Posted July 2023

Starting in the late 1980's, and until around 2004, I was able to hear music months before it was released to the public.

Although I was attending college in a notably non-committal way, I did firmly establish myself as a fixture at Marshall University's student-run radio station, WMUL-FM 88.1, where I was an on-air DJ and producer for about 6 years starting in the fall of 1986.

At the time, WMUL's on-air booth was outfitted with two turntables for music and a cart machine for the random PSA's and government-mandated info bits that we played every 15 minutes like commercials.

Next to the turntables was the box that held "The Rotation." Each week, it was my job to fill this box with fresh records sorted into Heavy, Medium or Light based on my own "expertise" and any notes from the Music Director.

Bill Smith was the Music Director at WMUL in those days. He was a music theory major and bass player in a local band called The Toys who did covers of popular U2 and Police songs, along with the occasional King Crimson or Frank Zappa deep cut. (The Toys' version of "Elephant Talk" was semi-legendary in the Huntington metro area's underground music scene - all forty of us.)

Bill was older than most of us, having sat out for a few years before entering Marshall. Bill had his own apartment with no roommates. Bill had deep knowledge of the music history that I was absorbing at the time. He had a band, recording equipment, a very nice record collection...

I was a bit of a Bill Smith groupie.

I spent hundreds of hours in Bill's office - going through the mail, syphoning off everything from the early indie labels, as well as sorting out the major label stuff. Once I had all of the "alternative" records, I retired to one of the production booths to listen to each one and make recommendations to Bill about updates to The Rotation.

A typical promo cassette from back in the day, although most didn't even bother with the insert.

In addition to the endless shower of LPs and CDs we received at WMUL, we got a nearly equal number of cassettes - all of which were useless for the radio station, but a deep source of surprise and joy for me.

These cassettes were bare-bones copies sent in advance of the public release. There was rarely any artwork but there was always a warning printed somewhere:

These cassettes collected in a box on Bill's desk, and periodically, he would allow us producers to pick through the box and take whatever we wanted. I amassed hundreds of such cassettes in a short time. And because they had no artwork, I took to making simple inserts at my local Kinko's so I could keep them sorted.

Free music was a truly amazing perk, to be fair - but Bill always got first pick and that meant that Bill always had the very best stuff.


One day in the spring of 1989, Bill gave me a call and asked if I wanted to take a drive with him. You might not think this is unusual, but Bill didn't own a car back then.

I met him near the WMUL offices, and we walked toward the parking lot. Bill had one of those clear, practically unmarked, obviously promotional cassettes in his hand.

"I've got a Rent-a-Wreck," Bill said. "Let's go wreck it."

He twirled the cassette in his fingers as we walked.

"And I've got the new Beastie Boys." He had a wicked look in his eye.

I was mildly confused by all of this as I followed Bill into the dark blue, early 80's Dodge and/or Chrysler and/or Plymouth K-car that was parked nearby.

Brief Pause to summarize "Dave in 1989" for context:

  • Rent-a-Wreck, the company, was not yet a household name so I just thought it was Bill's clever shortand for a crappy car
  • The Beastie Boys officially sucked and anything released by SST or 4AD or IRS was the best thing to ever happen to music (according to 1989 me)
  • Samples were something you ate in a grocery store to make up for the lunch you couldn't afford
  • I couldn't afford lunch sometimes because of the money I spent Robert Smith-ing my hair and thrifting for that tuxedo jacket Ducky wore in Pretty in Pink
  • Although everyone called 16th Street "Hal Greer Boulevard," I called it 16th Street because Huntington was built on a very clear grid of numbered streets and avenues and Hal Green Boulevard was between 15th and 17th Streets so it was "16th Street." Goddammit.

Bill started the car, slid the cassette into the deck, and gave the volume knob a healthy turn. We left the parking lot to the slow crescendo of the first track. Bill's smile grew wider. We started up 16th Street and I was already nodding my head, "Alright then. At least it doesn't sound like the old stuff."

"Shake Your Rump" dropped crossing 4th Avenue, followed by my jaw and any lingering reservations.

I'm pretty sure I laughed out loud from the drum intro alone. And when that first raggedly scratchy bass break lands, 40 seconds in, I truly lost track of what was happening around me. The track rolled on as we made our way toward to wherever we were going - I didn't even care. The whole "Let's wreck it" thing was forgotten.

There was nothing but this magical cassette, showing me a future that was 4 to 6 weeks away from the rest of mankind.

It's really hard to convey the degree to which Paul's Boutique didn't sound like anything else. It didn't sound like hip-hop, but it wasn't rock and roll, either. It was definitely the Beastie Boys, but also very much NOT the Beastie Boys. The lyrics were sprayed from a firehose. The music was equally fast and dense. Both were full of references to movies and TV and New York and, of course, standard issue Beastie Boys shit talking - but this time with a wink and a nudge.

And the whole thing was just really, really, really funky.

It was the first time in my life that I experienced music that was truly iconic - groundbreaking, controversial, genre-changing - and I knew it from the first listen.

The tracks flew past. Each one weirder than the last. Some lines were already sticking in my head.

"Green eggs and ham, Yosemite Sam" from "Egg Man." "Takin' care of business at 7-eleven" from "High Plains Drifter." That moo-ing cow toy thing that serves as a part of the beat in "Sounds of Science."

So MUCH information to decipher in the densely layered music. Entire sections lifted from other songs and used as lyrics and asides and references to lyrics. Fully recognizable clips of other famous recordings were woven in and out and in between the band's own instruments. It was abstract expressionism as music, and it dovetailed perfectly with the lyrical attack. Like watching Pollack paint instead of just looking at a Pollack painting.

I became aware of reality again after back to reality as turned into the Big Bear parking lot.

Bill had been silent up until this point, letting me steep in the sounds.

As "3-minute Rule" played, I looked up for the first time in a while. I had been bent over in my seat so to have my ear closer to the speaker, and it took me a second to realize that we were in the empty outer edge of the parking lot - that wasted space where no one ever parks unless there is absolutely no other choice.

It took another second to realize that weren't exactly parked, but rather rolling very very slowly.

Bill was smiling and looking straight ahead.

I figured he was waiting for a closer parking spot - and then...

The world around me went blurry again as I focused all of my attention on the just-ok sound of the K-car speakers. The video above was still months away. The Beasties' legend as we know it today was not a thing. I was hearing history and I knew it and I paid attention.

The first crash was right about the time they rhymed Tom Foolery with Chuck Woolery.

Calling it a crash is a bit of a stretch. Yes, I was jolted upright as we hit the concrete base of the light post. But we were travelling at a speed well under walking pace. Despite being bent over in my seat, my head didn't even graze the dashboard.

Bill seemed disappointed. He put the car in reverse, looked over his shoulder and started backing up.

"What are you doing?" Self-preservation was maybe kicking in a little, but I was really just genuinely curious.

"Trying again," Bill said as he threw the car back into gear and gave it some gas.

"Oh," I said. "Rent-a-Wreck. I get it."  

I looked around the lot to see if there were any witnesses to what was happening, but it was around 11am-ish on a Tuesday-ish day and other than a few close-parkers, we had the back of lot to ourselves.

The second crash had a bit more oomph. I'm pretty sure it left a mark.

Next, Bill found a lone trash can and bumped the K-car into it hard enough to send it spilling down a small berm between the Big Bear parking lot and the Cabell-Huntington Hospital parking lot.

Bill and I were giggling. "Hey Ladies" was at its last "get funky" and the tape auto-reversed to side two.

Back on 16th Street, heading toward the highway entrance we stared at each other while the banjos of "5-piece Chicken Dinner" jangled at high speed. Then we burst out laughing and the next track started.

There is something nearly perfect, and not un-poetic, about being in a car, picking up speed and merging on to the highway to this tune. It played like a bespoke  soundtrack in real-time.

Bill jerked the wheel periodically, in time with the beat.

"Ok, don't fuck around," I said a bit nervously. But I'm pretty sure Bill liked that he made me nervous.

We were making our way along the bit of I-64 that cradles Huntington's southern edge from east to west. Bill's driving was purposely erratic.

"Car Thief" was playing, however it should be mentioned that we didn't know what any of the songs were called at the time. The only printing was on the cassette itself and that was most certainly not coming out of the tape deck.

And just as a reminder - there was no metadata. There were no deep-dive videos to consult. There was no Wikipedia to tell you everything you wanted to know about Paul's Boutique.

There was only the sound, struggling against the edges of the factory-installed speaker system, heightened by a very real concern that Bill was taking the rent-a-wreck concept a bit too seriously.

"What goes around, comes around
What goes around, comes around
What goes around, comes around
What goes around, comes around"

"For the best in men's clothing, call Paul's Boutique. Ask for Janice"

Another parking lot. A few more dings at increasingly higher speeds. "B-Boy Bouillabaisse" was playing though its nine mini-tracks.


Later, as he popped the tape out, Bill took a moment to explain to me that Rent-a-Wreck was the name of the company, not simply his clever moniker for a crappy car.

"They named their company Rent-a-Wreck and are very lenient with their damage policy, so it is our responsibility to add a few dents and scrapes before returning the car to them," Bill said quite sensibly.

I think the Beasties would have approved.

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