Thursday, January 7, 2010

Fake Records of Rock and Roll

If they could talk, they'd be saying that Graham Parker's version of "I Want You Back" is better than 
the Jackson Five's original.  Some people would look at them as if they were insane.  Most people would look at them
and say, "Holy cow!  Those birds can talk!" 

Today's title comes courtesy of Daniel Johnston, the reclusive, mysterious, mentally ill Austin-based singer-songwriter.

Johnston is rather amazing.  His "Casper the Friendly Ghost" is one of my all-time favorite songs, a lo-fi masterpiece with cryptic lyrics ("you can't buy respect like the librarian said"), unusual instruments (including a "See and Say" player) and a hook that plunges itself into your brain and stays there all day long (Listen to it first thing in the morning, and hours later you'll find yourself in line at the Post Office or looking for PVC fittings at Home Depot, realizing that all those people are staring at you because you've been singing lines like "Thank you, Casper the Friendly Ghost" in a plainly audible voice).

And thus begins my old man rant for today.

I love iTunes.  I love it too much, the way I love pepperoni and mushroom pizza or chicken wings, love it to excess, love it to the point of self-injury.  I knew of Daniel Johnston -- he is a minor legend in this part of Texas -- but had it not been for iTunes and the anonymous, non-judgmental, point and click way it allows us to indulge even the most fleeting buy impulse, I would have never actually owned any Daniel Johnston music.  Which is great, except that there are hundreds of Daniel Johnstons out there, earnest and mostly obscure, recording their songs in makeshift home studios, and every one of them has a critic somewhere who proclaims them The Future of Music, and before you know it, your iPod is groaning with all sorts of songs that you feel obligated to buy, but will never listen to.

It feels like a trip to Buffalo, my home town.  Between the airport and the hotel, I stop at Ted's Red Hots for a foot long and some curly fries, then Anderson's for frozen custard.  Drop the bags at the hotel, and it's off to Pizza Junction, then Duff's or Anchor Bar for wings, and on to Grover's for a Bleu Cheese burger nightcap.  That night, groaning in my room, I look at the half-filled pizza box and the take away container of cold, grease-congealed wings sitting on the dresser and promise myself that from here on, it's Vegetarianism and Rigorous Exercise.  Scroll through song after song by artists like Ohbijou and The Woodpigeons and Conor Oberst and Les Charbonniers de l'enfer and Cafe Tacuba and Gare Du Nord and Great Lake Swimmers and the feeling quickly moves from happy and satisfied to bloated and shamefaced and just a little out of control.

I miss record stores.  We have a good one in Houston, Cactus Records.  There's another good one in Austin, Waterloo Records.  There aren't many left.  In North Tonawanda, we had Jeff's Records, in the Mid-City Plaza.  Jeff's was a short walk from the high school, right on my way to Grand-Pa's house, so I was in there a couple of times a week.  The owner was a skinny young guy, always smiling, short haired and bearded.  Jeff was friendly and good natured and  self-assured, convinced that this store was the first step in a establishing a mighty chain.  He carried himself like a guy who spent his summers on a kibbutz.

I didn't spend much money at Jeff's.  I don't think anyone did -- there wasn't much money to spend back then -- which is probably why the store disappeared sometime in the early 80's.  I vaguely remember that Jeff had opened a second store near Eastern Hills Mall, but his dreams of World Domination never came to fruition.

The store, though, the store!  I hated high school.  I hated that whole time in my life.  My father was dying and eventually dead and I was barely passing my classes and for reasons I have never fully understood, my teachers either treated me as an object of extreme pity, or as a whipping boy.  (Some people shimmer with charisma: for several years I worked closely with Giff Nielsen, former NFL quarterback and inductee to the College Football Hall of Fame, and every time I was with him, I felt like I should be wearing a number 63 jersey and blocking a blitzing linebacker.  Giff has a talent for uncovering the latent Pulling Guard in everyone.  Some people are like those brightly colored poisonous tree frogs in the Amazon rain forest: crazy eyed and disheveled, their markings fairly scream, "Watch  out!  Contact with me will bring nothing but misery!"  On good days in North Tonawanda, my bearing said "Mensch."  On bad days, it was stuck on "Schlub."  Most days, it was "Schlemiel.")  After a day filled with indignities large and small -- in 11th grade, our history teacher, a sullen, goateed, sallow cheeked cynic who wore the same black bell bottoms and turtleneck to school almost every day, was telling our Honors Russian History class that the biggest hurdle we would have to face in college was accepting the fact that despite all of our great accomplishments in high school, there would be times when we wouldn't be the best in the class, times when we would be less than straight-A students.  He paused, looked at me, and said, "Except you.  You, you're used to failure."  High school was like being the only audience member in a four year long Don Rickles concert -- an hour in Jeff's Records was bliss.

Jeff's is where I heard Dire Strats for the first time, and Graham Parker and Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe and Springsteen's "Darkness On The Edge Of Town".  It's where, on a rainy, miserable October night  I bought my first copy of "The River", still The Greatest Album of All Time, and where I first heard the "weird, whispering burl" of my favorite singer-songwriter, Al Stewart.  Rifling through the racks at Jeff's, listening to whatever he put on the turntable, was the first step in developing my musical aesthetic.  Part of that development came in knowing that there were very few dollars to spend on music, so I had to be very, very careful.  Purchasing Al Stewart's 2 disc retrospective "The Early Years", with its compilation of tunes from his extremely rare first four albums, meant not buying the newest Pink Floyd or Rolling Stones.  Getting a copy of "Darkness" or "Greetings From Asbury Park" eliminated Elton John and Peter Frampton from consideration.  Wandering the mostly empty store with Jeff the happy kibbutznik playing all of this amazing music, feeling slightly lightheaded from the plastic and printer's ink fumes rising gently from the record racks, the Top 40 barely touched me. I didn't listen to what everybody else listened to; I was like some strange mutant finch, and Jeff's was my Galapagos.

I don't miss the past.  I do miss that excitement of discovery, of hearing something for the first time, and feeling like Father Hennepin when he first saw Niagara Falls: thrilled and energized and awed and amazed at the majesty of God's creation.  I also miss the days when every song was hard won, when every note was precious.

Pascal writes, "It is not good to be too free.  It is not good to have all one needs."  Awash in plenty, blessed with all I desire and far more than I need, I think I understand what he means.


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  2. I wish that I was buying music when record stores were still booming.

    Real record shops were finished by the time I was old enough to buy music on my own. My generation bought its music at the mall. In and out. No discovery was going on.

    The records stores that I have been to all felt like antique shops. The purchases that I made felt like donations.

  3. You got me with the last two paragraphs, Cort. Wow. Truer words were never written. Me to a T.