Love in the Time of Record Shops

“Apple has announced that music sales from its iTunes Music Store now eclipse CD sales from Wal-Mart as the impact of the music download era hits home.” —

Retail, 7 April 2008

I read this headline recently and it got me thinking for two reasons: 1) It wasn’t long ago that we bought music from stores – actual places that you could walk into, and 2) Wal-Mart is now the biggest music selling outlet?

Actually I’m not really surprised by either of these facts, but it made me long for the days of the local dusty record shop. Walking into those places and chatting with the guy behind the counter, someone who knew everything about every song ever recorded, is now long behind us. And remember those big black disks with the tiny hole in the middle that we used to play on machines called turntables? Well they’re lost even further back in time.

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby celebrates the days of the second-hand LP boutique and the culture associated with it. It is written from the point of view of 35-year-old Rob Fleming, the owner of “Championship Vinyl” – a place that specializes in the long player. Rob has just been dumped by his attorney girlfriend, Laura, and spends much of the novel chronicling their relationship and deconstructing his romantic past.

Right away we learn that Rob is obsessed not only with Laura, but with music. His shop is not the only music-related thing he owns; He also owns an enormous record collection, which brings him comfort after Laura leaves him:

Tuesday night I reorganize my record collection; I often do this at periods of emotional stress. There are some people who would find this a pretty dull way to spend and evening, but I’m not one of them. This is my life, and it’s nice to be able to wade in it, immerse your arms in it, touch it.

When talking about the physicality of records, he makes me think of my own record collection and why I miss the LPs and 45s I used to have crammed into crates and boxes: “There’s a whole world in here, a nicer, dirtier, more violent, more peaceful, more colorful, sleazier, more dangerous, mover loving world than the world I live in; there is history, and geography, and poetry, and countless other things. . .”

Much of the book is about Rob’s inability to maintain stable romantic relationships due to his fear of commitment. His need for closure on the past prompts him to contact each ex who dumped him and ask her what went wrong. Because he’s a music lover, he sees everything the way a critic would. He even creates a “Top Five Break-Ups” list.

There are a lot of relationships to work out and Rob crosses over into incessant whining a lot of the time. Luckily, Hornby is able to keep my interest and empathy by emphasizing the character’s self-deprecating humor and witty observations about life, music, and love.

Another thing that saves High Fidelity from being a Rob whine-fest is the presence of some very funny and interesting supporting players. The ex-girlfriends he re-visits from his past add a lot of comedy to the story. Each girl has a distinct personality unlike Laura, who I found to be rather dull in comparison.

When Hornby steers Rob into the direction of his record store things get even more amusing. This is where Rob is in his element. His employees — Barry, the ultimate music snob, and quiet, nerdy Dick – are the people who keep him grounded when his life seems to be falling apart. The guys spend their days deconstructing mix-tape standards and making “top five” lists of everything music-related and otherwise. In fact, 90 percent of their discussions involve music and trying to out-smart each other with their rock culture knowledge.

When the 2000 adaptation directed by Stephen Frears was released, Hornby told the New York Times that after seeing the film, “At times, it appears to be a film in which John Cusack reads my book.” Cusack, who plays Rob, does an outstanding job of portraying the self-obsessed, but loveable, record store owner. And like Hornby said, he does literally seem to be reading the book as he addresses the camera directly, saying things like, “What came first, the music or the misery?”

He is also great at essaying guys who think they aren’t good enough for the girls they’re dating. Remember Say Anything? Lloyd Dobler is all grown up now and pointing his boom box at his lawyer-girlfriend’s apartment instead of his teenage sweetheart’s house.

Cusack didn’t only act in the film, he also helped adapt the screenplay along with producers, D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink. The book and the film have very similar plots, but the story leaps over the Atlantic, changing locations from London to Chicago, and Rob Fleming becomes the more American-sounding, ‘Rob Gordon’.

I do miss the British-isms of the novel. There’s something very pleasing to the American ear when hearing the words “mate” and “tosser” in a British accent. But the story holds up well on US soil. Cusack walks around his store and apartment, making “Top Five Lists” of everything from what songs he’d like played at his funeral to the things he misses most about Laura.

The film is also successful due to some great casting. Iben Hjejle is spot-on as the level-headed, prim Laura who gives Rob a “nine percent chance” of them ever getting back together again.

Another notable female performance comes from Catherine Zeta-Jones who plays Charlie, Rob’s ex-girlfriend. Zeta Jones’ is hilarious as the pretentious jabber mouth who smokes constantly with dramatic flair and says things like, “I find an ex-boyfriend calling a little unnerving. There’s been a rash of them recently.” You want to reach into the screen and slap her. Hard. It doesn’t take long for Rob to figure out that they didn’t ever work well together and to come to the conclusion that she’s “awful”.

Tim Robbins plays Ian, the middle-aged guy with a ponytail who listens to “world music”. After Laura leaves Rob and starts dating Ian, Rob becomes obsessed with their relationship. Robbins is an interesting choice for the character. I would never have picked him to play the suave guy wearing an ear cuff and open shirt, but he is riotous in the role. One of the funniest scenes in the movie occurs when Rob imagines Laura and Ian having sex. The sequence shows Laura and Ian in what looks like a cheesy porn movie, gyrating against each other in a red velvet room with Ian’s hair flying around.

Todd Louiso plays timid Dick and does a great job of portraying his “ummm, yeah, sure” attitude with his straining-to-be-heard voice. Dick’s polar opposite is the boisterous, obnoxious Barry, played by Jack Black. This is one of Black’s best performances ever. He puts his expertise in physical comedy to work playing air guitar and dancing maniacally to Katrina and the Waves. His ability to adopt any facial expression on the drop of a dime is also helpful.

In the end, High Fidelity is about love and music and one man’s obsession with both. After things between Rob and Laura are resolved, he begins compiling a mix-tape for her. As he does this, he reminds the viewer that:

. . .the making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art. Many do’s and don’ts. First of all you’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing. The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don’t wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules. Anyway… I’ve started to make a tape… in my head… for Laura. Full of stuff she likes. Full of stuff that make her happy. For the first time I can sort of see how that is done.

While mix-tapes have become playlists on iPods and records stores have technologically turned into the likes of iTunes, there’s still something consoling about putting songs back-to-back to make a document of how you feel at a particular point in time – even if it is on a computer. As a member of the LP Generation, I’ll always miss the tactility of making a mix-tape or digging through a pile of albums, but I’m thankful that High Fidelity exists as a charming and earnest testament to this era.

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