Vinyl Forever? – Reflections of a Jersey Shore Carnie: New Jersey, USA

This past September I returned to the Jersey Shore for the first time in many years. Despite the fact that I left the area of my childhood nearly 15 years ago, I found many things familiar―the Jersey accent that now seems so harsh and abrasive to me, the free-for-all that is driving between the vibrant manicured shoulders of the Garden State Parkway or the drab, unforgiving “Jersey barriers” of the New Jersey Turnpike, highway tolls for the privilege of competing in these free-for-alls, and the ubiquitous all-night diners at practically every exit.

unionjacks350Even many of the radio stations I listened to while trying to “keep up” with traffic remained unchanged on the dial. Venturing to the boardwalk lining the popular beaches in Seaside Heights I was greeted with many familiar sounds and smells―Philly cheesesteaks and Italian sausages sizzling and popping on grills, the cacophony of electronic blips and bleeps emanating from within the numerous amusement and video game packed arcades, fresh baked pizzas and zeppole steaming under warming lamps, shouting workers trying to capture and coax the attention of passer-bys, and the unique scent produced from the frying of the pork-based breakfast meat that oddly seems indigenous to the Jersey shore, porkroll.

Between Lincoln and DuPont Avenues, however, I noticed something that was missing. Although this stretch of boardwalk was as packed as any other, to me, there was a notable void. Lacking was something that imparted a large and enduring influence upon my life―the Union Jacks Record Stand.

I like to joke that during my childhood and subsequent college years I worked as a carnie, but one without the travel benefits, on one of the numerous boardwalks that can be found along the New Jersey shore. This isn’t much of a joke however. During those years I hawked people to spend their hard earned cash for the chance to win cigarettes, Michael Jordan posters, Cabbage Patch kids, cases of soda, stuffed monkeys (with baby monkeys velcroed to them), Krakus canned hams (my boss insisted they were the best), pocketbooks, and more cigarettes (much of my time was spent across from a biker bar after all), without ever leaving the confines of the two-mile long Seaside Heights boardwalk.

I was good at it too. Nobody could promote the merits of spending a quarter for the chance to win a canned ham or five packs of smokes like I could. “Give it a try! Don’t pass me by! Krakus canned ham, one win! Five pack of Kool Milds one win!”

Ultimately, I rose through the boardwalk ranks to what I viewed as the ultimate job on the boardwalk―a job that practically ensured that my boardwalk life would resemble the Bruce Springsteen song about “chasin’ the factory girls under the boardwalk where they all promise to unsnap their jeans.” It was a long journey to get there though.

My first job was working at one of the two piers on the boardwalk making minimum wage, $3.35 back then. I was given a hammer, broom, and dustpan. My sole responsibilities were to hammer down stubborn nails protruding out of the boardwalk and to sweep up trash that mostly consisted of cigarette butts and soiled napkins tumbling across the boardwalk in the salty ocean breezes.

I’d alternate between nailing and sweeping as I wandered aimlessly about the pier, broom and hammer in hand, amongst the Swedish Bobsled (always blasting Journey and Ozzy tunes), the haunted house (its maniacal laughing eternally repeating), the nausea-inspiring Zipper, the genteel Lady Bug, the rollicking Buccaneer Ship, the Tilt-a-Whirl that may or may not have been the one that Springsteen sang about getting his shirt stuck in, the Jet Star mouse trap roller coaster (people have been inadvertently beheaded on it!), the floor-dropping Rotor, the sparking bumper cars, and the smoke and gas spewing go-karts.

After thunderstorms I would be given an additional tool, a squeegee. Somebody needed to squeegee the standing water off the miniature golf course and that lucky person was yours truly. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds. This particular miniature golf course was scattered about atop the flat rooftops of other businesses. To properly squeegee the course, along with my squeegee skills, I had to possess impeccable timing not to soak any unsuspecting tourists walking down below enjoying their saltwater taffy during early morning strolls along the flush-nailed planks of the boardwalk.

To excel at this mundane, minimum-wage job I basically had to consistently show up. Since I wasn’t old enough to drive, luckily my parents excelled at dropping me off and picking me up. My parents’ dependability opened the door for me to begin my steady rise up the boardwalk career ladder.

I was thrilled when I got to actually operate, as opposed to squeegee, the miniature golf course the one day a week the normal guy had off. I was sure this was just about the coolest job a 14-year old could hope for on the Seaside Heights boardwalk. For one important day a week I solely possessed the power to dictate what color ball each customer would play their round with.

Shortly after, I was also filling in for the strong man who tried to coax all guys with their girlfriends into swinging the big hammer in an attempt to ring the bell atop the tower. This was comical since as a pre-pubescent boy, I was particularly and obviously far from being a strong man. The hammer practically came up to my chin and I could barely lift and half-heartedly swing it from my hip. “How about it big guy, give it a try?” Much to their horror, I was periodically capable of out-muscling some chump actually mature enough to procreate. I was able to fine-tune my small-boy hip swing to consistently hit the all-important sweet spot. The likelihood of these woefully embarrassed contestants hitting their girlfriends’ sweet spots later that evening surely took a drastic nosedive after being upstaged by the pre-pubescent, not-so-strong boy.

All was going well. My career path on the boardwalk was pretty much set for me. I was beginning to agree with the Boss that these “pier lights our carnival life forever.” It would be several years of pawning off whatever the particular fad toy or gimmick of the summer was until I had my eyes on the pinnacle of boardwalk gigs―getting paid to hawk music.

Music is timeless. All those other prizes were transient fads only to be replaced the following summer by the next gimmick. There was much more respect in dealing with music. One of the best perks of getting people to try and win music was that you got to blast practically whatever music you wanted to while you were doing so. The music one broadcasted, along with their clothing choices and their utilization of hair gels and sprays, was an expression of who they were and an indication of what sort of girls they were hoping to end up under the boardwalk with after closing time. (We didn’t affectionately call the Seaside Heights boardwalk Sleazeside for nothing.)

I would get my first taste of pimping music while giving Riley, a buzz-cut sporting fraternity brother on summer break from the University of Delaware, a lunch break early one bright and quickly warming afternoon. As I peered out across the boardwalk to the freshly raked and cleaned beach and its oiled sun worshippers, I became aware of the shocking lyrics of the music that Riley had left playing quite loudly through the speakers. While I collected my first set of quarters unsuccessfully wagered by the family that was playing, I cringed in embarrassment as I listened to this music, a bit offensive for early-afternoon family listening.

Screw your wife in the behind.

Tell your kids you’re doing fine.

Goddamn no good stupid liar.

Sucking dick your pants on fire.

HOMOSEXUAL! – up the ass!.

HOMOSEXUAL! – make it last!

HOMOSEXUAL! – jerk me off!

HOMOSEXUAL! – go get lost!”

Luckily, based upon their lack of reaction, the family did not seem to be listening very intently to the lyrics.

Such an obnoxious musical selection by a frat brat during the AIDS scare of the 1980s should not have been a huge surprise. A popular t-shirt for like-minded brutes to win on the boardwalk at that time was a parody of the popular Trix cereal slogan “Silly Rabbit, Trix are for Kids” that proclaimed “Silly Faggot, Dicks are for Chicks.” Jersey had a tendency to be down right offensive like that. I am reminded of the nearby bar that auctioned off a vacuum cleaner and handed out rubber dish gloves for an evening they touted as women’s liberation night. The proprietor of the bar was rewarded for his vulgar marketing idea with a bar filled to overflowing capacity in the middle of the damp, frigid, and deserted winter.

OK, back to the music. I didn’t realize the significance at the time, but putting an end to that shocking music blasting across the boardwalk and the wave-sculpted slope of the beach until drowned out by the crashing surf was to be the beginning of a complete and utter self-transformation for me. I pressed stop. I removed the cassette, noticing it was by a band named the Angry Samoans, and peered up at the dozens of cassettes cases stacked precariously towering above my head atop the tape deck.

What would be a more appropriate melody? Instead of selections of artists familiar to me such as Bryan Adams, John Cougar, George Thorogood, and Bruce Springsteen, I found artists unknown to me―Wire, the Fall, the Mekons, Public Image Limited, Love and Rockets, the Pixies. I wasn’t familiar with any of these bands. I decided upon playing a cassette whose name I found intriguing. It was Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart by the California-based band Camper Van Beethoven.

At the time and ever since, I never heard anything quite like their fusion of gypsy, ska, folk, and punk music. I thought it was remarkable. Such was the beginning of what has been a lifelong yearning to seek out and discover quality music new to me. When sliding this simple cassette in the tape deck and pressing play, I could not have possibly fathomed what a spanning influence this band and its leader David Lowery would have upon my future listening habits.

A few years later as an undergraduate in upstate New York I would see Camper Van Beethoven perform in their prime in a sterile university auditorium. Amazingly, nearly 20 years later, I would see David Lowery’s subsequent and much more successful band, Cracker, kick out the jams in a crowded, musty, smoky, sawdust and brassiere decorated bar in Alaska.

The Angry Samoans had a lingering impact on me too. I took that belligerent recording, Back from Samoa, home with me where I could better enjoy their angry and satirical lyrics. The Angry Samoans was the first punk band I heard that sounded like I expected punk music to sound―namely loud, politically incorrect, and scary. The three-chord, buzz saw guitar noise of punk progenitors the Ramones was loud but when they sang about beating on a brat with a baseball bat the effect was more comedic than offensive.

The 50s-inspired, bubblegum pop songs Joey Ramone always interspersed in their albums definitely were not scary. Likewise, much of the music of the Clash was a fusion of punk, ska, and dub often containing poignant commentaries of world politics. With a little bit of effort, I could learn something from a song by the Clash. That didn’t seem punk rock to me. The Buzzcocks? They sang about girls and cars. The Angry Samoan, however, were singing about very politically incorrect and scary topics such as post-coital steak knife attacks, the afterlife of Hitler’s cock, and their hated of some poor chap named Jerry Curlan (sleeps with midgets, drives a Ferrari and sucks assholes!).

The Union Jacks Record Stand was established on the Seaside Heights boardwalk by the Livingston family in 1968. For nearly 40 years it was a mainstay on the boardwalk. It was the place that music mattered. The business was actually a game with a spinning wheel, somewhat similar to roulette, only with pictures, such as “Oscar the bumble-bee” and the “little brown whiskey jug”, instead of black and white numbers. If you wagered correctly, you won your choice of the music selection that Union Jacks had to offer. The music selection was what made Union Jacks so special.

In addition to the flavor-of-the-week music most popular to the masses of cologne-drenched and gold-chain-draped tourists from north Jersey and Staten Island any particular summer, Union Jacks always ensured that they had a eclectic selection of music by underground, up-and-coming, and seminal artists available for the enjoyment and education of their more discerning customers. Well after the completion of the “cd-revolution,” rogue vinyl album covers were decoratively and defiantly plastered upon portions of the walls interspersed among the plastic compact disc jewel cases which, in comparison, looked fleeting and disposable. Perceptive, music-loving customers noticed these vinyl treasures and realized that Union Jacks was an endeavor equal part passion and equal part business of fellow music enthusiasts.

I settled in quite comfortably working for Union Jacks. Eventually I had my own music stand across from the flame-broiling Whoppers at Burger King to manage. I would work 6 nights a week until closing time early in the morning, often while discretely swilling Rolling Rock with the shoot-out-the-star machine gun operator adjacent to me. Early morning stops at the Toms River Diner for porkroll, eggs, hash browns, and toast before calling it a night became tradition.

I started using hair gel, lots of it. People started calling me Dole for I resembled a pineapple, hair cropped closely in the back and sides and a mess of humidity susceptible, gel-infused stalks of hair sprouting from the top. One ritual I remember fondly was the annual Union Jacks mix tape. Every employee had their say as to what songs from that summer they felt deserved the high honor of being included. Deliberations would go on among employees for weeks. Ultimately though, it was Earl, the aloof, bearded, flip-flop wearing head music enthusiast who somehow managed to get his 5-year old son into Jonathan Richman concerts, who had the final authoritative say.

I played what I felt was great music. Throughout the summer of 1990 I drove the workers at Burger King, who would repeatedly beg me to play Pink Floyd, insane by forcing them to listen to Nine Inch Nails practically every night. By the time I was an undergraduate student driving my own car, a symbiotic musical relationship of sorts had developed between myself and the elder Union Jacks music savvy employees―me turning them on to the newest bands on the rise in the college circuits (Charlatans UK, Ned’s Atomic Dustin, Meat Beat Manifesto, Primus, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Dinosaur Jr., etc.), them turning me on to some of the earlier artists that influenced them (Lou Reed, the Replacements, Iggy Pop, Bad Brains, Gang of Four, Sex Pistols, etc.).

For parts of five decades Union Jacks was able to maintain its relevance and customer base successfully by adapting to the numerous changes in preferred musical formats. Ultimately though, it was the digital music revolution with its intangible mp3 files and Napster that proved to be too much change for a humble shrine to meaningful music such as Union Jacks to endure. At one time, there were a total of 24 such record stands on the Seaside Heights boardwalk. Earl Livingston was the last person to close his record stand in 2008. It would be 6 months later that I would become aware of its absence during my stroll on the boardwalk.

Some fear that the digital revolution in the music industry will put an end to the production of tangible and tactile works of art from musicians. Most people, though, don’t care. But people who have learned to treasure music, like the former employees and customers of Union Jacks, do care.

Reflecting back upon the album covers I remembered stubbornly on display at Union Jacks― Joe’s Garage by Frank Zappa, Plastic Surgery Disasters by the Dead Kennedys, Morrison Hotel by the Doors―gave me a bit of solace. I hopefully deduced that, ironically enough, a full circle return to the vinyl album might be where this narrowing path of technological advances in the music industry would ultimately lead music lovers such as me. After all, there will always be a portion of the populace that possesses a heartfelt love for music, correct? And these people who collect music, as opposed to those who merely assemble files of music on sterile hard drive and iPods, would prefer the heavy, rich sound and ritual of the vinyl album over a the calculated din of a 16-gram thin piece of round plastic, correct?

So while the digital music revolution would surely put a merciless end to the compact disc, vinyl was going nowhere. Vinyl would always have a small, but devoted, market. At least, that is what I tried to convince myself of. Despite my reasoning, I was more hopeful than convinced of my predictions.

Amazingly enough, as I worked on research to wrap up this essay I got an affirmation of my theory from the least expected of sources―retail electronics giant Best Buy. In April of 2009, based upon increases in vinyl sales over the past two years (15 % in 2007 and 89 % in 2008) and testing the market in 100 of their stores, the nation’s third-largest music seller decided to devote eight square feet of merchandising space solely to vinyl (just under 200 albums) in all of its over 1,000 stores.

Having only learned of this unexpected fact late last night, I haven’t yet made it to Best Buy to check on their vinyl selection. I contacted my vinyl aficionado and über-collecting friend Eric who was already aware of this development and had visited his nearest Best Buy despite living two hours from it. Eric reported a good deal on a Wu Tang Clan album and a staff unaware that vinyl albums should not be stacked horizontally atop each other.

Queried for his view of digital music I think that Eric summed up the feelings of music lovers the best. “I tell people that I have over a thousand records and 800 compact discs. I don’t count the 123 gigabytes of digital music as part of my collection. To me digital music is just a shadow.”

photo courtesy of popartpete

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