Sunday, December 31, 2017

Christmas Break 1980

A few years ago, I wrote a post about Christmas 1981, when I was a freshman in high school. It was a time of major transition for me, not just because of high school, but because of the way my musical tastes were evolving and how that related to my personal identity. I think about that particular year every Christmas, because of the excitement I felt as I was making new discoveries. There were also some big losses around that time. My buddy Gene and his family had moved to Baltimore a few months earlier. (More on him in a minute.) Most significantly, there was the sudden passing of my great aunt Annie, just five months after the passing of her sister Mary. Both of them were like surrogate grandmothers to me because my maternal grandmother (and grandfather for that matter) died before I was born. Annie had actually passed the day before Thanksgiving, but it wasn't until Christmas break that we went down to empty out her apartment. That felt really weird to me, being in that place that had been the locale of so much fun (and junk food and cans of pop) and suddenly having to adopt a utilitarian approach to cleaning it out.

The feeling of loss has come back again in recent days because my mother-in-law passed away two days after Christmas. It was a peaceful departure, since she laid down for a nap and slipped away. The woman was a saint, and that's really all I feel able to say on that subject at this point. Well, there's one other thing: Several years back, there were a few young girls who lived next door to her that she liked. One day, they started calling her "Mrs. Santa Claus" from their porch to hers. Helen didn't like that. Which is funny because she did look like Mrs. Claus in a way.

But before that turn of events, I had been thinking back to Christmas 1980. Oddly enough, one of the things that got me reminiscing was a picture that my pal Gene had posted on Facebook earlier this month. It showed a budget line blank cassette that I had used to make him a mixtape right around late 1981. He had just moved when I sent it to him - and the family's phone was disconnected not too long before the holidays. So letters and tapes were our sole means of communication for awhile. I made several for him, and he said he still has all of them. It would be exciting to hear them again.

Gene and I met the previous year in our eighth grade class at Reizenstein Middle School and we bonded over music. The memories of that year are still pretty vivid after all this time. In December of 1980, of course, John Lennon was killed. The day after it happened, I remember sitting in my room listening to WDVE, which was playing nothing but Beatles and solo John songs. (Though they also added in Yoko's "I'm Your Angel," which was a pretty impressive song choice in retrospect.) Double Fantasy was the album gift that Santa brought me (though one detail that escapes me is whether Mary and Annie got it for me or if it was on the chair of gifts from Santa that morning).

On Christmas morning that year, DVE, which still believed in having live DJs on the air during the holidays, played the Beatles' Christmas fan club records, one each hour. (To be accurate, only one-half of the Jimmy and Steve Morning Show was on that morning - Steve Hansen - but he was there live.) I wasn't able to get my tape recorder in front of the stereo console in the living room until the hour that they played the 1966 Christmas record. It was just as well since that might year's pantomime performance might be the best one. Unless the charm of the earlier years (where you can still hear the innocence in the Beatles' voices as they read the canned copy that Eppy put in front of them) makes them more compelling. In the records they sent out in the later years of the band, the division between the members becomes more obvious, as they contribute individual sections that are bizarre (John, reading his word-play heavy texts about himself and Yoko; George inviting Tiny Tim, who plays a terrible version of "Nowhere Man"). Ringo actually comes off sounding the wittiest on these parts.

When Lennon died, I got it into my head that I needed to buy his Walls and Bridges album. A neighbor had played me a copy of it a year or two earlier, and I really liked the way the gatefold cover was cut into strips with pictures of his illustrations on them. Plus there was a lyric book in which John credited himself with all kinds of wacky pseudonyms like Rev. Thumbs Gherkin. (I didn't pick up on the joke when looking at my neighbor's copy but I read about it in Nicholas Schaffner's Beatles Forever book.) But of course, in the weeks after John's death, it was virtually impossible to find any of his albums in record stores.

I was friends with two brothers, Dave and Mike, who had shared my Beatles obsession through grade school. By eighth grade, they were probably just putting up with it, preferring to focus on things like George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, which Dave in particular loved. They told me about a store on Pittsburgh's North Side that sold comics and records, which had every Beatle record that anyone could ever want. When Dave called me over Christmas break that year and invited me along on a trip to that store, I jumped at the prospect.

They weren't sure what the name of the place was. It looked like "Eddie's," like the Squirrel Hill newsstand where we all bought comic books. But it might be pronounced "Edie's," or - and this sounded weird to us - "Ides," though it wasn't spelled that way.

As Pittsburghers know, it was Eide's, pronounced like the latter word in that paragraph. The shop was just over the 6th Street Bridge from downtown Pittsburgh, though Dave and Mike's mom drove us there that day so I wasn't sure exactly how to find it on my own. It sat in a row of storefronts that were leveled years later to make room for PNC Park. (The store moved into Downtown, right on the edge of the Strip District, where it still operates today.) Where Eide's once stood, there is now a statue of Roberto Clemente.

Everything Dave and Mike told me about the place was right. Beatle records as far as the eye could see. Bootlegs. Singles. With the picture sleeves! There were copies of rare solo albums like George's Electronic Sound and Wonderwall Music. I didn't realize at the time that they were reissue imports rather than the originals, which all the books told me were so hard to find. It didn't matter because I could see them and touch them for the first time. I had just started to become a semi-regular visitor to the Record Graveyard, a used store located in Oakland upstairs of the Panther Hollow Inn bar, down the street from the Carnegie Museums. But that place was nothing like this. My mind was thoroughly blown.

I bought Walls and Bridges along with a Beatles quiz book that was sitting in the Beatles section. It wasn't the tongue-in-cheek Compleat Beatles Quiz Book (I had already worn that out) but a more serious, actually challenging book. When I got home, I tore the shrink wrap off of Walls and Bridges, and it became clear that this reissue did not have the segmented cover. To add insult to injury, there was no lyric book! I could've lived without the Apple label (this was a purple Capitol one) but this was letdown. It never occurred to me until writing all this now, but that might have been the day when my record buying mind decided that original pressings had more appeal that reissues. Yes, I buy them for the music, ultimately. But the originals get you closer to what the artist envisioned as their statement, whether we're talking running order or packaging.

A month later, Gene and I got an early dismissal from Reizenstein. Our class was going on an ice skating trip, but we thought our time would be better spent on a bus trip to Eide's. We caught a bus across the street from the school (which I always think of every time I pass that intersection of Penn Avenue and East Liberty Blvd.), got off downtown and walked across the 6th Street Bridge. I bought George's Electronic Sound that day. Yes, it was as mediocre as Schaffner made it sound in The Beatles Forever but now I knew for sure. Before long, I started delivering the Post-Gazette in the mornings, which meant I had more free cash to blow on records and I didn't need to wait for the occasional dollars from Mary and Annie to accumulate. And I knew how to get to Eide's on my own.

No comments: