So long cowboy boots. The action figures went in the closet. Enough of that nonsense. Now, I just needed a train pass that would take me from Oak Grove Station in Malden, Mass., right into Downtown Crossing in Boston, where through the stink of hot urine and a thousand different faces, I would double step my way up the heavy stairs that led out onto Washington Street, where just a few clicks up on Winter Street stood the patron saint of record stores: “Stairway to Heaven.”
This place was my library, my Sistine Chapel, my own personal time machine that would transport me from out of the gloomy tensions within my own life and catapult me into a world of cool. Posters, books, records, tapes, cassettes, pins, magnets, magazines, bumper stickers, rock patches for denim jackets. It was an explosion of individuality, a reckoning, a paradise of lust, confusion and a fair amount of buried rage.
I would hang out there for hours at least once or twice a month, fingering through the 45s, searching and searching for those rare B-sides I’d been reading about in my older brother’s subscription to Rolling Stone. You could smell the vendor meat cooking greasy hot on the streets as you pushed your way through a stack of “Abba” albums. The girls wearing dark mascara and black lipstick kicking around in army boots and ripped fishnet stockings were actually strolling the same aisles I was. Imagine that! They looked nothing like the well-groomed Polo-wearing female friends of mine from home, who were bright and beautiful, no doubt, but never dangerous. Exotic and unreachable, my young loins ached to sample the smooth necks of these toughies and light their cheap cigarettes as they purified or decimated the greatness of The Clash, The Police, The Cars, Ozzy or Aerosmith.
The ghost-faced and pudgy progressive rock fanatics that worked the registers and pledged allegiance to The Smiths, Brian Eno, Rush and King Crimson, were scary in their own right. Stone cold rock fanatics. Historians of punk. Metal messiahs. You wouldn’t have four words out of your mouth trying to ask the guy stacking the New Releases with a label gun in hand, “Hey, do you know where…” before a finger would be wagging towards some random corner of the store.
How did he know I was looking for a copy of “Hot Summer Nights?”
These characters, mostly men, as I remember it, inspired me to step out of my own cage. Why? I haven’t a clue worth a dollop of spit. Just because, I guess. Their intelligence draped behind the cozy confines of social resistance and their cagey looks, their tired eyes, I don’t know what it was about them, about the store, how it smelled cluttered, but at the same time was filled with nothing but space, but it just worked for me and filled my mind with fresh tracks ready to be built upon. I was okay with that. Even when they rolled their eyes at me when I’d drop a Johnny Cougar record on the counter and they’d give me that – “What is this garbage?” – dirty look, I was fine with it. I trusted them. At least they noticed me. My music. My tastes. Something stood out. Something more than nothing.
The grease heads in their vintage Zeppelin concert T-shirts and rusty high-top sneakers bent at the sides with the tongues hanging out were busy buying cassettes for their wrecks outside, they seemed to step right off the big screen to me. Hell yeah, just like in the song, “Backstreets.” They smelled of sweat and smoke and exuded an attitude that bordered on criminal. Aggressive and probably overlooked, kneeling towards the dark side of the road with their crooked teeth and fiery eyes, these cats I couldn’t exactly relate too, but that never stopped me from wanting to be just like them. They were Nick Barkley on steroids. Even if I was only a 13-year-old spoiled rich kid from the toney streets of Melrose, basting in my own sense of entitlement, I could hear the cries of these dark angels screaming to be seen or simply just recognized.
They were pure rock and roll.
But, I hadn’t reached their level of disenchantment yet. I was still a pretty boy in ironed jeans playing rock star in my bedroom with a wooden tennis racket, singing into an Orange Crush soda can. But, standing in that stairway, staring into this sea of creativity, wishing it was really what heaven looked like, I couldn’t help but feel some semblance of steel forming in my spine. Searching through the hundreds of racks of music that would ultimately define me, I felt a sense of understanding, of community, of acceptance in that record store. And I loved it.
I went to Stairway to Heaven as often as my parents let me – which was pretty often, because at some point in my teens life it was just better when I was out of the house. Not just for them, but for me. A blanket of negativity engulfed me at home. It was in my hair, my skin, the souls of my keepers. I couldn’t do right by them, and I wasn’t handing out any game balls to them either. My father, like I said, mostly scared the shit out of me. Too unpredictable, much like myself. My mother was always on edge and seemingly ready to pounce at the slightest infraction. Dishes in the sink, shoes on the rugs, clothes on the floor. You would have thought I took down Babylon.
“Who do you think you are?”
Still nobody, Ma. (Psst … but I’m gaining ground, woman. I can feel it.)