Boston Rock: A History of Survival

by Bill Brenner on March 21, 2011

My friends from the local band Pop Gun have finally put some performance video online. Listening to it takes me to a happy place, when life was tough but Boston-based rock kept me sane and strong.

Boston has always been fertile ground for rock n roll. The obvious comes in the form of Aerosmith, The Cars and Godsmack (the latter actually has roots in my home turf — the Merrimack Valley). But the lesser-known bands really gave me the shot of coping power I needed whenever the chips were down, which was quite a bit in my 20s.

Back when Pop Gun was still a relatively new band and it was looking like The Neighborhoods just might make it big, I was working at a wonderful little hole in the wall called Rockit Records in Saugus, Mass.

I’ve mentioned before how Metal music as one of my most important coping tools for OCD and related disorders. Though I was still many years away from a diagnosis, the year I worked in that cramped little dive was one of the best therapy sessions ever. It was a particularly perfect place to get exposed to some of the best Boston bands at the time.

When I was an angst-filled teenager bent on self-absorbed periods of depression — and before I became an angst-filled grownup bent on self-absorbed periods of depression — it was a place where I could escape.

Located off of Route 1 northbound, Rockit Records was literally a hole in the wall, not much bigger than a walk-in closet. It later expanded in size, but even then it seemed small. But the sounds booming from speakers above were always big.

It was the perfect safe house.

The store was crammed with cassettes, vinyl and eventually CDs. You could sell and buy used music. You could buy all the hard-to-get metal fanzines.

True story: On Aug. 3, 1987, I was the first kid in the store to buy Def Leppard’s just-released and long-awaited “Hysteria” album. The band was already spinning in a downward spiral toward candy-coated pop. I just didn’t realize it at the time. And in those days, I was a BIG Def Leppard fan.

A year later, I believe I was the second or third kid to buy Metallica’s “And Justice for All” album.

In 1992, just as I was transfering from North Shore Community College to Salem State College, a job opening became available and I applied on the spot. I thought the place was so cool at the time that  such a job was beyond my reach. No way they’d hire me. I wasn’t covered in tattoos or wearing nose and ear piercings. All I had going for me was the long hair, I thought.

But they called me in, and Al confirmed to the owner that I was a longtime shopper. They hired me, and I worked there for the next year, until new owners took over and I had decided to get too serious about my journalistic studies to work a retail job.

It was a tough year in a lot of ways. A family member was beginning to sink into some serious clinical depression and a suicide watch was on. I had turned North Shore Community College into a refuge of sorts, hiding for hours in the smoking room of the Lynn campus instead of facing my demons at home. I was uneasy about transferring to Salem State, though it turned out to be the best decision I could have made.

So for a year I manned the register as all my old school friends came in to shop. We smoked cigarettes at the front door and sometimes smoked other things out the back door. If we wanted a pack of smokes or something to eat and were short on cash, we borrowed from the register, putting index cards in place of the missing cash with such notes as “Bill borrowed $5, will return Thursday.”

I’m still not sure how we got away with that. It was a different time, I guess.

There was an Italian buffet restaurant across the parking lot called Augustine’s. The food wasn’t very good, but for a binge eater like me it was perfect.

If we liked the music that came in we would play it constantly. House of Pain was in the CD drive a lot. So was the Henry Rollins Band. Sometimes we’d get in promos for not-yet-released albums. If the staff didn’t like what they heard, the CD would quickly be converted into a Frisbee we’d whip across the store. One of the Poison albums suffered this fate.

I’m not sure if Al or the owner knew this was happening, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they knew and tolerated it.

The owner eventually sold the place and that essentially meant I was out of the job. I wasn’t exactly in the new owner’s good graces. But by then, it was time for me to move on.

There’s now a Subway sandwich shop where Rockit Records once stood. A pity, really. But a lot of music stores suffered the same fate as the iTunes age dawned.

For me, it served its purpose. A jewel of an escape closet from a world of hurt.

It was also a great place to hook into the Boston music scene. I remember going through the used CDs and cassettes making sure everything was in alphabetical order as Letters to Cleo, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Tracy Bonham, Slapshot and Sam Black Church poured from the speakers.

Many of these bands don’t fit the mold of many of the heavy metal songs I’ve shared on here. But they spoke to me all the same, though my wife was always a much bigger Bosstones fan than I ever was.

I survived on music. I never grew proficient at playing guitar, bass or drums and as singer of Skeptic Slang I was only so-so. But the music shaped me as a writer and carried me through the bad stuff.

Whoever said God has no use for rock ‘n roll in His Kingdom was wrong.


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

joseph kelley March 21, 2011 at 4:56 pm

Joe worked ther too he had fun and loved getting new music

Harry Zarkades March 21, 2011 at 5:03 pm

Bill, Rock and Roll, for me, has always been a form of catharsis. It is a positive way to deal with the negatives in life. It is also a joyous expression of passions that reside within us and, it is hoped, many can relate to each other through the beat and grinding guitars inherit in Rock and Roll. It is about camaraderie on the edges, inside on the outside, passion, rebellion, altruism, and, yes, sex and drugs. It is whatever your parents didn’t like. It is a way to say “I am here, and “I will be heard.” At it’s best, it is also melodic, even beautiful, and takes us elsewhere, or right back down in the middle of it. Glad it helped you too! Long Live Rock!

Robert Fahey December 2, 2013 at 11:23 pm

When I first got my license, Rockit Records was the first place I went. Asked my father how to get there (from Burlington). Remember a guy named Bob worked there. Played “Fast as a Shark” by Accept on the store speaker system, and many more icons of the 80s. I remember hearing “Concrete Cancer” by The Obsessed. Still love that riff …

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: