Photo by James Tucker.
Installing my record player into my Brooklyn apartment two months ago coincided with a rather fateful mishap — my backpack containing a hard drive with 180 gigabytes worth of music was stolen from my car while I was parked in Midtown Manhattan, of all places. With one collection moving in and another lost in an easily insurable criminal act, my friends, roommates, and neighbors groaned when I thought this served as evidence of my superstitions concerning the sustainability of large music collections.
The tenets of said superstitions are as follows:
- If I accumulate more than 80 gigabytes of music, then more than 40% of that collection will be lost or destroyed either during or before I move into my next apartment.
- My Frank Zappa discography is always the first to go.
- (For back when I was a musician), if my band books recording time at a studio, the likelihood of a catastrophic event that will severely impact my ability to access the majority of the music I own increases two-fold until said album is completed.
- Any torrented files usually are either mis-titled, out of order, or both. I will never stop correcting these errors as long as I live, and will continue to make embarrassingly erroneous references in public to songs that don’t exist.
Nothing in the bulleted list is particularly revelatory, besides the obvious: I’m a musical glutton. I know I’ve got nothing on the 10,000 records that Rolling Stone column claims that David Fricke has, but many have looked on my iTunes, and made some remark along the lines of “50,000 songs? You have time to listen to all of that?”
The easy answer is ‘God, no’ but that doesn’t necessarily mean that most of this music is going to waste. According to my long lost Last.fm profile, I’ve listened to more than 45,000 individual tracks in the last five or so years. Keep in mind, I’m also the kind who wears their headphones around their neck like a crucifix from their dead grandmother.
Though, the trouble with acquiring that music-listening regimen is that it requires having a very rapid exchange of media flowing through one’s playable devices, media that was probably meant as art to be digested repeatedly and over a long period of time. The guilt in owning so much stuff (and remember, music in any form still qualifies as “stuff”) comes from the notion that even a morsel of it might go to waste, that you might forget to listen to Cahoots by the Band in the year before downloading it and when your hard drive is potentially crushed by a rogue trucker driving an 18-wheeler off the highway and into your apartment. So you force yourself to digest this art in the exact fashion it was never meant to be digested. You fly through records, usually passing widespread judgment of their contents on nothing more than a first listen.
As with so much bickering over cultural over-saturation via the Internet, I’m going to tell you this is not a good thing if you haven’t been able to tell already.
It was strange how at first I was disappointed by not only losing said hard drive, but in coming to terms with what music I had to live off of for a while. At the time, I considered most of them half-realized mediocrities (for instance, The Clash’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope, The Walkmen’s You & Me, mum’s Sing Along to Songs You Don’t Know, to name a few) peppered with standard-bearing, all-time greats (Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Loaded, Rubber Soul, etc.). Now, even the slightest records of that lot I consider life blood today.
I don’t expect their status in the canonization of pop to be reconsidered by the larger listening public any time soon, and neither do I intend to persuade anyone that they deserve to be. Yet it is quite uncanny how much the hungry pair of ears will scrounge for the sound of true inspiration from whatever they have to work with, even if those sounds are not in abundance. Records like Astral Weeks, Pet Sounds, or Loveless are what they are because finding beauty and innovation within them is like shooting fish in a barrel. Which in turn, makes a discussion of those qualities rather barren– what is great about those records is so obvious, what is there left to be said? An album like You & Me takes more effort (and therefore making the record more of a treasure in the rough) because at first, it doesn’t sound particularly challenging.
To its intended audience, You & Me does not make a terribly obligatory listen because it can’t prove itself to be more than a mere B+ showing of everything everyone knows that the Walkmen do best: washes of reverb-laden, hollow bodied guitars, seductive rhythmic conversation between tom drums and hi-hats, all behind soaring and crashing vocals that whine just like Dave Davies, muse like Leonard Cohen, but sigh like Dylan. Yet to my ears, You & Me reveals itself as a deeply sensual work after repeated listens — less a song-strong record than an exercise in its creators unabashedly relishing in the modes and moods they began harnessing on the band’s more lauded works, like Bows + Arrows.
If my backpack had never been stolen, You & Me would just be another barely touched folder in “My Music”. Yet the potential pitfalls of owning large, all-eggs-in-one-basket-no-matter- how-you-dice-it, digitized record collections also sheds light on not only the music I never especially cared about at first, but the music I’ve always loved.
Among the ever-posed questions in music geekery is the problem of choosing one’s desert island song or record. To me, the very question of “You’re stuck on a desert island, what’s the one record you take with you?” doesn’t have any significant utility in discovering or announcing anything profound that anyone feels about a piece of music.
In fact, if I ever found myself trapped on a desert island, I feel as though choosing music to accompany that experience would be a mistake, especially music I enjoy. I’m going to inevitably get sick of what ever I choose, so why would I want to intentionally stain something I love? Can I take something I hate now but could learn to enjoy instead? Should I take music more conducive to a life of splitting coconuts and making make-shift shelters?
Perhaps no music is meant to be played ad nauseam until death or rescue. However, daily life constantly poses similar questions on a smaller-scale but much more reasonable context. For instance, if I’m going to South Africa for a week, should I pack Graceland or The Rhythm of the Saints?
So in losing 30,000 songs in a single night posed a far more poignant problem for my music listening habits. When rebuilding a house of cards I’ve spent the better part of my life stacking, where do I start? Indeed, when you’re left on a desert island with a backpack full of cds and a brand new MacBook, what’s the first song you put back on your iTunes?
It’s being placed in these circumstances that one can honestly answer questions concerning their base listening experience, or their musical ‘home ground’ so to speak. There is no ‘being cool’ in choosing that music that you can’t live without when you’re actually faced with having to live without it. There is no tossing off a mediocre-sounding record for later. Depending on how long it takes you to rebuild your iTunes collection, you may have to come back around to records like You & Me sooner or later just for sheer variety. There is only the return home to that base listening experience, going back to hearing music from how you first approached it– from scratch.