We just stopped off in New York for an overnight with the kids on our way to the Shore for a vacation. I was telling my kids stories from when I would first make trips in from Long Island in the 1970s and ’80s and I was reminded of this one.
Shortly after my uncle moved back to New York after living in California and Hawaii during the 1970s, my mother and I went to go meet him in the West Village. We went to some place with outdoor seating, sidewalk tables, near Greenwich and Sixth Ave. It was a nice day. I was probably 13 or 14. Once I finished my lunch, I got a bit restless listening to my mother catch up with her brother, so I excused myself to walk around the block, fascinated as I was with “The City,” as we referred to it on Long Island.
I stopped into a record store or two, the last one being the record section of one of the old Crazy Eddie electronics stores that were all over the Tri-State area. Anyone who grew up in the region during the ’70s remember these low budget television commercials with a seemingly coked-up sweaty Eddie frothing at the mouth as he extolled the huge bargains he was offering. His prices were “INSANE!” In those less politically correct days, before there was the current level of understanding of the nuances and layers of mental illness, that was his business tagline: “Come down to Crazy Eddie’s. His prices are…INSANE!” See for yourself:
That was one of the earliest. He started to ramp up the enthusiasm as the years went by:
“Get a car stereo, C.B., Sony Betamax…” Love it.
It is pretty clear that Dan Ackyroyd got a lot of his speeding, breathless TV pitchman influence from Eddie:
As I flipped through the record albums, a guy parked a cab out front and came in. He was one of the first people I saw with true dreadlocks. I had been buying Bob Marley and Peter Tosh records around this age, and the rasta stuff was intriguing, mysterious, undeniably alluring, and cool. So I was kind of watching him as he sidled up near me and started searching the bins. He seemed to be searching with a purpose, unlike me, looking for something specific and with not a whole lot of time to spare. After all, he had just pulled up and parked in front of the store Kojak style. Even UPS trucks and cabs get a ticket eventually
But he was having no luck. He started going up and down aisles, stopping to more agitatedly search a section and getting visibly frustrated. He was muttering to himself until it built to a pitch and he yelled up to the guy at the register in the front, “Where’s the Bob Marley?” He had a Jamaican accent. There were only a few other people in the store. But the guy at the register just looked back at him, perhaps shrugging, then chatting with someone else.
The Rastaman kept muttering, with the volume of his voice ebbing and flowing, spiked with increasing profanity — “WHERE’S THE GODDAMN BOB MARLEY RECORDS?!. CRAZY FUCKIN’ EDDIE. DO YOU KNOW WHO BOB MARLEY WAS?!”
A storm was brewing, drawing more attention from the guy at the register, who now came over to “help,” but was showing no respect. It was clear he just wanted the guy to pipe down. This encouraged the man to launch into a speech reminiscent of Marcus Garvey, if not in eloquence, at least in content, passion, and accent. He was schooling the record store clerk and all of us within earshot of the importance of Bob Marley, as the clerk was trying, ever more forcefully, to guide him out of the store. I just kept my head down and watched out of the corner of my eye.
The guy left the store quickly, helped along by the clerk and maybe another store employee, but I could see him through the glass front door of the shop, as he went into the front seat of his cab. I was going to try to leave, but I had no time to before that guy reached in and grabbed a machete. I am not exaggerating; it was a long silver machete that caught the glint of the sun as he started back to the door, politely pausing at the curb to let someone pass between him and the store on the sidewalk. He then marched into the store wielding the blade aloft. He had barely gotten a few more words out when three or four guys in suits ran in from room in the back of the store and speedily tackled and restrained him, remarkably with no one getting cut. The police were there in minutes to take him away, still yelling a political line or two, with Bob Marley serving as the hero for the oppressed.
I have no idea who these guys were, but they seemed like a private security force. And the swiftness with which they brought down the rasta cab driver seemed to indicate that they had been watching him for a while, or were even tipped off. But the man’s behavior had been erratic and unpredictable, even looking back with my adult hindsight. They had not shown themselves while the guy was getting loud, only when he came back with the machete. He had probably come in on prior occasions and voiced his frustration. Perhaps he was targeting this particular Crazy Eddie store for political purposes, but it did not seem that way. He was genuinely miffed that the lack of Marley inventory indicated some lack of respect.
For all I know, perhaps it did. I’ll say this, though, it was my first visceral experience with the political power of pop music and the deep emotions it could stir. I had grown up with the music of the 1960s, Woodstock, Dylan, the Beatles, Gimme Shelter, etc. as a given. But for most of the 1970s, music had mostly slipped back into a non-political role, entertainment. Even DEVO, the Ramones, and the B-52s were mostly about fun. Of course, that all started to change. I remember the news of Syd Vicious dying in New York. I had started to hear about the Clash, and I enjoyed the little bits of reggae I heard. But I had not yet started to understand the socio-political forces that were making an impact on the new music of the late 1970s/early ’80s. This incident did not make me think it was just some isolated crazy man in Crazy Eddie’s in crazy New York City. I felt absolutely stirred by the guy and thought about him every time I heard Bob Marley. I had no idea what Jamaica was about. And I started to understand more of what the Clash were about.
I went back to meet my mother and uncle at the restaurant. I am sure I told them why it had taken me so long to get back. I had been record shopping.