Record Bar was a cool gig, but to understand why you need a little background on the music industry. When we talk about a song being a top ten hit, what we’re really saying is that song appeared in the top ten of Billboard Magazine’s “Hot 100” chart. Billboard is the trade magazine for the music business, so in the days before Youtube views and downloads, Billboard’s Hot 100 was the one ring that ruled them all.
The magazine ranked songs based on a handful of criteria, the two squirreliest being “radio requests” and album sales. Sales are easy to tally now, but back in the eighties neither they nor “radio requests” were easy to tally. Back then Billboard did things the old fashioned way: They called radio stations and record stores and asked what was hot.
Of course they didn’t call every record store. No, Billboard relied on a sample of “reporting stores,” and the Record Bar in Savannah’s Oglethorpe Mall was one of them. The record labels knew that ours was a reporting store, and they did everything they legally could to influence what we reported. They probably did some illegal stuff, too, but I was a minimum wage flunky so I never saw it. Rumors of albums sleeves stuffed with cash and cocaine were common on the radio station side of Billboard reporting, but I never heard of that happening at Record Bar.
But man did that store get promos, or free promotional copies of albums. And it wasn’t just promos but concert tickets and other swag. It wasn’t uncommon to pick up the phone and hear things like, “Hi, this is Steven Tyler from Aerosmith. Just wanted to say thanks for the support. How’s the album doing?”
Mason, the store manager, wasn’t a promo party kind of guy. He kept the good stuff for himself and doled out the rest to those he liked. Mason looked a bit like a lost member of Poco with his laid back, mid-seventies Southern California style: shaggy mustache, feathered hair, faded Levis. I think he may have been a Parrothead, but I’m not really sure. We never got to know each other very well.
Mason always treated me with a little suspicion, as if any minute I was going to bolt back to Starship with the Record Bar playbook. I don’t know, I could never figure him out.
Anyway, I went back to Mason’s office to ask him something and there it sat. “Oh man, is that a new Tom Waits album?” I asked.
“Can I have it?”
“No I think I’m going to hold on to this one,” he said.
“Come on, Mason. I’m a huge Tom Waits fan.”
“Oh really?” he said. “I didn’t know that. What’s your favorite album?”
I checked my watch: high noon. Mason’s eyes closed to narrow slits. I squared off, hands hovering over my hips and index fingers twitching. Somewhere in the distance, a dog howled.
“Swordfishtrombones,” I said.
“Oh, come on,” Mason said. “Everybody knows that album.”
“I’m serious,” I said. “That’s the album where he really became Tom Waits. Did you know he dragged an old dresser into the studio to beat on because it had the right sound?”
“And check it out: the new album is called Frank’s Wild Years. That’s my favorite cut from Swordfishtrombones. I have to know what that’s all about.”
“Just buy it,” he said. “Use your employee discount.”
“Come on, Mason. I can barely pay my rent on what I make here.”
“Okay, okay, take the record,” he said.
“Thanks! Seriously, I think Tom Waits is going to be remembered as one of the most important artists of the 20th century.”
Mason smirked. “No need to exaggerate. You got the record.”
Record Bar pulled some pretty cool in-store appearances, too. We hosted Cinderella right as they were blowing up. They were in town opening for David Lee Roth, and they arrived at the store in full hair metal battle gear: piles of Aqua Net hair, eyeliner, glittery Spandex, the whole bit. A good-sized crowd turned out, and the band treated everyone so decently–no rock star bullshit.
At one point I overheard Eric, the bass player, asking a woman how her family was doing, and then he talked about his for a bit. But not too long — have to keep the line moving. That’s what it took for my young brain to finally register that this was a business. Cinderella was a group of guys doing a job, and they did it with class and professionalism.
And then we met the Fat Boys.
History hasn’t been too kind to Prince Markie Dee, Kool Rock-Ski, and Buff Love, but for a brief period in the ’80s the Fat Boys were hot. Their talent consisted of beat boxing and being fat, but for whatever reason that resonated. They popped up on TV shows and commercials, and in 1987 they even had their own movie, Disorderlies. During that same year they released their best selling album, Crushin’, and so that was the wave they were riding when they showed up at Record Bar.
The Fat Boys were rude and obnoxious from the moment they walked through the door, which was really a shame because they drew a huge crowd. The band was stationed at the back of the store, behind the elevated counter where we checked in inventory. The line snaked down the accessories wall, past the counter where the band signed autographs, and then up along the cassette wall and back into the mall. The center of the store, with its rows of album bins, remained a Fat Boy fan-free zone open to shoppers.
That was the plan, anyway. The promise of viewing three obese beat boxers proved too much for the crowd. They rushed the place and soon the store was packed and then some: the throng spilled well into the mall, standing shoulder to shoulder, waiting for their chances to meet the Disorderlies. Record Bar was a full blown fire hazard.
Somebody in the back shoved, the force rippling through the crowd and gaining momentum as it went, escalating from impatience to panic. Suddenly there were several hundred more people crammed into the already packed store. Those closest to the Fat Boys were pressed against the inventory counter. They screamed, which spooked the cattle and made them press even harder.
The band sprinted—if you can imagine that—out the back door, whipping the crowd into an even bigger frenzy. Some screamed in pain, others in anger, and a few just to toss more gasoline onto the fire. Those who weren’t already in the store wanted to see what was happening, so they continued shoving hard from the rear.
With nowhere else to go I climbed onto the checkout counter at the front of the store. The place looked like a Hieronymus Bosch painting: hundreds of anguished faces gasping for air; merchandise flying around like popcorn; my coworkers trying to pull closed the sliding doors that cut the store off from the rest of the mall. To my right several teenaged boys hung from the top of the cassette wall, trying to pull the heavy shelves over onto the crowd.
We spent the next couple of hours letting people out of the store one by one after reclaiming as much of Record Bar’s merchandise as possible from their purses, shopping bags, and pockets.
The store was trashed. We were trashed.After the last customer was gone, I drifted back to Mason’s office. He didn’t look laid back Poco cool, but rather exhausted, stressed, and sweaty. On his desk sat a hockey puck-sized hunk of vinyl bearing a Fat Boys record label— an album before it was crushed by the stamping machine that turned a ball of black petroleum into a record.
“Hey Mason, can I have that?” I asked.
“No, I think I’m going to hold onto that one,” he said.