A young woman is over at my house. She is searching through a pile of LPs that are stacked flush against my stereo. She finds a Flying Buritto Brothers LP that I picked up second-hand in an op shop in High Street. She gently lifts it out of the pile and turns the record over and over in her hands. She removes the vinyl from the sleeve and examines it. There’s a scratch, she says. I nod and answer that I can’t listen to ‘The Dark Side of the Street’ without anticipating the scratch, the jump. Even if I hear the song on the radio, or listen to it on a CD, I’m always waiting for that moment. And so, always there, the moment of confusion when I do not hear the jump, when the song seamlessly plays to its end. Vinyl is beautiful, she says, so much more beautiful than a CD or an mp3 download on a computer. Is that because it is tangible, I ask? The question confuses her. She is much younger than me and has grown up knowing that the digital is also real, that it has its own kind of solidity.
‘Maybe. But I just love the size of a record. I love that the artwork of the sleeve becomes so important to your experience of the music. I love that you have to be careful with the vinyl. Can we play it?’
I haven’t cleaned the needle and it slides across the grooves, a screeching, ugly noise. I wipe away the dust and fluff, and place the needle back onto the groove. Chk. Chk. Chk. The scratching is an overture. The music begins.
For my fortieth birthday a group of friends all put in and buy me an mp3 player. For months I use it as a glorified walkman. Instead of downloading whole albums I select favourite songs and I make compilation playlists: In My House, thirty-three of my favourite house tracks, Country Gals, which is self-explanatory. Slowly, hesitantly, I enter the new world of musical downloads. I begin to explore iTunes, enter illegal file-sharing sites and come upon independent music sites that allow me to sample thirty seconds of a track. I have to force myself to think in this new language. Years ago a friend played me a CD of electronica. We were stoned, it was late at night and we were playing music for one another. For twenty-five years, this is how I have discovered music. I asked my friend to play a song again, I like that song, I enthused. My friend gave me a look of condescending frustration. ‘It’s not a song, it’s a track. They don’t call them songs any more. Do you hear any fucking lyrics?’
I download tracks but guiltily, defiantly, I call them songs.
The world of downloads presents ethical dilemmas for me. In principle I don’t mind stealing music that belongs to the majors, to the wealthy multinational conglomerates that sell music and oil and white goods, but I want to pay artist royalties on music that is created and distributed independently. This decision—a stubborn socialist decision that possibly says more about my age and generation than my music collection would tell you—forces me to confront the complexity and contradictions of contemporary capital and art. Sony and Warners and EMI all have stables of artists whom they exploit and yet designate as independent. Independent labels use the majors to distribute their product. Humour, of course, is a great way to leaven the burden, angst, and, it must be said, vanity of my moral agonising. My friend Spiro asked me the other day if I wanted to burn his copy of the new CD from the lead singer of Radiohead. ‘Is it on a major?’ I asked him. Spiro raised a perfectly sarcastic eyebrow. ‘I don’t think Thom Yorke is desperate for your money.’
I download music onto my mp3 player. I burn the music onto a CD. I face a choice now with what I do with this music, with this object. I am enmeshed in my history, I want covers, I want the memory of the past. At a mate’s house, her music is now stacks of wallets containing burnt CDs. No covers, no sleeves, just gold and metallic CDs with the name of the artist in thick black texta across the face of the discs. She types the track list onto the computer, prints it out and sticks it on the plastic sleeve of the wallet. I find myself unable to do this. I search the internet, find JPEGs of the original sleeves, download the images and try to replicate my own near-authentic version of the legal object. As I continue to do this, I realise that this aesthetic of imitation and mimicry is a compromise. It does not look like the real thing, it can never be the real thing. The real thing has a barcode. The real thing is encoded with digital information that details a complex corporate and legal history. The real thing is a product, a commodity that is produced, distributed and exchanged. I slowly begin to experiment. I find an image I like and make that the cover. I experiment with typography and photocopies and collage. My copy of Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool does not have an image of the musician on the cover. Instead, an achingly beautiful black and white shot of three handsome black men in Harlem, New York City, hip, well-dressed and confident in front of the camera; it was taken just before the stock market crash.
Last night this is what I made: a close-up from a mosaic in the Alhambra for Candi Staton’s His Hands. A royal purple and Byzantine gold Madonna and Child on the back with the song-listing in blood-red type. A grinning young Pier Paolo Pasolini with his boyfriend, black and white, looking down at the camera from a rooftop in Rome. Beirut’s Gulag Orkestar. A handsome reclining football player with great legs and a full crotch seems appropriate for Big Star’s No#1 Record.
I am not a musician. I am a listener, I am the audience. I am a lover of music. So I have always been dependent on the technology of recording to feed my desire. My memories of music cannot be separated from the devices that bring the music to my ear. When I was a toddler, my parents owned what was then called a three-in-one stereo unit, a long squat cabinet with fake-wood panelling that contained a turntable in its middle and, on either side, two deep cavities in which to store records. My mother, who loves to sing, would play Greek records continually over the weekend. I would carefully lift the records out of their place in the stereo, creep into the cavity and listen to the music as it was playing. The whirr and spinning of machinery was as much a part of the aural landscape into which I submerged myself as were the plaintive lyrics, the mournful call of the clarinet, the plangent but always reassuring bouzouki.
The cassette player became the first recording device I learnt to manipulate. I’d sit diligently in my room every Saturday, listening to the Top 40 and pressing play and record simultaneously when I heard the beginning of a song I liked. So many of my musical memories feature truncated beginnings and ends to songs. Whenever I hear Bob Dylan’s ‘Hurricane’ I always imagine that Skyhooks can be heard singing ‘Ego is not a dirty word’ next. That was the order the songs played out on my cassette. Cassettes were more vulnerable than records. The tape could unspool, it could scratch. Cassettes could be recorded over and sometimes the ghostly backbeat of a previously recorded track could be heard behind a new song I recorded. I had a damaged tape that I kept with me for years, just so I could listen to This Mortal Coil’s ‘Song to the Siren’ with the faint whiplash of 52nd Street’s ‘Cool as Ice’ underneath Liz Fraser’s delicate vocals, the drum machine spookily urging the song forward:
I am puzzled as the newborn child
You’re looking nice, so nice
I am troubled as the tide
Cool as ice, twice as nice
When I was introduced to the collage and cut-up effects of twentieth-century experimental music I recognised the connection of art to accident and chaos, how the failure of technology (the cassette player chews the tape, the tape snaps) can inspire invention and play. When I first listened to hip-hop and was swept up immediately in the revolution embedded in the recording becoming the instrument, I also recognised the same artistic impulse. That’s the strange breeding ground for the popular music I love best: African-American roots—rhythm and gospel, authenticity—fucks and mates with European art-fag experimentation: collage, cut-up, artifice. This strange mutant child, a black father and a white mother (or is it the other way around?), this is what rock’n’roll means to me. This is how the siren sings to me.
The cassette was also a love letter. This is how the sirens sung to one another. Words that I could not put down on paper became compilation tapes that I made for friends and for people I loved. What words do you say to someone who is imprisoned in the agony and pain of grief? We made tapes for one another when a friend
suicided. How do you articulate the unbearable weight of unrequited love? You make a compilation tape. The sorrow and the grief and the hurt and the love and the passion and the ecstacy and the fucking pain of it have already been put in words by lyricists more adept than you are, sung by vocalists more able to express the emotions you want the other to understand. I could drink a case of you and still be on my feet. After four years of marriage it’s the first time that you haven’t made the bed. I want to fuck you like an animal. You can free the world you can free my mind, just as long as my baby’s safe from harm tonight. I am puzzled as the newborn child I am troubled as the tide. And compilation tapes were not only love letters. Sometimes they were manifestos, screams of rage against a world going to shit. There was no better feeling than sitting on a tram, the suburban world consuming all around you, while you sat there thinking of how much you wanted to blow the whole fucking place to kingdom come. I got a letter from the government the other day opened it and read it said they were suckers. You think you’re so clever and classless and free but you’re still fucking peasants as far as I could see. A change is going to come. Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me. You can free the world you can free my mind, just as long as my baby’s safe from harm tonight. A denial a denial.
I keep my mix-tapes, tapes that friends and lovers made for me, in a beautiful wooden case whose long elegant tower reminds me of a cathedral. It is a case full of love letters.
Then came the walkman. God, how I loved my walkman. The walkman propelled me into the world, gave an urgency to my step, allowed me to feel euphoria anywhere I was. Yes, it shuts out the world but it fills your head and mind and body, the beats pump through your body, it fills you up with music, it makes you drunk on music, it is an intoxication. I hated that the walkman would fuck up so often, that the headphones were invariably lousy, that it would break so easily. I hated its in-built obsolescence. But I loved it because when I was walking the streets of my city or any city with my walkman on I was high and drunk all the time. With my walkman I was always in the music. The music was the real world and the shapes and colours and shadows that flitted past my eyes were what was not real.
My mp3 player sounds better. It gives me more choices, gives me longer, bigger playlists. But it isn’t my walkman. I’m not even sure why that is. Maybe it is simply that the endless choice, the glut of music available to me on my mp3 player is too much and maybe it is that everything, at this moment, seems too much. Too much choice, too much available to us, too much to filter and to choose from. Maybe it is because a playlist is not a love letter from someone else. Maybe it is just that I am ageing. Maybe it is that I was young and high and intoxicated when I owned a walkman.
I wrote my first novel about a young man who carries his walkman everywhere. The original title for the book was ‘Novel with Soundtrack’. The walkman was the best soundtrack of my life.
I am not a musician. I am a lover of music. I am the audience. When I hear music live—and in this I include those DJs who are masters of their craft and their art, those DJs who can play a deck like they are playing an instrument, who make you raise your hands and voice and body into the heavens—I am immersed in the music as well but the divide between the platform and the audience can never be surmounted. I am conscious of what I am not when I am at a gig. I am not a musician and I wish I were. I wish I could sing. I wish I could play the guitar like Hendrix, that I could bash the drums like a spirit possessed, that I could sing with the healing clarity of Aretha Franklin. I am awed and silenced and tongue-tied when I have experienced a great gig. I am a fan but I don’t want to meet my idols.
I live inside the machine. The turntable, the cassette player, the walkman and now the mp3 player. Inside the machine I can still fantasise that I am both the singer and the song, that I can move a crowd to exhilaration, that I can change the world. That I can move the world. That I have a voice.
Every lover of music has played the desert-island game. What music would you have with you if you were to find yourself stranded alone on a desert island? The game depends on an illogicality. Where on this damn desert island will you find the power to generate the energy you need to use a turntable or a stereo, to recharge your equipment, your batteries? The illogicality is part of the fun of the game. How can we save music we love from becoming boring, mundane? New technologies have opened up access to music that we have forgotten or that we have not been able to access for years. Along with this access comes the danger that we will become sated. For years I have wanted to hunt out a 45-rpm single of an old song that was a hit in the early eighties. It was a song about nuclear annihilation called ‘Screaming Jets’ and it was by someone called Johnny Warren. I used to love the song but I never bought the single. I had it taped off the radio on a tape that has long since dissolved. I never found the single second-hand. Last year a group of us were discussing favourite songs and a mate, Casey, disappeared for half an hour. When he reappeared he had a disc in his hand. He had found the song and had downloaded it for me. Hearing it again was wonderful but
I can’t listen to it too often. Listening to it is not as good as the memory of it that has played in my head for more than twenty years.
On the desert island we’d have to find rituals to sustain the sacredness and love we feel towards our favourite music. On the desert island we may indeed be able to find the rituals and ways of listening that would allow us to find transcendence again and again in one song, from one record. We’d be far from sated; our poverty may indeed make our love for music keener, it may force us to listen closer, hear the song or music anew every time we listened to it.
If I had a turntable on a desert island I would have Kate Bush’s The Dreaming with me. It would remind me of my youth. And it has a great A side and would also remind me of a time when there were A sides. If I had my walkman with me I would bring along the first compilation tape my friend Shane made for me. Just so I could hear the blast of ‘Web in Front’ by Archers of Loaf, a song that to this day makes me want to get up and dance. It also has Ride’s ‘Vapour Trail’, which is a perfect song for staring out to the sea.
No, if I had a turntable I’d have Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks with me. Because every time I play that record I am still discovering things anew in it. And because ‘Sweet Thing’ is a song that makes me wish I believed in God every time I listen to it.
And what if I had my mp3 player with me? I don’t think they are allowed on the desert island. There’s too much choice and it feels like cheating to bring it along. It betrays the game we are playing.
I think I’d have a mix-tape. The tape that Wayne made me when we first fell in love. I’d have a mix-tape, a walkman for my pocket. I’d put the headphones on and I’d just stare out to sea. I wouldn’t be on the island. I’d be in the music. The music would course through my head and my heart, it would be in my blood and in my lungs.
A mix-tape, and a walkman for my pocket.