3.06.19 Too Many Sympathy Cards: On Losing Two Inspirational Friends
Too many sympathy cards.
One is too many. Two to honor departed friends, in the space of just a few weeks, is completely horrid.
But I want people to know about two people who, while I wasn’t in regular touch with them for some years, were still important to me – and who have now passed away. Skip Groff and Susan Green never met (so far as I know), yet had lives that covered music, and writing, and pop culture and, for at least a brief moment, included me. I will miss them both.
I knew Skip first. He ran the local independent record store, Yesterday & Today, which completely blew my mind when some friends and I headed over there in high school one afternoon. I was still learning about cool music, and the idea that import albums, or colored vinyl, or 12″ dance tracks, or “rarities” even existed blew my mind. Skip’s store existed in a small strip mall that included an Entenmann’s Bakery and it smelled just like a store full of stacked, used vinyl should smell: a little musty, a little dangerous. I got a chill down my spine every time I knew we were heading over there, one akin to how I felt just a few years earlier when I knew we were going to a store that sold puffy stickers. Albums were my new drug. I would never be cool enough to know everything about all the bands I should, but this was the cathedral in which I wished to study.
Skip could come across as detached and aloof, but I learned that was more about being reticent and not suffering fools. He was no “hail fellow well met” with his customers, yet he seemed to remember me when I came in, and that was huge for my un-self-confident teenage self.
I tried not to ask too many dumb questions, and he always knew where everything was located and what sorts of things I might want to buy. He would play you a song on an album you were thinking of buying if you asked (and it was already open); there was always some form of music playing in the shop, which was based in Rockville, Maryland – a suburb outside of DC best known for being the inspiration for REM’s “Don’t Go Back to Rockville.
The walls of Y&T were nearly as fascinating as the music; Skip had an original Beatles butcher cover of their Yesterday and Today album (hence the store’s name), but he also had old photos of himself hanging out with other cool looking people, most often musicians. I came to learn he’d been a music producer and mixer who worked on early releases by DC bands like Minor Threat, S.O.A. and the Teen Idles – legendary harDCore label Dischord Records’ first address was the same as the store’s.
Eventually, I became an employee at Y&T, spending the occasional weekend when I was home from school earning a little scratch, and then once working much of a summer there. Skip wasn’t around a lot of those hours, but the other employees – who included Minor Threat/Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye, with whom I had a fierce argument over the merits of Ted Nugent one afternoon – were all part of my ongoing education in music, and what cool actually meant, which was: not giving a fuck what other people thought. If you could achieve that Zen state, you might achieve coolness.
Skip let the record store go in 2002, then took it online and worked it with his wife and daughter; he died Feb. 18 of a seizure, after spending years battling grand and petit mals alike. I’d known he wasn’t always well, and I’d always said I should connect with him whenever I was back in the area for lunch, but we rarely met up. Mostly, I saw him and cheered him on Facebook – and then, suddenly, he was gone.
As Y&T was preparing to shutter, though, I visited the store once more to interview him and write about the closing for Alternative Press magazine. It was odd to finally be an adult in his presence; I’d forever felt like a goofy teen whenever I visited the store, even if it – and Skip – always treated me like a grown-up. I wrote a book back in the 1990s in which one of my characters (who dies before the story begins) runs a record store. It was a world I thought I knew, and a world I wanted to put onto paper and immortalize. I wanted to get that book published so I could hand him a copy and say, “Look at this, and thank you.” I’m rewriting that book right now, and was doing so before I got the sad news.
The store’s owner was, of course, named Skip.
Susan Green and I also came together over a bonded experience of art, but in her case it was Law & Order. In the 1990s I was co-editing an online zine for L&O fanfic (under a pseudonym; in those days and possibly even now it might have been seen as weird to write nonfiction for magazines and fanfiction for myself about the same topic). And while this online zine was happening, The Law & Order Unofficial Companion published, authored by Green and Kevin Courrier. So, I interviewed them.
It was one of my most favorite interviews, because I could completely geek out on the show with two people who had just gotten paid to geek out about the same series. They knew everything there was to know, and I got to ask all of the oddest questions possible. Susan was funny and gregarious and generous – and when the time came to write The Law & Order: SVU Unofficial Companion, she asked me if I wanted to take Kevin’s place as the co-writer. (Kevin did get first dibs, and bowed out.) We already had a publisher, and she had an agent, so it was just a matter of securing the show’s permission.
And we were off to the races! During 2008 we lived and breathed the show, each taking half of the episodes to write up and summarize. She wrote about the inner workings of the show and the crew, while I took the somewhat more glamorous job of interviewing all the important cast members. We spent a full week on the set, watching a show shoot from beginning to end, and it was a whole different sort of education than I got in Skip’s record store – but an education nonetheless. I found working with Susan to be so easy; we should all have collaborative partners that mesh so seamlessly.
The book published in 2009, and we finagled ourselves a book party in New York City. When my husband and I went up to Vermont a few years ago, we made sure to have lunch with Susan in Burlington. But I really hadn’t spent much time with her since the book came out – though as with Skip, I followed her exploits and adventures on Facebook. She often posted about her very interesting past as a journalist, both in the music and activist fields, sharing anecdote after anecdote. I kept hoping she’d pull them together for a memoir – self-published, if nothing else. There were some wonderful perspectives and memories in there worth sharing.
Susan died on Friday of what appears to have been a heart attack. She was 76. As with Skip, I wish I’d spent more time hanging out with her – but location tended to make this sort of thing a challenge.
But that’s the thing about people: you rarely get advance warning. This day may be the last day, so have that lunch and offer up that thanks and be sure to let them know that they were, and are, and will always remain important to you. That they made a difference. Both Skip and Susan did that for me.
Peace, to both of you. The world is less cool with you gone.
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