Following tuesday’s reminiscence of the great Syracuse-based Gerber Music chain, we continue our tribute to the late Bill Gerber with this all-Gerber Music edition of 45 Single Sleeve Cavalcade.
ABBA: Knowing Me, Knowing You
I wish I could remember the first 45 I ever bought at Gerber. I picked up some slashed-price close-out singles from a record-store sidewalk sale at Northern Lights Shopping Center some time during my high school years, a haul that included gems like “Rock And Roll Love Letter” by The Bay City Rollers, “Changes” by David Bowie, “You” by George Harrison, and “I’m A Rocker” by The Raspberries. Those could have come from Gerber’s Northern Lights store, but I’m pretty sure the purchase took place after Gerber had left Northern Lights in favor of its new Penn Can Mall location in 1976. Record Town went into Northern Lights, and I betcha I bought those cheapie 45s from Record Town rather than Gerber.
So maybe this fab 1977 ABBA single was first. I liked some of ABBA’s singles, and neither time nor the negative opinion of others has done anything to change that. I enjoyed their first U.S. hit “Waterloo” in 1973, loved 1975’s “S.O.S.,” was benevolently indifferent to “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” and “Mama Mia,” dismissive of “Fernando,” and A-OK with 1976’s “Dancing Queen.”
Although by ’77 WOUR-FM had nearly monopolized my radio listening, I still had some interest in AM Top 40, and ABBA’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You” was sufficiently catchy and engaging to prompt a purchase of the single. I also bought ABBA’s 1978 hit single “Take A Chance On Me” at Gerber.
I bought a number of other 45s in the ’76-’77 period, when I was a senior in high school. I can’t recall the precise chronology of my purchases, nor can I guarantee where I bought each of them, but it’s likely that my copies of “Carry On Wayward Son” by Kansas, “Magic Man” by Heart, “Blinded By The Light” by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, “We Are The Champions”/”We Will Rock You” by Queen, and “Isn’t It Time” by The Babys all came from Gerber’s stock.
I remember eyeing a copy of KISS‘ “Calling Dr. Love” single at Gerber, and deferring the purchase because I knew my sister Denise planned to give me a KISS album as a graduation gift. And I remember being tempted by the sight of The Ramones‘ “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker” 45. I had read about punk rock in my Gerber-supplied issues of Phonograph Record Magazine, and all of that exciting, as-yet-unheard noise intrigued me. I was especially intrigued by The Ramones, but couldn’t bring myself to check them out when I was in high school. That would change when I got to college in the fall of ’77.
THE CLASH: Cost Of Living EP
Just as I can’t positively ID the first single I bought at Gerber, I can’t be sure of the last one, either. But I betcha it was The Clash‘s Cost Of Living EP in 1979. It was my last summer living at home with my parents in North Syracuse; when I graduated from college in 1980, my girlfriend Brenda and I got an apartment in our college town of Brockport, intent on finding out if we could be any good at this mystifying growin’ up thing.
I’ve written often of the events of my summer of 1979; I’ll try not to repeat those details here; those who do still wanna know about what happened can read a summary I call “Summer Could Have Lasted Forever.” For right here and now, suffice it to say that was both my last summer of (presumed) carefree youth and the first real hint of what trouble might loom ahead.
I’m trying to remember what Clash records I owned before this. Maybe just my two 45s, “Remote Control”/”London’s Burning” and “Tommy Gun”/”1-2 Crush On You,” and I may have gotten one or both at Gerber. I don’t think I had any Clash LPs yet; I would pick up the American version of their first album pretty soon thereafter, either at Gerber or at Brockport’s Main Street Records.
So my Clash collection was perfunctory. But man, I needed to own this Cost Of Living record. Maybe I read about it in Trouser Press, but I knew it contained The Clash’s cover of one of my favorite songs, The Bobby Fuller Four‘s “I Fought The Law.” The mere thought of one of my punk bands playing “I Fought The Law” thrilled me, and I snapped up the EP the second I saw it for sale at the Penn-Can Gerber Music.
I liked The Clash’s take on “I Fought The Law” a lot, but never as much as I liked The Bobby Fuller Four’s definitive version. The EP contained two tracks–“Gates Of The West” and “Groovy Times”–that were almost folky, and a killer remake of The Clash’s own “Capital Radio,” with a unique Cost Of Living tag stapled to to the end. It was a good purchase.
I don’t think it was quite my last-ever Gerber Music buy. I probably got a few albums at Gerber that summer, plus an issue or two of Trouser Press (one with The Beatles on its cover), and I think it was at Gerber’s Shoppingtown location that I scored 99-cent cutout copies of The Real Kids and The Residents Present The Third Reich ‘n Roll when I shoulda been back-to-school clothes-buying at J.C. Penney.
But if Cost Of Living was indeed my last-ever Gerber Music acquisition, it’s fitting. I was introduced to punk rock in the first place by issues of Phonograph Record Magazine I snagged at Gerber in 1977, and I’m cool with the symmetry of completing my Gerber Music patronage with a punk purchase.
I bought a few other punk records in the time between….
THE RAMONES: Rockaway Beach
Here’s the only instance I can think of where I can tell you the exact date, location, and even the weather outside when I bought a specific record: The Ramones‘ “Rockaway Beach”/”Locket Love” 45; January 17th, 1978; Gerber Music at Penn-Can Mall; it was snowing.
And it was my 18th birthday.
I was home from college following the fall semester of my freshman year. Things at school hadn’t quite gone according to plan–in part because I didn’t have a plan–but another semester loomed with an opportunity to make things better. (SPOILER ALERT: things got worse before they got better.)
For my birthday, Mom and Dad took me out for a lovely dinner at Beefsteak Mining Company at Penn Can Mall. After dinner, I had planned to go out with friends for my first legal drinks, but there was time for a stop at Gerber Music to pick up a record. A 45. A Ramones 45.
This wouldn’t be my first Ramones record. I had finally gotten around to purchasing the “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker” single while away at school, and already considered it the record that changed my life. I wanted more. And, on a budget, I chose to get more on the installment plan, one 45 at a time.
I don’t think I’d heard “Rockaway Beach” prior to that 1/17/78 purchase, but it didn’t disappoint. So, great birthday meal with parents, great doubling of my personal Ramones library.
But the weather was disappointing. It began to snow harder, ultimately forcing my goin’-out-drinkin’ agenda to be abandoned for the evening. The perils of a January birthday in Central New York.
It stopped snowing eventually; that happens, even in Syracuse. I had a few opportunities to go out a-partyin’ in Syracuse before the spring semester commenced back in Brockport. I even had a chance to see a local rock ‘n’ roll bar band for the first time–my first punk band! But that’s another story.
THE JAM: All Around The World
In the summer of 1978, as I tried to reassemble my own scattered pieces after a tumultuous freshman year in college, I got a job at Penn-Can Mall. I was a part-time morning maintenance man–i.e., a janitor–at Sears, part of a mostly-young crew that cleaned the store each AM prior to the start of the business day. My friend Tom was on the crew, and he helped me get the job to begin with. Money in my pocket. I could go out, see bands, try to be better.
Great. Fine. Worthy goals! But let’s not forget the reason God created cash in the first place: I could buy records.
I still tried to stay within a reasonable budget. But c’mon, I now worked under the same big ol’ roof as a Gerber Music store! I wouldn’t and couldn’t resist the allure of import 45s at Gerber. My preferred rock magazines–Bomp!, Trouser Press, and CREEM–gave me an information pipeline to some of what was out there. I read about the U.K. punk/power pop group Generation X, and snapped up their “Ready Steady Go” and “Your Generation” singles at Gerber. I may have gotten my red-vinyl 45 of The Rich Kids‘ “Rich Kids” and/or the single of Rich Kids bassist Glen Matlock‘s former group The Sex Pistols‘ “Pretty Vacant” on one of my frequent Penn-Can Sears-to-Gerber beelines. Beyond punk, the sight of George Thorogood & the Destroyers on TV’s Midnight Special prompted a cash transaction at Gerber to secure my copy of the “Move It On Over”/”It Wasn’t Me” single. I also bought teen pop star Shaun Cassidy‘s hit single “Hey Deanie” and local group The Alligators‘ “I Try And I Try.” My main interests were rock ‘n’ roll, punk, new wave, and (especially) power pop. But I wasn’t strict. If I liked something, I liked it.
My specific interest in power pop was stoked by Bomp! magazine, which had published a special power pop issue earlier in ’78. Gospel to me. Hey, remember that local punk group I mentioned in the previous entry about The Ramones? It turned out the Syracuse punk combo’s idea of punk kinda dovetailed with a power-pop approach, evidenced by their original songs and their chosen covers, of acts like The Kinks, The Raspberries, Big Star, Badfinger, The Hollies, and the early Who alongside your prerequisite punks The Sex Pistols. And yeah, everyone who knows me knows exactly what local punk/power pop group we’re talkin’ about here, but we’ll get to that in a second. Their originals were fantastic, and they had excellent taste in covers.
And they covered The Jam, a great new British group that came out of punk but were clearly and proudly beholden to the model of ’60s Mod, particularly The Who. Following my own weird introduction to The Jam’s music, my fascination with them had grown by leaps and bounds. I bought The Jam’s U.S. single of “I Need You (For Someone)”/”In The City” while away at school, and dutifully trekked to Gerber after Sears shifts to snag import 45s of “The Modern World” and “All Around The World.” Of these four songs named, “All Around The World” was the only one I didn’t already know via live in-club covers by Syracuse’s own power pop powerhouse…
THE FLASHCUBES: Christi Girl
The story of The Flashcubes is happily entwined with the Gerber Music story. All four of The Flashcubes–guitarists Paul Armstrong and Arty Lenin, bassist Gary Frenay, and drummer Tommy Allen–worked at Gerber at some point. When Bill Gerber passed in May, The Flashcubes issued a statement: “There would be no Flashcubes if there had never been a Gerber Music. In 1977, we all worked at the best music store in CNY history. Gary and Paul (and sometimes Arty) worked at the Shoppingtown store, and Tommy worked at the Fairmount store. It was there that we hatched the idea of forming a band. Bill Gerber was a great boss (and a championship amateur golfer), and when you worked for him, you became a member of his extended family, that included his wife Debbie, mother Jean (and HER mother Mrs. Rosenbloom), and his siblings Leonard, Heidi and Terri.”
In no uncertain terms: the very existence of my all-time favorite power pop group was owed to Gerber Music. That makes Gerber sacred ground to me, now and forevermore.
When the ‘Cubes were set to release their first single “Christi Girl” in ’78, I hounded the staff at the Penn-Can Gerber every freakin’ day, with my own breathless inquiry of Is it out yet? Is it out yet? Is it out yet? To their credit, the good folk behind the Gerber counter put up with me. They even had an advance copy of the 45 on hand, awaiting its slow-to-arrive picture sleeve, and they let me hear both sides of it on the store’s sound system. I bought it the first day it was available.
I cannot overstate how important The Flashcubes have been to me. As I’ve said elsewhere, it’s possible that I would have gotten around to writing about pop music and co-hosting a weekly rock ‘n’ roll radio show even without The Flashcubes’ influence, but it would be a stretch for me to imagine how that would have been. When I was given the honor of inducting The Flashcubes into the Syracuse Area Music Awards Hall of Fame in 2014, I noted once again the three groups that had the greatest and most lasting influence upon my life as a pop fan: The Beatles, The Ramones, and The Flashcubes.
That was also the night I met Bill Gerber, however briefly. Gerber Music was inducted into the SAMMYs Hall of Fame on the same 2014 evening, with members of The Flashcubes helping to induct their former employer. I shook Bill’s hand, and told him, “I never worked at Gerber; I worked at Cavages (the Buffalo chain that bought out Gerber), but I wish I’d worked for you!” I added that Cavages fired me, and he laughed and said, “They fired me, too!” I bought a commemorative Gerber Music/Flashcubes SAMMYs Hall Of Fame t-shirt from Bill’s sister Terri Gerber; I wear it often, and I glow with the shared pleasure of strangers who recognize the Gerber logo and want to tell me how much they cherish the joyful memory of being a Gerber Music customer.
Memories have a soundtrack. Life has a soundtrack. We play the music, and we let it reach us and inspire us. We’re grateful for those who brought the music to us. The writers, the performers, the music men and women, the DJs on the radio, and the song sellers, for whom it was more than just business; it was the only way to live.
Gerber Music lives. I have the records to prove it.
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