What I remember best is the smell. You know how record shops were in those days, right? There were the big chain stores that smelled like linoleum and sterilized air, and there were the independents, mostly head shops in disguise, which reeked of cigarettes and incense, mildew and marijuana. Well, Dale's place wasn't like either of those. It had the smell of a library: dust and old paper, strong brewed coffee, and a faint scent of flowers. If they could bottle that fragrance, I'd buy the hell out of it. It would be equal parts nostalgia and magic.
Dale's store had a name, of course, but I don't remember what it was. My friends and I just called it "Dale's". It was a maze in there, floor to ceiling, shelves and boxes full of every kind of record: 45s, LPs, 78s in every size and color, some shellac, some vinyl, even old Edison Diamond Discs. I swear I once saw a wax cylinder from the 1890s, but I couldn't ever find it again.
The filing system, if there was one, was a nightmare. Occasionally I'd see a sign, "Jazz B - F" or "Soul M - P", but it never seemed to match what was actually on the shelves. There were rows and rows of brightly colored albums with names like "Quicksilver Messenger Service", "Strawberry Alarm Clock", and "The Crazy World of Arthur Brown". No one had yet bothered to tell ten year-old me what kind of music I should like or dislike, so I just picked records by their covers and listened to them with Dale's giant earphones on my tiny head. I'd never heard stuff like this at home. It was weird and transcendent, and I couldn't get enough of it.
Dale told me about an underground radio show, broadcast in the middle of the night from some super-high powered transmitter a few states over. Rumor was that, on a good night, you could hear it as far north as Montana and as far south as Cuba. One of Dale's regulars was a veteran, and he said the troops could hear it all the way over in Da Nang. I wasn't so sure about that, but I didn't argue.
The great thing about this show was that the DJ played all these unknown bands: Pink Floyd, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Led Zeppelin, Iron Butterfly, Yes, Wishbone Ash. Sure, those guys got famous later, but at the time, nobody was playing their stuff. It blew my mind, and I'd stay up as late as I could just to hear a little more.
Dale was a big fan too, and he always seemed to have a brand new copy of whatever had been played the night before. I wasn't sure how he managed that. I just figured he knew his business.
He was a big man, not so tall, but not exactly fat. "Stocky," I guess is the right word, but Dale didn't look like a wrestler or a linebacker. He had salt and pepper hair, and a short, gray-streaked beard, and always wore some mixture of flannel and denim. He was never in a bad mood, and whatever you wanted, he could find. Even if you didn't know what you wanted, he could still pluck it out of the chaos in an instant.
I came by a lot in the late 60s, and pretty soon we were on a first name basis. "Hey, Dale," I'd say as I walked inside. "Oh, hi, Jack," he'd reply, "You still following Clapton? I just got a hold of something that you gotta hear." He'd play it for me through his brand new, giant Klipschorns, filling the whole store with eighty decibels of hi-fidelity wonder. More often than not, I'd give him every cent I had, but it was always worth it.
A strange thing happened at Dale's the year after Hendrix died. I didn't know much about Jimi back then. I'd heard a few songs on the radio and bought a few records, but I wouldn't say I was a hardcore fan. Anyway, I was at Dale's on a Saturday afternoon, looking for more Clapton records, when another customer, an elderly lady, started staggering. A copy of The Peter, Paul, and Mary Album slipped from her hand, and she hit the floor with a crack. There was no one else around but Dale and I. He was at her side a second. "It's a stroke," he said. I don't know how he knew, but he did. I'd never heard him sound so serious.
"Jack," he looked intently at me as he spoke, every trace of a smile gone from his face. "You like Hendrix, don't you?" I stood agape, staring at the woman on the floor. "Jack!", he shouted with frightening intensity, "I need you to do something. Sit in that chair, behind the counter, and put on the headphones." I hesitated. Customers were never allowed to sit there. "Jack! Do it now!"
As soon as I was seated, Dale snatched up an unlabeled LP, spun it up, and looked straight into my eyes. "Jack, this is very important. Close your eyes and listen. Don't worry about the old lady. I'll take care of everything. Just listen." He put the headphones on my head, dropped the needle, and the whole world disappeared.
To be honest, Dale's record sounded pretty bad. The tone was awful, like the band was playing through a telephone, and the crowd noise was louder than the music, but still, somehow, it was captivating. It was Hendrix, of course. I don't remember what song, but it didn't really matter. A minute or so in, he had abandoned the melody. He'd quit singing and just put everything into that Stratocaster. He wasn't playing chords anymore. He wasn't even playing notes. Jimi was just playing, faster than I could believe, low rumbles like the earth growling, high chimes like the voices of angels. I opened my eyes for a second and saw Dale kneeling motionless over the woman. Behind him, the wall clock had completely stopped. My eyes closed again, and Hendrix was still wailing, screeching, fighting battles in the sky. The repetitive bass line was the only thing tethering him down. Without that he might have flown off into space. I've bought at least a hundred Hendrix bootlegs since that day, and still, I've never heard anything like it. Incredible! Glorious! Sublime! My God…
"Are you OK, son?" A visibly concerned paramedic was wiping tears off my face when I took the headphones off. I was still too stunned to move. "Is that your grandma over there, son? She's had a stroke. I wish we'd gotten here sooner…"
"We called you two minutes ago," barked Dale. "It's been two minutes."
"Now, look, sir," replied the second paramedic. "We've been on the road for at least ten—"
"Two minutes!" Dan shouted, with that same commanding tone he'd used on me. The paramedics looked confused for a second. "Yeah," one of them said, "Right, two minutes. She's lucky we happened to be nearby. Got a good chance of pulling through." They fitted her with an oxygen mask and carried her away, sirens wailing into the distance.
Soon, Dale relaxed into his usual self, beaming brightly. "I know you don't understand what just happened here, Jack, but believe me: You saved that woman's life. You did a good thing today. Go home and get some rest."
He turned his attention to the ticking wall clock, setting it forward by eight minutes. As I stood to go, I saw an intricate hexagram carved on the wooden floor beneath my seat. Dale was right. I really didn't understand.
"Oh, hi, Jack! Good to see you. Still need a copy of Live at Leeds? A nice one just came in. It has all the inserts, even the poster."
Dale looked old. Older than he should have, anyway, and weaker too. So did the store. Several large shelves had been emptied of vinyl and filled with cassette tapes. "Yeah," sighed Dale, "I didn't wanna do it, but people aren't buying LPs like they used to. They don't even really listen to music like they used to."
I understood what he was saying. Our underground radio show had moved to a regular FM station, so the signal didn't reach us anymore, but at least we knew it was still out there.
I asked to see Live at Leeds. It was in fabulous shape.
"I don't know, Dale. I can't pay this much for a record without hearing it first."
He smiled his biggest smile, and said, "We can do that." There weren't any other customers around, so Dale put out the "closed" sign, and queued up the first disc. Those old Klipsches looked worse for wear, but they still sounded great. Dale pulled a couple of chairs out from behind the counter and we sat down for one of our talks.
"Y'know, Jack," Dale began, slurping down that swill he called coffee, "Magic's not that hard to do. You could probably learn it yourself, not that I'd teach you. You've got more important things to use that brain for."
"Tannak dae, raebos akhad." He reached out his hand and a slender thread of blue light snaked out of the speakers to curl itself around his arm, all the while shaking and dancing to the tune of "Young Man Blues."
"Heh", Dale shrugged, "That's a baby's trick. A waste of time really." Despite his words, I could see him smiling. He knew I loved these little magics, and I knew he loved showing them off. Still, he seemed to get tired easily these days.
After the second side was over, Dale muttered, "Prokkes kee," and the blue light faded away. "I gotta get going, Jack. I'm not as young as I used to be. You want the record?"
I did. It was money well spent.
"Oh, Jack. Hi. I got a box of blues records from an estate sale. I haven't looked through it yet, so help yourself."
These days, half the store was filled with CDs and DVDs. Dale had to keep up with the times, I guessed. He looked tired all the time now, really tired. His hair had gone all white. The old smile was still there, but you kind of had to look for it.
"The real trouble with magic is finding a source of power. You can't do it on your own, Jack. You need help. Some people turn to demons or blood sacrifice or something like that, but not me. I had something else. Something reliable that wouldn't hurt anybody. Something good and really powerful, but I never hurt anybody, Jack. Not ever."
"I just wanted you to know that, Jack. I wanted you to understand. It means a lot to me."
I left with a John Lee Hooker album. Dale let me have it cheap.
"Hey? Dale?" No response. I guessed he was busy.
Dale and I didn't have much to talk about these days. A while back, we'd heard a rumor that our old favorite radio show had finally been canceled. Dale said he wasn't surprised. "People quit listening to music, Jack. That's what happened. All we've got now is advertising jingles and background noise. Nobody cares, at least not like they used to."
A pile of unsorted LPs sat on the front counter, underneath a coffee cup full of cold sludge. I idly flipped through them. Thriller, Saturday Night Fever, Frampton Comes Alive, Jesus Christ Superstar. Worthless. This was popular stuff once, but now, nobody wanted it.
Dale hobbled up from the back of the store. "Nothing's in that pile but greed and disappointment. People bring that stuff in here all the time, thinking it's worth a fortune, then they just leave it behind. I can't sell any of it, so there it sits." He took a seat behind the register. "You look around. I'm gonna rest here a while."
I searched the shelves for an hour, but for the first time in years, I couldn't find anything I wanted to buy. By the time I finally gave up, Dale had fallen asleep. Walking by, I heard him murmuring to himself, "Used to be full.. empty now… just nothing… nothing at all."
I locked the door before I left, honestly unsure if I would ever come back.
"Go ask your father."
From down the hall I could hear my wife giggling like a maniac, so I knew something was up. I looked around and saw three year-old Liza come thundering into the room. In her hand was my original, and somewhat expensive, Parlophone LP of Rubber Soul.
"Daddy! Daddy!" she shouted, "Read this one!"
I smiled. "No, Liza, that's not a book. That's music."
"Nuh-uh," she insisted, shaking her head. "It's a book! A book! A book!" Liza barely knew what a CD was. To her, music came out of computers and iPods.
"It really is music. Come on, little one. Daddy'll show you."
It took some time to dust off the old turntable and plug it back in to the stereo, but by the time the record was spinning, Liza was completely enthralled. Even before I turned on Dale's old Klipschorns, she could hear the unamplified sound coming right off the surface of the record.
"Daddy! There's music in this frisbee!"
"Yes," I laughed and hugged my awe-struck daughter. A thin thread of blue light curled around her face, and flickered in time as the Beatles sang "Drive My Car". Perhaps, I thought, Perhaps, we could use a visit to an old friend.
License: CC BY:NC:SA 3.0