I'm a fan of the Go-Betweens. My friend Sean is a fan of the Go-Betweens too, and a few years ago he sent an e-mail to me and three other of his Go-Betweens fan-friends, appended with a rare track by Grant McLennan, one of the band's two singer-songwriters, that he thought we would all like to hear. Then someone wrote something back, cc:ing us all, and then someone else did the same, and pretty soon the five of us were engaged in a round-robin discussion. We chewed over which Go-Betweens long-player was the best and whether or not the production of their last, critically acclaimed album, Oceans Apart, was actually terrible. We each listed our top three favorite Go-Betweens songs. Somebody tried to branch out by bringing up the Jam, but nobody took the bait. The conversation died down, but every six months or so, one of us will find a video of the Go-Betweens appearing on an Australian talk show, or discover a cache of b-sides posted on a music blog, or have a spare ticket to a Robert Forster concert (Forster is the band's other singer-songwriter), and will send out an e-mail to the others, and then the discussion will briefly revive. Though I just looked through my old e-mail, and I was the one who found the video and the cache of b-sides and had the spare ticket, so perhaps it's just me who can't let go.
A few months ago I sent the other folks in the Go-Betweens discussion group a message. I needed help with a music-related problem. For the past couple of years, I've been rapidly acquiring digital music. In the old days, if you liked a musician or a band, you would buy their new album. Perhaps you would also buy a single off of the album, to get the non-album b-sides. Today, though, you can get almost every note that a musician has recorded: not only the albums and b-sides but demos, live versions, compilation tracks, sessions recorded on a radio program or in some blogger's living room. Emmy the Great, a young British musician that I'm lately crazy about, has released one 13-track album, but somehow I've ended up with 40 different songs by her stashed on my iTunes. Meanwhile, my CD collection has stagnated. I used to spend my lunch hours in New York's now extinct record stores, picking up two or three discs every new-release Tuesday. These days I might buy one hard-copy CD a month. In the pre-Internet days, I would read a review of a new band and happily take a risk buying their music sound unheard. Now, with so many places to sample songs on-line, I'll only buy CDs by artists whom I know and love, and whose albums I want to own in concrete form — which I'll then upload onto my computer. Gradually my music listening has become centered on my Mac (as has the rest of my life). The tall Billy bookshelf that stands in the living room of my Brooklyn apartment and houses my CD collection has become a kind of museum. And so I wondered: should I transfer it all onto my computer and mothball the entire collection at my Dad's house, where I already have a couple hundred CDs in the closet of my childhood bedroom? I asked my Go-Betweens-loving friends if they were finding themselves faced with a similar dilemma.
"Get some $$$ for your CDs while you still can," Sean wrote. Brian said that he couldn't give up the physical product — he was too attached to the packaging, "the liner notes, the photos, the smell of the things." Jonathan said that he had at least 3,000 CDs and 1,000 vinyl records, in a storage space, in various rooms of his house, and in his car. "No idea where we go from here," he wrote.
In the end, the CDs in my living room received a stay of execution. Still, this is a problem that perhaps all contemporary music listeners face, particularly those of a certain age. And yet it is also particularly my problem.I have an innate drive to curate just about everything that I own, and I cannot restrain myself from obsessively fussing around with my music collection. That couple hundred CDs ended up in my childhood closet because of the great pleasure I get in paring down my Brooklyn collection, in an attempt to achieve a perfect library of love, comprised only of discs that still make my heart leap up. And that includes the collected works of the Go-Betweens.
Meanwhile, the once embraced, fondly remembered, but no longer heavily rotated — Velocity Girl and American Music Club and Electronic — has been relegated to the closet. I've exiled the historically important and critically acclaimed but not personally moving (to me): Bjork, Nirvana, Beat Happening. I separate the chaff from a beloved artist's body of work: I heart Blondie, but The Hunter really does suck, and it sits upstate, punishingly isolated from Parallel Lines and Eat to the Beat and its other, more winning siblings. Even poor packaging of fine music is enough for me to send discs packing. I eagerly bought New Moon, a posthumous two-disc set of Elliott Smith's unreleased recordings, and the music is unfailingly lovely but the thing is an eyesore. Poor typography, grainy photographs, and huge blocky letters on the spine that made it the most visible object on my CD shelves — I left the beautiful music on my iTunes, and banished the case.
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Peter Terzian has written for the New York Times, Slate, the Believer, Print, The National, Columbia Journalism Review, Bookforum, and the Los Angeles Times Book Review. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Books mentioned in this post
Peter Terzian is the author of Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums That Changed Their Lives