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When the Tape Recorder Turns

Why do we ask each other questions?

"To get answers," is too vague a response. There is no hint, in that answer, of motivation. And there is always a motivation, most often self-serving. So why is it that people, like myself, choose to sit down with a perfect stranger, turn on a tape recorder and ask often meandering, sometimes halting, almost always unnecessary questions?

There is a belief, amongst journalists, that we are just curious creatures in search of the truth that will set society freewe are just curious creatures in search of the truth that will set society free. Maybe. Or maybe we have just managed to turn a selfish tick into a payday, and, in defense of that indefensible act, we claim a higher purpose.

"Where is my baby?" That is a question that needs an answer. "What music were you listening to when you decide to start this record label?" That is a question that does not. That question could go unanswered, and the world would continue to spin, almost completely unchanged. So why ask it?

Joan Didion famously wrote, in the first line of her essay collection The White Album, that "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." If that is true — and given the number of times it turns up in places like this, people must think so — then maybe we ask others to tell their stories because we want them to live. This is not altruism. We are bored and need living friends. There is always a self-serving motivation.

Recently, this very specific question of inquisitorial motivation has become paramount for me. Since a press release was issued announcing the impending publication of my book, Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music, I have been on the other end of the questions, the tape recorder pointed in the other direction, the ticking digital timekeeper I am accustomed to tracking during a conversation, inverted, rendered unreadable.

I recently had the great fortune of being interviewed by Heavier Than Heaven author Charles R. Cross about my book. Cross, like me, tends to get out of the way of his subject. His approach, and I told him this, was a great inspiration to me. After taking the compliment he informed me that everything would now change, that no matter how I wrote my story that people would now want to know what I thought about my subject. There was no way to avoid it, he told me.

Still, I had tried. Once, I spent the majority of an interview answering questions about my process and my thoughts with anecdotes I was told while researching my book. I felt like a fraud. To use a Seinfeld reference, I felt rather like J. Peterman telling the stories of Cosmo Kramer.I felt like a fraud. To use a Seinfeld reference, I felt rather like J. Peterman telling the stories of Cosmo Kramer. "The very same pants I was on my way to return," I might as well have been saying.

I have since stuck to my own story, which is difficult. When I am left with my own stories, I feel they are somehow not enough. I know, in my head, that the journalist is not there to be entertained by me, but when he or she just stares at me, the same way I stare at people I am interviewing, I feel the need to perform. Fabrication is out of the question, so I wonder if I should maybe do a little dance, or perhaps display jazz hands to punctuate a thought.

I don't. I don't have time to. I'm too busy trying to find the answers. And they don't always come. My mind has gone blank at times as I dig deep for the words. Sometimes I fail, and I babble instead. I laugh and I look at my inquisitor. What, I wonder, do you want from me?

÷ ÷ ÷

Mark Baumgarten is a Seattle-based music writer. He serves as Editor at Large for City Arts magazine, and his work has been featured in Willamette Week, the Village Voice, Seattle Weekly, and Lost Cause magazine.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Love Rock Revolution: K Records and...
    Used Trade Paper $8.50
  2. The White Album (FSG Classics) Used Trade Paper $8.00
  3. Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of...
    Used Trade Paper $7.95

Mark Baumgarten is the author of Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music

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