PUNK: Lonesome American Memoirs

16. Behind the counter

My last night shift working at Universal Records was the week that ‘Don’t you want me’ by the Human League came out as an import 12″ single. I got to work around noon, and looked through the new releases, figuring out what to play. I worked a long shift, and was usually alone. I looked at the glossy gray record sleeve and laughed at the picture of the band. The girls looked pretty with bangs, and airbrushed makeup. The singer was over the top, a total poseur. And what was up with the red headed guitarist? There wasn’t even any guitar in the band’s music anymore. Dumbass. I’d thought that the first two Human League albums were little more than artsy post-punk, only interesting to me when the right people were around. ‘Don’t you want me’ was a pretty funny title. After the summer’s release of ‘Hard Times’ I knew this was going to be dance music. So, with no one in the store, I put the thick import vinyl on the turntable and turned up the amp. It began with an unforgettable synth bass line, I liked it right away.

Don’t you want me baby? Don’t you want me – oh
Don’t you want me baby? Don’t you want me – oh

I had a kind of a moment with this record. There was no way I was going to admit it, but I tell you, I almost cried I was so moved. Something about the guy saying, I can’t believe it when I hear that you won’t see me or maybe when the woman said, But now I think it’s time I lived my life on my own I guess it’s just what I must do. I don’t know. It sounds stupid to me now reading the lyrics, thinking about what a mega-hit that song turned out to be. Still, in very early nineteen eighty-two it was an entirely different thing. That synthesized sound was completely new and alien. Those emotionless vocals were saying things that had been bursting from inside of me without my even being aware of it. However corny and embarrassing they felt, it was amazing. Especially amazing after years of distorted guitars and whining singers who were so damn angry. I was getting really tired of angry. I wasn’t really all that angry anymore. Punk had promised so much, at least to me. And it really only succeeded in repeating itself.

When the single was over, without thinking about it, I said to an empty record shop, “One more time!” and started the record over. I played ‘Don’t you want me’ for 12 hours straight without stopping. My boss, Ron, came in for a few minutes around dinner time and by his fifth play through the single he asked, “Didn’t you just play this song?”

I smiled and said, “Yes sir, I did.”

“Ok.” He said, and went about his business.

Ron was like a father to me. He’d taken me under his wing and given me my first indoor place to live since I’d hit the street. He taught me about how to buy records, and how to price them in your head. He showed my how to count records by the tens so that you would keep track of how many you were going through without having to count up to 759. You just count up to ten, and bring the tenth one up at an angle and leave it there. When you’ve gone through all the records, you recount the ones that are sticking up and add a zero. The trick made quick work of counting for a math genius like myself. Leaving my higher skills available for the inner cosmos of calculus.

I’d gotten a job at Universal handing out dollar off coupons on the corner of Durant and Telegraph a couple of years earlier. Mark Time and Gary Nervo from the Jars worked at the store, and I was always hanging around. It was the first punk rock record store I found, and for a long time the only one in town. Other stores sold punk records. The first import seven-inch singles I bought were from Tower, until I found the Music Faucet way down the street. Eventually they moved up the street, and changed the name to Universal.

Universal Records sold other kinda of music besides punk rock. I mean, they had other kinds of music in the store, But it was a punk rock record store from top to bottom. I would just hang around and listen to records, talk to people, fall asleep in the bathroom, or out on the sidewalk. They were open from noon to midnight. It was the perfect place to hang out in a city like Berkeley that rolled up the sidewalks and tucked itself in at ten o’clock.

No one who worked there wanted to hand out the flyers. So one day Mark asked me if I would do it. He offered me twenty dollars to hand out three huge stacks of flyers.

“You’ll give me twenty bucks for handing these out?” I was skeptical. It sounded too easy.


So I took the three stacks and walked around the corner and threw them into the dumpster, smoked a cigarette and went back to the store.

“Got any more?”

“You handed all those out already?”


A sardonic glance was exchanged between Mark and Gary. Mark smiled and said “Ok, kid, come with me.”

I followed him out the door. We walked up around the corner to the dumpster. He patted the container on the lid and said, “When you really hand them all out come back and I’ll pay you for the work.”

No one had ever confronted me like that before. Not in a friendly way. So I scrounged out all the flyers that were dry, and walked down to the corner and started handing them out. I was there all day, and only got about half of them into the hands of people. The street was littered with the flyers. People took them, and dropped them on the ground right away.

But in the shop the guys were pleased. They’d done some “dollar off” business. And they paid me the twenty dollars they promised.

“Do I have to come back tomorrow and hand out the rest?”

“No. You did good.”

The next day I was sitting on the steps of Sproul Plaza spitting into a puddle between my legs feeling like shit. Mark walked up out the crowd of students.

“You wanna work?” He asked.

“Doing what?”

“Do you wanna work or not?”

And from that day forward, when I was conscious, I was handing out coupons for Universal Records. It became my identity. I started to design them, and learned to print and cut them. Soon I would my new Xerox machine skills to good use making displays inside the store, posters for shows, sales, and in store events. It felt like home. I was useful, and good at something.

I would disappear for a while. I’d Move back to the City, or go on a heavy run, or just not show up for a while. But my job was always there when I came back.

Then Ron took a vacation. He’d never done that before. He needed to go back to Alaska for something important and quickly entrusted the store to Mark and Gary. The minute he left the guys got to work trying to make some money. We made posters and flyers that said all the records in the store were one dollar. Then we took all the good records and put them in the office. The next morning I was out on the corner calling “Every record in the store, one dollar!” People wanted those flyers. Ron was only gone a few days, but we’d cleared out all the old crappy records that had been in there forever, and there was a cash register full of money. Everyone was happy. We were proud of ourselves.

Ron was furious. Mainly because they’d done it without his permission. But he said he was angry because he believed that each record in his store had a value, and that someone was out there looking for a copy of ‘Robert Burns Poetry and Scottish border ballads’ read by Frederick Worlock and it was worth four bucks to them. So the way our boss saw it he hadn’t gained a stack of ready cash, he’d lost his shirt.

Everyone was fired. Everyone but me. I was timid and shy around Ron anyway, but I just sat there looking at him. He was furious. I helped him clean up all the flyers and garbage in the store. We removed all traces of the sale, took stock of what had been stored upstairs and set it all back out on the shelves. When we were done at nine in the morning he offered me a job behind the counter.

I sat in there and played punk rock. I made time with girls. I sold a lot of records. I brought in a lot of foot traffic. People who had hung out on the corner with me all day were now in the shop all day. It became a real scene. Ray from Rough Trade came to work for us, so did Alissa W. and her friend Kim. Kim was a smart and very handsome Danish guy. We had a blast.

My favorite shifts were the ones where I was left alone in the store. By myself I could talk to people, and set the coolest records out on the shelves. I strung a wire up over the register and clipped the new singles up so they were like a banner of the best singles. I would happily play any cool record for anyone who wanted to hear something. We had two listening decks, but I was glad to stack up a request list, and play the records for people.

On weekdays, after school, the shop would fill up with girls from Berkeley High School and Holy Names Academy. I loved those days. Those girls were wonderful. What they were doing hanging out in a punk rock record store I don’t know. But I was so glad they were.

There was one girl I really liked. Julie. She came in less than the other girls, but when she did I was so glad. I’d play anything she wanted to hear. I would give her free Ms. Packman games. She was blonde with the prettiest blue eyes, skin broken out a little, and she wore her high school’s uniform of a pleated skirt and crisp white, short-sleeved shirt. Often she had a black hair band in her hair. We would just hang out at the counter together. We didn’t talk about much. I was just happier when she was there. I never wanted her to go. One night she didn’t. She stayed with me until I closed up the store. We stayed there together, at the counter, talking about her school, and playing her music until it got very late. I asked he to come upstairs with me and spend the night.

She said, “I can come up for a little while.”

My heart just sang. I took her upstairs and played her my secret music. Music I didn’t tell anyone I had, or liked. We listened to the Cure’s first and second album. The First Killing Joke record, The Au Pairs, Martha and the Muffins, Japan, Ultravox, John fox, Depeche Mode, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark and Brian Eno. We kissed and kissed. When I opened my eyes and looked at her face it was red from kissing. I felt bad. I asked her if she was going to get in trouble for being here so late.

“Yeah.” She said sweetly, but didn’t make any move to leave. I never wanted her to go.

She came to visit me, one more time. And then never came again. I didn’t know her phone number, or how to reach her. Her friends stopped coming too. She was gone. For years after that whenever I was lonesome, or had some time to reflect on anything, Julie always came to mind. I imagined her happy, and loved by someone much better for her than me.

We sold bootleg concert and band t-shirts made by a guy called Rick from LA. He and his girl friend would drive up together and Ron and Rick would rework the t-shirt wall all night. Rick’s girl friend and I would take Quaaludes and have sex upstairs in the office. She was a tall brunette with a wonderful body. She was very tender, and gentle with me. I loved making it with her. She wore a beret and tank tops. I loved it when Rick came to town. After a while he kinda got pissed off about it, and told her to stop.

The next time they came up together she brought me outside, and we snuck a couple of pills and then went upstairs while no one was looking. She told me how we had to keep this our secret, that Rick didn’t like her hanging out with me anymore. Somehow we felt we were safe up in the office. So she undid my pants, and I took off her tank top. We snuggled and kissed and began having sex. Funny thing about Quaaludes is that as sexy and lovely as they made you feel, they also had a way of putting you to sleep. I was doing it with her, and her arms were over her head, she was smiling and shining a little. Next thing I knew my face was buried in her hair and it felt like a long time had passed. I was still inside of her. I still had a hard on. She smiled at me. I smiled at her and resumed where I’d left off. We did it a couple more times and then I thought I’d better go down and open up the shop.

When I got downstairs Ron and Rick were still fixing the wall displays. They would take them all down, put them all back up, and then start moving them around one at a time. The store was already open.

“Sorry Ron.” I said. He didn’t like it when I was late.

“Don’t be sorry. I was here.”

“Hey punk guy!” Called Rick from the top of the ladder.

“Yeah?” I said.

“You got a girl for me?”


“Well, you seem to like fucking my girl a lot. I was wondering if you wanted to share one of those little girlie girls that come in here every day for your old pal Rick here?”

He was really angry. His words sounded calm, and even like he might be kidding. I was pretty confused about it. But he was gray, and shaking. He was really mad.

“I mean you just fuck whoever you want don’t you buddy? Let’s see your wang. Doesn’t look like you got anything all that special down there. So whup it out, let’s have a look.”

“What’s you problem man?”

“Look, don’t fuck with me kid.” He was down the ladder now, standing about foot away from me. Ron had the baseball bat in his hand. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen.

“Rick, come on.” Ron intervened. They talked quietly for a while. I don’t know what they said. But I just stood there behind the cash register wondering why he was so angry. The day had begun, and people were starting to come into the store. Ron came back and put on the Buzzcocks. He put his arm around my shoulder and said, “He’s ok.” I just went on with my day like nothing happened.

There were a lot of characters that came into that store. The best was a bald guy who would stand in the spoken word isle and fiddle his dick through his pants and drool. If you let him, he would stand there all day. If you tried to get rid of him he would look at you and ask “Are you from New York?”


“No? You’re not from New York?”

And then you would realize he had a hard on and was really enjoying your conversation. He was so pathetic that I just let him stay there.

Another of my favorites was this seven-foot tall guy with a frizzy afro named Jeremy. He would lope into the store with a paper bag clutched to his chest, head to the Beatles section, quickly thumb through the records, and then lope right back out. It took about a minute. And he did it every single day. I always said “Hi” to him. He never said a word to me. One day he walked in slowly, and stood in front of me at the counter. I smiled at him and he unfolded his paper bag, pulling out two Beatles albums. They were second editions on Capitol Records, and a stack of four glossy photos of the Beatles.

I looked through them and said, “What do you want for these?”

He thought about it a while. I sold a few records while he was thinking it over. Finally he said “One thousand dollars!”

I looked at him and smiled. “A thousand bucks?”

“Yes.” He barked quickly.

I looked through the records again. “Jeremy, I don’t have a thousand bucks man.”

“Can I have it in trade?”

“No man, I don’t even have a thousand dollars in trade.”

“These are Beatles records.”

“I see that. And I think we’ve got most of them here already.” No one bought rock records, our bins were full of It’s a beautiful day and Gentle Giant albums. They, just like the Beatles, sat there and smelled like old comic books and got dusty.

“Can I bring them back tomorrow?”

“Sure you can Jeremy.”

“Ok, bye” he yelped, and then stumbled out of the store.

Jeremy came back every day trying to get a thousand dollars for his Beatles collection. I wasn’t usually that nice to people. Most of the time when people came in and asked for records I didn’t like I wouldn’t even look; I would just say “No.” Or I would say “Not in a million years.” I was really harsh, especially with ordinary people.

The store survived solely on people selling their used records, and people from the distributors selling promos that we could reseal as new records. Occasionally I would make a run into the city and buy some new imports. Those were the best times, when we had new punk albums, and other stuff. I’d turn everyone on to the new records and we’d look at the covers together.

At the worst of times I would cheer Ron up by getting out the Windex and start cleaning up the glass cases, and wiping down the records. He would sit behind the register of his empty record store and smile at me. He has a warm smile. A grin. An ear-to-ear grin.

For a year or two, Universal records was a source of strength and growth for me. I feel sure that without the kindness of Mark, Gary, Ron and Kim, I would be dead. They gave me shelter when I didn’t have any. They gave me something to do when my own ideas were self-destructive. When the best ideas I had were to break things, and yell at people for no reason, this record store taught me how to apply myself in some fashion.

From the office of that store where I lived, I returned to school. I bought a new pair of pants for the first time since I’d left home. I washed myself in the little bathroom, put apple cider vinegar on my bacterial infections, and brushed my teeth.

That record store saved my life.

When it was time to leave, I played ‘Don’t you want me’ one last time. There was no one left in the store. When it was over I picked the needle off the record and set the tone arm aside. I slipped the record back into its sleeve and placed it on the shelf. I switched off the amp, collected my things, and turned out the lights. I locked the front door, pushed the keys through the mail slot, and walked home.

Human League ‘Don’t You Want Me’


Table of contents
Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10, Chapter 11, Chapter 12, Chapter 13, Chapter 14, Chapter 15, Chapter 16, Chapter 17, Chapter 18, Chapter 19, Chapter 20, Chapter 21, Chapter 22, Chapter 23, Chapter 24
Musicology, Errata