A few thousand years ago, primitive man discovered that beating on logs with sticks made an appealing rhythmic pattern and blowing into a hollow bone created an interesting whistling noise. Thus was born the musician.
In the next cave over, another primitive man yelled from his entryway, “What is that?” The first musician said, “It’s music,” to which his neighbor replied, “You call that music?”
Thus was born the critic.
Soon after that whole episode, I started writing about music. At least it seems like it’s been that long sometimes. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing tedious or unpleasant about my job and I still have a great abiding love for music in all its complex and sometimes baffling forms. In a lot of ways, I think the problem is that, as a working journalist, I am overinformed.
I subscribe to trade magazines and browse Web sites that update me on what releases are coming next week, next month and soon next year (2010, the end of the Oughties). There are very few surprises when I go to the mailbox for the day’s haul and even less when I go to area record stores, unless I root around in the used vinyl. That’s generally good for a gasp or two every fourth or fifth trip. But overall, I typically know what I’m going to see when I open my P.O. box or stroll into Shake It or Everybody’s or Mole’s.
But that paradigm shifted radically a few weeks ago. My son Josh, having suffered through countless phone calls where I’ve ceaselessly bitched about the limited capabilities of my ancient iMac and PC, slapped me headlong into the 21st century by giving me his old laptop, thereby allowing me the heretofore unknown luxury of downloading music from the Internet.
At this juncture, let me state categorically that I am in favor of artists being paid for their work. For the vast majority of my life, I have given inordinate amounts of my coin of the realm to them for that very purpose.
In the early ’90s, when I was working unholy overtime hours at my design day job and writing freelance at night, there were a couple of years where I singlehandedly kept the music industry afloat. And you’re welcome. So hold the indignant letters.
The downloading I’m doing now is partially related to my vinyl burning project, discussed at length in “I Shall Be Released,” my online review column. With my newly installed laptop, I’m roaming the blogosphere looking for vinyl nuggets not yet committed to CD or perhaps to replace a title that I already own that has revealed itself to be a potential hazard for the well being of my cartridge due the nickel-weighted tonearm abuse it suffered at my hands three and a half decades ago.
The other pieces I’m running into are fascinating albums by bands I had only read about when I started down the path of musical obsession in the late ’60s. Bill Nelson plays on one track from that weird electric Folk record from 1968? Yes, please. Hey, isn’t Woody’s Truck Stop the whack Blues band that Todd Rundgren played with before he split for the Nazz? He’s not on this but I’ve got to hear it anyway. Holy crap, there’s the Nash the Slash E.P. playable at any speed, and someone’s actually ripped it at every speed. Hell yes.
Then there are the oddities that are only available in this shadowy Web world. An unreleased Monty Python album? Steve Albini’s rejected version of Cheap Trick’s In Color? All of The Rolling Stones’ appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, including the controversial “Let’s Spend the Night Together” rewrite (where Jagger subbed “some time” for “the night” to appease Ed’s moral outrage)? The Eric Clapton/Duane Allman studio jams that preceded their work on Derek and the Dominoes’ Layla album? Sonic studio sketches by Jimi Hendrix circa 1969? Check, check, check, check and check.
And then there’s the bands from Holland and Belgium and Germany and the U.K. and Canada that I’ve never even heard of but which get yardsticked against bands of the period that I love. Maybe it’s just hyperbole, but I’ve got to give it a shot.
Don’t even get me started on the live stuff available. The Tom Waits tour I saw in ’79. The Bonnie Raitt show at Bogart’s in ’89 that I couldn’t get into. Devo in 1978.
And there’s the rub. Music has become mysterious and amazing and surprising for me again.
It’s just like when I used to walk into The Record Hut or Peaches or Discount Records or Schoolkids or Wazoo as a teenager and be completely caught off guard by the covers staring at me from the “New This Week” rack. In those days, I had certain artists and styles that I followed, but I was just as likely to buy something because it was produced by Chris Thomas or Roy Thomas Baker or John Leckie. Or if the album art was done by Hipgnosis or was just generally eye-catching. Or if the name sounded cool. If any combination of those elements was present and elicited a “wow” from my slightly scorched cerebral cortex, then it was probably going home in a bag.
Downloading has given me back my wow. I never thought I’d feel that again. Wow.