Schopenhauer wrote “Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them in: but as a rule the purchase of books is mistaken for the appropriation of their contents.” I sometimes feel I’ve fallen into this trap with recordings as well as books, especially when I spend some time mournfully perusing the shelves of “not yet listened to” discs in my music library.
In a collection of around 15,000 items, there are nearly 1,000 that I haven’t gotten around to yet. The problem is simple: for the past 40 years I have acquired more recordings in a week then there are waking hours in which to listen to them, thereby continually growing the list of “unheard but owned” no matter how much time I devote to the collection. For instance, in 1996 I heard about an album called “Kaddish” by the British noise band Towering Inferno, described as a harrowing work that had the capacity to blow out stereo speakers if one was not attentive to volume controls. I had to have it and listen immediately. Nonetheless, it continues to reproach me every time I see it, patiently (?) waiting for the last fifteen years to get moved back to the “hear it now” stacks from limbo.
Unlike some of my music fanatic colleagues, I continue to be interested in contemporary music, having resisted the retreat into the all-too-common thinking that posits “nothing good happened after 1958/1967/1973/1980 etc.” I figure anyone missing out on Fleet Foxes, The Decemberists, Arcade Fire, Tyler The Creator, Arctic Monkeys, Regina Spektor and the like because they are still hung up on Jefferson Airplane and Procol Harum needs a good talking to. I remember one period (around 1998) when I was beating myself up for my collecting compulsion. I decided I’d use the approaching millenium to draw a line in the sand, and stop collecting anything not produced during the 20th century. I imagined myself loftily declaring “Ah yes, it’s all very well for other people, but I’m dedicating myself to being an expert in 20th century music. One can only do so much in a lifetime.” About a week after my resolution to limit spending and the size of my collection through these psychological gymnastics, I modified my resolve. I would continue to collect anything produced by a musician who began their career in the 20th century, but nothing by the whippersnappers about to join the musical conversation.
Needless to say, I never followed through on any of that.
Aside from the shelves in the music library housed in the garage, there are several other levels in the heirarchy. In my office I have stacks of CDs and DVDs I consider “no, really, you have to hear/view these now, do not banish them to the garage” and “you should get to these by the end of the year, but not today.” (Now that I have a radio show, I also have stacks of recordings that are in the “possible theme material for future programs” area that expands and contracts.)
There are also sizable items that intimidate me just by existing, constituting entire listening projects in themselves. I’ve heard only one disc of the 9-CD Andy Partridge “Fuzzy Warbles Collector’s Album” I bought in 2006, and I shudder each time I see the Grateful Dead “Europe ’72 Complete Recordings” box, all 73 discs daring me to get started.
Every so often I buy a CD or LP I already have. Thank goodness this rarely involves something I’ve already heard and forgot I owned, or I’d worry even more about the onset of “senior moments” in my life. When I get excited about something, like Ron Elliott’s solo album “The Candlestickmaker” – which I used to own on LP but stupidly traded in at some point – it is quite deflating to purchase the CD reissue and later discover it already sitting on those “unheard” shelves in the garage. Sometimes there are treasures lurking there. I was enthusing over Steve Cropper’s latest “Dedicated” album and bemoaning my idiocy in not owning more than a track or two by The “5” Royals when I had a vague memory of an album cover. Combing those neglected garage shelves, I spotted Rhino’s 1994 two-disc anthology “Monkey Hips and Rice.” The set is now out of print, but it’s brand new to me!