Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Unified Theory of Pop Music

There’s been a general lack of one of those Unified Theory posts of late. Fancy cars, movie reviews, and the occasional witty bon mot do not a good read make. I suppose this can be attributed to nothing in particular. Or it can be blamed on one specific thing.

On December 18, 2006, I had been married for four years and my son was not quite three years old. We had just taken on a new mortgage and my law firm was just getting its legs. Possibilities stretched out before me, my bachelorhood a distant and uninteresting past. Then the world came crashing down. Tower Records closed its doors worldwide, including the three locations in my town.
This doesn’t have to be an Eighties Nostalgia blog in order to highlight the importance of Tower Records. Tower was born in the Seventies. It grew through the Eighties and Nineties, during which time it saw the transition from record albums to CDs, Beta and VHS tapes to DVDs. When I first started going to the Tower on Keeaumoku Street (pictured above), disco was still a living, breathing, pulsating beast. Aside from Cheap Trick, Devo, and Cars records, I was only ever interested in the hundred or so albums in the “import” bin. Adult contemporary was a vast expanse that I never explored. At the dawn of the MTV era, “imports” disappeared as a category and the more obscure artists that interested me (which included the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Police) found their way into the general population. There was a time that the only place one could find a copy of the Clash’s Sandinista was at a genuine communist bookstore near the University. When it appeared in Tower’s stacks, I knew a new era of pop music had arrived. In the new millennium, there was little evidence that we were seeing Tower’s final years.

No matter where I lived, D.C., London, even northern Indiana, the location of the nearest Tower Records was one of the first navigation points I committed to memory. It was that important.

In 2006, Tower was unceremoniously shelved, its stock unloaded at ever-plummetting discounts. There were many items I acquired cheaply during these final weeks of liquidation before that December 18. Things I wouldn’t otherwise have bought at retail prices. AC/DC. Pink Floyd. Jack Johnson. But there were things I failed to secure only because I was waiting for prices to drop further before the axe fell, but they never fell far enough. I had my eye on them, though. The Heavy Metal movie soundtrack. The updated Criterion Collection boxset of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (I had already owned the previous edition and wouldn’t justify the repeat expense without deep discounting).

This last ditch flurry of spending at Tower was mostly afterthought, and really, for me an unfitting farewell to an establishment that I used to wander through, often for as long as time would allow. Hours? Maybe. The better part of one for sure. Stack after stack after stack? Definitely. I used to love the unscheduled stop into Tower, when I had nowhere else to be. Maybe I had an inkling that a new CD had been released and I wanted to find it and snap it up quickly, so I could immerse myself in the new music, headphones on and liner notes open. Maybe I had absolutely nothing in mind and I would just let my thumb and forefinger do the searching. That’s how I discovered the Violent Femmes back in 1984, and Pearl Jam in 1991.

The protagonist in one of the books in my canon, High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby – a man as adept at observing the immature male of the species as Britain has ever produced – finds comfort in organizing his record collection not alphabetically but autobiographically ("How did I get from Fleetwood Mac's Rumours to Howlin' Wolf in just seven moves?"). Similarly, I tell you, for example, that I bought Husker Du's Warehouse: Songs and Stories in the Tower in D.C.'s Foggy Bottom neighborhood amidst a lengthy bout of angst.

I find that my acquisition of music is slowing down and more focused. I think in general, once far away from bachelorhood, musical tastes have cemented, and that is probably the biggest cause of this narrowing. But also, when the journey of discovery is no longer tactile, across the stacks at a record store, and more often on a website like Amazon or at a brick and mortar like Best Buy (which is unabashedly set up for the Transaction, and staffed with generalists), something is lost.

The further away I get from December 18, 2006, part of the enjoyment of music is lost. The act of discovery part. Which is a damn shame because then the sharing of music part eventually also diminishes. I used to play music for my wife all the time and once, she had a friend steal my truck so she could have a new stereo installed as a Christmas gift because (a) she knew how important music was to me and (b) my old stereo was really only a radio.

I can’t share music that I’ve already shared, otherwise it becomes a crusade. That would be like a Jehovah’s Witness coming back to knock on the same door twice.

Reflecting on this I realize that, as much as I love my wife and as much as she completely dwells in my heart, I don’t believe I’ve ever made her a mix tape. High Fidelity very nearly fetishizes the mix tape. The mix tape is a proclamation. It is a love letter. It is a seduction. It is an entendre. I’ve been known to make mix tapes in my time, and they’ve always had meaning (it’s like that conversation between Jackson and Travolta in Pulp Fiction: “I’ve given lots of foot massages and every one of them meant something”).

Now, without Tower Records, I’m not sure if I can really make that mix tape for my wife with the meaning it should have.


M.Lane said...

I think there used to be a Tower in New Orleans and I went there once but was short of time and didnt really get to explore. Sounds like a great store/chain.

I was amazed at your description of the mix tape. I had a young lady student of mine make one for me once. I did not realize the significance of it until now! Smart guy, eh?

I would give it a go with the mix for your wife. Any woman that will arrange to have your truck stolen is well worth the effort.


Ben said...

True words, my friend.