Me and Mine: Ahab after the Whole

i’m always late to the party. In fact, I probably never would have succumbed to Soulseeking but for necessity. My rigidity about the way music should be heard, imbibed, and wholly consumed tends to make me into a music fascist, the kind I’m sure many of you are familiar with and may even be. I’ve been that audio pig, Charlie. I’ve bothered myself with the habits of others and given it voice. It’s despicable. You’ll never hear me on about ‘rockism’ per se. Leave it to the ILX maniacs; that beef is tired as hell. But you see where I am, and perhaps why I’m writing this column.

I am, and always have been, an “album” consumer. For me, Soulseek was an effort to iPod your playlist. Singles, b-sides, and remixes could be absorbed in a single draught. The kids had their Ritalin, by Christ, and we had our d-load mix. Pills, digital audio, and fine, fine Orwellian svelte. Why waste your time with the middle-road? Why allow an artist the segues he needs to reach that next peak? Trim the fat.

I still feel awkward about our need for singles collections (soapbox warning, in. . .five. . .four. . .). For me, an album is still the best way to listen to music. Unless we’re talking about somebody like Neil Diamond or early Ray Charles singles, we’ve been leg-deep in album-dominated music since Otis passed. Poor Otis, dead and gone, left me here to sing his song. Yeah, I’m a pedagogue, and sadly not one of the apologists. The single, like the short-story, with all those stunted upheavals and breathlessness (besides maybe “The Lottery”), always reminds me that I’m missing the larger movements in the face of tiny gasps of motion. The way the sea swells huge beneath the surf, but is only visible in peaks and churns, white-caps.

But, I’ve lost myself to diatribe. To return to my story, I was writing for another e-mag when I came about Soulseek. Just on staff, anything I wanted to claim was long since gone. I had to find two albums a week to review, and with my English-major university salary, that was hard to manage. The words: “Soulseek, dude!” That was how the editor-in-chief put it at the time, verbatim.

Sadly, along with my other failures, I’m a technologophobe. The very idea of installing a program and digging through a dense labyrinth of hard drives and .mp3 files was a wall of sorts for me. But I downloaded Soulseek that evening and set to work. At first, I was after records that needed covering and hadn’t been claimed. Nothing too particular, just slogging through the dregs of the must-cover list. It was a grind, pure and simple.

Of course, I didn’t stay that way long. Like any disease, once in, it spread unnoticed, and part of me changed with its passing. My assumptions about Soulseek had all proven wrong, like most based on short-sighted speculation tend to. This was just my kind of mania: whole albums, yet to hit the shelves, arranged and traded with people who shared my peculiar sickness. Soon, I was after every keyword or band name I’d read about that day that sounded remotely interesting.

Where I used to run out to the record store the moment I had a beat on anything, now I searched, keyword by rearranged keyword, for everything I came across. I was guided by word of mouth and AMG RIYLs. I listened closely to staff members, and I followed the line of their discourse to things I’d never otherwise have heard. Anything remotely interesting, I found. I didn’t hear much. I skipped through thirty seconds of each track, fast-forwarded all helium-voiced through the numbers, to decide whether or not it was worth my time.

Unlike Nick, who started this column and asked me to follow his lead, I don’t think that’s so foul. Music is more guttural than mental for me. I listen to it as I drive, while I work, as I read, during jogs, and to fill the urban silences of every aspect of my day. I know I’m a consumer. I’ve long since given myself a free pass on that score. I eat Chipotle. I know they’re owned by McDonald’s. But I love me some fifteen-hundred calorie burritos. I understand the Greenhouse-effect of the American border: come through to engorge our cheap labor force, but you’ll never make it out. I don’t blame myself for such economic truths, and I don’t trace it back to my need for relatively cheap, readily available commodities. I’m a scoundrel, and a breach of ethics for the PC gen. I don’t bother to rethink it. I have no grudge with meta-social complaints. My idealism has long since been corrupted by age and circumstance. There are some voids I don’t want to tunnel through, and this incessant need to hear everything-always-now is one of them. As Mick Jagger said on Some Girls, “I just ain’t got that much time.” Maybe that’s a weakness, but I don’t bother with the effect that my desire to hear new music has on the market or the sociological impact of our generation’s now mentality. Typically, I tune out anyone who bothers about such blackholes. There’s another record I need to hear.

So I bombard myself with everything. I’m a concern for the thoughtful. I swallow it all whole and never think much about it unless it sticks to the back of my tongue. But in that case, the only important case in this argument, I take my time. I listen and I hear it. We can all dismiss unnecessary music in an instant, and wonder why or how that is. Ageless and infirm, we know what we like and we know how to use it. This is elementary stuff, dear Watson, and it’s in the simplistic chime that we recreate every time we get caught up again that we find its value.

After all, the finest moments in appreciating music are typically those that catch you unawares. The second you realize you’ve completely underestimated a record, or that one’s snuck up on you when you didn’t think you were really listening any longer, is the fracture of why you consume any of this in the first place. We assume our favorite bands will create records worth hearing, if not by anyone else then at least by The-Great-Us. One record deep and you’re a public commodity, but five records deep and you’re an individual’s commodity. Look at Elliott Smith. We all own him; we all know him like our bedfellow. We seem to resent anyone else laying claim to him. He’s ours. He’s mine.

But as much as we love that simple dependability, for my money the most compelling finds are those debut records that shock you into remembering something’s still ticking out there. Nothing’s necessarily new, but there’s something novel there at least, a reason to continue slogging through all of the tripe. There need be no movements, no groupings, no pigeon-holings. It’s that record, the one that came out right now. It’s why you read this, and it’s why you disagree.

At the end of the day, what I do concern myself with is where it leads me. And that’s why Soulseeking is so important. As I started my new writing gig, I was toe-deep in a divorce. The great irony is that one of the reasons my soon-to-be-ex left was over financial differences. As my Mom used to say, most couples fight over two things: sex and money. I tuned it out at the time. Yeah, Mom. But she was right (for the record, we never fought about sex. We’d reached an agreement that worked for both of us: we wouldn’t be having any).

I would drag my ex to local record shops. I promised I only wanted one CD, and she would try to hold me to that. But we’d show up and I’d say, “Shit, honey, they’ve got the one I was after, but they also have this import I didn’t think they’d ever carry.” The attempt to bring her around always got me in trouble, and I’d wind up winning, but feeling guilty as hell on the drive home. Sometimes it would end in a fight. Mostly, it would end in us both awkward and distant. And all over a CD. Were my priorities skewed? I’m never so sure anymore. But she had a point; we had no money and were saving nothing. How could I justify spending so much on music?

We ended it. She ended it. Money wasn’t the reason, but Christ knows my need to spill so much dough on CDs didn’t help. There was a gulf between us because of this need of mine though. I never respected her tastes, and I couldn’t stand coming home to have my stereo hijacked by The Indigo Girls or Dido. She used to say that we often loved the same things, but I would come across them eight months earlier. I don’t know; I never liked U2.

Shaking myself free of impending divorce, my tastes shifted, and I needed a way to sample tracks I wouldn’t have heard otherwise. I craved escapism, and though I didn’t face it often, a black anger was worming through the music I had liked before and leaving it useless. I turned to microhouse, dance-punk, and hip-hop, three genres I was pretty unfamiliar with at the time (and would still claim to be). Soulseek was perfect. I listened to colleagues, and I chased down everything they loved or liked. If it didn’t grab me, it was gone in an instant. I didn’t have the energy to waste. I wanted removal now. I inhaled everything by Matthew Dear, MF Doom, LCD Soundsystem, Mu, Quasimoto, Ghostface, Missy E. This is hip-hop, hip-hop. Exactly.

I usually bought full-arts of everything I really liked. It wasn’t consumer chivalry; I’m an anal music collector. Those glossy flip-books look better in my CD collection than my Kodak printouts.

At one point, I looked beneath my coffee table to a scattered pile of unlabeled CDs. The spoils of two or three weeks, I had no idea just what was there. If I had ever decided that something needed a second listen, I would have had to plug each one in. I played three or four new CDs a day, most in perfunctory. I couldn’t remember which albums I’d heard and which I’d wanted to hear. Clearly, at that point, there was no difference.

But I never burned out on it. All of my cohorts here at Stylus seem to go through that phase. They don’t want music anymore because they write about it. They can’t remove records from ‘professional’ context. As with anything worthy of (never)doing, once it’s a job, it’s a chore. We love to leap in that pile of leaves, but we don’t wanna rake ‘em. I can think of one day recently where I just didn’t want to hear anything. One fucking day. Otherwise, my work-day is filled with records. My nights gulp the excess. There’s always too much, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Soulseeking is facility, and it’s a guide for just where I might be by the time I pinch myself closed that night.

By: Derek Miller
Published on: 2005-09-27
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