Friday, July 3, 2009

Devil, thy name is record collecting

Watch Vinyl (2000) - Alan Zweig investigates the wacky world of record collecting in Lifestyle | View More Free Videos Online at

These clips are from one of my favorite documentaries - and films - of all time: Vinyl by Canadian director Alan Zweig.

In the film, Zweig tries to get at the very heart of darkness: what drives collectors - of records, in this case - to irrationally pursue things they really don't need, interviewing Canadian actor and director Don McKellar, American Splendor writer Harvey Pekar, and the Pursuit of Happiness lead singer Moe Berg about their infatuation with their record collections.

But it's his interviews with non-famous friends where his documentary really gets into some troubling territory. Take the guy who has over one million records, and has memorized the tracks of every K-Tel compilation. Or the guy who threw out his entire record collection because he couldn't stand the thought of someone else owning it.

Or this guy in the following clip, who clearly collects not for the music, but to satisfy a deeper psychological need. For belonging? Or something else?

I was thinking about it today, because I became the reluctant owner of an iPhone - not that I have any idea how to use it to make a phone call, send a text message, or (shudder) download an app. Whatever that is.

Instead, I went right for the gadget's secondary use: a newfangled 16 Gig iPod, which I understand to be just enough space to store about one song from every one of my 2,000 CDs. Uh, yeah, I still collect CDs - even in this age of the free torrent download. Whatever that is.

I started by plucking CDs from the shelf, and transferring the key songs from each into iTunes on my laptop, in alphabetical order, of course. I started feeling a tad depressed when I realized that it would take me weeks to accomplish this task.

I instantly thought of my friend, whose goal is to download "every hit song ever" onto his iPod; I seriously get messages from him at 1 a.m. saying, "What are Badly Drawn Boy's best songs?"

He's got everything from Cyndi Lauper to Leadbelly, and - of course - the great thing is that he'll never be finished with his "collection." Like Don't Stop Believin', it goes on and on and on and on.

It wasn't always this way.


This won't take long, I promise:

When I was a kid, the record store was a place that I - and every other 15 year old - went to get away from the family.

There were entire summers that I spent hanging out at Records on Wheels on Portage Avenue, where I'd listen to the British imports (and buy them, of course), talk to folks as aged as 25 about what was cool to listen to (no older brother meant I had to do the legwork), and meet potential girlfriends (they all looked like the Cure's Robert Smith, but - hey - beggars couldn't, and can't, be choosers).

On a recent drive through Minnesota, I was delighted to find that one of the best music stores in America - The Electric Fetus - is still open for business. The selection is still great. And it's all being perused by 45-year-old men with receding hairlines and grey ponytails. Depressing.

To escape the parental units these days, the kids go to their rooms, where they access their information/music/dating/porn portals at the touch of a button. Nothing wrong with that, though it's upsetting to me, because my age group used to have to work hard for its porn, donning fake mustaches at the drugstore just for a glimpse of Chatelaine or The Beaver: Canada's History Magazine.

Now every music collection is the same music collection - the one that you, and no one else, wants to listen to. Sure, we'll glance at each other's iPods to see what's there, but really, it's all the same: intangible, invisible, and misspelled. Coming soon to Canada: the Kindle will do the same thing for books.

I love the iPod and I'm sure I'll love the Kindle one day too. But there's something weird about losing the "show-off factor," and collecting being a solitary pursuit.

Please, please, please, give me more, more, more

I think it was those early days hanging out in the record store where I associated music with having a social life, which helped make me the music collector I was, and still am today.

But even then, there comes a time when you have to look at your CD collection and wonder: "Do I need more music?"

Or better yet: "Why am I still buying CDs when I've got 100 that I've never played?"

In the film, Zweig asks Pekar as much: "Did you achieve clarity when you stopped collecting records?"

"No," says Pekar. "I started collecting books."

For men in particular, this appears to be a problem. I literally don't have one male friend who doesn't collect records, CDs, comic books, books, DVDs, VHS tapes (still!), action figures, Yodas (OK, that's just one of them), or some combination of the above.

Is this a vestige of an earlier era when we were hunters and gatherers, or are we just a bunch of manchild crybabies refusing to grow up? Or is it that we all struggle to find meaning and control over our lives in which there is no meaning and control?

In Vinyl, Zweig literally takes a look at himself in the mirror and asks some very honest questions. And, yes, the Green Goblin stole his shtick in the first Spider-Man film:

Tantalizing questions, all.

But time's a-wastin'. And these songs won't load themselves into the iPod, ya know.

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