Some of you who have followed my stories and books may recall a few mentions of Mike, the clerk at my local record shop. Some of what’s written here will be familiar to you and other bits will likely find their way into the sequels to First Boy on the Moon, but I wanted to write something just to share with this new forum and I thought you would all love Mike, being music lovers and record fanatics.
Good Vibrations Remember when every town had its own little mom and pop record store? I’ll bet your town had one, whether you’re old enough to remember it or not. In the town I grew up in, our record store was called Good Vibrations. It was a long, narrow shop, tucked between a carpet store and a pharmacy, in a low brick building downtown.
When I was a little kid, Good Vibrations was just one of those downtown shops we passed by on shopping trips with Mom. The records I had when I was small came from the backs of read-along storybooks or cereal boxes. In our house we had mom’s records (and I loved every one of them), Gramma’s records and the family records: a Chipmunks Christmas album, some kids song compilations, stuff like that. By the time I was a teenager, that record store was the heart of my town and I stopped in almost every day after school, whether I had money to buy a new 45 or not. I could spend hours browsing through the stacks and racks, reading the backs of the album jackets, listening to Mike tell me about the artists he thought were important and vital. I even went to the record store the day my mother died, but we’ll get to that in just a little while. Before you can understand why I ended up in a record store on the saddest day of my life, you’ve got to get to know Mike a little better.
The first time I met Mike, I was nine years old and if it wasn’t my first time through the door of Good Vibrations, it was the first time that I can recall. I was with my best friend Jesse, on a trip downtown to buy a sound effects record for a Halloween party that Jesse was paying for on his own tight budget of fifteen bucks. The clerk was a friendly guy in his early twenties, bearded and already balding, with a friendly smile and a kind voice. He wore an earring in one of his ears and he sauntered around the record shop like the confident curator of a secret museum. He showed us to a rack of record albums and helped us pick out just the right one. When Jesse and I lamented over the price of the sound effects record, Mike told us all the Halloween records were on sale and gave Jesse a two-dollar discount on the album. Outside, getting on our bikes, I looked in through the record shop window and saw Mike take two dollars from his own pocket and put it in the cash register. I didn’t tell Jesse what the clerk had done, but I never forgot it.
At twelve years old, I was becoming so infatuated with rock and pop music that I was sure it was part of puberty, no different than all the other changes I was experiencing at the time. When I was a little kid, there were two things I wanted to be; one was a cowboy and the other was a teenager. I never learned to rope and ride, but I got real good, real fast at being a teenager. I slept with the radio on all night and I listened to American Top 40 every single Sunday morning as if it were church. I spent most of my time and all my money at Good Vibrations and the thing I was most proud of as a teenager was my record collection. Most of my friends said it was the best record collection in the neighborhood and I couldn’t have built it without Mike.
Mike turned me on to artists none of my friends listened to, he directed me to bargain-priced albums that were priceless and he gave me free promotional records and cut-out albums the store was going to throw away. It was Mike who gave me my very first Bruce Springsteen bootleg on two cassette tapes.
Of course, the more time I spent at the record store, the more I talked with Mike and the better I got to know him. He was smart and funny and completely happy to work at Good Vibrations and his dream was to one day own the store. He loved music more than most people I knew and he must have seen in me a kindred spirit and I think he truly enjoyed being a mentor to a budding rock and roll misfit kid.
The list of artists I first heard hanging out at Good Vibrations with Mike is so long that it would render this story a very boring read, but I’ll tell you a few of them. Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello, Neil Young, Jim Croce, Van Morrison, Led Zepplin, Meat Loaf, Janis Joplin, The Doors. Mike introduced me to every one of them. Thanks, dude.
Our conversations moved outside of music and we talked about politics, my teenage problems, movies and books, but Mike always brought the conversation back home with one kind of musical link or another. Whatever we were talking about, he’d say “oh, Richie, you oughta check this out” and plop a vinyl disc on the record shop’s turntable.
When I was fourteen, I got in a fight with a kid during school and afterward, he and three of his friends chased me down the high school hill and through the downtown streets. I ran into the record store and Mike kept them out and we listened to music until they got bored and went away. At that time in my life, there was a lot of trouble at home between my mother and myself and I had a lot of trouble at school. There weren’t a lot of places in my neighborhood that felt safe anymore, but that day in the record store, listening to Fleetwood Mac while the bullies lurked out on the sidewalk, I realized that Good Vibrations had become a safe place for me and that Mike was one of the few adults I knew who I could talk to, who listened to me and understood me at all.
Mike, whose last name I hadn’t even known, was my friend. Our love of music was what we shared, both of us knowing that music was so much more than just pretty noise to fill quiet spaces. Music was a part of who we were. I bet you’re a little like that yourself, aren’t you?
My mother died on May 17, 1982. I took the call when the doctor phoned in the middle of the night and I had to wake up my brothers and tell them both that our mother was dead. I remember it still as if it’s happening now. The expressions on their faces are etched in my memory. Their muted voices echo in my soul. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I was not prepared to do it at sixteen years old. I was so ill-prepared for it that, to this day, there’s a still, small voice in the back of my mind that considers myself the bearer of bad news.
By the middle of the following morning, I had to get away; from my brothers, my aunts, my friends…hell, from myself. I left the apartment, still shocked and lost, and I wandered along the river for a while and walked the downtown sidewalks. I cried and I ignored people passing by who said, “son, are you alright?” I had known where I was going all along, I suppose, so I wasn’t at all surprised to find myself walking through the door of Good Vibrations, tears streaming down my face, stepping out of the warm May sunshine, straight into the dark boom of a Black Sabbath song.
“Hey, Richie!” Mike called, turning from a stack of records he was sorting. His smile faltered, he put down the records he’d been holding and leaned on the glass-topped counter, the way he always did. “Richie…what’s wrong?”
Everything. The world is upside down and I’m falling off it.
“My mom died.”
In the years that I’d been going into the record store, all that time that Mike and I had been becoming friends, we had seldom touched. We shook hands from time to time or slapped palms in celebration of a particularly good song we were listening to, but that day, the day my mother left me all alone on earth, Mike came around the counter, his face full of sorrow, and he embraced me. It was brief, but it was firm and I remember he cupped the back of my head with the palm of his hand and said, “I’m so sorry, Richie.”
“I didn’t know where to go,” I told him, “I don’t want to be anywhere.”
Mike brought a stool out from the back room and I sat at the counter and wept. He went behind the register and took the Black Sabbath album off the turntable, flipped through a stack of albums and said, ”Oh, Richie, you oughta check this out.”
He dropped the needle ever so carefully, the way he always did so he wouldn’t scratch the records, leaned against the counter and held my hand in his while Paul Simon’s silken voice filled the record shop.
No, I would not give you false hope
On this strange and mournful day
But the mother and child reunion
Is only a motion away
I only saw Mike a few times after that, once at my mother's funeral and once to tell him goodbye before I left town. He did end up owning that record store, though.
Thanks, Mike...for everything.