Just Keep Spinning – Reflections on Music Collecting

A friend kindly recommended my latest film screening – So Wrong They’re Right, a low-budget indie VHS documentary on offbeat 8-track collector culture and the 8-Track Mind zine. I’ve been exploring UK hauntological music and art lately so the retro subject matter fit right in. It was great to hear Wally Pleasant’s “Rock n’ Roll Yard Sales” on the soundtrack.

And serendipitously, while watching the film a related short appeared in my social media feed – an informational demo film to educate consumers about the upcoming compact disc format produced in 1982.

And WFMU just shared that Atlas Obscura published a feature yesterday called, “Inside the World’s Best Collection of Unintentionally Funny VHS Tapes” with this hilarious short!

Much like the VHS culture documentaries, Rewind This and Adjust Your Tracking, the 8-track film made me reflect on my own music collector hobby and how in the past year I’ve really put the breaks on my vinyl habit. Unlike vinyl, most 8-tracks are practically given away and as interviewees of the film profess, they’ve had to plead with Goodwill store managers just to get them to put their 8-track stock on the sales floor. (There are exceptions, of course. Discogs currently offers over 8,000 8-tracks in its marketplace, the second-most-expensive of which is a mint tape of Trout Mask Replica presently priced at $1,500.00.)

Captain Beefheart - Trout Mask Replica 8-Track Tape

But conversely, with vinyl, I’ve reached a point in my collecting where all the remaining titles on my wish list command $80-$550 apiece. And the days of scoring elusive original pressings of releases you’re after at your local VoA are long gone after the store’s inventories have been thoroughly picked over by eBayer resellers or by hipster employees who pull all the good stuff before it has a chance to hit the floor. And for my personal tastes, thrift shops have never been a good resource for the kind of content I seek.

Thankfully a lot of the rare early electronic, drone, and import tape music of the last century, and even of the 90s during vinyl’s darkest days, are being remastered and reissued by Dutch, German, and UK specialty labels, but with shipping you’re still looking at $60 minimum per release so I’ve resolved to reel in my habit and to spend more conservatively this past year.

It’s left me to wonder what the future holds for my hobby. I really enjoy the research and the unconventional subcultures surrounding the format, I just don’t know to what degree I can continue to participate in the acquisition and trade of the albums, themselves. And vinyl has been a significant part of my identity for many years, so I question how I’ll continue to occupy myself beyond this bizarre little pastime.

Thankfully, I have more music at present than I could experience in a lifetime, so at the very least I can kick back and enjoy exploring my archives. And I can continue to supplement my web-based research with more contextual studies from books specializing in my favorite genres. My next read will be Mars by 1980: The Story of Electronic Music by David Stubbs and should provide hours of reading enjoyment and hopefully an intimate understanding of a century of electronic sound.

Whether as a collector or just a researcher, this is indeed the finest time to be alive. Sites like Discogs and RYM provide instantaneous access to release data and listener reviews which previously took days or weeks of calls and form submissions to the LoC to obtain, and every day more and more fans upload thousands of hours or rare and exotic content from their collections to YouTube and file-sharing networks. It’s a curious phenomenon because when everything is accessible, nothing is rare. So, arguments for the paradox of choice aside, this is the greatest time in history for the inquiring listener. I plan to keep reading and listening, and maybe one day score a few of my remaining white whales.

Whatever your preferred format, be it 8-track, LP, cylinder, cassette, CD… just keep spinning.

Tom Waits: Under Review – An Independent Critical Analysis

Tom Waits has remained a mysterious character on the fringes of popular music for over 40 years.  One of the small drawbacks to his personae is the lack of critical and analytical interview content of the strange and wonderful musician.  Thankfully, the Under Review documentary series has produced two 80-minute films which offer a surprisingly in-depth examination of the man and his music.

The first segment is titled Tom Waits: Under Review 1971-1982: An Independent Critical Analysis, and the second bears the same title replacing the years with 1983-2006.  The films feature rare interviews, footage, unusual photographs and criticism from many different experts and acquaintances of Tom Waits.

under review 2

The most revealing insight is presented in the first of the two films, which examines the context and collaborations resulting in Waits’ always unique but ever-changing sound.  Speaking about his earliest downtrodden troubadour era:

If you were the kind of person who was going to walk into the seedy bar and say, “oh… there’s a drunken bum over there,” and walk out, you weren’t going to be sitting there listening to Tom Waits.

But if you were the kind of person whose imagination started to think, “Well what was that guy’s life like? How did he end up here? What happened here?”… if there was an element of “who washed up on the shore of the promised land… L.A. being the ultimate destination and the final burying place of western culture… Tom Waits is interested in finding out where the body is buried. And that’s where those guys were.”

There is also a detailed analysis of Waits’ atypical approach to lyricism which favored narrative over confession.

This was a guy creating theater pieces in a way, in a song. These were characters he was either inventing or finding and expanding upon in his own mind. This was not the kind of diary writing that a lot of singer/songwriters were doing. This was more like short story writing – there was a highly theatrical – an element of artifice (used neutrally) in his music that was not what the singer/songwriters were supposed to be about.

Tom has always maintained a style unlike any of the artists of his day.  What was particularly fascinating about the album Swordfishtrombones was that a listener couldn’t point to other records from that decade and say, “I see where he got that from.” And that unlike his contemporaries of the 1980s, the album hasn’t become embarrassingly dated to its decade.

Still, there are more subtle stylistic influences to Waits’ work.  His music mirrors the wit of Lenny Bruce, Lord Buckley, and Kerouac.  His songs also embrace the atonalism and avant-garde compositional form of Harry Partch, Captain Beefheart, and most certainly German composer Kurt Weill.  But perhaps most apparent are the vocal influences of Howlin Wolf.  The film humorously describes his more self-parodic songs as falling “somewhere between an imitation of Louis Armstrong and Oscar the Grouch.”

This outlandish and extreme vocal quality was met with criticism from the listening public.

Speaking about Nighthawks at the Diner, the film observes:

I think it’s more about authenticity. People began to wonder whether this bohemian bar stool philosopher was a real character or whether it was just a theatrical construct.

Until you got to know Waits and you started to really believe in the character and see the depth of what he was doing, it kind of looked liked a pastiche. There was initially some suspicion that it seemed a bit phony. [But really] all artists are self-created in some form or another.

Tom-Waits 1

They go on to examine his vocal characteristic further, noting that “Nighthawks was nearing self-parody, but with Small Change Waits transcended his own influence.”

They described the peak of the boho barstool character thusly:

It’s like an anti-operatic, opposite of belle canto – the opposite of beautiful singing and we understand it. And it’s certainly not natural – it’s an assumed voice – it’s a put on vocal persona. But it’s the key to why the [sentimental] / schmaltzy things work.

But it is Waits’ juxtaposition of innocent lyrics and melodies with his nighthawk performances that really make his character memorable.

A key analysis presented in segment one outlines the importance of this quality:

When Tom Waits plays around with songs like Waltzing Matilda and Silent Night – those songs represent a communality and sense of you in the famiy bossom and the bossom of your community and faith – all of which has been lost to his character. So when his character is groaning out Waltzing Matilda and growling Silent Night – that is their [Samuel] Beckett style poignant memory of what once seemed possible. They stir the emotions that those songs typically do but only by way of trying to demonstrate their absence. And that’s what’s so affecting about it.
It’s a way of re-contextualizing that music to dramatize the desperation of the characters who are singing it.

And finally, another layer of context is added to Waits music when the culture of his listeners, (particularly American audiences) is added to the mix.  Speaking on the value of the album Heartattack and Vine

Only American capitalism could have produced the songs of Tom Waits. There’s a sense of this human debt detritus – these people who are just cast off by the system here that I don’t think exists in most other industrialized countries where there’s more of a social net.

Those characters could only exist here. This is the anti-story – the other story of America that he’s interested in. And not from a social protest, Woody Guthrie standpoint but from a human narrative
standpoint. Who was that person? What was possible for that person? What was his/her dream? There’s not a lot of tolerance in America for losers. Tom Waits made art of that possibility.

Under Review expertly illustrates the depth and consistent quality of Waits’ music throughout his career with this fantastic critical analysis.  For any listener growing bored of the superficiality of taking music at face value, Under Review will be an inspiring breath of fresh air.

Published in: on July 25, 2015 at 3:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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