Buying a new album seems like such a routine procedure when you’re an adult, it’s easy to forget what it used to be like. You remember how it was, back when a guy used to have to save up his allowance—often with a particular purchase in mind—and maybe scare up extra chores for a week or two before marching triumphantly into the store and demanding satisfaction.
For me, the financial hardship entailed by blowing a week’s allowance or more on a single album produced some unusual consumer side-effects even after the purchase was made. If the album was in tape format (and they usually were; for all the full-sized-artwork and new-vinyl-smell aesthetics of buying a record, actually listening to one on my parents’ 1963 cabinet-console record player was a letdown), I was always convinced that the tougher it was to remove the cellophane wrapper, the better the record was going to be. This was especially true if I was buying the proverbial pig in a poke, wagering all my walking-around money on the strength of the maybe one song I’d heard or seen a video for on MTV. Like reading tea leaves or animal entrails, the very process of freeing a cassette from its plastic epidermis was a divination process, rich with auguries of immediate enjoyment or crushing disillusionment. Probably about as accurate as reading entrails, too—but the important thing was that I believed it. If the wrapping came off easily with a thumbnail, I was headed for disappointment. If it took a minute or more, it always boded well for blue musical skies ahead. I later discovered that this little ritual doesn’t work with CDs, although I still think about it every time I spend a minute removing that pain-in-the-ass piece of plastic tape from the top of the jewel case.
1988 was a banner year for buying on hunches—and a hunch is exactly what I had to go on walking into a Helsinki record store planning to spend a week’s bus money on Fishbone’s Truth and Soul. I’d only ever heard one Fishbone song before: “Party at Ground Zero.” There was no cassette version available, so I brought the vinyl version up to the counter, where a sullen clerk gingerly removed it from its jacket and laid it on the listening turntable. Finns, for as quiet as they tend to be, apparently like to test-drive new records the same way some people test-drive sports cars: by taking ‘em out and really opening ‘em up. The clerk cranked the volume knob to 9 and the record’s opening track, a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead,” was so loud in the headphones that I think I actually gasped. Whatever I did, the clerk peered at me over his glasses with that weary expression peculiar to jaded employees stuck in once-cool jobs long after the coolness has worn off. (If it’s never happened to you, you might at least recall the look that the clerk from the hall of records gives Jack Nicholson in Chinatown when he asks for a ruler—obviously not as cool a job, but it’s pretty much the same look). He spun the knob down to 5 with one precise jab of his index finger and heaved himself back onto his stool to finish reading an article in a Finnish rock magazine.
To this day, my favorite Fishbone moment is the same one that finally sold me on buying Truth and Soul that day: the three-song stretch that starts with the manic “Subliminal Fascism” on side two and ends with the shimmering “Ghetto Soundwave,” with the mutant ska of “Slow Bus Movin’ (Howard Beach Party)” in the middle. Those three songs distill quite a range of styles, even for a band as all over the place as Fishbone. When you don’t have a lot of money to spend on records, the ones that offer a kind of combo-platter of styles are generally the ones that make you feel like you’re getting the best deal.
Buying the LP version wasn’t the smartest thing to do, since I didn’t have a turntable of my own, but I got a friend to make me a copy—on one of those cruddy (but dirt-cheap) pink and yellow Memorex tapes that you still sometimes see in boxes of old tapes at other peoples’ houses, always labeled in embarrassing teenage handwriting with things like “Summer Songs ‘91” or “Awesome Party Mix”—so I could listen to it on my Walkman. Which I did, religiously, until with both money and blank tapes in short supply, little by little I started recording other things over Truth and Soul. Starting with “Change” at the tail end of side two (to make room for boom-box recordings of our student rap group, the Tundra Pigs!), the rest of the album slowly succumbed to new fads and new obsessions until all that was left of Truth and Soul was my three-song rock-block of choice, a shrinking puddle of Fishbone with everything else carefully timed to fit around it.
It’s comforting to me that Fishbone, a band that The Trouser Press Record Guide once (in 1989) called “one of America’s brightest young hopes” have been around for almost 20 years now and are still touring and putting out records. Touring like the dickens, apparently, to judge by the fact that they’ve been through Missoula three times in the past year and a half or so—and as the Calendar Kid says, if they’ve been here, they’ve been everywhere else. I haven’t bought a new Fishbone record since that day in 1988, but almost exactly ten years later I was walking past a different record store in Helsinki and “Ghetto Soundwave” was pouring out the open door. The clerk inside turned out to be much nicer than the one who originally sold me the same record. The song never sounded so good to me.