Negotiating the Dense and Boorish Clots, Or Shopping for Music
The Physical Fetish by Brian James - I've got some kind of fetish for CDs that goes far beyond a mere love of music. The objects are important to me, and while there are some nice, rational reasons why I'll stick to buying them rather than any downloadable alternative the world throws at me, at heart, I know my compulsion is nonsense.
St. Louis, the town to which I am currently consigned due to an ill-advised move from Chicago with a girlfriend who eventually became my ex-girlfriend, is home to Chuck Berry and Ike Turner, but other than that, it is not a very rockin' city. It has many record stores, but one, Vintage Vinyl, towers so prominently over all competitors that it often feels as if it's the only shop here. Its selection is strong, and its location in trendy University City is fine for those fortunate enough not to have former lovers living nearby.
Still, I don't care to go there much. The big turn-off came when I was turning in a stack of CDs for a Stevie Wonder collection I'd had my eye on. The clerk sorting through my offering was chatting with another clerk about a mutual acquaintance.
"I was talking to Brenda the other day," said one. "Did you know she's never heard Can before?"
"Really?" said the other.
"Yeah. Can you believe it?"
"So I take it she's never heard of Mooney Suzuki, either?"
There was a pause while they considered the weight of the situation. Then they shared a little laugh and shook their heads.
When I saw all this I vowed to shop online more often in the future. The experience of being surrounded by reminders of the relative unimportance of my passion combined with the realization of how much I share with people who think less of other people for not realizing that the name of an obscure band is derived from the names of the first two singers of another obscure (if legendary) band was more than my sensitive soul could bear. So I did shop online more often, but I never resorted to downloading and I never stopped going to Vintage Vinyl. Sure, I've cut back, but I can't quit anytime I want. I'm hooked, and it's not just music. It's the CDs, and even if I can buy as many as I want over the Internet, I sometimes feel an overwhelming urge to just be around rack after rack of them, all lined up in geometric precision, one plastic square after another, all bursting with unexpected color and containing all types of music. I'll walk up and down the rows, seeking out albums I already own just to see if they're there. It's like visiting old friends. Here's T. Rex's Tanx, containing "20th Century Boy", what I consider to be the best single in rock history. It's good to see copies of it still around. And there's the Kinks section, littered as they usually are with '80s efforts but also with the '60s masterpieces stuck in back. Then a step across the aisle and I'm sifting through to say hello to John Cale's Vintage Violence or Paris 1919, but there's only a used copy of Walking on Locusts, which makes me sad.
That makes me sad? What the hell is wrong with me?
I've tried to answer that question over and over again, and while I've never come to a satisfactory conclusion, I have finally admitted to myself that I've got some kind of fetish for CDs that goes far beyond a mere love of music. The objects are important to me, and while there are some nice, rational reasons why I'll stick to buying them rather than any downloadable alternative the world throws at me, at heart, I know my compulsion is nonsense. I've heard all the reasons MP3s are great, and I have no rhetorical ammunition against those arguments that hasn't been fired off elsewhere at length, but I will say that I think Thoreau was right that you never gain something without losing something. If buying music is going to be entirely done in the not-too-distant future by typing in a credit card number on a website and getting a computer file in return, I want to offer an early elegy for the time when you slid a twenty-dollar bill across a counter to a surly guy discussing Can and got a little disc and some change slid back at you, an era I hope for my sake doesn't end as soon as I fear it might.
If I'm being sloppy with my sentimentality already, I assure you, it's not the least of my neuroses in this area. Perhaps my biggest one, and certainly the one that took the longest to decipher, was my habit of displaying my CDs. At first, I thought that this was just what a person did. You needed a place to put CDs, so you buy a tower and file them away. But when I was in college, I met one young man smart enough to carry around his discs in wallets. His collection, nearly as impressive as mine, fit into his closet while mine ate up precious floor space in my cramped dorm room. His approach had never occurred to me, but even after being introduced to it, I stuck it out with the tower method, figuring that I already had a place to put them. But then I got more CDs and needed more storage. I bought more towers. I don't know that I even bothered trying to explain it to myself. I was appalled by the thought of not having these things out in the open, of stowing them away, zipped up and out of sight. At first, I thought that it was just ego. It's a nice feeling when little else is going your way to have a newcomer stroll by your music collection and compliment it. But even when everyone who was ever going to walk by had come and gone, even after all my friends had pored over it and been impressed, even after I started living alone with few visitors and with my CD collection now becoming problematic to store in one place, I still insisted on keeping it out. My current living room arrangement is designed to accommodate hundreds of jewel cases, and it is stupid, even stupider for my inability to discern why I was doing it.
Then came the breakthrough. One evening, I was kneeling before my CDs as I've done many times without knowing quite why, and it occurred to me that I was looking at a self-portrait. Each part of me got sympathetic vibrations from a corresponding bit of that collection, and since I buy nearly everything I want and sell back nearly everything I don't like, it's a remarkably accurate and up-to-date self-portrait. When I respond to something a little bit, like Leonard Cohen, there's one or two entries, maybe a best-of compilation. When I respond to something a lot, there's a whole row of cases, a giant stretch of Bob Dylan or David Bowie, looking fantastic with identical Columbia red block lettering or black Rykodisc type (with the exception of Hunky Dory, which I bought on RCA; I've contemplated tracking down the Rykodisc version countless times just to get that stretch looking uniform). Bands like the New York Dolls and Television are underrepresented, but the bootlegs and live albums augmenting the few studio albums announce my love and dedication. Bands are kept together with each one's discography being filed in chronological order, but other than solo albums being placed next to the original band's, there is no logic to artist juxtapositions (the one exception, I realized with embarrassment when explaining it to someone who asked about the organization scheme, was that I always keep Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart together because "they're friends". That I had subconsciously used the present tense despite Zappa's death indicates that maybe "they" doesn't refer to the people). The Zombies are next to the Sex Pistols. The Beach Boys and Brian Eno rub shoulders. Howlin' Wolf runs into the Undertones. This messiness is only proper when symbolizing something as complex as a human personality, and I think it does the trick for me. I can finish the sentence, "I am...." with my job title, my position in my band, my astrological sign, or any number of vague descriptive words and hope to give someone an idea of what I'm like, but if I'm really in the mood to convey that information to someone, I want to sit them down on my floor and have them thumb through my music collection.
A mighty spread like mine is much more impressive than a list of files, but if I had been willing to put my music on an iPod and put my CDs in the basement, I might have more furniture in my living room. I'll admit to a trade-off, and if my choice involved nothing more than visually impressive bulk, I would also admit to being an idiot. But there's more to it. I like the CDs as individuals, too. Whenever I get one and pop it in for the first time, I sit there and hold the case in my hands as the music plays. I look at the cover, flip through the booklet for interesting photos or liner notes, look at the back. If I don't find anything that sustains my interest, I put the thing back together, close the lid, and twirl it around on its corners, stare at it some more, even clamp my lips down on it. I don't know why I do that last part, and I wasn't even aware that I did it until it struck me one night as I was falling asleep that I could call to mind with surprising clarity what a jewel case tastes like. That's just goofy, but even the promise of being starved of such a bizarre habit with a music format it's absolutely impossible to put in your mouth doesn't tempt me away. What's special about CDs, what keeps me attached to them and averse to downloaded music, is a frame. Frank Zappa said that the frame is the only thing that makes something art, the only thing that differentiates Duchamp's urinal from the one at your local bar. A CD gives me a limited set of songs in a specific order with a visual companion to the aural experience, and listening to music doesn't feel right to me without all these components. Houses of the Holy sounds like a very orange album to me, Electric Warrior, a very black one. "Here Comes the Sun" sounds richer coming after "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" and before "Because" than it does standing alone. I want to experience a work of art as the artist intended, and having that CD in my hand is the best guarantee I know to keep its frame intact and its content as sanctified as the best art deserves to be.
Of course, this is all a bit specious. You can see album covers on the Internet and download an entire album, and you can skip past songs or reprogram them into a different order on a CD player, and greatest hits albums chop up original works just as surely as anyone on iTunes could. Ultimately, I doubt I could roll out any arguments that wouldn't take close inspection without deteriorating into mush, revealing the nostalgia behind it all. But nostalgia is, I think, unfairly maligned. Its Greek root word, nostos, means, "a return home", which makes me feel unashamed of using it to describe why I'm still clinging to these silly little objects rather than trading it all for enough floor space for a futon. I've been buying these objects for years. The first one I bought (Led Zeppelin's In Through the Out Door), and the most recent (a tie between the new Camper Van Beethoven and Special View by the Only Ones) form the first and last links in a chain that unites different periods in my life and different parts of myself. Years of thought and emotion are documented there in stacks of plastic and aluminum. As I've moved to new apartments and new cities and new states, my music collection may be the only thing that makes me feel that where I happen to be is home. It's unwieldy to be sure, but when I look at it as the metaphor that it is, its bulk and continued growth are not burdens to me, but comforts.