So I just have to say this: I’m in love with Mary Chapin Carpenter circa 1995. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with current vintage Mary Chapin Carpenter, I’m sure she’s just as cute with 20 years of life and wrinkles added to her lovely, slightly lopsided face; but right now I’m watching the DVD of her 1995 special “Live at Wolf Trap” and wishing that I was the person sitting in the car with her on a hot July that she wishes would say, “Shut Up and Kiss Me.”
Now back in 1995, MCC was on my radar and I remember seeing this very special on TV and being struck by a particular moment. It was when she was singing a song – I think it was “I Am a Town” – the wind from the outdoor venue is blowing her hair and she looks out at the crowd and smiles this big, contended smile. You can see that – in that moment at least – she’s so happy to be there doing what she’s doing. Scrolling through her songs on Spotify reminded me of that moment and made me want to find the concert DVD on Netflix.
Back in 1995 there was no Netflix, the internet consisted of America Online and waiting for that screechy sound that told you that your phone line was connecting to what we then thought of as the World Wide Web. And there was certainly no Spotify or Pandora, not even Napster I don’t think. We bought CDs, and before that we bought “records.” I’m trying to remember the last CD I bought. I’ve actually been racking by brain lately trying to remember when and what it would have been. It would help if I had access to my CD collection, but like most of my worldly goods it is in a box sitting in one of a few garages at places where I used to live, my sister’s, my ex-wife’s, my ex-girlfriend’s.
There was a time when you heard a song on the radio, or maybe at a friend’s house. Or a fellow fan said, “Hey have you heard the new record from [fill in the blank]? And you went to the Wherehouse, or Sam Goody, maybe Target. Tower Records was my favorite. The John Cusack movie High Fidelity captures the experience perfectly. You walk into a record store, overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of whatever hip music they were playing far too loudly, you look for that record. The one you heard about. Maybe it’s a favorite for years, like U2 was for me, or a new fave rave, like Pixies who I heard in 1989 and they changed my musical life.
Maybe you didn’t go in there with a particular record in mind. You were browsing, you were killing time. Maybe you checked out the bargain bin in hopes that serendipity would guide you to something sweet and wonderful. All that talent, all those hopes and dreams, all those three chord anthems contained in one wonderful place. There was no way to take it all in. No way to know it all. But there always seemed to be at least one employee in every record store who had taken it all in, chewed it, and would spit it back out in the form of know-it-all attitude. Played by Jack Black in the movie, he sniffed at your popular, bourgeois purchase as he rang you up and took your money. I remember one time overhearing a conversation between record store employees where Bruce Springsteen’s name came up. One of them grunted and said “Dinosaur.”
When you got it home, you ripped open the plastic. If it was a record, an LP, you slid it out of the sleeve, put your middle finger carefully in the hole so as not to get your finger oil on the grooves. You put it on Side 1 while you looked at the art work, the photographs, read the liner notes or the lyrics. Side 1 and Side 2 were separate statements. Sometimes each side had a different feel or theme. The songs on Side 1 never saw the songs on Side 2. Maybe they would meet in a few years in a Greatest Hits reissue. “Oh you were on Tapestry too?” Every record has one side that’s better than the other. Some records you only listened to one side to be honest. And not everything on that record that you owned was a gem. Even in the best records there was “filler.” Between “Gimme Shelter” and “Let It Bleed” you had to sit through “Country Honk.” But the best albums had a flow to them. The way “Waitin’ for the Bus” slides right into “Jesus Just Left Chicago” or “We Will Rock You” is inseparable from “We Are the Champions.”
The needle dragged across the grooves, with every playing the music is augmented by cracks and pops. Creation and destruction existing in the same spiral. The CD removed those cracks and pops, and with the touch of a button you could skip past a filler song, but their shiny state of the art compactness removed a little of the art. The art of the LP cover didn’t translate into the 11.75 square centimeters of the jewel case. Something was lost, but you still had a sense of ownership. If you really loved that artist, you had to own everything. The US issues, imports, singles with B-sides, everything. You were part of it. If you ever met Bono or Sting at a pub you could say, “Hey, I’m a big fan. I have everything you’ve ever made.” And they might say “Thank you.” You were a part of their success. You were in a conspiracy with them.
Now that sense of ownership is gone. Just because I heard a Black Keys song and added it and some others to my Spotify playlist, what does that mean? It cost me nothing (I have the free plan. I listen to a commercial every fourth song.) and I can delete the song if I ever get tired of it. Even if I went to Target or Amazon and actually bought a CD, the only place I could play it would be the same laptop that I’m writing this on. I haven’t had a CD player since I had to get rid of many of my worldly possessions when I was evicted from my apartment in 2008.
I keep my Spotify playlist on shuffle, the loyal 0s and 1s behind the curtain stir my list up and fire songs at me in my beloved randomness. It’s like my ultimate radio station, Patsy Cline exists on the same abstract plane as Frank Black, from ABBA to ZZ Top, from Allison Krause to Alice in Chains.
It’s all very groovy, but there are no surprises, no serendipity. And there are massive holes in Spotify’s selections. The Beatles don’t exist. Only half of Peter Gabriel exists. It is not a perfect world.
Record stores actually do still exist. And from time to time I consider looking one up and wandering in…all 50something unhipness in my T-shirt and Levis. I’ll just look through their offerings, soaking up the vibe, maybe if I find a really obnoxious guy behind the counter I’ll ask him where The Black Eyed Peas records are…and just wait for his disdain to reach critical mass.
Or maybe I’ll buy something for Boodles. After all this it has occurred to me that the last CD I bought probably would have been for her. I think it was one that we got for her when she was little, it was one of the Jazz Baby records. I was probably trying to mold her little mind and guide her toward jazz and away from whatever claptrap that the kids are listening to. It didn’t really work. She likes One Direction and used to like Miley Cyrus until she became “inappropriate.” I count my blessings though. We dodged the whole Justin Bieber bullet.
So maybe I’ll find something that she and I both might like. We can rip open the plastic, put the disc in her Disney Princess CD player and fall in love with music old or new. I wonder if she might like Mary Chapin Carpenter.