It’s true that it wasn't the job I'd always wanted, but, as I confidently expected to become a rock star in the very near future, I thought it would be good enough in the meantime. So, the job in the record shop, initially part-time while I waited for my big break, felt close enough to being in the music business for me to keep my dream alive.
In a way, I kept telling myself, it was almost the next-best thing to being a musician. Meanwhile, of course, I kept up with my guitar practice for when my big break came. I even played in a handful of bands as the years went by and the dream slowly faded and then died as each band fizzled out without ever setting the world, or even the local pubs, alight.
These days, though, I own the place. Well, I rent the shop space, but Stylus Records is my shop. Initially, Dan, the original owner used to come around just curse me - and his luck - during the CD boom that came along a year or so after he'd retired and sold out to me. Now, if he were still alive, he'd be laughing his arse off at how it has all collapsed….
No… to be fair - which Dan always was - that cursing was done always with a smile of genuine glee that I was doing so well. No, Dan would be there, staring out through the front display window next to me, shaking his head slowly… wondering - as I do - what has happened, what has gone wrong.
Actually, no, I do know what happened. It's simple really - we don't get the kids, not any more. They don't need us because they don't have the record buying habit, the CD buying habit. It’s not just – as people say – the downloading, illegal or legal, that is the problem. No, I think now the music is over and it is time for us to turn out the light. We have reached the stop sign at the end of the long and winding road. It is the end, beautiful friend. The long strange trip has reached the terminal and it is time to dismount from the Magic Bus. They still call it rock music, I know, but these days it no longer means what it used to, if it means anything at all.
“I’m closing the shop,” I said to Mark and Debbie, late one Saturday afternoon at the end of a long quiet period. Actually, to tell the truth, the whole day had been just one long quiet period. When I think back to those hectic Saturdays in the seventies when Dan, Karen and I would long for even a couple of minutes of peace and quiet to drink our now stone-cold mugs of tea behind the counter, I realise just how much times have changed.
“What now, Charlie?” Debbie said, looking up at the clock from under the heaping tangle of her hair (bright orange with red streaks this week). “It’s only half-four.”
“No, not now.” I sighed. “But soon…. I mean forever.”
“You mean…?” Mark said eventually, his eyes flicking from Debbie to me and back again.
“Yes, I’m sorry, but you’ll both be out of a job.” It was hard. We are… were… friends. At least, I hope so. Well, as much as we could be friends whilst I was the boss and they were my employees. They looked at each other and Debbie shrugged. It won’t – I hope – be too hard for her to get a job in some other shop she has the looks and genuinely likes people. But, Mark, well…. He’s like me when I was younger, in a way. He’s a fan, an obsessive, a passionate music lover. He lives and breathes it. He’s a drummer, waiting – just as I used to be waiting - for that big break that is coming, and coming soon. Mark’s problem is the customers… well, some customers. Some customers just don’t come up to his standards. If he thinks you aren’t serious, if you don’t like the right sort of music, then Mark has nothing but contempt for you, and he is no good - at all - at disguising it.
On the other hand though – and this is why I keep him on here – if he sees you are serious about your music, even if it is some band he personally doesn’t rate, then there is no-one better to find just the thing you are looking for, even if you aren’t sure what it is you are looking for. He may lose me a handful of customers, but he brings in far more, and they come back, time after time. Or, at least, they used to.
These days a customer, any customer, is like sighting some rare and exotic creature. We are scared in case we come on too eager and frighten them off, or act too cool and distant so they leave without buying anything. Although, we still get some regulars too, so it isn’t that bad. They too are dying out, though… sometimes literally. I seem to be going to too many funerals these days; Dan’s was only the first of many. Nowadays, too, the famous people in the newspaper obituary columns too are no longer strangers to me, but people who’ve been around as I’ve grown up, familiar names and familiar faces, suddenly looking old in their final photographs. Looking like that old man’s face that looks back at me from the bathroom mirror on those days when I dare to stare too closely.
I don’t think it really hit me, though, how I was getting older too, until my father died, a couple of years ago now. His record – and CD – collection came to me. Mum said she didn’t want it cluttering up her house any longer, but I think there was more to it than that, though. A record collection is personal; they define a personality just like the books on their shelves. I think it hurt her too much to see them all there, catalogued and indexed on the shelves he’d built especially for them. I think she saw his ghost haunting them every time she looked over at those shelves.
As usual on a Saturday night after I shut up the shop, I met Pete in The wagon. Looking at his long thin fingers wrapping themselves around his pint I remembered back, way back, when we were as young as Mark and Debbie are now. I remembered believing that if - for some reason - only one of us teenage wannabe rock stars made it, Pete would be the one who would do it. He was such a great bass player and we all agreed he could easily have been up there with Jack Bruce, Andy Fraser and others of their class. But here we were, too many years later, still buying each other pints in the lounge at The Wagon, just as we had been back then. Except neither of us has that much hair left these days, and neither of us wear tight jeans any more, except for being too tight around the waist that is.
I remembered too, looking past the bar into the Bar from these Lounge seats back in the 70s, when the pub was much more open-plan, less designed. Back in those young days, when we used to sit here, I could remember just knowing I would never allow myself to get like the old blokes who sat quietly in the bar. Each one nursing slow pints until it was time to go back to a lonely place that had never become a home. Sitting there, that Saturday evening, I realised I could see that very same look in the glances from the youngsters over by the bar. It was there, in all their faces, as they stared across and wondered about us, me and Pete, taking up space in their young world.
Dawn came over a little later, around what used to be closing time. Since her last divorce, we’ve had this sort of thing going on... Well, off and on. Nothing like the thing we had that time at Glastonbury, though, Especially the Saturday night when the mud dried on our naked skin and glued us tight together as we lay sleeping in what had once been our tent before the rains came… but we were young then and so was our music.
“I’ve just heard about it closing down,” Dawn said, shock on her face and in her voice.
I wondered how she’d found out, whether she’d met Debbie or Mark somewhere around town and they’d told her about my shop closing down.
Dawn saw my puzzled look and nodded over towards the bar where Tony the landlord was gathering glasses. “The Wagon,” she said. “The brewery is closing it down when Tony retires at the end of next month.”
Pete coughed, choking on his beer. I slapped his back without turning to look at him as I stared – possibly open-mouthed - at Dawn.
“Th… the… Wagon?” Pete spluttered eventually waving his hand at me to stop me slapping his back.
“Closing down?” I muttered to Dawn.
She nodded. “For good and for ever. It seems they’ve already sold the site to someone else.”
“They’ll be knocking it down, then?” Pete said eventually, wiping the excess beer from his mouth with his shirt sleeve. He sighed as Dawn nodded once more. “Seems like the whole town is changing,” he said. “Seems like all the old places are going, disappearing.” He turned to stare at me.
“Why is he looking at you like that, Charlie,” Dawn said to me.
“The shop… these days… business is no good. In fact, it is awful. Bloody awful.”
Dawn sat back in her chair, mouth wide open. “You’re… well… you aren’t?” She glanced back over her shoulder towards Tony and then back to me. I nodded slowly.
“Oh, Charlie,” she said sadly, shaking her head as she picked up her drink.
I opened the front door and stood back to let Dawn go in first. “It’s just that if I don’t do it now, then I could lose everything,” I said while she fumbled with the light switch before dropping her coat over the end of the banister.
“Cut your losses?”
“Exactly,” I said dropping my coat over hers. “In fact, the precise phrase the bank manager used. I could prop it up, use this place as collateral and all that, but I can’t see the business ever picking up again.”
I stood by the computer, running my finger along the top of the monitor; it needed dusting. “This, I suppose,” I said. “Music… films too, I suppose. I’ve got about 15,000 tunes on this thing and room for loads more. I don’t need… I haven’t played a CD for months… Well, except for some of my dad’s, of course.” I looked across to my father’s CDs, piled up in the corner next to the rank of LP cases, all waiting for me to decide what to do with them.
Dawn sat down, automatically picking up the CD player remote. The first movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony placidly floated out from the speakers.
“Sorry,” I said, hastily. “It’s one of my Dad’s. I can change it.” I reached out to take the remote from her.
“No, it’s fine,” she said. “I think I’d like to keep this on, if you don’t mind. What is it?”
“Beethoven,” I replied sitting down next to her. “His 6th symphony… the Pastoral.”
“The what?” She picked up the case from the table next to her. “I never really got into classical,” she said. “Maybe I ought to, especially now.”
“Why now?” I sat down beside her.
She turned half towards me, still apparently reading the CD booklet. “I seem to be spending a lot of time here,” she said. “And it seems like it is the only sort of music you play these days.”
“Well,” I said carefully. “I want you here as much as possible. If you don’t like my music choices then I don’t know…. Anyway, I’m only listening to these albums of my Dad’s while I decide what to do with them.”
“I think you’re going to keep them.” Dawn put the case back down on the coffee table. “Anyway, I’m glad I’m not imposing,” she smiled as she stroked my leg. “Or spending too much time here.”
“I wish you’d spent longer,” I said and kissed her, realising I meant it.
“I couldn’t spend longer without moving in.”
I nodded again. “That’s true.”
“That’s settled then?”
“As long as you don’t start taking me for granted.”
“Never,” I said. “As long as you don’t get fed up of me.”
“Hmmm,” she said, resting her chin on the tip of an outstretched finger. “I think I may need a little more persuasion before I do move in, though.”
“Anything,” I said.
“Right,” she said, taking my hand as she stood up. “Upstairs, now.”
“Anything you say.”
“I think I may just get to like living here,” Dawn said as she picked up the remote in her free hand and switched the CD player off.
“Why not specialise?” Dawn said later as we lay side by side in bed. “You know rare records, collectables – that kind of thing?”
“Oh no,” I said. “I’ve never liked collectors; I wouldn’t want anything to do with them.”
She sat up slightly in the bed, supporting her head on her arm “Why not?”
“Because with them it is always about the… the artefact, not the music. I’m only inter… I was only interested in the music.”
“Was. Yes.” I sighed, looking away from her. “I hadn’t noticed until you said earlier, but I don’t listen to it any more.”
“What?” I turned back to face her.
She smiled and nodded. “There used to be a time when the first thing you did was turn some music on. When we came back from the pub, when you first got up in the morning, last thing before going to bed… even in bed while we were… well, y’know, there always used to be music.” She grinned at some sudden memory. “Anyway, you have some sort of music player in every room in the house, don’t you?”
I nodded, now smiling too.
“You used to… sort of go round in a cloud of music.” She laughed “A bit like a cow in a field with a cloud of flies always buzzing around it.”
“Charming,” I said.
Dawn slapped my arm gently. “You know what I mean, though?”
“Yes.” And I did. I smiled at the image in my mind. “Well… all that is gone – as you’ve noticed. I just lost interest, began to prefer silence… or something else,” I said thinking of my Dad’s CD collection. He’d often teased me about my taste in music, saying that one day I would grow out of it, look for something that could take me further, deeper. I used to laugh – not to his face, of course – thinking that what I had was enough for me, and there was a depth to what I was listening to that he didn’t see. Now though, although I still found it too difficult to admit, even to myself, I knew that depth had been just an illusion. My smile deepened as I thought how pleased he would be to find he was right. Not in a self-satisfied smug way though, but at the change in me; perhaps I was growing up at long last. I turned back to look at Dawn. It had taken a long time… too long. I didn’t want to waste any more time.
“Listen,” I said. “I’ve had an idea. Well, actually, it was my Dad’s idea, but he never lived long enough to do it.” As I spoke, I could hear his favourite music, Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, of course, rolling around in my head. I smiled at the memory of him.
“What?” Dawn said. “Come on, tell me.
It felt so romantically trite, I didn’t want to turn to face Dawn in case she burst out laughing at me and at this… this whole ridiculous notion I had taken on from my father.
“This is so beautiful,” Dawn said, taking my hand in hers as she watched the sun setting on the horizon, turning the sea and sky a deep orange-red. “I always wanted to get out of the town, see the rest of the country like this.”
She’d persuaded me, in the end, to take on my Dad’s dream. So, I closed down the shop, eventually selling almost everything dirt cheap in a final Closing Down Sale. The few things I couldn’t sell I left for the charity shop that was taking over the shop site after I’d left. I also sold my house, at the peak of the property boom as it turned out, and bought a massive motorhome. It makes me feel like I’m steering a heavy galleon through treacherous seas as I wind it down Britain’s narrow country lanes. It now stood brooding on the beachfront car park behind where Dawn and I were standing, staring out to sea.
I let go of her hand, sensing Dawn tense as she turned to glance at me as I let her go. I put my arm around her shoulder, pulling her close and felt her moulding herself against my side as she relaxed again.
“You know we said ‘maybe if we find a place we’ll settle there for the rest of our lives, if not we’ll travel on until we run out of places to go, or drop down dead?’” Dawn’s voice was soft, reflective.
“Maybe this is it.”
“What? Already?” Quite suddenly, I thought of Karen again; when she used to work in the shop alongside Dan and me back in the late 70s. She was always too restless, always wanting to move on. I always knew, deep down, I would lose her. That one day, she would get up out of my bed and never come back. I would, maybe one day, hear of her turning up in some other town and getting some other job. Maybe even a job in another record shop like this one, and meeting another bloke just like me who wouldn’t be able to hold onto her either.
Her death a few years later from an overdose, when I heard about it, was also the death of innocence for me. Looking back now, I realised it was the death of rock ‘n’ roll for me too, the time when the fantasy turned too real and the rock ‘n’ roll dream became one more nightmare.
It was something in the air, almost, in the late 60s and 70s. Back then, it seemed as though music, TV, film, all the popular mass entertainments could somehow transcend themselves and become arts for the masses. Karen used to go on about this all the time, as though human beings were going to evolve – like in that Bowie song Oh, You Pretty Things about the homo-superior and the coming race. There was a positive feeling then, a belief in the future.
About that same time, anti-elitism came along out of the trendier universities, saying that only the popular was good, and it was good because it was popular, and that was that. So, no longer having to aspire, no longer having something up there just out of reach to aim at, the rock stars just played amongst themselves. So their horizons got narrower and narrower as their record sales moved out into the stratosphere.
I think it happened throughout the rest of popular culture, in films, TV and everything else too. It reminded me of the time I’d once gone back to the place in the woods where we had our ‘camp’ when we were kids. What once had seemed as though it went on forever, a magical place that could encompass the whole of a child’s imagination within itself, was no more than a small clump of trees a few yards in diameter. It had stayed the same and I’d grown up, and grown beyond it.
Then – of course – the Sex Pistols came along with that song No Future, which they eventually renamed God Save the Queen so they could cash in on the hyped-up fuss around the Queen’s Jubilee jamboree. Punk eventually destroyed the mythology of rock; it showed that you didn’t need to be a rare mystical genius to be a rock star. Anyone with a guitar who knew three chords and a handful of words that sometimes rhymed could be up on that stage too. Probably that’s why almost every band you have ever known only ever manages to make three or four decent albums if they are lucky.
Once they destroyed that mystery though, it began to die. I remembered some punk, back when it all started, saying something like ‘we’re not into music, we’re into chaos’. I think it was then that the idea of rock as music began to die; I mean rock music as something more than mere entertainment, a music that articulated something about the world beyond itself. That’s why it is no longer exciting, vital, important. It has all become a bit of an undifferentiated lowest-common denominator mess. It has, like all popular culture, taken a long time to die; fading away rather than just keeling right over as it should have done, leaving us with a chance to find some new way of dreaming. But dying it is, and I will miss it. Or, rather, miss the memory of it. Nevertheless, I can’t say that I’m sorry about it, not any more.
For a moment, I wondered if Dawn and I were making the same mistake as Karen. Chasing that rootless-ness, that restlessness, that always moving on, that came up in so many of the songs we’d defined our lives by, afraid of ever finding some place to call home, or finding someone who needed you. Actually afraid of finding some place to call home. A fear of becoming settled, rooted, in the way our parents had always seemed. It seemed we’d always had a fear of getting mired in that dreaded suburban contentment. It seemed our youth had been wasted on one long endless rebellion against it, that whole bohemians against the bourgeois sub-Romantic illusion that underpinned the rock ‘n’ roll myth. I realised it was a fear, a fear of growing old, of growing up, leaving the playground behind, of growing up beyond that small wooded field of our childhood dreaming.
“Do you think we are running away?” I said to Dawn.
She was silent for so long I thought she was never going to reply, maybe thinking my question was just too stupid for a response.
“I’m not sure,” she said, turning away to look around the bay as the sinking sun turned everything to deep dark shadows around us. “I used to always daydream along with those songs, y’know, the ones where the singer is always leaving town, looking to see what lies down the road, what is over the next hill and so on. But now, well, I know that running away never solves anything, because you can’t ever run away from yourself. I know it wasn’t any kind of truth as we all thought at the time… it was all just fantasy.” She watched the setting sun for a moment. “Do you think your Dad wanted to run away? This was his idea, after all.”
It was my turn to be silent for a while. “No….” I said eventually. “He didn’t want to escape. He was always calling me, and the things I enjoyed, superficial…. ‘You’re always only skating over the surface’ he used to say. I think he wanted to do this to go towards something, not to run away from it. I think he wanted to go deeper, learn more, understand more about this countryside he loved. He wanted to get an even greater sense of belonging to this world and his place in it before it all faded away… or he faded away….” I sighed and slowly shook my head, feeling a tear or two welling up at the memory of him.
“We made the mistake of believing we could be young forever. We tried to hang on to our youth for so long while life just passed us by. My marriages both ended because we couldn’t face the thought of growing older together, didn’t want to face it. Eventually, I realised I’d tried to hang on to my youth so much I’d never had time to grow up… and my life was just slipping by without me living inside it, all going by without me. I eventually realised that all too soon I would be an old woman without ever really becoming a grown-up.” Dawn was still looking out at the last few deep dark red remnants of the sunset as she spoke.
The sun was gone now and our day was over. So, hand in hand, we strolled back to our motorhome where we would spend the night together, wrapped tight in each others arms. Glancing over towards Dawn, I could just see, in the moonlight, that it would be enough for her, as it would be enough for me.