A Loving Reunion With Shoebox Ghosts
et’s face it: music is one of the most abused commodities in the universe. It gets plucked out of the ether by inspired (or uninspired) songwriters and composers and shackled to the prevailing structure and theory of the time. Often, these same captors then tack their own lyrics and meaning onto the music as well, exploiting its inherent beauty as a vehicle for their point of view. And that’s not even the worst of it! The problem is that we love these creations, and so we degrade them further, into bits of data, into mere electronic shadows of their former selves for mass dissemination and playback on devices which handicap them further. And once noble Music has been bound, gagged, and left for dead inside EP and LP coffins, the true abuse begins. We consume these albums greedily, carelessly, without remorse. Once they have failed to quell our appetite, we discard them, leaving them in glove compartments, shoeboxes, and obscure playlists, fading memories of fading shadows, reduced to waiting for a party-shuffle savior.
Sure, some of the luckier albums gain a word-of-mouth immortality, a semi-permanent parking space at the front of our psyche. They fuel the lifeblood of our passion for music. They fuel the nostalgia, the reasons why we listen, why we love, and why we will never stop searching for the next wave of reasons. And yet, by raising these elite few to demigod status, we ignore vast amounts of music (in our own collections, no less!) and the subtle purposes they have served in our lives. Now, perhaps they aren’t the greatest collections of music ever assembled. They probably don’t deal with any heavy or controversial social issues. And yes, it’s possible that they may or may not include “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins. But let’s at least take a second to recognize that we take them for granted! It’s time to atone for our past indiscretions. I’ll go first.
When I was 15, I rode my bike to work, Walkman in hand, four days a week. For seven months in 1997, I listened to only one album during my commute: Cake’s Fashion Nugget. Like many supposed music-lovers, I listen to new albums voraciously, gorging myself on the material before tossing aside the remnants for consideration at a later time. As I mentioned, this practice is inexcusable, outrageously callous, and sadly unavoidable. My abuse of Fashion Nugget came at the height of this obsessive behavior, but instead of burning myself out on the album and burying it in my collection, I just kept on listening. And listening. And eventually, the album morphed into something else. Something more. It stopped being just an album and became a layer of my daily routine. There was the clock-radio alarm, the bottle of Coke, and “Frank Sinatra” pumping into my ears as I left the driveway. “The Distance” would kick in right when I needed it, at the bottom of the hill on the other side of the park, and “Race Car Ya-Yas” would signal my emergence onto the highway, singing the lyrics full-blast at the oncoming cars. My ride home reflected side B conveniently as well: the joyous Americana of “Stickshifts and Safety Belts” brought a giddy, after-work smile to my face, and “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” and “It’s Coming Down” allowed a measure of relaxation while I coasted down the sloping homeward-bound gradient. The extended trumpet solo on “Italian Leather Sofa” put the fire back in my blood, and “Sad Songs and Waltzes” ushered out the setting sun and triggered the myriad streetlights as my work day drained away, replaced by clean shoes, a hasty dinner, and a few party-planning phone calls.
Yet despite all this, despite all the pick-me-ups and cool-downs Fashion Nugget has provided me, I would never list it as a “classic” or “groundbreaking” or “landmark” album. I’ve never even thought about the album critically, or pondered which songs I like best. The album quietly served a purpose for me years ago, and anytime I play it now, I’m reminded only of those work trips. In a way, that’s a compliment to the music, that it could have inserted itself so completely into my routine for those months and still held up to the continuous replaying. There are not many albums that could hold up under that onslaught. And yet I treated Fashion Nugget like any other bargain-bin cassette; it was background music used to make an everyday chore a little less humdrum. I didn’t have any sublime moments with it, I never blasted the album at home to get some sort of emotional release from the music, and I haven’t really followed Cake’s career since.
And this example is only the tip of the iceberg. We take music for granted every day of our lives, and not just in the obvious places like restaurants, elevators, and offices. Take look at everyone’s iTunes playlists: workout mixes, romantic mixes, road trip mixes, party mixes; the list goes on and on. I’m not saying we should delete these playlists, and I’m certainly not saying that we need to stop everything and listen with undivided attention to the music we encounter every day. I’m just saying that every once in long while, maybe we should take another look at some of those taken-for-granted ghosts in the old shoeboxes at the back of the closet, those utility infielders and dinner party soldiers of music. Give ‘em another listen. And get forgiven.
By: Jeff Shreve
Published on: 2006-06-19
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