Monday, January 16, 2012

Momentarily Amazed

Baby, I'm a little bit amazed
Last night I was in the kitchen making dinner and listening to music on my iPod, on shuffle as usual. While the stew was simmering, I read the latest film reviews in the Washington Post. In the review of the new Queen Latifah/Dolly Parton feel-God vehicle Joyful Noise, I read the following sentence: “And to ease in non-believers (or those apathetic toward religious ditties), many of the early ballads – Michael Jackson’s Man In The Mirror and Maybe I’m Amazed by Paul McCartney – are crowd-pleasers.”

When I read that sentence, the song playing on my iPod was Maybe I’m Amazed by Paul McCartney. As there are over 21,000 songs on my iPod, that was quite a ‘Ha!’ moment.

I know a few people who would immediately read more into it than just pure coincidence. A sign of something. Unlike the thousands of other times when I’ve heard a song on my iPod and haven’t come across a mention of that song in whatever I was reading at the same time. Or the several dozen times I’ve heard Maybe I’m Amazed in my life, but wasn’t reading a newspaper article that mentioned the song at the exact same moment.

At the same time, you can’t just ignore such moments because you abhor superstition. “It is wrong… to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences,” Milan Kundera wrote in The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, “but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.” Maybe you’re momentarily amazed, or maybe you’re not. Just for a second or two, I was, and that’s better than another evening when I wasn’t amazed at all. 

Friday, January 06, 2012

Farewell To Another Great Record Shop

Soon-to-be-missed Melody. Pic: one
Not that anyone seems to have very high expectations any more when they verbally churn out the statutory New Year’s wishes, but this one’s already off to a bad start with the news that 34-year-old Melody Records in DC’s Dupont Circle will close before the end of the month. Since Tower and Olsson’s closed down, Melody – one of the few remaining independent record shops in the area - has been my sole browsing bolt hole on slow or melancholic days when I’ve needed a fix of new music to culturally invigorate my aging soul. Now I’m left with either waiting for the Amazon package, or taking a trip to the strip malls for the hit-and-miss experience of the second hand graveyard warehouse.

Well, that’s where CDs belong, isn’t it? One contributor to a DC chat forum told users to get over it, because going to a record shop was like hanging out under the trees on the village green with the smithy. Never mind that some of us would quite like to hang out under the trees on the village green, or under a tree anywhere. The presence of the smithy wouldn’t matter to me either way, but I’d not be against lutists, harpists and accordion players venturing out and sitting beneath the leaves to air their compositions.

In the same ole-fashioned way, I love to flick through rows of discs and find the one I’ve just read garnering a Grade A review in The Onion or on The Quietus. Or find that release by a band I’ve always loved but didn’t realise had brought out a new record. Or (and this, tellingly, has become my biggest thrill) discovering that my favourite LP from 30 years ago has been re-mastered, re-packaged, and re-released with two bonus discs of live versions, outtakes and acoustic re-imaginings. See, there are still some suckers out here prepared to support the music industry.

I was last in Melody just before Christmas, spending a $50 gift card that was burning a hole in my pocket. At that time I was receiving daily e-mails from the totally legal, Russia-based downloading site Legal Sounds, offering me $50 worth of free music if I put another $50 on my account. For that money, I could have downloaded around 120 new albums, most of which I’d never get around to hearing. In Melody I bought four CDs for that money. Of course it doesn’t make financial sense, and it illustrates exactly why such shops are closing their doors. But the 90 minutes I spent in there looking and listening, and ogling the boxed sets in their locked cases, and watching what other customers were buying, and fondling the new wave of vinyl, and getting out of the fucking house, were all part of what I paid for.

Market Rasen's top record shop with
 model customer, circa 1982
If you sink the price of something to the point where you’re almost giving it away, it has no value. If I download the entire back catalogue of Neil Young, it’s never going to mean anything to me except if I make getting to know his music into a controlled, academic exercise. It won’t be the same as catching one of his songs on the radio or in a bar and noticing that it’s something special, then hunting down the record and playing it several times. Music is losing its signifiers. From the vinyl LPs I bought in The Electrical Shop in Market Rasen as a teenager to the handful of superb CDs on the Six Degrees of Separation label I bought unheard at Rockville Tower’s closing down sale, the personal experience of the music I own is closely related to the time and place I bought it. When you only need to press a button to own a song, it’s just a song you got by pressing a button.

I’m sure that at least ten per cent of over-40s agree with me. In the meantime, a huge thanks to Melody Records for staying around so long, and the very best of luck to owners Suzy and Jack in whatever they do next. One of my fondest memories of your shop is being interviewed there one afternoon by a local cable TV company a few years back. The question they asked me was something along the lines of, What’s a middle-aged man doing in a record shop on a week day afternoon? My answer: Where else could I possibly want to be?