Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Zap & Co., BBC, Steve and Me.

It wasn’t easy being a punk rock kid in Lancaster PA in the early 80s. Not just because jocks were quite fond of pushing “punk faggots” into the lockers for wearing a DEVO T-shirt (and they weren’t even punk… I always considered myself more of a “new waver”). But in this small, conservative town, living a life outside of the mainstream didn’t leave you a lot of options for socializing or shopping.

One enormous exception to this was a vintage clothing store on the 300 block of North Queen Street in downtown Lancaster known as Zap & Co. Zap was opened in 1973 by Steve Murray, a man who cut a singular figure: 6’4” tall, with a huge walrus mustache and long, jet-black hair pulled back into a ponytail, Steve was usually clad in black jeans with a sharp blazer over a cool vintage print button down or, in the warmer months, shorts paired with a Hawaiian shirt. Zap (run at the time by Steve and his first wife) soon established itself as a fixture not just amongst hippies and later punks, but by Hollywood as well. Scouring the country for more than simply old stuff, Steve’s discerning eye selected only quality vintage clothing, jewelry and furnishings and he became known as a go-to guy for film and television set decorators and costumers. Woody Allen’s RADIO DAYS and BROADWAY DANNY ROSE, John Waters’ POLYESTER and CRY BABY, TITANIC, the third AUSTIN POWERS movie and TV’s THAT '70s SHOW are just a few productions that featured items purchased from Zap & Co.

In 1985 (or 1984, I’m not sure), Steve teamed up with two friends to open an independent record store in the building he owned across the street from Zap at 315 N. Queen. BBC Records (standing for Back Beat Corporation, but named as such to evoke a cool, import image) was run by British expat Paul Pendyck, a Lennon-bespectacled bloke with a sly wit. While I was at the time working at Sam Goody at the Park City Mall, I still did much of my record shopping at the independent stores downtown (Stan’s Record Bar being the other one) and BBC’s large selection of imports made it a frequent stop. I got to know Paul and Steve a bit more, and one day in 1986, Paul asked me if I’d like to work at BBC part time. Ironically, it was a case of mistaken identity, as Paul had me confused with another guy who kinda looked like me who played in a local band. Regardless, I got the job and soon quit my gig at the chain store.

Two years later, Paul was leaving BBC to open his own shop (it’s remarkable to note that this tiny town featured at one point as many as five indie record stores, three of them dedicated to non-mainstream music) and I had two options: Go with Paul and continue working part time or stay at BBC and take over as full-time manager.

The transition was not smooth; in fact, there was a ton of drama, but this is not the time nor place, so I’ll just say that for me, it was a no-brainer. In July of 1988, at the ripe old age of 23, I became the manager of BBC Records, a job I’d hold for the next seven years and eight months.

While BBC under Paul certainly leaned a bit left of center, there were still Steely Dan LPs (and a few CDs by this point) mixed in amongst XTC, Joy Division and the Smiths. I wanted to make BBC an all-alternative (even though that word wasn’t really the tag yet) store, weeding out the Springsteen and Beatles in favor of more stuff that wasn’t filling the endcaps at all of the chains (and back then, not only were there a handful of chain stores ala Camelot Music and Goody, but the big department stores still had record sections).

Now, Steve loved the Beatles. He came of age in the 60s and would tell tales of watching them on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW and seeing them play live (he was very much a John guy, not a Paul guy). But Steve’s a cool guy, and he liked a lot of stuff that I did. He realized that my goal was to make the store appeal to a SMALLER clientele than it currently had, but he liked the idea of BBC representing something hipper.

And then, at the close of our discussion of my vision for BBC, Steve said something that stuck with me. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “One last thing… and this is the only time I’m ever going to say this: You’re the manager… but it’s my store.”

And I swear, he never said it again. Steve gave me full reign of the store, never telling me what to order or how to decorate it or who to hire. He never asked for first pick of the promos that we got (oh, the cornucopia of free stuff I got in those years!). When I wanted to expand the store and turn the back room into a video rental space for cult films, foreign films and music videos, he said yes. When that venture didn’t work, I had the genius idea of giving the store a secondary focus on the genre of music that I had recently begun to love: Jazz. The worst-selling genre of music in the industry. And Steve said okay. He made me feel it was as much my store as his.

Of course, Steve’s ownership of the building meant that BBC’s overhead was relatively small, which gave me some breathing room in terms of ordering stock. If we had a good month, Steve would pay himself a small rent from the store’s account. In leaner times, that might not happen. And we had some lean times. There were days when the register would tally less than $50 and some weeks we had nothing to add to the new release wall in the front of the store. But never once did I receive a directive to bring in some Spice Girls and Billy Joel to balance our stock on the Cavedogs and Throwing Muses.

In fact, there’s only one time in eight years that I recall Steve ever pulling the owner card on me. We had purchased a large record collection (from the son of the collector who had recently died) that included a pristine copy of CHET ATKINS IN HOLLYWOOD. I had the record put aside, along with a bunch of others, to buy myself. But when Steve saw it, he claimed it. Now, I’m not sure whether it was for the lush guitar pickin’ or the luscious blonde on the cover…. Knowing Steve, it was probably the latter.

To say Steve has an appreciation for the ladies is an understatement, but no woman has been as consistent in his life as Hilda, the silver mannequin that stood sentry in various incarnations at the entrance of Zap over the decades. Steve’s distinctive usage of mannequins in his window displays over the years is legendary. One display created a bathroom scene in which a woman sat perched on an actual toilet. In Lancaster, this innocuous display caused a small furor, a perfect example of the parochial atmosphere in which the 300 block of North Queen Street was a haven for artists and misfits.

But Steve’s Hippie/Punk attitude wasn’t confined to his music and window displays. He was always politically active as well. In late October of 1988, vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle (the proto-Palin) came to what the local news referred to as “the Susquehanna Valley” for rallies in York and Lancaster. While George Bush (the first) and Mr. Potatoe-Head were pretty much a lock in this very conservative hamlet, those of us who didn’t love the Reagan era and dreaded its continuation felt the need to let our minority voices be heard.

Which meant everyone who worked at all of Steve’s stores, including his third, DMZ, a foreign / domestic military clothing store with an ironic sensibility…. Two fake missile heads sat outside the entrance to the store, and much of the clothing was dyed black and blue. Since most of the time, Steve’s stores were staffed with one employee at a time, it wasn’t like we could draw straws to see who got to go picket the rally. So, grabbing our Dukakis / Bentsen signs (look it up) and making a few of our own, in the middle of the afternoon, we all taped “Gone to Protest Quayle” signs on the doors and closed up shop for a few hours.

Local new coverage was mostly fawning over Quayle and interviewing supporters who said things like, “He’s no Jawn Kennedy, he’s better lookin’, ‘at’s fer sure!” and “I’m against Duh-Diya-ka-kis cuz’ he’s for letting prisoners out on hol--- on weekends, and I’m uh, and--- killing babies. I am definitely against that.” Such is the discourse in Lancaster county. Philadelphia’s KYW, however, gave some airtime to the protesters including Steve, who declared, “Dan Quayle is unqualified to be vice-president, and everyone knows it!” Zap employee Douglas Campbell also got to air his opinion that Quayle espoused “a lot of high-blown bull.”

When we returned to the store later, there was a note stuck under the door of BBC that read, “I like Dan Quayle, who I went to see and music, which I came to buy.” The anonymous, disgruntled author went on to tell us that they would not be purchasing any more CDs from us and to keep our politics separate from business. But that wasn’t Steve’s ideology. The way you live your life should follow through to all aspects of it, and for Steve that included politics.

Words don’t seem sufficient to describe the atmosphere that Steve created for Zap, BBC and DMZ. All of us who worked for him felt like…. Okay, I’ll say it. Family. But with less anxiety. It was more like this small club where you really loved all the members and had three really cool clubhouses and amazing perks. When we would stay open until 9pm on Fridays (unlike the rest of the week when we were only open until 6), Steve would go around the corner to the Harmony Inn and buy six packs of beer for us, which we would sometimes share with customers who often just hung out at his stores as if they were a gathering place, not a mere retail establishment.

Coworkers became friends. In the summer of 1989, I recruited Rex Litwin from Web of Sound (a more punk rock indie store likewise located downtown) to be my assistant at BBC, beginning a lifelong friendship. Regular customer Troy Collins couldn’t decide whether he was into rock and roll or jazz (it couldn’t be both) and would buy and trade and re-buy the same CDs so often that I ended up hiring him so he could at least enjoy a discount. When Rex left BBC to take over running DMZ for Steve, I hired Rob Mancini as my new assistant, a friendship that would take us both through the wringer, but eventually on to bigger things. But I digress.

Christmas Eve in particular was a highlight of the year, and not just because we actually made money during the holidays. Early in the day, Steve would go to the liquor store down the street and pick up a few cases of champagne, which he would distribute to the three stores. The bubbly started flowing around noon, being offered to anyone who came through the door until by the time we closed (arbitrarily whenever business slowed down), we were all just soused enough to make the subsequent staff party a joyous affair (and then we would all somehow make it to our respective family gatherings).

Over the years, of course, life marched on. Steve got divorced. Steve got married. So did Rex. So did I (all in the span of one year). Employees came and went, some good, some not so good. The alternative boom that Nirvana begat helped business, but the recession really kicked us in the ass. DMZ closed. Steve and his wife Elizabeth had a daughter in 1994. From 1992 to 1994, my wife Erin and I lived in the apartment above BBC (following Rex and Adrienne’s residence there the prior two years). And starting in 1989, BBC Records became the setting for THE RETAIL ADVENTURES OF KALLI & REX, a monthly comic strip I did for Warner Bros. Records’ DIRT, a faux-zine their alternative marketing dept. sent to record stores and college radio.

In March of 1996, my marriage having ended, the door opened for me to at long last leave Lancaster for the environs of New York City and, dragging Rob with me, I moved to Hoboken NJ. Despite spending most of my then-thirty years in Lancaster, it wasn’t hard to leave. Except for quitting BBC. As with most things, time has certainly colored my memories with the rosy tint of nostalgia, and it wasn’t always nirvana (pun intended) but it’s no exaggeration to say that my time there shaped who I am more than probably any experience in my life.

After I left, BBC remained open for a while (with my friend Kris Margiotta taking over as manager), but by the late 1990s, record stores were in the beginning of the death throes, and Steve eventually decided to close up shop and relocate Zap from across the street into the much larger space at 315 N. Queen. Over the past decade, Steve filled the new Zap with so much vintage goodness that you could eventually barely squeeze through the clothes, jewelry, shoes, books, posters, housewares, barware et al…. but it was always worth the squeeze.

I still dropped by Zap frequently when I’d return home to Lancaster for a visit. Stopping in on Christmas Eve for a champagne toast remained a tradition, one that I don’t think I missed the entire 14 years since I left. And I was always greeted with a hug and a smile by my former boss, who still let me go behind the counter, even though it hadn’t been my privilege for many years. It just always felt like home. In 2007, I was excited to bring my girlfriend Lysa to this place that meant so much to me and introduce her to Steve. And, despite quite a bit of gray streaking through his ponytail and ‘stache, Steve was still Steve, as vital as ever.

Steve has always been a champion of downtown Lancaster. He spent many hours (as did another former boss of mine, Rich Ruoff of the Chameleon Club) fighting an uphill battle against the migration of many businesses to the ever-burgeoning strip malls surrounding the city proper. He’s worked with the Merchant’s Association, fought to keep a landmark downtown building that housed the Watt & Shand department store from being demolished by a developer, and stubbornly refused to give up on the idea of downtown Lancaster as a cultural destination. All of Steve’s hard work has contributed to a remarkable resurgence of the city in recent years (spurred on greatly by the construction of a minor league baseball park on the edge of town).

In 2008, Steve and Elizabeth opened a sister store, the Zap Home Collective, a huge space around the corner from Zap, devoted primarily to larger furnishings that the original location simply didn’t have the room to display (when the marriage came to an end last year, the store was renamed Hinesight, but it remains). Over the years, many of them inspired by Zap & Co., other alternative businesses opened on the block (and elsewhere downtown). Some have stayed, most have gone, but Zap was a constant that its followers always counted on. We needed it to be the anchor of Lancaster’s hipster cognoscente, even if we’d moved far away. It was just good to know that it was there.

And now, it’s gone.

On Thursday, January 20th, a fire tore through 315 N. Queen Street. Zap was destroyed, its vast inventory, carefully collected over almost four decades, gone. Doug Campbell, who had been living in the apartment upstairs wasn’t home at the time, but lost everything. And Steve, who, since his divorce had been living in the loft apartment behind the store in the back of the building, suffered third degree burns over 30% of his body as well as severe smoke inhalation and other injuries. As I write this, less than a week later, he is in a medically induced coma, where he’ll remain for the better part of a month while his body fights to heal. This morning he had the first of many skin grafts to come.

The community outpouring was instant and emotional. A prayer vigil turned into an impromptu testimony to Steve’s impact on the city and its people. Facebook exploded with groups trying to gather donations for Doug and Steve. Overseeing much of it has been Katherine, Steve’s 16 year-old daughter, who has shown remarkable maturity, strength and resolve through this tragedy.

At this point in time, we can’t know what’s going to happen. Anyone who knows Steve believes that he’s going to get better. He’s too much of a force of nature to let any stupid fire take him down. As for the future of Zap & Co., well, that’s going to be up to Steve. While many have dug through their closets for vintage items to donate for a rebuilding, it seems premature (taking nothing away from the sincerity of the gesture). Selfishly, we all want Zap to rise from the ashes because we can’t imagine Lancaster without it. I’ll admit it, I hope that Steve DOES rebuild. And if he does, I’m going to do whatever I can to help. But the only person who can decide that won’t be able to tell us what he wants to do until he wakes up.

Zap WAS Steve. And, regardless of what the future holds, Steve will always be Zap.

If Steve doesn’t want to rebuild, if Zap & Co. is now just a memory, the devastating tragedy of its loss is outweighed by the measure of its staggering legacy. This was not just a store, this was an oasis, a haven for not just punks and hippies and set decorators and actors and architects, but for anyone who cared about making life in Lancaster PA seem just a bit… not just cooler, or more stylish, but, in every single way, better.

Anyone wishing to make a contribution to help Steve, please go here and thank you.

In addition, here's a link to an album on Facebook of my time at BBC (you don't have to belong to Facebook to view)

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Serious Spitballs (Jon Stewart's Dilemma)

One Sunday in May of 2009, some friends and I were having dinner at Cowgirl (formerly the Cowgirl Hall of Fame until the museum of the same name in Fort Worth, Texas forced an official change), a western grub-n-hooch hangout in New York’s west village, when we noticed that Jon Stewart and his family were dining at a booth near our table.

Now, normally, I’m completely averse to the practice of celebrity free rides. It makes absolutely no sense that the richest, most overpaid people in the world constantly receive gift bags worth thousands of dollars, free admission to anywhere and anything, and bar tabs that usually amount to an autograph and a tip.

But this was Jon Stewart, stalwart host of THE DAILY SHOW, a voice of reason and righteous satirical anger that had, we all agreed, played an enormous role in helping us get through the eight horrendous years known as the Bush Administration. And so we told our waitress that we wanted to pay his check. Between us, it was only about $20 per person (including a healthy tip assuming that Jon would’ve left likewise), a small price to pay for preserved sanity.

When the waitress told Stewart that his bill was taken care of, he appeared surprised and a tad uncomfortable, asking whom his benefactors were. The waitress pointed to our table and he came over and thanked us. We fed him the line about the prior eight years, he laughed, thanked us again and rejoined his family as they left the restaurant.

I hadn’t been a big fan of The Daily Show when its host was Craig Kilborn. His frat-boy demeanor always put me off and the show’s humor at the time was far more weighted towards (as Geraldo Rivera anachronistically charged a few years back) making fun of old ladies slipping on ice. Social and political satire became more of the show’s stock-in-trade when Stewart took over the show in early 1999 (finally fulfilling the Kilborn-stymied vision of the show’s co-creator, Lizz Winstead, who left the show in 1997).

Most critics agree that the renamed THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART found its voice during the coverage of the 2000 presidential election, presciently dubbed “Indecision 2000.” The frequent and maddening spin coming from both sides of the political spectrum was laid bare in a way that neither the major networks nor cable news outlets seemed capable (or willing). And while the show certainly leaned to the left, it was never mere partisan propaganda, calling bullshit on Democrats as well as Republicans (the circumlocutory John Kerry was a particularly easy, but frequent target). The Daily Show was the antidote to the O’Reillys and Hannitys blindly hewing to the right wing rhetoric in the face of such annoying obstacles as facts and figures.

But The Daily Show was further altered by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. When an emotional Stewart returned to the air, he proclaimed that the show would be different, that easy potshots at President Bush’s frequent malapropisms would be tabled, at least for a while. Naturally (and necessarily), the Bush-Bashing did return, but The Daily Show retained a sense of purpose it had found in the wake of 9/11. The number of political guests now outweighed celebrities plugging movies (although they never completely went away). Serious issues were dealt with in an intelligent, informative manner that never lost sight of the primary objective of being funny.

Throughout the Bush years, the Daily Show exposed fraud and hypocrisy and ignorance and corruption and incompetence in government and church and the media and business and society. They made use of thoroughly researched, mind-boggling video montages of politicians and religious leaders and Fox News pundits contradicting themselves or practicing hypocrisy over and over and over again. Critics began to talk about The Daily Show not as a faux-news show, but a legitimate outlet for information and discourse.

Jon Stewart, however, steadfastly refused to acknowledge that his little comedy program was to be taken seriously. He repeatedly stated that he was merely hosting a snide cocktail party on the fringe of politics, taking part in the discussion (often vociferously), but never truly impacting any outcome… even when there was evidence to the contrary.

In October of 2004, Stewart appeared on CNN’s CROSSFIRE, one of those double-headed shouting matches where a liberal and a conservative square off against each other and rarely do more than tow the party line. Expecting a lightweight interview with a comedian, hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson were stunned to be pilloried by Stewart, who repeatedly implored them to “stop hurting America” with their predictably partisan, pedantic, ultimately unproductive screeching matches. A petulant, defensive Carlson did battle, but ultimately lost, as CNN president Jonathan Klein cancelled Crossfire the following January, citing Stewart’s spot-on critique as one of the reasons.

When Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, some worried that The Daily Show would lose its edge in the environment of a Democratic administration. After all, they weren’t going to have George W. Bush to kick around anymore! Of course, when the realities of American politics came crashing down, and those who had had hoped for sweeping capital-C Change had to settle for lower-case, The Daily Show remained essential, holding the new President to his word (in addition to keeping tabs on Congress and those Tea Party morons and Fox News and that Palin thing that refuses to go away...).

But as gridlock and compromise became the hallmarks of Obama’s first two years in office, you could almost see Stewart’s ever-graying hair start to fall out from anxiety. This was supposed to be the new world. And everyone was still just yelling at each other.

And so Stewart, along with Stephen Colbert (whose COLBERT REPORT has been The Daily Show’s equally vital faux-evil twin since 2005), held The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington DC in October of last year. Billed as another plea to bring civility to our national discourse, the rally was an enormous success in terms of attendance, with its estimated 200+ thousand people far outnumbering the crowd at Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor Rally” likewise held on the National Mall the previous August.

As entertainment, the rally was hit-or-miss. As a rule, comedy doesn’t tend to play well on such a large scale, especially satire (although an off-key duet with Colbert, “The Greatest, Strongest Country in the World” was pretty great). A bizarre 20 minutes was wasted on the MYTHBUSTERS guys performing pointless experiments on the crowd such as measuring the richter scale of a simultaneous jump. The musical guests (including the Roots, Sheryl Crow and Jeff Tweedy with Mavis Staples) often felt like mere filler.

But the rally’s biggest problem was that it tried a bit too hard to be non-partisan. In a serious, twelve minute show-capping speech, Stewart inferred that there’s really no difference between Red and Blue State-dwellers, that we all want the same things, and that it’s only the media and entrenched bureaucratic public servants stirring up the fear and animus that keeps America from fulfilling its promise. But Stewart’s own show has aired hours of field reportage displaying all kinds of fear, hatred and ignorance from plain ol’ folks across the fruited plains. The media may stir the pot, but America filled it up.

In December, Stewart’s righteous anger zeroed in on the Republican-filibustered 9/11 First Responder’s Bill (officially known as the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act). As Republicans cherry-picked what kind of government spending was excessive (tax cuts for the rich = fine), an entire episode of The Daily Show highlighted the issue, including a decidedly non-comedic middle-segment interview with a group of ailing first responders. The next week, a revised version of the bill passed Congress, and was signed into law on January 2nd (a Sunday! Horrors!), with Stewart getting a fair share of the credit.

As he enters his 12th year of hosting The Daily Show, Jon Stewart’s consternation over things not being better is perhaps starting to overshadow his own stated mission of simply being funny. Certainly Stewart realizes that he’s become a player, and not just a referee. How can he not? For years, polls have shown that people trust The Daily Show to deliver the facts more than the cable or network news outlets, and with good reason. This is not to say that there’s a suitable breadth of information to get one’s news solely from Jon Stewart… but more often than not, the stories that do get covered on The Daily Show (and the Colbert Report) are better “reported” than on the so-called “real news.”

Comparisons of Stewart to 1950s crusading journalist Edward R. Murrow have become frequent, with the key difference, of course, being Murrow was not a satirist, he was a reporter. Jon Stewart’s only real problem is that he cannot admit that he does indeed make a difference. The second he does, everything changes. The Daily Show would lose its satirical credibility, it would become pompous and, ironically, weaker. It’s a fine line that is, at the moment, being precipitously straddled.

Of course, there are many who would argue that The Daily Show crossed that line long ago (mostly those who continue to defend the invasion of Iraq, believe that gay marriage will lead to end times and still think that trickle down economics could work, it just needs a little more time!). I don’t think it has. But I’m in the choir.

The Daily Show may have become more than just a little comedy show off to the side, but it’s still, at its core, just shooting spitballs at power. Okay, so the spitballs now have the size and weight of cannonballs, but they’re still composed of wadded up napkins covered in goo and (usually) delivered with tongue in cheek. Its accomplishments in the real world only cement its place as the most essential show on television.

And I still think that $20 at Cowgirl was a bargain.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Smallville Recap Catch-Up....

This teaser poster was just released for SMALLVILLE's return this month for the second half of its final season. Note that the Superman reflection under Clark seems to be that first promotional image of Brandon Routh that Warner sent out as SUPERMAN RETURNS went into production. Man, they really are keeping Tom Welling out of that suit as long as they can!

I still hate the fact that they're using Bryan Singer's much-maligned version of the S-shield, especially in light of the fact that SMALLVILLE is an entirely separate version of the Superman story loaded with contradictions to the origin and history set by the movies. But I guess I should be grateful that they're going to use the red-and-blues at all!

Before the series returns, here are links to my Starpulse recaps of Season 10 episodes 3-11.

Season 10, Episode 3: SUPERGIRL
Season 10, Episode 4: HOMECOMING
Season 10, Episode 5: ISIS
Season 10, Episode 6: HARVEST
Season 10, Episode 7: AMBUSH
Season 10, Episode 8: ABANDONED
Season 10, Episode 9: PATRIOT
Season 10, Episode 10: LUTHOR
Season 10, Episode 11: ICARUS