Convincing mom to go to Maranatha was as easy as convincing an old woman in Kansas that God needed her to give money to a televangelist. She was always reading Bible study books and she was good for needing more than she could finish in a month. While she meandered the self-help section, I browsed the cassettes looking for something that I knew wouldn’t be there. I flipped through the plastic cases of familiar names like Petra and Stryper and the REZ band. My parents had bought everyone of their cassettes for my birthday, Christmas, and Easter. I could count on a cassette with the Maranatha price tag half-way peeled on any of these holidays.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” my mother asked with a handful of study guides for Corinthians and Ephesians and tucked between were books on raising a Christian Boy in A Secular World and When They Don’t Honor Their Parents. Mom figured since God had made me, the manual had to be out there somewhere.
“Do you have any of these?” She was looking down at the collection of REZ tapes. I wanted to say I have two of each! You’ve bought them for my birthday and Easter this year. Instead, I just nodded.
“Well, there’s always Christmas.”
Of course there was. One more Petra tape and I was going to pull a Fountain of Billy myself. I wanted to Rock. Not be rocked to sleep with another rendition of “The Coloring Song”. I’ve never heard anyone take such an inspiring message and turn it into a song that would lull shepherds to sleep.
“I was looking for U2.” There. I had fired my initial shot. Mother looked at me quizzically. I knew that she and the other mothers spoke in their little Bible study groups about things like the Anti-Christ/Devil’s Children and the Culture Club, and how they were poisoning the minds of America. To be honest, I thought Boy George was as absurd as my parents did, but that didn’t stop me from singing “Karma, Karma, Karma, Karma Chameleon” all day. Each time I did, I’d lose my radio for a week, but it was worth it just to see the frightened reaction on my parents face. If I had the balls, I’d have stolen some of my sister’s makeup and painted myself to look like him, too. I’d have strawberry stained lips and I’d paint my eyes to look like the eye of Ra and I borrow a rainbow of felt and fabric from mom’s sewing kit and make my hair look like a clown threw up on me. I didn’t only because I was afraid I’d be sent to some dark rehab for future homosexuals. By the quirk in her look, U2 hadn’t made it into their specter of fear.
“They’re a new Christian band,” I said sheepishly.
Mom shrugged. “Did you look in the U’s?”
Yep. She really said that.
“They don’t have them.”
“Let’s ask at the counter.”
Oooh. Not what I had planned for. I was just hoping that I’d be able to move into the second phase of my plan smoothly. Once it was firmly established that Maranatha didn’t have everything Christian they’d have to take me to the West Covina Mall where there was a Tower Records. I’d seen the place many times. It was a giant brick and red tile building with red and white metal awnings over the floor to ceiling windows in the parking lot of the mall. The windows had posters of Madonna and David Bowie and Adam Ant. And that was why I was never allowed to go inside. Damn you awkward gender-bending music trends!
Mom had thrown an unforeseen twist to my plot. I knew that the clerk would look through her shipping records and announce that, no, there was no such thing as U2. If Maranatha didn’t have it, then it wasn’t Christian. That would be the end of that.
Before we could get to the counter, I found a young lady wearing a soft peach/pastel shirt and blue jeans, her hair bunched atop her head in a pile of curls and feathering. Her Maranatha badge said her name was Clare. “Do you have U2?”
She looked dumbfounded and I could tell she was lost. Here’s what she probably heard: “Do you have you, too?” If I let this moment go on too long, the spellbinding silence would lull my mom into anxiety and she’d lose it. She rationalize that I’d broken the poor girl’s brain asking about a band that was clearly not a Christian band. “They’re a new Christian band,” I blurted.
“Oh,” she said pleasantly. “Did you look under ‘U’?”
No matter how hard I tried to scrub it off, the I’m-A-Complete-Idiot tattoo on my forehead wouldn’t come off. “Not there.”
“Maybe you can come back next week. We get more tapes then.”
“Okay,” I replied. “Can we come back next week?” I asked as I turned to my mother. I hoped this question would settle it and she wouldn’t bring it up to the manager behind the counter. “We’ll see.”
As the cashier handed my mother her change I thought I’d made it out free and clear. She didn’t say anything to the young girl other than a polite “God bless.” She always said that to people. But then the stubby, portly manager with thinning brown hair, a face that showed the torment of acne filled high school years, and a light blue and white Hawaiian flower print shirt walked up behind the cashier and asked, “Did you find everything you needed?” Uh. No. Wasn’t going to find it here in the first place. This was all a ruse. Please don’t ruin it.
“My son wanted a cassette by U2.”
I swear, if he asks if I looked under “u” I was going to hit someone.
Instead, he looked at his clipboard, flipped some pages, scowled, and replied, “We don’t have them. Maybe you should try Tower Records.”
Holy shit! Some middle-aged, balding, Magnum-wannabe managing a Christian bookstore suggested we go to Tower? I probably should have dropped to my knees on the spot and prayed a long prayer of forgiveness and repentance.
“No,” my mother said softly. “My son says they’re a Christian band.”
The man looked at me for a moment. He saw right through me and through my hollow lie. “They have a small selection of Christian music and they can get Christian bands from Europe that we cannot.”
Okay. Prayer wasn’t enough. I probably should run off to some monastery, shave my head, take a vow of silence, and live the austere life! I could see it now. Me walking around a cloister in a brown robe with a rough hemp rope for a belt, shaved head, chanting, humming, and reading all the dirty pages of the Bible over and over again. It’s a shame they no longer made illuminated manuscripts. I’d have had a blast drawing some of those pictures. A regular Biblical Penthouse forum.
My mother and I didn’t say a word until we pulled into the driveway of our blue trimmed white house. I opened the door and slid out the backseat of the “banana boat”–a overtly derisive term used for my mother’s yellow 1977 Dodge Aspen wagon. I was always embarrassed going to school in a Chiquita fruit. I followed my mother in silence. In the dining room, she set down her new collection of books on the table just as silently as she walked. She had a weird way of being deadly silent. I’d be in my room looking at the TV Guide, reading all the shows I’d never see including the late-night HBO ones and then there she’d be standing in my door. I swear she had a sixth sense when it came to my soul and its temptations.
“So can we?” I asked meekly.
“Can we what?”
She pursed her lips. I had as good of a chance getting my mom to go shopping with me in the Red Light district in Amsterdam than I had of getting her into Tower. At least there, you knew for certain the girls were girls. But that wasn’t my hope. No, if fate was playing on my team–and it was after Mr. Magnum Christian guy–then my sister would take me.
“We’ll talk with your father when he gets home.”
And, just like that, I was back to recording on my two year old Memorex cassette. It was getting so bad you could barely hear the underlying recordings as I recorded new songs over the past. U2 would have to go into the dusty, neglected hope chest of my youth along with becoming a professional BMX racer, a big rig truck driver, hearing AC/DC for the first time, and living in a household that had cable television.
The topic of U2 and Tower Records never came up at dinner. Father, in his usual dour, stern voice, asked how school was, why my math test scores were low, and if I finished my homework for next week. I nodded. Anything more invited too many questions. After dinner, I finished my chores of clearing the table and cleaning the dishes. I was about to retreat to my room when dad came up to me and said, “You need to go to Tower Records?”
I’d heard about The Exorcist from kids at school whose parents were less fastidious about their faith. I knew that the girl in the movie was possessed; Satanic possession was something my parents feared would, or maybe had, happen to me. I’d heard the older kids quoting “What an excellent day for an exorcism” whenever something strange happened at school, or one of the teachers decided that it was paddling time. At our school, the administration exorcised the demons from us not with holy water or scripture but with a solid ping-pong paddle. I had my fair share of turns leaning over the principal’s desk counting to three or five or the dreaded seven.
I looked up at my father, the austere man who’s love I knew I had, but had to decipher through This-Is-Going-To-Hurt-Me-More-Than-You moments, and wondered if I needed a priest.
“You wanted a cassette.”
I blinked blankly. It was that slow blink you might have as you drove by a car accident as they were pulling the bodies from the wreckage.
“Do you want to go or not?”
Oh. There he was. Stern and to the point. Glad to have you back.
Like most of the time I spent with my father, we drove the twenty five minutes to the West Covina mall in a silence that you’d hear in funeral homes or the Antarctic.
The inside of Tower was everything I imagined and then so much more. There were posters of bands that I had never heard of–New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen, Violent Femmes, Ultravox–and some familiar names as well. Men At Work blared over the speakers. There were punks with leather jackets emblazoned with “The Ramones” on the back. There were guys wearing frilled white shirts that looked like something from a vintage 40’s era pirate movie and girls wearing all black from hair, to eye makeup to lips to clothes. There were preppy kids and nerdy kids and just plain teenagers. It was an entirely different world to me, but it was the normal world. I was the one who lived in a void.
My dad’s drill sergeant face became more stoic than Lincoln’s on a rock in South Dakota. His mind was trying to grasp the unholiness of the situation, but it was like trying to capture smoke with your fingers. There was no way he’d be able to absorb the entirety of the place and I knew that I’d have to be quick about things or we’d be out the door faster than a Jehovah’s Witness was kicked off my front porch.
And there was another problem. U2 was supposed to be a Christian band. I knew that was total bullshit. Their albums would be found in the rock section. The problem being, dad would follow me there and stop me dead in my tracks. Mr. Magnum guy from Maranatha Books couldn’t help me now. I rushed over to the UVW section of the rock music hoping that my furtive darting, like a squirrel on a street not knowing which way to go as the car came to hit him, would help me elude my father.
Not Mr.-I-Was-A-Green-Beret guy. He had me as though he was a hound and I was the fox. He parked his massive body behind me as I pulled “War” from the rack. “This isn’t Christian music,” he said.
“Maybe they misfiled it.” Yeah. Like that was going to work.
My father took one look at the record cover with the young boy, hands behind his head, a little cut on his lip, all in black and white, with “U2/WAR” in blood red and said: “Nope.” He turned, and I knew that as a dutiful foot soldier, I was expected to follow quickstep.
On our way out of what must have seemed to my father to be one of the three portals to hell–the other two being Hollywood itself and Las Vegas–my father paused by the “new release” rack. I tried to follow his eyes across the rack. There were the usual sinners: A little girl in a white dress playing peeping tom (Violent Femmes); A building exploding as viewed through a sniper’s scope (Def Leppard); An orange haired, bondage masked Annie Lennox; A pentagram and title “Shout At The Devil”. At least Madonna looked somewhat decent. Then my eyes caught Juice Newton’s latest album. God no. If he picked up that pastel cacophony of wretchedness I’d be shamed for all time.
What he reached for instead was “Built For Speed”. I could see a twinkle in his eyes. He looked back in time through that cover. Maybe he saw himself in those Rockabilly outfits and slicked back hair standing in front of two amazing hot rods. In that moment, I realized that my father was a person, too. That there were memories and hopes and dreams behind that icy veneer.
And that’s how I ended up walking into my bedroom with my first ever record. I played that album almost raw. I still have it, along with hundreds of others that I have since collected. Oh, I did end up with “War”, on cassette, for my birthday. It was a gift from my sister.
Read Part One here
Read more stories from the ’83 series here