Southern People

Warren Zevon's, "Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School"Warren Zevon gave thought to the lives of young people reveling in their wildness. He had words of hope for most of them, but others, he noted, wouldn’t make it.

Mostly when the reckless years end
Something’s left to save
Some of them keep running
‘Til they run straight in their graves

Once in their graves, such people are remembered for their audacity and the death wish each seemed to possess. And the memories of those departed friends and acquaintances obscure the many who, like Zevon explained, had something left to save. The wild days of a drug-addled tough are forgotten as he cleans up, gets religion, finds a nice job and marries a girl from the homecoming court. When you meet up with guys like that at concerts, workplaces and reunions, you’re happy for them and marvel at the turns life can take. But still you think most about the friends you’ll never see again.

In September ’85, everyone who had ever worked at the Peaches Records and Tapes store on Atlanta’s Peachtree Road was invited to a reunion party. It would be a grand gathering of friends* who shared in something special. Even though Peaches Atlanta had closed three years before, it was still celebrated as a store that, in the mid-70s, dramatically changed the record business. Peaches also had an impact on Atlanta itself. The store quickly became the city’s most vibrant gathering place as people not only connected with new sounds, but also a new-found friend or two. The uniqueness of Peaches Atlanta, which seemed so homegrown in its first couple of years, was hardly the norm for a national chain store. To their credit, the people running the company allowed each store, in whatever community, to develop its own atmosphere. Many of the employees from those first two years on Peachtree, recognizing what they helped create, continued to savor the experiences, even as their time at the store gave way to college or “straight” jobs. Life at Peaches had been fun, a part of life we wished could’ve lasted longer. A reunion to share memories and catch up would be just the ticket.

Peaches Records & Tapes T-ShirtThe chance for everyone to get together, at least one more time, came on a pleasant Sunday afternoon, more than ten years after the opening of Peaches Atlanta. The party would stretch late into the evening hours, with scores of Peaches people moving about The Bistro, a restaurant on Pharr Road, in Atlanta’s Buckhead community, a mile or so from where the store was located. For the handful who had remained with Peaches in various capacities during most of the 7 years the Atlanta store was open, the party was something to be really excited about. Greetings would take place and conversations would start anew, especially among the closest friends, who had discussed and argued music most everyday; from the Beatles to Sinatra, from Bach to Zevon.

Warren Zevon, with a natural inclination toward accessible pop melodies, infused his songs with what he gleaned from the likes of Igor Stravinsky, the Everly Brothers and Jackson Browne. His great melodies framed sharp-eyed lyrics that were, by turn, cynical, sad, dark and wise. Zevon’s material seemed to resonate most with people who “got” David Letterman early on, were devoted readers of Hunter S. Thompson and fans of the TV series, The Twilight Zone. There were more than just a handful of such people at the Peaches reunion. Naturally, all of them knew guys like the one Zevon described in “Wild Age.” Maybe Zevon’s song reminded one or two of their own reckless times, which they were thankful had ended with no lasting damage to haunt them in the years to come.

“Wild Age” is an upbeat number,energized by Zevon’s infectious piano playing that serves as a pertinent closing track to his 1980 album, Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School. The song imparts a vivid image of a young man, resolute, blazing his own trail and ignoring the pleas of those who care for him.

You’ve seen him leaning on the streetlight
Listening to some song inside
You’ve seen him standing by the highway
Trying to catch a ride
Well they tried so hard to hold him
Heaven knows how hard they tried
But he’s made up his mind
He’s the restless kind

Yes, those of us at the Peaches reunion could share numerous stories about such guys.

The former Peaches employees, ready for a few hours of conviviality, were gathered at The Bistro, near the heart of Buckhead’s party district. Despite years of  meeting and greeting rock stars and treated as important by record label and media executives, few, if any of us, felt at home rubbing shoulders with the beautiful people in the finer Buckhead establishments. The people in dazzling clothes, glittering jewelry, cruising in their sleek and powerful cars might’ve looked down on us, attired in old Levi’s and t-shirts, as we drank our beers and munched on chips. They’d prefer other company, but a member of their scene, an attractive and nicely dressed young woman, joined us anyway.

The woman ran into the restaurant. She cried out for a phone. Grabbing one, she dialed a number and began screaming, “I just killed a man!”

That man was Joe Gegan, the first Classical Department Manager of Peaches Atlanta. A few minutes earlier, he had climbed out of his car, parked at the shopping center across the street. He waved at friends sitting on the restaurant patio and stepped off the curb. He got as far as the middle of the street. Then came a terribly loud sound, one that could be heard even above all the music and chatter in the restaurant.  The young woman, speeding up Pharr towards Peachtree, hit the brakes of her sports car when she saw Joe crossing the street, but she had been going too fast. Those outside the restaurant watched as the car slammed into Joe. Upon impact, he rolled up her hood and hit the windshield at such an angle that assured forward motion. Joe was propelled, some 2-3 feet above the car, before landing on the pavement and sliding some 20-25 feet from where he was first hit.

The young woman, suddenly caught up in something unfathomable, sat in her sports car, screaming hysterically.  She looked at the mangled person and knew that for all intents and purposes he was dead and that life for her, at least as she knew it, was over. The worst nightmare was her new reality. Less than a minute before, zipping along one of the rare Buckhead streets with few stop lights, she couldn’t have perceived causing any harm. What she likely had in mind on that lazy Sunday afternoon was getting on with her day and making a good impression on those patronizing the hip restaurant that employed her. Her future had loomed brightly until that minute. The outlook changed quickly.

The old friends gathered at The Bistro looked forward to seeing Joe Gegan. There’d be swapping of old stories and news of what was happening now. Just a few months earlier, I spoke with Joe at the Downtown Atlanta Library. He was very upbeat about life at the moment and excited about his new job at the Georgia World Congress Center. He was also still active in the city’s classical music scene. As a member of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, he sang for Robert Shaw, perhaps the world’s greatest choral conductor. And when there were lulls in Atlanta, he’d hop in his Honda to attend an opera in Pittsburgh or sing at a concert in Washington, D.C.. Joe would’ve caught us up on all that and then recall how he held his own in the battles of the Peaches turntable. Yes, he would endure Springsteen, Sun Ra, the Ohio Players and Johnny Cash, but he’d get to play his Dvorak. Also, he’d have the satisfaction of exposing us to music we’d come to enjoy, despite our grousing.

But Joe didn’t make it for beers and conversation. He lay still on the street.  A few of us went out to see him. Even knowing it was a grisly scene (one side of his face basically gone), there was a need to somehow pay him tribute. As we waited for the ambulance to arrive, Rex Patton, Greg Biggs and Duke Carroll, three take-charge guys from that first year at Peaches, went out to the street to alert oncoming traffic and see what they could do for their friend. Patton made his way over to Joe. Kneeling down, he took his jacket off and put it under Joe’s head. A few minutes later, when the cops and medics arrived, another friend picked up a shoe of Joe’s lying on the pavement. The shoe was handed to one of the cops. “Thanks,” the officer said, “but he won’t be needing it.”

Sitting at a table in The Bistro instead was the woman who killed our friend, sucking all the energy from the room. From the perspectives of some who spent the entire day at the Peaches reunion, it seemed the woman made herself the center of attention, as if she had been violated, as if she was the victim. That thought was shared while Joe was being treated by the medics who would take him to the hospital.

People continued to arrive at the reunion throughout the afternoon and evening hours. The party went on, although with a far different atmosphere than expected. The presence of the ambulance and police cars out front indicated something terrible had happened. They picked up on the gloom upon entering The Bistro. People were talking. There was lots of talking, but in hushed-tones. The wife of a former Peaches employee said she could sense something “almost like a gossipy buzz” in the air that followed the “collective sound of horror” as Joe was hit just seconds after taking his last steps.

“I heard the girl on the phone, saying she was applying mascara when she saw Joe crossing the street,” said one. Another, watching the young woman sobbing alone at a table while waiting for the cops,was angry. Still she agreed with a friend who knew the young woman would forever be haunted. The ugly scene would play in her head continuously and she would blame herself for being so careless while cruising on a work errand. As Greg Biggs said years later, “We all hope our mistakes never get this bad, or even close to this bad.”

The party went on, and as strange as it felt, most of us stayed around far into the evening hours. Participating in the convivial manner may not have seemed proper, but longtime friends took comfort in talking through the day’s events as well as relating to memories, many which involved Joe.

Joe Gegan didn’t seem the type to live through a “wild age.” He was an affable person and serious about his work. The Classical Department at Peaches was his domain. He fought with management for more inventory, more space and greater authority over those who worked with him. He lived by the Schwann catalog and woe be unto anyone who didn’t readily understand it. What a surprise it was to find out how stupid you were. But after the verbal jousting, Joe could be a friend, and, yes, he wanted to come along for lunch too.

When Joe met Margaret Wilson for lunch just days prior to the the reunion party, he indicated he might not join the gathering. Wilson, a very persuasive young lady, wouldn’t hear of it. They all want to see you, Joe. You were a part of the core group. It won’t be a true reunion without you.

Joe decided he’d make it to the party after all. Cruel fate intervened, but in a way, Joe ended up connecting with his old friends that Sunday afternoon. For many of us, the connection has remained solid. His tragedy conveyed the fleeting nature of life and how we’re not guaranteed the next minute. In our young lives, it was perhaps the first peer member we had lost. We saw how quickly a life could be wiped out and how actions -planned or not- could affect others. As it is for everyone as the years advance, more friends and loved ones pass on, but still memories of a sudden loss, as with Joe Gegan, remain profound and crystal clear.

It would have amused Joe that a Warren Zevon song comes to mind when a friend ponders his death. Zevon? Isn’t he the one who sang about a guy rubbing a pot roast across his chest? Well, that wasn’t Joe’s style, but he would have surely understood the consequences of someone going through a wild age. Joe would’ve also noted that many of his friends delved into their favorite music intensely; for them it was more than just the beat or the melody. Such friends could come up with dozens of incidents, be they private or widely known, and come up with songs to go along with them. Some of the songs play over and over in our heads.

Those of us who attended the Peaches reunion and continue to keep in touch lay claim to many songs that influence or reflect attitudes and lives-in-progress. There were people we knew similar to the character in Warren Zevon’s “Wild Age.” When we had children, Bob Dylan’s “Lord Protect My Child” easily came to mind, especially whenever the 16 year-old took off for a ride. Neil Young’s “Too Far Gone” brings clarity to days gone by and evokes memories of close calls when real harm could have been done in our own lives, as it was with Joe Gegan. Gratitude is expressed for journeys completed, despite a careless approach.

Well we met in my favorite bar
Took a ride in my old car
But I still don’t know how
We made it home

 

*The author wishes to thank the friends who gave of their time to discuss Peaches Atlanta and our friend, Joe Gegan. Appreciation goes out to Margaret Wilson, Tracey Friedman, Robin Lucas, Pam Jernigan,  Diana Desern, Greg Biggs, Rex Patton, Ricky Paul, Earl Goodrich, Marty Feldman, Pat Kehs and Ed Osgood. The story could not have been completed without the help of such good friends.

 

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Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran worked in advertising at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 27 years before accepting a buy-out in the Summer of 2008. In the seventies/early eighties, he handled advertising for Peaches Records and Tapes' Southeastern and Midwestern stores. He also wrote record reviews for The Great Speckled Bird, a ground-breaking underground newspaper based in Atlanta.