Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Now I'm a Library

M. Ward--"Green River" (mp3)
Steppenwolf--"Magic Carpet Ride" (mp3)

In 1971, when I was 14, my brother and I had about 15 or 20 albums in our record collection. If that. The standouts were pretty obvious--In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida by Iron Butterfly, Green River by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Steppenwolf Live, and 4-Way Street by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The latter was the soundtrack to our weightlifting evenings on the back porch. But mostly just the acoustic songs. We would play them over and over and over again to where, even today, I know the tuning of every guitar, the between-song banter, the vocal nuances. It was those few songs--"On The Way Home," "Cowgirl In The Sand," "Don't Let It Bring You Down"--that taught me to love Neil Young.

We didn't take particular care of our records. Instead, we played the shit out of them. If you had a stereo console like the kind my parents had in the living room, or even if you had some kind of stereo system of your own in those days, they were made to stack records so that one could play right after the other. And not just singles. LPs. There was no mix tape; the best you could hope for was a good mix of album sides.

The idea of playing individual songs from individual sides of individual records would have been cumbersome and ridiculous. Everyone would be sitting there waiting while 1) you manually lifted the needle, 2) removed the album from the spindle, 3) set one album down and picked up another, 4) put the new one on the spindle at the top, 5) pulled the start lever and waited while the automatic system took its own sweet time to lower the album and then place the needle at the start of the first song, 6) which you would then have to lift manually and try to find the start of the individual track you wanted, each miss a jarring blast of mid-song, contextless noise.

So we listened to whole album sides, every single song, and usually other sides after that. Even listening to both sides of the same album back-to-back was a concerted listening experience. Of course, we knew what to avoid. We'd listen to "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" straight through, but we'd never listen to the other side, because every song was crap. And with only 15 or 20 albums, we not only knew all the songs, we knew all of the skips and scratches.

Today, I carry in my pocket a library of music that contains (at present) 8, 138 songs.

If plugged into a wall and allowed to play uninterrupted, the Ipod would play for over 23 entire days without repeating a song. If purchased as 1970's-style record albums, the songs would represent a collection of some 814 albums, probably more, since some songs on the Ipod are quite long and would consume an entire side.

I look at this circumstance in two ways--either I've become an obsessive collector of music, a prime citizen in a highly-acquisitive culture, or these stacks of songs are the natural outcome of listening to (mostly) popular music for the last 45 years. Probably, both are true.

Yes, I do feel a certain anxiety if music that I want is not immediately available to me when I want it. And, that means it has to be on the Ipod. Without a radio, I must become the radio. And, sometimes, when there is a song or a CD that I want but don't have, the entire list of songs and artists that I scroll through seems dull.

But, at the same time, that collection of over 8000 songs breaks down into only about 200 songs or 20 albums (and even fewer cds) each year. That's far less than 1 album's worth a music per week.

The problem I see is that, despite the incredible accessibility of music today, the value of the individual song has been greatly diminished, at least for me. I don't learn all the words anymore, I probably don't know who wrote it or who plays on it, and, if someone is presenting it to me, there's a pretty good chance they won't even play the entire song. Instead of the plodding, first song followed by the second song down to the end method of album listening, I am trying to out-Ipod my Ipod on shuffle, and once I get that first song started, I'm already thinking about what I can follow it up with.

So where is that one song, that one set of songs, that I will play over and over and over until it/they become a part of me, that will take hold of my consciousness both now and later? Does that song even have a chance to become that kind of classic, before it's pushed aside in favor of another one?

But is that a problem? I really enjoy the massive range of artists and songs available to me; I'm adding to their ranks all the time. But, now, I'm a library, a library with only one patron who can't possibly do justice to the collection before him. And, that, believe it or not, is its own source of anxiety.


troutking said...

Great post. I know what you mean. Although I never weightlifted to CSNY---probably not the soundtrack in most weight rooms by the way---there are certain albums which I played obsessively as a teenager (on cassette) that I still know the words to every song so much better than any album I've acquired since. Sadly, many of these are not found on the list of all time best albums: Huey Lewis Sports, Cyndi Lauper She's So Unusual, Yes 90125, Sting Dream of the Blue Turtles. I guess that's why I've gone back to buying vinyl and that's allowed to me to rediscover the genius of the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers album or Joni Mitchell's Blue. It's also why I like doing 'homework' for concerts so I can compulsively listen to one artist for a month or so, learning lyrics and appreciating albums. Otherwise, like you, I wind asking about my iPod, as Frank Costanza does without the TV Guide Elaine steals, "Am I just supposed to wander aimlessly around the dial?"

Sara Coffman said...

I have some 4,000 songs on the old 'pod, but I still want to hear the whole album at times. I rarely make playlists and use shuffle sporadically. The beauty of the system is you only buy what you will actually use - why is cable not like this? - but under the current system, where I choose how much of an album to buy based on 20 second snippets, I will likely never again have the experience of listening to a new album straight through and taking the good with the bad. Therefore, the whole album experience is almost an historical act. There are those albums that are iconic of a time or a weather pattern or a person from my past that demand fully attentive listening. Though the chances are rare these days, I find solo road trips offer me the same opportunity to listen my way all the way through those pieces of my musical story.

Billy said...

Great comments!

@Jeff -- I agree, there's some serious crap in my past where I still remember the song order, the words, and even whether the inside sleeve included lyrics or what that sleeve looked like. Where as you've gone back in time, I'm merely trying to do what I can to savor decent albums in today's era when I can find them (and the requisite time).

@Sara -- Thanks to Amazon.com's $3.99 album specials and my inexplicable guilt at buying singles -- no true Rush fan can feel comfortable buying singles -- I still get and listen all the way through to plenty of albums. But I totally agree that, beyond a long car trip, there's just not much chance to have the stretch of uninterrupted time necessary to listen to an entire album in a single sitting.

Because "the Long Play" doesn't fit my life like it used to, I don't really miss IT as much as I miss a simpler/younger time when I could actually savor IT more.

Bob said...

Trout, I like that concept of "doing homework" to prepare for concerts. What should I do to bone-up for Neil Young next month? Actually, Sara has the answer: a solo car trip. That is when I put on a live Neil CD like "Live Rust" or "Arc" and just enter a trance-like driving state while "Like A Hurricane" or "Cortez" or "Danger Bird" dances in my head!

troutking said...

As you know, I probably go overboard on the homework for concerts. I usually try to find setlists and then print out lyrics to probable songs.

Are you going to the Knoxville show?

Thom Anon said...


I'd definitely add "Live at Massey Hall '71" to your Neil prep, if I were you. Hell, I'm going to go listen to it right now...all the way through...at work. One of the advantages of jockeying a desk for a living. That's why my pod has 14,000 and counting.


Bob said...

Thom, I expect I'll be doing some podwork this summer.

cinderkeys said...

I had to check after reading. Turns out I have about 2,970 songs on my iPod. Most of these are from CDs.

8,000+ is impressive. How do you have time to find and sample all this music before you buy it?

Bob said...

Cinder, most of mine is converted from an even larger CD collection (with a few converted albums thrown in). So far, by the time I get everything I want finally on there, the Ipod breaks, and I get a new one and start over.

As I'm sure Thom Anon will agree, the more you add, the more you can't possibly listen to.

Thom Anon said...

Part of the fun is when that lost gem bubbles to the surface of the white noise and bursts like an incandescent burp of sonic goodness. For instance, my Pod (which I affectionately call Master Blaster) just rediscovered Nick Lowe's "Jesus of Cool" album. Where has that one been for the past five years? Hidden amidst the shuffle.


jed said...

you can never go wrong with Arc.