Daniel Nester Reviews His Friend Eric’s External Hard Drive
I have this recurring dream about a record store. It is brightly lit, with lots of windows. You can see the counter as you walk in from the corner door, and the clerk—a tall, bearded older guy, but young-looking in the way only record store guys look—greets you in an oddly friendly way, then returns to looking at stack of LPs someone has brought in to sell. He always wears a black t-shirt with white writing—Black Flag, Joy Division, Zildjian. There is a step up to a landing, where you can browse through thousands of 45s.
The store is in a city, just past some blocks of tall buildings, skyscrapers. A few blocks away, within eyeshot, there’s a greasy spoon-type place. In the dreams, I eat chicken sandwiches, then catch a bus home. But I never take buses. Which city am I in? West Philadelphia, I think at first, maybe Chicago. It isn’t London; all the ones I know are near Oxford Street and sell only shitty electronic music. It must be New York, maybe Greenpoint back in the mid-90s, when it felt like a trip to another planet from Williamsburg.
* * *
I can’t go on talking about record stores without addressing their physiological effect on me. Whenever I shop in a record store, my breathing slows down, my muscles relax. If I have a headache, it’s gone. I have gone to record stores during breakups, family crises, medical worries, philosophical quandaries, and each time those problems go away for the time I flip through the racks. It’s like the spring water in Lourdes. But more than any of this—down to the last record store trip—I take a glorious dump afterwards. More than just clearing my head, a record store’s laxative effect is like a colonic.
* * *
I always see this guy—it would be safe to call him a co-worker—at the comic book stores around town. He weighs at least 400 pounds. I don’t go to comics places that often, but when I do—be it the D&D place, the alterna-friendly one, the collectables one—there he is. He takes up an entire aisle as he flips through comics in the boxes—two at a time with left and right hand—even faster than I do with LPs. I kind of hate comic books, to be honest; or, to be more specific, I hate people who love comic books. Comics nerds are an alien species to me, and their members have never been polite to me. Even so, I persist in going to comics places because I do like some graphic novels, and I guess I like the way the shops are set up as a grotto dedicated to a certain kind of obsession. It’s like visiting a bizarro world where people care more about crossover storylines of characters with capes than getting original Bakersfield sound vinyl releases.
One day back at work I walk into the men’s room and open the door of the handicapped stall. As I open the door, I hear, in that slow-motion deep voice you hear in movies when someone is getting shot or run over by a bus, Noooooooooo. It’s the 400-pound guy. There’s a stack of comic books on the floor. It was like a Botero portrait, all that light-colored flesh, the implied movement from his seat, his eyes intentionally looking away but still doe-eyed and blank. It was as if I had walked in on this guy praying.
* * *
I have decided this record store exists only in dreams. No matter how hard I press my memory, I can’t come up with where it is. And I remember every record store I go to. The location and specific memories of being there, specific records I have bought or traded in. Not so with this store. On the other hand, I never remember my dreams; I sleep lightly, unpeacefully, full of worry. I can’t imagine grinding on my temporomandibular joint as I shop for vinyl in my dreams. But don’t we dream only in black and white? I heard that somewhere. That’s why the friendly clerk’s punk-music shirt stands out so much. And I remember long, tall posters—the kind only records stores get in advance of a record—above the high windows. But only, like, black-and-white ones. Bauhaus, early Cure posters. Another one for in the pro-dream column: the clerk is always nice. In our exchanges as he rings up the purchases, the clerk pulls out an aphorism about whichever artists I bring up that makes me feel at once superior and in on the joke. One time I snicker about a Phish CD in the trade-in pile.
“They’re really good at what they do,” the clerk says. “It’s just that what they do isn’t really that good.”
* * *
I never borrow people’s vinyl. It just wasn’t done with my fellow record collector friends. It didn’t make sense to borrow something one wouldn’t eventually own. The record collector is, above all else, a materialist; records are objects tied to the music listening experience–photos, credits, thank-yous, lyrics and cover art. People romanticize the vinyl-buying and collecting experience, and it’s mostly true, so long as someone stays in one apartment or house for an extended period of time. If you move from city to city, as I did through my twenties, the record collection tends to suffer. Your friends get less athletic, less willing to carry up the milk crates or boxes of vinyl to the next five-floor walk-up sublet. Or you just have fewer friends as the years go on. Priorities change, the need for space shifts collections to basements and storage spaces. I gave away a whole wing of my collection to my students after I moved. It was more worth it to me to give them away to some kid who cared about listening to This Are Two Tone on vinyl than to get a dollar store credit from some miserly record store clerk.
* * *
And so it came to pass that I started to stockpile mp3s. The sound is shitty. There is no debate in this. Neil Young once said that a CD’s sound is like looking at a painting through a screen door—you might not notice the little metal square, but they’re there. A CD, compressed into mp3s, is even worse.
If you want to listen to new and different music, though, this is the most efficient way to do it. It is too easy to get the early discography of Kid Creole and the Coconuts online or from someone else’s hard drive than to re-buy my old vinyl or cassette copies on eBay. Recently I borrowed a hard drive from a newish friend, someone I met in the area. Eric teaches at another college in the area and was already friends with the people I teach with before my arrival, if you follow me. He’s from Chicago and used to be in bands. I thought he played bass but he plays guitar and keys. He presents scholarly articles about British punk and teaches British literature and film. An Anglophile as these things go. He also has a collection of 90s alterna-bands that dwarfs anyone I know. And he stays current with the bands that use over-reverby guitars and Casio patches, with names like Beach House and Tennis, which I hate but some of which I’ll like or love five years from now.
Each time I have traded hard drives with someone, I have to tell the person a bit about my collection. Eric is no exception. First, I tell him I imported most of old my CD collection using only 192 kbps, which is an embarrassingly low by today’s standards. I am not a variable bit rate kind of guy, and in the mid-aughts 192 kbps was the highest you could go with. Second, as if anticipating the ridicule when we switch our hard drives back, I volunteer the more embarrassing details of my hard drive. Some examples:
– The entire discography of Australian rock band Midnight Oil;
– The second Terence Trent D’arby album, Neither Fish Nor Flesh, which I still enjoy;
– A lossless import of Judas Priest’s Jugulator, the first album the band recorded with Tim “Ripper” Owens, the Rob Halford-soundalike replacement singer plucked from obscurity whose story served as inspiration for the Mark Wahlberg film Rock Star. This, I tell Eric, was “for research.” Ripper raps on that album, I tell him; I thought about writing something about heavy metal and rap.
Lastly, I have to confess that somewhere in the hard drive there is a considerable cache of pornography in an innocuously named folder. He should be aware of this. I dare not address the matter further.
* * *
When I get home with his hard drive, I notice there is almost no overlap between my hard drive and his. He’s got the Can anthology. Gary Numan albums that do not have his one major hit “Cars.” Import-only Cocteau Twins EPs. Early Stereolab, post-Sony Prince. I don’t know where to begin.
I play it safe and listen to his copy of Left of the Dial: Dispatches of the 80s Underground, as if to reassure myself that I have some degree of knowledge or connection with the music folders I scroll through. And while I listen to “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver,” I feel guilty for not seeing Mission of Burma live when I had the chance, and seeing Jane’s Addiction too many times because the friends I smoked pot with really liked them.
I flog myself over missing out on bands while they were current. Where was I during my Replacements-R.E.M-Husker Du tunnel vision back in those days? I did allow myself a love for The Jam. I see whole wings of popular music that I turned my nose up to in those days, more effete, wimpy bands: Siouxsie and the Banshees, Japan, Aztec Camera. I guess that makes me a “rockist” by someone’s terminology, but all of them strike me as listenable, even great, as I play them on my computer.
* * *
The thing about trading hard drives is that you have to curate what you bring over to your computer. You can’t just right-click and copy, like, 500 gigs of music, even if there isn’t an overlap. Setting aside the copyright/Metallica-suing me implications, wholesale copying is like cheating on a test. The borrowee will quiz you, all the while avoiding the dreaded word, copying. What did you end up using? a borrowee might say. Did you end up "bringing over" anything?
When I browse through a person’s record collection, I like to work around the edges of the more obscure titles and work my way in. I am that guy who takes over people’s stereos at parties, but I don’t take out the first Boston album: I find the thing I’ve never heard of and fire it up.
“These people are so drunk, it doesn’t matter anyway,” my stereo takeover sensei, Tom, told me once at a grad school party. “You could play the Sun Ra Arkestra, and most people won’t give it a second thought.”
I bring over Thingy’s Songs about Angels, Evil, and Running Around on Fire. Without checking the date or anything about the band Thingy—or even if it is a band, since it might be short for some guy named Stuart P. Thingy for all I know—I come to some conclusions. First, it’s a duo with a female and a male. Second, this music has to be from the 1990s. It’s an educated guess, to be sure, but the way the guitars and vocals sound—tight, compressed, intentional. I start thinking of the Spinanes, who were on Matador Records. I have one of their albums as a result of falling in love with one of their songs, “Entire,” which my wife put on the first mix tape she made for me. I can’t find it online anywhere, and I’d love to link it here, but maybe it’s best you find it for yourself. It’s a soft song by a normally harder band—a power ballad, in other words, an indie power ballad. Thingy sounds a bit indie power ballad-y.
I think the reason I brought over this LP, as well as others, is that this newish friend had the extended reissue version of it. If this guy has a reissue with non-album B-sides and outtakes, my reasoning went, then it must be really good and important. One drawback from this system is when you’re just getting hip to a band, Thingy or not, it might not be the best plan to listen to 35-plus tracks, alternate versions, demos and all. It’s kind of like buying jazz CDs these days. Sure, it’s nice to get takes one through seven of a given track, but it’s a form of torture if you’re just playing it straight through. There’s a guy in New York named Phil Schaap who plays some of the world’s best jazz, but the endless pedantic commentary sometimes ruins it for me. Is it necessary to be a student of jazz, or anything else for that matter, to enjoy it? I’m not sure. But now I am a Thingy scholar-in-training.
I listen to Geogaddi by Boards of Canada. I’d heard of them before. An ex-friend’s husband who thinks he knows everything gave it to me. It’s OK. It’s more than OK; it’s really good. Instrumentals punctuated with loops and samples, moody synths. I call this kind of music “work music.” It’s not EZ listening, but it fills the air really well while you’re trying to concentrate in front of your computer. If you were shopping at Barney’s, chances are you’d hear Boards of Canada while you tried on a semi-fitted shirt. Knowing that you know who this is as you try on a 200-dollar shirt reassures you.
He’s got David Bowie’s Low. I bring over something like this to round out a collection. Even if they’re folders on LaCie 1-terrabyte drives, it’s still a collection, god damn it. It gives me some satisfaction to see how many albums I already have in my David Bowie folder, and still more when I put Low in there. Whether I will like it or not is not the point; the point is to have the missing baseball card. The point is to have. I read a lot about how the next phase of the music business is going to be streaming or subscription models, and it makes sense when I read about it. I pay over $100 a month for television—for television! Sure, a lot of TV is better than movies these days, but it’s still television. I’d pay 30, 40, 50 dollars a month for All The Music In The Fucking World, but it doesn’t mean I get to own the music. That’s different. Do people have DVR parties, and trade episodes of Everyone Loves Raymond? I hope not.
Next up is Aerial M. It’s from the 90s, too, I am sure. It has an echoey Chicago indie sound. This I will Google. Moody guitars. There is even a bit of fIREHOSE-type Mike Watt bass. I missed seeing the Minutemen in concert, too. What was I doing?
At this point, I know Eric, my newish friend, a lot better. Sometimes when I talk with him and I don’t know if I sound stupid or not. I often revert to my core set of pop culture objects with him—Caddyshack, Steve Martin, Repo Man quotes—as if to tell him I am no match for his frames of reference. On the Beatles alone he’d school me, let alone Echo and the Bunnymen or free jazz. We both have busy lives now, with kids and classes and papers to mark. It’s not like when I was 13, and you could just take over the local record shop for an afternoon with friends. Music-listening life seems like a lot more of a solo record now. You play all the instruments.
Listening to music, to me, is more sacred than reading or even writing, let alone watching television. We decided to trade hard drives in an off-hand way, not much fanfare, and I was alone when I looked through his collection. It’s not supposed to be like this. You’re supposed to be with people during such revelations.
* * *
After leaving the light-filled record shop in my dream, at the greasy chicken place, I always spread out the records on the table. There is a shuffling of the sleeves when the waitress brings out my food. I check out liner notes and soak up the sweet-savory combo of greasy meat and a fountain soda.
As I typed this, I hoped in the back of my mind that the real store’s identity would pop up, but no dice. One thing I can remember about the dream is that record store doesn’t have a great selection. Quite the contrary: the selection is horrible. All I remember is looking at artists I was wholly uninterested in. Rossington-Collins Band. The Dixie Dregs. Atlanta Rhythm Section. Rock bands that I wouldn’t mind if I died without listening to. Ultravox. Judy Collins. Fucking Rainbow. The selection was just a cut above a yard sale’s, but far below what I would call exemplary. The browsing, however, is joyous. And I always take a dump in my dreams.
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