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 at 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.