When I moved to New York from Minneapolis in 1988, I wasn’t looking to set the city on fire, at least not right away. As it turned out, I never did, but that is another story.
My goals were modest: to have a lease, a little money in the bank, take a few trips each year, and to be able to buy any CD I wanted. It didn’t take long to become a huge success by those modest standards.
It was the early 90s. I realize in retrospect I was working in a marketing department at the tail end of the Golden Age of Working in Marketing Departments. I was in books, at HarperCollins, and it was a common and lovely practice to call your counterparts at any publisher or record company to trade books for books or books for CDs. There were days when the mail drop on my floor would be teeming with jiffy bags and boxes of books and musical wonderment. A lot of it was junk, but you often got more or less what you asked for, and there were a few serendipitous things I would never have thought I’d like. Nancy Wilson and George Shearing The Swingin’s Mutual, for one. Malcolm McLaren’s Fans, for another. Cibo Mato, Viva la Woman!
Between trading and buying whatever music I wanted, my New York years produced a collection of CDs so large that it became a major project to pack it up when it was time to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest. I settled on large 240-cd folios, about six of them, kept some of the nicer big-format boxed sets, and put an ad on Craigslist for 1500 jewel boxes.
Fast forward eight years, and we are living in Kentucky in the age of Spotify and instant musical gratification. Those folios sit on our porch and I very rarely have occasion to open them. Lo, the larges folios begat smaller ones, the “travel” kind that hold 48 CDs. I created about six of these smaller collections for the car, but the adding and subtracting of CDs to the car folios quickly became tiresome, and the plastic dividers that hold the cds in place tore and fell apart. And then I discovered how easy it was to load an IPod with a thousand songs and use it in conjunction with the car stereo. The CDs and their folios got sadder and more neglected, and crawled further under the passenger seat, with the golf tees, candy wrappers, and empty bottles of Life Water.
And yet. Something in me recoils at limitless choices. From my teens through my mid-twenties, I remember expending much mental energy trying to listen to music I had read about, in Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, or the local alternative weeklies in the Twin Cities. With the much-lamented passing of the indie KQRS, radio wasn’t much of an option and if you didn’t have friends who actually possessed the vinyl, you were out of luck. I was desperate enough to go halves on an album with friends, and let the friend keep the physical product, just so I could make a cassette.
I remember once interviewing to become part of a shared house with four guys from the western suburbs–Edina? Minnetonka? Wayzata?, in my mental map of the Twin Cities a mysterious Forbidden Zone populated by the rich, arrogant and decadent. These bros all had asymmetrical haircuts, used copious amounts of hair gel, went to First Avenue a lot (for the dancy part, not the bands), and were “really into ABC.”
I didn’t get the place in that house, needless to say, and never had a personal connection to anyone else who shared the communal enthusiasm for ABC. My curiosity had long expired, but just now I got up to speed via Spotify/Youtube. No regrets…..
For some reason, having the luxury of Spotify has taken some of the mystery, and joy, out of being a music aficionado. Being able to hear virtually any song I want on demand, has driven me backwards, made me appreciate serendipity and repetition. I realize now I really like leaving a single disc in the car CD player for days at at a time. Last week, I played these three until the grooves wore out:
- The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest (“What is a war if it doesn’t have a general? What’s channel nine if it doesn’t have Arsenio? … What are the youth if they ain’t rebellin’? What’s Ralph Cramden if he ain’t yellin’–at Ed Norton, what is coke snortin’?”);
- The Stiff Records Box Set, Disc Three (Madness, Desmond Dekker, Tracey Ullman, Graham Parker, Tenpole Tudor, some truly daft things from one-hit wonders….);
- George Strait’s Strait Out of the Box, Disc Two, his peak years, lots of hard country songs, plus the super-slick pop ones, eg. “The Chair”, one of the best stalker songs ever. A duet with Hank Thompson on “Six-Pack To Go”!
As for serendipity, I had taken for granted that local radio here in central Kentucky would not have much to offer. I didn’t try hard to search for good stations. My prejudice was that there would be lots of mainstream Nashville junk, the occasional classic country station, Christian rock, and cheesy mainstream pop with really obnoxious DJs.
My snobby ignorance persisted for over eight years, and then yesterday, I happened upon a station of bizarre eclecticism that played a succession of songs that were right in my wheelhouse, some of which I had not heard for decades. “I Wanna Be Sedated”! Ten Years After’s “I’d Love to Change the World” and “5:15” from Quadrophenia.
The video below is kind of amazing. I had forgotten I had seen the movie. I had not, however, forgotten a single word of the lyrics, which I hadn’t listened to since college. My teenage infatuation with late-period Who still being something of an embarrassment to me.
The lyrics to “5:15” are complete doggerel nonsense–“The ushers are sniffing/Eau de cologne-ing!”–but like “madman drummers bummers” etc. from the early early skinny-hippy Springsteen, are somehow impossible to forget.
I realize that to this point I’ve failed miserably to tie this all together. Who can complain about the near-infinity of choices offered by a post-Spotify musical universe? And yet I appear to be doing just that. Something something Surprise Mystery Serendipity Tyranny of Choice. Just saying something has been lost with the absolute freedom of Spotify.
Perhaps a tendentious quote from an obscure Yeats play, Fergus and the Druid, will suffice. For now, it’s all I got:
And all these things were wonderful and great; But now I have grown nothing, knowing all