The great rock critic Lester Bangs once dreamed about having a basement with every album ever recorded in it. The thing is, Bangs’ basement now exists on the Internet. Nothing is rare and nothing is unknown. The digital world grows by the nanoseconds and milliseconds are obsolete. When I was a kid I used to try to think of the biggest number ever, but always puckered out somewhere after one hundred gajillion-billion-zillion-million. And one.
Bangs probably would have been freaked out if he knew his dream basement would become reality. The guy wrote an Elvis obituary wondering if the world could ever agree on love or Elvis or anything ever again. He spoke to an increasingly fragmenting culture back in 1977 when he wrote, “we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.”
Bangs couldn’t have foreseen that there’s something worse than no Elvis. There’s no John Lennon. There’s no Michael Jackson. There’s no record stores. And there’s nobody sitting around listening to records. We don’t sit down on the couch, have a drink with a friend, listen to side one of a record, flip it over, and listen to side two. We don’t remember the rules—that you can talk before the record and in between sides and during the crappy songs, but Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands requires full reverence.
There’s no reverence anymore. Instead, there’s earbuds and playlists and leave-me-the-hell-alone looks—which face it—you need on subways and buses.
Don’t mind me. I’m just being old and obsolete and living in the analog world. Digital music is codes. Ones and ohs. Numbers. One hundred gajillion-billion-zillion-million. It hurts my head. Analog means to use signals or information represented by a continuously variable physical quantity. See also, In a manner analogous to the variations in air pressure of the original sound. See also, Random variation.
On monoaural records, the fine print somewhere on the back cover always assures the buyer that “this is a high-fidelity recording, designed for the phonograph of today or tomorrow. Played on your present machine, it gives you the finest quality of reproduction. You can buy today, without fear of obsolescence in the future.”
I wish I came with that kind of disclaimer.
See also, A thing seen as comparable to another. Recently I found a secondhand bookstore tucked into the corner of an unsuspecting strip mall, next to a sushi place and a paint store. It was the kind of strip mall where it looks like it might be mobbed, but then you realize there’s actually tons of parking spots, and it’s just the lazy suburbanites hunting and scrapping over the first few rows. Being a competitive animal, or maybe just an asshole, I like to scan the closer spots to see if I can snipe one off. I’m not lazy, I just want to win. I have medals in getting good parking spaces, people. MEDALS.
Before even walking in, you can tell this is the perfect kind of bookstore, the kind roughly the size of a closet. At least a master bedroom closet. Old light bulbs with metal filaments give off an apricot glow. Musty wooden shelves press to the ceiling and loom over—or perhaps more accurately, hunch over, like old giants. And if you are quiet, and if you listen carefully, you’ll swear you hear those shelves breathing, the sounds of giants harrumphing over us mere mortals below.
This is the kind of place without hip kids in wool hats and lattes—but rather the kind with an inch of dust collecting on the shelves and maybe some cat hair, too. The kind of place with a girl behind the counter who could be anything between twenty-seven and forty-seven years old, reading a book, and that’s all she minds to do. If you have a question that’s not idiotic, she will be happy to answer it. But if you’re interrupting to ask where the Dean Koontz books are, you really shouldn’t be in this holy place.
And no, she also doesn’t know the name of that book by the name of that author you can’t remember.
And no, e-books. Just no.
She’s wearing a dowdy but comfy sweater and a no-fuss ponytail. I decide she’s definitely twenty-seven because the slouch neck of the sweater reveals the spaghetti strap of a tank top—and I decide she’s probably fun. A good time. Wild, in fact. You just know with those ones.
Then in the back, there’s a possible treasure hunt—the everything else section, where there are CDs, DVDs, VHS tapes, and best of all, vinyl records. I try to tip toe past the giants, skipping over their books, but I hear them sigh in disdain. I want to explain myself. You see, I just bought all these books last month that I already have no time to read. I swear, honestly, my bedside table has like six piles plus a few more on the floor. I’ve got to sleep in the same room as the books I’m currently reading, and right now, it’s an orgy. Look, honestly, I got them at a real bookstore, at the Borders before it went out of business. Thirty of ’em, all glossy and virginal and smelling of ink and fresh pulp, sweeter than the smell of citrus.
I know, I should have gone more often. I should have bought more books before it closed. We all should have. It’s a shame, and it’s our fault, and we know it. Well, some of us do.
But it’s no use to plead with the giants. The won’t hear my case. They’re old and they’re grumpy, and they have wiser things to talk about. Theirs are conversations we cannot hear or understand, like a child playing on the floor under the table, while the adults smoke cigarettes and sip beers above, speaking in hushed and solemn tones. We long to be a part of it, to know what of it, but then we grow up and wish we could go back to not knowing. Wish we could go back to underneath the table, our secret fort, where the dog also watched guard, our trusty sidekick.
I miss my sidekick. Us mortals are too sensitive. Wound too easily. Take it all too personal. Man up now, suck it in and stand up straight. Rah rah, and all of that. Onward march then.
I make my way to the back, past the giants, past the girl, and also past an owlish man studying the rows of books in the military history section, which is labeled in handwritten scrawl on a piece of masking tape. The records sit in crates on the floor, in crates behind those crates, and in haphazardly stacked piles on top of the crates and the crates behind those. Hoo boy.
Right away I could see it wasn’t the usual thrift store fare in the crates, the stuff grandma doesn’t even listen to—the Herb Alberts, the Sing Alongs with Mitch, the banged up Christmas records. This was actual, honest-to-god rock and roll in here.
So I’m crouching and flipping through the crates, my knees starting to tingle and the lactic acid racking up in my calves. Suddenly the next LP I flip to is Sgt Pepper. As in Lonely Hearts Club Band. As in the Beatles. A nice clean, beauty of a copy, too. Usually that shit is snapped up and put eBay for a million dollars plus an additional billion dollars shipping. Or it’s placed behind some glass counter and marked up to fifty bucks, even if looks like it was ran over twice and wouldn’t be worth that much if Ringo sneezed on it.
Instead, here it was among the common and mortal records, in the $4 crate, although admittedly it was meekly marked as $10. This is the Beatles, after all. The book store owners weren’t fools. I bought it because I always buy multiple copies of Beatles records. I’m forever chasing after that one good clean copy without a speck of dust gunking the inner grooves. Gunk is reality in the analog world. But this one was pretty. There was no ringwear and the colors were vivid. The corners were sharp.
It wasn’t until I got home that I noticed the inside sleeve. Early Pepper copies came with a pink-swirl on the sleeve. It intrigued me enough to do some Googling. And make some phone calls. And have my friend pull out his “Field Guide to Beatles Records,” a book he swears he’s never “used in the field, whatever that means.” (LIES.)
I became sucked into a massive wormhole of arcane Beatles knowledge, a circle of hell in esotericism. There are differences in the copyright information printed in microprint on the back covers, which is the difference between common copies and rarer ones. If it has a MACLEN and NEMS copyright on the back, it’s a common copy.
But my copy only had the NEMS copyright.
To my horror, three hours of research passed. I began sweating at the thought of my wife walking in the door from work, and me having nothing ready for dinner because I became obsessed with the subtleties of copyright information on the back cover.
“But it doesn’t say MACLEN, honey!” is not a valid excuse.
SWEET CIRCLE OF HELL.
As it turns out my copy is one of the rarer first pressings, a copy in its condition worth $100-$200. That gives me hope, in a digital world where everyone has a computer in their pocket—that you can still stumble into a little closet of a bookstore and unsuspectingly find a rare Beatles record that someone else didn’t know about, not even yourself. Perhaps it’s something fated in the analog world: a bit of random variation, a speck of dust among the ones and ohs.