domingo, 22 de mayo de 2011

Excerpt from Notebook 3: "Record Store"

Let us go down a trip to memory lane, specifically to the summer of 1997, when A. was finally kicked out of school. His dad has always been negligent, as you know, so every day was partytimes in his house, as you also know. Truly this was a glorious time. This was the summer of Sister Zero, of the Convent, of the Arcade Incident. This was the summer when K. got caught and suspended for the mess she made in the boiler room. This was the summer when B. tried to stop smoking like twelve times and failed consistently.

Coincidentally, this was also the summer when B. got very dark in terms of music tastes and we all had to put up with it. Remember all that shit he played in the car when we all drove down to the coast? I mostly remember Swans, he was huge on Swans. This is how we started going to The Guy's apartment, you know he runs a little record store out of that place. Guy is the textbook definition of an audiophile, reminds me of the guy from Ghost World (the movie).

B. was looking back then for a vinyl of Swans' live album, the title had "Castration" in it, I don't remember too well. I was never into things like that, I don't find music of that type cathartic, even if I have professed my love for Suicide (the band, not the act) several times with great enthusiasm.

Anyway, the first time we went there it was fairly innocuous. It was just me and B., one Friday after school. I think we also asked K. to come with us because we wanted her to fucking explain what she had been doing in the boiler room, but back then she had holed herself up in her home, poring over her books, you know how she is, she needs her space, she's weirder than all of us put together, which is saying a lot.

A lot.

Anyway, the guy's apartment was tiny, and it was made to seem tinier by the fact that it was lined with shelves which were themselves lined with records, and other than that there were piles of cassettes, mostly bootlegs and mixtapes, and there were also at least five different record players and musical paraphernalia that I'm not enough of an expert to comment confidently on. And there was practically no furniture. And for some reason there were porcelain bowls strewn about. Guy was big on cereal I guess.

He opened the door and he was stubby and unkempt and wearing a Captain Beefheart t-shirt. He didn't have much in the way of social graces and quietly invited us in. He offered us coffee, I said no, B. said yes, you know how he is, he never refuses a cup of coffee, even if it's laced with hemlock.

B. and the guy started talking about music and I felt like I should be a part of the conversation as well. They started off on points that we all had in common: Joy Division! Monster Magnet! We got into an argument over whether NYC Ghosts & Flowers was really, really bad or just bad. Then I started to zone out when the two of them started talking about bands and movements that I didn't even know existed. I remember the names Syzygy, Baroque Hell and Spiritual Masters of Shangri-La. I zoned out. I remember that at some point they mentioned a record called "Baby Sex" (the name stuck to me for obvious reasons), which I'm pretty sure is by the Residents.


I ended up falling asleep in the couch where I had settled. Afternoon sunlight, the time when all the kids are coming home and you're being lazy, listening to crackly AM radio and procrastinating over homework, that kind of stuff gets me woozy. I woke up abruptly when one of the guy's ferrets jumped onto my lap. Did I mention the guy had a bunch of pet ferrets? They all had names like Patsy Cline and Howlin' Wolf. It was cute.

I noticed that B. and the guy had moved to the kitchen, which was tiny and adjacent to the living room, and were talking in hushed tones about something.

At this point I realized that it was already dark outside, I glanced at my watch and it was like half past seven. So I called out to them and their conversation stopped abruptly. The guy almost dropped the beer he was holding. They both stared at me as if they had heard a disembodied voice or one of the ferrets talk. I guess they had forgotten I was there. B. could really get into music when he wanted to, to say nothing of the other guy.

So we said our goodbyes (I hurried the whole thing along) and B. left with the record he wanted, I remember it now, it's called "Public Castration is a Good Idea". Quaint title. He put it in the backseat and we drove back, he dropped me off at my place. He was playing something really soft and tender on the way back, I think it was Joni Mitchell, she's a favorite of mine. First time I heard something like that playing in his car all summer.

On the way back I asked him what had he been talking about with the guy all that time, all in all we had been there like three hours, and he said nothing, just music and trivial shit, he's an interesting guy, but a little weird. And I agreed and didn't pursue things further. He dropped me off and I went to sleep because for some reason I was unholy tired, despite having done nothing but sleep for the last few hours.

The next day B. didn't show up at the regular place, which was weird because it was a Saturday. I called his cellphone but it apparently had no batteries. I called his phone number and his mom answered, she said that B. was in his room, I could hear little [My Name] crying in the background, back then he was just a baby.
Apparently B. had been "studying". Ha.

That day I was with A. and T. and we both called bullshit on that, because it's B., he doesn't study for tests, he just wings it. We decided we would march over to his house and see what was up.

His mom opened the door for us, she looked a bit distressed, but then again B.'s mom has never been a big fan of B.'s friends. She is nice and polite though, and she offers us cookies, and that's good enough for us. B.'s sister was playing Mario or something in the living room and the door to B.'s room was closed. We knocked and knocked and he finally opened.

B. looked like he hadn't slept, there was an unlit cigarette dangling from the corner of his lips, he had that hilarious spotty attempt-at-a-beard he got when he forgot to shave, and bags under his eyes. He looked at us as if it made no difference who we were and let us in.

This is when I realized that B.'s record player was spinning the new Swans record, but it wasn't making a sound. B. had a nice used record player he got at a really good price, it worked really well for what it was. A. tried to play around with it and B. told him to be careful. T. just grabbed a magazine and sat down to read, she was out of it that day, I think she was still mad at B. for what he did to J.

So we just sat there in silence for a minute or so, A. and I were mostly waiting for B. to offer up an explanation, T. was in her own world. B. raised up his head, he was practically falling asleep in his chair, he was about to talk when we heard this UNEARTHLY SCREECH FROM HELL coming from the record. The speakers sprang to life and out came this hellish sonic torture that blasted the room at full volume for all of four seconds, and then it stopped and everything was silent again. B.'s mom stormed into the room, incredibly angry, wanting to know what that was. B. sheepishly apologized, said it was a malfunction of the system, wouldn't happen again. She gave us all a disapproving look and shut the door. Really, we don't LOOK weird, so parents usually like us, but when you spend as much time around us as B.'s mom did, you learn to roll your eyes at everything we do. I guess.

B. started to spill the beans at this point, but not before hooking a pair of headphones to the record player and disconnecting the speakers to spare us of any further torture. He said that he had talked to the guy who sold him the record and he had told him that this was some sort of special first-issue version. Apparently it was recorded live at a different venue than the one on the official version or something, it was a pretty nerdy distinction but apparently B. was so excited about the notion that he played it the second he got home last night.

The problem was that the record had been playing all night and it doesn't make a sound except for periodic outbursts every hour or so, apparently like the one we had just witnessed. At this point I felt a horrible headache coming on.

Well, fuck that, I said. It's probably scratched beyond recognition, or the guy conned you. Take it out and we'll go bitch at him right now and get your money back, I said.

But B. shook his head. He explained further. Apparently he had been listening to the record all night on headphones so as to not disturb his family, and the record is not damaged at all, it's just... different. He nervously lifted the headphones up and offered them to me. I gave him a blank stare. Then I put them on.

First I only heard the usual vinyl crackle and pop. But then I realized that there WAS music playing, but it was playing incredibly softly, like it had been recorded from miles away. From what I understood this was Swans alright. I listened for about thirty seconds, there were other sounds, like I think I could hear something like a wood chipper in the background, but B. took the headphones back and put them on the floor.

He explained to me that the outbursts, the extremely high-volume screams coming from the record, were unpredictable, and that's why he couldn't listen to it continuously. You had to crank the volume all the way up to hear the music at all, and if one of those high-volume sonic blasts came at you through headphones at full volume, that was it. You'd go fucking deaf or damage your eardrums beyond repair.

Listening to the record for any long stretch of time involved putting yourself at risk of that.
A and myself listened to the story with moderate interest; T. was still out of it and would continue to be out of it for the rest of the day. In fact it won't even make a difference to the story if I stop mentioning her. You know her. She's stubborn, when she's mad at someone she doesn't acknowledge their existence. She and B. wouldn't really make up until months later.

B. looked at our reactions as if he expected them, but then he looked at us and leaned closer, as if to tell us the punch line.

"The thing is", he started, I remember this word-by-word, "That this isn't a Swans record. This is a list of places being recited repeatedly."

I didn't really react. So aside from being a dangerous piece of shit, it wasn't even a Swans record. It was some random bootleg probably by some random band that never got anywhere. I said fuck it and put the headphones on again. I strained my hearing to make out the lyrics. The singer, who was definitely not Michael Gira or whatever his name is, was indeed screaming out locations of places. Places in our city.

Record stores.

When I confirmed this—the street names, the locations—everyone looked at me weird. Suddenly this became interesting. This had either been recorded by a native of our city or it was simply inexplicable. But my hearing isn't so great. I couldn't make out most of what was being recited. Back then we were bored and there was nothing else interesting going on. K. was still cooped up in her house and with T. and B. not addressing each other directly the whole group was tense. So we decided we were gonna find out what that guy was saying. So we decided to call up the guy with the best ears, and that would be N.

Remember back then? We weren't really friends with N. We had conversations every once in a while but I guess he was a bit too cool for us something. He wouldn't be a part of the group until a year later or so. It was kind of funny how much he got into the whole thing, and how fast.

So the next day we called up N., asked him to hang out and get a couple drinks, he agreed. When we were in the store where we always did our requisite non-I.D. drinking, we casually and briefly summarized the story for N. He was fascinated by the whole thing, but, as he told me later, he didn't really believe us at the time. He was mostly humoring us because, remember, they had sort of kicked him out of the cool group at school for being gay, so he kind of turned to us for a new group of friends. It's true, he told me all this!

Anyway, we went back to B.'s house. The record was still playing. Now we warned N. about the thing with the sudden blasts of super-loud music. He seemed unimpressed by our somber warning. Again, because at the time he didn't believe us. He put the headphones on, we gave him paper and a pencil. The rest, of course, is well-recorded history.

That episode with the record is how N.'s List of In-the-Know Record Stores in Our City was composed. Of course, back then we only had the names and locations. N. wrote them all down on the paper, scribbled them, really, and then when the thing started looping he put them down, with a half-bewildered and half-amused look, he said "that's all".

And I am not shitting you when I say that not more than one second passed after "that's all" that the record emitted the must brutalized, awful scream, it was like a wave of metal crashing into a sea of metal, with tortured people screaming over it, it was like a tower or Church organs stacked on top of each other, it fucking BLEW out B.'s headphones. We all stood there in shocked silence. N. was slack-jawed, it's a funny image now but back then I felt bad for him, because we had used him and put him in danger (he's forgiven us for it now). We just stood there in silence with the list in hand.

And well, the record never stopped making that horrible sound as far as I could tell, except B.'s headphones were shot. He lifted the cartridge and took out the record, it was scratched all over, A. grabbed it and broke it in two in a moment of righteous fury.

Of course that list would lead to tons of other stuff—the expeditions, the midnight chases, the run-in with the doctor—, as we discovered which stores were Safe and Not Safe and Never Safe. But that came later. Right after this happened we—B., N., T., A. and myself—drove right the fuck back to this audiophile fuck's apartment, wanting a series of explanations.

During the drive there we got N. up to speed on the whole thing—that this is where we had bought the record, that B. originally thought it was a Swans live record, that we tended to get into Weird Shit (the official term wouldn't appear until later) like this unnervingly often. He was still amused, but I think he was also a little scared.

By the time we got to The Guy's place it was nighttime. We stormed up the steps to the third floor where the guy's apartment was. This was a somewhat abandoned building by the way, in a somewhat shitty part of town, and the whole scene was a little perturbing. But anyway A., who always takes the lead when shit is expected to go down, knocked on the door impetuously, and nobody answered. He kept knocking for like a whole minute. T. started complaining that it was cold and in this part of town they might try to jack the car and we should go. Then suddenly the door budged, and it opened, abruptly and unexpectedly. And we entered the apartment.

There was only one light on, a naked light bulb hanging from the center of the living room ceiling, barely illuminating anything, and out of the corner of my eye I saw the ferrets scurrying about in the darkness. But the guy, the bastard, was nowhere to be found. But all his stuff was still there. This is when T. noticed that something that been spray painted on the far wall, in big, fat letters.



These three lines had been sprayed onto the far wall; we had to combine the illuminating power of all our cellphones to read it. This is when it hit us, and we realized that the guy was gone for good. For some reason we were certain of it. Mostly everyone was just weirded out, but B. looked knowing. And then he spilled the rest of the story.

Apparently The Guy was a part of a sort of underground circle of really obsessive record collectors in the city. Apparently that day when B. and I originally went to the apartment B. had sort of taken an "entrance exam" with the guy, where he asked him about music and if he answered enough obscure shit correctly he gained entrance into this circle, which presumably implied access to lots of rarities and oldies. But B. also mentioned that the guy was moving soon and he'd let him know about his new address.

The guy has never gotten into contact with B., by the way, nor has he ever come back to his apartment. We still use it sometimes. We go there, surprised that nobody else has robbed it clean by now, we browse the shelves, we find a record we like, and we pay the exact amount in cash, on the kitchen sink. We feel a little silly because there's a rather big pile of money building up there—it's not like the money disappears overnight or anything cheesy—but we feel like we should pay. T. wants to take one of the ferrets home, but that doesn't feel right to us either. I guess they're like cats, they find their own food wherever.

And to this day, this is the only store we consider Safe.

L.B.'s Considerations

This one mostly speaks for itself. It largely introduces N., who I never knew, as far as I can recall.

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