19 January 2013

Vinyl Reckonings, Redux (Geezer Edition)

This past week I've seen a number of posts from various U.K. music bloggers about the pending closure of the HMV record-shop chain. Out of which I found Neil Kulkarni's "Some thought about growing up and falling apart" to be the one that, for me, had the most personal resonance.

"But hold on. Nostalgia, as it’s phonetic adjacency to neuralgia suggests, is a more complex, nagging, painful thing than that. Nostalgia doesn’t have to be about yearning for what’s lost. None of us are dumb enough or depressed enough to think our school days were the best years of our lives, let alone wish ourselves back into the strange world of threat, confusion and hyper-sensitivity that childhood was. Nostalgia can, though, be about confrontation, can be about running against the brick wall of time’s ongoing moves of obsolescence on everything you once held dear. It can be a brutal realisation that in at its depths, what you’re really sad for is what the hell’s happened to you, how much you lost getting so much smarter."

Kulkarni's yarn has little to with any brand or particular store, but the experience of growing up with music in a particular physical form(at), and with the part the experience of frequenting brick-and-mortar premises, and is ultimately the larger and overarching role that the ritual of bin-browsing and the discovery of certain special recordings play in one shaping one's sense of self during one's youth. As well as a mediation on recorded music's evolution from material to immaterial (or its return to the latter state, as he points out), and about the history of recorded music in general.

* * * * *

Of course I can identify, because I'm of that age/generation when music was only acquirable in said material form -- particularly that of LPs (and, to a slightly lesser extent, cassette tapes). But in recent years I've had any number of younger friend for whom that formative relationship was unknown, was an anachronism. Who maybe grew up with CDs, but who in adulthood mostly abhorred music in any "hardcopy" form.

Or the realization I had of this generational disconnect when I started doing radio over a decade ago, and was occasionally assigned a new and much younger DJ to train in the studio's booth. The first time I blithely and unthinkingly told one of these kids to cue up a record, and then watched in horror as they threw the stylus onto or across the LP (one of mine, actually) with a destructive, audible KWU-THUMP. And immediately realizing how much I had witlessly assumed -- figuring that any music lover would've at some point learned how to handle vinyl and a turntable.

Kulkarni's spiel taking a record home upon purchase and experiencing a revelation upon first listening reminds me of Lester Bangs's similar description of same in his "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung" essay. But I also remember, like Kulkarni, of having my mind blown upon first hearing Public Enemy. Of buying Yo! Bum Rush the Show back in 1987 when I knew fuck-all about the record or the group, getting it home, dropping the needle in the groove, and within a matter of seconds have my sensibilities turned upside-down by the onslaught of noise that was "You're Gonna Get Yours." Of being immediately smacked upside my head by it, and immediately feeling like I would thereafter listening to music with a completely different set of ears. That sort of aesthetic-altering epiphany that happens with only so many songs or albums in a person's youth.

And in his post, Kulkarni also described the process of going out on a untested limb, of buying the unknown and unpreviewed item, "things that I HAD to learn to live with to make the money spent seem worth it." Which is a situation I knew very well in my teenage years, taking a chance and winding up with something that disappointed or confounded me when I first played it, that I simply didn't warm to at first because it threw me a curve. And how in some cases, after repeated spins -- with me determined to find something about the record that would justify the money spent -- some of these items became favorites, sometimes even nudging my own tastes and preferences in a different direction. So what Kulkarni's talking out was also (or often) a part of a process of personal development and discovery.

This was the case when I was about 18, when I became curious about jazz and decided to investigate. Previously, I hadn't had much exposure to it at all, mostly just the "Dixieland" and conservatorial, throwback New Orleans variety, with occasional doses of drekky Weather Report-styled fuzak. A local college station had started playing jazz in the evenings, and from that I gathered that while there was a lot of it that didn't appeal to me, there were certain sounds or style -- mainly of a specific vintage -- that I liked and wanted to check out. From having paged through issues of Musician magazine and the like, I knew the names of a few notable figures from the canon in question; which was pretty much all I had to go on when I decided to go peruse the Jazz bins at a local chain record store.

A guy I knew who played in a local rock band was one of the managers, and I guess he had a fairly good idea of what to order and stock for the Jazz bins. It was the mid-'80s and CDs were only then beginning to appear, so it was still a vinyl-only venture. There wasn't a whole lot of what I was seeking out in print at the time, and I recall the Jazz bins were cluttered with a lot of Windham Hill product at the time, because the designated genre of "New Age" was still a few years away, so "Jazz" was the default category for such stuff. So, with a few names in my head, I picked through the bins -- usually determining from the graphic stylings of the sleeve art which LPs hailed from the era (1950s to early 1960s) I was interested in.

The three that I bought on taking that initial leap, whose every note and nuance and atmospheric stroke indelibly burned into my aesthetic DNA straightaway...

Immediately followed by this one on a return trip:

Not bad for a blindly-fishing-about first haul, huh? Might've very easily (and very likely) done a lot worse. Beginner's luck, I suppose. Sheer happenstance.

So I've spent a good amount of time in record stores throughout my life, with the activity of bin-trawling being an ongoing process of exploration and discovery. This was especially the case during all those years I spent in Chicago. With that city's musical heritage, it was good place to seek out old jazz and r&b LPs; especially if -- like myself -- you lived on the South Side of the city. Sure, during those years, you had lots of DJs and "beat diggers" thinning things out drastically. But there was always the chance of a good, unexpected score. For instance, this one:

Picked it up for eight bucks from a place around the corner from my apartment. It turned out to be fairly alright -- about half good, sporting two long tracks that hit the spot very nicely. One of the better of Hubbard's soul-jazz outings of the early '70s, certainly better than others I'd heard. And in very good condition. I didn't know what a score I'd made until much later. Because while the comparable Red Clay has stayed in print for about two decades now, the above had -- it seemed -- only been reissued once. In an expensive Japanese CD edition which was quickly deleted, with used copies later going for (last time I checked) around $70 or so.

At any rate, enough about my own testimony and history with such stuff.

I guess this would be a more appropriate post on something like Record Store Day, right? No matter, because pretty much any day(s) of the week were record-store days for me.

* * * * *

Lester Bangs notwithstanding, Kulkarni's bit about the origin and early history of recorded music also prompted me to thinking of anthropologist Michael Taussig's Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses. Particularly the part late in the book when Taussig discusses the history of sound recording and reproduction, it's inherent "surplus of mimemsis." Hopscotching from Nanook of the North to Werner Herzog's Fitzcaraldo, Taussig ultimately recounts instances of anthropologists exposing various "primitive" peoples to phonography in the early 20th century -- exposing them to the "white man's magic" of the "talking machine." The HMV logo of the dog and victrola turns up quite frequently throughout the discussion, as does Thomas Edison and the introduction of the first phonographic machines:

"Moreover Westerners would do well to be reminded of the magic of sound-reproduction in their recent histories -- their fascination with the introduction of transistor cassette recorders in their lifetimes, and beyond that the effects of the first sound recorders and reproducers in 1877 in the United States. The article that introduced Edison's 'talking machine' to the informed public in Scientific American...deliberately marginalized the apparatus as if it were animated by a little human inside it. This make-believe is a curious form of self-mockery. For on the one hand it expresses clumsy but genuine admiration for the mystery of sound reproduction, an admiration that extolls the technology and, given the enchantment of its achievement, strives to find a language of spirit and magic to express this enchantment. On the other hand, such magicalization is an attempt to gain mastery over technology's mastery over the [human] mimetic faculty itself."

At a slightly later point, Taussig addresses the technological "First World hand-me-downs" as the West bequeaths its surplus of the "recently outmoded" onto the socities of the Third World, via a Benjaminian ghost-in-the-machine route:

"The RCA Victor Phonograph occupies a privileged position in this time-warp, for it is a knock-out instance of the recently outmoded and the power thereof, a gorgeous billowing forth of superseded promise. It is one of the great signs of the recently outmoded, shrouded in a mysterious atmosphere. This atmosphere is testimony to the Surrealist insight regarding the power of the ghosts embedded in the commodities created by yesteryear's technology -- the whole point of modernity and capitalist competition being that technology and manufactured products are made obsolete by progress' march forward.

"Obsolescence is where the future meets the past in the dying body of the commodity. Because history requires a medium for its reckoning, a temporal landscape of substance and things in which the meaning of events no less than the passage of time is recorded, in modern times it is the commodity that embodies just such a ready reckoning of the pathos of novelty."

In other words: History isn't bunk; but, in some contexts, it's just junk.

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