Charleston, South Carolina, where I grew up, is a wonderful antebellum town, containing descendants of the remarkably stubborn and contentious people who gleefully fired cannon balls at Fort Sumter to start the civil war. A town where everyone knows how to shuck an oyster, sail a sailboat, and owns a seersucker suit. A kind of preppie heaven. The place is constantly visited, and beloved, by tourists. They have no idea that behind the seductive, strictly preserved exteriors, homeowners wage a constant battle against cracking ceilings, tidal moisture in basements and ancient problematic roofs, and that in fact, Charlestonians live in a type of self-imposed squalor.
In the days of my youth, King Street was a down on it’s luck commercial street. Bars, empty storefronts and oddball businesses. Driving down King, upstanding moms with a load of kids would scowl at one particular storefront, a record shop — The Prism– with a David Bowie circa Ziggy Stardust poster in its cluttered, dirty window. Walking down King a whiff of incense and essence oils, a counter culture wind, blew out the door onto the sidewalk.
In fifth grade my friend Chris, atop a rusting tower overlooking the marshes of the Ashley River, told me about the Beatles. Chris had a rhapsodic obsession with them. I listened to records at his house and the music intrigued me. I decided to buy my first records.
Chris briefed me about the record store on King Street, owned by a man named “Billy.” An albino and a pen pal of Paul McCartney. Outside the store, I secured my bike to a parking meter with a combination lock, carefully observant of street traffic. It was a small place and no other customers were inside. Numerous incense cones and sticks were burning, an opium and rosewood haze that crawled up my nose and tingled my brain. In an alcove behind the counter there was a shifting, a glimmer of long, powder white hair. There were just a few cramped aisles and crates of records. Posters with yellowed tape clung to the brick walls.
It was a moment as a child, when I felt distinctly without adult supervision and alone. I was very much in a hippie place — those hippies, with their hair and illicit drugs and the easy disdain thrown at them. The Beatles category was well stocked and I located Magical Mystery Tour and St. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club. Gripping the plastic wrapped Magical Mystery Tour, I noted the fur costumes and animal masks . Which one was Ringo? Somehow I knew acid had inspired these costumes. I wondered if the music would be beyond me. Perhaps it was too big a leap from the Six Million Dollar Man and The Empire Strikes Back.
I placed my purchases on the counter. An autographed picture of Paul McCartney, circa Wings, and a framed letter hung on the wall. Billy then stepped up behind the counter, tall and fine-featured. He wore a bright silk robe, yellow and red, and staring at him I took in the full experience of his albinism — another first. The bleached eyelashes and pink eyeballs and translucent skin and long white hair. His eyes averted, they blinked rapidly, as if avoiding a terrible glare. I tried not to stare. I stared. The entire effect was a kind of saintly aura, or a groovy rock’n roll wizard. What alien wind had sent him to Charleston? He gathered up the albums and smiled, and said in a lushly effeminate voice, “These albums are really great! Good job!”
I think he sensed I was at a pivotal point, a threshold, and that I was wavering. He meant to encourage me. Indeed, later when I trudged upstairs and pushed aside my parents Tijuana Brass and Frank Sinatra albums and and listened to my new records on an ancient hi-fi turntable, I liked them — the melodies, the strange Lennon lyrics and unpredictable instrumentation — but felt outside the music. Then for a time I didn’t like them. “A Day in the Life” I found scary, and depressingly adult. Though I kept listening.
And slowly, I got it.
Let me take you down cause I’m going to
nothing is real
and nothing to get hung about
Strawberry Fields forever.
*KNOWN THING No. 44: The blessing of your vinyl record purchase by an albino hippie is always auspicious.
*KNOWN THING No. 45: When you find the exception to the orthodoxy, the dangerous hidden core, you must go directly there. You will find treasure to spin your head.
*KNOWN THING No. 46: When you explore the dangerous hidden core, be on the alert for disapproving moms in station wagons. Once they get on the phone, everyone will know your business.