Senior Ball

Dawn CollinsI didn’t even want to go to my high school’s “Senior Ball”, but I ended up going to two of them — mine, plus a bizarre, Christian-themed non-dance at Valley Christian High that turned out to be even more demoralizing than my own.

These blessed events occurred during the Reagan-era 1980s, somewhat after the values of traditional male/female courtship had started to crumble, even while the codified rituals of mating remained. I had totally bailed on attending my end-of-year Junior Prom the year before, in 1984. I told myself at the time that this was because I was too much of a self-identified “outsider” to actually care about what the normal kids thought was important. Perhaps there’s even a bit of truth there, yet it’s much more likely that I either couldn’t identify a likely date, or I was too chicken to ask one to accompany me.

What I mostly remember about the Spring of 1985 was how much I thirsted, yearned for high school to be over with. Matriculating from San Jose, California’s Gunderson High and getting the hell out of town and high-tailing it to college had reached a fever pitch, yet there was the informal yet significant pressure of the vaunted “Senior Ball” to contend with. Alas, I didn’t have a girlfriend, nor any likely candidate to become one at that juncture, and this caused me much internal consternation, frustration and even embarrassment. Perhaps college might bequeath the debut of my inner lothario, as I was mere months away from embarking on a move to Santa Barbara to attend the University of California (spoiler alert: it mostly didn’t).

As Gunderson’s Senior Ball approached, I contended with some very gentle parental pressure to attend (“It’s your last year — why not attend? It’s a tradition” etc.), which my internal teenage guilt and shame thereby magnified into some pretty intense pathos, forcing me into a tortured corner of my own making. I was going to have to do this thing, because damn it, I’m worth it. I’m a totally normal late-adolescent. Totally normal. I can take a foxy girl on a fabulous dress-up date. Oh, but girls mostly ignore me. I’ll probably be laughed at when I ask someone. Wait — what if I’m mocked by dudes for whom I’ve chosen as my date? Then what?

This sort of ping-ponging internal monologue was a shining hallmark of my adolescence. With hindsight, I’ve learned that this certainly was in no way unique to me. By the time I actually gathered the gumption to ask someone out, the 12th grade gossip mill had already churned out many of the names of whom was taking whom. Like a baseball draft, we were already down to the 42nd round. Virtually every girl I personally knew was “taken”, and those who remained either couldn’t hit the fastball, only had three of the five tools, or were too frequently fooled by the off-speed pitch. Or I was too lame and superficial to see the “lady” hiding inside of the girl.

But wait! Dawn Collins. Dawn was a junior (i.e. an 11th grader), the sister of a classmate and sort-of-friend of mine, Brian Collins. At this writing both reside in the where-are-they-now files, and appear to be completely unfindable on social media or the internet writ large (I tried really hard, for about five minutes). In 1985, Dawn Collins was an out-of-my-league beauty who, unlike most 16–17 year-olds, actually smiled at me in the halls and laughed at my rare and feeble attempts at humor in the infrequent moments that the two of us socialized.

I grappled with a massive bout of nervousness regarding how I might be perceived for inviting a mere junior, let alone Dawn Collins, to go with me, which reflected the tyranny of small differences in numeric age that are endemic to young people in my culture. Overcoming this, I somehow phoned to ask her to accompany me to the 1985 Gunderson High School Senior Ball, and to my delight and terror, she politely and immediately said yes.

Honestly, that’s pretty much the high point of this part of the story. Any ideas I had at all about what I was supposed to do in this scenario — the boutonniere, the suit, the etiquette of appearing at Dawn’s house and meeting her parents — all came via careful coaching from my parents. All I remember is the tension. Dawn and I pretty much ran out of things to talk about during the 20-minute drive it took to get to the hotel where this thing was being held, yet she was extremely gracious and cool in the face of what was clearly not destined to be the proverbial Night To Remember for either of us. The theme of the dance, in fact, was “One More Night”, after the recent Phil Collins hit of the same name. Indeed it was merely one more night.

There was some awkward 80s dancing, some fancy food on my plate that I didn’t eat, and this lone picture that you see at the top of this page. I recall sitting at a circular table with fellow students who weren’t my friends or even acquaintances. One of Gunderson’s few African-American students, a funny dude named Derek, broke a Hoover Dam-sized wall of tension by loudly complaining to a waiter about the rare meat he’d been served by proclaiming “This thing is still mooin’!”. Those seconds were the first, and possibly only, time I actually felt comfortable the entire night.

If Dawn and I talked again during my last two weeks at school outside of brief pleasantries, I really don’t remember it. There was no after-party, no chugging wine coolers in the parking lot, no rented limo to take her down to Santa Cruz to make out on the beach, nothing like that. My lasting impression of her was that she was a hell of a “good sport” for accompanying me to something I had no business attending, nor any true desire to attend.

CheriHowever, there was yet a second Senior Ball to take part in! In the week before mine, I was demurely asked by my Wienerschnitzel co-worker, Cheri, to accompany her to hers. Cheri — whose last name I’m sure I knew at the time, but don’t recall now — had the stones to actually ask me to my face, unlike me, who resorted to nervously calling Dawn, despite seeing her repeatedly at school every day.

Now I don’t pretend to know how it really all went down, but given the lateness of her invitation — the Valley Christian Senior Ball was only two weeks away — I got the sense that this time it was me who was the godforsaken 47th-round draft pick. Never mind asking out a junior, how about the dorky guy not from your school, from the greasy fast-food restaurant you worked at – a guy whom you’d never even flirted with before? Cheri was a shy, pretty, sweet and very Christian girl, and I have to believe that she too was suffering from the same internal torture/pressure I had.

I liked Cheri, I really did, but I was thrown totally off guard by her invite — which I of course accepted immediately (hey, I’m not a total heel). Perhaps I didn’t spring into action right away, or maybe it was her fault for asking me so late, but by the time I made it to the rented-suit store to grab something to wear, the only thing left was a foul, loud burgundy suit. Ashamed, I rented it nonetheless, hoping against hope that others might show up at Valley Christian’s soiree with the same color suit. (One other doofus did, but everyone else kept to smart & classy gray or black suits).

I’m able to call up even less about this event than my own, save for one jolting surprise. After the initial hors d’oeuvres were served, my extensive Senior Ball experience had trained me to expect that this was when we’d begin our dancing, likely to the Prince, Michael Jackson, Madonna and Eurythmics hits of the era. I hated (um, hate) dancing, but you know — at least I had a little bit of recent background in Senior Ball dancin’.

Instead, a motivational speaker climbed up to the podium, and proceeded to deliver a stem-windingly unbearable thirty-minute speech about accepting Jesus Christ Our Lord and Savior Into Our Hearts. As if these poor urchins weren’t suffering enough! Having been an atheist from the age of five, albeit a terribly naive one who didn’t expect such a performance at the Valley Christian High School Senior Ball, I quickly lodged a muffled complaint with Cheri about this turn of events. She didn’t exactly scowl at me, but she was decidedly less than pleased. I was not the Dawn to her Jay. I was, unfortunately, the Jay to her Cheri.

There was a dinner, I believe, and then a disturbingly quiet car ride home. Cheri never talked to me again at work (sensing a trend here?) aside from grunts of begrudging recognition, and then the summer was upon us. We both quit Wienerschnitzel right after the Ball and got on with real life, getting ready for college or to better ourselves with one last summer job.

I’d have passed on both of these things had I foreseen both my eventual discomfort and the anticlimactic nature of these Balls. I hold few regrets from this time, aside from wholly normal longings of the “if only I knew then what I know now” variety. I’d have brimmed with self-confidence, charm and outstanding sartorial choices. I’d have rejected the dog and pony show of the Senior Ball, and invited Dawn Collins — and hell, probably Cheri too — to drink Rolling Rocks behind the Oakridge Mall with me instead.

Maybe if they ever turn up on the internet, someday I will.

Graduation 1985
Gunderson High School Graduation, 1985 – San Jose, CA

Cruise Ship Dreams and Dollar Homes: My Time Inside a 1980s Boiler Room

One of many scam “guides” published by Broughton Hall in the 1980s, and which ultimately led to the company’s prosecution and dissolution in 1999.

Suckering the gullible and “the great unwashed” has been a time-honored tradition in America since the Articles of Confederation. From 1800s medicine shows to 2010s online Viagra and Cialis scams, the list of methods used to successfully part Americans from their money is perpetual and never-ending. My personal role in this cavalcade of cruelty is quite small, yet is ultimately a stain on my conscience nonetheless.

Our story takes place in 1988, at the unmarked offices of Broughton Hall Publishing at 3554 State Street in Santa Barbara, California. I was a 20-year-old college student in desperate need of spending money. Broughton-Hall were a mendacious peddler of hokey booklets that promised riches and rewards to credulous and similarly desperate rubes all over the United States. We operated a pseudo-boiler room, of sorts, in which we’d take incoming long-distance calls from people all over the country who’d been pulled into our orbit by classified ads placed in their local throwaway weekly papers and in niche magazines. These ads promised them “Foreclosed Homes Available for $1”, “How to Get a Job in TV Commercials” or “How to Get a Job on a Cruise Ship”, among other schemes.

This was how I made my living during the summer of 1988, between my Junior and Senior years of college at UC-Santa Barbara. Upon reflection and further investigation, the whole thing has turned out to be even more unseemly — and criminal — than I’d remembered.

The Job

I don’t recall how I stumbled upon the gig answering calls at Broughton Hall, but my background in outbound phone soliciting (aka “telemarketing”) was obviously impressive enough. I’d attempted to sell storm windows to homeowners in sunny San Jose, California for a few months while in high school, working for a company called Roval; I’d similarly earned some subsequent drinking money conducting surveys for a Board of Supervisors candidate in Santa Barbara earlier in 1988 (he lost).

The woman who hired and brought me into Broughton Hall was a mousy thirtysomething who effectively gave me my script and then set me loose. Her oversight, as we’ll soon learn, was nearly nonexistent, which made for a much more satisfying work environment than I’d anticipated. I worked elbow-to-jowl with about 25 or 30 other “sales reps”, I guess you’d call us, taking calls for four hours at a time from our hapless marks. We were a motley mix of college students, housewives and yes, pseudo-professional phone solicitors, some of whom had been putting in daily 8-hour shifts at Broughton Hall for several years. I remember at least one dopey lifer who let it be known it was that he — not us moonlighting part-timers— who was the top telemarketing dog in the office.

The Set-Up

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What we were “selling” to our callers was a variety of dreams, escapes and get-rich-quick ideas — and ultimately, a pack of lies. Broughton Hall would place simple classified ads that peddled some fantastic hook — “Earn money Reading Books! $30,000/year potential”; “Repossessed VA and HUD homes available from government from $1 without credit check”; “Wanted: People interested in becoming actors for TV commercials”, and so on.

These ads weren’t running in the Wall Street Journal nor the New York Times classifieds; rather, they’d go into the ludicrous supermarket tabloid The Weekly World News, or in local publications such as the Jewell County Record, the Kokomo Tribune, the Tustin News and the San Bernardino County Sun. I was also able to uncover placements in magazines like Black EnterpriseField & Stream and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance (!).

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Each ad provided an (805)-area code phone number to call for details. This was usually 805–682–7555 or 805–962–8000. The caller would identify to us that they were calling “Extension T-1018” or “Extension “J-1060”, which would then tell each rep in the call center which pitch we needed to read off. “T” might mean we’d talk to them about how to get a government job; “J” might mean how to get a job on a cruise ship; “X” might be how to buy a home for $1.

The codes for which scripts to read were on a taped-up piece of paper on the walls in front of our tiny desks. I’d take a call from someone looking for a job in the airline industry, for instance, and I’d start talking about how the airlines were hiring right now, how the opportunities were too lucrative to pass up, and that — wait for it — for only $10 we’d send you a book called “How To Get a Job in the Airline Industry” that would tell you all about it. No homes, no jobs, no cars, no TV auditions. A book.

Invariably and predictably, this was a big letdown for my callers — and it’s where my finely-honed sales skills would have to come into play, had I had any. With the passage of time, I’m a bit fuzzy on which skills I even used, exactly, but I recall being at least decent at the job, if not quite a “top seller”. I also recall that my soft-spoken, mousy-haired boss really didn’t care much one way or the other.

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The whole scam was to sell books — not books, mind you, but cheap paper booklets. These were written by pseudonymous authors like “Robert Hancock” and “Sylvia Carpenter”, both of whom, judging by the range of titles they published, certainly knew a great deal of information about a great many completely unrelated things.

Broughton Hall wouldn’t really let the telemarketers see those 8.5”x11” paper booklets, shameful as they were. They were kept in a locked back room, yet I was able to find my way in there once with some co-workers who had tipped me off as to just how sordid this whole endeavor was. The booklets were flimsy and poorly-written lists of tips and advice, more than anything else — nothing that would truly enable one to buy a home for $1 nor get a job in TV, but that pretended to do so well enough that, I’m assuming, the company could claim “truth in advertising” on some delusional level.

Our customers, if they didn’t balk at the $10 price, would then be asked to provide a credit card for the book (most didn’t have one), or accept the book “C.O.D.” (cash on delivery), which was the inevitable payment method of choice for most. While COD ran the risk of remorseful non-acceptance once the mailman showed up at the door, the decline rates for the book were far smaller than one might expect. I seem to recall a figure along the lines of 25% rejected and returned, which meant that 75% of our COD customers were still excited and eager for their promised financial or employment windfalls, even when the sad and depressing booklet actually arrived a week later.

The Prey

Who were our customers, ultimately? For lack of a better term, they were the near-permanent denizens of America’s lower socio-economic stratas — my countrymen and countrywomen who habitually read publications like the Weekly World News, and who would spend money on long-distance calls based upon promises made in a 2-line classified ad. Toll-free 1–800 numbers did exist in 1988, but ours was a full-charge long-distance call to the 805 area code. I suspected that Santa Barbara’s “805” area code played to our advantage, as it may have reminded our callers of the free calls they’d previously placed to “800” numbers.

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A typical publication read by Broughton Hall callers, and a popular place for the company’s classified ads

They called from places like Murfreesboro, Tennessee and Hemet, California. They called from Dothan, Alabama and Alligator Point, Florida. They did not call from New York City, Cambridge nor San Francisco. I recall most calls ending in a disappointed “oh…no thanks…..nevermind”, once I’d provided my punchline, but occasionally I’d truly have to work hard to overcome objections to close the sale. “Wait, is this really going to work?”, I’d be asked. My response was invariably, “Take a look at the guide — it will tell you everything you need — and I’ll have it in today’s mail for you. Can I mail it out today? Will that be credit card or COD??”

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One guy who’d called in about the foreclosed homes told me, “Ten dollars?! I only have two dollars — one for the home, and one for the call!”. Others might regale me with tales of their previous “acting experience” in junior high school musicals, or tell stories about that one time they’d flown on an airplane to grandma’s in Corpus Christie, and how they’d always had a love of airplanes and wouldn’t it be a real treat to work on one…? We even had an suckers-bet closing pitch for money-conscious consumers: “Send us a copy of your phone bill, and we’ll pay you back for the call!”. I have little insight into how, or whether, this was actually ever done.

Sometimes one of the two supervisors would tape a $10 bill on the wall in front of our row of phones. Whoever first conned, say, twenty customers into giving us their addresses and accepting COD delivery of these booklets that day would get the money. Tactics like these enabled Broughton Hall to become a powerhouse in their field, such as it was.

The Hijinks

I believe in retrospect that my demoralization set in early, because even though I only worked at Broughton Hall for about 5 months, I moved quickly with several co-workers into “improving” our calls, solely and completely for our amusement. For instance, we’d dare each other to take calls using ridiculous foreign accents. I remember trying on my best “British” for one of my Tennessee gentleman callers, and then laughing so hard in the middle of my spiel that I hung up on him.

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We inexplicably had the ability to each jump onto each other’s phone lines, using the landline phones with 6 square, clear-plastic punch-buttons that represented line 1, line 2, line 3, and so on up to 6. Getting onto each other’s calls was simply a matter of each of us pressing the same blinking square, indicating an incoming call, at the same time.

One other college student co-worker and I perfected this game in which we’d both jump on the same call as it came in, then “trade” lines in our script, one after the other. I’d read one out to the caller (“We’re excited that you called in about getting a government job today”), then he’d read the next one (“That’s why we’d like to tell you how to unlock the secrets of getting a job in the government”) — with no thought given to how absurd we must have sounded. Amazingly, we actually made it through most calls doing this gag without being caught, nor without cracking up. I only remember one person saying, “Hey — there are two of you talking!”, which we hotly denied before carrying on the gag. We tried to take it to the next level once, in which we traded off every word, but this unfortunately lasted about one sentence (“We’re.” “Excited”. “That”. “You” etc.) before we each lost it, and abruptly abandoned our caller.

I had a favorite co-worker toward the end whose name escapes me, but he was a Mexican-American who deliberately did everything in his power to make me laugh on his calls. In the course of taking down a customer’s mailing information, he loved to confirm the spelling of their names or streets by saying things like, “That’s a B, as in Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato Sandwich?” or “That’s a T, as in Turkey with Extra Gravy”? I don’t know how he held it together while doing that routine, but I know many of my own calls were severely disrupted by half-listening to his.

If it sounds like my aforementioned supervisor was fairly “hands-off”, that would be 100% correct. She either didn’t believe in call monitoring, or didn’t care to do so. Perhaps she liked the paycheck and hated employee conflict; perhaps she was retaliating on behalf of economically oppressed America by letting us persist in our shenanigans. I know that I skipped my final scheduled day of work in October 1988 due to having stayed up until 5am with the members of the rock band Mudhoney, who had played on my college radio show the night before and drunkenly crashed at my cousin’s and my apartment. When I sheepishly showed up a few days later to collect my final check, my absence was only barely noted, and I happily put Broughton Hall behind me.

The Aftermath

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Until I started writing this “wasn’t this early job of mine so funny?” piece, I didn’t even recall the name Broughton Hall. I only remembered where it was located on State Street, and using Google Earth, I was able to grab the photo you see here of the exact building in which it was located in 1988, which now houses a fitness center, as well as its address at 3554 State Street. Noting that it was located then next to the still-active coffee/tea/gift shop Vices & Spices, I called that business, and I asked them if they remembered the name of their next-door neighbor of 28 years ago, and after the longtime owner Henry Wildenborg went off to ask his longtime partner, Mr. Wildenborg called me back with the name Broughton Hall, which then fired off not only my memory synapses but also a furious Google search.

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported the following on August 27th, 1999, in a piece written by Debra Barayuga:

The ad jumped out at Nichole Cook, an at-home mother with one child and another on the way.

Read books at home and get paid for it, it basically said. Unable to work outside the home but needing the extra income, Cook, of Wahiawa, jumped at the chance.

She called the company and was impressed at how much they said she would be paid for proofreading manuscripts. “This is cool,” thought Cook. “This isn’t one of those scam things, or so I thought.”

Broughton Hall, a Santa Barbara telemarketing firm that advertised work-at-home guides in newspapers across the nation, including Hawaii, yesterday pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles to one count of false advertising in interstate commerce, a violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act.

“In their ads, they represented that people could earn $30,000 a year working at home and they had no basis for making that claim,” said U.S. Attorney Brent Whittlesey.

The violation carries penalties of a maximum six months in jail and $10,000 fine. Broughton Hall was ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $236,000 to victims of their fraudulent advertisements, Whittlesey said.

Broughton Hall, one of the largest telemarketing companies in Southern California, was also ordered to dissolve the corporation and is prohibited from conducting business anywhere in the future, he said.

The company had been operating for the past 20 years, with revenues of $4.5 million a year. Broughton Hall officials could not be reached for comment.

It turned out that this 1999 conviction was not Broughton Hall’s first brush with the wrong side of the law. In 1998, The Federal Trade Commission, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the California Attorney’s General office and the Tulare County, California, District Attorney’s office charged Broughton Hall and five other Santa Barbara-based telemarketing companies with fraud, and sought redress for complainants.

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From a November 1998 press release:

The California Attorney General filed a civil action in state court in San Diego against Broughton Hall and its president Pamela R. Byrne. The complaint alleges defendants engaged in false advertising and unfair business practices and seeks an injunction, restitution and civil penalties.

According to the Attorney’s General office, Broughton Hall, which does business under the names of “Employment Information Center” and “Information Center,” places classified ads in newspapers and magazines throughout the United States. The ads are generally under the “Help Wanted,” “Employment Services” or “Business Opportunities” headings and promise $30,000 or more per year income potential for reading books or for doing typing or word processing at home. Broughton Hall does not, however, provide employment or employment services, the Attorney’s General office said. And consumers who call the company to get a refund are put on hold for as long as an hour, treated rudely, and hung up on.

Having been wholly shut down in 1999, there’s not much of a further online trail to follow for Broughton Hall. It appears that they received their proverbial just desserts. I had mostly forgotten this unsavory job of mine save for some of the wacky stories I’ve just relayed until my memory was jarred by my cousin Doug, who’d remembered me unwinding over a beer with stories from each day’s telemarketing sessions. I’m honestly surprised and chagrined that the scam lasted as long as it did at Broughton Hall.

Later, in the 1990s, we’d see the introduction of the nationwide “Do Not Call” list that legally prevented telemarketers from rudely interrupting one’s dinner (it is not a coincidence that Roval Storm Windows of San Jose, CA is no longer in business?). We got the internet, which provided far better ways to lure in unsuspecting prey. We saw the evisceration of the classified ad marketplace by CraigsList and others, which lessened or removed these sections from both supermarket tabloids and weekly newspapers (in the latter’s case, the classified ad-pocalypse removed weekly newspapers themselves). We effectively saw the death of COD.

And — perhaps FTC and local law enforcement actually kept their eyes on the ball for once, it would seem, and decided to prosecute deceitful and harmful trade practices such as Broughton Hall’s.

My role in all of this doesn’t keep me up much at night, given that I was a doofus post-teenager with zero true work experience and a lack of a finely-honed ethical compass. Rather, the story illustrates a small link in a long chain of hucksterism that undercuts the stories American commerce tells about itself, and illuminates uncomfortable truths about class, education and small-e exploitation. That would be “E”, as in “English Muffin with a Poached Egg on Top”.

Thank you to Doug Miller for the inspiration, and to Henry Wildenborg for the detective work assistance.

Monster Cable in the 1990s: A Bottoms-Up Oral History

The author at work, Monster Cable, 1993.

Think back to your first serious, full-time paying job — particularly one you stayed at for longer than a year or two. Chances are, much of your lifelong sense of the workplace — how it operates, how one maneuvers within it, and how work does or doesn’t get done — was stamped upon you at that first job. Perhaps every place of employment since then has been implicitly or even explicitly measured against that formative experience.

For those of us who worked diligently and hard at Monster Cable in the early 1990s, these lessons, such as they were, haven’t been easily forgotten. To a person, the people with whom I’ve kept in touch with since that time have amassed a fantastic assortment of stories, anecdotes, quotes, quibbles and lifelong relationships that were incubated during that time. On Facebook, we’ve shared some of these hijinks and shenanigans back and forth, leading me to dubiously anoint myself the oracle and shepherd of these times, lest they be forgotten by all.

First, some background.

I graduated from college at 21 years of age in 1989 with a highly uncoveted degree in English literature, with zero idea of what I actually wanted to do with my life. After losing out on a much-desired copy editing gig, and while quite seriously considering full-time work slumming it as a parking lot attendant & living with my parents in San Jose, I answered an ad to be a customer service rep at Monster Cable in South San Francisco, CA. I recall thinking at the time that it was probably a cable television company, and that cable TV might be kind of a fun sector to work in.

Six years later, in 1995, I left Monster Cable — but not after accumulating six years’ worth of ridiculous character observations, uninformed workplace stereotypes and enough stories to fill a three-ring binder.

Monster Cable in the early 1990s was in the throes of a transition from being a consumer electronics bit player driven by a self-imposed cult of personality around founder, CEO and “Head Monster” Noel Lee to being a quite successful and profitable cog in the greater audiophile ecosystem.

The company, far from being in cable TV, sold high-end speaker cable and what we then called “interconnects” that linked various pieces of your stereo set-up together. No longer limited by the “garbage wire” that came in the box with one’s speakers, consumers were now free to spend ten, twenty and even hundreds of dollars upgrading to Monster Cable’s superior products, with the assurance that said cables had been minutely engineered to flat-out sound better. Audiophiles loved them, or at least claimed to.

The company had a “pro” line as well of guitar cables and keyboard hook-ups that Lee worked closely with various cheeseball musicians like Boz Scaggs and stores like Guitar Center to promote. Lee’s marketing prowess was truly something, and it helped make his company into a behemoth that would later have the money to spend on full naming rights to the San Francisco 49ers’ stadium (“Monster Park”, 2004–2008) — though, truth be told, the naming rights were procured for a bargain basement price of $6M for 4 years. The company attended every trade show & conference and maximized every branding opportunity available to them, building a dealer network around the country that was getting drunk on the high commissions and profit margins Monster Cable sales afforded them.

In the early 1990s, the smaller, soon-to-be-bigger company — both factory and offices — was located near the 101 freeway at the end of a cul-de-sac in an industrial part of South San Francisco, at 274 Wattis Way. This is where our story takes place.

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The Monster Cable employee base, circa 1991.

Before we get going, I want to issue a caveat that there’s no animosity nor ill will on my part to anyone in this story. With the passage of nearly 25 years, these pre-internet recollections of workplace foibles and chicanery are just that — fun recollections. There were well over 500 people who cycled through Monster Cable’s employment doors during the early 90s, and this oral history contains only a very biased smattering of them. Of the ones not consulted here, some are deceased; some have zero internet presence; some were in upper management, and would therefore negate this as a “bottoms-up” tale; and obviously, most simply weren’t asked (this isn’t a book, merely an online-only oral history).

More to the point, I recruited those whom I was already friends with and had kept in touch with over 20+ years. Sadly, it’s far more “dude-centric” than I had wished for, and does not reflect the fact that Monster Cable was a very gender-integrated workplace with women well-placed both in upper management and in virtually every department. I asked multiple 1990s female co-workers for contributions but had to settle for the (excellent) reminiscences from some of my male comrades.

So take this as tenderly-remembered tales from a long-ish time ago, told by a small cross-section of people who were there.

Noel Lee — The Head Monster

Thayer Walker: Noel Lee was a non-stop marketing machine who introduced the audio world to the high-end cable industry. His constant tweaking applied not only to the development and marketing of products, but to his theories and philosophy of company functions and culture. There would be a collective departmental cringe followed any statements that began with “Noel wants…”

Danny Tanaka: When the Soviet Union was collapsing in, I think about, 1991 Noel had gone to Moscow to talk to a man about being the Monster Cable distributor for Russia. The State Dept. had issued advisories about the safety of being anywhere in the Soviet Union. I was sitting in Irene’s office when she called Noel at his hotel and suggested that he leave and go to Germany or London until the situation was better. She told him that there were reports of tanks in the streets. After looking out the window he reported back that there was literally no one in the streets and he didn’t see any tanks either and no he wasn’t going to leave. I later learned that the hotel staff knocked on his door and convinced him that it was time to go.

Phil Keeley: I started at Monster when it was located on Townsend Street in the late 1980s. It became clear that Noel and his inner circle were sort of their own clique: Rita, Jim Hanson, Irene Baran and others. Long, closed-door meetings. Strange, urgent plans being hatched. I decided I would never be among this inner circle, and had no desire to get to know the King Himself. So I ignored him as best as I was able.

Danny Tanaka: Noel’s gold-digger girlfriend was a gem. She showed up one day with three unsavory Hong Kong Chinese guys in black suits and black ties and sunglasses. They never unbuttoned their suit jackets. She wanted to introduce them to Noel because they wanted to invest in Monster Cable. I don’t know how he got out of that one.

Jay Hinman: I rarely had interactions with him. There was something about him being the CEO, and me being this green customer service rep, that kept me a bit intimidated. One time in Chicago at a Consumer Electronics Show, I happened to be walking next to him for one of the first times ever, and he just reached out to his right and handed me his really heavy briefcase — “Here”. Not hey, do you mind carrying this, I’m a little tired, but “here”. So I silently walked him to the taxi line and handed it back to him once he got in. I couldn’t believe it. We didn’t speak, he didn’t say thank you — just “here”. I don’t think we spoke again for at least another year or two.

Glenn Munlawin: In Dallas at some CEDIA show, Noel needed help to his car. He was at the booth and asked, er, commanded me to walk him downstairs to where his car was parked (Porsche 911). Since he had a limp (I heard later he had hip problems) he stopped and told me to just fetch his car, which was literally almost 50 feet away.

Jay Hinman: Late in my career there — seriously, I’d been working there at least four years at that point — we went into a 6-person meeting with Noel and sat around a conference table, and before we got started he pointed right at me and said, “Who’s he?”.

Phil Keeley: Six or seven years after I started, I was the Production Manager. On many occasions the PA system would announce that I was needed in Noel’s office. I inevitably ignored these pleas. But Noel had such a short attention span that whatever urgent query I might answer was quickly forgotten as he beat up on those foolish enough to assemble in his office while he free-associated plans, products, financial schemes and other disorganized topics as they entered his head. One of the mysteries of my informal power was my complete lack of fear of Noel Lee.

Howard Harman — The Silver Fox of Sales

Jay Hinman: Harman was a white-haired, smooth-talking sales VP — a true “silver fox” — who was impossible not to like. He was quite successful in working with our dealer reps, and had a personality that was all its own.

Glenn Munlawin: Whenever he walked into the men’s restroom and he saw you at a urinal, his infamous phrase, “Shaking hands with the champ, eh?!” never failed to bring a laugh.

Jay Hinman: He said it every time, without exception, during the six years I worked there. That’s a lot of “shaking hands with the champ”.

Thayer Walker: Howard would see you at the coffee maker, waiting for the pot to fill. “Drinking on the job, eh?” he’d say, quick-stepping his way through the office, slim and upright, silver hair and beard trimmed just so. He was your pal, and tried to encourage the cubicle inhabitants in the non-air conditioned section of office where we received consumer calls and battered our old keyboards to enter the orders. “Working hard or hardly working?” he’d say on his way to the fax machine.

Danny Tanaka: I remember him walking around at Chinese New Year’s with his little red lai see envelope in which he had replaced the $5 bill with a $100 bill, just to flash in front of people so that they would think he got more money than they did.

Jay Hinman: There was this attractive woman named Diane that worked there a short while, and one time she was wearing a miniskirt and walking down a long hallway with Howard following her at a distance, and me following Howard at a similar distance. His eyes were zeroed in on her for a good ten seconds as we walked, and finally he couldn’t help himself. While she continued to walk, he stopped her progress with “Wearing your short dress today, eh?”. She turned beet-red, and starting walking quite a bit faster.

Thayer Walker: At the Christmas party one year he played the Santa, and as he careened down the stairs from the changing room, I made a crack about his beard and skinny legs. “Eat shit, Thayer”, Santa said, reeking of alcohol as he passed.

“The Goal”

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“The Goal”, one of the best-selling business books of all time, and a blessing & curse upon Monster Cable employees in the 1990s.

Jay Hinman: Noel was really enamored with this Israeli operations management concept called “The Theory of Constraints”, which was coined by a guy named Eliyahu Goldratt. It’s about overcoming bottlenecks in the manufacturing process, among other things.

Danny Tanaka: The Theory of Constraints really does work. but unfortunately it is pretty much entirely for the benefit of the organization and not the customer.

Jay Hinman: They brought in an intense Israeli consultant named “Green” to teach us all the theory, even those of us not in the factory, and to use it as a basis for how to operate. It wasn’t hocus-pocus at all, but I remember how pissed everyone was to have to go to these on-site classes, and how they made everyone in the company read this book about it called “The Goal”.

Danny Tanaka: I believe Green worked for The Goldratt Institute and also ran our short lived Israeli Factory (MCI). He would come to teach us about “Herbie” and how to mitigate the “Blue Machine”. Green used to ship what was immediately available and then make multiple back order shipments to eventually fulfill the customer’s order. The national distributors were enraged. Every shipment required them to open a new duty application, at tremendous extra expense to them. A Monster Cable motto was “Short before long”. It meant that if you can fill 4 small orders and one big order, do the small ones first so that they can get their orders early, and the big order still ships on time. What could go wrong?

Jay Hinman: There were all these concepts in Hebrew, like “Chupchik”, that we had a lot of fun mocking.

Danny Tanaka: In ”The Goal” the constraint is labeled the “blue” machine. I recall half-serious discussions about painting all the machines blue in the factory and issuing blue lab coats to everyone.

Thayer Walker: Throughput, it was called. A key principle of the Theory of Constraints which was part of our indoctrination into the company culture and operations. Identify the constraint and arrange resources to accommodate throughput. “Throughput” we’d say, index finger sarcastically in the air, and trot out to the factory floor to see where the piece of paper was that represented an order being built by the lines of Southeast Asian and Chinese ladies on the soldering line, or by the Vietnamese guys in shipping.

Work in the Pre-Internet Era

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Monster Cable booth at the annual Ace Hardware dealer convention, 1993.

Jay Hinman: It’s amazing how important the fax machine was to our business. Every order that wasn’t called in by a dealer or by a dealer’s rep came dripping off the fax machine. I eventually got really good at changing the paper and the toner, lest we go without thousands of dollars’ worth of orders that day.

Glenn Munlawin: We worked off this kludgy DOS-like system called AMOS designed by some Israeli engineers. How Noel or Irene met them, I forget, but that thing was a beast. It would freeze the whole data entry system prompting our boss to call out a company-wide announcement that AMOS was going down.

Thayer Walker: My narrow view of the company was guided through AMOS. AMOS operators stared at the classic green screen and pounded stodgy keyboards with a resonant clunk to every keystroke. The credit department, where I started as a credit/collections grunt, used a module that allowed access to customer accounts, invoices and a few loopholes to billing that we weren’t supposed to touch. The internet was years off for the company and even more for the department.

Jay Hinman: In 1989 and 1990, we didn’t even enter in our own orders from dealers. We’d write them down on a piece of paper, and a “data entry” person would come in during the night and “enter them in”. It was maybe an hour’s worth of work each night, tops, but I know they were taking six-hour shifts. Eventually management took the twenty minutes or so it took to train us on AMOS.

Thayer Walker: Our green-screened terminals did not access the outside world; we communicated by printed letters. For this there was a little bank of Apple Macintosh boxes which we used for writing polite letters of concern for money.

Jay Hinman: If a customer called in to see when an order was going to be shipped, I’d have to walk the length of the building, back into the factory, back to shipping, and ask them. They’d tell me where it was in the queue, and I’d walk back to my desk, and call the customer back and tell them “tomorrow”. I lost a bunch of weight that first year, mostly due to tons of back-and-forth from my desk to the factory and back.

Thayer Walker: The marketing departments and anyone connected to Noel were working on Macs. In my group, we kept our heads down and eyes on the green screens.

Danny Tanaka: I was in Human Resources, but had to use the same workstation Mac SEs that everybody else used until it finally dawned on Nicki, the VP that this wasn’t very confidential. Then I got to have my very own exclusive Mac and printer.

Glenn Munlawin: Danny sat near me, and I always thought it was funny he would interview candidates right in the open. Totally no privacy!

Danny Tanaka: I eventually got a real office too so that I could interview people and talk to employees in private. Those awful Nextel walkie-talkie phones that Noel was in love with. Fortunately, I only had to use one if I was on the road somewhere.

Thayer Walker: In the mid-1990s we started to hear about email, and that people within the company were sending them to each other. I checked all the screens I could access in AMOS for any type of portal in which we could type messages at someone, but there were only a few general modules that could “broadcast comments”, usually through an internal application specific to obscure operations.

Jay Hinman: When we got true email in the office in 1994, it was a total revelation. It was DOS-based, but I could still send Glenn a prank email, and he could send me one back. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. Sometimes we even used it for work, too.

Thayer Walker: We heard that Green had developed a PC-based version of AMOS that had color screens (!). “Beautiful”, he said during one of his visits from Israel to our factory. But Noel held out, wanting AMOS to keep working and to not have to spend the capital on infrastructure. So we continued faxing and phone calling, word processing on the shared original Macs, and printing our communications while the rest of the world talked about this new internet.

So….Did Monster Cable Actually Work…??

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Spool of Monster Cable’s entry-level “XP” speaker cable

Glenn Munlawin: Allegedly, the sound was richer and more full with Monster Cable products. It was an accessory, according to MC literature, that your preamp, speakers and other audio and video electronics needed.

Jay Hinman: I flew down to San Diego to train store reps at The Good Guys on how to quote two prices on stereo equipment to consumers, always starting with “Well, your price with the Monster Cable is…”, even if they’d never heard of Monster Cable, and only then moving on to a glum, “Oh, and your price without the Monster Cable is…”.

Glenn Munlawin: When a sales rep at a store was selling a full home audio or home theater system, you didn’t want to “leave money on the table” by falling short of your commissions — sell them Monster Cable as a “necessory”!

Phil Keeley: Did Monster Cable perform as promised? Well, my read on it was yes and no. The success of the product was part relentless marketing, part science (electrons, man!), and part stoners’ convincing themselves they could “hear the difference.” At the low and mid-range, it made no difference. You had to have a five or ten grand system in your “listening room” to really hear the improvements, and that was only if you were into classical recordings. For rock, not so much.

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CD Sound Rings, early 1990s. Woe to anyone who actually stuck these on their compact discs.

Jay Hinman: To Noel’s credit, he dabbled in every angle he possible could to wring money out of perfectionist audiophiles. When vinyl stopped being dominant and CDs took over, he created these 5-packs of sticky “CD Sound Rings”. You’d stick one on top of a CD, and it supposedly weighed it down and brought out deeper, richer audio tones than you’d otherwise hear.

Thayer Walker: “Blue Light Special” was a big sales idea we had to implement following one of our department chats with Noel. Whenever we contacted any dealer for any reason, we were to try and offload a ton of overstock inventory at half price. Orders didn’t come to us directly; they came from our reps around the country, via fax, written in various forms from hand-scratched to early word-processing templated. They were done deals, but we were instructed to call the reps back and offer a set of, say, thick, ugly beige P2P cables or CD Sound Rings at half off with each order, or whatever the “Blue Light Special” was that week. Very few orders were actually amended, and very little of the overstock moved. Eventually the program went away.

Phil Keeley: Monster Cable’s success was also partly a matter of a booming economy, and aggressive competition between all the regional and national players; the Best Buys, Good Guys, Circuit City, Magnolia Hi-Fi, J&R Music World and son on. There were thousands of stores nationwide selling TVs, stereos and music. We were shipping millions of dollars of product to these selling machines. At one show or another I commented to some industry guy my astonishment at the tractor-trailer after tractor-trailer that was leaving our docks — out into America. He one-upped me by informing me of the hundreds of thousands of televisions they sold per year. We really couldn’t quite grasp the scale of these numbers.

Thayer Walker: Monster Cable — I think it was Howard Harman — came up with a brilliant business move for us to scrape through the recession of the early 1990s: embrace “Joe Six-Pack.” A slew of entry-level products would be developed and marketed to him, Joe Six-Pack, and the company would be saved. We were to embrace the idea, and drop the snobbery practiced by our true Audiophile customers. Monster had first established the market in high end listening through better cables. We would get the calls from individual audiophiles, all alone in dark rooms, wanting to share their experiences in their audio worlds with a captive customer service voice. Yet then we totally changed the game on them, opening the door to Joe Six-Pack, and releasing the flood of cheaply-made, but highly marked up, high-volume-sales-required cables for Joe.

Phil Keeley: In that respect, Monster Cable did work, because it certainly sold well.

The Office Ambiance

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Jay Hinman: I can only speak for our department, AMD (Accounts Management Dept.), but when we weren’t busy there was a lot of messing around and intra-company pranks.

Glenn Munlawin: We tried to start up a phony program called “Monsters Helping Monsters”. We were joking about announcing this effort during the monthly Monster birthday cake ceremony, in which a program was put together to enable each Monster to give each other a helping hand, be it a loan, lending his/her car, babysitting. whatever. We even typed up some flyers via the Apple desktops in the back by accounting, using the Monster font, too. It never got off the ground.

Jay Hinman: During slow periods, I would do this phone trick with Glenn in which I’d call one of our friendly dealer reps, perhaps Audio Associates in New Jersey, then right before they picked up, I’d immediately transfer the call to Glenn, who sat one cubicle over. His desk phone would ring, he’d be going “Hello, hello?”, and Audio Associates would be saying, “But you called me! What do you need?”. “Wait, I didn’t call you!” etc. Loads of fun.

Thayer Walker: Part of the job in AMD was also dealing with consumers, who called for help with broken products, detailed product information, or sometimes as an audiophile who just wanted to talk to another human about their experiences alone in dark rooms full of audio equipment and cables.

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Jay Hinman: It was soon very clear to me that the extreme audiophiles were truly a breed apart, like any obsessives with too much time and money invested in any one weird thing.

Danny Tanaka: A guy called me one Friday afternoon to enquire about technical specifications on the Monster 1000 phono cartridge. In the course of our conversation, I was stunned to learn that he was from the New York Audiophile Society and that they were going to listen to two or three different cartridges playing exactly the same selections, drink some wine and argue about which one sounded the best. A typical Friday night for the audiophiles.

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Thayer Walker: We’d often get the questions about where the products were made, and had word from the top that we were to say all of it was made in the USA, even though weekly containers from China disgorged tons of the primary components for assembly, and later in complete packaging. Customers on the phone would harangue us and threaten to never buy another Monster product if they found out our stuff was the same as all the low-qualify knockoffs coming out of China, stealing American jobs or enslaving children in Asia. This continued for years, until there was a certain percentage that put us over the line of being able to claim “US origin”.

Jay Hinman: This era at Monster Cable coincided with the apotheosis of bestselling “pop management” books from would-be gurus like Tom Peters, Steven Covey and Jim Collins. Consequently we’d get new company mottos all the time, unveiled at all-hands meetings to fire up the troops.

Thayer Walker: “Act as One” was a seemingly simple and reasonable Monster Motto that came with a list of core others that Noel made up. After one of the company rallies he’d hold, we middle managers would greet each other in the warehouse aisles with “Act as One!”, followed by a Roman salute from the chest. “Move the Needle”, or do something that affects the company metrics positively. Very inspiring.

Life On the Factory Floor

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Thayer Walker: Each order that came in was built by the factory in the back of the building, down to the soldering and packaging, which trickled down a conveyor to shipping, and was stacked on pallets until the thing was complete — or was held there by the evil credit department, awaiting some payment issue. That last part was my job.

Phil Keeley: It once got back to me that workers were stealing speaker and interconnect cables. We brought a fellow whom we’d busted into my office, and I interrogated him. It turned out his brother-in-law had recently bought a stereo, and the thief boasted that he would “cable” the system for him. He swore he did not intend to sell the cables. He was generally a good worker, a decent guy; an illegal Mexican earning just above minimum wage — as pitiful then as it is today — and trying to impress this brother-in-law. Of course, I knew we were buying the stuff for pennies-a-foot and selling it for a dollar-a-foot. What the guy wanted probably, at cost (including labor), was about five or six dollars’ worth of cables.

Jay Hinman: Sometimes they’d just throw older cables onto the carpet — things that we’d normally sell for $80 — and just let the office employees have at it.

Phil Keeley: Together we made a list of what the brother-in-law needed, and I sent a supervisor out to the returns area to hustle up what he’d intended to steal. Thereafter, all employee thefts had to go through me for approval. It was the Anti-Theft Theft Program. Probably the first and only time such a policy has been initiated in the history of American Manufacturing.

Thayer Walker: The system-head office personalities like me had to learn a fashion of charming our way through the harried factory leads, or around the benignly uninformative system status indicators to move things ahead of the standard process.

Jay Hinman: So much for the Theory of Constraints — we could badly throw off the shipping schedule simply by asking Phil (our friend) or someone in shipping to do us a favor, like prioritizing a massive $10,000 Circuit City order over 30 smaller and very late orders, thereby making 30 small customers angry and one large customer very happy.

Thayer Walker: Phil Keeley was the master of these workaround practices. A frantic AMD rep might find him out in the smoking area, besieging him with their sad story of the needy customer who’d been waiting for a week or more for their order to ship. The rep might be holding a copy of the order, or just a scrap of paper with a number on it, which would be totally ignored by Phil as the rep ambled through the factory lines looking for evidence of the lost order. Bits of it could be queued up in the soldering line, while others were stacked as spools of clear-coated copper spools in boxes, but not in shipping.

The factory leads would snap into action at Phil’s request and crank out the lagging work orders, often ahead of other, just as important and late orders on the floor. A final stop by shipping manager Hai’s office, or supervisor Long, both of the Vietnamese core of shipping guys, would alert everyone down the line to watch for the thing that was being pushed through. Oh yes, your order is shipping today, we’d say on the call back to the factory rep in Richmond, VA, Houston, TX or across the bay in Oakland, CA.

Jay Hinman: If I can remember one thing extremely well from those days, it was the shipping manager Hai trying to get in touch with Thayer on the company-wide intercom in his heavily-accented Vietnamese, with disgust, pleading and resignation in his voice because he’d been asked to prioritize something ridiculous: “Thayer, please pick up line 58…..Thayer……line 58….Thayer….”

The Monster Music Record Label

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Midnight Voices “Dreams Keep Blowing My Mind” — an early release on Monster Music, 1991

Thayer Walker: Noel Lee sincerely wanted an audiophile-quality record label that would coexist in Monster’s realm within the consumer electronics industry. In the hallways there were autographed photos of music stars, many of them of dubious fame, though these were not all Monster Music record label artists. The usual pattern was for the company to latch on to one act, then record and unsuccessfully market them to unsuspecting consumer audio dealers.

Jay Hinman: I was a young alterna-jerk music snob already, but that aside, I was still taken aback by the utterly tasteless and vanilla musical acts we were flogging and/or partnering with.

Thayer Walker: Midnight Voices were an early 90s black and white rap group, (“pink and brown”, I overheard the marketing whirlwind Babs Stock call them.) They were good guys, hard-working, with a solid album recorded and released by “Monster Music”. Yet they were also stuck in a tiny subsidiary of a smallish, non-music industry company.

Either in desperation or through a contact with Noel, Monster contracted Babs Stock, known at the time for her work with San Francisco-based Journey, to promote Midnight Voices, a band formed by Mohammed Bilal and Will Power.

Jay Hinman: That was Babs’ sole job — to promote Midnight Voices. She was incredibly quirky, as were so many people at this company. I liked working with her. For some reason, she used to frequently end questions with “…in life”, i.e. “How are things going for you, in life?” or “What have you been up to lately, in life?”.

Thayer Walker: Babs occupied the large corner cubicle near customer service, and her frenetic voice could be heard over the din of line printers, keyboard clacking and consumer calls, hammering existing dealers and outside mom and pop shops to buy the forthcoming Midnight Voices album. CDs and records were printed and stocked in the warehouse, posters adorned the walls, and Babs harangued her industry connections to promote and buy the album. But nothing moved very quickly. Babs eventually self-destructed and disappeared in France; Midnight Voices found a different agent, and lead singer Mohammed got famous on MTV for his role in Real World.

Jay Hinman: It’s hard to square with the music of today, but there was a very popular 1970s-rooted sound called “smooth jazz” that was obviously a big favorite of Noel’s. Think Kenny G, George Benson, Spyro Gyra, and even Sade. The epitome of cheese, favored mostly by guys with mullets, midlife-crisis sports cars and expensive audio equipment.

Thayer Walker: A secondary function of Monster Music was to contract famous or once-famous bands for the Consumer Electronics Show party and awards ceremony Monster threw every year in Las Vegas. Legit acts like Tower of Power, who appeared several times over the years, would draw the biggest crowds. George Benson, BB King and Earth, Wind & Fire were up there as well, adding to the autographed, framed poster collection in the walls of fame back at the office.

Employees who worked the convention would be conscripted to run the show on a Friday night after a long week of booth duty and hard labor. Some years the acts were relatively unknown, friends of Noel or of a previous generation. Tuck and Patti, Amanda McBroom and Boz Scaggs highlighted a few of those shows, and with straight faces we would usher guests to their tables, point to the free bar and leave them to it.

Closing Thoughts

Thayer Walker: Monster of the 1990s was a classic, organically-developed small company that was bursting its seams as it took on the big league industry dealers and then grew outrageously. Six years into it I was seriously burned out on customer service, the proximity to consumers and the antics in marketing and sales. My systems and internal operations experience were noted and championed by VP of Ops Irene Baran. In that environment I was offered a job in the establishment of a Distribution Center, a giant warehouse where all orders would be fulfilled. Others in production and operations got on board with the growth and promotions through more expansion into a bigger facility, additional warehouses and international companies that kept us operations people extremely busy into the 21st century.

Experts and specialists started being hired to run operations after about 2001; the homespun career party ended, the factory and warehouse went away as they offshored and out-of-stated those ops. I had worked and travelled in Europe (and fantasized about living in Holland or Germany), helped start an office in Ireland, set up systems in Tijuana and Ontario, smoothed feathers with a giant corporation in France, and solved logistics problems between foreign entities from the EU to Singapore. That was a long way from being the little credit guy with the green screen and stacks of invoices. Good times.

Jay Hinman: I left in 1995 to chase a job in a field that I thought might turn out to be hot, the “cellular telephone industry”, which I still work in to this day. I quite seriously thought that without me and all of my institutional knowledge, there was a chance that Monster Cable might start to slide and eventually go out of business. What an ego! I remember hinting something along those lines to Irene as I was leaving, and she quite rightly and magnanimously said, “This company’s a lot stronger than just one person, believe me”.

Glenn Munlawin: Reflecting back at my career at Monster Cable, I really had a good time there. Despite Noel’s eccentricities, the people I met and worked with made it all worthwhile. Can’t believe it has been over 25 years. I admit, I have used Noel’s marketing slogan, “Don’t leave money on the table” for a marketing campaign I was managing. People thought I was a genius!

Immense thanks to Danny Tanaka, Glenn Munlawin, Phil Keeley and Thayer Walker for their recollections and memories for this piece.

Dedicated to Daniel Graham, Vern Smith, David Poole and others who are no longer with us.

Niecy Reilly, phone home — we miss you.

Running For Cover – The Ken DeFeudis Story

Ken DefeudisAs any connoisseur of outsider, kitsch & oddball ephemera already knows, the 25 years of culture that pre-dated consumer world wide web adoption (1969-1994) was knee-high in ridiculous, homespun, privately-pressed LPs and tapes. There were an untold number of weird, untalented and often strangely compelling hustlers out to make it in “the biz”, without having the slightest idea how to proceed, yet still having enough wherewithal to get into a recording studio, or to roll the tapes at home. Think Harvey Sid Fisher. Think Shaggs. Think the entire song-poem brigade, and countless other lesser lights.

In the early 1990s, some pals of mine became very smitten with a modern troubadour named KEN DEFEUDIS and his one-song 1990 cassette single “Run For Cover Lover”. You need to listen to it, even for just a minute, before you proceed further.

This song was a staple of certain San Francisco/Oakland house parties I attended, usually well after an exceptional number of drinks had been consumed. I hadn’t thought about it, nor DeFeudis, much for decades until it sprang back to mind last week and I decided to “Google” it. It turns out it wasn’t just my ne’er do well friends who were obsessing over this guy and his ear-grater of a song. Amazingly, the guy’s even in the “Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music” book.

I remembered a few conversations from back then with Grady Runyan, who was the prime mover in my memory among the DeFeudis ultra-faithful, and I recollected that he’d actually gone so far as to call the guy and talk with him, even getting additional tapes mailed to him as one point with new DeFeudis songs (!).

Grady’s now the founder/owner/manager of Grady’s Record Refuge in Ventura, CA; you may also know him from his stints in bands such as Monoshock, Liquor Ball, the Bad Trips, Cardinal Sin, Sternklang, the Umbilical Chords and others. I figured he’d be able to add to the DeFeudis lore that’s already collecting on the internet, and therefore sat him down for the quick email Q&A that follows.

How did Ken DeFeudis’ music come into your life? What made your attraction to it so instant?

I received my RFCL cassingle from Rubin Fiberglass, who was working at a music distributor in SoCal at the time….there were a handful of promos circulating in his warehouse, and he figured I’d dig it.  He was right. I played it for my roommate Christopher Junker and a certain fascination developed, which was further fueled by other’s dismay at our relentless wee-hour plays. Christopher and I were also doing these inebriated sound collages in the living room at the time, with record players, tape decks, TVs, etc. and KDF was always an ingredient in those. There was definitely a WTF factor. The music plus the cover picture plus the notes on the back…..was it a put-on or not?  I’m usually attracted to things like that, for whatever reason.  Part of me did not want to know more.  The other part me decided to call him one night (his number was printed on the cassette).

You drunkenly called the guy one night, and actually got him to talk to you, right? What was that like? Did you correspond further after that?

I called him but got his answering machine. Kinda forgot about it after that.  Amazingly he did return my call some weeks (months?) later.  There was a party at my house and Cardinal Sin was playing in the living room. Christopher answered the phone and started yelling “it’s DeFeudis, it’s Defeudis!!”  So the set was interrupted as I took the call.  First thing he did was apologize for calling so late, but explained he kept “musicians hours”.  It was well past midnight where he was calling from.  We probably talked for 15 minutes or so but the details are pretty fuzzy now.  I remember him being very serious abut his music and thanking me for my interest.

I remember you saying that after you’d made contact with DeFeudis, he sent you some more gems, including his follow-up, “Rookie Lover”. What were those recordings like?

I don’t remember this at all.  Have to check my tapes. (editor’s note: I know I’m not making this up. Anyone have a “Rookie Lover” tape they can MegaUpload for us all?)

What involvement did you have in birthing the late 90s Oakland band The Run For Cover Lovers, who took their name from DeFeudis’ hit?

That was my roommate Darryl Pretto’s band.  I wasn’t involved, other than having exposed him to the song many years before……going back a bit, when Blackjack out out the Cardinal Sin LP “Doggyhead”, they printed the band name on the spine as “The Run For Cover Lovers” without the band’s knowledge.  I think Darryl may taken the name from that prank as much as the original song.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Christopher had a friend named Brian Blesser, who was an artist in Berkeley.  Brian came over on occasion and was exposed to our fascination with KDF.  When Amoeba Berkeley opened, Brian was hired to paint the collage/mural above the entrance to the store.  He got Ken’s face in there, centrally located.  I think only handful of us knew, or cared.  It remained for many years and might still be there…..
(Grady subsequently emailed this picture. Yes, there he is, top right, with his hair touching the pink streak)
amoeba-record-store 2
Thanks very much to Rubin Fiberglass for the initial find; to Grady Runyan and Chris Junker for the small-batch popularization of DeFeudis’ music; and to Grady again for taking the time to help add some perspective to a pretty timeless piece of music.

My Rock and Roll Bank Robber

Shane WilliamsI recently read Tesco Vee’s piece in Bull Tongue Review #5 on his interactions with Shane Williams, the fabled “rock and roll bank robber” with whom he used to collaborate on Touch n Go fanzine, and – more germane to the piece – whose bank robbing, drug-abusing shenanigans led to death threats & police harassment of Mr. Vee. It’s a pretty wild and scary tale, one stoked by Vee’s naive 1980s encouragement of and frequent correspondence with Shane Williams. What’s more punk than associating with a known gun-toting criminal, one who served multiple stints in jail and who happened to be a fiendish fan of the same anti-social music that you are? I actually found myself forced to ponder this question myself, with regard to the same person, not long after Tesco Vee was.

Williams was locked up at the Federal Correctional Institute in Lompoc, California around 1987 when I first started receiving weekly letters from him. Bank robbery – and not for the first time. The only college radio station with a signal in that area happened to be the one I was a late-teenage DJ at, KCSB-FM in Santa Barbara, where I went to school. Williams was quite hep to the sounds I was spinning on my weekly Wednesday night show, being a fan of the Stoogoid/MC5 arts and especially of LA’s Lazy Cowgirls, whom I obsessively played each week and whom I also saw play live in Hollywood & around the LA area with ridiculous regularity. I didn’t know anything about the guy nor his reputation until he told me about himself in these letters, which I showed with chagrin to friends who happened to be very aware of the legend of Shane Williams, and who had read his various rocknroll scribblings in Flipside, Touch n Go and elsewhere.

While he was locked up, I could afford to be flattered and reciprotive. I wrote him back semi-regularly; we exchanged tips on wild new longhaired and shorthaired punk bands; he’d ask me if the female DJs he also listened to at KCSB were hot; I’d write back to him cryptically and non-committally. He told me about his heroin abuse; about how he could get any drug he wanted to in prison (and did); and about how he was effectively able to do everything on the inside that he could outside the walls of Lompoc – and that, in most ways, it was far better for him personally to be in jail, save for not being able to see bands (which was torture).

Then he dropped the bombshell – he was getting out of prison. This month. Would we perchance like to meet up? At my Santa Barbara apartment, maybe? (NO) Or perhaps down in LA at a Lazy Cowgirls show (uh, sure, okay – whew)

Lest one think I was somehow “less than hardcore”, well – you’re totally right. I was a 19-year-old middle-class kid who loved my parents, didn’t take drugs, had never met a prisoner nor former prisoner, and whose transgressions pretty much amounted to frequent underage drinking of horrible cheap 1980s beer, like every other college student. That’s about it. That I loved aggressive, raw music from the underground certainly meant that I’d get thrown together at parties or shows with certain unsavory types from time to time, though that was truly no problem. Beer and music salved all distance, and if I felt like someone was in any way a danger to me or my friends, I just walked away. I can count those instances on less than one hand.

I wasn’t scared to meet the guy, nor, once we finally convened at the Anti-Club on Melrose at a Cowgirls gig did I have any reason to be. Shane Williams was loquacious, opinionated, mildly funny and moderately uncouth. I can’t say at all that we were instant pals, but through 1988-89, he kept showing up at the same gigs I did, and we’d “rap” for decent stretches of time. It was one of those things where I didn’t really want to run into him, but it was no big deal when I did.

One time we were standing around chatting up the Lazy Cowgirls guys, and Shane just threw his arm around my shoulder, grasped me tight, and barked out to everyone assembled, “This guy saved my ass when I was in the joint!”. Hey, at least I made someone happy.

Williams couldn’t listen to my show any longer, due to KCSB’s lack of signal strength, and perhaps to make up for it & bond some more about bands in person, one night he invited me and my cousin to come party with him before a show at his abode somewhere in Los Angeles. We tactfully declined, likely preferring to pre-party in the classy manner that we always did, which was to furtively drink cans of Miller or Stroh’s in poorly-lit parking lots in the seedy gang-infested area near the Anti-Club.

When we arrived at the club, I walked up to find Shane sitting on the stage before the bands had started, and it was the first time in my young and fragile-flower life that I’d ever seen a heroin abuser in full, nodding-off bloom. I said hello, and as he looked up at me with red eyes just dripping, with a neck that could no longer support his head, it was clear that his managing a reciprocal greeting was going to be just too much effort – so he went back to falling asleep. The way I remember it, it was the last time I saw him in person, which may or may not be true.

I’m not sure if it was mere months or a year or two later, but Williams landed back in jail rather quickly, this time for a bank robbery so brazenly incompetent I was certain it was deliberately so. He wrote me a few more times in the early 90s from Calipatria State Prison, in the sun-baked Imperial County desert of California, and we more or less lost touch. I saw his “ShaneShit” column in Flipside a few times back then, which clearly marked that he was bouncing in and out of prison – either whooping it up in live clubs, or stuck in the pokey wishing that he was. I’m fairly certain that we may have had one e-mail interaction once e-mail became a thing, but no greater than one.

The poor guy was killed in a car accident in 2011 as a passenger, and good, respectable people lined up to sing his praises, give thanks for the memories, and gleefully extol his bad-boy “rock and roll lifestyle”. I can’t say that I was bummed, deadened nor relieved (for him) in any manner – just a little chagrined that he’d made it even that far.

With hindsight, I guess what stands out for me is my own immense distance from his world, despite that microscopic degree of musical overlap we shared for an exceptionally brief period of time. It would be disingenuous of me to bemoan my lack of enthusiasm for his lifestyle, because I’m incredibly thankful to have been a million miles from it in terms of temperament and circumstance.

Interactions like mine with Williams are quite uneventful on the whole, but for me, they illuminate the strange force of fortune and the fickle finger of fate. But for one angry belt-wielding father, one genetic turn of the screw, or one or two stupid decisions made as a teenager, and key elements of his life could have been key elements of mine. There will be much more entertaining and far more animated stories to tell about his life, no question, but I’m quite willing to accept the trade-off.