Every once in a while, I like to go to our storage room and flip through the stack of my dad's old records that we keep in there. Without even hearing a note of the music represented there, I am transported back to a time when my dad was younger, when he was holding these records, looking at the same picture on the cover, reading the same notes on the back, holding the same physical object he held half a century ago as a young man. I learn things about my dad almost vicariously this way. I've always known his love of jazz, country, blues, and classical, but those are just general categories. To hold an actual record that he listened to, and cared enough to keep through 50 years of his life and through countless moves, is an entirely different kind of understanding and experience. It's one thing to know he loves jazz, but to hold his copy of Miles Davis' Round About Midnight, or his Ella Fitzgerald or Chet Baker records, is something that "he likes jazz" doesn't hold a candle to. I'm also exposed to music that would otherwise never enter my musical universe, records that I would never give a second thought to, I look at, study, and wonder, "what was he thinking when he bought this? What is it that he likes about this?". And it's not just the names of singers and song titles, it's that this very copy was what he listened to all those decades ago, this very copy is what he held in his hands and had in his room, what he put on the stereo while living in his apartment. This is, in a way, a part of who he is. Who he once was. Something of what he experienced in his life. There are stories behind this music. Many times nothing dramatic, but things like Frank Sinatra's "The Voice" was one of the first records he ever owned. He remembers listening to Dave Brubeck's "Red, Hot and Cool" back in high school. He used to listen to the R&B (black) station all the time, and once owned almost all of Muddy Waters' singles. I know how much my record collection has meant to me, how certain records hold a special place in my life and are an indelible part of my memories, and this gives me some idea of what some of my dad's records may have meant to him. I get it. And in that, there is a connection between us that a list of names - artists and song titles - can't capture.
I remember the hours I would spend looking at my own record collection, holding the album sleeve while lying on my bed listening to it, associating the cover artwork with the music I was listening to, or sometimes just staring hypnotically at the record turning round and round under the needle arm... One of my first albums was Sweet Comfort Band's "Perfect Timing", and I would sit and listen to the music while trying to see how far back I could see the numbers pictured on the futuristic-looking cover. Or the times I spent staring at Amy Grant's picture on Straight Ahead, listening to her voice and just sort of thinking about her...and her bare feet. And I'll never forget sending my best friend Brian to Harmony House to buy the new Stryper album the day after it came out on Halloween, back in 1986, before I could drive, not knowing what I was in for. It seems tame now, but that cover with the angels dragging Satan down to hell, the fire and the pentagram and everything a true metal album cover should be...I remember almost being afraid to hold it, lest I get caught and in trouble, thrilled at the thought that I owned this evil metal album (almost unable to believe it was Christian) with even a title I could not mention to my parents (To Hell with the Devil), hiding it for years in my collection... There's nothing quite like unfolding a gatefold double album and getting lost in the world represented there in the music and the artwork.
Perhaps this love of the object itself, the history and connection I feel when holding an old record like that, might explain why I am probably the last person on earth without an ipod. I DJ weddings sometimes, and I am one of the few DJs out there that still hauls in a few cases of actual CDs, because I don't use a laptop to "DJ" the way most these days do. Perhaps it just indicates my resistance to change. A few years ago I was the last person on earth still using a pager instead of a cell phone, and if I had lived in the early part of this century, I'm sure I would have been driving a horse and buggy for the majority of the first half of it... And when the last brick-and-mortar record store closes its doors, you can be sure that I will be the last customer to walk out of its doors, sure to be clenching as many albums and CDs in my arms as is physically possible, with a look on my face closely resembling Charlie Brown's in mid-scream.
In case you haven't figured it out by now, I'm not a big fan of the digital download culture that seems to be taking over the music industry and making ancient useless artifacts of the physical and collectible objects that music was once recorded onto. It's like a bad parody of my Christian school days, when all the good kids got rid of their "secular" music, only these days everyone seems to be getting rid of all their "circular" music. Don't get me wrong - I enjoy downloading an otherwise unavailable song to add to my collection as much as anyone, and as a DJ, downloadable music has saved me from spending tons of money on CDs that I used to have to buy in their entirety when I only wanted one song. But when someone holds up something that looks like a small credit card and announces proudly that their entire music collection is right there in that tiny little cracker-like square, my heart sinks a little, realizing to myself and unable to explain to them just how much of the full experience they are missing by reducing their music to intangible and disposable (delete-able) megabytes.
I suspect I'll only be able to reach a few of you with my doomsday message, but let me give it a try...
As I posted earlier, I have a library of over 1,300 books. If you are a regular ol' book lover and want to come over to look at my books, I can point to a few bookcases that have made more than a few book lovers drool. You can take a book off the shelf, hold it in your hands, stick your nose in its pages (if you are of the booksmelling persuasion), thumb through various volumes and lose yourself for hours in these stacks. I have books that were printed many decades ago, and some that were printed not more than a few months ago. each one holds a unique feel and charm to it, beyond anything written inside. Now imagine you come over to look at my library, hearing about all these great books I own, and instead of bookshelves, I point to my computer. I've decided to get rid of all that bulky paper and now have only ebooks. IF you are a booklover, I think even the most digitally hardened amongst you will have to admit that there would be a certain amount of disappointment at the absense of an actual, physical library to browse through. (at the very least, you will agree that sticking your nose to a computer screen is retarted)
Perhaps your thing is antiques. or works of art. maybe you like gardening and enjoy plants and flowers. picture anything like this, anything that holds a physical fascination for you, and imagine coming over to someones house to view theirs, and they show you pictures of their "original Van Gogh" - or their plants...or their antiques - on the computer. That's where they've decided to keep these things, getting rid of the actual physical objects themselves. "Threw the Van Gogh painting out because I have a picture of it on my computer which takes up less space, and I can store more original works of art that way". I hope the only reasonable response to this would be the exclamation "You are an idiot".
The physical object of music - whether a record album, a CD, or collectible box set - at it's best is a piece of art. It's not "just about the music". It's about the experience as a whole, and that includes the artwork and packaging it comes in. People who don't go to record stores and just flip through the stacks just don't get that. There's an almost talismanic experience with a well-packaged slab of music that is lost on downloads. The imagination kicks in while holding an album in one's hands, and before you've even heard a note of the music inside, the experience has already begun and the mind has taken flight. The best of albums deliver on or exceed the promise of the artwork and all that, often not in the way one might have expected, and that element of surprise can get you giddy. I can't tell you how often I've been just flipping through the stacks at the local (now nearly extinct) record store and picked up an album that I'd never heard of, that was getting no airplay that I knew of, just because it "looked interesting". Some of my favorite albums have come to me that way. Music can't "look interesting" anymore in a download music world. What will the grandkids flip through when they talk about their parent's music collection? Will their parents even have a music collection to flip through and discover, or will it have been accidentally deleted long ago? The object seems obviously and intrinsically important in a way that is apparently lost on the download culture.
I say all this, and yet, to balance things out a bit, the other side of my mouth has to admit that I've been going through my stacks the past few years and getting rid of a lot of the "bulk", burning a few songs I like from CDs that don't satisfy on the whole and then excommunicating them from my collection. and yes, I frequently judge whether I buy CDs by the cover art. this is a very loose tendency with me, as exceptions abound, but I like a cover to capture my imagination and hopes, to hold some sort of promise of good things inside, to somehow give me an indication of the kind of music that is inside, and perhaps subconsciously a bad cover says "here's the first clue that, if we couldn't even come up with something good for the outside, we probably didn't do much better on the inside either". I love good packaging, and if the packaging is stupid, I'd at the very least just rather burn a copy...But ripping albums and CDs to the computer just for the sake of space?? The idea seems as ridiculous to me as the art example I used earlier. You'll never see me burning a copy of Over the Rhine's "Good Dog, Bad Dog" to my computer and tossing the original. Somehow, in a very big way, it just wouldn't be the same that way (the thought alone makes me ill). And even though I have Bob Dylan's Freewheelin' on CD, I'll never get rid of my dad's vinyl copy. not because the vinyl is worth any money (it's most definitely not), but because it's my dad's copy, from when he was young (before Dylan "got crazy with all that rock and roll") and somehow that seems incredibly important to me.