Thursday, March 01, 2007

"Never gonna make you cry, never gonna say goodbye..."

Until I heard “Never Gonna Give You Up” playing in the background at a deli today, I’d nearly forgotten all about Shelly, the store’s biggest Rick Astley fan. For several years, coinciding with his ascent and self-imposed exile from popdom, every one of us must have talked to Shelly on the phone at least thrice weekly. She had it bad for Joey Lawrence too, but she could get a heady dose of Joey on TV each week, since he starred in the sitcom Blossom, but honey-voiced Astley was her Number One Heartthrob, and American television simply did not give her the fix she required.

Shelly loved Loved LOVED Rick Astley. Loved him as only the truly obsessive can. It got to be a running joke at the store that every time the phone rang we’d bet nickels on whether or not it was Shelly calling. This was in the days before caller-ID, but it wasn’t like we really needed caller-ID anyway. Usually one out of every ten calls turned up trumps, with Shelly barking out arcane Rick Astley questions at us.

Oh, we didn’t have to answer the usual stuff, like when the new single was being released, or what the next projected single was going to be, or whether or not the label was going to issue an extended dance remix. Nope, we had to answer questions about his house, what sort of dog he might have, what color were his eyes. Luckily for us, Philbert had the presence of mind to pick up a British teeny-bopper magazine he happened across at Books & Co. one day, after noticing that it had a two page q&a with the reluctant star. It was possibly the best three bucks we ever expensed to the store. We kept it filed with the special orders, within arms reach of the phone, should we have the misfortunate to answer her call.

Now as with many of our most memorable customers, there was something not quite right about Shelly, Rick Astley/Joey Lawrence obsession aside. We weren’t quite sure what was up with her, since our only contact with her was via telephone and she never stepped foot in our store in all the years I worked there, but after having dated a guy who had a brother with Downs Syndrome, I noticed a helluva lot of similar characteristics. There wasn’t anything wrong with her dialing finger though, let me tell you. A typical conversation with Shelly went something like this:

“Record Store, may I help you?”

“Ummmmmmmm. WhenisRickAstley’sbirthdaySNNNNNNNNNNnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn…..”

Shelly always took a deep breath right after the Ummmmmmmm, and whatever air was left over at the end of the sentence was expelled down the line via her nose. She must have kept those nostrils pressed right up against the receiver. It had a fat greasy sound, like sizzling bacon.

“Hi Shelly. Let’s see. Rick Astley’s birthday, huh?” we’d make idle chit-chat, stalling for time while we flipped through the tatty pages of Smash Hits.

Silence. She was holding her breath, waiting to see if we had the correct answer.

“February 6, 1966” we’d proclaim triumphantly, to which she’d exhale a strangled “thankyouSNNNNNNNNnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn….” and hang up. This sort of thing went on daily, and after awhile we all learned a multitude of esoteric Rick Astley facts. Like how he started out his career by preparing the tea for the British production team of Stock, Aitken and Waterman, and how he was “discovered” at age 19 singing in a band called F.B.I., and how he had two older brothers and one older sister. The magazine was so useful that the store eventually began importing it in via an indie distributor, usually a few weeks out of date but still chock full of enough Britpop nuggets that we developed a waiting list of special orders for it. If there was any Rick Astley trivia within the pages, the magazine was whisked across the street to Kinko’s for photocopying. In the course of several years, we built up a towering pile of Astley-related ephemera, all paid for on the store’s dime.

Reynolds used to really get into talking with Shelly. He could keep her on the phone longer than any of us, not that the rest of us tried very hard. But Reynolds was and is a people person, and if the store wasn’t busy when she rang, he’d lean on the glass showcase up front, thumbing through the pile of Smash Hits clippings, and occasionally making up his own Rick Astley Fun Facts, which he would scribble into the margins for the rest of us to follow in the event that we answered the phone and Shelly blasted the inquisition at us. He made up a Fun Fact about Rick Astley disliking Brussels sprouts, for instance. According to Reynolds lore, Rick Astley had also owned a Jack Russell terrier named “Alouishes” as a child, and his favorite drink was Tang.

He also managed to gain her trust enough to extract little innocent fantasies out of her, like how she wished the album sleeve for the “Hopelessly” single would come to life so she could brush the sand from his arm, and that his beige cardigan sweater looked so soft that she just wanted to touch it. And Reynolds would say something like, “Shelly, is that the only thing you’d like to touch?” and we’d all fall about ourselves in riotous laughter, while Reynolds scurried away toward the ticket booth with his hand cupped over the phone, lest she hear our howling and hang up. The one thing he never managed to wring out of her was her phone number. All of us had tried, unsuccessfully, to finagle her number so we could call her when we took shipment of new import 12” singles or Smash Hits magazines, but apparently Shelly had been warned by her parents not to give out their number, so she’d get angst-y and hang up on us whenever we asked for it. So each time any Astley-related memorabilia arrived, we’d simply slide it into a brown paper album bag with her name scrawled across, and place it with the special orders. I guess her parents used to stop by on their way to work early in the morning, before most of the staff had rolled out of bed, to pick up anything we had put aside for her. The Sav was the only person who ever interacted with them.

Shelly was absolutely shattered when Rick’s third album bombed. At first we tried to hide it from her, knowing what a fragile flower she was, but we couldn’t shield her from the horrible truth of Casey Kasem’s Top 40, when “Hopelessly” peaked at a sorry #31 and then fell away into obscurity. She was truly distraught and agitated, and ceased bellowing out trivia questions at us when she rang. Instead, she wanted to know how come we weren’t pushing the album harder. We were suddenly at fault for not forcing the album on the buying public. “HowcomenobodysbuyingRickAstleySNNNNNnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn.”

Bless her, we didn’t have the answers she needed. What we did have, however, was Reynolds. We’d disclose his hours to her each week, so that she had his virtual shoulder on which to cry. He eased her through those rocky months, giving her encouragement by telling her what a special fan she was, and how it was true-blue fans like her that were the best fans, and how he was certain that Rick appreciated her love and support. He went from poking gentle fun to being dial-a-shrink. All those years of chit-chatting had bonded them, and he knew how real her heartache was, and he took it upon himself to do something about it.

He rounded all of us up and requested that we go on a little treasure hunt. We were to find anything and everything related to Rick Astley that we could. Reynolds rang the record label and import companies, I spoke to our various clothing and memorabilia distributors, and The Murphdiver scoured Goldmine Magazine for collectibles. A few weeks later, we’d managed a promotional t-shirt, some 12” singles, loads of promotional flats and posters, a keyring, a teacup with his face on it, a couple of buttons, and our piece de resistance: an autographed glossy 8x10. We boxed it all up, wrapped it in gaily decorated paper, and typed up a little thank you note on pink treble clef stationary, and forged Rick Astley’s signature on it. Then we clued in The Sav so that he could give the box of goodies to Shelly’s folks the next time one of them stopped in.

Her parents made a special trip to the store one evening a few weeks later to personally thank the staff—and in particular Reynolds—for our kindness. Our offhand gesture had made their daughter the happiest teenager on the planet.

Astley retired from the world of pop music shortly after Shelly took receipt of that package and soon Shelly likewise vanished from our lives, to be glimpsed only as a flashback in a downtown deli on a rainy afternoon.

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