Gyroscopic by Hobie Anthony

Editor Carrie Seitzinger, Music, September 28th, 2016

"...it was the height of the mixtape-era, and Ross was the hands-down master."

Hobie Anthony music essay of Ross shapiro
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I was twenty when I met Ross Shapiro, one of the biggest rock stars I’ll ever know. I doubt you’ve heard of him. Ross was that hip. It’s possible that you’ve heard his band, The Glands, accidentally pop up from the depths of a Pandora algorithm or late at night on an indie radio station. Their two records, Double Thriller, and the self-titled follow-up, are two of the finest examples of American rock music you will ever hear. There’s Malkmus, there’s post-punk, the Kinks, and even good old jangly Georgia pop. They’re the best. I promise. Buy them. Take out your phones and buy them.

Ross wasn’t exactly my boss, but he was a manager at the restaurant where I worked, the Gyro Wrap in Athens, Ga. This was in Downtown Athens, home of the University of Georgia, a mecca for kids like me who were seeking for some sort of knowledge or identity. I lived in an apartment on Milledge Avenue, fraternity row, but it was stumbling distance from the bars and work.

I was on one of many gap years that I would take in life, trying to avoid spinning out and drinking myself to death. I was desperate in the whorl and I sought a level. I took a few courses, but didn’t declare a major nor find an advisor. I truth, I was a tourist. Passing through.

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Downtown, you could drink on a fake ID, hear some killer local music, and maybe catch a glimpse of rock superstars, R.E.M. walking around on a break. In 1991, they recorded Out of Time, in the John Keane studios, directly above where we slaved in a fog of greasy Gyro air. Michael Stipe frequently dropped by to sip iced tea while his friend, our waitress Robin, finished her side duties. She had a millisecond of fame in REM’s video for their hit, “The One I Love.”

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My first night in town, I had dinner at the place with my roommate and a few other high-school friends. It was the coolest place I’d ever visited: it was dark, old, the food was weird, and they played music I’d never heard before. I immediately knew I wanted to work there. My friends thought I was crazy for wanting to work with a bunch of “crunchies,” “townies” or whatever the pejorative was. The next day I applied to the owner, Dave, and was hired.

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I primarily worked the day shift, Ross was on the night shift. Skinny and pale with deep-set dark eyes, Ross was the perfect dark lord of the night crew: Jamie, the 6’5″ gothic skeleton shaved the Gryo cone over a sizzling flat-top grill, Driscoll, the ex-junkie with an attitude, paired with Jamie to put the wraps together on the one-man sandwich line, and John the half-crazed artist from some deep-South Georgia shithole rounded out the usual staff. When I worked with them, I cut red onions on the counter while the customers streamed tears. Ross, as manager, manned the cash register and dominated the music selection.

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“I saw a cockroach on my table.” The customer complaints were so bland.

“Did you feed him?” Ross’ dry tenor voice never inflected.

“It walked over my girlfriend’s food.”

“Issat why she ran out of here?”

“Yeah.”

“Looks like you’re not getting laid tonight, buddy. That’ll be $10.45.”

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Ross and the crew had a certain panache for customer service that shocked me, a middle-class kid from Gainesville, Ga, a small town that was only one hour away by car, but a light year in so many ways. I had politeness branded into me from the crib, but there, I was expected to be rude, coarse, authentic and true, traits I’d read about in magazines. I wondered what was real.

“We’re a family restaurant,” Ferris said over his shoulder during a slammed lunch rush. Ministry’s industrial-rock classic, A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste, screamed through the stereo. He shaved a piece of meat from the rotating cone and cackled maniacally. “We’re the Manson Family.”

I was in a family of artists and iconoclasts. Ferris played bass in a band called Heavy Ethyl, Joel played drums in the legendary punk rock band, Mercyland, Joe Rowe slapped skins for Cancer, and Kelly “The Killer” Noonan was in a few bands, and would soon open her own recording studio. Everyone loved music, everyone was an artist. At the time, Ross’ main claim to fame was in visual art. Hell, even my girlfriend Caroline rose from lowly undergraduate ranks to a spot on The Georgia Review. Her poetry turned heads in the ivory tower. I cut onions, read books, and steeped in the savory aroma of Gyro.

Gyro meat is a mix of lamb and beef. It’s basically sausage, and no one wants to know how that’s made. The meat is formed into a cone that rotates on a spit; heating elements sear the outside. The gyro cook wields a long serrated blade that he strokes back and forth like a cellist’s bow, a maestro of shaved flesh-ribbons. The strips fall onto a flat top grill, sizzle in a bath of grease sweated from the skin of their sisters, then it’s wrapped in a piece of oily pita bread with lettuce, tomato, tzaziki sauce, and onions, among other thing. We were fast-food, but we were rockin’ fast food, our Mediterranean flavors blew the minds of the those who ventured to Athens from red-clay shitholes.

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“We liked the food just fine.” An elderly woman held out a $20 to pay for her meal. Her accent was every bit East Georgia country. “Everything was fine, but the music sounded like they was killin’ cats.” I took her money and entered the amount into the cash register.

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It was 1990, digital music was on the rise, but it was the height of the mixtape-era, and Ross was the hands-down master. No matter the genre or intended theme of the tape, he’d apply his encyclopedic knowledge of music. He’d show you why post-rock was important and then enlighten the rabble to the depths of Prince. I know that Prince was a rocker because Ross showed me as much on a 90-minute Maxell played at full volume during a post-football dinner shift.

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“Hey, is this Lenny Kravitz?” Kravitz was hot that year, his debut record was the hot thing at all the parties when I’d left my small, liberal arts college. I figured Ross’ playlist would have some new, fresh music. Ross played deep cuts from Prince, James Brown, Rick James, Ike and Tina, and so many more that I couldn’t keep up.

“HobieHobart, let me tell you something about Lenny Kravitz.” Ross picked up a soggy, flaccid coney fry, one I’d probably cut by hand earlier that night. “You see this? This is what Lenny Kravitz knows about funk or R&B or anything. He’s a sell-out, and if I catch you listening to that shit you’ll be fired faster than you can fuck Lisa Bonet.”

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I moved away from Athens in August of 1991, a move that made sense at the time. My education called to me and it was not to be at UGA. I needed the rigor and freedom of a Quaker school, and the personal touch that only private tuition could buy.

Ross teamed up with co-worker and drummer, Joe Rowe, and formed The Glands. Their first album, Double Thriller, would be released in 1997. They recorded the album upstairs from the Gyro on the same soundboard that Michael Jackon used for Thriller. The album cover featured local indigent and schizophrenic, Kenny Death, whose image Ross had pasted into an idyllic beach vacation.

I learned that Ross died when I read a cryptic Facebook message from Rand, yet another coworker. Rand was Ross’ best friend and the news was jarring. I don’t know how he died, but the year I knew him he’d been diagnosed with a spinal disease unique to Jews. He’d been a curmudgeon, he’d ridden my ass, but he also showed me so much about music and living as an artist. He, and the rest of that band of irascible cranks, had made Athens a home for me, an unlikely touchstone and point of eternal inspiration and gratitude.

After a weekend of grieving, I started to work again. Per the usual, I wrote web copy and streamed Seattle’s KEXP. I’d been listening to both Glands’ records on infinite repeat all weekend, trying to make sense of mortality and the struggles inherent as creative people. But I was done, ready to move on. It was time for new tunes.

From nowhere, the DJ played The Gland’s tune, “When I Laugh,” a lilting, sardonic piece that encapsulated a solid corner of Ross’ humor. I was destroyed, came full circle back to the first second I’d learned of his death, only this time all the feelings and memories were unearthed and renewed. I remembered Ross workshopping the lyrics behind the counter at the Gyro. I remembered him doing therapeutic exercises to ease the pain in his back. It staggered me. A strip of the past fell to some unknown fate below.

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Suddenly I was again spinning in music, in memory, and a sea of eternal questions. I emailed DJ Cheryl Waters and thanked her for the tribute. After the song ended, she came on the air with a shaking voice and announced to the world that Ross Shapiro had died.

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Header image courtesy of Chona Kasinger. To view her photo essay “Cheers!” go here.

hobie anthony writer nailed magazineHobie Anthony is an Oregon writer. He can be found in such journals as Fourteen Hills, Fiction Southeast, The Rumpus, [PANK], Wigleaf, Housefire, Crate, Ampersand, Birkensnake, Word Riot, Connotation Press, and many more. He earned an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. To learn more, check his website, here.

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Carrie Seitzinger

Carrie Seitzinger is Editor-in-Cheif and Co-Publisher of NAILED. She is the author of the book, Fall Ill Medicine, which was named a 2013 Finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Seitzinger is also Co-Publisher of Small Doggies Press.
Learn more about her at her official site.