Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Weird and Poppy

Frances really called my bluff this time. "You really want to know what lurks in the dark corners of your record collection? What's sitting there in between the records you want me to pull?" Apparently I can't handle the truth.

Frances stuck her little hand in the W's once again, and this time came out with a record that's been there since the very start, the pre-record-collecting days. A record that's watched, neglected, as the collection exploded and multiplied around it, since 1985.

Nineteen eighty-five.

That was a tough year. I didn't have much of an identity socially, beyond "the smart kid" - which is a pretty damaging one to the social life of a 12 year old. Fortunately, I have the obsessive tendencies of a collector, a materialism whose end is to be a kind of archivist, a life-long project to define and encapsulate my appreciation through possession. I remember when it clicked that I could buy the music I heard on the radio, and that my commercialized, materialized appreciation of this music could be translated into points for social standing. The corner of K-Mart where they sold the cassettes (interestingly, the same corner, relative to the entrance, where CDs, books and electronics are currently displayed in my local Target) became a magical wonderland.

When I was 12, I would always get the weirdest stuff I could find - it was like, weird was code for good. When I was 12, I didn't have much of a record collection. I did have some funny ideas about music. I still have the same ideas, but they have become heavier through a process of accretion - just like my record collection. The funny ideas, like the record collection, boil down pretty cleanly to just two things: weird and poppy. Poppy in the sense of pretty melody and harmony. Like Gymnopedie No. 1. Weird in the sense of, hmm. Let's say, subverting the world of commonly accepted thoughts, artistic practices, and values, precisely by referring to and juxtaposing those values in unexpected ways. Like screwing and chopping an Olsen Twins video, or Lil B the Based God.

(The stuff I thought was weird in 1984 doesn't seem too legit in its weirdness to me now. I was convinced that Pink Floyd was the weirdest band. So ok, Ummagumma still looks and sounds totally bizarre. It's weird to me, though, that I could hear everything from The Dark Side of the Moon through Wish You Were Here and The Wall to The Final Cut and still remain convinced that Floyd was the most tripped-out band in the history of anything. It just goes to show the power of marketing, cover art, and reputation to shape the opinions of 12 year olds [even smart ones like I think I was] in suburban Middle America.)

Weird and poppy. The first music I ever purchased was a cassette of Duran Duran's album Arena, which had "The Wild Boys" on it - a song that I was convinced I liked cause it had a video with weird slime and monsters lurking in black water and stuff. My other music purchases around this time - mostly vinyl 7" singles - reveal a forming taste that was equal parts poppy melody and weirdness: "One Night in Bangkok"; Paul Hardcastle's "19"; a 12" single of "Let's Go All the Way" by Sly Fox; Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Welcome to the Pleasuredome (also on cassette, and featuring a totally lame cover of "Do You Know the Way to San Jose" that wasn't on the CD that I got later. The CD didn't omit the totally rockin' cover of "Born to Run", though. I didn't realize either of these was a cover, and the first time I heard the Boss's version of "Born to Run" I was shocked that his vocals were so bad - it sounded like he was sleeping!).

These 80s pop gems (ok so yeah, I also had both the album and the single for "We Are the World". Not every purchase was a winner) were the seed of my peculiar, life-long attempt to document myself. The collection I began before I read a list (in some forgotten book that I can now recognize as having been by a Baby Boomer with a critical agenda) of the definitive albums of the Rock Era, and before I graduated into a Dazed and Confused-style high school where the cool kids all listened to Classic Rock. Sly Fox and Duran Duran soon gave way to a dominant paradigm well-characterized by the first two albums I got on CD: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Workingman's Dead. (I was convinced this second would be Weird, but the music didn't deliver. Waaaaay too country and not weird at all.) From the Beatles, I moved on to New Order, Public Enemy, Meat Loaf, Guns n' Roses, the Art of Noise... But before I got all that way, I had created the kernel of my collection, and one of the records I bought before the layers began building up was this stand-up comedy record by the weirdest guy I'd ever seen: Steven Wright.

25 years on, I Have a Pony still exudes a legit bizarritude. It's not the weirdness that makes it funny, though: it's funny cause he's a talented comedian and he has all the skills that make people laugh, like uncanny timing, observations that sound fresh (but in 2010 they still don't sound dated, even when he's riffing on 80s stand-bys like microwaves or "calling information"), and dextrous Groucho Marx-style bait-and-switch. It's weird, and poppy.

And you know what else is on this record? There's a super pretty little song! It's called "Rachel", and it's really touching and heartfelt. These are the lyrics:

Hey hey, Rachel dear
How I wish you were here
Hey hey, I can almost see you

He just pulls out his guitar at one point during his act, and starts playing. So cute! He makes it work by filling up the verses with Steven Wright-style one-liners: "I met her in Macy's in New York City. She was buying clothes, and I was putting Slinkys on the escalators." "I don't know how she did it, but Rachel got poison ivy on her brain. The only way she could scratch it was if she thought about sandpaper." But when he gets to the chorus, it's totally straight, sitting-around-the-campfire love. The crowd even sings along, without being cajoled.

It's safe to say that I haven't played this record in 25 years. And as you can see from the (hopefully brief enough) indulgent self-analysis I've just subjected you to, the forced re-opening of my dialogue with it has got me thinking more about myself than the record. These jokes are branded into my brain, I can't even begin to approach it with a critical distance. I seriously just went on youtube and started looking up songs that I know I'm supposed to think are crappy, but no! This one is totally awesome! So is this one! And this one! Oh my gosh, this one!!!! We're all doomed to forever love whatever crappy music we heard when we were 12, and defend its merits till the day we die. The actual quality of the music has very little to do with it. (I didn't make that theory up, Chris Bickel did, but I agree with all my heart.)

Yeah so memories. Record collecting as self-documentation. Useful? Maybe if you're really into yourself. Or if you think you're worth other people being into. I'm into myself. I have another life-long project too, though - it's trying to learn how to be into other people, and see the world through other people's eyes. One day I'll write about how my record collection helps me do that, too. It's the antidote for its own poison.

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