In Praise Of The Object

     |    Wednesday May 2nd, 2012  |     2

Another Record Store Day has come and gone, and it’s interesting to see how this pseudo-holiday has evolved. Like Mother’s Day or Secretaries’ Day, but far more overtly than either of those, it’s an event organized by an industry to both celebrate itself and sell stuff. Lots of stuff.  And that’s the way it seems to have worked out, too: this year saw long lines forming in front of record stores so collectors could snarf up the limited edition stuff that was only for sale on Record Store Day and, in many cases, whack it up onto eBay at vastly inflated prices as quickly as possible. Given that it was Record Store Day, and given the kind of person that’s likely to attract — especially if you make instant collectables to celebrate it — that’s not a surprise. But it’s at least a little heartwarming that attention is being drawn to the plight of this part of the retail sector, where generations of us learned, one album at a time, about what’s out there.


This was where I learned much of what I know, and that’s the guy, John Goddard, who taught me. Village Music was at 9 E. Blythdale in Mill Valley, California, and John bought and sold records, magazines, and memorabilia there until 2007, when he shut down the shop and sort of retired. (I say “sort of,” because he’s still running the business on the internet, as you can see by exploring his site here).


John is much too cranky to participate in Record Store Day, I’d guess, but that’s because until the day he closed in 2007, every day was Record Store Day for him. Not only that, unlike many of the collectors who haunted his back room, he was constantly aware that the music pressed into the tens of thousands of vinyl discs in his store had a life outside of the record jacket. Part of this was because a lot of the people who made that music, from B.B. King to Carlos Santana to Elvis Costello to DJ Shadow, shopped there on a regular basis, but part of it was because he had a network of people who constantly phoned him with performance updates. John would then call those of us he knew were interested and we’d pile into his impeccably restored 1957 Chevy Bel-Aire and drive to a club or a church (thanks to John, I got to see most of the performers from gospel music’s golden age on their home ground, and there were some Catholic churches with halls where black Louisiana emigrants held zydeco dances) to experience this stuff first-hand.


Of course, before 1970, I didn’t know John, so I got my information from other sources. Fortunately, my local public library had loads of records to loan out, and I took full advantage of that.


My main interest at first was classical music, and there was a lot to read on that subject, so I had no problem learning what I wanted, or even finding it. Then I got interested in folk music, and there, again, the library was my friend, although there were more records to listen to and fewer books to read. And it was at that point that I discovered liner notes. Folkies in the mid-’60s valued authenticity, and loved to talk about the sources of the music they recorded: whose version, recorded by which folkorist, or by which ’20s recording artist. Folkways Records, which put out both archival material and performances by contemporary folk musicians, always featured a little book in a separate compartment of the record cover, filled with scholarly notes. I hoovered this stuff up, then tried to find the sources myself. When I discovered that there were also magazines, both audiophile and music-specialty, devoted to the music that interested me, I read them, too.


So between my reading and the hours I spent listening to stuff, I was ready for the next step, and the next step was Village Music, where I apparently passed John’s idiot test (he did not, and does not, suffer fools gladly) and became part of the inner circle there. My education eventually led to my writing a couple of books, and my position as “rock and roll historian” for Fresh Air with Terry Gross on National Public Radio.


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Last night, I listened to a wonderful collection called Aimer et Perdre, the latest release from the remarkable Tompkins Square Records. 

It’s a two-disc collection of old folk records — Cajun, Ukranian, Polish, hillbilly, blues — on the themes of love and loss, all mixed together so that it makes sense, in an odd sort of way. And what occurred to me, as it has before, is that nowadays anyone who wants to can listen to, for instance, the Franciszek Dukli Wijska Banda’s June 1928 recording of “Uwiedziona Dziewczyna” any time they want to. Or anything else. And yet, while we have access to more of the world’s music than ever, we’re getting to a place where we know less and less about it: I have entire weeks’ worth of music I’ve downloaded about which I know absolutely nothing. Oh, sure, I could take the same computer I’m writing this on and go in search of some probably more or less reliable information on Wikipedia or something, but that takes time. Because I accessed “Uwiedziona Dziewczyna” on an object (a beautifully produced object, at that, although that’s not relevant to the discussion), I can walk over to the CD cover and discover that, like a lot of the Eastern Europeans on Aimer et Perdre, Dukli was based in Chicago, a city that contained lots of homesick Eastern European immigrants who gave his band a lot of work. (Maybe among them were the parents of the Czsz brothers, who changed their surname to Chess and recorded the first generation of electric Chicago bluesmen, as well as Chuck Berry).

What I’m saying is that restricting music to itself, as the current way of finding it does, deracinates it, decontextualizes it. Objects, records, CDs, are cumbersome, hard to transport and hard to store. On the other hand, they not only contain the sonic information (often at a far higher degree of fidelity) that the intangibles do, but they contain other information, information which can be used in all manner of ways, not least of which is, maybe, educating tomorrow’s cultural historians. Not all of them are as beautiful as Aimer et Perdre, perhaps, which only hints at the gorgeous art direction (by Susan Archie) inside with R. Crumb’s rendering of the iconic photo of Cajun recording pioneers Cleoma and Joseph Falcon on its cover, but anything that helps us make the connections that lead to more discoveries — about the past, about the present — is worth preserving. So support your local record store from time to time. Not just on Record Store Day, okay?