Continuing on from part one …
So it’s 1982. I’ve walked away from managing the band and I’ve walked away from working in my cousin’s TV store. I really have no clue as to what to do next. I did a few projects out of Mark Moogy Klingman‘s studio, nothing that really amounted to anything, public access cable TV stuff. I got hired by some company to do income tax preparation but one day of that was all I could take.
I’d always told myself that if I couldn’t get any other job, I could still drive a taxi. So I went out and got a taxi license. It was easier in those days because you would just pay the taxi company a percentage of what you booked on the meter rather than having to lease it out by the week or the month. As a new driver, I had to work Saturdays and Sundays, my shift was 5 AM to 3 PM. My first day was super embarrassing – I picked up some guy who wanted to go to JFK airport and I got lost going there. Yeah, I lived in New York my whole life but how often had I gone to the airport? At that point, maybe once. I ended up driving the taxi for a year (I believe I’ve posted tales about this before). Four celebrities, a lot of hookers and drunks, and NYC traffic day after day after goddamned day. I had an uncle who had done this his whole life and now I understood him a whole lot better.
On my days off, I went to electronics school, figuring I could study for a year and get a job as a radio or TV engineer. The first month of that was easy but once the math started getting more intense, my brain switched off and I dropped out from the class.
My wife was working full time, but it was a relatively low paying office job. She was lost as well. She’d graduated with a teaching degree, but a month before graduation she decided she didn’t want to teach. We were living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Rent was a hell of a lot lower then than it is now, plus we were living in a 300 square foot studio with a loft bed. We stayed in that apartment for 10 years.
I was a crappy taxi driver and I was earning next to nothing. I had all those credit card debts from the band and I couldn’t make the payments. The bill collectors were calling every day and I was sinking deeper into depression.
March 2, 1982 is the day that Philip K. Dick died. I read mostly science fiction in those days and following his death I probably read everything he wrote. It’s arguable that Dick was schizophrenic – well from 1974 onwards there’s really little doubt. And he wrote a lot of himself into the characters in his books. So here I am, sinking into depression, reading books written by a schizophrenic, and I decided I must be schizophrenic as well. I think I self-diagnosed to somehow justify to myself why there were an increasing number of days when I couldn’t even make it out the front door of our apartment except to buy cigarettes. My wife never mentioned a word about any of this. I’m honestly not sure if she didn’t notice it or if she did but didn’t know how to deal with it – or perhaps 30-odd years later it wasn’t quite as bad as I remember it as being. At any rate, the debts got to the point where the banks were going to take my wife’s salary, which would have really left us with nothing. I tried to negotiate better payment terms but they all basically said they’d prefer it if I just declared bankruptcy. And so I did.
As a life-long record collector, all the record shop owners in the village knew me. One day I parked my taxi in front of my favorite shop, to take a break and see what was knew, and the owner told me he was going to open a video store with a partner and asked if I wanted to stop driving the taxi and work there instead. Yes please.
While I’d like to report that by working in a video store I became Quentin Tarantino, or at least had a life and career similar to his, you all know that’s not how things worked out. What I can say is that I really enjoyed working there and it snapped me out of my depression. With its prime Greenwich Village location, we had a lot of celebrity customers, everyone from Daryl Hall to Rod Steiger. One night Sigourney Weaver came in with Wallace Shawn – she was looking at all the titles while Shawn seemed to be smiling and laughing and going, “I’m with Sigourney Weaver!” Grace Jones and Dolph Lundgren were frequent customers and every time I’d deliver to them, I’d end up hanging out at their place playing with Grace’s kid. Grace was the total opposite of her image – warm and smiling and sexy. We asked how she and Dolph met and she told us that one night she saw him at a party and walked up to him and said, “I’m going to have you.”
The store was just off Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue. At least 2/3rds of the customers were gay and of the staff, only the owner and myself were straight. The store did a huge business because it stocked and rented the latest in gay porn, right alongside all the newest releases and deep, deep catalogue of classic and foreign films. If I wanted to go out with my co-workers after work, it meant going to gay bars, and this led to my doing the video systems for almost every gay bar in the Village.
I was also at Ground Zero when AIDS started to really hit New York. Every time a friend got sick, the fear was that it could be AIDS. I’d go visit friends in the hospital, holding their hands or hugging them, so the nurses all assumed that I was gay and that I also probably had AIDS and they treated me like shit. Relatively little was known about the disease back then but I wasn’t about to desert my friends. It was a time of incredible emotions and irrationality. Some friends went monogamous, some went completely celibate. All were living in fear.
At some point in 1985, I went back to my friend the record store owner and suggested that he and I open a store together selling only CDs. And so we did. It was the second CD-only store in New York City and the first one to sell used CDs. There were lots of problems. Tower Records was just blocks away and I was trying to compete with them on price but I didn’t know enough about business to be able to do a budget or base my prices on anything other than pure guesses and my partner, who had demanded 51% ownership in return for letting me use his name and logo, offered little or no help. Perhaps he assumed I knew what I was doing but actually I was pretty clueless. For six months we barely made enough to pay the rent.
Problems kept mounting up, not the least of which was this ring of crooked United Parcel drivers. They basically stole everything they wanted from their trucks every day. They figured it was covered by insurance and therefore a “victimless” crime. One day they stole a bunch of CD players so now they wanted CDs. They told me I should make a freaking huge order from my distributor, that they’d steal it off the truck, take out what they wanted and then sell me the rest for half price. I said, “Don’t you think it will stand out to them that I’m placing an order 5 times the size of my regular order? And don’t you think I’m the first one the police will come to when it goes missing?” I refused to go along with their little scheme. To try to get revenge, and since I paid my bills mostly in cash, they then tried reporting me to their managers and the police as having received orders without paying for them and accusing me of theft. But it was such a stupid story that the spotlight very quickly was on them instead of me. I was in the clear. I believe they were all fired and at least one went to jail.
Then, as luck would have it, I made a connection in the UK. He would call me every Monday and read me the list of the latest releases. I’d get a box from him every Thursday. Back then, some major stuff was coming out in the UK weeks or even months before the US, stuff like Elvis Costello, Peter Gabriel, Depeche Mode. I’d get this stuff a week or two before any other import store in the village and I was selling the imports at a reasonable price. Word got out and soon I had people driving a hundred miles or more to come to the shop to get their hands on this. I even started “wholesaling” to other shops. The money was rolling in.
The problem with this was that it was all illegal at the time. Parallel imports. Some nearby record store, jealous of the business I was doing with this stuff, reported me to the RIAA. They sent me a cease and desist letter. My partner panicked. His vinyl stores were doing a huge business – and what he was doing in the stores (and in the back of the stores) wasn’t entirely legal either. All the big DJ’s of the era shopped at his stores, all of them. And when Madonna did an in-store in New York, it wasn’t at Tower Records, it was at his store. So when I got the cease and desist, he was afraid that if I tried to fight it, the inspectors wouldn’t just stop with the little CD store, they’d go across the street to the vinyl stores and start looking around. So he ordered me to stop selling the imports. I had no choice but to comply and within a couple of weeks, my business dropped off by 75%.
Technically speaking, what he did to me was also illegal. He couldn’t purposely hurt one business to try to save another. But that didn’t stop him. He “fired” me and offered me no money at all for my 49% of the store, saying it was essentially worthless. So I sued him. And he counter-sued me.
For awhile we were deadlocked and it seemed as if it was going to go nowhere. Until one day when we sat down across the table from each other with our lawyers. His lawyer opened the proceedings by telling me I had no case and I would never see a dime and I should just walk away. Before my lawyer could open his mouth, I pushed him away and started talking. Here is what I remember telling them that day:
“I happen to know that you’re paying your lawyer $150 an hour. See my lawyer? That’s not just my lawyer, that’s my buddy Joe. I love Joe. We’ve been best friends since college. He’s charging me $50 an hour. Joe and his wife wanna have a baby and I don’t mind giving Joe money so he and his wife can have money for their kid. And if I have to pay Joe for the next three years, I don’t mind. And I know whatever I pay Joe, you’re paying your lawyer three times as much, so even if I never get a penny, it’s worth it to me knowing how much it will cost you. So go fuck yourself and the horse you rode in on.”
The lawyers quickly pulled us into separate rooms. Joe said to me, “I’m not charging you $50 an hour, it’s $53. And don’t ever again tell anyone what you’re paying me.” Meanwhile I think my partner’s lawyer must have said to him, “This guy’s fucking nuts. Let’s just settle and get it over with.” So minutes later they came back with an offer to repay me every cent I’d originally invested in the business, and I accepted.
(Joe and I are still friends to this day. He has two lovely daughters whom he has wisely kept away from me.)
So fine. I got my money back. And fortunately my next job was already waiting for me. One of my steady customers in the store was this guy who produced a syndicated radio series of hour-long rock concerts. He would come in the store every week and ask me a hundred questions about CDs – when is something coming out; which sounds better – the US, the UK or the Japanese release, and so on – and I could always answer his questions. So a lightbulb went off in his head. “What if the entire country could ask Spike questions and get answers the way I do?”
So he hit me with this proposal to start up The CD Hotline. And I got somewhat fucked in the process. See, there were to be two owners. The radio guy and his partner, the grandson of an extraordinarily famous writer. The radio guy knew how radio worked and had all the connections. The writer’s grandson had connections and real estate. When I asked, “So do I get some shares in the business?” I was told only if I put up some cash. My lawsuit wasn’t settled yet and I had no money and so I got nothing. If I’d been smarter back then, I might have countered that they wouldn’t have any business without the knowledge in my head and that should have been worth something. But I was stupid and desperate for a job and so I went along with it.
The majority of the seed money ended up coming from the Grateful Dead Pension Fund. Who had any idea back in the 80s that the Dead were so well organized financially? Well, they were.
We sat there and divided up who was responsible for what between the three of us. They pointed at me and said I was in charge of computers. Why me? Because I had an Atari, which was more than either of them had.
So I sat in the basement of radio guy’s brownstone for six months, typing everything I knew about CDs into a database. The database software had been written by this genius quadriplegic guy who lived way upstate. He basically taught me everything about computers over the phone since he couldn’t come down to NYC.
Meanwhile radio guy set about trying to sell the concept. The initial idea was a one hour syndicated program in which we’d review CDs, take questions and play music. But the feedback from program directors was unanimous – they had a million guys trying to sell them one hour shows but the idea of the database was unique. (Keep in mind this was the 80s and there was no www back then.)
So the idea morphed into a 2 minute thing. Radio stations could brand it as their own (“The WXYZ CD Hotline!”) and do an announcement for it every hour, giving out an 800 number to call, and giving us a minute or two of commercial time to sell every hour. The program director from WBCN Boston came down to the basement and quizzed me hard. Every question he asked, the answer – the correct answer – was already in the database. Sold. And soon after more than 100 radio stations across the country signed up.
At that point we moved into a warehouse in Williamsburg. We had 20 people answering phones and a computer network that was probably pretty advanced for 1987 running. I got my phone lessons from the distant programmer in DOS, dBase III and C and I taught myself Novell Netware. It all came really easily to me. I was supervising the database entry by half a dozen staff, training new staff and keeping the computer network running.
The problem for me was that the money was rolling in and I was just a (low) salaried employee. I was earning more than I ever had before. But I was watching the two partners go off to their summer rentals in the Hamptons and they’d ask if they could leave their dogs with me for the weekend.
(One time, the writer’s grandson invited my wife and I up to his compound in Vermont for a weekend. We had our own little bungalow there. The grandson had a lot of celebrity friends. He was known to spend weekends in Aspen skiing with Jack Nicholson and Bruce Willis and fucking Playboy Playmates. But the closest person to a celebrity I met that weekend was Mrs. John Oates (of Hall & Oates). She’d been a super model before getting married and for some reason my wife became convinced that she was coming on to me. I said, “What are you, nuts? She’s a super model married to a racing car driver rock star, she doesn’t even know I’m here.” But we left after just one day there. So much for the High Life.)
I guess at this point the only good thing about the job was that it got me on the mailing lists for some record companies. I was getting dozens of CDs a week for free.
Also, since the 70s, I’d been writing professionally on the side. I started out writing for college newspapers and magazines. After that I wrote for a large variety of smaller magazines – record reviews, videocassette reviews, things like that. I started publishing my reviews to various forums on CompuServe, where I served as “co-sysop” on RockNet and the Consumer Electronics Forum. I also picked up some part time work consulting to RCA Records on their back catalogue, but I was never able to turn that into anything permanent. One person I met was Bill Levenson, head of back catalogue at Polygram. Bill first came to fame when he produced the Eric Clapton Crossroads box. Bill told me he’d started out as a computer programmer, was working for IBM, got assigned to a project at Polygram, got hired by Polygram, and moved from programmer to producer. This was a life I wanted.
My mom, meanwhile, knew this guy who owned a toy company that had been bought out by Universal. So my mother suggested that I should write to Universal (MCA) Records and say that I know this guy and ask if there might be a job for me. A week later I got a call from Irving Azoff’s secretary. He was coming to New York and wanted to meet me. It seemed that he was looking for a new head of back catalogue. He was impressed by my knowledge of and my love of music. I thought the job was mine. The problem was, I don’t think my mother every called that toy company guy to let him know what was up. So when Azoff’s people called that guy to check on my references, that guy probably said he had never heard of me. And I never heard from Azoff or MCA again.
The money kept coming in at CD Hotline but I wasn’t seeing what I thought should have been my share. These guys had the idea to license the database to places like Tower Records, which had kiosks with computers where people could use our database to look up stuff. Long after I’d left the company, my database became the first database Amazon used when they started selling CDs. Eventually the two of them sold off the company and I’m sure they cleared a very comfortable amount of money in the process. I never saw a penny of it.
I had no idea what I was going to do next. I thought at best I was qualified to be a $5 an hour stock boy at Tower Records. Then one night my dad called me up. “Kid,” he said, “you ain’t getting anywhere with this art shit, are you?” “Um, no dad, I guess I’m not.” “You seem to like fooling around with computers. You ever think about going back to school and studying that and then doing that for a living?” Well, my father almost never gave me any advice, so on those rare occasions when he did, I paid attention. “No dad, I never thought about it, but that’s a damned good idea!” And I meant it.
See, I had no idea that there was any value in what I’d already learned about computers. I didn’t know that I could take what I already knew and was doing and get some corporate IT job somewhere. It came so easily to me, so naturally, that I figured it had to be the same for everyone, wasn’t it? I later found out no, it wasn’t.
So I started looking around for classes I might take. I thought I’d take a month-long course in something like dBase or FoxPro and then try to sell myself as an independent programmer, much like my phone buddy in upstate New York.
But one afternoon I wandered into a presentation from Columbia University. The guy was talking about all of this stuff I had never heard of. At the end, I raised my hand and asked, “But what about dBase?” The answer I got was so informative and so patient that I said to myself, “That’s the guy I want to have as my teacher.”
My father wasn’t thrilled that I was going to go to a year’s worth of classes rather than a month’s, but he gave me the money for the tuition. For the next year I still worked day time at CD Hotline while going to school at Columbia 3 hours per night twice a week, and most of every weekend spent in their computer labs.
So I took six courses in a year, mostly having to do with relational databases but also structured design and the system life cycle and some general programming courses as well. We went from Assembler all the way up to C, which was about as modern as it got back then. Databases came easily to me, perhaps because I’d already been working with them for a few years at the CD Hotline. Third form normalization? I could do that in my sleep. My final project was a 200+ page document representing a redesign of the CD Hotline database and application. I was never much of a student in my youth so I was probably more surprised than anyone else when I graduated with 5 A’s and a B.
Okay, that’s the end of part two.