had to do. Exchanging a wordless glance, we approached the employee coat rack and did the deed. Unfortunately, because Alex worked late that night, Paul and I were long gone and we didn’t get to see the look on his face when he sank his hands into his coat pockets. Alex didn’t speak to either one of us for two weeks after that.
Paul was the first person who told me about a seedy bar in Newport, Kentucky called the Jockey Club. The Jockey Club was booking a lot of cool Punk bands like the Ramones, Black Flag, Violent Femmes, and Suicidal Tendencies. Since starting at Record Bar my taste in music was expanding and there
was a lot to like about Punk Rock’s energy and subversive humor. There was a guy named Bill Leist who was booking all the shows at the Jockey Club and Paul was kind of his right-hand man. Introducing me to Bill, he said, “Pick an upcoming show on the calendar, make a flyer for it, and we’ll let you in for free.” And that’s how on May 1, 1985, with one month left in my senior year of high school, I saw the Dead Kennedys.
My own little cover band morphed overnight into a loose and goofy Punk band called the Speed Hickeys. After I saw the Dead Kennedys in May and graduated in June, we played our first gig later that same year at Sudsy Malone’s near the University of Cincinnati on Christmas Day 1985. It was a calamitous performance that had the club owner screaming at us all night long to turn the volume down as our sly grins grew wider with each song and we defiantly turned it up. I never would have guessed that the sweet smell of success is akin to a wet cigarette butt floating in stale beer. Years later when I moved to Clifton, I noticed that the whole neighborhood smelled like that on Sunday mornings and it often reminded me of that first night on a real stage in a real bar. A real EMPTY bar, granted. It was Christmas day after all. Only the bartender and a few of our friends were in attendance. I would soon learn that the life of a musician playing original tunes includes a lot of late nights performing in empty bars for little or no money. Many were the times I had to hit
the ATM at 2 am to pay the soundman because we didn’t make enough money at the door. But for the time being, much like my non-promotion at the record store, I was happier than a pig in shit. Within a year we made our debut on the Jockey Club stage.
The mall was a stage too. One where a million intertwining teenage micro dramas were playing out in real-time year-round like a hormonal kaleidoscope. It was a tangled incestuous web of big hair, little affairs, parachute pants, leg warmers, lip gloss, day-glow eye shadow, personal pizzas, one-hour photos, blacklight posters, lava lamps, makeup counters, plastic trees, roach clips, head boots, short shorts, baggy pants, mini skirts, fishnets, skinny ties, Jheri curls, acid-washed jeans, bomber jackets, checkered Vans, the boys of summer, their material girls and a never-ending neon hangover.
In spite of popular misconceptions about the squeaky clean 1980s, that mall smelled funky. Years before renovations added glistening marble floors, a second level, and presumably better ventilation, Tri-County Mall had poop brown carpet and slick concrete floors from wall to wall. As you walked from one end to the other your olfactory senses were assaulted by everything from loose tobacco to tacos, shoe store rubber soles and fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, obnoxious perfume samples and cotton candy, french fries and even beer, thanks to a tavern at the opposite end of the mall called the Public Landing. Yes, there was an actual bar in the mall back then. More than one store manager in that mall took extended lunch breaks at the Public Landing. Hard to blame them. I would have done the same thing. But I didn’t touch a drop of alcohol until I was 22. And that was still a few years away. My buddy Paul was always trying to pass me a lit joint. It would be years before I took him up on it.
Stay tuned for part III soon….