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Junkies, Wannabe Artists, Criminals and Other Temporary Friends in 'The Customer is Always Wrong'

Throughout all of Pond's graphic memoir/confessional, her funny, biting, and overall authentic voice is brought to life with her expressive ink and watercolor panels.


The Customer is Always Wrong

Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
Length: 448 pages
Author: Mimi Pond
Price: $29.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-08
Amazon

Comic artist Mimi Pond's continuation of the memoir she began in Over Easy delves right back into the world of late '70s / early '80s Oakland, California. The Customer Is Always Wrong follows her time as a waitress at The Imperial Cafe filled with a cast of characters as colorful as the aqua watercolor filling the pages of her book; junkies, dealers, wannabe artists, and criminals fill Pond's story as she struggles to make a career as a cartoonist while also continually being drawn into a world frequently at odds with that goal.

While Over Easy documented Pond's time as a recent art school graduate, floundering in her future and recently hired as dishwasher, and then waitress at The Imperial Cafe, The Customer Is Always Wrong finds her fully immersed in the restaurant and its dysfunctional staff and weirdo regulars. Surrounded by coworkers who seem to be perpetually in some state of a drug-induced high, attempting to score drugs, and temperamenta

l, they're a motley crew headed by restaurant manager, Lazlo, who looms large as a presence both comforting and cautionary.

Lazlo is a poet, though he's certainly not actively working as one, but regardless, he's a charming raconteur who manages to understand Pond in ways that surprise and delight her. Their relationship is filled with inside jokes, wry observations on the many characters they encounter on a regular basis, and a sharp understanding of what it means to truly be creative and ambitious. Though it may seem throughout much of the story that Pond is aimless or not really serious about her goal to be a successful cartoonist, she submits her work to the National Lampoon, which is accepted, and then strives to save enough money to move to New York. That goal is always present in the story, even amidst the ongoing theater that is the Imperial. There are many setbacks along the way, not the least of which is Pond's own indecisiveness at times, but her sincere wish to achieve her goal is never in question.

The constant drama that fuels her time at the Imperial also fuels Pond's storytelling. Break ups and hook ups are commonplace, as are the high emotions that accompany the many romantic betrayals that take place at the restaurant. Pond's own relationship with her boyfriend, Bryan, is a roller coaster of highs and lows until she's finally so fed up that she ends things.

Part of what makes Pond's comics so engaging and relatable is her willingness to offer up her own faults and mistakes to the reader. She's not a removed narrator, above it all, looking down on the riff raff around her. Rather, she's in the fray, sometimes observing, sometimes complicating, and sometimes misunderstanding, but always honest.

Much, if not most, of the dramatics in the story are directly related to drugs. The ease with which everyone is able to procure drugs and the implicit acceptance of drug use, even while working, is central to The Customer Is Always Wrong and cements it in its time period perfectly. When Camille and Neville get caught up in dealing, then stealing drugs, and eventually become addicted to heroin, Pond deftly straddles the line between painting a matter-of-fact picture of the events and normalizing, if not approving, of their choices. Even Lazlo, who manages to convince them to attend a 21-day methadone rehab program sees nothing wrong with doing coke on the way to the clinic.

Later in the book, Lazlo confides to Pond, “Drugs are supposed to make you feel good, help you live better... not ruin your life, right?” It's a statement that encapsulates a great deal about the culture at the time, and the characters' choices, while also foreshadowing the future anti-drug stance that would take hold of the country.

When Lazlo is diagnosed with cancer, there's a shift that takes place for Pond that propels the story forward toward a more active approach to getting out of the Imperial and moving to New York. She's getting pressure from National Lampoon to move and, increasingly, she's losing her romantic suffering artist attachment to the restaurant. Lazlo's illness brings out a maudlin honesty in him that affects Pond greatly, and ultimately, it's the final push she needs to make her decision. Dodging a suspicious request to add a phone line in her house for her art “patrons”, Phyllis and Mitchell (another pair of junkies and dealers), she declines by saying she's moving, and it's confirmation that she's on the right path.

Throughout all of The Customer is Always Wrong Pond's confessional, funny, biting, and overall authentic voice is brought to life with her always expressive ink and watercolor panels. The aqua hue that permeates the work speaks to her singular artistic approach that transcends a biographical work. She imbues her story with insights that speak to many precisely because there's so much specificity and detail to her individual perspective. Seeing the ways in which she interacts with, reacts to, and observes and learns from those around her provides a peek into a mind brimming with curiosity and true affection for other people.

It's easy to get caught up in the lives of Pond and the Imperial crew, awash with constant drama and memorable weirdos, but more than that she has a voice that relates their stories with understanding and kindness. It's a beautiful gift and a wonderful tribute to the time.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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