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My Midnight Vs. Purchase in the Rearview Mirror

CLINT BROWNLEE ON LISTENING TO VS. FOR THE FIRST TIME

If you’re of a certain age and musical bent, the midnight record release party likely holds a special, nostalgic place in your heart. Because they’re where you scored some of the albums that shaped your youth and young adulthood. Because high school and college were decades ago, and the good stuff from that long and challenging era now shines brighter than the mistakes and regrets. Because, perhaps, you’re not sure if you’ve attended a release party since the turn of the millennium. 

Yes, these midnight hip-record-store-held events still happen. (Or so I’m told—and let’s pretend the past year wasn’t a pandemic-spawned black hole.) But for some of us, maybe the attraction of such an outing isn’t what it used to be. Maybe even the early-morning Record Store Day pilgrimage is now equal parts thrill and inconvenience. Seasons change. Priorities shift. Paychecks splinter. Like the spare 20 minutes you love to devote to one side of a record, sleep grows rarer and more treasured. Looking at you, fellow parents.

But in 1993? Sleep was optional, music was not. (The latter is still mandatory, it just has a narrower time and place.)

The night of October 18, 1993, I set out for Tower Records in the hip-ish college town of Chico, California about 20 minutes from the boring little burg where I lived. I loved that shop. I’d browsed its CD bins and its neighboring Tower Books shelves probably hundreds of times as I’d grown up, first a kiddo with his book-loving parents, then a burgeoning geek with his one or two awkward friends. There’s a reason the place captivated generations.

For me, it was Garfield books, The Far Side collections, Dean Koontz novels, Stephen King tomes, Christian rock cassettes (placed in my reluctant palms by my parents), and finally, wonderfully secular releases like Sir Mix-a-Lot’s Swass, Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms, Pearl Jam’s Ten, Faith No More’s The Real Thing, Alice in Chains’ Dirt, Tool’s Undertow, Hole’s Live Through This. (Somehow, in moments of rare early-teen bravery, I also scored cassettes of Digital Underground’s Sex Packets and Eazy E and NWA releases without my parents’ knowledge. Can’t say I remember when or where I acquired them.)

The bold red capital letters and yellow background of Tower’s logo became a beacon of boundless entertainment. Going to Chico—a regular occurrence, given my town’s lack of anything fun to do besides lame mini golf and, eventually, Walmart shopping—was synonymous with browsing the store’s long, narrow aisles. Being handed a yellow plastic bag at the end of a visit represented sweet victory, new horizons, further escape from the social dangers of teendom. Today, a toy store in Seattle uses bags with a similar color scheme and design, triggering a double-take every time I see a pedestrian clutching one.

Arriving at Tower as Monday tipped toward Tuesday, I was far more stoked than usual. I knew I’d soon be toting home one of those bags—with a new Pearl Jam record inside. 

Anticipation of that record alone provided all the thrill I needed, which was just as well because this release “party” was nothing more than Vs. blasting over Tower’s overhead speakers and a bunch of young fans like me standing around, studying the little square’s front and back cover, nodding our heads, and smiling vaguely at the songs we were hearing for the first time. I remember being momentarily shocked by the velocity and ferocity of Vs.’s opening salvo, “Go” and “Animal,” shredding the new day’s first six minutes. Shocked, then smitten. 

I stood there, Eco Pak Jewel Box-packaged CD in hand (I would not come to rightly revere vinyl until many years later), eyes slowly roving from the record-cover prints plastered everywhere—absently contemplating that teeth-baring sheep—and one of the cranked speakers, just taking in the songs. I was not aware of the awkwardness of being there alone. I didn’t think about the late hour, didn’t think of work or school the next day. I simply listened.

I’m not sure if I stayed to hear the entire album or left before “Indifference” closed, eager to play the disc on my crappy truck’s crappy stereo during my drive home. I walked out into the first hour of October 19th bearing life-altering treasure, though. My fingers curled through that yellow bag’s handles and around a rolled-and-rubber-banded poster of the Vs. cover. I can’t remember if I bought it or if it was a perk for attending the party. 

I had no idea that some 650 miles north, fans just like me (though undoubtedly cooler, and beflanneled for legitimate reasons) had also just heard Pearl Jam’s new record for the first time—at Easy Street Records, the independent shop in Eddie Vedder’s neighborhood. Those fans had likely gotten a message from Vedder, or perhaps a glimpse of another band member passing inconspicuously by the front window, as they stood in the aisles. (On more than one record-release occasion, Easy Street owner Matt Vaughan has taken a call from Vedder and related the frontman’s gratitude to those in the store, and guitarist Mike McCready and bassist Jeff Ament have been shoppers themselves for many years.)

I had no idea that Pearl Jam had played a set in a Tower Records shortly after the release of their debut record Ten

Sure, my release party experience could have been much more exciting. And when I eventually learned what I’d missed out on, so what? It was the aural spectacle that mattered. The beloved setting. The volume. The promise inherent in holding a new record. The weight of it in that small plastic bag which held entirely new worlds.

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