How I Lost Most of My Music Collection—and Nearly My Mind
T his past August, I moved back to Seattle from Orange County. An ordeal for anyone, moving for me means shipping about 2,500 pieces of vinyl and thrice as many CDs, which took about a week of long days to pack. For this trip, I arranged for the Los Angeles moving company Eagle Express to haul my belongings up from Costa Mesa, a decision that ranks as my biggest regret of this—or maybe any—year.
Eagle Express's supervisor, David Gomez, assured me that the delivery would take two weeks max. In fact, it took almost a month, and when the slack mothertruckers finally arrived at my Capitol Hill storage facility, it was clear something had gone horribly awry: Expecting around 60 boxes full of my music collection, there were instead only 15.
One of the movers, Adam—who, I later discovered, was actually an employee of West Coast Van Lines—initially expressed confusion about the missing boxes. After much agitated questioning, he said he'd had to unload some of his cargo due to weight issues. Incredulous, I demanded he call Eagle Express to find out where my goods were. He made a call, speaking to Gomez in Spanish; during the short conversation, Adam became increasingly angry and then he hung up. Adam said something vague about a warehouse in the L.A. area. I called Gomez but couldn't get a straight answer from him. Their stories weren't jibing, and my records were gone. I cursed Gomez in a vicious tone I hadn't used since George W. Bush became president in 2001.
I felt as if I'd gone in for a routine chiropractic visit and left the office with three of my limbs amputated.
T hat's the thing about collectors, according to Seattle psychotherapist Gaelen Billingsley: "Many collectors feel synonymous with the objects they collect and use them to derive or define a sense of self. Though they may not have any objective value, objects collected are seen as uniquely interesting or valuable to the individual collector. Thus as collectors accumulate large numbers of valuable items, they construct the sense that they, too, are valuable by association, i.e., 'The more of this great stuff I accumulate, the more I matter.'"
Obsessive collecting, she explains, "tends to arise out of one (or a combination) of the following three basic human needs: the need for a personal self- definition of worth, the need for a sense of life purpose (or meaning), and the desire for immortality."
Damn, Ms. Billingsley. It's like you peered directly into my mind.
I'm as guilty of this dubious behavior as anyone. It's neurotic. But my excuses go far beyond the identity aggrandizing, the phallic substitution and surrogate dick-waving. I actually do have legitimate reasons for accumulating so many records: One is for DJing, which I've done with some frequency on radio and in clubs since 1996 (and I will always prefer to spin vinyl for such gigs). In fact, I had to turn down a juicy DJ opportunity soon after I returned to Seattle because I lacked the crucial weapons from my vinyl arsenal.
Another reason is research/reference. As a music journalist, I regularly relied on my extensive library to help me to write reviews and features. My collection also served as a resource for friends looking to expand their knowledge. As I've told my friends many times, my collection and my knowledge are here to be used. So, like Bill Withers sang, use me. (Sadly, a huge music collection does not always work as an aphrodisiac.) Fourthly, a megalomaniacal urge to know almost everything about almost every worthwhile musician can be a dangerous thing, I've discovered—especially when it comes time to move. Fifthly, almost every record and CD has a complicated network of memories and associations attached to it. Losing as many items as I did feels like having several key scenes excised from my autobiography.
A s the weeks passed with no sighting of my precious cargo, I became increasingly ill with anger and toxic vengefulness every time I pondered Eagle Express's botched job. For a while, I was phoning Gomez every day, furious over my enormous loss (fuck a 401[k]; those records were my pension!). When he did pick up, Gomez would profusely apologize in heavily accented English and vow to try to find out what happened to my stuff. Rinse, repeat, rage.
Over the next four months and dozens of (mostly unanswered) calls and many empty promises later, I still can't get a satisfactory response from Gomez. At one point, Gomez said that Adam had tried to escape into Canada to avoid the law on some charge, and that a truck with my boxes was somewhere near the border. My calls to West Coast Van Lines went unreturned.
I've pretty much resigned myself to never seeing those lost records and CDs (and the dresser I'd owned since I was 9 and some other less important items) again. Now I just want monetary compensation—and Gomez's head on a pike. Trouble is, I don't know any lawyers in L.A., and even if I did, I have no stomach for dealing with them. And, foolishly, I didn't insure my belongings—after moving five times in as many years without incident, I'd become complacent. (This, too, ranks in the top five of my Regrets Hall of Shame.)
Y ou should have seen my friends'—especially fellow collectors'—responses to my situation. Their faces would slacken with a mixture of disgust and disbelief, and they'd gasp for a bit until they could utter words of pity and consolation. It felt like I was witnessing my own funeral every time I broke the news to somebody.
After I told Jason Pettigrew, an ex– Alternative Press magazine coworker and fellow music obsessive, about my travails, he said, "I would be getting background checks on the individual movers and start brutally murdering their family members at random."
Obviously, a loss of this magnitude prompts much reflection (and many nights spent dreaming of flying to L.A. to seek revenge). After the shock, disbelief, and the barely suppressible rage had (mostly) subsided, I began to ponder the significance of music—and its physical manifestations—in my life. Maybe my obsession with it wasn't that healthy. Certainly, even after my moving disaster, I still possess more recorded music than, oh, 97 percent of the population. I am definitely not wanting for things to listen to. By any "normal" standard, I owned way too many CDs and LPs.
And yet the knowledge of all those rare records (how will I ever find those Bernard Parmegiani and M. Frog Labat LPs?) and obscure, limited-edition CDs and boxed sets that I'd gathered over the last 29 years and that are now dispersed to who knows where continues to gnaw at me—every hour, every day. "Normal" is boring and mediocre. I didn't get where I am today—for better or worse—through sensible moderation in my listening/collecting habits. When music is your religion, as it is mine, losing reliquaries of it can damage your soul and threaten your sanity.
Among the items missing from my collection: my entire stash of hiphop vinyl and two-thirds of my hiphop CDs; all of my world-music CDs (including 16 Fela Kuti and all of my Sublime Frequencies discs); all of my highbrow, 20th-century composer stuff; my cherished Soul Jazz Records CDs; my soundtracks; rare psych-rock LPs by Friendsound (the LSD-inspired side project by some Paul Revere and the Raiders members); little-known Kraut-rock classics by Exmagma and Et Cetera; Bernard Szajner's imaginary soundtrack to Dune done under the moniker Zed; Kraftwerk's first three amazing albums, all of which they stubbornly, foolishly refuse to officially reissue; TONTO's Expanding Head Band's Zero Time, with two separate covers; that sweet 100 Proof (Aged in Soul) LP on the Motown composers Holland-Dozier-Holland's Hot Wax label.... Someone could open a decent music shop with those fugitive goods—and then promptly go out of business.
Yes, I can get back a lot of the AWOL titles, provided I devote considerable time and money to the endeavor. Hell, I've already begun to replenish my collection as thriftily as possible. I've been rifling through the used bins at Jive Time, Everyday Music, Wall of Sound, Sonic Boom, and Easy Street with the kind of diligence that would impress DJ Premier. Also, friends have come through with loans, burns, MP3s, gifts, condolences, and sympathy.
Y ou'd think this would be the opportune time to switch to a more digital approach to music consumption. It should be, but my analog por vida attitude dies hard. I can't help thinking that vinyl is the ultimate musical format, with CDs second, and MP3s a distant third. Daily, hourly, megabytes of great, obscure audio get uploaded to YouTube, the torrent sites, and blogs like Mutant Sounds (mutant-sounds.blogspot.com). And that's great for everyone, except maybe for copyright holders. But I'm not clever enough to DJ with a YouTube video, and torrent sites often misidentify releases (which often sound shitty, anyway), and, honestly, I don't want to rip off musicians. That and the whole physical-artifact factor: I don't think I'm alone in thinking that the gatefold double-LP version of Miles Davis's Bitches Brew will always hold more allure and aesthetic value than that album reduced to 1s and 0s in an iPod.
That being said, I now have over 2,500 songs on my iTunes at work, but they don't seem like they're mine so much as my computer's. And that somehow bothers me. Were some benefactor to replace all of my missing songs on the planet's biggest hard drive, I would be grateful, but still would not feel as fulfilled as if I could regain the actual releases. I'm firmly in the rearguard with regard to Serato/iPod "upgrading," and my tragedy hasn't nudged me into the 21st century. Not yet, anyway.
Besides, I've become addicted to the thrill of the hunt for music. So much of my life's been spent in record stores, digging through bins, swapping info with clerks and fellow music nerds; to stop now would be as hard as a lifelong smoker ditching his cigs in middle age.
So I continue to obsess over musical products, compulsively. While most people in my circle scheme about getting drunk, high, laid, or by with the least amount of effort, I spend my idle moments figuring out the most efficient way to rebuild my shelves-full of Acid Mothers Temple and Muslimgauze releases—and hundreds of other treasures without which my life seems terribly diminished. Most (straight) guys in my circle try to score pussy; I strive to re-score Pussy Galore's Sugarshit Sharp 12-inch (okay, and some pussy; I may be a geek, but I have other needs, too).
If anything, my obsession with record collecting has only intensified following this catastrophe. It's as if I need to be physically immersed not only in the sounds, but also in the vessels from which they emanate. I crave the totems that announce to my visitors (and the world) that my taste is impeccable. Sorry, but your thousands of MP3s on your hard drive can't compete with an entire room jammed floor to ceiling with wax. Anybody can say he digs Nurse with Wound; but if you show me a shelf in your pad groaning with their releases, you've earned more respect in my eyes.
S cott Giampino—who books shows at Seattle supper club the Triple Door and DJs soul, funk, and R&B under the name Self- Administered Beatdown—also recently lost the bulk of his long-accruing collection. In 2004, his house burned to the ground, and he and his family lost almost everything they owned. Giampino estimates 2,500 out of 3,000 records were damaged in the blaze. (Although he notes, "Oddly, virtually all the CDs in the house survived. Irony!")
Eventually, Giampino's sense of loss diminished, so maybe there's hope for me. "I tried and still try to be rather 'Zen' about the entire owning-objects thing now," he says. I dunno: It's hard to be Zen when I want to get all Bruce Lee on the mugs responsible for decimating my collection.
"My attitude has changed in the fact that I am much easier to let things go," Giampino observes. "I sell way more records now than I used to. I used to hoard stuff, like any compulsive collector, but now I have a much mellower attitude toward it. It's twofold, with one part being, 'Hey, it's just stuff, easy come easy go,' and the other part is, 'Hey, if I really need this copy of "insert album title here," I can pony up the dough and buy it.' I'll find it again, the philosophy being: Sure, I have to pay more, but it's (usually) obtainable, somewhere."
I f anything positive has resulted from my tragic loss, it's that I've become more appreciative of what I do have now. While I will agonize for years over several vanished gems, others will not be mourned, as my memory's not flawless. Hell, I've forgotten about more music than most people have heard or will hear. That's not braggadocio, but simply factual reportage of an obsessive-compulsive music critic's life. It's a curse wrapped up in a blessing.
Like many of my ilk, maybe I do view my collection as a bulwark against mortality—or at least a tangible legacy of my existence on earth. Forget leaving a good-looking corpse; I want my survivors to gape in awe at shelf upon shelf, crate upon crate of my music stash—a monument to monomania. It would be nice if they listened to the things, too.