Wednesday, March 29, 2006

For the Record: An Elegiac, Nostalgic Whine About the Past

I now have an iPod. I like it. After almost non-stop activity over the course of the past two weekends, I have now transferred some 2,100 songs from my music collection to my computer to my iPod. Only 100,000 or so to go. All I need now is a 400 GB external hard drive and another seven or eight 30 GB iPods to hold it all. Still, I’m happy. I tend to listen to the iPod in Shuffle mode, my own private jukebox that plays the best music in the world -- mine. But there is a part of me that mourns what is passing. And what is passing is this:

Once upon a time, in a land called Campus Ghetto, a smattering of cultural outposts known as record stores beckoned the unsuspecting music fanatic. And the brave inhabitants of Campus Ghetto could, if they dared, venture from record store to record store, browsing to their heart's content amidst stacks of vinyl in musty, smelly attics and dank basements. But there were dangers everywhere. The brave musical fanatic might encounter that out-of-print Emmitt Rhodes album in the used shop, or an intriguing Muddy Waters/Eric Clapton collaboration that was just too good to pass up, but he was likely to arrive home with a stack of vinyl under the arm, a hefty credit card bill, and a spouse who wondered how they were going to eat for the next week. One typical response that I’ve heard music fanatics give: Let them eat Cake. Not that Cake was all that good of a band.

Getting past the sales counter was part of the adventure. Kurt Schieber, owner of Schoolkids Records in Columbus, Ohio -- record producer, concert promoter, music critic for the local rag, and unofficial Arbiter of Cool -- would invariably offer his opinions on the records in the stack. A smirk and a raised eyebrow was enough to cause deep dejection that could linger for days. A smile or an approving nod was enough to lift the spirits.

But that was then. Now you never have to talk to a human being. You never have to interact with the snarky record store clerk with his Mohawk and his minimum-wage salary and his head full of music trivia. You never have to argue with Kurt Schieber about the merits of Boston (technological dweebs or musical innovators?) or whether Elton John officially lost it after 1971’s Madman Across the Water (my take) or a couple years later after Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (Kurt’s take). You can just click a mouse button, download from iMusic, and never experience anything more challenging than a five-minute wait time for your new album.

Excuse me. I mean songs. I don’t know if people buy albums anymore. Maybe they do. But most people I know download songs. Albums are those puzzling anachronisms from which you choose the songs that are really good.

Which is too bad. Because I really like albums. As in record albums. I like the physicality of them, the weight of the vinyl, the big gatefold covers with the outrageous artwork, the way they line up on shelves to provide the perfect Space Age Bachelor Pad look. And the truth is, a lot of music is best heard in the context of similar music, and I’m not talking about overblown, forty-five minute, multi-part cosmic prog rock suites, either. Born to Run wasn’t the title single and a bunch of filler. It was a fully realized collection of songs about growing up romantic and desperate in Jersey, and the whole was most definitely greater than the sum of the parts. The unbridled passion and hope of “Thunder Road” eventually gave way to the grim realities of “Jungleland,” and you realized that maybe the kid didn’t find redemption beneath a dirty hood after all. You don’t find those connections in individual songs. You find them in albums.

And I hate to admit it, but I miss the guy with the Mohawk. He was a pretentious jerk, but he knew his stuff, and he always set aside new releases from Any Trouble and Human Sexual Response for me because he knew that I, of all the denizens of Campus Ghetto, would most appreciate them. Interacting with Biff at Best Buy just isn’t the same. Biff plays clarinet in the high school marching band. He would snicker at a band called Human Sexual Response, but he wouldn’t listen to them.

Schoolkids Records burned to the ground five or six years ago. Kurt gave up the record store business and contents himself with writing music reviews in The Columbus Dispatch. He probably has an iPod, too. But I bet my iPod jukebox is better than his. I’ll probably never run in to him to find out, though. There is no “there” anymore. I can take my iPod anywhere, which sometimes seems suspiciously like nowhere.


Anonymous said...

School kids stopped selling music about a year ago. They are now posters + costumes only. It was a sad day.

The Campus Ghetto now only has Hoffas, and it's a darn fine money pit.

Andy Whitman said...

Bryan, I had forgotten that there was a Schoolkids in Athens. I was referring to the one in Columbus, where I spent many an hour and a buck. I think the original Schoolkids Records is in Ann Arbor. I believe it's still there.

Hoffas is still in Athens? Wow. I used to buy albums there in the mid-'70s. I still have lots of Hoffa's stickers on my vinyl.

Anonymous said...

I still live in Athens half the week. Great place (on break, huh.).

I'm a few years younger than you, Andy, but sometimes I feel much older.

I haven't got an ipod yet, and the only way I listen to music is the whole cd. I can't separate it.

I don't know if I could get used to artists releasing individual songs. I think that would put me into full regression mode, and I'd head out further into the hills, both figuratively and literally, than I am now.

BTW, agree with you on Steve Earl/Scott Miller. Also have to include Chris Knight in with Scott. And Todd Snider, especially when with the Nervous Wrecks. When the Wrecks left town you could see the mushroom cloud for days.

Hillary & Liz said...

Your post reflects exactly how I feel...I was actually having very similar reflections on the digital age just today and thinking how I should write up something on it. I, too, love my ipod (currently at 3099 songs and 1 video -- I, too, will soon need an external hard drive) but miss the spontaneous trips to the used cd store to delve amongst the treasure. Though I can't say that I remember vinyl, I do miss the crinkle of the plastic wrap on the CD and reading the liner notes and lyrics.

I haven't bought new music in a while, but I do still buy albums and, more importantly, believe in the album as an art form. But I must admit...there are some songs I really like, but don't want the entire album and so I succumb like so many others to buying just a single song.

It is difficult to reconcile. There are many great things about itunes and the ipod. You can buy entire albums and you can chose to play an album on your ipod. I like the shuffle feature, but it is a little disturbing to hear the Clash and Enya back to back. I'm glad I'm not alone in my music lover's guilt over this new technology.

Andy Whitman said...

I like Todd Snider quite a bit. He's one of my favorite songwriters, in fact. I've heard of Chris Knight, but I haven't heard any of his music. Given the comparisons to Earle, Miller, and Snider, I'll definitely check him out.

I miss Athens; many great memories. I wish there was a way to live there and be employed. :-) One of my best friends, Keith Wasserman, managed to do it by starting a shelter for the homeless 25 years ago. It's still going strong, which is both a good thing (for Keith) and a bad thing (as a social commentary on the Appalachian economy specifically and the American economy in general).

Athens when the students are gone is a pretty desolate place, though. I spent a summer there one year, and it was a quiet, sleepy little neo-ghost-town. Great for reading and solitude, but not much else.

Anonymous said...

Chris Knight:

My favorite is the debut album, "Chris Knight". Great production for the most part and GREAT band(Dave Grissom). Chris is a little "rougher" than Earl, and the Kentucky hard-scrabble toughness really comes through live.

Top to bottom the best album since Blue Rodeo's "5 Days in July". But I'm not opinionated.

e said...

mmmm... existentialism and music. can the post combo get better?

it is sad that schoolkids is gone. but there's still lost weekend and evil empire (clintonville). i've gotten in trouble for sauntering between those two album-selling stores before.

rock is dead. long live rock. for all those about to rock, we salute you.

Andy Whitman said...

Well, there's always musical existentialism, too, which might be better than either in isolation. Something like this (supply your own music):

Well your mother was there to protect you
Your papa was there to provide
So how in the world did the excellent baby
Wind up in this hotel so broken inside?
You lie on your bed in the midnight darkly
Listening to every sound
Watching the shadows for anything moving
And hoping they don't come around

‘Cause it's dog eat dog
and it's cat and mouse
It's watch your step and cross yourself
And get back in the house
And it's do or die
It's push and shove
Because everybody's hungry
And there isn't quite enough

That's right, we're talking about the good life
In the food chain
Love among the ruins
I guess that you've finally got to accept
That there's nothing you can do about it
It's kinda like carving a turkey
Kinda like mowing the lawn
Everything gets to this certain dimension
Winds up on a customer's plate and then gone
-- Tonio K., "Life in the Food Chain"

Anonymous said...


the transition is too scary for some of us. i still cling to my 500 albums and 600 cd's and even play mixtapes from friends...

precious memories...

i was born in 1969, so i understand the immensity of vinyl dreamscapes...

teddy dellesky said...

as accessible as music is, click, click...i love the thrill of going to a record store like used kids and combing through the stacks, looking for jems, reliving memories of the past, listening to whatever the owners/employees are blaring thru the speakers.

above all else, the digitization has stolen the packaging of album. for me its not just enough to listen to the music. i need to hold it in my hand, pour throuth the inserts, read the lyrics. i've gotten away from this, but it will always be a vital part of my music experience.

KarlandBethany said...

Oh Andy, I doubled over laughing about Biff at Best Buy. You are all too right about it. I've had a bit of a depressing day and fumbled my way over to your blog to find someone to commiserate with. You delivered!

Why was I depressed. Well you see I don’t have an iPod but I do use iTunes and just figured out that iTunes CODEC plays mp3s very poorly. They sound so much better using Adobe Audition.

It’s sad to see the stores disappear. I just noticed that my lunch time escape to CD Warehouse can be no more as the store is gone. It wasn’t “Used kids” or “Newbury Comics” but the owners had music in their bones.

In our society we have lost that adventurous sprit and are now just “Big Box” store and Online Shopping junkies. Just wait a few years. I think we (a society) are at a turning point. There will always be popular trends but I also think there will be an insurgence of quality recordings sold at the feet of performers, out of the back of vans, on the street corner. I think it may be an exciting time for music soon.

John McCollum said...

Andy, I had a friend who was an elegiac.

Once he removed gluten from his diet, the cramps and nausea were much easier to control with the garlic suppositories. Talk to your doctor for advice...

Anonymous said...

Several months ago, I won an MP3 player at a conference (random drawing of business cards). Between work, holidays, upcoming wedding planning, I've set it aside to deal with later when life slows down. Your story here encourages me that I'm not necessarily missing anything. Like you, I have fond memories of characters working in record stores. Of course, in Muncie, the largest selection is at the local Best Buy. We do have a promising new small store near campus, and Indy has some good ones (Luna, Broad Ripple). And there's always Ear Xtacy (a truly incredible store)in Louisville when we visit Jessica. Eventually, I will probably join the club, but it's nice to know that there's no hurry, yet.