The evil of the Columbia Record Club

Dedicated to the woman who raised me

My mom, knowing I was an avid viewer of the Partridge Family TV show, bought me a Partridge Family album for Christmas in 1970, when I was 11.

My mom, not my dad, bought the kids’ Christmas presents every year. She had guessed I was past toys but didn’t really know what I was “into.” I wondered the same thing.

The Partridge Family was a sitcom about a family pop combo that traveled gig to gig in a multicolored bus—yet, somehow, managed to have a home life that resembled that of the viewers, all those pajamaed youngsters snug in their family rooms, cross-legged in front of the console TVs. Like me.

The Partridge Family seemed “safe” to my mom. Their music brimmed with pep and puppy love. Yes, they had longish hair—but they had matching outfits! Meanwhile, real rock groups, the kind hippies listen to, let their freak flags fly.

I listened to the Partridge Family album non-stop. It looked like this:

It featured the band’s first chart-topper, I Think I Love You.

Thanks, Mom.

Then my friend, Carson, heard that I had the album and he knew he must have it. His older sister, Sarah, was into rock music so he snuck into her room—to the sound of trilling violins. He was sure Sarah was going to come in any second. He grabbed one of her albums randomly and brought it to me and offered to trade, breathing hard, as if he had run the entire way, and holding the album up to me upside down. It was Chicago Transit Authority, a double album, a rarity. Here’s what it looked like:

Carson made a big to-do about how it was the record nowadays. He wanted that Partridge Family album bad. He knew nothing about Chicago Transit Authority. Neither did I, but I agreed. Something told me: I’d learned everything I was going to learn from the Partridge Family.

Several years later, I would have said the Partridge Family album was “gay.” Indeed, turns out homosexual 10-year-olds were feeling an unfamiliar stirring whenever David Cassidy would walk into the frame during The Partridge Family, including Carson. I’m sure Carson spent hours listening to the Partridge Family album and making goo-goo eyes at the photo of David Cassidy on the album cover. (Just think how confusing that must have been for him? Was he frightened? He probably had no one he could talk to. Is anyone else like me?)

Chicago Transit Authority—I could tell they were serious musicians. Their songs included recordings from political demonstrations and six-minute guitar solos. One of the songs on the album was called Free Form Guitar and it consisted of five minutes of feedback and space warp screeching and techno-industrial ghost howls. I figured I thought it sounded like shit because I wasn’t cultured enough. Still a kid.

That was all going to change, though. This music was mine. I saw the Partridge Family was music my parents approved of. The Establishment. The enemy.

That’s when I learned through the grapevine that the Partridge Family didn’t actually write their own songs or even play their own instruments or even sing their songs. I just went online and found the music and the singing actually came from a band called The Love Generation. Here’s what they looked like:

I saw the Partridge Family was a gimmick. Something grown-ups had fabricated to fool children. Keep them quiet—like the parlor trick where the card you picked rises out of your vest pocket as if summoned. The adults try to figure out “how he did it.” The kids think, “He’s a magician!” and nod knowingly to one another as if they were the only ones to understand.

I couldn’t get enough of Chicago Transit Authority, the other songs on the album other than Free Form Guitar. I played that thing until I wore the phonograph needle to a nub.

I needed more serious music.

And, as if following the dictates of prophecy, that’s when I saw an advertisement for the Columbia Record Club in the Parade magazine stuffed into the middle of The Seattle Times Sunday edition.

12 ALBUMS FOR A PENNY!

So I sat down and began choosing albums by bands that I had never heard of, other than the Chicago Transit Authority, which ended up shortening its name to Chicago after the real Chicago Transit Authority (the bus line) threatened to sue.

It took some time on the internet, but I think I’ve pieced together what those 12 albums were:

Chicago II
Chicago III
Steppenwolf Monster
Iron Butterfly Metamorphosis
Iron Butterfly Live
Crosby, Still and Nash 1
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young Déjà vu.
Neil Young After the Gold Rush
Led Zeppelin 2
Three Dog Night It Ain’t Easy
Three Dog Night Captured Live
Santana Abraxas

Along with filling in my name and address, I had to check a box to say what kind of music I liked.  I checked “Rock.” I got a stamp from next to the phone and I put the coupon and the penny in the envelope and mailed it off, not worrying about what I’d say to my parents when the package arrived. I was oblivious.

If you had pointed out the danger to me, I’d think about it for a sec and say, Why spoil the present? The future can go fly a kite. Somebody else’s problem. Probably the woman who was raising me.

Six to eight weeks later, a Saturday, the mailman knocked on the front door. It just so happened that I was the only one home at that time, once again as if all the players were being moved like chessmen. Usually, there was always someone hustling or bustling about, fixing meals, watching the news so don’t bother me, or girl stuff. Me, I was just sitting there wondering: What are jobs exactly? That is, how do you get money out of it?

I took my box into the living room, where our console phonograph was, and tore into it.

My music!

In no particular order, I began listening to the albums. As I’d listen to each album, I’d pore over the art on the outer and inner jacket of the album, the same way I’d read the back of the cereal box while spooning my breakfast into my cereal hole.

Here’s the art for Steppenwolf Monster:

Here’s the art for Santana Abraxas:

I knew my parents must not see these albums.

But they couldn’t help hearing them. We didn’t have earphones.

“This doesn’t sound like The Partridge Family,” my mom said one day as she was walking by with a basket of laundry.

“Yeah, this is an album my friend Carson lent me,” I said, making a blank face that I meant to say, “I haven’t decided what I think about this yet.” You could tell she wanted to ask, “Which one is he?” She made a point of knowing who all my friends were. It bothered her that I could wander in the neighborhood and meet God knows who.

My mom would have put her foot down if she had heard, for example, Led Zeppelin’s The Lemon Song:

Squeeze me baby, 'till the juice runs down my leg

Squeeze me baby, 'till the juice runs down my leg

The way you squeeze my lemon,

I'm gonna fall right out of bed, bed, bed, bed, yeah

But she’d have had no problem with the Partridge Family:

This morning I woke up with this feeling

I didn't know how to deal with and so I just decided to myself

I'd hide it to myself and never talk about it

And did not go and shout it when you walked into the room

I think I love you!

She’d think, “Good for them!”

Roughly a month later, a Saturday again, I was home alone when the mailman came to the door and handed me a package addressed to myself. It was from Columbia Record Club.

I opened the package and it was an album, sort of a “sampler” from Columbia Records, including some songs from the albums I had already received.

Hmmm. They must have made some kind of mistake, I thought, absently shoving the packaging and its paper contents into the trash—someone else’s problem.

I sat down and listened. I enjoyed Killing Floor by the Electric Flag, A Piece of My Heart by Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company, not so much White Bird by It’s a Wonderful Day, which sounded like the soundtrack for a film strip you would have seen in a Unitarian Sunday school class.

A month later, a Saturday again, I was home alone again when the mailman came to the door and handed me another package from the Columbia Record Club addressed to myself. Another rock sampler album.

That’s strange.

This time I looked at the accompanying documentation and noticed it was a bill, both for this sampler album and for the first one as well. I was on the hook for $20, which I didn’t have.

I called the phone number for the Columbia Record Club and talked to a woman who explained that when I joined the club I agreed to receive monthly shipments unless I expressly told the club otherwise. She drawled the word as if she wasn’t too sure I’d understand it at full speed. I didn’t remember reading that. I don’t remember reading anything except 12 ALBUMS FOR A PENNY!

The next day, Sunday, I opened Parade and found the Columbia Record Club ad. And there it was, at the bottom corner, in really small type—the all-but-hidden strings.

It’s known now as negative option billing. What is a negative option? Can that even exist? It sounds like a slogan made up by a task force of interns from Marketing and Legal. Something people could swallow. Little did the interns know—it was make work. They all touted it on their resumes after graduation. Marketing had an entry-level graphic designer create a “treatment” for it during the interns’ stay—and the poster came down the second the interns left for school. What’s a negative option? Is that even a thing?

The phrase didn’t exist in 1970. In the 2000s, the Federal Trade Commission required that any club offering a negative option plan in the Internet Economy must clearly and conspicuously indicate minimum purchase obligations, cancellation procedures, the frequency with which members must reject shipments, and how to eventually cancel a membership when they enroll new members.

No such rule was in effect, evidently, in 1970. Advertisers were allowed to roam the airwaves unconstrained by fact. They’d throw out phrases like “scientifically formulated” and we didn’t stop to ask what they meant exactly. They must know what they’re doing. They had no shame. They had the Flintstones shill for Winston cigarettes, for God’s sake. Back then you could advertise cigarettes on TV. The Marlboro Man was specifically chiseled from petrified wood for this purpose. Marlboro wanted to change the cigarette’s image. They had touted it as being “Mild as May,” and that wasn’t working with male smokers. so they came up with “Come up to flavor country, Marlboro Country” with images of a rough-hewn cowboy. He looked both honored and pissed it took them so long. You could imagine he was thinking, “Disrespect me again and I’ll hogtie you.” Or maybe he was actually gay. The first Village Person. Anyway, Fred and Barney lit up and watched Wilma mow the lawn with a turtle. It was a simpler time.

I wanted to ask, “What do I do?” but I had no one I could ask. My peers were as stupid as I was. Teenagers wouldn’t acknowledge the question. And our parents would say, “You did . . . what?”

I often stole money from the dish my dad kept on the top of his dresser where he threw his spare change in his pockets at the end of another day. It was mainly pennies and nickels, though, certainly nowhere near $20. And I couldn’t very well put it in an envelope to the Columbia Record Club.

There was nothing for it. I had to tell my parents, my mom. Don’t tell Dad! He’d say, “Christ Almighty!”

I explained to my mom the intricacies of what would come to be called negative option billing and she narrowed her eyes at me. It was my mom’s job to decide if the bad thing I had done was bad enough to be brought to my dad’s attention. He only got involved in stuff that had to be nipped in the bud. That was his job, nipping things in the bud, putting his foot down. Shows of force. No explanation. No conversation. In so many words, just “stop it!”—often just “stop it!” That’s as bad as it got at my house. I have no memory of my dad even spanking me. Imagine being a kid where the father actually beats you for lesser offenses than signing up for a record club. In fact, there often is no reason.

“I’m not going to tell your father about this,” she said. “You should have asked us before you signed up for this thing.”

“It was only a penny!”

“But it wasn’t!” she said. “You agreed to buy a new record every month. Where were you going to get that money?”

“I didn’t agree to that!” I protested, not wanting to say I’d use my allowance, as she might take me up on it. My parents gave me an allowance because, one, they loved me, and two, they were trying to teach me the Value of Money. I say “they” but I mean she. My dad assumed she’d do the right thing vis a vis raising me. She came from a Good Family. She voted a straight Republican ticket. And she went to church, which he made fun of every chance he got—but they have a lot of well-meaning rules.

“Yes, you did,” she said. “You just weren’t paying attention, as usual. Being irresponsible. Honestly!”

Here’s what she’d came up with. She wouldn’t do a thing. She’d let me stay on the hook for an album a month. Which meant no more ephemera, the kind of stuff manufactured by companies with names like Wham-O.

Eventually, my mom had to call the Columbia Record Club people and cancel my contract, which was easier in the long run than telling me to do it myself again and again and again. That would go nowhere. To their credit, the Columbia Record Club didn’t put up much of a fight. They’d figured they’d ridden this mule as far as it would go. No reason to be greedy. The whole 12 Albums for a Penny thing had been a real winner. Keep on the customer’s good side. I was liable to screw up again—because I never read the fine print.

My parents were a safety net for me, both of them. They’d bail me out of jail every time—and hopefully teach me a lesson in the process, which I’d ignore and they’d know it in their hearts but they’d still bail me out the next time, and the next. They paid my way to college—tuition, housing, books and spending money. I’m lucky. A lot of kids had parents who detested them or ignored them, didn’t come to their recitals. Imagine that.

Now it’s just my mom. Indefatigable.

She’ll be the lone person to speak out on my behalf when I am called to account for my career as a serial killer after everyone else has given up on me.

“He’s not perfect by any stretch,” she’d say to the reporters shoving their recorders at her. “But I know in my heart of hearts that he’d never do something like that.”

“What about the bloody footprints?” a reporter would throw out.

“Well,” she’d say, fingering the top button of her cardigan, “I know it looks bad. And the prosecutor, God bless him, is just doing his job. But John is presumed innocent. That’s what makes America a great country, for all its faults. True, he never picks up after himself and, yes, he shouldn’t have worn un-pressed trousers into the courtroom, but I know that if John buckles down, he’ll live up to his potential. He’s really a very talented boy!”

Thanks, Mom.   

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