Monday, February 15, 2010

Aztec Camera and the Graveyard of Music



I often envy the younger version of myself, who owned far less music but was more viscerally invested in it. After discovering rock music, for instance, I had a cheap little briefcase-like contraption that housed as many as 24 cassettes, and when it was still half-empty I knew each of those casette tapes awfully well, and I cared about them a lot. Then came the exciting time when I had more than 24 cassettes, and had to make the very interesting choice of which best 24 tapes would make the cut for the briefcase. And then, eventually, I had more casettes than I knew what to do with.

Too, when I bought my first CD player in 1990 it was a thing of considerable excitement to choose my first four or five CDs. Every new acquisition would be the focus of attention for at least a month or so. But as months go on, and then years, the shelves are eventually rotten with CDs, and now too the hard drives of my computers are clogged with unlistened-to music as well. At this point, I don't know whether I could realistically listen through my CD collection in a year without concerted effort, and that's not even addressing several dozen casette tapes that are still around and, believe it or not, more than a cubic foot of vinyl that has somehow persisted into the modern age.

Wouldn't less be more? Indeed, in my early 20s I had the chance to carry out the desert island experiment, taking just ten of my favorite cassettes to the island of Great Britain for a year. They served me well, and I don't remember feeling starved for music, just very attached to what I had. And thus I often think: if I divided my music collection into two equal piles, and tossed the lesser pile away, might it not make things better? Less cluttered? Might it even improve my relationship with music?

And sometimes I think, "well, I'll just start through the collection, listen to everything, and if it isn't great, it goes." And so I start at the beginning of the alphabet, and I listen to the 1990 Aztec Camera album, Stray. And here's the problem: I like that album. It's got good, catchy songs. Listening to it now reminds me of how it was one of my first CDs, a quirky birthday gift from a friend, and reminds me of the time in the early 1990s when I was listening to it regularly in a dingey apartment on Lynch Road in Lawrence, Kansas. These things make me not want to get rid of it. And this is a cycle that has been repeated four or five times.

Well, that's fine. There's no particular shame in holding on to an accomplished but somewhat obscure record from twenty years ago, even if it's a record that I only listen to and enjoy when I'm trying to decide whether I should throw it away. But to see the real magnitude of the problem, you have to multiply that record by, I don't know, hundreds. And at some point, these CDs, cassette tapes, vinyl albums, even computer files become more than mere clutter. They become depressing in the aggregate, a vast graveyard of music that I only wander through from time to time to pay my honest respects. Wouldn't less be more?

10 comments:

La Gringissima said...

No, because what you need to do is get Aztec Camera's first two recordings, "High Land, Hard Rain" and "Knife". I can even burn them for you. Now, if only I could find a copy of their cover of Van Halen's "Jump"...

Elizabeth said...

I got rid of all of my CDs and cassettes and LPs back in aught-six and find that I don't miss them at all. I've gotten used to silence, or live music, or radio, or Pandora. I can't remember the last time I thought "wish I could listen to X right now!" where X is a specific piece/artist, and not a genre. Genre is usually taken care of easily by radio/internet.

Also I frequently have music playing in my head, not always of my own selection.

Jennifer said...

Ah, yes. We used to avoid this problem by moving every year or so; the physical limitations of what we could fit into a truck (beyond our boxes of books, which took up most of the truck) helped make sure we shed unused things (which for us was, again, mostly books).

But I've always been susceptible to falling into a heartless purging mode every now and then. If it's not important to me, it goes*; I pretty much follow my heart on whether it's important. If I didn't have a visceral response to an album on seeing it--or if I couldn't remember what it sounded like without listening to it--I'd probably let it go, especially if the overwhelming collection was depressing me.

I've rarely regretted doing that (and never when I made a heartfelt decision; as I've no doubt mentioned before, I still want back the two cloth-bound volumes of Brothers Grimm fairy tales with the gold-embossed swans on them that my mom talked me into giving to the library against my better judgment). But that's me.

Excuse me, I think I have to go look at Amazon and eBay now...

*At least in theory; in practice, I have to acknowledge that other people in the household have a say on these things, no matter how inefficient it makes the process.

Michael5000 said...

@la gringa: Sigh... Well, see, I've got "High Land, Hard Rain" right here on cassette. It's on the back of "Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison." Fabulous? Yes. Do I ever listen to it? Right now will be the first time in years....

Aviatrix said...

My solution was to rip all the boxes of tapes to my hard drive and cut a few CDs. I can now listen to any of the tapes at any time, and they are reproduced in perfect detail, right down to the distortion from the stretched tapes, and I got to throw out the tapes. I think that tactic is illegal for you, though, because your copyright laws are don't allow you to own music the same way Canadians can.

DrSchnell said...

This is exactly why I love the "shuffle" option on ye olde Ipod (at least for the music I have digitally) - it's constantly dredging up stuff I haven't heard in years, but that's good (or in some cases, really pretty embarrassing, or in some cases dredging up some unpleasant emotional era in the distant past, or occasionally a "what the hell is this?", but it's a fair trade). In fact, one of the songs from "Folsom Prison" came up in the shuffle just the other day. So too did "Rastafarian Bankers." I love the randomness of it, and the way it moves me beyond listening to the last five or so CDs I bought over and over again (which I also do). But I do miss that fifteen-year-old self sometimes for the sheer commitment to particular bits of music as integral parts of my soul, and for what must have been the now-unfathomable amounts of free time available for listening to music over and over and memorizing every single word and every single note. None of this does anything for the hundreds of cassettes still sitting out in my garage awaiting an unrealistically long time when I can convert all of them to digital form.

Jenners said...

I'm nostalgic for cassettes... well, not really but they did force you to REALLY LISTEN to an album. Now you can just cherry pick and I think music listening suffers for it.

UnwiseOwl said...

I long ago converted to a set of mix tapes produced from my old CDS and cassettes (and a good percentage from a dubious source, too, but yeah)...I keep everythign digitally, and if I feel the need for some Creedence or some Barbershop quartets I just rip myself another one.
The best thing is driving others around in your car and watching their reactions as you skip from "Blind Willie McTell" by Bob Dylan, to "Particle Man" by They Might Be Giants and then to Vivaldi's "Spring". Sometimes I miss the continuity and growth of having a whole album, but mostly I just revel in the unpredictability of it all.
Keeps you awake on late nights, too.

UnwiseOwl said...

Australian copyright laws make this kind of thing easier. I'm led to believe that American ones aren't so nice.
Basically, as long as I ripped to CDs myself, I didn't let someone else do it for me, it's all totally legit...apart from the songs I don't own original copies of.

margaret said...

Same problem here. I've been methodically re-listening to my collection, saving only the good songs to the hard drive. If there are four or fewer good songs, the CD goes into the pile to sell (when I promptly trade that cash in for another pile of music, albeit smaller). I like to think I'm constantly supporting new stuff that way.

And anything that you can't quite get ride of, don't. I've actually re-bought CDs I've missed.

It feels great doing this grand sort. And I'm keeping my CD-storage area small so I have to do regular culling. Good luck, and any Judas Priest albums turn up, send 'em right here.