Monthly Archives: June 2012

Only A Bad Dream: Record Store Paradise Lost

I had a nightmare last night that Music Millennium, the oldest independent record store in Portland, closed its doors, and I wandered around the store weeping while the employees packed everything into boxes. It was a terrible, suffocating dream, vivid, emotionally as real as they come. You know the kind, one of those night time visions from which it takes a few moments to recover and about which you have to convince yourself: it was only a bad dream.

I was wondering about the origin of this night terror, hence, an inquiry that began a blog entry.

There are a few independent record stores in Portland but you have to go downtown or into city neighborhoods. I grew up in the suburbs, in Milwaukie, Oregon, and as a child and all the way through my teens there were two decent record stores within walking distance of my house. The first one went under about the time I started high school, is now the office of a used car lot, and the other lasted almost all the way through my teens, finally failed, and became in short order an adult video and sex-toy shop. That porno establishment is still going after more than 25 years, but there’s no music to be had anywhere in my old neighborhood (once again my neighborhood of residence), save for the electronics section of Fred Meyer’s Grocery or the few titles available at the local Starbucks. So, I make the monthly, sometimes bi-monthly, sometimes weekly trek to Music Millennium, a twenty-five minute drive from my home, to shop for music. It’s food. It must be done. And while I order something on-line from time to time and download a bit every month, I always feel a little bit lazy and stupid when I do–unless I’m buying directly from the artist or from an independent label. So I have to work harder for new music. I have to travel.

I know that Music Millennium has had a rough time of it. There used to be two stores, one of which had a great stage for live music. Now there’s only one, the original, and it’s been in business for nearly 40 years, and it’s had to diversify, I understand, to make it. They do compact discs and record albums of course, and they have a massive selection, but they also sell dvds and books and classic toys and candy and games and  t-shirts and you can even buy a turntable there. Whatever, I say, it’s all good, and it all  has this power of recapturing the heyday of the vinyl record album, replete with incense aroma record store smell and great rock art everywhere; it’s a music fan paradise. Music Millennium is still in business and shows no signs of going under.  I hope it lasts forever.  But I worry, still, not just about this incredible store, but others like it in my town, all over the nation and the world.  And I worry not only about these great businesses, but maybe more so about the experience of music listening itself losing much of its vitality and richness.

It seems obvious that the artifact of the record album, despite its medium, digital or analog, is an endangered species and will ultimately become extinct and maybe soon.  This revolutionary fact that you can hold 40,000 songs on a device that fits in the palm of your hand makes compact discs and even more so the vinyl record album unwieldy, clumsy, inefficient things.  And the quality of the digital download has the potential to outshine the compact disc. So who’s complaining? What’s wrong with any of that?

First, the record album, the long-play record album, is a work of art worthy of preserving, and is at risk altogether when the practice of most music consumers nowadays is to download one song at a time, to pick and choose, to shuffle, rarely if ever to listen to a unified grouping of songs.  The record albums I loved growing up, and still love, are ones conceived, or at least understood, as one continuous whole–rather than a random collection of songs.  Think of The White Album, or Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, or The Wall, or Skylarking. These albums gave the listener a sustained experience, told a story, required our full attention, and the brevity of one side of a vinyl record in particular prevented us from mindless multi-tasking.

There’s a tactile experience, too, that goes missing without the music artifact. Vinyl records and their covers had a smell, all that cardboard and ink.  And you had to manipulate them physically, wrestling them out of their 12×12 houses, delicately pulling the record out of its sleeve with the tips of your fingers, careful not to muck up the first track, holding it gingerly between the two palms of your hands, gently setting it down on the turntable, selecting the correct speed, setting the platter into motion, admiring the shape of the individual tracks as they spun–yes, you could see this music!  And finally you set the needle down in the lovely and generous black space before the first song.  The pop of the landing.  The anticipation of the first note, beat, chord, word.  The reward.  Only some of this is maintained by the compact disc, a decisively inferior tactile experience–but we initially forgave that as we fell in love with this flashy new medium and believed at least we were getting superior audio quality even if we weren’t really.  But CD sales are way down and vinyl sales, even though there’s a whole bucket-load more of it than there was, say, a decade ago, belongs to a decidedly niche market, a niche market that seems to be stubbornly holding on, as I  notice that most new music I care about today is being released on vinyl.  It’s a tactile experience that true music fans are loathe to let go–and it’s not just nostalgia, truly.  The physical experience was part of the whole–an integral part, I think, that completely disappears with your iPod.

Next, the new portability of music allows us unrestricted, almost continuous, if we so choose, usage–which, in my mind anyway, devalues it, depreciates it.  We can, after all, listen to our favorite song while using a public restroom.  We used to have to make time for music.  One of my colleagues and I recently discussed how, as kids, we’d get up early so that we could listen to music before school. After school listening parties were daily rituals, even if they were parties of one. And unless you were lucky enough to have a stereo in your room, you also had to time your listening around the schedules of mom and dad. When you could get it, the time to listen was precious.  Today we are surrounded by it as often as we can stand it, and most of us stand it or desire it at least so much of the time that we really don’t know what it’s like often NOT to be listening, or watching, or looking at a screen. We develop a love and true appreciation for music, perhaps, only when we know what NOT having it is like.  I’m just throwing that out there.

This blog entry has become tiresome and long.  Let me conclude.

I don’t think there’s anything prescient about my nightmare: I am optimistic about the survival of Music Millennium.  It may, however, in a decade or less, be the only survivor in my town.  I feel bad for young people who claim to be music lovers who have never set foot in a real record store–either because they don’t know what such animals are, or because they can’t drive 25 minutes or an hour down the road to find one.  I’ve taught my son the joys and responsibilities of the record album. I’ve started buying vinyl again when I can afford it, not out of nostalgia, but in order to recapture the full experience of music listening.  I give myself permission to sit in a chair through the length of an entire record or two.  It’s rewarding.  It’s replenishing.  It provides a momentary continuity in the midst of all of the other noise in our daily battle with a thousand and one distractions.

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No, I Don’t Want Any Music With My Coffee

I recently posted on my facelift page about the weirdness of walking into a Starbucks for an iced latte on an early summer morning and finding at the counter next to the register the new album by Fiona Apple. I’ve grown pretty accustomed to seeing music for sale there; they’ve been doing it for years. But there’s something uncomfortable for me about seeing music that I want in my collection at my elbow while I make my coffee order.  The post I made on faceplant was simply the question: why am I weirded out by this?  Why should I be?  And since the new Fiona Apple album is one for which I feel not just a little bit of excitement, why didn’t I plunk down another 14 dollars right there on the spot so I could enjoy my latte and my Fiona at the very same time as I drove away in my car?  I don’t know.  I really don’t know.

And then I got two responses to my query which served as the inspiration for this blog entry.  One friend’s response echoed the question in the preceding paragraph and went sort of like this:  “What’s wrong with buying music at Starbucks?  I do it from time to time and feel absolutely no weirdness.” And the other friend’s response was a link to an article that essentially answered all of the questions above.  Sort of.  Here’s the title of said article: “The Starbuck Brandscape and Consumers’ (Anticorporate) Experiences of Glocalization.” It was co-written by Craig J. Thompson and Zeynep Arsel, the piece was published in 2004 by the Journal of Consumer Research, and the bald-faced truth is that I understood very little of it. But I understood enough of it, as they say, to make me dangerous, enough of it, I’d like to think, to help me explain to myself and anybody else who might be interested WHY I got the heebie jeebies seeing Fiona Apple for sale at Starbucks.

To begin with, I’ve got milling around in my head what the authors of this article call “The Anti-Starbucks Discourse,” meaning that I share with a lot of folks certain criticisms of the Starbucks corporate enterprise. Whether because of infamous business practices, the exorbitant prices, the quality of the product, or the sense of the manufactured, 100% calculated experience of the environment,  there’s to begin with a certain amount of self-doubt and guilt when I buy coffee there as opposed to frequenting the independent or the local–which I used to ALWAYS do when I lived closer to the independent and the local.  Convenience has brought me back into the Starbucks fold against my better judgements. And then, feeling a bit sheepish to begin with about just being there, I see Fiona Apple’s new cd staring out at me from the counter.  Fiona seems to be saying, “It’s all right.  It’s all good.  Look, I’m here.  And you like me.  Why can’t you like the rest of it?”  It’s pure genius on the part of the PR people at the helm of this monolithic corporate enterprise, this strategy of fooling me into believing that, within this massive business structure, the local, no, the individual cultural interests are maintained and honored here.  Hence: “Glocalization.” For me, in Milwaukie, Oregon, there’s nothing “local” about Fiona Apple.  But there is something fiercely independent, individualistic about her, weird, eclectic, anti-establishment, personal, all things I value–for sale in a place that epitomizes what I don’t value: homogeneity, sterility, conformity, consistency–in the Emersonian sense:  “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. . .”

And this, I guess, is what weirds me out: the dichotomous feeling of patronizing an establishment at once sell-out and full of hipster credibility, at once representative of predatory corporate greed and independent spirit and experimentation, an establishment homogenous and conformist staffed by young, tattooed, pierced, multi-color hair-doed baristas.

I can’t buy Fiona Apple’s new album there.  It would seem, somehow, sacrilegious, wrong, and forced–yes, forced, because I bet that music sales at Starbucks are almost entirely 100% compulsive purchases.  No one says or thinks, “Fiona Apple’s new record was released today; let me go down to Starbucks and pick that baby up.”  No one says or thinks that.  Instead, they say, “I want coffee.  Oh my god, look, there’s Fiona’s new record.  I want that, too.  Let me buy it now along with my coffee.”  And that, for some whacky reason according to Michael Jarmer, is no good.  Let us buy coffee when we are thirsty for coffee.  And let us buy music when we are thirsty for that–and let us be okay with transporting ourselves in whatever way we can to a place that specializes in the medium.  Let’s go to the local coffee shop for coffee, and the local record store for records.  Then all is right in the world.

 

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The Imaginary Commencement Address

Greetings, class of 2012! You’ve worked hard and you’ve finally arrived at this momentous day, which, just like yesterday was, and the day before yesterday, and just like tomorrow will be and the day after tomorrow will be again, the first day of the rest of your life.  But yesterday you weren’t graduating from high school, and tomorrow you will have already graduated, so this day is in fact set apart, appropriately, as a special day, a day on which you participate in a singular right of passage away from childhood and into adulthood, whatever that means. It sounds kind of scary, actually.

I’d like to begin by thanking you all for not inviting me to speak at graduation.  I appreciate that.  It really takes the pressure off. But even though I have not been invited to speak, I will speak anyway, at least in imagination and spirit, because I CAN, and because I have a few things to say.

I greeted many of you four years ago in English 9. You were silly.  You were nutty.  Some of you were interested in learning.  Some of you were not.  Some of you worked hard.  Some of you didn’t.  Most of you are here today, but others of you could not join us this evening.  That should give us some pause.  (Pause). But you were a sweet group.  I mean to say, even though as freshmen, and even more so as sophomores, you were sometimes frustrating to work with (remember that time I got so angry I walked out of the classroom,  and that other time I slammed my open hand on a desk to get your attention and hurt myself?), you were, on the whole, nice, kind, caring. I really appreciate that.  To me, being a decent human being weighs on the scale much more significantly than good grades and academic prowess.  So I will remember you for being decent human beings.  We had fun together. Thank you.

Others of you I did not meet until your junior year.  You came into American Literature or IB Junior English knowing nothing about me–and we got on pretty well.  We studied witches, the Declaration of Independence, the roaring 20s, Coyote, poetry, monster-making, alcoholism, Chile’s dark past, America’s dark past, and love during the Mexican Revolution–and through the Exhibition Project (which you all loved) and the Individual Oral Presentation (which you all loved), you made your voices and your learning heard above the roof tops of the world.  Good work, people.

And I was fortunate enough to have about 37 of you in my IB Senior English class and my good buddy and Evil Twin Mr. Hawking had another 25 to 30 of you.  I think we studied some things in the context of that particular curriculum that might be appropriate to highlight here, on this occasion–in case you missed it the first time, or, in case you were not in those classrooms.  Let’s think of the next few minutes as a “review for the test,” so to speak.  The test we’re talking about is a long one.  It begins right this second.  And it ends–well, it ends–at the end–hopefully a really long time from now. I want you to do well on the test, so listen up.

We studied literature about the Vietnam war and we learned this:

Wars suck.  If you can help it, don’t fight them.  Instead, fight to prevent them. How do you do that?  Live peacefully in your families and in your neighborhoods.  I believe in the ripple effect that good living can have on everything and everyone that surrounds us.  I don’t mean pure living.  I mean good–good in that no one gets hurt, physically or emotionally; that everything and everyone that comes into direct contact with you is left in a better shape, condition, or state than it or he or she was before your paths crossed.  Live peacefully in and with your own mind.  You have to believe in the possibility of a world without war.  You have to start there.  And know this: that you can believe all of this and fall short of the mark over and over.  You will fail.  As I have.  And then what? We do what we can to make things better, to make amends, to forgive and be forgiven, to avoid past mistakes and destructive patterns.  In a 2011 joint venture between Vietnam and the U.S., 32 million dollars was invested for an Agent Orange clean up in Central Vietnam, nearly forty years after the end of the war. It’s never too late, people. And for those of you who serve: thank you, first of all.  And secondly, help us imagine collectively and then realize an armed forces whose primary job is to help relieve suffering and not to inflict it.

We studied literature about American slavery and the Troubles in Ireland, and we learned that history matters. It teaches us primarily not about the way things were, but WHY things are the way they are.  And if you don’t understand that, you’re living in the dark. History also teaches us this one abiding truth that, if we allow it to, can guide our lives:  nothing worth achieving comes easily.

And we studied post World War II existentialist drama and we came away with this: Live your own dream, not someone else’s.  Learn to distinguish the voice in your head from the voices coming from your cell phones and the internet and the television and your friends and family, all of which or all of whom think they know you better than you know yourself.  Technology is a tool, but many of us live as though we are tools to the technology.  Don’t be a tool.  There’s a lot of noise in this world competing with the good noise, the music of your own thoughts.  Try to find some way, some silent space within your lives, to listen to that music within.

And from Beckett we learned that it’s okay to wait, but we have to be careful, because all of what we believe we are waiting for might already be here. And this is the trap, right, that Beckett was describing: in grade school we wait for junior high (which is absolutely crazy when you think about it), in junior high we  wait for high school, and in high school we  wait for college and the concurrent and/or subsequent unemployment.  And once we’re in college or unemployed we wait for a job, a family, a kid, and then we wait for the kid to go through grade school, middle school, high school, college, job, marriage, grandkids, and . . .  Good grief. Stop waiting for life to begin.  Your life has already begun.  You’re in it.  Live it. Be here now.  Tomorrow will come, I guarantee it.

Notice I didn’t say anything about writing a great essay or analyzing text. Don’t get me wrong, here.  It’s not that I don’t think these things are important–but they are not the end–they are the means to an end, and those of you who have taken advantage of your education know this and those of you who haven’t will learn it.  Learning to use your mind well–and I think that has been or should have been the goal of the last 13 years of your school experience–will help you create a more peaceful world, will help you understand and make sense of your society and your relationships, will help you to think your own thoughts and follow your own dreams, and will help you learn to live in the present moment as if it were the only moment left to you.

With love, deep appreciation for all that you have taught me, and with the best wishes for each and every one of your days, congratulations class of 2012.

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