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In the living room of his Springfield house, Dave Pasternak, America’s newly crowned Ultimate Music Geek, is enjoying the fruits of his labors. He’s lounging in his comfy armchair, and at his feet lies his faithful yellow lab, Levi, named for Four Tops lead singer Levi Stubbs. On the wall are sturdy wood-and-cinder-block shelves of records, just a fragment of his 5,000-LP collectionevery slab of vinyl arranged alphabetically by artist (and then chronologically within each section). Nearby sits his brand-new Rock-Ola replica of a 1946 Wurlitzer bubble jukebox, his prize for winning the Rhino Musical Aptitude Test.
Pasternak’s jukebox plays “I Don’t Want to Go Home” by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, that sweet slice of blue-eyed ’70s soul. It’s his wife Bobbi’s favorite song, and that’s why it earned the hallowed place as Number 0001 on the shiny Wurlitzer. She’s a music geek, too, and she’s telling the story about how she and Dave met.
It was 1980 at the now-defunct Penguin Feather record store in Fairfax; Bobbi had just read the Jim Morrison biography No One Here Gets Out Alive and was caught up in the Lizard King’s revival. She brought a couple of used Doors albums to the counter, not exactly the hippest thing to be buying at the height of new wave. Like many small record stores in those days, Penguin Feather doubled as a head shop, but Pasternak didn’t dismiss Bobbi’s purchase with a stoner’s smirk or snide comment. “He wasn’t judgmental at all,” she recalls. “He was nice and smiling, and that wasn’t the normal thing you found at Penguin Feather.”
They definitely dug each other, and most importantly, they discovered they had more than 400 albums in common, an eclectic mix of American music fed by their shared affection for roots-rock and old issues of Creem. It was the beginning of a musical courtship that began with a date at a Jonathan Richman concert and culminated in marriage, which not only symbolized the union of their lives but the consolidation of their massive record collections.
Pasternak had worked for years in local record shops, first as a student at the University of Maryland, and after graduation at the Penguin Feather chain in Northern Virginia. If it wasn’t exactly a career, it was still a calling, and the perfect job for a vinyl addict. Boasting a prodigious memory and insatiably eclectic taste, he soaked up record arcanafrom labels and producers to studio musicians, backup singers, and session dates. In the era before computerized retail and snot-nose-ringed clerks, record-store geeks had to really know their stuff to do the job. No computerized “file under” lists assisted the clerks in stocking the bins. They had to know who everybody was. Pasternak would scour the liner notes and song credits, digging back into rock’s past. A Nighthawks record would lead him to blues greats like Sonny Boy Williamson and Jimmy Reed. “When I find something I like, I get curious about where it came from,” he says.
Pasternak’s paradise by the record bins couldn’t last, of course. Eventually, he left the biz for his current gig as a computer systems analyst; Bobbi works as a nurse. But their musical obsession continued to grow, and the couple now have thousands of CDs alongside their vinyl. Even after the 1983 release of Southside Johnny’s
horrendously slick Trash It Up, which the Pasternaks point to as their greatest musical letdown, the couple forged on, taking solace in roots-rockers like Dave Alvin.
Then in April the 39-year-old Pasternak got a chance to prove himself and relive his glory days toiling in record stores, memorizing facts that meant next to nothing in the real world. Rhino Records was sponsoring a Musical Aptitude Test, a 300-question, multiple-choice music-trivia exam. Hosted by Dr. Demento, the contest was held at Tower record stores in New York and Los Angeles; Pasternak joined the hordes who participated over the Internet. It was an open-book, one-hour test modeled after the SAT. Scoring 212.7 out of a possible 350, Pasternak beat 1,250 contestants to take the top honors and the title of Ultimate Music Geek. Ever humble, he says he figured he’d do well but never expected to win: “I took it as a lark,” he says. “I know for a fact from working in record stores that there are people far geekier than me.” (His brother-in-law took the test after the fact and scored slightly behind Dave; Bobbi also later tried her luck and scored over 100, which would have made her the top female contestant.)
The rigors of the RMAT have left Pasternak, even a month later, a bit dazed and still brooding about botched answers. Sure he won, but it proved a Pyrrhic victory, at least where his pride is concerned: “I got 60 percent [of the questions] right, and when I went to school 60 was a D.” He considers it the toughest exam he has ever taken, except for calculus tests in college. With only an hour, he found little time to refer to his huge library of rock reference tomes; he says hitting the books helped on fewer than 10 questions, though they did confirm his hunch that Mary Travers was the oldest member of Peter, Paul, and Mary.
The test featured questions on topics ranging from Enrico Caruso to In Utero; there was mostly rock and pop but also healthy doses of soul, blues, country, and jazz. Some claim that entire sections on the Monkees and the Rhino label itself tainted the RMAT, but Pasternak says the test was hard but ultimately fair, since everybody had to tussle with its willfully wide-ranging obscurantism. “I’m sure there were people who nailed every jazz question, and then they hit the Monkees and said, ‘What the hell is this?’” He says he got snagged on the five-question section on This Is Spi¬nal Tap, even though he has seen the movie several times. (One example: “According to Spi¬nal Tap how many people have been in the band? a) 4; b) 13; c) 37; d) 112.”)
Pasternak turned down the grand prize, “The Rock ‘n’ Roll Musical History Tour,” an all-expense paid trip for two to London, New York, Memphis, Cleveland, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. The couple has already made a pilgrimage to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and neither was interested in jet-hopping from city to city in little more than a week. When Rhino phoned to tell Pasternak he’d won, Bobbi urged her husband to opt for the CD jukebox offered to runners-up. Rhino acquiesced to the unusual request, declaring that the winner’s decision made Pasternak “a true music geek.”
But soon after Rhino delivered the $7,500 jukebox, the Pasternaks were squabbling over which records would make the playlist. The Wurlitzer can only hold half of the 200 Rhino discs that came with itand that doesn’t allow for the thousands of CDs the Pasternaks already have. Like in some debased musical version of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” the jukebox of their dreams nearly tore them apart. But Dave says that Levi, Soul Canine No. 1, ultimately won the day, reuniting the couple in their love of R&B: “Levi is particularly fond of Sam and Dave.” CP
Sidebar: Six That Stumped the Geek
1. The melody for the Nat King Cole standard “What a Difference a Day Makes” comes from the Cuban song
a) “Cuba Linda” (Beautiful Cuba)
b) “Quiero Comprar las Naranjas” (I Want to Buy the Oranges)
c) “Guantanamera” (Guantanamera)
d) “Cuando Vuelvo a tu Lado” (When I Return to Your Side)
2. Where were the covers of both the
Rolling Stones’ High Tide and Green Grass
and Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of
a) Brighton, England
b) Woodstock, New York
c) Franklin Canyon, Los Angeles
d) Long Island, New York
3. According to chart expert Joel
Whitburn, this pre-WWII performer
sung on some 12,000 recordingsfar
more than any other vocalist in history.
Name the artist.
a) Jenny Lind
b) Al Jolson
c) Henry Burr
d) Enrico Caruso
4. According to Gordon Lightfoot, how
many men were aboard the Edmund
5. Rudy Vallee’s #1 hit “Stein Song” was the theme song for what university?
b) the University of Maine
c) the University of Notre Dame
d) the University of Pittsburgh
6. What are Ferrante & Teicher’s first names?
a) Michael & John
b) Arthur & Louis
c) Angelo & Martin
d) Phil & John
1-d, 2-c, 3-c, 4-b, 5-b, 6-b
By the way, there were 37 Spinal Tappers, according to the band.