Theft of a Cassingle

Sometime in early 1995, I was caught shoplifting a cassingle of “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”.

R.E.M.’s “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” was released September 5th, 1994. In 1994, R.E.M. was the biggest rock band in the world. They were coming off of Automatic for the People, and fans were waiting for whatever might be next — what would follow the success of songs like “Man on the Moon” or “Everybody Hurts.” R.E.M. answered with “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?,” a song inspired by a New York City mugging of Dan Rather, with enough distortion to signify a marked change in R.E.M.’s sound.

September 2021: Theft of a Cassingle

  • “Rainforest” — Noname
  • “The Love” — People Under the Stairs
  • “Bloodshot (Helios Remix)” — Julien Baker
  • “The Bronx” — Booker T. Jones (w/ Lou Reed)
  • “Down in the Dark” — Mark Lanegan
  • “I Wanna Be Your Dog” — Uncle Tupelo
  • “I Wanna Keep Yr Dog” — illuminati hotties
  • “I’ll Be Here in the Morning” — Townes Van Zandt
  • “Before You Go” — Courtney Barnett
  • “Broken Wings” — Sage Francis
  • “Dominoes’” — Donald Byrd
  • “That’s All for Everyone” — Fleetwood Mac
  • “Glass Danse (Paul Oakenfold Remix)” — Faint
  • “The Work” — DJ Khalid Music (w/ De La Soul & DJ Chokolate)
  • “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” — R.E.M.
  • “Evolver” — Whirlpool

Listen on Spotify. Listen on Apple Music.

I know the release date because I looked it up on Wikipedia, but the rest I know by heart. I loved Monster, the album from which “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” appeared. I’ve been unapologetically in love with that album and that song since it was released.

I say these things because, I guess, I’m trying to figure out some kind of motivation for shoplifting that particular cassingle. Probably I was bored. Probably I wanted a challenge.

What’s for sure is I had no logical reason to steal a cassingle — more to the point, I had no reason to own a cassingle. The format was a notorious pain in the ass. They came in little cardboard sleeves that would, without fail, begin to fray within hours of purchase. Cassingles presented a promise they could never fulfill: an experience cut short by mechanics. Three minutes, then stop everything and flip.

Also, that specific cassingle was absolute garbage. The A side was, obviously, “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?,” but the B side was … an instrumental version of “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”.

No one needs to steal that.

Yet, I tried. And I succeeded — for a few minutes. I snuck it into my pocket and continued to wander around the store. I looked at some magazines. I poked around the music section. I finally head toward the door.

And then: a voice.

“Hey. I need you to come with me.”

Over time, many of the details have gotten hazy, but that moment — those first few seconds — stays sharp. The feeling of adrenaline kicking in, of my face and body getting hot, of feeling completely helpless. Of turning around to see a security officer walking toward me. Of panicking and immediately complying. I didn’t know what else to do.

In retail, there’s a premium placed on space, which means things beyond the retail floor are given short shrift. This includes security — there’s no real place to hold a shoplifter, so the store will use whatever room they find. This is how I found myself in a kind of windowless break-room-slash-spare-office, a space clearly used for nothing in particular, now briefly realized as a holding area for petty theft. In this moment, I felt farther from the world than at any point in my life. No one knew I was here but the two men in the room.

At the same time, that fear slowly fell away. This random room, the trying-to-be-tough lecture I received from the security guy — these things pierced the illusion. This was thrown together. This wasn’t hard time, by any means.

I was told to empty my pockets. I pulled out a half-opened package of note cards, and he asked if I’d stolen those too. (I hadn’t.) He took a polaroid of me holding that “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” cassingle, as if it was going to be placed under a sign that read DO NOT SERVE THIS KID.

Every action made things less frightening. I settled into what I’d done as I slowly turned from guilt to annoyance. I was no longer worried about getting in trouble — I had resigned myself to whatever fate my parents had in store, and I could see by now that Lewis Drug and its security team was not going to press charges. This is the great con of retail security — the trappings are designed to get as close to official law enforcement as possible, but there’s no actual authority. These people couldn’t do anything more than ban me from the store. If I’d have been more reckless — more of a risk-taker, more of a kid who wasn’t deathly afraid of authority — I could have just dropped that cassingle and ran.

I was not a risk-taker. But even though I had actually been caught, as they let me go I felt like I was getting away with something.

Later that day, after getting a lecture from my mom, and probably another one from my dad, and being grounded for a month (of which I served only half of my time) my friend called to check in. He told me that while I was being grilled by security, our other friend was also engaging in petty crime. Instead of a worthless pop cassingle, he stole over-the-counter dramamine from the pharmacy.

He didn’t get caught.

I wonder if that dramamine had an instrumental version.

This was lovingly handwritten on September 28th, 2021