Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Old Records Never Die

Eric Spitznagel Old Records Never Die (2016)
I vaguely remember a point at which I made a vow to avoid the traditional mid-life crisis, mainly due to how terminally wanky it always looked on other people. That said, having recently passed the age of fifty, I'm aware of having spent a lot of time rummaging around in my youth. I've never been very good at throwing anything away, and I've always been fairly organised with a tendency to assemble the detritus of being alive according to something resembling a system, and so I've used up much of the last couple of years working on a forensic reconstruction of my own existence, something I will eventually self-publish purely for the sake of a point of focus towards which I can work. I've been transcribing material from old diaries, notebooks, correspondence, and even copies of spoken tape letters I've sent to people. I don't think of this exercise as nostalgia because frankly, most of my life has been disappointing up until recent times - not anything I'd wish to relive - and at the risk of sounding boastful, my life has been generally fucking amazing since about 2011; so it's more like a mapping project, something which answers the question, how did I get here? My past occurred so long ago in subjective terms that it may as well have happened to someone else, which is why I find it so fascinating now.

For reasons which clearly relate to the above, albeit by means I find difficult to define with any degree of clarity, I've tended to steer clear of books by Nick Hornby, notably High Fidelity, or things in that spirit: Stuart Maconie and Peter Kay chortling over Wacky Races and Curly Wurly. I may be wrong about Hornby, but it seems sappy and sentimental to me, even slightly unhealthy. The closest I came was reading Andrew Collins' excruciatingly twee Where Did It All Go Right?, one of the worst books I've ever read and yet another drearily self-deprecating account of growing up in the seventies and having an hilarious punk hairstyle for a bit and failing to shag some girl and listening to the Smiths, because it's always the fucking Smiths.

Writing about music, or specifically about one's love of music, is an inevitably subjective undertaking because it would be pointless were it otherwise; which can additionally leave the writing in question somewhat reliant on whether or not the reader shares the same musical taste as the author, at least in cases where the author isn't up to much and you probably wouldn't be reading but for the fact that he also digs St. Winifred's School Choir. I still have Smiths records, and I can appreciate them, and How Soon is Now? was wonderful; but the first music I really began to take seriously as a kid seemed a bit more wide-ranging in certain respects, beginning with Devo - working through Crass and Killing Joke, probably ending up in the general vicinity of Throbbing Gristle. For the most part it was music beginning from the point of view that all western society is fucked, that we're all living a lie, and that maybe you need to face up to it, shithead.  Doubtless it all took itself too seriously, but that was part of its job. Then the Smiths turned up, and I recall the interviews about how they only wanted handsome people at their little pop concerts, and This Charming Man sounded like the theme tune to a kid's show, and although the second single actually had a tune, everything since has been a heavy sigh of my life is shit and I feel a bit sad. I don't understand how that could really have changed anyone's world, or how anyone could be satisfied with just that, and no-one who ever wrote about it has been able to explain it to me.

Old Records Never Die is the account of one man's mission to track down all the records of his youth, not just the songs, but the actual same copies rescued from dusty boxes in basements and thrift stores. Needless to say, I approached the book with some trepidation, reading mainly on the grounds of it having been a birthday present from my brother-in-law, a man of generally sound judgement. I still don't quite understand why Eric Spitznagel really needed to reunite with the copy of Kiss' Alive II on which his brother Mark had scrawled HANDS OFF!!! across the cover in ballpoint; and I had a tough time getting through the first couple of chapters worth of references to the Travelling Wilburys, Billy Joel, and other artists I'd rather not have to think about; but as the book finds its stride, it becomes clear that this is not about the music or fat old fuckers going misty-eyed over the malts and shakes of a sunnier age, not exactly. Spitznagel's quest is a genuinely bizarre one, almost a ritual working, not really trying to bring something back so much as to understand its power; and I can identify because it seems reminiscent of what I've been doing with all my own old crap. It doesn't really matter whether or not the Smiths changed anyone's life, and in any case Spitznagel writes about the change and how we understand it rather than the source of musical revelation. If anything, the sources of musical revelation seem the least important detail of whatever the guy is going through in this book, so it's communicated as what may as well be a universal experience. More than anything it reminds me of Harvey Pekar's wistful tales of stealing jazz records from a radio station or finding a cheap pair of Stetson shoes in Goodwill. It has a certain passion, a certain affection, but there's nothing sappy or sentimental here.

I still haven't read High Fidelity, although if it's anything like the film, then Old Records Never Die really isn't a particularly close relative. It's about much more, the entire experience of memory, and while it's often very, very funny, the gags come naturally as part of the discourse - none of that gormless chuckling over old photos in which people look a little bit different to how they do now.

This one has really surprised me.

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