Music

Negotiating the Dense and Boorish Clots, Or Shopping for Music

Zeth Lundy

The Plasticine Aroma of History by Zeth Lundy - My affinity for record store hopping isn't merely a Captain Ahab fetish by any means; it's more a willingness to stay in touch with the aura of a place that feeds my habit. Resigning oneself to a life of online record shopping is like claiming to be a movie buff, but simultaneously refusing to watch films that are letterboxed, subtitled, or in black and white. Sometimes you've got to work to obtain that which you desire -- sometimes effort is demanded from you -- and frankly, if you can't stomach it, then you don't deserve it.

A number of years ago, I became cognizant of long-forgotten '70s power-poppers the Scruffs and their sole release Wanna Meet the Scruffs? Hailed as an unfairly neglected cousin to other seminal works by the Raspberries, Cheap Trick, and Big Star, that Scruffs album became my white whale. Its status as an underdog classic-that-never-was, its cover art that aped A Hard Day's Night in blindingly flamboyant orange, the thought that I could possibly uncover something rarely heard in these days of easy access and overexposure -- I had to track it down.

It had been issued on CD in the late '90s by a small record label (Northern Heights, which now appears to be defunct), which made tracking it down about as easy as locating a copy of Dennis Wilson's Pacific Ocean Blue. Store after store I searched, but Wanna Meet the Scruffs? escaped my clutches at every dusty bin, every clearance shelf, every used shop and über-chain store. When I heard that fellow tiny label Rev-Ola was reissuing the album in 2002, my hopes lifted; finally I could get my hands on that which I seemed incapable of obtaining.

Well, to quote the album title of another underrated '70s power pop band, no dice. I scoured the racks of all the independent record stores in Los Angeles, even betting on randomly sighting a lone copy in one of the ginormous corporate stores, but apparently Rev-Ola's distribution was as expansive as George W. Bush's vocabulary.

Did I mention that I was able to find this elusive disc hiding like Harry Lime in the cavernous sewer systems of the online retail world? Amazon.com has it, Tower.com has it, ab-cd.com has it; but buying the object of my quest in the quick flick of a mouse button would be like the Red Sox defeating the Yankees in the ALCS due to a forced eighth-inning rainout. Success would be granted, but it would feel cheap and anti-climatic, an unearned victory, a hush-money payoff to curb future trips to the "Misc. S" section. I staunchly refuse to cave in so easily.

Why so stubborn, so stupid? Easy: if music is my religion, then record stores are my places of worship. Shopping for music is as absorbing an exercise as listening to music, one that requires more than sitting in a chair and staring at a computer screen. Record-searching and record-buying is a visceral, obsessive thing, an activity that demands physical contact. There's a calming comfort in being surrounded by row upon row of discs and vinyl, a sense of solidarity imbibed by standing among decades of recorded music. You can't help but feel a part of it all. Moving from "A" to "B" to "C", the hunt for specific albums begets the surprise of unexpected bargains begets the discovery of releases you didn't even know existed. Shopping in record stores means bumping into fellow obsessives pawing through the row adjacent to you, "Street Fighting Man" scissor-kicking its way through the overhead stereo, fingers flirting meticulously through the myriad of possibilities. The plasticine aroma of history.

Online stores, in contrast, are intrinsically sterile. Their emergence as a legitimate shopping outlet has come thanks to our culture's appetite for convenience and immediacy. It only makes sense that painless armchair access to music be available at the same machine where a public gets its news, pays its bills, and communicates with the world. The attraction is bolstered by the kinds of shopping bargains reserved for cutout bins; person-to-person online transactions are the new yard sale dickering war. To the neophyte, it's the ideal way to shop for music. But to the dedicated haunter of in-store racks, it renders a ritual invisible. Because, I believe, music-shopping/disc-digging is a ritualistic engagement, a meditative practice that can only be experienced by immersing yourself in the thick of it all. (Not to mention the extended ritual of stopping for coffee on the way home to peruse liner notes, admire the packaging, read the lyrics, and prepare for that maiden listen at home.) Online stores bore the living daylights out of me; even though I can call up any given disc on-screen, it doesn't physically sit in my hands at that moment of pre-sale contemplation. I can't vouch for its existence.

My affinity for record store hopping isn't merely a Captain Ahab fetish by any means; it's more a willingness to stay in touch with the aura of a place that feeds my habit. Resigning oneself to a life of online record shopping is like claiming to be a movie buff, but simultaneously refusing to watch films that are letterboxed, subtitled, or in black and white. Sometimes you've got to work to obtain that which you desire -- sometimes effort is demanded from you -- and frankly, if you can't stomach it, then you don't deserve it.

Some will undoubtedly cite the existence of the hipper-than-thou record store clerk as a prime reason to stay at home and shop online. The record store clerk knows about everything you know about, but he knows it better. The record store clerk fronts a band and, therefore, is so over the Unicorns disc you hold in your hand. The record store clerk dresses more ironically than you, feigns indifference at your selections, and recommends oblique alternatives because he can. But you can beat the record store clerk at his own game, and this is one of the most satisfying aspects of the entire process: passive-aggressively flaunting great finds in their horn-rimmed faces. Some of my greatest steals have occurred at used record stores, where the unsuspecting clerk rings up impossibly good bargains: the Grays' Ro Sham Bo for $2.99 (out of print and later spotted at same store for $30); the Kinks' self-titled debut -- the import remaster -- for $1.99; the old Rykodisc remaster of Bowie's Ziggy Stardust for $4.99 (out of print and subsequently seen for $35). Fads come and go, but good taste will always prevail when matched against the shoddy judgment of the used record store stocker.

Even worse than bland online shopping? Digital downloading. iTunes. iShudder at the thought. iTunes is not only the record labels' restitution for illegal downloading; it is designed to single-handedly demolish the concept of the LP. iTunes disfigures all recognition of album sequencing, turns songs into invisible digital encryptions, and cements the relationship between consumer and song as anesthetically cold, a bald transaction. Pardon the implied offense, but digital downloading of piecemeal tracks is for the fly-by-night music consumer. It's non-committal and non-implicating, a cop-out to dip toes in the wading pool of a few tracks rather than diving into the album entire. And to those who download full albums on services like iTunes: who are you? Are you the ones who instantly toss an album's packaging and jewel case aside upon purchase, the ones who unflinchingly toss CDs to the floor of your moving car in rush hour, the ones who mistake CDs for coffee table coasters? Let's get one thing straight: the MP3, while a terrific format for the websites of independent artists and for portable players, should not be interpreted as an acceptable replacement for bona fide hi-fi. It's not nearly as dynamic. It distorts; it compresses. It's a bastardization of a truer sound that unfortunately carries the persuasive heft of convenience. What CDs were to vinyl freaks, MP3s are now to CD freaks.

The greater danger here -- one that I have not yet addressed -- is that megastores like Wal-Mart, combined with the ubiquity of online services, will ultimately lead to the death of the local record store and, in the case of the former, the homogenization of available "alternatives". For example, if Target's success forces your local music shop to close, physically shopping for music will become unbelievably abbreviated. (Let It Be ... Naked, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and 1 does not a Beatles section make.) Online shopping would then provide the only way to find albums beyond the mass consumption mainstream, a devastating reality to those of us who live for the independent stores. Outlets like Wal-Mart and, say, Half.com may offer bargain-bin prices and breezy convenience, but they begrudgingly lack the soul of the independently owned shop. Nevertheless, I'll be contributing to the Sisyphean task of ensuring that record stores don't go the way of the 8-track (which, conversely, did deserve to go bye-bye with quadraphonic sound). Whether or not I ever add the Scruffs' Wanna Meet the Scruffs? to my library is really left to the hands of fate. But one thing is for sure: I'll have the time of my life hunting it down.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7
Music

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image