Weird at My School: Stacks of Wax

by DJ El Toro

I love libraries. Public libraries, university libraries, institutional libraries. Any and all varieties. Why? Because libraries are frozen in time. Sure, your precious Internet is hailed as an invaluable resource. But when you need a comprehensive, illustrated how-to tome on macramé? Fat lot of good the web does you then. Or a letter to the editor, published in The New York Times prior 1980? Ditto. We like to pretend the Internet is limitless, just because the linkage goes on for ever, but its resources are shockingly scant. Meanwhile, there is a world of information and ephemera that hasn’t been converted into binary yet, just lurking in libraries. And I love browsing them.

The KEXP music library is no exception. Sometimes, picking music for my show is like making a wish… and having it come true. “I want to play something off Moving by The Raincoats” — a CD that fetches fifty bucks or more, if you can find it — and viola, there it is, right under “R.” The vinyl stacks are even better. Neko Case split-singles I’d only ever heard spoken of in hushed tones by fellow enthusiasts. A 1983 Epic Records compilation of tracks by rockabilly tots the Collins Kids so cheaply assembled it looks like it should pop up in dollar bins everywhere — but trust me, it won’t. And then there are these two precious gems:

These are Tower of Meaning and Instrumentals, two impossibly out-of-print albums of instrumental works for larger ensembles, composed by my hero, the late Arthur Russell. They are so hard-to-find, I would never even have thought to look for them, even at KEXP, had I not been tipped off to their whereabouts (under Jazz… um, okay) by my esteemed colleague Larry Rose.

This may not seem amazing to some readers. Nowadays, both of these albums are easily available on a single CD, the fine Audika Records comp First Thought Best Thought. In fact, info about Arthur is now everywhere. He is the subject of a new documentary, Wild Combination, scheduled to screen in Seattle later this year. And Tim Lawrence, author of Love Saves The Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979, is putting the finishing touches on a thoroughly researched Russell biography. Heck, some of the rarely-heard pieces from these records were even performed live in New York earlier this summer.

But ten years ago, this was not the case. I would have done unspeakable things to own these records. So when I first touched these copies, the devil on my shoulder whispered: “Steal them.” Shameful, I know. Luckily, there is a very persuasive note, authored by DJ Michelle Myers, posted prominently in our library about how that sort of underhanded practice — even “borrowing” CDs — hurts everyone. Plus, I’d have my conscience to contend with. I still feel rotten about the only record I ever swiped from a library, a Caedmon Records anthology of Sylvia Plath Reading Her Own Poetry. To this day, I am wracked with guilt that my selfishness prevented some other tortured teen in my tiny hometown from checking it out. And if you think normal guilt is bad, factor in Sylvia Plath and see how wretched you really feel.

So those Arthur Russell records stay right where they belong: In the KEXP library. (Although I may petition to get them moved out of Jazz.) Tower of Meaning and Instrumentals, and that Neko Case/Whiskeytown split-single and all the others are safe — because I want the rest of the KEXP community, especially our listeners, to be able to enjoy and share this music. Oh sure, if I secreted a few of these records away, I could try and make amends by opening up my home to the public, setting up some listening stations. But my house is small and poorly lit, and I keep weird hours. And I definitely don’t have enough comfortable places to sit or communal tables. Which is another great thing about libraries: They make awesome meeting places. But that’s a rant for another day…

DJ El Toro is the host of the overnight show In Between Sleep & Reason, Wednesday mornings from 1 AM to 6 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org. His column, Weird At My School, appears every Monday on the KEXP Blog.

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