by Chris Estey
For most of those we know, life has become about negotiating the grid. I am between a landline with a broken ringer and an iPhone. I handled PR for Betty Davis, who like Faust initiated pure desire as progress, in a long-ago new age of feminist-fueled riff-rock, on album-as-manifesto long players crafted around and for sexual mechanics -- who did her interviews for me on a wonky line whilst her soaps played in the background. I just paid for musical downloads for the first time three days ago, though I had been putting PR-sent music into my iPod for a while. Yes, I splurged on deep cuts (labyrinthine James Blood Ulmer jams I long ago sold off to get out of town once; a few more hip-hop versions on “Like A Rolling Stone”; a Jane Siberry CD mix, among others) I would have kept on crate-digging for as years go by.
But those crates of aren’t going anywhere. In Travis Elborough’s The Vinyl Countdown: The Album from LP to iPod and Back Again (Soft Skull Press) we flip through the bins of history, on tables for both collectors and bargain hunters, its near-450 pages stacked with a gorgeous narrative of music played on Victrolas and streamed. And not just the hits either, but weird collections of imitation Top 40, alternative chartbusters, eclectic movements in semi-popular rock cults, and how strangely the release of this music never follows a plainly linear path. As in, vinyl virtually disappeared just before Chinese Democracy was done, but the buyers at Tower who eulogized its absence have vanished from music sales with their CD racks now, just as people are buying new LPs as the variant of choice.
Elborough is a regular freelancer to The Guardian (London), one of the best places to read about culturally important music (they also covered Betty Davis for me -- thanks!). He was a bookseller for many years, and there is an elegant and in-depth bibliographical element to The Vinyl Countdown. I avoided the book for a few weeks from its potentially thin subject matter but finally asked for a review copy when I saw other positive reviews -- I thought its tale of the tape, the 45, the eight-track, et al, were technical ones I’d read about so many times before. But the author has a marvelous wit and a real sense of history, that goes wide as well as listing long -- herein are expert discussions of sleeve designs we love, fannish descriptions of head shops where one bought the best space rock, the stories between pivotal release and perennial mistakes everyone in the industry takes. Yes, it loves the album as a statement in itself, so the detailed reporting on recent technical developments is infused with both fear and joy. The actual bias is inevitably towards great music and whatever change meets it to bring it to us. Most of all, this story is a lot of fun to hear from Elborough’s point of view.
That Summertime Sound is a story within a story, a novel about the kinds of people who own little record stores, start adored bands, buy scads of vinyl and make mix tapes till dawn (and not just for lovers), and sometimes end up changing the world. Matthew Specktor’s first full-length book of fiction has characters you know and have been, especially if you grew up in the era of 80s independent rock emerging on the political margins of college social life and in the international journey of activists and artists.
That sounds a bit lofty, so let me put this another way (okay?): Specktor has a good-taste encyclopediac knowledge of “college rock music” and even the cultish forms those who make it and play it also acquire (R&B classics, soul gems, metal gods of our youth), and uses the novel format as a way to entwine it with winding tales he must have lived through and saw unfold. The 19-year-old protagonist-narrator is a typically wandering acolyte to alternative culture, on a road trip with three pals both more sophisticated and desperate than he to Columbus, Ohio -- all of whom worship the Lords of Oblivion, a group that seethes with their societal dissociation.
Like young Werther, it is a story told long before it was written and always will be as long as 19 is an age for humans in capitalist culture, but the bits and pieces that make That Summertime Sound up, involving sexy older girls with lopsided haircuts and trunks of dusty grooves, give it the strange recognition of hearing your new favorite song. The four main characters’ backpacks are full of yellow-highlighted philosophy tomes, the 1986 equivalent of Manic Panic (what did we use then? Kool-Aid for my comrades), and they’re “digging in the crates for that one true thing” (got that off the dust jacket -- fits nice here, doesn’t it?).
Specktor just received his MFA and currently works as a screen-writer. That Summer Sound has some cliches that could have been excised before publication. But if it finds its audience this will be as important to more well-read indie music fans than SLA Punk was to rural punks. It could be adapted deliciously for film. Right now, it’s an inspiring, entertaining read that will make one pine for an era (Reagan’s) many of us thought would bury us, not liberate us. And with the talent on display here I doubt this will be Specktor’s “finest worksong.”