A couple of weeks ago I was discussing the state of my media collection with my wife, and how the ever-mounting stacks of stuff in certain areas of our apartment were making her feel kind of claustrophobic. The upshot of the exchange was that I needed to do not just some rearranging but even some culling. This year is the eighth year of our marriage and our cohabitation, and for too mong during this time I've, subconsciously or not, kept up a lot of living modes that I got used to during my long bachelorhood. I've never thought of myself as a "record collector." I don't keep track of serial numbers or keep my records in near-mint condition or anything like that; rather, for all of my life I've been a voracious appreciator of music. Or is it just that I've been a voracious consumer? Either way, my habits in this respect have made me a challenge to live with.
So I began clearing the shelves, or rather, the tops of my CD shelves, which had columns of discs of varying height on almost all of them (there are five in all in our living room). "Tribbles," an old girlfriend used to call them, many years back. That person could be amused by them, because she wasn't living with them. Anyway. The point of the clearing was to just have CDs filed on the shelves, not on top of them. It would not solve the claustrophobia-generating problem necessarily, but it would be a start.
As I began this work I would look at single discs and ask the question "Do I really need this?" Which is different from "How often do I listen to this?" or "What is my sentimental attachment to it?" Not infrequently I'd come upon a title that I blew fifteen or so bucks on because I was intrigued by a description Scotch-taped below a display shelf at a local independent record store; I am a pretty easy lay in that respect. I would remember that on such culling project in the past, I would commit massive errors relative to my sustained enthusiasms. For instance, in 1992 or so I decreed, for reasons I recall only hazily but am nevertheless still highly embarassed by, that I was "over" free jazz. That was highly untrue. On the other hand—and this pretty accurately represents my current position—not every recording of a Peter Brotzmann set is necessarily going to yield a great disc. In any event, going through my discs revealed my past profligacy in ways that were no less unpleasant for having been entirely predictable.
Around the same time I came upon that Tumblr, the one in which the wife goes through her husband's "Stupid Record Collection," and it gave me a bit of a chuckle, even while I agreed with whoever said that it wouldn't be considered nearly as funny as a guy examining his wife's stupid record collection. I began my professional career in writing as a rock critic, so aside from my acquisitive nature I've also got some investment in maintaining some kind of big-picture authoritative backing for my opinions/observations. My wife loves music too, but she hasn't got nearly as many records as I do. But I remember when she first met, she showed me the liner notes she wrote for a mix tape she had made for a mutual friend, and they were beautifully written and observant and witty and winning and enthusiastic. It made me feel both admiration and affinity. (I subsequently invited Claire to contribute DVD reviews to Premiere magazine, which she did for a while, and wonderfully.) So we've got that in common, although our tastes diverge in a lot of respects, and in ways some might consider predictable—Henry Cow, Zorn, and Zappa are all non-starters for her. Although she is not averse to early electric Miles, or some Wadada Leo Smith in a similar vein. People aren't as predictable as you think, or maybe like to think. But people also like to live a bit, in houses that aren't de facto storage bins for compact discs. Still, I thought that doing a Tumblr of my own, about My Own Stupid Record Collection, might be funny, an amusing counter the more celebrated one. I didn't realize that Tumblr, much bruited as a Lay Person's Blogging Tool, is really an unbelievable pain in the ass to manage. And also that I don't need to do MORE writing without monetary compensation right now. I got about 18 discs in, concluding that maybe I was keeping too many Acid Mothers Temple albums in my core collection, before bagging it.
In the meantime some folks were writing about music criticisms and gender issues, the loudest (there's no other word for it) such piece being by Tracy Moore at Jezebel, titled "Oh The Unbelievable Shit You Get Writing About Music As A Woman." She is correct: that sexist male rock enthusiasts make idiotic neanderthal assumptions about female music critics, then call them horrible names and pelt them with hateful invective when said critics pen assessments they disagree with, is entirely deplorable. Couldn't agree more. It's hard to read some of her examples without feeling some shame at being a man. After that, alas, Moore's polemic gives way to a lot of truculent, "nerd"-baiting, anti-intellectual truculence and shared-lifestyle-tagging, as in: "Too often, we forget what records are for anyway — cleaning your house, getting ready on Saturday night, going out for drinks, FUCKING DANCING." That there might be a form of music that requests, or even demands, one's undivided attention seems entirely foreign to Moore, who concludes that because so much conventional criticism ignores her definitions of music's utility value, "criticism often deserves every punch in the softballs it gets."
Yup, it's cultural vegetables all over again, but this time the twist is that the cultural vegetables aren't even acknowledged as existing. Which is why I felt a little more sympathy for the complaint communicated by the music critic and historian Ted Gioia in a recent and much-bruited Huffington Post piece titled "Music Criticism Has Degenerated Into Lifestyle Reporting" than did Jody Rosen, who composed a feisty and persuasive counter to it for Vulture. (The exchange yielded a really scruptiously know-somethingish piece on "New Fogeyism" at Pop Matters; OF COURSE IT DID.) Rosen, correctly chiding Gioia for providing a dire assessment without recourse to specific examples of badness, argued that it's a big world out there, and while the crap may be more prominent and easy to find than the good stuff, or the serious stuff, whatever you want to call it, the good stuff's still out there.
It is, and it's more unusual than it was back in the print-only days. As maddening as I found much of Tracy Moore's article, I owe, her, because following her plea for more writing that "approaches music innocently," she recommended Anna Minard's "Never Heard of 'Em" columns for The Stranger, in which the ostensibly music-ignorant Minard listens to, and assesses, canonical records foisted upon her by more knowledgable colleagues. Minard is a delightful writer: breezy, funny, with an assured voice that's rarely glib. Her perspectives on records that have kind of been written about to death is largely bracing. I didn't even mind her half-dis of an old favorite of mine, King Crimson's In The Court of the Crimson King, because her observations underscore the very real fact that much of that record's impact was temporal-context-specific (I'd cite Red as a more "timeless" Crimson effort). It helps that she has taste—the things she likes about Court are in fact (by my lights) its strongest feature), and quite often when she's looking into a "classic" album she's genuinely perceptive and appreciative of its salient qualities. Which is to say, in a different register, that she proves the nerds right.
All of the above explains, albeit in a rambling and probably oblique way, why I decided to devote this week on Some Came Running to mostly music writing. That, and the fact that I had a few records that I wanted to write about, or had been asked to write about, and had no other immediately accessible outlet to write about them at. The ongoing debate about how much film critics ought to write about form, which was spurred by the pieces about music and music criticism cited above, has also been a spur. And also the fact that I don't think I'm gonna have the opportunity to write so much at length for no monetary compensation very much longer. Etcetera. But I also wanted to directly prove that the kind of criticism Ted Gioia thought was dead IS in fact still out there. And I suppose I did, to him a little bit, because after I coyly pointed out my review of Randy Ingram's Sky/Lift to Gioia on Twitter, he responded that it made him want to hear the record. On the other hand, this week the blog has had pretty much the worst "traffic" (so bad I'm putting the word in quotation marks, you see) of its almost-six-year life. What are you going to do?