Working at a record store taught me a tragic truth; no matter how much you love your favorite albums, they’ll never be as popular as they deserve to be. Each month at Merry-Go-Round Magazine, I dust off some long-overlooked records, revisit my pretentious past, and explore how this music forever etched itself into my history. Eventually, all your memories get marked down and thrown into The Bargain Bin.
I popped a new promo of a band called Headphones on the store speakers. A thick buzz from a synthesizer filled the building, sounding dark, droning, and slightly grungy. An anti-Postal Service, if you will, for those of us who take mood stabilizers along with our antidepressants. The group’s name was immensely fitting, as the record was best enjoyed isolated in a solitary state that only a big pair of stereophonic headphones can provide.
“Doesn’t this have, like, one of the guys from Tool or The Deftones in it?,” asked the frizzy-haired, sunken-eyed woman who frequented Euclid Records most afternoons in the mid-2000s. She always spoke with such authority that I figured she must be right, even when I knew she was wrong. As pretentious as I could be back then, I wasn’t at the stage of being a full-on jerk to our loyal customers. (At least, not yet.)
“I have no idea,” I shot back. “The singer’s voice sounds familiar, but I can’t place it. What I can say is it’s fantastic, so you should probably buy it.”
My sales tactics lacked a certain finesse during my first year in retail, as was my knowledge of new music. I was expanding it daily, but there was so much ground to cover in the early years of music blogs.
I was lucky enough to work at a record store, where a constant stream of new music arrived in the form of advanced promo CDs. Some came with their full artwork but with a slash through the barcode or a buzzsaw cut through the spine to prevent them from being sold as new; others from labels like Sub Pop and Polyvinyl were sent with temporary art, a band bio, and press contacts printed below the album tracklist. We were lucky to get one of the latter, which always looked nicer when displayed on our “Now Playing” display next to the register.
Did this group feature a member of Tool or the Deftones? Far from it. Did it feature a relatively popular indie rock group member with a large cult following? Ding ding ding! Headphones were a side project of Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan and Starflyer 59’s Frank Lenz.
The self-titled Headphones record was a distinct departure from Pedro the Lion’s indie rock palette, yet it still retains the organic warmth. By pairing a simplistic electronic setup with live drums, Headphones allowed Bazan to branch out from his usual sad emo stuff to even bleaker emo stuff but with synthesizers.
A high school buddy of mine had burned me a copy of WINNER NEVER QUIT, which I never really got into past the first track. But it did put Bazan in my mind. I’ve enjoyed his solo outings more than Pedro, but HEADPHONES is hands down his absolute best record.
“Can I put it on hold until next week?” she asked.
I slapped a scrap of paper on the counter and asked her to write her name. She grabbed a Sharpie from the pen holder next to the register, brushing the fine felt tip across the back of an expired show flyer we kept around as scratch paper. She slid it back to me and walked out of the store. I looked down at the note as I affixed it to the CD’s case with a single piece of scotch tape:
I COME HERE EVERY DAY. LEARN MY NAME.
I didn’t often get instructions from customers, but being such a people pleaser, I did my best to remember the name and not to forget her face for fear of some sort of record store retribution.
A few songs later, a tall man with thinning hair ran past the massive glass windows that lined two sides of the store. He swung the front door so violently that the handle slammed against the concrete entryway. I could tell by the look on his face that he was distressed as he came rushing over to the counter.
“Hey, I’m looking for my daughter,” he said, huffing and puffing. “Her school called to tell us she didn’t show up for class this morning, so we’re searching for her at her regular hangouts. Do you recognize her?”
He pulled a photo from his wallet and held it up, but she didn’t look familiar.
“Sorry, sir,” my manager said. “We haven’t seen her. Most afternoons, our sales floor is swamped with groups of kids from the neighboring schools looking for a place to hang out that won’t tell them they have to leave. It’s hard to keep track of who is who beyond making sure no one is stealing anything.”
“Well, if I leave my number, would you guys mind… calling… Hey, what’s this you’re listening to?” the father of the missing girl asked as he walked past the counter and picked up the Headphones promo, flipped it around to look at the tracklist, and then set it back down. “I might have to come back for this later, but I’d better go.”
He stood there for another few minutes plucking CDs off the New Arrival end cap, scanning song titles, lost in thought like so many customers did while browsing the racks. Headphones had the power to make him forget his missing daughter for a moment, and I wondered if maybe that’s why she ran away in the first place. The dude needed to work on his priorities.