Once upon a time…or maybe twice…

I always say my music collecting officially started at Christmas of 1978, when my mom bought me The Beatles’ 1967-1970 album…but how did I come to chose that album, of all things?  I mean, barring the fact that the collection really started a few months earlier with the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band soundtrack, there has to be a reason I’d become obsessed with the Beatles at the tender age of seven.  Well, there’s two reasons:  the aforementioned 1978 movie that we went to see that summer, and another movie that had been playing on one of the local independent television stations:Yellow Submarine.

I don’t remember exactly when I first saw this animated feature, but I know it was on WLVI, Channel 56 out of Boston.  They played it at least once every summer, their own worn copy with all the pops and skips and edits, sometimes as a double-bill with Help! afterwards.  I fell in love with the movie instantly and looked forward to watching it every time it came on.  They played it in December of 1980 when John Lennon was murdered, and that was the year I grabbed a few blank cassettes and taped the entire movie onto tape.  (I remember it was this year because I taped a Lennon tribute show hosted by Casey Kasem that they played afterwards.)  I listened to that recording through 1981, and by the time WLVI played it again, I knew the movie by heart.  To this day, I can still quote nearly most of the movie, given a prompt.

This movie, the Sgt Pepper soundtrack, and the Beatles in particular, were major influences on how I listen to music.  I’d been a radio listener probably since I first noticed specific songs playing on the car radio during our family vacations–the fact that I had all older siblings who latched onto music before I did probably helped me do the same–but the Beatles were probably the first band where something clicked, and I stopped being a passive listener and became an active one.  And by active, I mean that I’d actually paid attention to the songs, learned their lyrics, and explored their sounds.  The original songs fascinated me, especially when I’d come to know many of them through the Sgt Pepper versions.

A few months ago, Yellow Submarine recieved a second remastering and release onto dvd.  Both times (1999 and this year), the release was prefaced by a short tour of select movie houses, and I of course had to go.  The first time they played it at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge MA, and that was the first time I’d ever seen the movie on the big screen, after having watched it on tv for years.  Back then, it had been remastered to Dolby Digital 5.1 and the movie sounds and visuals cleaned up considerably…plus, it was the first appearance of the “Hey Bulldog” sequence that had been edited out of the US version and later UK versions.  A new soundtrack was released, Yellow Submarine Songtrack, which to this day remains the only songs by the Beatles that are remixed to 24 tracks.  [Nearly the entire Beatles oeuvre was recorded on a 4-track mixer, barring Abbey Road and a few singles.  Think of that bit of info next time you listen to the brilliance of “A Day in the Life”.]  A second remastering took place recently and this latest version just came out a few weeks ago on both dvd and Blu-Ray.  I could not pass up going to see it at our local theater around the corner, and I was not let down.  The colors and sounds were vibrant and exciting, and the mix was clear enough that I could actually catch pretty much every line of dialogue effortlessly.

The interesting thing about watching Yellow Submarine every few years or so is that I still pick up on new things, or at least see things in a somewhat different light.  I remember watching it in high school and being surprised when it finally clicked in my head that war-torn Pepperland held a gritty parallel to WWII-era Europe.  Or finally catching the ridiculous number of puns (“Can’t help it, I’m a born Leever-puller”), Beatle song references (In the Sea of Holes… J:”Hey, this reminds me of Blackburn, Lancashire.” P: “Oh, boy…”) or sly music references (“Four score and thirty-two bars ago, our forefathers…”) hidden in the dialogue.  Or the fact that, this current time, how Chief Blue Meanie really needs to go on meds and maybe even take an extended stay in a psych ward, given his completely-off-the-rails psychosis.  Even the little bits of animation are brilliant, such as the pan-down of the Liverpool skyline right before “Eleanor Rigby” starts, or the initial panning across the Sea of Holes in incredible detail, or the clever use of rotoscoping in many scenes.  It’s not a perfect piece of animation, as you can definitely see slight mistakes throughout, but it’s sure as hell a creative one.

Yellow Submarine is definitely one of my Top Five movies, and one I’ll never get sick of.  Watching it as a kid defined who I was and how I listened to music, and despite its psychedelic roots, it still holds up as a quirky but extremely fun movie that everyone should see at least once.

Walk in Silence…The Singles

Listen in Silence. Sure, kind of a goofy name for a compilation (let alone a series that’s still going strong to this day), but the aim was this: these are the songs I listen to, in silence. They’re not aural background, they’re songs I actually pay attention to. It’s a compilation I’d listen to at night on my headphones, after everyone’s gone to bed and the rest of the world is fast asleep.  Starting off with the well-known snotty guitar riff of Violent Femme’s “Blister in the Sun”–itself one of the very first tracks I’d ever heard on college radio a few years previously–and filled with album tracks and songs I’d heard on 120 Minutes over the previous month or so, LiS may have been the fourth “official” non-radio mixtape I’d created, but it was the first one that I was proud of. It was also the first compilation in which I’d consciously chosen all college rock tracks.

I don’t have a specific date when it was made, but I can safely say it was sometime around August of 1988. There are some current tracks, but there’s also quite a few older tracks as well.  They were all from cassettes I’d purchased in the past year or so, all of which were rotating through my Walkman and being borrowed by my college-bound friends for dubbing.  In retrospect, I also think this is also the one compilation that wasn’t created out of any specific theme (like the three before it) or mood (like the countless mixes thereafter).  It was the last gasp of being close to all my friends of the previous year and a half, who’d graduated just a few months earlier–and this compilation was sort of a ‘greatest hits’ of that time.

The first Walk in Silence compilation on the other hand, was created to fit a mood a few months later.

By this time I was back in school, floating through senior year, trying to get through this last bit of hometown residency so I could get the hell out of Inkspot and on to college in The Big City of Boston. I put WiS together in October of 1988 to combat the frustration and annoyance of all my closest friends having left Inkspot already, as well as having no real girlfriend at the time. It started out very similar to LiS in that it was to be another collection of “college rock greatest hits” but soon ended up containing quite a few tracks reflecting my mood at the time.  It starts off strong and angry with Depeche Mode’s “Stripped” and ends exhausted and resigned with Joy Division’s “Atmosphere”.  Many tracks were actually taken from promo singles that had been lying around at the radio station where I was working. The station had still been receiving the occasional promo single and album, mostly from Warner Brothers affiliated labels, but since the station ran via satellite feed, these gems were gathering dust.  I’d taken it upon myself to borrow them between shifts and dub them onto compilations so I would have them in my collection. By this time I think I understood the “flow” of a compilation, having innately picked up the trick while listening to various concept albums I enjoyed. I’d discovered quite early on that I enjoyed an album that had continuous ebbs and flows, as well as a nice strong bell curve as if it told a story. [This is why I thought John Cusack’s diatribe about making the perfect mixtape in High Fidelity cracked me up, because it’s so true.]  Whereas LiS sounds like a jumble of tracks that flow together well and sound like a shuffled playlist from a typical weekend afternoon in the late 80s, WiS deliberately starts out strong, comes to a relatively positive peak at the switch of tape sides, only to show the breaks in the wall and ending up with the stark minimalism at the end.

The title actually didn’t come to me until midway through making the compilation, when I’d realized that “Atmosphere” would be the perfect track to end it with. I’d toyed with various titles that afternoon, but somehow I knew that using that lyric would be perfect.  The bit at the end, “…The Singles,” is something I stole from Chris, who’d been making his own compilations around the same time; we’d both borrowed it from the couple of greatest hits compilations that were floating around at the time, specifically The Cure’s Standing on a Beach – The Singles. Giving it the name Walk in Silence also ties in with why I called the previous oneListen in Silence…if that one was for listening, this one was for when I felt I was truly alone.  It was a compilation to drive the point home that I was on my own, for the most part.

Compilation-making was about borrowing and dubbing someone else’s tapes and records, especially when one of us was heading out of town for the long haul. We’d make copies of these albums, but we’d also create these ‘albums’, sometimes with themes and sometimes just a mix, while we still had all the source material.  We always called them compilations, not mixtapes…or at least I did, at any rate, as for some reason I always thought of ‘mixtape’ as an unorganized jumble of tracks, like my old tapes of stuff I got off the radio. I treated them as full albums, like the K-Tel albums we used to buy years before, only with music suited to my own tastes. And like the K-Tel albums, each one would be given a specific name.  It was something I’d do on a Sunday afternoon before my shift at the radio station, finishing it just in time for it to have its premiere listening that Monday on the bus ride to school. Walk in Silencewas the first one–the first of many, really–to capture my moods on a ninety-minute tape and truly give me a soundtrack to my life.

Twenty-four years on, I still make these compilations, and still use some of the same names as well, including the two above.  The creation isn’t nearly as time consuming, since for the most part I’m making copies of mp3s, putting them in a new folder, adjusting the running order, and editing the tags.   In essence, instead of creating a playlist that can be deleted or lost, I create a new album, just as I did in the past, only digitally this time.  The blank cassette is gone along with writing on the c-card, and debating how much I can fit on each side without anything getting cut off or wasting blank space.  It’s quick and painless, and I can even re-edit the running order if need be.  Some of the magic of getting everything on tape–listening to each track from start to finish, listening to it evolve organically, and doing the best we can to catch the entire song without a bad edit–a lot of that’s gone, but the output is still the same, especially when it comes out a lot stronger than you’d expected.

Middle of Yesterday

I’ve been listening to albums from 2001 over the last few days, and I’ve come to realize that a good number of them are a lot better than I remember them being. I’m quite certain that the main reason that year’s music doesn’t quite stick with me is due to the events of September 11th of that year.  An event like that will pretty much trump any other memories you might have milling about in your cranium.

Still, that’s why I listen to music, and why I’m not afraid to listen to music from that year.  Thankfully, I don’t have many albums or songs that deliberately trigger memories of that day–just the few titles that had the bad luck to come out on that day, and the few songs that are on a personal mixtape dedicated to that event (some people had different ways to process what happened–that was mine).  I chose not to let my emotions tied to music and other media get tainted by that.  If anything, music was what got me through it. I’m listening to these albums and songs by deliberately not tying them in with that event.  Instead I’m listening to them as what they are–releases from bands I happen to like.

I’m also listening to albums I felt were merely okay and not remarkable or memorable, and doing two things: first, I’m taking them for what they are, despite their critical acclaim or panning.  Secondly, I’m listening to them in the context of where that band was at that time to explain why they sounded like they did. For instance, I listened to REM’s Reveal today and found myself actually quite enjoying the album, despite remembering I wasn’t as impressed the first time out.  Back in 2001, I was still a big fan of early REM (read: everything up to and including Out of Time–I liked but didn’t get excited over everything after that), and this newer, mellower sound didn’t quite gel with what I wanted them to sound like. I think that’s one of the issues right there–as sometimes passive listeners, we often want our favorite bands to have the same sound all the time, but write new songs.  It’s a double-edged sword; they get the continuous hits, but eventually they burn out, or we get burned out on them.

On the same token, some bands go in a different direction where I initially feel they’re just not as strong.  REM and U2 are good examples of this.  I once derisively described their later work as “stuff you’d hear on VH1.”  It wasn’t until I moved past that and listened to this music again that I truly appreciated it and gave a true opinion about it.  I like their later stuff now; it’s just that it took me a while to get used to it.  They’re not as adventurous or ‘alternative’ as they once were, but that’s fine–they’ve gotten older and moved on, and finally, so have I.

Another good example is Radiohead, in terms of changing sounds.  I loved everything up to OK Computer, but their double-whammy weirdness of Kid A and Amnesiac kind of threw me off, and I never quite got into them after that.  It wasn’t until just recently that I “got” what they were doing, and find them fascinating again.  A. and I stayed up late a few weeks ago when they were livestreaming their Coachella show, and man, did they kick ass!  I gave up trying to shoehorn them into the pre-2000 alternative rock sound they had, and embraced their adventurous musicianship.

This isn’t to say that 2001 was filled with weird, slight, or dud albums; there are some true gems in that year, many that don’t get nearly as much due as they should.  Skindive’s one album, despite its low sales, is an excellent album on par with Curve’s earlier music.  Our Lady Peace’s Spiritual Machines is still my favorite of theirs, even though it didn’t quite get the airplay or the push it needed.  Elbow’s debut Asleep in the Back is a great start for a brilliant band.  Not to mention big hits like Jimmy Eat World’s Bleed American and POD’s Satellite, which were absolutely huge.  Despite all that went on at the end of the year, a lot of great music came out that still stays with us.

I think on a more personal note, one of the reasons the music from 2001 may not have gelled is that it was a transitional year for me.  I’d acrimoniously left HMV the previous fall, and was now working at Yankee Candle–not only a change of position, but a complete change of surroundings, going from Central Massachusetts to the Pioneer Valley.  I was driving west to work instead of east.  Added to that, I’d finished The Phoenix Effect and done some revising, and after a small number of failed submissions, I’d decided to completely rewrite the story as A Division of Souls, the first book in what ended up as a trilogy.  I was also now writing almost daily down in the Belfry (my writing nook) at that time.  And lastly, because of my defection from the record store, I’d stopped being as obsessive and overly eager to buy and listen to every damn thing that came out, and started to become more particular about what I bought.  I would give myself a limit to what I could spend on a weekly basis at Newbury Comics–about seventy dollars was the maximum, most of the time–so I would often make note of things I’d buy at a later date, or find used somewhere.  By 2002, I’d gotten back into the swing of things, writing daily and listening to all sorts of music, and of course moving on with my life.  I was in a good place by then, regardless of what was going on in the world.  I’d at least achieved some form of inner peace, which meant I could branch out and listen to new things with a clear mind and ear.

Listening to these albums now in 2012, along with all the other albums and songs I’ve procured in the last decade, is a lot like listening to them for the first time.  This is especially true when I haven’t listened to some of them for at least four or five years, such as with the REM album.  Songs I’d completely forgotten about or hadn’t bothered to pay attention to the first time around come shining through as new songs to me.  Some of them sound only slightly dated, but others haven’t aged a bit.  It’s a learning experience, immersing myself in this music again.

Songs in the key of life

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve gone past the point of being a music collector and should now consider myself an archivist.

I say this, having gotten to the point where I am now fulfilling my eMusic points by downloading albums that I’d never gotten around to buying in the past.  More specifically, I’m downloading a handful of pop albums from the 70s and 80s that I once listened to as a teen, as well as a  handful of recent pop albums.  Just the other day I downloaded the three Wham! albums, two Billy Idol albums, Robert Palmer’sRiptide(the one with “Addicted to Love”, for those playing along), and Mr. Mister’sWelcome to the Real World.  And just today, thanks to Amazon’s one-day 99-cent mp3 sale, I now own Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream.

But the willing forfeiture of my IndieCred™ card isn’t the point here.  My point is that my music collection has grown quite absurdly large, thanks to the ripping of purchased cds and downloads over the last eight or so years, building complete discographies (sometimes down to the single level).  I’ve always been a completist, ever since the days when I searched for all the Beatles band and solo albums and singles as a kid.  Sometimes I’ll just buy a few tracks of the band if I’m not a big fan, but more often than not I’ll eventually end up buying their entire catalog.

There’s something to be said about buying an album that I’ve always wanted to pick up, or finding a sweet deal on an album I’ve been curious about, but why am I grabbing all of these tracks?  Am I ever going to listen to any of them any time soon?  I actually did a quick tally to see how many tracks I have and how long it would take for me to listen to all of them at least once, and came up with just shy of one full year.  Suffice it to say, I have a ridiculous amount of music.  At present I probably have over 100,000 tracks.  A good many of them are doubles or even triples (or more) due to my creating the mp3 version of the band’s single release, or its presences on one of my many mixtapes recreated as a playlist.  There’s also the box sets, soundtracks, and compilations, and albums owned by my wife.  Still, that’s a lot to contend with.  I’m surprised I still have some space left on the drive it’s on.

But again, why do I have so many, and why am I still collecting? Well, why not?  It’s a hobby–not quite a full-blown obsession, at least not as bad as it once was–and it’s one that I truly enjoy.  There are always new bands coming out with new releases, and old bands that I’m finally discovering, and records I used to have on vinyl and never transferred to digital.  Part of the interest comes from the creativity of music and the emotions it can evoke.  I love it when a piece of music moves me emotionally, be it classical or alternative or rock, and I especially love it when a song blows me away.  Even more so when a whole album can do that.  Part of it also comes from the history of not just the band, but history itself.  The story of how a song was created as an emotional response to an event is fascinating–such as Neil Young’s heartbreak and anger over the Kent State shootings causing him to write “Ohio” as a form of both protest and release.  The history of the many genres of rock music are fascinating as well, as is the history of radio, at least to me, at any rate.  That’s why I’m currently writingWalk in Silence.

Then there’s just the fact that I love a good life soundtrack.  I love having music playing in the background, and it definitely comes with my upbringing.  My mom always had the radio on in the kitchen when she was cooking, and my dad always had the radio on downstairs in the basement when doing research.  My sisters also listened to the radio quite a bit when I was a kid.  Added to the fact that nearly all of us have a bit of musical ability to some degree, it’s hard to stay away from it.  Our family was always surrounded by it.  It only made sense that I’d eventually bring it to its logical conclusion by collecting the things I listened to.  It wasn’t enough for me to be a casual buyer of music, I had to go the whole hog.  I could never understand how others could just own a handful of tapes or records, most of them in sad shape.  They were missing out!

As I continue to download more songs and expand the collection even more, I realize that I’m at the point where I’m coming close to being an archivist.  My father collects information about our home town as a local historian.  I’m collecting music to create an ongoing library much in the same way now.  I’m no longer thinking of music collecting as a way to feed my urge to buy the latest thing or keep up with the hits; I’m actually at the point where I’m collecting them to make sense of my life, and life in general.