Walter Mencken 2:37 p.m., March 1
- Community Blog
The site of the little shopping mall along University Avenue between Rolando Blvd and Aragon Drive was once at the center of some very grand designs. It was the original proposed site for the campus of San Diego State University, and is probably the reason why this avenue that runs from Hillcrest to La Mesa was given its name.
Designs change, and the SDSU campus was built eventually on Montezuma Mesa while the modest piece of real estate between the avenue and Chollas Creek became instead the site of a retail mall. For a long time, it was anchored by a Food Basket, which was the name of a popular supermarket chain from the '50s to late '80s. It was the place where my folks, and the parents of my friends, did much of their day-to-day shopping in the '60s. Sometime not far into that decade, a Sizzler steakhouse opened for business on the site, and it was there that we would celebrate dad's payday once a month. Then the folks would go on a spree at Food Basket afterwards to stock up on groceries for our family of five. There was a laundromat in the mall as well, and my brother and sister and I would sit and watch the dryers go 'round and 'round while we waited in the car for the folks to do the shopping.
At a time shortly after the "British Invasion" of early 1964 and the coming of the Beatles to America, as the early '60s faded and the country tried to get over the Kennedy assassination of a few months before, a temporary building went up in the middle of the parking lot. Not much more than a shack, I don't think it even had permanent flooring over the asphalt of the lot. Yet for myself and my childhood friends, it seemed a magic place. "Soundsville" sold records--45's and LP's--as well as posters and magazines about the rock 'n roll scene. It gave away radio station KCBQ's weekly flyer on the Top 40 hits with their rankings, news about upcoming concerts, and a bit of human interest stuff about the various DJ's.
To a kid barely nine years old, it was the coolest place imaginable. My childhood buddies and I had devised any number of ways of entertaining ourselves. Besides dirt lot ball games or playing army ("Bam! You're dead!"/"No, I'm not. YOU'RE dead!"), we could scrounge together some change and have a root beer at the A & W on the corner of College and University, or ride our bikes up to the hobby shop near the old Campus Drive-in on El Cajon Blvd to look at displays of model cars in the window. All of that was great, but the biggest thrill was to tune in the little egg-shaped radios with the alligator clip and the single earplug that we'd get at the dime store and scan the AM band to listen for our favorite songs. KCBQ and KGB were the two strongest stations, and the most likely to be picked up on those primitive devices, though occasionally we'd tune in to Wolfman Jack on one of those Mexico-based stations that always started with call letter "X."
Soundsville was there for perhaps three years, during a time when I was just becoming aware of mass media and the vastness of this whole big world. My friends and I would hang around there until they kicked us out, looking at the album covers and sorting through posters of the Rollings Stones, Dave Clark Five, Animals, Kinks, Righteous Brothers, and all the rest. Though dad hated that "wild teenage music", he'd occasionally relent and give my brother or me a 45 from Soundsville for our birthdays or other special occasions. And always, my buddies and I would pick up the Top 40 listing and talk to each other about the songs we'd all heard the evening before, lying in our beds on warm summer nights with our cheap radios alligator-clipped to a piece of metal and the earplug firmly in place.
For a month in the summer of '65, mom took my brother and sister to Indiana for a visit; I'd been there with my dad the year before. It felt very grown up for dad and me to be living like a couple of bachelors in the family house on College Avenue during those four weeks, usually going out to dinner in the evening and taking a walk afterwards around the neighborhood or whatever shopping mall we happened to be at.
One evening after a meal at the Sizzler, I recall standing in that parking lot and hearing the Yardbirds' "For Your Love" coming from Soundsville. This was the summer when "Satisfaction", "Like a Rolling Stone", "Stop! In the Name of Love", "Yesterday", and "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" were brand new. It was also the summer of the culmination of the Civil Rights Act (actually passed the year before but supplemented), and the decision to escalate America's role in Vietnam. I can remember LBJ's televised address on the former, telling us that in order to make the new laws work we had to find it in our hearts to embrace them in spirit. He would be the last president that I, in a child's innocent way, thought of as an infallible adult who always knew what to do. Medicare was soon to follow, and my parents would both benefit greatly from it toward the end of their lives. Nothing had gone seriously sour yet, and it seemed a time of great hope.
My ten year old self had a very strong perception of that moment, standing there in that parking lot and listening to that Yardbirds song on that otherwise ordinary evening. It's something that I still recall forty-five years later. It just seemed for a moment, with all my capacity to feel, that I was living in the best of all possible times. I wondered what the future might bring, and how it could ever be any better than now. But most of all, I wondered what would become of the music. I wondered if it would fade away and be forgotten, or would still be listened to ten years in the future. I would be an unimaginable twenty years old by then, and it was the most vast span of time my young mind could conceive of.
There came a day when Soundsville was no more. Several of us went down to pick up the KCBQ flyer as we'd done countless times, and the place had been turned into some other kind of retail business. We couldn't understand, and felt ripped off. Whatever business had taken its place didn't last, and before too deep into the late '60s the shack was removed and the area reverted to parking spaces.
Nowadays there's a Wells Fargo ATM on the site, making use of the electrical conduit that once routed power to Soundsville. The Sizzler closed its doors in the mid-'90s and the Food Basket is gone too, the building that housed it now divided between a Save-a-Lot grocery and a Dollar Tree. There's still a laundromat there, with the dryers going 'round and 'round.
After spending much of my early adulthood to middle age traveling the world and seeing the places I used to read about in magazines and think about as a kid, I bought a place to live just a couple of blocks from that site. Once in awhile even now, after too much scotch and ice or red wine, I'll take a walk over there and ponder a time when everything seemed fresh and full of wonder, when a kid's visit to a record shop seemed more exciting than all my adult wanderings in the years to follow, and when a little egg-shaped radio made the music sound sweeter than the quality stereo equipment I listen through nowadays could ever hope to.
As much as I try, I can never quite grasp and re-capture the moment. I write it off as part of being an adult, yet wonder sometimes if there's a place--some alternate reality--where my childhood friends and I are still just pre-teenage kids riding our bikes around the rolling hills of Rolando without a care, and all seems good in the world.
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- Doo-Wop Era, College Area — March 31, 2009
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- THE OB RANGER RIDES AGAIN: RETURN OF A ‘70S COUNTERCULTURE HERO — Sept. 2, 2007
- Sea of Labels — June 15, 2006
- Omega Comet E.T.A. in Hours — Dec. 29, 2005