By Jonathan Briggs

Reporting on the closure of an El Paso institution, one local media outlet missed the point somewhat, copying Wikipedia’s definition of “head shop” by way of explanation, as if the Headstand was just another place where stoners bought their rolling papers and dragon bongs.

I’m sure that happened plenty, but for many of us, the Headstand meant much more: It was our only connection to a world that felt far out of reach to restless young people stuck in a desert dust patch.

It may be harder to relate for people who grew up in more cosmopolitan cities enjoying college radio, thriving nightclub scenes and well-stocked record stores, but we had little to none of that. Luke Skywalker yearning into the sunsets on Tatooine? That was us. 

In El Paso throughout the ’80s and ’90s, KLAQ-FM kept a classic rock stranglehold on the airwaves, ensuring that the only tunes we heard were 30 years old or thoroughly market-tested. Before you start scratching out that irate letter to the editor in defense of “Free Bird” and “Stairway to Heaven,” I’m not knocking any of that music or disputing its classic status. I love it, too.

But as my pandemic isolation menu of microwave dinners has proved over the past two years, a steady diet of one thing is liable to make you sick to your guts.

Sound Warehouse was the main chain music store at the time. I imagine for most of the employees, the job was more summer cash than sacred calling, so perhaps they can be forgiven for the many baffled expressions when asked for something far off the Billboard charts. The Q’s playlist was set in Stones, and the record stores tended to follow suit.

All but one….

In college, I often played shoulder devil, talking my buddy Chuck into ditching class to drive us all the way out to Dyer Street to rummage through the record and tape racks at the Headstand. 

It was the only place in town that stocked releases from Sub Pop, my favorite indie label. The only place where a kid could find punk or glam or goth or hardcore or thrash or even weirder stuff he didn’t even realize he was looking for. 

Black Flag’s “My War?” Got it at the Headstand. Bauhaus 7-inches, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” got it at the Headstand. Hanoi Rocks, got it at the Headstand. Misfits and Samhain on black cassette, got it at the Headstand. Cat Butt? Hell yea, I’m gonna buy an album from a band called Cat Butt, and the damn thing’s Lime Kool-Aid green to boot. Got it at the Headstand. 

Jonathan Briggs and one of the albums he discovered at the Headstand. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Briggs)

And tucked among the underground titles from abroad were homegrown acts, At the Drive In and Spindrift, local bands trying to escape the constrictive cover tune circuit of the clubs to play their own creations.

On one Headstand run, I found an album called “Bleach” by some nobody band named Nirvana. Never heard of it, but it was on Sub Pop, and I was automatically buying everything on Sub Pop. Sure, they never amounted to much, but we can’t all be superstars, right?

El Paso’s changed a lot, grown a lot since then. There’s more stuff for kids to do. The artists whose albums I used to hunt for at the Headstand now come in person to perform live or record at the state-of-the-art studio in Tornillo. 

When I come to town and go record shopping with my best friend Aaron and his daughters, we don’t have to leave his neighborhood to find our fuzzy warbles. We even like the deep cuts the KLAQ spinoff, Q2, plays as we drive around. Amazon delivers, and there are limitless music streams on the gizmos. 

So I don’t know if the Headstand holds the same importance for desperately bored young people. But I know a lot of gray-haired former desperately bored young people who are gonna be bummed come June when the Headstand closes its doors for the last time. I wish I could get down there for one last raid on the racks. But the music and memories will linger even after that cloud of funny-smelling smoke dissipates.

(Now if only I still had a turntable to play that pukey-green Cat Butt record.)

In the late 1990s, Jonathan Briggs moved to the Washington, D.C., metro area where there is crazy, innovative music coming out of a variety of venues catering to every interest, and now he falls asleep at home with the headphones on.