Friday, May 13, 2005

eulogy for a record collection

I don't think I had ever seen two men who looked meeker than these two. They wore dull colored collar shirts (faded blue - mild yellow), had straight hair that brushed down to their eyelids, and punctuated every sentence with a suck of air. They stood in the hallway at a safe distance from my front door, clipboards in hand. Then again, they had come bringing news of death. Ten years of music collected from friends and record stores around the world had dissappeared in transit between Japan and the US. As the father of the collection I needed to sign a few forms acknowledging the end of the search and working out proper compensation. We had given up hope, the search was off, my record collection was pronounced dead.

I received my first CD as a birthday present in sixth grade from a classmate. It was an REM album with a cover that looked like a blurry golden photo of a wheat field. It came in one of those old cardboard CD packages twice the size of the actual disc, which I believed were designed to fit CD packages in old record bins. My fleeting excitement was tempered by the fact that a) my family didn't own a CD player and b) REM is the most boring band on the planet. The horrors of sixth grade were better expressed by stealing my parent's cassete of "Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits" and listening to "I Am A Rock" and "Sounds of Silence" on repeat.

Eventually my family did get a CD player, and I started to get CD's to put in it, mostly local rock bands or the jam rock stuff I was into at the time. I didn't really learn about music until my first part time job. While most of my classmates were spending late nights delivering pizza or busing tables for tips, my high school job was a bit more glamorous: I was the assistant to a veteran jazz record producer.

Well, to be more precise, I was his office gopher, taking messages, filing correspondence and picking up sandwiches from the local deli while he jetted around to recording sessions. I had found the job in the last place any self respecting high schooler looks for a job: the dusty file folder marked “job bank” in the guidance counselor’s office. I never did see the inside of a recording studio.

The office was the converted basement of a suburban house, all available wall space lined with record shelves that held thousands of records. On top of the shelves were dozens of signed baseballs. One of my many jobs was to keep the office well supplied with these official major-league standard baseballs, which my boss took to every single recording session, getting the autographs of the musicians involved.

My boss was in his mid-50's, divorced, a thirty year veteran of the record industry. He had worked with just about every major name in jazz, from the lily-white 50's jazz poster boy Chet Baker to Gil-"The Revolution Will Not Be Televised"-Scottt-Heron. In between was the history of post-war jazz, from the 50's West Coast cats Gerry Mulligan and Dave Brubeck to free jazz originators Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra. Although he had lived most of his adult life in the New York City area he still spoke with a heavy North Carolina drawl that he used to lull people into thinking he was an easy going, laid back sorta dude. In fact he lived his life on roller coaster cycles swinging from debt to being flush with cash. As the lowly office boy I wasn't privy to the accounting, but I could get a pretty good idea of how we were doing by the tone of the drawled shouts that came from his desk. "Hey Jamie! We're using to many damned staples! Try to cut down, y'know!" A month later: "Hey Jamie, how much am I payin' you?" "Seven dollars an hour." "Well, make it eight!" He would then dissappear upstairs and come back thirty minutes later in a change of clothes, eyes droopy and a faint whiff of pot on his hair.

While I mostly recall hours of boredom in front of the computer, feeling trapped in this basement on a dead-end street in suburban Connecticut, it was heaven for a sixteen year old music geek, given access to one of the most amazing record collections I had ever seen. It was a sprawling monster that had grown by literally swallowing other collections whole. It was a whale, but the sea it swam in was the flood of CD’s that poured in by the boxes. Promo CD’s from our label, "For Promotional Use Only" carelessly stamped across the cover, gifts from record biz buddies, and uncountable auditioners carefully bubble wrapping their plastic disc of lame jazz ballads only to have it sink amid the torrent.

My own collection became a tributary of the office, swelling into weird shapes based on whatever was interesting and available. The bread and butter of his business was remastering the LP catalogues of record labels for release on CD, producing small pools of live Coltrane albums and old Sun Ra discs from the 1950’s. I burned Theolonius Monk and Frank Zappa LP’s to shock white CD-Rs. I learned the entire history of jazz from the backs of LP covers, checking liner notes and sideman names, learning who played with who and when. My boss had thought that by hiring a young guy he’d get the youth perspective on music, but he’d ended up with a skinny little maniac who preferred 70’s free jazz to Nirvana and Snoop Dogg. “Don’t you like any normal music?” he would ask, coming back to the office to find it screaming with saxophones at the top of their register.

After two-a-half years I had caught enough of the up-cycles to get a few pay raises, with the bulk of my money wasted on yet more music. I was heavy into the experimental music scene in New York at the time, spending nights as the youngest person in the club, sipping ginger ales as my one-drink-minimum. I sat breathless as Fred Frith pulled a galaxy of sounds out of a single guitar, had Tim Berne set my nerves on fire with fullback baritone solos, and saw Dave Douglas dancing his trumpet over moogs and marimbas.

There were so many damned good drummers, all of them goofy looking. Jim Black looked like a twiggy little elf, a mop of blond curls on a thin little face with two big blue eyes. Joey Baron was five foot nothing, a shaved head and smile sticking out of a black turtleneck. Kenny Wolleson looked like a Normal Rockwell auto-mechanic with his mashed baseball hat and three day scruff. I remember him once trying to tune his kick drum and munch a banana at the same time, his ass poking out like a massive “kick me” cartoon. But every one of these guys transformed behind a drum kit, snap, crackling and popping several hundred years of beats every few seconds, and doing it all with a massive grin on their face. After the show they would sell their CD’s out of cardboard boxes straight from the factory, making change from their wallets.

When I moved to college my record collection suddenly moved into public view in my dorm room, and it blinked in the light of day, a bit startled by the attention. It was a weird looking thing, built on obsession and circumstance. It was mostly instrumental, noisy, complicated and abrasive music. I would put on a record before a girlfriend came over, and just as we would start making out the music would dissolve into free improv, breaking melody, meter and my prospects of getting laid. My collection had grown in the pitch dark isolation of my high school bedroom, and suddenly we both had to learn to be more social adept. It slowly sweetened with Joni Mitchell, Rufus Wainwright and Billie Holiday, got some flow with Black Star, Outkast and Common and a touch of repose with Webern, Bach and Mahler.

In the fall of 2000, I came to study in Japan for a few months; partially out of an interest in Japanese history but mostly out of an overwhelming interest in underground music. Any time not spent studying Japanese in my drafty student boarding house I was prowling Osaka for record stores and clubs, tracking down obscure CD’s by groups with names like the Boredoms, Ground Zero, OOIOO, and Guitar Wolf. Thinking I would never be back I crammed as much as I could onto four months and a tight budget. I followed maps off the back of flyers through back alleys and red light districts to small clubs. This music was even darker and stranger than my high school heroes, the audience’s well groomed and stoic as the musicians presided over small weather systems of sound and static. Got my lip bloodied at a hardcore punk show, crowd surfed to underground hip-hop, stumble out exhausted and elated, hurry to the last train home, go to bed headphones on, the music ringing my head as I lost consciousness.

I came back to the states, finished college, ended up back in Japan, teaching English in a small town in the mountains of Shizuoka. I occasionally browsed record stores, but the prices were about double those of the US, a new CD going for around twenty-five dollars. We buckled down close to one another over that long lonely year, stereo humming quietly as I copied kanji onto flashcards and wrestled with grammar textbooks. For two years of moving around I whittled down the collection, sending boxes of CD’s home in small bunches. Last October before moving up to the northern country I struggled my way down to twenty albums, packing the lions share into a box, padding them with crumpled newspaper and paperbacks. That box disappeared somewhere between here and the US.

When I first heard the news, I clenched my stomach and told myself it didn’t matter. I pushed the thought out of my mind, tried not to imagine what had happened. Had it been accidentally packed away in some endless warehouse, like that closing shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark? Had it burst open while being tossed from a truck, falling in a pile of wet cardboard and broken plastic? Like I said, best not to think of these things.

Now that it’s gone, I find myself missing it at odd moments, humming a song that I packed away in there. It’s like hearing a classmate from high school died. But more often than that I’ve been pretty unfazed by it. So many of those songs are tied to old bedrooms, to a girlfriend from college or a thirteen hour car trip. Listening to them again is like reading your diary from high school, wondering at this person who used to live in your body all those years ago. The post office is compensating me a bit for losing the package, so I’ll be getting a few hundred dollars later this week. All I have is a small stack of CD’s in the corner of my room. It’s a comfy little party where Miles Davis rubs shoulders with Glenn Gould, Wilco jokes with Mississippi John Hurt, and the Arcade Fire are awkwardly being introduced around. All of them sound that much sweeter now, echoing against the fading memories of departed friends.

1 comment:

Alex said...

Jamie, wow. That must be so hard. I know how much you love music. I would be devastated if such a thing were to happen to me. I am amazed and happy that you are taking it as well as you are.

Well, here's to the ghost of your old record collection... and to the new record collection being born.