(Originally published in November 2012 on my Hedonist Jive blog)
LET’S GO RECORD SHOPPING IN 1981 BERKELEY
The nostalgic mythology we reserve for life-changing events and places in our lives exerts a powerful pull that only grows greater the older we become. Cliché, right? Of course it is. Well, right up there with the birth of children, weddings, family moves and baby’s first teeth are cultural touchstones, particularly for those who’ve defined a large portion of their life by their relationship to the “culture” or “art” of their choice. My first rock and roll show – The Police at Oakland Stadium! – wasn’t particularly memorable or nostalgic, but, as I’ve written about before in other blogs, my youthful trips to record stores in other cities a few years before that had an absolutely mind-blowing effect on my psyche and my cultural development. I’m still frequently revisiting the crate-flipping sensations I got from those explorations at age 13 in dreams today, over thirty years later.
Last year I wrote a piece about my sacred pilgrimages to Los Angeles record stores in the late 1980s. As fruitful and “plenteous” as those many journeys were, they were also, at their core, simply fun trips to buy new records. My record store visits to Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue, starting in 1981, were something way more mentally massive. They changed the way I consumed my culture of choice – rock music – for all time. Let me put it into some context for you. First, there’s me. I turned 13 in October of 1980. I lived in San Jose, California with my parents and sister; while a big city now and a medium-sized one then, San Jose was and remains suburban and bland to its core, forever and always in the shadow of San Francisco, one hour to its north. My grandparents lived in El Cerrito, right next door to Berkeley, and we’d frequently stay with them for a week at a time and look for things to do together all over the Bay Area that might be cooler than what we could do in San Jose (and in case it’s not clear: that was just about everything).
They started taking us to Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley for lunch & store-browsing. This is the main drag next to the UC-Berkeley campus, and a legendary countercultural hotspot from the 1960s onward. Head shops, pizza places, comic stores, t-shirt shops, bookstores, and most powerful of all for me: Record Stores. Telegraph’s street scene in the early 80s was punk rock to the max. Colored mohawks – the real UK-style "liberty spike" look – were actually displayed by multiple peacocking boys and girls without irony. Not retro - this was real-time. This was a little intimidating for a suburban 13-year–old, but my grandpa was a calming presence, and someone who loved people – especially unusual people – and wasted no opportunity to walk up to some sneering punk and quickly disarm them with a, "How are you there today, young fella??". Telegraph was a real hangout spot, the sort of street where kids would come from all corners of the Bay Area in the morning, loiter all day, and leave late at night. To some extent, it still is, but its best days are way behind it.
I was in thrall to new wave and punk music by that first time I visited the Telegraph record stores in ‘81. I was pulling in a college radio station, KFJC, at my house, and they played everything from Adam and the Ants, to weirdo import 45s from England, to early US hardcore. I was trying to figure it all out, knowing that this stuff was so much better than the milquetoast Top 40 and disco I was raised on (and was equally obsessive about, from about 1975 to 1979). I would sit by the radio with a pen and paper, and write down the DJ’s back-announce as quickly as I could, frequently muffing things up myself when the DJ himself hadn’t. I discovered Roxy Music, Lou Reed, Devo and The B-52s this way, and would read about current bands from England that sounded even cooler than those.
OK, so that’s a little context. Now let’s talk about the stores themselves. From 1981 to about 1984, there were four that I visited every time we went to Berkeley: Rasputin’s Records, Universal Records, Leopold’s Records, and Tower Records. We can dispense with the last one first. If you consumed recorded music up until the early 00’s, you certainly know what Tower Records is. Berkeley had one, and it had a great magazine section and many of the newest imports. It was usually an afterthought on these visits – I’d hit the three indie stores first, walk them up and down for hours, and only then go to Tower, mostly because it was just part of the established routine.
Rasputin Records – also known as Rasputin’s, and currently known as Rasputin Music (and still on Telegraph, albeit in a different location), was the big mecca of the 4 stores. It was an absolute epicenter for new independent music from England and from small labels across the USA. The images from my first moments in the store are forever burned into my psyche. On the lefthand wall, a long row of 45s. Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Visage (!), Adam and the Ants, X, the Au Pairs, The Cramps and many more. To the right, more in the center of the store, were the LPs that the store wanted to feature. I remember my jaw dropping that first time when I saw this one.
Everything unique and groundbreaking about punk and postpunk – music, sleeve design, band names, fashion, politics - had converged and was on display in this one store, at this one time, and I’ll never forget how my horizons exploded in a few short hours. I would flip through these records multiple times (especially the singles, because I could afford them), staring at sleeves, reading liner notes, and carrying armloads of stuff around all afternoon until it was time to check out because my grandpa was going to pick me up outside the store.
Being a kid, and therefore having limited allowance money to spend, I bought two 45s that first day that I’d been hearing on KFJC: “Antmusic”, by Adam and the Ants (yeah!), and X's “White Girl”. Such was my musical cognitive dissonance at the time, though I suppose it's not as far a leap as it might once have seemed. Trouble was, I thought when I bought “White Girl” that I was actually buying a frantic, female-fronted punk rock song I'd heard on the radio once before, which was "100% White Girl" by San Francisco punk band THE VKTMS. Expecting that song, and instead getting Exene’s whiny, nasally voice and the methodical pace of the original “White Girl”, I was thoroughly bummed as I listened to it late that night, after my grandparents had gone to bed, of course. When you only have $6 to spend, and you “waste” $3 of it on one of the best days of your young life, it can be pretty crushing. Of course, now I love X’s song, and I wish I’d held onto the Slash Records 45. Never did end up buying the Vktms record, either.
On later visits I bought Bauhaus' 12” single “Bela Lugosi's Dead”; the complete early Simple Minds collection (pre-stardom; this was when they were a futuristic dance band of sorts); the Surf PunksLP; Au Pairs’ "Playing With a Different Sex" LP; the Human League's “Being Boiled”, and a variety of new wave singles I've forgotten about now. This is likely for the better. I laughed at records by “Surgical Penis Klinik” and the Meat Puppets. I saw a lot of records that are undoubtedly paying for children's college educations now.
Practically next door to Rasputin’s was Universal Records. I think they may have closed well before I left for college in 1985; I seem to remember them disappearing around 1983. This was the punk store. Cluttered, dirty, and with loud UK punk like Discharge and The Exploited blasting at top volume, it took all of my teenage courage to shop here and look cool. Actually, though, the pimpled punker behind the counter was totally friendly to me every time I came in – answering questions and steering me to new purchases. His punk name was Rob Noxious. There were many dudes with variants of that name back in the day, including Bob Noxious, singer for San Francisco’s Fuck-Ups. This guy, I later learned, was the singer of a hardcore band called Intensified Chaos. He prodded me to buy my VICE SQUAD “Stand Strong, Stand Proud” record, and patted me on the back when I sold him my novelty Surf Punks record back in order to help afford it. My memories of this store are full of “Punk & Disorderly” record covers, Crass, Anti-Pasti, “Oi Oi That’s Yer Lot” and so on.
Finally, there was Leopold’s Records. This was a two-story store, housed next to Tower Records and both above and to the left of LaVal’s Pizza, which itself was a must-visit on every trip (two slices for $2 or something like that – remember though that this is 1980s money. That’s like $174 today). Leopold’s would later gain notoriety for being a phenomenal store for underground hip-hop as that scene was exploding; I remember it as another place for British imports. I got the early Kate Bush records there! There were rows and rows of records in plastic polyvinyl sleeves (classy) - prog-rock from the 70s and 80s seemed to be something in high traffic there. Either that or the Gentle Giant and Marillion records were right next to the areas I would frequently browse. As amazing as this store was, it was a distant third for me to the glory that was Rasputin’s and the eye-opening head trip that was Universal. I still made it a point to spend an hour here each time, however.
My trips to Berkeley continued even in college and afterward a bit, especially when Amoeba Records – the very first one – opened there in 1990. By then, Rasputin’s was trying to be all things to all people (instead of an imports/punk/used vinyl kind of store), and went through a bit of a crisis in competition with Amoeba and almost closed. It’s now a gargantuan store again, right there on Telegraph, in a new location, with a cool “history of Berkeley punk and metal” photo exhibit on the outside of the store today, right at street level. Leopold’s is long gone. Tower is long gone. The great bookstore of the avenue, Cody’s, is long gone, though Moe’s hangs on for dear life. Berkeley was subsequently supplanted by San Francisco, and later by the internet, as the best location to shop for records from far corners of the underground.
I miss that wide-eyed feeling of discovery I would get there, when “everything was totally new” and now-legendary 80s subcultures were still ripe for exploration. I was trying on a teenage mental identity, as every teenager does, and this was the perfect place to experiment. More to the point, it was the best place in the world (that I knew of) to buy some totally rad records. I wish I could somehow capture that frenzied, electric, worlds-of-possibility brain rush again.