“Ideally, I’d like to get rid of that rack,” my wife Claire said, pointing to the smallest of the five CD racks in our living room, a doweled wooden piece that held about 275 discs.
“The whole rack?” I felt like I’d just gotten a mild kick between the eyes.
To be entirely honest, when I began contemplating the divestment of a large portion of my accumulation of recorded music, I wasn’t thinking of purging from what I deemed my “active” collection. No. I was going to take down the stacks and stacks of discs that were languishing in the deep shelves above the closets in the middle room of the railroad apartment in which I live with Claire. To actually get rid of one of the five racks in our living room was not something I had considered.
Then suddenly, in the spring of this year, it was something I had to think about. I never saw myself as a particularly adept collector; while I don’t use my compact discs as coasters or anything like that, I don’t make any special effort to keep them in mint condition; I consider my music collection a library, and it’s a library I really do use, even though I don’t write about music with the frequency I did when I first became a professional journalist a little over 30 years ago. What I have been, and am now trying not to be, is an avid accumulator. “You are one of the most enthusiastic consumers I have ever known,” a colleague once marveled at me some time in the early 2000s. In 2006 I got married, and moved with Claire into the apartment we live in now; in 2007 the magazine I worked for folded; in 2008 I got canned from the website into which the magazine had been unsuccessfully morphed. I was back in the full-time-freelance realm, the lack of structure of which I’ve always rather dreaded. But through various lifestyle adjustments, and maybe, at least in part, to convince myself that some things I cherished could remain constant, I kept up the enthusiastic consumption.
By default this meant I was treating my wife more like a junior roommate than an actual life partner. I discounted her not-infrequent complaints that I was cluttering the apartment, some of which were delivered lightheartedly, as in the observation that our living room coffee table was turning into a “CD village.” Now, finally, and with some shame, I was learning that the clutter made her genuinely claustrophobic. A number of issues were hitting the fan at once, some of them to do with money. Shopping sprees were to cease. And a large-scale stoop-sale was called for.
But again: I had thought I’d be culling the material for the sale from a space I rarely ventured. The fifth shelf, the one whose absence was so devoutly wished, housed the Xenakis, the Zappa, the Zorn. Close readers of The Rock Snob Dictionary (the idea of which I’ve always hated) would tag these mini-collections as emblems of my pretensions, perhaps, but in my aesthetic cosmology, those artists were/are major constellations. From grade school (Zappa) to college (Xenakis) to early adulthood (Zorn) these artists had made me feel like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken. On the shelf directly to the left of that one, were, among other things, my accumulations of Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra. Some readers may begin to see my problem.
I have an acquaintance, also a writer, who recently recounted an epiphany: He really loved music, not shiny discs. So he packed up all his shiny discs and had them digitized. This wasn’t going to be an option for me for time, equipment and expense reasons. Besides that, I was obliged to admit to myself that, love of music or no, I had a relationship with the discs. Wherever I went in my adult life, which I embraced relatively late, I was a guy who had lots of stuff. Not just random stuff — good stuff, interesting stuff, stuff that spoke of my eclectic tastes and wide interests. There was a part of me that wanted this to be known. Although I noticed, as I got older, new acquaintances that would see the apartment for the first time would observe, “Whoa, you’ve got a lot of CDs!” and be done with it, instead of saying “Whoa, nice assortment of Derek Bailey music,” or whatever I might have been hoping for. For some reason the sobering realization that my collection in any configuration would be unlikely to elicit such a response anymore did little to make the actual culling easier. (As for that, I came up with a system that combined math with steely determination, and after putting it into play, discovered I’d done the math incorrectly — hardly surprising — and had to recalculate, and cull more.)
Soon our dining-room table, where we would hold the items we’d soon have to haul downstairs for the stoop sale, was a compact-disc megalopolis on one end, and a DVD/Blu-ray development on the other.
The stoop sale accomplished its aim: Much physical clutter (including one now-empty CD rack) dissipated, some funds raised. The story of how I inadvertently sold an ultra-rare LaMonte Young performance DVD to a record resale professional will have to be told some other time.
I am left to continue to confront a larger problem: the fact that my addiction to, and curiosity about, music, remains tied to an addiction to physical media and, yes, consumption. During my purging I’d decided, with much tortured deliberation, that as seminal a piece as “Gypsy Queen” is, and as ingratiatingly smooth as his music could be, Gabor Szabo was not an artist I absolutely had to keep around. And yet, mere weeks after what I considered a radical divestment, I find myself on a sunny day revisiting the occasion of so many profligate sins, e.g. one of New York City’s few remaining music emporiums, confronted with a spanking new reissue of Szabo’s Higher Contrast. Bobby Womack plays rhythm guitar on it, and contributed several compositions, including “Breezin’,” the version of which by George Benson is an object of simultaneous awe and derision in smooth jazz circles. Still. Bobby Womack and Gabor Szabo, and I’ve got $14, plus tax, in my pocket.
I’m listening to it as I write this. I’m happy to be hearing it. The album as a whole is a pleasurable piece of music, and perhaps more important, arguably a uniquely pleasurable piece of music. The album picks up in the second half, which is all Womack tunes, more smooth funk than smooth jazz. (The original of “Breezin’” is still “Breezin’,” as it happens.) Etcetera. But still. The button I pushed to produce the pleasure brings with it about five distinct anxieties — not all of them immediate, obviously, but all of them worth heeding. As with many addictions, the problem is both knotty and cretin-simple. This can’t go on — let alone start again. Especially given how salutary the result of the purge was. “The living room looks a lot more spacious with that rack gone,” my wife noted, and I had to agree; the space it seemed to free, in fact, was greater than the space it actually filled up. If my wife could breathe easier, then I could derive some satisfaction for having taken the action that produced the result. Were I an entirely sane person, that would be encouragement enough for me. But I’m not.
But I’ll say that Higher Contrast is going to be the Gabor Szabo record in my library for the foreseeable future. This I promise to myself, my spouse, the readership of Wondering Sound, the world.
Let’s see if that works. Something has to.