78. But Ain’t That America

So I had a new job thanks to my new friend, Alex, who was kind enough to lie to Steve The Manager on my behalf.  And I  had another friend at Camelot, too.  His name was Dan, and we’d been classmates since the fifth grade.  We were more acquaintances than friends, though my first act as a licensed driver was to pile into the Quincymobile with Lee G. and drive to Dan’s house for no good reason.

Prior to that my only strong memory of Dan was attending his fourteenth birthday sleepover.  We watched Magic with Anthony Hopkins as a mad ventriloquist.  Ann-Margret was his love interest.  At some point during the film she popped out the luxurious Margret breasts and paralyzed all of us.  Dan’s father was in the room — we were terrified of acknowledging the miraculous vision lest he take it away.

“She got some fine lungs,” his father finally said and we breathed a collective sigh of fidgety relief.

Dan was a drummer in the school marching band, and he owned a sweet Tama kit, too.  He was in his John Cougar Mellencamp phase:  jeans, denim jacket, white socks with penny loafers, that big ocean curl of a side part breaking just over his eyes.

I haven’t really kept up with John Mellencamp over the last twenty-five years, but I was an early adopter.  My first exposure was via Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert circa 1979-80.  In support of his eponymous major label debut he performed “I Need A Lover” and “Small Paradise.”  He looked a bit like Tom Waits — scruffy, disheveled, work shirt and cigarette — cool in a manly sort of way that maybe only twelve year-old boys with daddy issues appreciate.  I wanted three day’s growth of beard and a wrinkled denim shirt and to take impossibly long pulls on a Marlboro while wailing about needing a lover that wouldn’t drive me crazy.

The following year John Cougar (not yet Mellencamp) popped up on the Grammys doing some kind of Motown-sounding joint.  “Ain’t Even Done With The Night” was unabashedly cool because it wasn’t.  Nothing on the radio in 1980 sounded like it, and for a thirteen year-old the lyrics were W.B. Yeats:

Well our hearts

Beat like thunder

I don’t know why they don’t explode

Got your hands

In my back pockets

And Sam Cooke’s playing on the radio.

I had no idea who Sam Cooke was, but I knew that I needed to because I wanted to feel exactly like that.

American Fool dropped in 1982 and then it was on.  That’s when MTV got on board the “Jack and Diane” bus and pushed American Fool to number one.  Thirty years later that song is completely fucked out, but it contains what might be the most perfect and profound rhyming couplet in pop music history:  “Life goes on / long after the thrill of living is gone.”  Those words have kept my feet moving forward on more than one of the last ten thousand days.  Who am I kidding?  They’ve dragged my ass out of bed more than once in the last week.

It might be hard to fathom in retrospect, but when guys like Tom Petty and John Mellencamp were first breaking they seemed more aligned with the emerging U.S. punk movement  than what was labelled “rock” at the time.  They had that sort of do it yourself vibe — like they really were who they said they were.  And although their music was more radio-friendly than X or the Dead Kennedys the attitude was there:  “You don’t have to live like a refugee,” “the thrill of living is gone,” “make it hurt so good.”  The Pretenders and Joan Jett had that vibe, too, even more so.  “Bad Reputation” and “Tattooed Love Boys” both deserve their place in the punk canon.

Anyway, by 1983 John Cougar was John “Cougar” Mellencamp and that year’s Uh-Huh featured not only “Pink Houses” but the denim and penny loafer look adopted by my Camelot buddy and perennial classmate Dan.

“Hey, Dan.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I work here now.”

“Since when?”


“No way.  How?”

“That guy Alex told Steve we were friends.”

“Oh.  Cool.”

Steve The Manager approached us.  “Jim, I see you’ve met Dan.”

“Oh, we know each other from school.”

Steve The Manager looked over the top of his glasses.  “This isn’t going to be a problem, is it?”

“No, we’ve been friends a long time.”

“That’s precisely what I’m concerened about.  Dan, do you really think that The Thompson Twins are the best choice when the only people here are browsing in the heavy metal section?  Run up front and put on the new Van Halen.”  He turned and addressed me:  “We’re not here to entertain ourselves, we’re here to sell records.  There’s nobody more important in a store than the customer.”

“Yes, sir.”

Dan faded out “Sister Of Mercy” and cued up side two of 1984.  The mullets started bobbing to “Hot For Teacher” and Steve smiled.  “Don’t be surprised if one of those kids leaves with a Van Halen record.”  He walked me around the store — an enormous carpeted rectangle divided by album bins.  I knew these bins already.  For years I trawled them looking for the cheap thrills promised by a Roxy Music album cover; for the beauty of a Frazetta, Roger Dean, or Hipgnosis image.  I’d been flipping through these bins for seven years in hopes of stumbling onto an original Some Girls, Lovedrive or some other rarity.  Jill From Camelot eased me from Guy In Black Tee Shirt Who Jams to New Wave Guy in these bins.  She was gone now, unfortunately, but knowing that she used to work here made the place even cooler.

In all those years of browsing the bins I never noticed the other sections of Camelot — the jazz, classical, comedy, and children’s music.  I knew the R&B section fairly well mostly thanks to the Ohio Players album covers, but I’d never noticed the adjacent row labelled “Rap.”  The cassette wall was a vertical reproduction of the album layout.  Opposite that were the accessories —  record and tape head cleaners, cheap headphones and cheaper boom boxes.

“Look,” Steve The Manager said.  One of the mullet heads was at the counter with Van Halen II.  He smiled and his eyes disappeared behind his black-rimmed glasses.  “Now, why do you think that the store is laid out this way?”

“I don’t know.  To make enough room for everything?”

“Think for a second.  Why is classical hidden in the back corner?”

This wasn’t some crappy algebra test — this was important.  My first day in the ever-expanding field of retail sciences and I was coming up zeroes.  Visions of greasy burger patties overwhelmed me; a future where a five year-old Celica was the brass ring.  “Because classical doesn’t sell?”

“Well, that’s somewhat true.  Vivaldi doesn’t compete with Huey Lewis, but there’s another reason.”

My face must have been as blank as my mind.

“People don’t steal classical music,” he said.  “Merchandising comes down to two things: make your hot product as visible to customers as possible, and put it where you can watch it.”  He walked me out of the store, to the center of the mall.  “Look at the store.  What do you see?”

“Michael Jackson, Huey Lewis, and Van Halen.”

“Now you’re getting it.”

From where we stood I could see a:

  • department store
  • toy store
  • organ dealership
  • photo developer / camera shop
  • card shop
  • record store
  • shoe store

If we would’ve walked down the mall that evening we would’ve passed an arcade, tobacconist, Morrow’s Nut House, a book store, a novelty shop, and the requisite jewelers and clothing stores.  Luigi Cosenza would’ve waved from the pizza place that bore his name, not a Sbarro. Thirty years later the variety in my local mall is relatively flat: clothes, jewelry, Build-A-Bear and an Apple store.  All that remains is the stuff that doesn’t lend itself to online retailing and Apple.

I don’t know, maybe it isn’t a bad thing.  Maybe the quality control inherent to vacuum-packed cashews is more important than walking past Morrow’s and catching that heavenly whiff of the roaster.  Perhaps it’s safer for kids to congregate on XBox Live rather than at an arcade with actual humans.  Maybe the convenience of music downloads is preferable to the Jill From Camelots of the world turning us on to music we might otherwise not try.

All I know is that Steve radiated pride as he shared with me his profession.  It wasn’t a storefront that he was showing me but his skill, craftsmanship, knowledge and passion.  That’s all gone now.  Like every other major record chain Camelot is gone now.  The biggest music retailer in the world now is iTunes, and you don’t need a Steve The Manager to run that.

Retail as a middle class career is dead and gone,  just like the record stores.  Enjoy your downloads.

4 replies »

  1. Steve sounds like he loved and knew his job. Not a bad lesson to work under someone like that.

    As for John Mellencamp, I admire how multi-talented he is…singer, musician, songwriter, artist, actor. I mean, I know he’s not that actor-y, but I rather liked him in Falling From Grace.


  2. What a turn you took – I was settling in for a full Mellencamp read, and by the last paragraph you had seamlessly broadened remembering Mellencamp’s songs from the past, to remembering the past in it’s entirety, and how many ordinary, everyday things have quietly vanished under our feet one by one, not even really noticed at the time because we were busy living our lives, not looking at our feet.


    • That’s a great way of saying it. I wonder how much of nostalgia is just that — the “what do you mean I can’t get a _____ anymore” statement followed by a fevered search for the until recently forgotten item.


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