Memoir

21. Who Are You?

Money was tight for twelve-year-old me:  allowance, what I could get mowing lawns, that’s about it.  Used record stores didn’t exist, at least not in Spartanburg, and new records were expensive.  Enter the cutout bin.

Cutouts were to albums (and tapes, and eventually CDs) what remainders are to books.  Let’s say, for example, that it’s 1978 and some coked up label exec pegs The Many Sides of Neil Sedaka as the next monster.  The label is so sure that they have a platinum record on their hands that they do an initial pressing of a million copies.  All sides of Neil hit the stores and sell a miserable 5,000 copies combined; the remaining 995,000 are returned unsold to the label.  What to do?  Simply snip off a corner of the album cover, or punch a hole or cut a little slit and sell them back to the retailers for next to nothing.  The stores then dump them in the dollar bin.  And this is why your grandparents gave you The Many Sides of Neil Sedaka for Christmas 1978.  Don’t you feel a little better about them now that you know that?

(Note:  I don’t actually know anything about The Many Sides of Neil Sedaka.  It might be the greatest album he ever made and may have been a huge seller.  Nah, I’m pretty sure it sucked.)

Whenever I was lucky enough to score a ride to the mall I headed straight to Record Bar’s cutout bin; well, straight to the cutouts after leery visits with Carly Simon, Heart, The Ohio Players, and Roxy Music.  But from there it was a direct crab shuffle – belt buckle toward the bins, thank you – to the cutouts.

It wasn’t all Neil Sedaka.  Granted there was a lot of crap in the cutouts, especially at the tail end of the Seventies when every C-lister and television star was making a vanity record, but there were nuggets.  Without going through my stacks and looking for the tell-tale missing corner, I can recall the cutout bin providing my first Alice Cooper records (Lace and Whiskey and Muscle of Love),  AC/DC (Let There Be Rock), Cheap Trick (In Color), on and on.  I discovered John Cale, Lori Anderson, and Public Image in the cutouts.  If it looked good and I had a dollar in my pocket I’d take a shot.  If I knew the name from the music magazines — like Lou Reed and Todd Rundgren — I was even more willing to risk a buck.

I knew The Who from the magazines, but where I really knew them from was the Tommy  movie poster I spied at age eight.

“Can we see that, Daddy?”

“No, that’s not for kids.”

That’s not for kids. Translation:  “Please obsess about this until you can figure out how to get around me, son.”  It took four years, but there I stood in the back of Record Bar with a cutout copy of Who Are You?

Did the old man’s Who ban extend to albums, or was it specific to the Tommy movie?  Did he even remember laying down this mandate?  Rather than take a chance I sneaked my Who album into the house – suction cup gloves, grappling hook, ski mask and turtle neck, real covert ops stuff.  Either that or I tucked it under my shirt, which was my go-to move for smuggling albums and music magazines into the house.  In retrospect I question the success of this technique, as my mid-section wasn’t normally a twelve-inch square.

They looked awfully adult and serious in the cover photo:  Pete – Tall, skinny, dark-haired and light-eyed, big nose.  That could be me someday; Roger – The Tommy guy, cool!; John – Just some old guy in the picture; Keith – dressed for a fox hunt, looking kind and gentlemanly, seated in a chair stencilled with the words “Not to be taken away.”

I cracked open the sleeve.  The album was on red vinyl.  What the heck?  This must be worth, like, a hundred dollars, and I got it for a buck!  Suckers!  (Most recent eBay sale:  Eight bucks.)

The music:  This was what my father was so afraid of?  The opening song sounded like the junk on the radio – keyboards, upbeat tempo.  The rest of the album sounded like Sinatra or something.  This didn’t make any sense.  Maybe “that isn’t for kids” really translated into “that is really lame and boring.”

And then The Who struck audio gold: funky rhythm, slashing guitar, and then the song opened up – John laying down a perfectly tasty groove and over the top:

Who are you?  Who?  Who? Who? Who?

The lyric repeated a few times and then the song really ripped open, Mooney just beating the shit out of his drum kit while Roger howled:

I woke up in a Soho door

Where policeman knew my name

He said “You can go sleep at home tonight

If you can get up and walk away.”

Now this was cool.  This must have been the kind of thing that the old man was worried about – stories of drunken derelicts and other bad influences.  Maybe I’d misjudged these guys.

I staggered back to the underground

And a breeze blew back my hair

I remember throwing punches around

And preaching from my chair

Well who are you?

I really want to know.

Who was I?  Was I just my father repeated?  I didn’t even have my own name.  I was going to be a fighter pilot someday like he couldn’t because us kids came along and ruined his shot.

Was I the smart kid?  I was up until the day I didn’t make the pre-algebra cut.

Was I a cool redneck like my sister’s boyfriend, Mike?

Who? Who? Who?  Who?

I really want to know.

Mama’s boy.  Pansy.  Yankee.  Lee G’s best friend.  Outsider.  No one wants you here.

Who the fuck are you?

Manilow fan.  Kiss fan.  Writer.  Artist.  Slacker.  Please get off the chair, Tommy guy.  Please stop preaching to me.

Tell me who are you?

I went to the bathroom and stared in the mirror.  I stared so long that I didn’t recognize myself.  I had no idea who I was or why I was.  How did I get here?  Where do I go?  One day I’m riding bikes with Mikey Peterson in a low-income Denver neighborhood and now I’m a misfit in the Appalachian foothills.  I don’t want to be a fighter pilot.  I don’t want to live here.  I don’t want any of this.  But I don’t know what I want.

I know there’s a place you walked

Where love falls from the trees

My heart is like a broken cup

I only feel right on my knees

I spill out like a sewer hole

And still receive your kiss

How can I measure up to anyone now

After such a love is this

Well who are you?

Who was he talking to?  A woman?  God?  Himself?  It didn’t matter, really.  All that mattered was the question.  Who am I?

I locked into the album after that, scrutinizing the lyrics like Bible passages.  “Guitar and Pen” quickly became my favorite:

You’re alone above the street somewhere

Wondering how you’ll ever count out there

You can walk you can talk you can fight

But inside you’ve got something to write

In your hand you hold your only friend

Never spend your guitar and your pen.

It fit so well with these strange feelings I’d been having – those moments where I no longer felt like I was in the room but rather more like a camera panning around.

And you know in some strange unexplainable way

You must really have something important to say.

Every child has that moment when he or she is validated.  My first happened in the fourth grade when I surprised my teacher with a realistic pencil sketch of the crumbling barn across from the school.  My next came that afternoon in Miss Fryga’s calls when I killed with a short story about a drunken slacker.  And now Pete Townshend, my first best friend I’d never meet, validated feelings I didn’t even know I had.  I didn’t know who I was, but inside I had something to write, something to paint, something important to say.

By age twelve I was locked into a perception of myself that was odds with my father, my peers, my town.  For thirty years I have grappled with this — the grandiosity of feeling like I have something to say conflicting with the low self-esteem of the misfit kid who let his father down by choosing pansy artist over fighter pilot; who inevitably let himself down by choosing security over pansy artist; who let his family down by not coming to terms with all of it long ago.

It would’ve been so much easier if I’d shown an early aptitude for accounting.

When Nissan began using The Who’s “Bargain”  in television commercials a few years ago, Pete Townshend told Rolling Stone that he didn’t care what his songs meant to anyone.  They were his and he could do with them what he pleased.  I understand and respect that, but it doesn’t diminish the fact that they matter.

Who am I?  I still don’t know, but I least I finally accept that in my hand I hold my only friend.

9 replies »

  1. Nice post. The Who were more intoxicatingly peripheral in my teens as “The Wall” from Kansas was my validation moment, though I remember the realizations the song brought up made me unbelievably sad.

    • “The Wall” hit many of us like a ton of bricks, hackneyed as that image is. One of these days I’ll eventually get to why it matters to me. Meanwhile, if interested take a look in my FB photo albums for some pics from Roger Waters recent staging of “The Wall.” Without question the most amazing show I’ve ever seen, and I worked on an “Ernest” movie.

      • Well, considering Kel & I met on the masterpiece “Jungle 2 Jungle”, after a couple of pass bys in the early 90’s, the latest incarnation of “The Wall” has quite the task on it’s hands.

        It’s so hard for me as without Gilmore – Waters is still fascinating, the guy can write & of course is the bassist, but there’s always that vital piece missing. Like remembering something from an enticing aroma that seems to come out of nowhere and reminds you of something, something…

        You ultimately figure out what it’s referencing but it’s more the pleasant dream than the original experience. Nothing one can do about it though. Thankfully Waters is still half the equation thus half, or more, of the experience, unlike the very sad days after Livgren then Walsh left.

        I’ll have to regale you sometime in the future of the stories of the recording of the wall told first hand to me from the second engineer on the project. It’s the second engineers that have all the best stories, just like the apprentices & seconds in film.

        Lets just say death hovered near frequently during the sessions.

  2. I read this while standing in a unusually quiet kitchen, it was 6am, and I was preparing my coffee. In the beginning I smiled at the way in which you set up the scene and gave us a glimpse to your 12 year old self and then by the end I was getting choked up, seems to be a pattern as I read your stories. I decided I had to read it again, later in the day with “Who Are You” playing in the background. Of course, I got VERY introspective as a result. Interesting how that feeling of being an outsider, different, or even less-than that we feel as a kid does not necessarily melt away with the maturity of adulthood. Instead I think we learn to live with the feeling and know that it does not make us any less worthy of happiness, love, success or whatever we hope for in this life. I still ask myself “who am I” and usually I don’t really have an answer for that other than; I am who I am and I am who I was and who I am becoming.

    As for me it was sneaking to listen to R.E.M’s “Everybody Hurts” that validated me during those tumultuous years to know that I was not alone and that I was not so different from everyone around me. (again, that might be a good story for me to put down onto paper at some point)

  3. Cheap Trick came to my home town in’83. By then the ticket I bought did not have the corner cut off. Everyone (that was cool) wanted to hear ‘I want you to want me’. Krokus was one of their opening bands. I left that concert thinking Krokus had two band names, the other being Headhunter. Silly me.

    When I was a teenager I had albums from The Who, Led Zepplin, The Beatles, etc. Some I purchased. Some were passed down from my older siblings. Unfortunaly because ‘who I was’ when I hit college was greatly influenced the people I hung out with everyday, I burned those records. Yes, I have sinned.
    I own The Who again, but on CD this time. It’s down loaded to my ITunes and my son’s IPod. ‘I won’t get fooled again’.
    Who am I today? I’m my mother, my father, my family, my friends, and my enemies. I’m the people I know personally and the ones I’ve never met in far away lands. I’m the guy who kills for no reason. I’m the girl who jumps in front of the bullet to save another. We are all one. I am you.

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