The Musical Treasure Trove

So, I have been thinking a bit about re-reruns (prompted, I must admit by a This American Life episode about re-runs). This thinking has dove-tailed with some of my thoughts about the repeatability of the cover song and the tension between one ‘performance’ and another. Part of this thinking is a tortured attempt to try to justify what I am about to do today: repeat one of our posts. What happens when you repeat a repetition?

Like my brother, I have found that the busyness of normal life (whatever that means) has gotten to be a bit overwhelming. The end of the semester has brought me a pile of grading, a CV-length of promised articles, and two children who are growing faster than I can imagine. This has kept me (guiltily) from having the time to write a quality post while also making me wonder whether or not this blog is doing what it should.

See, it has been suggested that the posts are too long and too discursive–and, as readership has ebbed and flowed, I have wondered what the worth is. This contemplation lasts a few minutes because, when it comes down to it, I enjoy writing this blog even if the act is entirely masturbatory.

Today I am off to the scene of many of my crimes (literal and figurative), New York City for a brief weekend away from the madness. While I relive the past, I’ll let the blog relive a little bit too (even if its past is a little shorter).

So, there it is. Just in time for Spring Sweeps, here’s a re-rerun of a post put up a year ago today.

It’s just as simple as that.
Well, it’s just a simple fact. 
When I want something,
I don’t want to pay for it.  
“Been Caught Stealing”, Jane’s Addiction

Earlier I wrote about the iPod—mainly its deadly allure and seductive nature. While failing to come down fully on one side or another, I also neglected to identify another unique and salient feature: the iPod’s portability. Now, it may seem too obvious to mention, but it is this one feature that essentially defines the iPod. For, if it were much larger, what would be the advantage of owning one?

Yet, portability—let’s think of it in terms of movable wealth—as easily a liability as an asset. That which may be moved may be stolen. And here’s where the iPod’s convenience (which also enslaves) most endangers. While successive versions of iTunes have warned us to back up our music regularly, many of us do not. Before we bought our music digitally, we had CDs, cassettes, and records (hard copies!) to carry around; the iPod liberated us from literal baggage.

(When will there be a device to lighten the load of our figurative burdens?)

It is when we abandon hard copies altogether that the iPod transforms from tool to master. A few years after I first got an iPod, my apartment burned down and with it years (decades?) of music on CD. Although, when it happened, I was not that upset—I lost only replaceable things (with the exception a 1979 Ovation Legend) and I had every CD in my collection, on my computer and on the iPod.

Six months later, my computer was stolen; my iPod happened to be connected to it at the time. As a consequence, it was stolen as well. I had electronic back-ups for all my work; the iTunes back-ups were a bit less rigorous: only those things I had bought digitally had been preserved. I was undone by grief. My Pixies albums? Gone. Every TMBG album? Gone. Suddenly the cracked CD cases and torn booklets I had so bravely forgotten from the fire came rushing back to me. My musical collection now went back only two years.

But, as it goes, sometimes the darkest hours come right before the brightest dawns. A colleague of mine, a girl whose music tastes seemed to embrace everything without truly liking or understanding it, had a new iPod filled with music (nearly 40 gb) she and her boyfriend had uploaded over a weekend at some rich kid’s place—someone who had impeccable taste and a bankroll to support it. She (the colleague) hadn’t listened to most of it. In her pity for my plight, she offered to let me copy the contents. (She had noticed many of the bands I listened to on the list).

It is hard to say what happened to me after I received this treasure. I can always recall moments when music struck me for the first time, when I knew that my breath was being taken away, that I was hearing something different and that. in retrospect, I recognize as a seismic shift in my tastes, as the line between different eras. (The first time I heard “She’s An Angel”, “Monkey Gone to Heaven” or “Nothing Better”.) The musical treasure trove turned up such a series of revelations as to undermine each one, so as to detract from their ability to make the greatest impact, as if the force of one explosion were to be attenuated by the response of others.

What was on this mythical iPod? I did replace most of my lost music; but what I added was far greater. In short order, I encountered newer bands (Animal Collective, Arcade Fire, Bright Eyes, Magnetic Fields, Mates of State, Micah P. Hinson, Modest Mouse, Spoon) older artists I now could spend time listening to (Billy Bragg, Built to Spill), indie-rock mainstays (Belle and Sebastian, The Decemberists, Pavement) alongside classics I never would have bought (The Beach Boys, the Clash, the Flaming Lips, Husker Du, Pink Floyd, The Velvet Underground) and obscurities I now treasure (Daniel Johnston, The Mountain Goats, TV on the Radio). And for each of these artists, what was included was not merely one album but the entire catalog. (There are many artists I left out).

I could say that hooking up this iPod to my (new) computer and methodically organizing playlists to investigate everything I didn’t recognize constituted a radical change in my life. But this would be a bit histrionic and hyperbolic. The truth is, my life was changing anyway: the loss of every possession helped push this along, but I also lost (and gained) friends, completed graduate school and somehow started to become a ‘professional’ around the same time.

(But not too professional. I don’t seem to have had any compunction about stealing music to replace stolen music. Who isn’t a thief when no one is looking?)

Conveniently, the iPod driven sound-track of my life changed too. And all because of this nearly unbelievable moment. On the train I listened to Mates of State for the first time. Walking down Bleecker, I puzzled through Le Tigre. I rediscovered the Red House Painters sitting in the Park. I learned to love both Modest Mouse and Sun Kil Moon through the same songs. I could go on and on and on and…
What makes this a story worth telling, however, is how memory and time have changed my perception of it. My delight at finding this collection soon morphed into horror. The taste of the original collector was obviously superior to mine; the instincts were better. This history of alt-rock had been so carefully and thoroughly assembled that it mocked any pretense I had at caring about music at all. The eclecticism of rare blues albums and blue grass artists I had never heard of shamed me.

So, I tried to re-educate myself, to make myself become the person who had these albums in his collection, despite the fact that I hadn’t suffered for them: I didn’t pay for them, I didn’t handle them, I didn’t make sacrifices to find room for them on my shelves.
When we (or maybe just when I) make ‘iPod choices’ one of the influences on these choices is, for better or for worse, ‘appearances’—what ‘should’ I have on my iPod if I am the person I say I am? Through what music will someone, should they acquire my iPod, most accurately gauge the person I want to be seen?

The treasure trove gave me all the tools I needed to create a new identity at a time when I was most prepared to do so. The horror came from realizing that many of the artists I should like were not the ones I do like now. As I listened carefully to the collections of Pavement and Built to Spill, I realized who I was not (their music just didn’t make me care). Pink Floyd and the Velvet Underground?


Sometimes what glitters isn’t gold and it’s the sheen on the metal that helps you see. The treasure trove, which I laboriously worked through, made me face what music I actually cared about. When I told my colleague that The Magnetic Fields and Mates of State changed the way I looked at the world or that Micah P. Hinson made me weep on University Place, she turned to me and said “Huh?”
Of course, I still have Pavement and The Velvet Underground on my computer. Just in case anyone is looking.

And you brother, can you point to so singular a moment? Can you apply such a veneer of honesty? Was such a torrent of musical emotion possible before the iPod?

One comment on “The Musical Treasure Trove

  1. […] Elder J and I have always loved this song and I obviously stole his copy of the  CD as a young man. As much as we clash  all the time, we are similar in a lot of ways and I hope to […]

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