Discovering the Moby Grape yardstick
I enjoyed reading Grant Alden’s latest post the other day about his recent move and the struggle he is going through in unpacking his music collection. Realizing he is having a space issue, he is now pondering if he really needs to keep everything he’s collected over the years. I can relate.
A long time ago when I collected vinyl and plastic discs and ran out of room, I made a rule that for every new album I brought home and decided I wanted to keep, I’d give up an older one. A few things happened when I did this: I forever had piles of new stuff cluttered all over the place and at least once a month I’d take a box of old stuff down to the used record store and get credit…toward more new stuff. It was a never-ending hobby as I imagine stamp collecting might be for some, and it continues to this day albeit in a slightly different way.
I’ve written here before about my conversion to digital files, not only for space reasons but because it’s just easier and better for me to listen to more music if I can take it with me, or while I’m sitting here punching away. And I’ve also noted that while in theory not having enough space is no longer an issue with gazillion gigabyte storage readily available on the cheap, I’m coming to a point where I might just have a little too much for a completely different reason.
At fifty-nine, I think I’m running out of time. While it’s quite possible that I’ll be around for another thirty years (my mom turns ninety in October), it also may be true that I’m playing a fast and furious game of Beat The Clock and in the western movie cliche, my days are numbered. And whether I’m coming to the end of the line or it’s somewhere in the middle, it’s now a fact that I’ll not ever be able to listen and enjoy everything I currently own, especially if I keep bringing in new titles or discovering older ones. Something has to give.
My oldest boy and I discussed this subject gingerly the other night, and as he is an avid music junkie like the old man but has grown up in the tech age, I asked for his advice. He has a system for consumption where he divides his collection up into three categories: new music, his “essential” top 100 albums and all others that he picks and chooses to listen to the same way I once did when I had plastic stacked on shelves and would browse them until something struck my fancy. He puts them into playlists and than rotates between them every day. Because he has more music than he can fit on his iPod (a problem I’m about to face), he synchs to the playlists and not his entire collection.
For me, I like having everything with me so I can hit shuffle and just let it play, but in doing so I’m missing out on a lot of new stuff that I acquire, which I’ll listen to once and than it may or may not ever come up again to hear. So I started to ask myself questions, not unlike Grant’s Greg Trooper quandary:
-Do I need to have all of the Beatle’s stereo and mono mixes in my library?
-What about the Kinks, whose remastered albums include dozens of rare tracks? I like maybe about twenty Kinks’ songs, not three or four hundred.
-Five versions of every Steve Earle song? 125 hours of live Grateful Dead tracks? Hundreds of albums from artists and labels that I was given, with the hopes I’d review? Bad quality bootlegs from the Burritos and Byrds?
And so I spent much of this week listening to the last fifty albums I recently up or downloaded, and made a decision. I’m going to purge, and I’m going to use Paul Simon and Moby Grape as my guideposts. Let me explain.
The new Paul Simon is a critical masterpiece…everybody seems to love it. In listening to it the second time around yesterday, while it’s of slight interest, to my ears it holds not a candle to releases from dozens of both new and older artists I can think of. For the most part I’m enchanted by hearing people create new sounds, or listening to songs of age and substance that hold my interest over time. As much as I tried to like Paul (especially because people I respect and listen to told me I’d like it), it bores me to tears. Which led me to coming up with the Moby Grape yardstick.
Of all the albums that I own or have listened to in my life, the first Moby Grape album was made for my ears. I can’t explain why, or rather don’t want to, but I would guess that everyone has an album like it in their collection. It’s the one you keep going back to, the one that evokes a time and place of discovery and newness, an album of definition. One that works today as well as it worked forty some odd years ago.
Now you might say that Moby Grape was a one “no hit” wonder, or that they were the finest and most influential band to come out of San Francisco in the late sixties or a tragic story of dope, mental illness and just plain old bad luck. And while there is nothing they ever put out that measured up track to track to this first album, I spent thirty minutes yesterday listening to Truly Fine Citizen, the 1971 release they recorded with only three of the original band members left: Lewis, Miller and Stevenson.
And you know what? That lost and forgotten album…with all it’s flaws and missing parts…is still better than the new Paul Simon. And so it came to me…how to thin the herd. If I am going to keep an album, whether it’s a Carter Family radio transcription or Wye Oak, the Shins first or Steve Earle’s latest, London Calling or the Smithereens, Louie Armstrong or Jean Ritchie, an old folkie or a new kid on the block…it has to be at least as good as what some might consider Moby Grape’s worst.
There’s my yardstick. And you know what? There goes rhymin’ Simon and I’ve got some work to do today with the delete button.