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.