Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Beatles, The Archive, My Bias

When I was a 6 year old boy I began my love for The Beatles. I can trace it back to an exact date: February 9th, 1964. That was the day my mother sat me down in front of the TV and we watched their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. My mother was of course a genius in this respect, having gone through my sister's days with Elvis Presley years earlier. I always benefited from the things my mother learned from my older brother and sister.

The show sort of looked like this, but I was in a 60's setting when watching it:

(I hope this copy is ok. I only watch this about once a year, because I never want to lose the appeal that it first had to me, by watching it too often. All I should tell you is that each time I watch it now, all I can see are the expressions on their faces. Now that I have come to know them so very well in so many public interviews, I seem to sense what they are feeling here. It is joy, elation, surprise and a hundred other adjectives. It is the purest performance that I have every seen of theirs.)

To this day, this is the picture that enters my head when thinking about a seminal rock group, one guitar must be facing the other way and the drummer upon an elevated stage. I was too young to know that McCartney was left handed or that he played the bass.

This began a lifelong love affair with the group and it's members. I expanded to other areas of music, of course, but this was the spark. My next most important moment happened when my father let me use his reel-to-reel tape recorder to tape the music from the movies A Hard Day's Night and Help! by holding the microphone up to the TV speaker. I learned these songs from top to bottom. I would sit in my parents bedroom, and play them and sing every word until I had it just as they had performed it, while looking out of the window. Thus, I began my collection with bootlegging The Beatles.

One of my father's greatest acts of kindness was to buy me a phonograph and later I had the best stereo system around. Dad had even put together a 4 channel simulation system before the last days. He purchased 45 records from some mail order company. They were the original "swirl" labels. This is where I got my first love of "b-sides" as these were often the songs I did not have on tape.  When I would get enough money, I would ride my bike to "The Record Shop" and purchase entire albums of music. I cannot stress how important each of my possessions became to me.

Flashing forward a number of years, the next big moment was watching the movie "Let It Be" in the Maxwell Airforce Base theatre. I was stunned by the fact that here was footage of the recording process (never mind that later I found out this was a low point in the Beatles' careers). When I purchased the album and listened to it, I was fascinated by the idea of alternate takes. These songs were not the same takes as those in the movie. The vision occurred to me at that point that every take of The Beatles should be saved in an archive. All snippets of their conversations should be saved. They were extremely important to me and I believed to the history of... well, mankind. I was already working at a library. Suddenly each of the records I possessed were transformed into objects inside a museum if only for their appearance and nothing else. My collecting began in earnest.

The next big influence was a friend, named Ike, who had Beatles and related records which I did not even know existed. We became lifelong friends. Ike was a far better collector than I. We made trips to Atlanta to find record shops to buy the odder things. Soon, I was collecting labels, and variations. This went on and on and still happens a bit today, but my enthusiasm has dulled over the years. Eventually time catches up and monetary resources become important, not only to myself, but my family and the future. Vinyl is now priced high because of short runs. Short runs, however, are what make things collectible, and make the investment pay off. However, I doubt I will ever sell what I have, so the collecting becomes meaningless in monetary terms, except for the initial outlay.

As you can see my collecting enthusiasm devolves. I still listen to everything I have enthusiastically collected though. I still enjoy listening to things I have never heard before and of course, new releases. I still believe that collectors, like myself, created a market that helped preserve the tapes in the vaults. So my money was never wasted. It helped create an archive somewhere, helped people see the importance of not tossing out a tape or two that seemed valueless, at the time, without the perspective of  history.

There are two things to discuss in a political way, so stop here now.  My wife's theory that I can make a "salt shaker" political is true, but I prefer to say I think in eclectic ideas. I was always good at mixing my classes at school and applying one class to another. Some teachers thought this was cool, others thought it annoying, but apparently I was not deterred.

Because The Beatles were a significant part of my life, I have applied the analogy to many fields. One, kinda obviously, would be librarianship. But others are not so straightforward. As I said, I began my collecting with bootlegging. Later, of course, I was collecting alternate takes of almost all the tracks. It was just fun to me to listen to a different take because truly I had worn the grooves out of the takes that were released officially. I collected all the solo Beatles albums as well, and their alternate tracks.

Let's forget the copyright laws I have broken, because, well, I'd like to. When they released something officially, I bought it. I am in the top 5% of their clientele, I am fairly certain. These are all justifications for getting things I had to have to survive in this world. :)  However, the act of bootlegging alternate takes and concerts created a market that the music industry later exploited. And remember that they were more likely to hold on to the valuable tapes because their importance was shown in a huge underground market. (Actually, I make a distinction between piracy, or unauthorized reprinting of the official releases, and bootlegging, which involves items that are not released officially. And when they are released officially, well, I am there to buy them. I think I have one pirated cd in my collection. It was a gift from a Japanese ESL student of mine, purchased in Japan, when she traveled home and back. It was not an authorized collection, it was just copied from collections. It's package was so cool I am not even sure it is a pirated copy.  It was a gift of kindness.)

Philosophically, this leads to a little moral relativism on my part. But one of the political things is that I recognized the importance of every last snippet of the recorded legacy of the Beatles. They joked and said things in the studio while having no idea that they would be heard by others. Some things are not so pretty. I'm sure they would rather have had the ability to edit out what made them look bad. Sir Paul McCartney has a bit of a reputation for editing his memories. No one knew at the time that the story of the Beatles would interest countless people and influence countless writers of musical biographies.

The Beatles, and pretty much all celebrities, were and are recorded by photography, recordings, and every manner of intrusion. Politicians undergo this same process. Nothing is beyond releasing to the general public, and nothing is beyond twisting around to gain advantage. We call this often distasteful process "The Freedom of the Press" in America. However, as someone who respects The Beatles regardless of the information I get, I thoroughly enjoy, say, interviews dissecting every moment of time that is remembered. I enjoy all the tapes. There is some process a collector goes through that makes arcane knowledge seem less arcane. I remember a Law and Order episode in which a woman said "In the old days when we didn't have meds and a name for it, we called OCD 'collecting' and quietly ignored it."

I do not want to be heavy handed with the "salt shaker" though, so I will just conclude by saying that I have a different political view of surveillance probably because of my reliance on it for enjoyment... because of my voyeurism?  No... because of my OCD. :)