How I lost my record store virginity at Northern Lights

My first purchase at Northern Lights.
My first purchase at Northern Lights.

Makes No Sense At All captures the visions, ramblings, and memories of Chris Strouth, a Twin Cities-bred master of music, film, and everything else.

My first record-buying experience at Northern Lights was a bit like losing my virginity. It was a little awkward, a tad messy, a whole lot of embarrassment, but overall a pretty good time.

Being from Fridley is about a continent away from cool. In the 8th grade, my only option for purchasing music at first was the Musicland at Northtown Mall, which was better than nothing and on a bus route. Still, there were only so many Police and Oingo Boingo records you could buy. By this time I knew that the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag existed, but I hadn't heard them. It's the downside of living in a vacuum; well, that and all the whirring sounds and the occasional bits of debris hitting your face.

With all of this in mind, Northern Lights, on E Block in downtown Minneapolis, was the apex of cool. It was an area of downtown that my mother forbade me to go to, so it was perfection.

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A little background: My mom liked what you would call "beautiful music," i.e.: things you heard in elevators when elevators still played music. She was a fan(atic) of the Beatles, and Billy Joel, Neil Diamond and on particularly maudlin nights the mustachioed crooning of Jim Croce and Cat Stevens. My father, on the other hand, played Buddy Holly, Willie Nelson, and every outlaw country singer on the books, and far more Ann Murray than any non-Canadian should.

In the middle was me, with a collection of big band-era tapes, and a hodgepodge of records that my dad had brought home: cut-out K-tel funk compilations. When other kids were stuck with "Teddy Bears' Picnic," I was exploring "You Sexy Thing." Not to mention the 7-inches of Klaatu's "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Crafts," and Rhythm Heritage's "Theme From S.W.A.T.." To the latter track my friends and I did the 7-year-old boy equivalent of vogue-ing by making action poses in time to the music with brightly colored plastic ray guns.

My mother made it very difficult to listen to music that she didn't consider appropriate, which was essentially anything that she didn't like. She was worried I would become a KISS fanatic like my cousin who had joined the KISS Army. All the aunties were quite sure he was destined to be a hoodlum, and in fairness he did wind up in law enforcement. So at least he had a professional relationship with hoodlums.

So, speaking of hoodlums, Northern Lights was the area of downtown that had peep shows, dive bars, and newsstands. Little slices of grit in an otherwise placid downtown. This was the cool record shop, the one older kids on the bus talked about with the air of superiority that came with smoking cigarettes and mild acne scarring. I was scared like a chubby kid at the top of the tallest water slide at the water park. (Spoiler: I was the chubby kid.) I was going downtown on my own to the land of real punk, not the mall punk that I was sure I would be chastised for. My hair a festival of Aussie Sprunch spray and my mother's burgundy colored hair mousse. My jeans were appropriately ripped at the right knee, with a corresponding Anarchy symbol on the left.

That Northern Lights is still the bar by which I measure all record stores. It was a cramped, crowded box with racks and racks of vinyl, no endcaps, or point of purchase displays, and a staff that couldn't care less if you were there or not. It had a smell that can best be described as '80s record store smell: incense over clove cigarettes, too much Aqua Net, a twist of wet wood with just a hint of Mennen Speed Stick. It wasn't a great smell, but still I'd love to encounter it again.


I don't know that I had ever been more self-conscious than I was at that moment. I felt like I had an invisible sign connected to my studded dog collar from Spencer's Gifts that said "kid from the suburbs." In retrospect that's exactly what it said. In the store, looking at every piece of vinyl that they had twice, it dawned on me if I bought a record like something by the Dead Kennedys or Black Flag -- things that were noticeably missing from the racks of Northtown -- I might "flag" myself as being incredibly uncool, like I should have owned it already. This set pure panic in my desperate-for-acceptance adolescent brain. Surely the clerks would notice and in turn ban me for life, forcing me into some sort of hell where one was only allowed to listen to Fleetwood Mac's Rumours on infinite repeat.

I decided that I would buy something that I had never heard of. Nothing that was on MTV, and nothing with lots of copies. By that logic, it must be obscure, and that had to earn you points. The album also had to have cool artwork, but should be different then anything I had seen prior. So essentially it had to be unheard of, be unpopular and look weird. Again, hindsight being 20/20, not the best criteria.

Enter What's This For...! by Killing Joke. It fit all the bills, and the clerk didn't scream out "Poseur!" so I figured I did okay.

Putting the platter on when I got home I was in shock. This wasn't hardcore, it was dark, drone-y, dance-y, and it was intoxicating. I wanted a crap hardcore record, and instead got a record that busted up the genre. It's a glorious bit of masterpiece that's as messed up today as it was then.

It's always a chicken or egg question to me whether these were the records that created my musical DNA, or whether it was already imprinted on me and left to the universe to deliver them. This record opened up a different universe and a relationship that lasts to this day. As for the girl I actually lost my virginity to, we lasted a month before she called me by someone else's name. I guess sometimes the cover is better than the record.

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