Short Stories: ‘I Know Mister NAMM personally …’
Another View of the National Association of Music Merchants Winter Music and Sound Show.
The day was off to a lousy start, but then, any day that begins before nine o’clock is hammered before it has a chance. There are few things that will get me out of bed that early, and I was hoping that my agenda for the day would justify my efforts. I was scheduled to meet my friend Paul, a leading amplifier designer, so that together we could take in the National Association of Music Merchandisers trade show in Anaheim.
Better known as the NAMM show, this convention is one of the major stops on the trade-show circuit. Its proximity to Hollywood, its size, and of course, the wonderful winter weather we normally enjoy here in Southern California all conspire to make this a biggy. And because it is in our back yard, we are compelled to attend.
Paul is normally an early riser, but the night before he had been up until late working out a reverb circuit for a major client. He was putting a brave face on it, but I could tell he needed more sack time too. Nevertheless, if we were going to do this thing right, we had to get a move on, so with Paul behind the wheel, we headed south from the foothills of Tujunga toward the temporary mecca of all things musical in Orange County.
I didn’t fully comprehend the extent of our mutual early-morning impairment until it dawned on me that somehow we had wound up sitting in a Pancake House, waiting to be served. I can’t remember who had made that executive-level decision, but I should have protested. Indulging a sugar jones at that hour of the morning would most certainly put the clamp on the entire day.
Sure enough, thirty minutes later we stumbled from the eatery victorious in some sort of altercation with a waitress, but Dazed and Confused by the food substitute we had wolfed down. I was so busy in a Tao-like hallucinogenic contemplation of my now-rotting teeth that I failed to notice Paul turning the wrong way onto the boulevard. By the time either of us came to, we found ourselves committed to the prospect of joining rush-hour traffic on 101 South; not a pretty picture.
Via the elaborate use of hand signals, we managed to come to a basic understanding with some easily terrified motorists to our left and changed lanes, deciding to gamble on surface streets to get us across town.
When I was a kid, I heard that trappers catch monkeys by tethering bottles just big enough for the monkey to get his hand into. The idea is to put something in the bottle that the monkey won’t leave behind. The trap works because the monkey can’t get his fist and his prize past the bottleneck, yet he will not surrender the prize in exchange for freedom from the trap.
I mention it because this story was apparently told to other children — children who took it to heart as I did. One of these children grew up and became a street layout designer in Van Nuys. Grasping our prize of the strangely vacant residential streets, little did we imagine that we were being secretly led back to be dumped unceremoniously onto the stagnated freeway we thought we were escaping. A very effective trap for most, but not for those monkeys who will either break the bottle or tear it from its moorings.
Paul is one such monkey.
Although Paul holds down a steady job, has two kids and a lovely wife, and a house that he is paying for, he is a car nut. As a family man, he had bought a car with plenty of room for his family. It has four doors and a hatch-back for easy loading. As a car nut, he had made sure that the car was a Saab Turbo 900.
The steel-gray Saab was now rocketing in gentle oversteer around a sweeping left at about fifty-five mph. So enveloping is the serenity inspired by this machine that when an unexpected “Freeway Entrance” sign blurred by, Paul kept accelerating up the camouflaged on-ramp. But not for long.
By the time the big car had slewed to a halt, wheels locked and smoking, Paul had found reverse in spite of the complaints of the transmission. Even in reverse, that car has amazing acceleration. When we hit thirty-five, Paul simultaneously punched in the clutch and spun the wheel, throwing us into a fine, long spin backwards through 180 degrees, jamming it into second just as the car’s nose began to point more or less in the direction of travel, and, without a pause, slamming us back into the seats as we blasted away the wrong way down the access road.
A young blonde in a Datsun, obviously late for work, wasn’t expecting to see us coming out of the east on her blind side. Half-way through her right-hand California stop, however, the gun-metal flash of the Saab closing fast on her left must have caught her eye. She hit the brakes and went into a slow, harmless slide directly into our path. Paul deftly downshifted and floored it as we passed her on the right, leaving her sitting alone in the intersection.
The incident was upsetting for me: my brand new sunglasses had fallen beneath the seat during the escape maneuver. Finding them while Paul did the secretary slalom was difficult, and the sugar was beginning to really kick in. I was feeling dizzy; I tried to fight it.
“You should get a stiffer anti-roll bar for the rear,” I suggested calmly, concentrating on examining the lenses of my new shades for scratches. “We almost rolled it when you hit that speed bump sideways.”
Paul turned and regarded me kindly as a devoted master might look at a favorite dog that had just contracted rabies. He started to say something, but instead twitched the wheel and sent us shooting into the lot of a used-car dealership specializing in exotic cars. A Lamborghini on the front line had caught his eye, but once on the lot there proved to be two Ferraris in the back just dying for our attention. I knew what he was thinking, and glanced at my watch. The NAMM show didn’t start until about two, and the pre-show party to which we had been invited promised not much more than a bunch of glad-handing and listening to a band play loudly enough to impress store managers. I decided to humor him.
I had my seatbelt undone and was out the window before we stopped rolling. A salesman, probably the owner, was standing nearby, sizing us up.
“What can I do for you fellas?” he asked in a thick Italian accent.
Paul was massaging the finish of the near Ferrari. “I need a car for my wife,” he said simply. At a glance, it could be seen that the white one would be nice only if you stood more than 30 yards away, but the sleek black one held promise as a nice daily driver. Paul had the door open to pop the bonnet by the time I had climbed underneath to check it out from below. It was an eight, and therefore underpowered, but the real problem lay in the bruised oil pan, and it gave the general impression of having seen some heavy miles. The driver’s side springs were sagging and the body cancer was pretty well advanced.
I slid out with my report. Paul concurred as he slammed the door, sending flakes of rust hurtling earthward. “It’s a dog.”
“It’s a good car,” the owner started to protest. “I buy it in Italy myself.” But Paul was already behind the wheel of the Saab, engine running. He starting to back out as I swung in. The salesman nervously edged back as if the car might jump in any direction. Paul carefully checked the turbo boost level before pulling out.
“It has the old-style carbs on it,” he said to close the subject, as we eased into traffic at about forty.
Our fluid progress across town went quite a ways toward offsetting the effects of the near-lethal breakfast, and preparing us for the day ahead. NAMM is not something that one simply attends for a day off with the boys.
For those who truly participate, NAMM is more like a battle. As such, timing is critical. The show runs from Friday through Sunday, but for us the weekend is much too crowded; packed with low-ranking music store personnel who come out of the woodwork to stand around looking sincere and interested. Far from enabling one to disappear into the pack, the crowds tend to inhibit the mobility that is vital to veterans such as us.
Friday is different. Friday is our day. There is an element in the air like the aura that must surround the tooth of a piranha. The salespeople are simultaneously primed for the coming encounter and cranked out of their minds with the pressures of getting their exhibits together before the doors open. The stage is set: you must plunge in first thing and cover yourself with gore.
On Friday, the displays are up, the teeth are shined, the trousers pressed, and business is about to be done. There is a basic optimism among the salespeople that things will go right, this time. They are ready for anything. Their very presence at the show is justification for whatever it takes for them to Make The Sale. Putting the tweeze on those arrogant, self-assured bastards is the only way of gaining yourself autonomy, but you’ve got to do it on Friday. By Sunday, the exhibitors are reduced to babbling sales machines, and even the most gross insult, the most thorough hammering, will go unnoticed. Almost nothing short of physical violence will free you from the desperate last-minute play of a determined salesman by late Sunday.
Without pushing it too much, we made it to Buena Park by about half-past ten. The trip had been uneventful, except for an incident with a Lotus Elan whose driver had thrown down on us amidst the four-level interchange in downtown Los Angeles. Mister Macho had cut us off, nearly involved us in an accident with a produce truck, and then given us the finger. He definitely qualified as someone with a bad attitude.
The freeway was too congested to allow us to get around this ’dust victim on the left, but to our right was a dividing island, separating us from the traffic on the merging transition road. As soon as there was enough room to swing over, Paul gunned in onto the divider and executed a fine high-speed weave among the “Yield” and “Merging Traffic” signs that grow on that particular type of island paradise. The driver of the Lotus hesitated momentarily, then followed us through the clouds of dust we were kicking up. It was strictly sloppy seconds, though, and he lost valuable time slowing down for signs he couldn’t see until the last minute. In his frenzy to keep up, he overlooked the curb at the end of the island that the suspension of the Saab took in stride. The ten full inches of vertical drop did nothing good for the low suspension of the Lotus, though, and the last we saw in our mirrors was a dirty, limping car being nursed to the side of the road.
The pre-show party was, as expected, less than earth-shattering. The only “refreshments” available were white-sugar rolls and coffee; narcotics to undermine the judgment of unwary guests. Still woozy from breakfast, we took the contents of the snack table under advisement.
We went inside to listen to part of the proceedings, but the sound system was delivering garbled noise to our part of the room. Too, standing inside for too long exposed us to bombing runs by a manufacturer’s rep who was trying to pack our noses with drugs on the pretext that he couldn’t be sure that we would handle his product unless we were buried up to our sinuses in an avalanche of his private stock.
The day outside, however, was so nice that we spent most of our time wandering around the park, laughing and pointing at the paying visitors.
NAMM registration time was drawing near, however, and it was time to depart in search of some fortifications before plunging into the contest ahead. That done, we headed southward to the land of the phony Matterhorn and all that it represents.
Every year Paul and I arrive at the NAMM registration late. Every year we look at the mob of people standing in lines in the lobby of the Convention Center and promise ourselves that we will get there earlier next year. And every year we somehow find a way to get in without standing in line.
After pinning one of the Disneyland electric utility vehicles to a pillar downstairs in a “Tram Only” zone, we unloaded the car and set off for the show area with our burden. Another manufacturer had decided that borrowing one of our custom-built amps to demonstrate his new line of guitars would be everything that could be humanly and ethically done to “enhance” their appeal.
The little beggar was heavy, though, and if the exertion of hauling it up to the counter wasn’t enough to raise my pulse rate, the sight of hundreds of people waiting in line like beached fish was.
We needed a plan. Not only were there more people and longer lines than any previous year, but for unknown reasons, NAMM registrars were demanding to see proof of employment in a music-related industry as well as two pieces of positive identification (they suggested a voter’s registration card!). Our bogus front company and overworked MasterCharges weren’t going to make it this time.
We put our heads together and decided that it would be best if Paul checked to see if we had been already issued badges by any of the major companies for whom we do consulting work, while I tried a direct frontal assault on the registrars. This would serve the dual purpose of letting people know early on that Paul was around, without involving him with any ugliness that might develop from my handling of the matter.
Paul disappeared around the corner of the lobby while I dragged the amplifier up to an unmanned section of the registration counter, wheezing slightly. One of the ladies working there approached me, looking authoritative.
“I’m afraid that this window is closed right now, sir. If you wish to register you must get in one of the other lines.” She indicated the rows of people that vanished off the horizon. She then gave me a perfunctory smile and turned her back on me.
It was time for tact. It was early in the day and yet she was probably already tired and not at all thrilled about the prospect of signing in all of the people confronting the counter. The right approach win her sympathy and get me the badges without too much of a wait.
“Registration, hell,” I said in an even, but slightly raised, tone of voice. “I need FOOD and SEX.” The declaration caught her midstep and swung her around. The lobby got noticeably quieter. I threw my heavily-loaded Halliburton on the desk and snapped open the latches. She flinched perceptibly.
Pretending to ignore my last statement, she reiterated her position. “I’m sorry sir, but this window is closed for lunch.”
She was playing it cool, uncertain what the next move was to be. I leaned closer to her over the counter, still breathing a little hard. I was in control now. I had her attention, and it would be a simple thing to sweet-talk two name-tags out of her.
“Out to lunch?” I shouted. “Do you know whom you are dealing with? I own this town. I’ll make your elevators run sideways. I’ll train your pet to drive your RV into the ocean. Mister Namm is a close, personal friend of mine, and if I don’t get registered immediately, I’m liable to start rattling some heads. I’m a dangerous person.” I was nearly screaming by this time. “Don’t just stand there,” I finished off. “I’m hungry!”
Before she or anyone else could recover, Paul materialized at my elbow, all smiles. I noticed that I had started to drool during the tirade. I thought about wiping off my chin, then decided it might add to the effect. I left it.
“Get the badges?” he asked with a grin, looking innocently at the supervisor.
“Badges? I don’t need no badges. I don’t got to wear no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!” I was by this time drooling at a comfortable rate. Paul broke the code instantly.
“Don’t mind my friend,” he said to the lady. “he’s probably just car-sick. We had to out-run the police just to get here.” He chuckled disarmingly. “Let’s see, did he give you the name of our firm?”
“No, sir …” the lady began tensely. “You see …”
“That’s okay, I’ll handle it. Here’s my card. My name is Phil Space, and this is my technical advisor, Nick Panic.”
By this time, the lady was ready for even the most simple of good-cop/bad-cop routines, and fell to the task of typing up the two badges. I think she forgot to charge us.
We made delivery of the amp and stood around waiting for the show to open. As we had hoped, one of our clients had left badges for us, but the charade at the registrar’s had not gone to waste, as we now had two sets of badges with different names. I cruised over to scan the message board. The woman at the visitor Courtesy desk began to eye me suspiciously after watching me take down and read a half-dozen of the messages.
Even the ones in Japaneses turned out to be boring, however, so I sat cross-legged on the floor and offered to bite one of the guards. Her refusal seemed polite enough, but Paul claimed he was getting weird vibes from the room so we went outside for some sun.
Once there, we found ourselves staring into a large pool of water that sits between the Bonita Tower, the Marina Tower, the Sierra Tower, and the Convention Center itself. There are some boats and stuff on it, but I’ve never seen it being used for anything. Paul sauntered off to sit in an empty chair facing the sun while I contemplated the mysteries of the pond. I began to suspect that it held some foul secret; a secret to be discovered only by diving to the bottom of that fetid lake-ette and bringing up whatever was lying rotting there. I had my jacket, shirt, and tie off when Paul signalled by pointing to his watch and holding up three fingers. I climbed down from the railing and walked over to him.
“Is it time?” I asked.
“Yeah, almost.” He held his hand up to shield his eyes from the sun and scanned the plaza as I explained my theory to him. He shook his head.
“Don’t bother,” he advised. “No one is interested in American history any more.”
Just then, the loudspeakers came alive and a voice proclaimed, “Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of the National Association of Music Merchants, I welcome you to the NAMM 1979 Winter Exhibition.”
It was time for action. The key to the NAMM caste system is the badge color. Yellow badges are for exhibiting firm employees, and carry the most weight. Green badges are for non-exhibiting manufacturers and guests, while the white badges are for dealers or store employees. The two badges that Paul had gotten were Yellow, but they had our real names on them, so we were going to have to operate under the green badges we had gotten at the counter.
The false names were all part of the psychological warfare of the show. Many people recognize Paul and me, and know that we need to be approached even if they have forgotten our names. Anyone calling us by the names on our green badges would probably be hammered, while everyone else would get a good laugh over the whole thing. We were set.
If you have not been to a NAMM show, it is not what you think it is. Even if you have been to a NAMM show, chances are it is not what you think it is. Neither is it what it should be. It should be an opportunity for manufacturers to parade the newest and the best, to take a chance, to expand. A shot at innovating and pushing forward the boundaries of the art.
One is more likely to find booth after booth of junk dedicated to separating Mom and Pop from twenty dollars for a guitar so that Junior can see if he really likes to play this music or what. Cosmetics and get-rich-quick schemes abound at the NAMM shown. All the thousands of bargain-basement guitars and accessories of indistinct parentage that you wished you never had to bother with are proudly displayed. Going to the NAMM show to see this sort of stuff is like going to China to eat tacos.
There are exceptions, but those could be fit into an area one-tenth the size of the present show, which is getting bigger every year.
True to form, as we walked past one of those booths that resemble a pawn shop, the leech in charge noticed us rolling our eyes at his collection, and mistook it for a look of longing. He was too short to see either of our name tags, but he plunged right in with the first pitch of the show.
“Hi! Where are you fellas from?” The game was on.
“Winterhaven,” I replied, looking over his head the whole time. Behind him, Paul had examined a couple of the guitars and hung them up on the floor in disgust.
“Winterhaven, huh?” said the little man, puzzled as to the whereabouts of Winterhaven, but it didn’t matter. “You boys sell many guitars out there?” I looked down at him for the first time since entering the booth. Paul had already walked off, and it was time to follow. I fixed the salesman with a gaze.
“No,” I said. “Do you?” I left the salesman talking to himself.
Mission: Accomplished. We had dry-gulched a salesperson right off the bat. But why were we reduced to such behavior? What even happened to human decency? What ever happened to manners and civility? Had we lost all finesse in communications? What ever happened to the concept of instant kharma? Was it our duty or even our right to rattle the heads of these poor saps?
Unfortunately, at the NAMM show, survival dictates tactics such as these. Years ago it was different. Paul and I eagerly went to each show scrubbed and ready to accept whatever was there to be offered. Ready to exchange ideas, converse freely about that which is, after all, the provider for us all. We spent hours in booths with salesmen rather than offend them by saying yet again that we were not the buyer for the store, nor were we even remotely interested in the product. We smiled and tried to think of nice things to say to extricate ourselves from the clutches of the junk merchants. We racked our brains to come up with new ways to promise to place orders without committing ourselves.
In those years we left later than we had planned, after seeing less than there was to see; with headaches and indigestion.
Slowly we began to evolve and fight back. It was a long process. While I became an expert in reality supervision, Paul concentrated on the technical aspects of musical instrument electronics. Between us, we gradually realized there had to be a method. It took several NAMM shows, but it became clear that there is only one way to deal with many of the people at the Convention: Be Rude.
In booths that feature equipment obviously copied from other manufacturers, we loudly admire the resemblance.
Products claiming new technology are instantly dissected and dismissed using Paul’s extensive and near-perfect knowledge of circuitry. Manufacturers who lie about, evade, or try to confuse the issue are greeted with our all-purpose, “Oh, I get it … You’re lying to me!” After which we walk away, smiling, without saying another word.
This year was almost perfect. In one booth we flamed-out an amp that we were promised would be reliable, even after we mentioned the fact that all the components were stressed far beyond tolerance. It took less than thirty seconds after turning it on before a judgment came down in our favor in the form of smoke pouring from the back of the amp.
One salesperson handed me a brand new guitar with a sharp edge that punctured the skin on my hand. With a mock scream, I dropped the guitar, damaging it badly, and threatened to sue. In several booths, we flat-out told the manufacturer that his product sounded/worked terrible. To a persistent custom guitar builder, I finally granted a cursory examination of the instrument he was forcing on me, and then informed him that I already had one. In one booth we thanked the manufacturer for making their products so shoddily that we were able to make a great living fixing them when they break, which is early and often.
One benefit of dumping on the bozos is that it help one maintain ones’ perspective about the quality products. It makes it easier to talk with the good guys when you don’t find yourself telling them the same things you’ve been saying all day just to get free of salespeople.
All in all, however, the day began to drag after about seven o’clock. By then, we had made five or six tours of the complex like a pair of locomotive-powered flagellates, glomming onto any T-shirt in sight and strong-arming people for those we couldn’t see, but knew were around. We were more than usually successful this year, and even after jettisoning all of the product literature we had picked up during the day, the T-shirts still made too big a package to travel with comfortably. We made a trip to the car to drop off the booty.
Topside again, we hung out around the pond, getting a breath of air until an acquaintance informed us that the bars were dispensing free drinks. As non-alcoholics, this was less than a god-send, but as true students of human excess we went back inside anyway.
We had just managed to pack away a quart of fresh-squeezed orange juice apiece when we were jumped by the same rep who had earlier been dogging us at the pre-show party. Ever the good salesman, he was still concerned that the deal wasn’t yet sealed, and wouldn’t we guarantee him our patronage right there in the center of the main Convention room?
Sensing our hesitancy to go face-down on a mirror of blow in the midst of a swarm of people, he gave us the number of his hospitality suite in the Sierra Tower, and invited us to help ourselves to whatever was there. When he mentioned his girlfriend was holding down the fort, I decided that I would be bored anywhere else but his hospitality suite. Pleased as punch, he waved us off, threatening to join us soon.
Once at the suite, we discovered that the young lady was busy with a paying customer. While we were busily consuming all of the orange juice at their temporary bar, the rep turned up, and seemed ready to drag us physically into the stairwell to make us “happy.” I suddenly realized why the symbol for the show this year was a pair of mouse ears covered with snow.
It was time to go. We were loaded to the eustachian tubes with orange juice, and the car was loaded to the gunwales with T-shirts. We unpinned the tram from the pillar and, using a departing bus as cover, slipped out of the parking area without paying.
Yes, in spite of everything, it had been a good day. And, after an hour at our favorite All-You-Can-Eat-For-$100 sushi bar on Sunset, it promised to be a perfect night.