Written by: David Porter
Tuesday night I reorganize my record collection; I often do this at periods of emotional distress. There are some people who would find this a pretty dull way to spend an evening, but I’m not one of them. This is my life, and it’s nice to be able to wade in it, immerse your arms in it, touch it…I try to remember the order I bought them in: that way I hope to write my own autobiography, without having to do anything like pick up a pen. I pull the records off the shelves, put them in piles all over the sitting room floor, look for Revolver, and go on from there, and when I’m finished I’m flushed with a sense of self, because this is, after all, who I am.
—Nick Hornby, High Fidelity
Only a world without love strikes me as instantly and decisively more terrible than one without music.
I started taking notes for this essay way back in 2005, when I got my first iPod, an 80 GB “brick”, which I still have and regularly use. It holds about 20,000 songs, and when I first received the brick, as a gift, I was astonished by its capacity, even though I already had a rather massive collection of music on an external hard drive idling beside my computer. 20,000 songs meant I could carry the digital equivalent of my entire music collection (almost) in my pocket. It was one thing to have that much music on vinyl and CDs, but to carry it with me everywhere? It seemed almost silly at the time, but only for a moment, and my acclimation to the device was immediate. Much as it had been when I was in high school and permanently attired in a Sony Walkman, music was again something I could have on my person at all times. It also meant, much as cassette tapes had throughout high school and college, that I could acquire more music than I could afford to purchase or perhaps even listen to. Today I doubt I could memorize my entire record collection, all that vinyl parked on sagging wooden shelves in my parents’ basement in northern New Jersey, never mind the music I have on CD and on my current external hard drive. It seems as if, within 20 years, give or take, I went from ownership of a small and well-traveled collection of CDs and tapes and vinyl (well-traveled in that I had traveled through it quite a bit, and that the collection itself had been hauled from Millburn, New Jersey to Rochester, New York to New Brunswick, New Jersey to San Francisco, California and finally back to Millburn) to a voluminous collection of MP3s which, to be honest, I will never know intimately. I’m convinced I will never hear every album I have in my collection, which as of this writing tops out at just under 500 GB. If 80 GB of music seemed laughable back in 2005, the amount of music I now have in my possession seems ridiculous. Even sorted alphabetically in a list of folders it is, quite simply, out of control.
I’ve spent my life in music. Not as a musician but as a consumer, as a listener – as an addict and, thanks to Stereo Embers Magazine, dare I say, a journalist? I reviewed albums at The Campus Times at the University of Rochester in the late Eighties and at Soma in San Francisco in the mid-Nineties, but neither gig was anything serious. I wrote a half-page review of The Joshua Tree for The Campus Times in the fall of 1987 and was thrilled when a girl in my dorm taped the review to the door of her room, but I soon found myself too busy drinking Meister Bräus and smoking dope and listening to Blind Faith and Axis Bold As Love – which is what you do when you’re stoned – to be bothered reviewing albums or even attending classes. At Soma I reviewed Paul Westerberg’s Eventually, Aztec Camera’s Frestonia and a collection of hot rod hits, but I was on a 100-word leash, which is quite a hindrance when you want to roam around the yard. After 1997 I didn’t write about music until 2007 when Alex Green, the Editor of SEM and a dear friend, begged me to review a collection of Todd Snider b-sides, Peace, Love & Anarchy. On behalf of SEM I’ve reviewed Gilberto Gil, The Gutter Twins and Springsteen’s Working on a Dream, and fortune smiled on me when I got to interview Luka Bloom, Marshall Crenshaw and the late, great King Solomon Burke, whose charm was as superlative as his beautiful, mighty voice.
I’m not sure how other people experience music, what place it occupies in their lives, but I can’t function without it. I love it now as much as I did in my childhood and adolescence and in my twenties and thirties, perhaps even more – it’s still an addiction, a drunkenness, an ecstasy, an ocean and, like any other surfer, I feel better when I’m in the water. Sometimes I imagine it keeps me alive, that I can’t die as long as I’m listening to music because this is, after all, who I am. So I’m writing this essay to try to explain music’s sweet dominion over my life and how it took hold there, how it maintains its stranglehold, how it inspires me to whatever greatness I might achieve, how it nurses me along when I’m at my blackest, when I feel like a puppet that’s been stripped from its hand. Like any good New York (New Jersey) Jew with a lifetime of therapy behind him, I want to talk about it. I want to drop the needle at the crackling beginning, leave a trail of breadcrumbs, discuss a few mile-markers…If you remember the scene in High Fidelity in which Rob Fleming decides to arrange his record collection autobiographically, then you’ll understand. I want to give some order to a lifelong immersion, one that’s still in media res. I’d also like to leave a map for my son, Leontios (Leo) who, at the tender age of 29 months (as of January 2013), has already been fed more music than formula. I want him to have some sort of list of what I played for him, an inventory of what my parents (particularly my mother) bequeathed to me, the story of how I arrived here, one against which he can compare his own someday.
I’m also writing this essay to say farewell, for now, to my music journalism career, if it can be described as such. Said career wouldn’t exist were it not for the generosity, support and trust of Alex Green, who has given me free reign since 2007 to write what I want, when I want and how I want to write it. I’ve been a terrible correspondent of late, largely thanks to the miracle of Leo, and since my interview with Marshall Crenshaw, in the fall of 2009, and a recent oral history of Ithaca, New York band New Neighbors, I’ve contributed very little to SEM over the past three years. I’ve decided that whatever writing I do these next few years, while I’m still in self-imposed exile in the Republic of Cyprus and raising Leo, will be comic strips, fiction, poems…maybe a bit of memoir, depending on how I decide to tell the story of my time in Cyprus. I’m satisfied with the slim volume of music writing I’ve contributed to SEM, and I take this hiatus with little regret. One of the benefits of heaving oneself across the threshold of middle age is you are forced to finally confront the dwindling amount of time and energy at your disposal. In my twenties, and then into my thirties, even if I couldn’t work full-time, write short stories, surf, run marathons and smoke entire haystacks of marijuana, I told myself I could – I was convinced I could get it all done, that bedtime could be obliterated. These days, as I crest 44, if it’s not in a diaper I can’t really give it much attention, and I can no longer pretend I am indefatigable. It’s a relief, in some ways, to cop to one’s age and behave appropriately. As Grant-Lee Phillips sings so beautifully on “Older Now”, from Little Moon, “the longer you live the softer you get/whether you like it or not/you’re older now/you take your time/cherish what you’ve got.” Or, as Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson put it in “What You Gave Me”, “time has a way of showing us the things we really need.” What I really need, these days, is more time. How much of it do I have left? 40 years? 50? Whatever it is, there may no longer be time to play b-sides. As Steve Winwood sings in “Valerie”, from Talking Back to the Night, “am I the same boy I used to be?” Am I still the boy I was when I first saw Roddy Frame sitting in a tree lip-synching “Oblivious”, back in 1983? I still love Aztec Camera, but now I need reading glasses to read the liner notes on the inlay card. What happened to all that love and hope and sex and dreams? In “Got by in Time”, from In The City, Paul Weller sings, “We were young/we were full of ideas/we were going to rule this whole world…” I was going somewhere, and music was my fuel. Did I get there? I don’t know. The destination was vague, a map I never unfolded – I was just driving. What was I supposed to become? I’m still not sure, but I know the whole enterprise had an extensive soundtrack, and still does. And I know I’m scared and I’m thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore.
This won’t mean much to those of you born after 1980, those of you who aren’t card-carrying members of Generation X. You might not even own CDs, or even entire albums. Much of the music you know is probably from American Idol or X Factor or YouTube or whatever video music channel finds its way to you. For you, the used record bins of my twenties – perhaps even the used CD bins of that period – are probably as distant as the Cold War, even though they’ve outlived it by two decades, and stories about blissful Saturday afternoons perusing the used vinyl at the Amoeba records on Haight Street – the last record store of which I was a regular patron, and a slaverous patron at that – will only sound like the tired tales of a grizzled paleontologist.
I was born in northern New Jersey in 1968, which has a lot to do with what I listened to as a child and adolescent and with what I listen to today. My provenance and the year it commenced have made me, among many other things, a Bruce Springsteen fan for more than three decades. They also guarantee that I spent an inordinate amount of time, at home and in cars, listening to New York radio stations, particularly the area’s classic rock stations, WAPP, WNEW and WXRK, and watching a lot of MTV, which began broadcasting in 1980, the year I turned 12. Many music lovers who came of age prior to the Eighties or after they concluded are quite disdainful of a decade famous for big hair and keyboards and John Hughes movies, but it will reside forever in my heart; the Eighties were crucial years for me, and I still listen to much of the music I fell in love with then. Returning to the music I listened to in junior high and high school makes me think I might be the same boy I used to be, and songs like “Burning Down the House,” “Hold Me Now,” “I Will Dare,” “Kiss,” “Tenderness” and “What You Need” still thrill me as much as they did when I was in high school. I haven’t abandoned any of the music on which I cut my teeth, and this helps me feel there’s something sincere about me, something consistent and true – that I’m still myself. That I’ve withstood at least a few of the ravages of distance and time.
Leo was born on the 23rd of August 2010. So far I’ve subjected him to repeated plays of Louis Armstrong, Bach, Anita Baker, The Beatles, Jimmy Cliff, Patsy Cline, Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke, Corelli, Cracker, Crowded House, Marshall Crenshaw, Bobby Darin, Blossom Dearie, Dire Straits, Cesaria Evora, Ella Fitzgerald, Marvin Gaye (solo and with Tammi Terrell), Stan Getz, Bebel Gilberto, Al Green, Johnny Hartman, Buddy Holly, John Holt, Bob Marley, Van Morrison, Mozart, Elvis, Grant-Lee Philips, Otis Redding, Sade, Jimmy Scott, Sinatra, Springsteen, Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Paul Westerberg and Stevie Wonder. I’ve also sang him just about every song I can sing all the way through a cappella, in many a desperate attempt to send him off to sleep, including The Beatles, “Till There Was You” and “Golden Slumbers,” Marshall Crenshaw’s “There She Goes Again,” “Distant Sun” by Crowded House, The Replacements’ “Kiss Me on the Bus” and “Can’t Hardly Wait,” Talking Heads’ “Naïve Melody (This Must Be the Place),” “Alison,” “Is This Love,” “Let’s Stay Together,” “Sweet Baby James” and a lot of Springsteen: “Atlantic City,” “Born to Run,” “Rosalita,” “The Ties That Bind” and “Thunder Road”.
“Thunder Road” is my sidearm. At nap time and bedtime, it’s always at the ready if I need to sing my boy to sleep, and thus it seems copying the lyrics over and over in my notebook in high school has finally served some purpose. It’s one of the greatest songs ever written, a beautiful poem and a perfect lullaby. It belongs to me, and one day it will belong to Leo, if he wants it. I hope it thrills him the way it thrills me, still, after all this time. Right now, though, his favorite CD is a compilation of Greek children’s songs, which includes a few of the Smurfs’ biggest Hellenic hits.
What will Leo absorb of all this? I don’t know. What will he find, in an era of iPhones and X-boxes, in a time when even emails have become antiquated? Douglas Coupland put it best in Shampoo Planet: “I am afraid of the dark ages.” I fear they are upon us, but who knows? Maybe looking back at the generation coming up behind you and deciding they are destroying the world with their horrible taste and their dearth of social skills is how one hoists the flag of middle age. Maybe my parents felt this way every time I shoved a Replacements cassette into the tape player in one of their cars. Maybe their generation found spiked hair and neon surf shorts as distasteful as I do everyone’s crap Daytona spring break tattoos (including my own); maybe they found cable as insidious as I do Facebook and iPhones. I know in my heart things are worse than ever, that as both a civilization and a species we are racing toward a horrific finale, but I can’t prove it. Leo will find his way, I’m sure, to the detritus of the future, whatever versions of Miley Cyrus and David Guetta and the Jonas Brothers and Lady Gaga and Avril Lavigne and Katy Perry and Pitbull and The Pussycat Dolls and The Spice Girls and Tiffany await us. I will bristle and cringe when I hear it, but so be it – we have to start somewhere.
No one’s taste is unassailable, nor should it be. Leo will shed these skins, I hope, and continue slithering through this most exquisite muck which, should he be anything like his father, he will find as needful as air.