Saturday, April 08, 2006

Shipping Lies About Unusual Music

A month or so ago, I read an article about the composer Edgard Varese. I'd known about him for most of my life, but I'm not sure I'd ever heard any of his music. I thought I had an old LP of his hiding somewhere in my collection, but when I looked, I couldn't find anything.

I probably first heard of Varese in the late '60s -- about the time I bought my first Frank Zappa record. Zappa always admired Varese, and he cited him as a major influence on his own compositional style. There are composers who can create music so revolutionary that it changes the way you think about music. For Zappa, Varese was such a composer. For me, Zappa was such a composer.

I remember the first time I heard We're Only In It For The Money. It pretty much made me lose all interest in listening to everything else. The Beatles and the Stones suddenly seemed so dated, like they were part of an older world.

Zappa wasn't the only musician who had such an impact on me. Around the same time, late at night on the radio, someone was playing Steve Reich's now-famous piece Come Out, and I happened to record it on a portable mono cassette recorder. I played it over and over again, and it made me think about music in completely new terms. It wasn't famous back then, and if the DJ announced who the composer was, I didn't hear it, so for close to a decade I thought about that piece without even knowing who wrote it.

And then, sometime in the late '70s, I first heard Charles Amirkhanian's iconic text-sound composition Just. In case you're not that familiar with Charles Amirkhanian, I can describe Just in four simple words: rainbow, chug, bandit, bomb. I remember the first time I heard it, and it just blew me away. That's the only way to describe it. I'd never heard anything like it before, and I couldn't believe that I'd lived for almost twenty-five years without knowing that such music even existed.

That's probably when I began seeking out unusual and sometimes unclassifiable music. Some of it was almost unlistenable as well. It could be noisy and discordant, and it was rarely as easy on the ears as a Crosby, Stills, and Nash song, for example, but there was still some reward in hearing it. It's like going to a restaurant and ordering something mild versus ordering something so spicy you can barely stand to eat it. Sure, your dining experience might be more pleasant with the mild food, but it's more challenging with the hot food.

Maybe you don't think eating should be a challenge. Maybe you think it should be pleasant. Well, I'm not necessarily going to disagree with you there, but I still think music (or any kind of art, for that matter) should challenge you, or at least it should challenge your assumptions about art. Art isn't supposed to be all about catchy tunes and pretty pictures. It's supposed to provoke you.

Anyway, as a result of all the years I spent in record stores, I have a record collection of stuff most people have never heard of. I don't know how many LPs I have, but it's probably in the 400 to 500 range. Not every record is strange or avant-garde -- some of them are pretty normal -- but I'm absolutely positive that a lot of them will never be released on CD. So I keep the LPs around. I hardly ever listen to them, but I'm not about to get rid of them. And because I have so many LPs, I also have a turntable, which I will also never get rid of, unless I decide to buy a newer one.

It would be nice if all my LPs were released on CD, and a lot of them have been -- all the Zappa stuff is on CD, and all the Reich stuff as well. A few years ago, the anthology that contains Amirkhanian's Just was even put on CD. But a lot of music never will be. Not that I'd replace every LP in my collection even if I could -- there's some stuff I was never that excited about in the first place and would probably never play more than once if I had the CD.

And there are other LPs that have been released on CD, but they only had maybe one or two good songs on them, so it's hardly worth buying the CD. Lou Reed's Take No Prisoners is a perfect example. It's a double record set of a live performance, and on the two records, the only song worth playing more than once is his comically acerbic version of Walk on the Wild Side.

And then there are records like Zoom, by Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band. Not only will this never appear on CD -- most people would probably tell you it shouldn't have even been released as an LP. That's what I infer, at least, based on the fact that I once bought a used copy for fifty cents. It was in perfect condition, so I assume the original owner must have played it once and then gotten rid of it. I used to buy a lot of used records, and they were usually about two or three dollars, so by pricing it at half a dollar, it's pretty clear what the record store owner must have thought of it. As a matter of fact, when I paid for it, the guy at the cash register looked inside the record cover just to make sure I hadn't stuck a better record inside it. It would never have occurred to me to do something like that, but I understood his concern. As it turns out, I played the record in its entirety only once. But the two songs I bought it for -- Dare to be Fat and World War III -- I have played over and over again. Those are two great songs, but they aren't enough of a reason to buy the CD, even if it were available.

But there's other music that really should be on CD and probably never will be.

For example, consider the strange case of Bo Anders Persson's Proteinimperialism. When this was released, it was on side two of an LP. On side one was Folke Rabe's composition Was??. Of the two, I always liked Proteinimperialism more -- it was the reason I bought the LP in the first place. (This was another one of those offbeat pieces that you could occasionally hear on the radio. Unfortunately, those days seem to be long gone.)

Anyway, when Wergo (the label that originally released the LP) decided to release the CD, here's what they did: Rather than put Was?? and Proteinimperialism on the CD, they decided to use two versions of Was?? instead -- the original version that appeared on the LP, and the same version played at half-speed. How's that for bizarre? It also seems like a pretty big slap in the face of Bo Anders Persson. But regardless of whatever motivated that strange decision, the result is that if I want to hear Proteinimperialism, I have to listen to the LP, complete with its occasional faint clicks and pops.

But that's not what I really wanted to write about this week. I wanted to say that I decided to buy the complete works of Edgard Varese on CD. I ordered it from Amazon. And I don't know about you, but when I buy one thing online, I usually end up buying a lot of other things as well. So I ended up getting six CDs, three books, and a DVD. I didn't get them all from Amazon, however, because I could get some of them for a lot less at other places.

As I'm sure you're aware, Amazon actually encourages you to buy the stuff they sell from other merchants for less money. For just about every product they sell, they have a link to a page of affiliated merchants who will sell you the same exact thing for less. It's a good deal, but the quality of the merchandise can vary. For example, the three books I bought were listed as "Brand New," which probably means they've never been read before, but they aren't in prime condition. The book jackets are a little worn, but it's no big deal. All together they cost me less than a single book would have cost at Amazon.

So here's a fun little game for you: Order a bunch of stuff online from four different merchants on the same day, and then try to guess which package you'll receive first. To make it easier, make sure one of the places you order from is Amazon and choose the free shipping option -- this will pretty much guarantee which package will reach you last.

That's okay -- I don't mind the wait. If you get bored, you can check the status of your order online, and after a couple of weeks, the status of my Amazon order changed from "Not Shipped" to "Preparing to Ship." Great, but for some reason, it took four days to prepare this particular order for shipping. That's four days for five items. I can't imagine it could take so long to prepare such an order, especially since everything I ordered was in stock. Try to visualize someone taking four days to put a DVD and four CDs in a box. It's inconceivable. What's much more likely is that the online status you get is nothing but lies.

And that's not an isolated incident. Earlier this year, I ordered something from a different online retailer. They also had a link that let you check the status of your order online. For this order, when the status went to "Shipped," I assumed that the package was in the hands of the US Postal Service and that it would eventually find its way to my mailbox. But about a week after the order was supposedly shipped, I got an email telling me that the product was back-ordered and that I had the option of waiting for it or canceling the order. So the package was obviously never shipped, and the online status was essentially a lie.

One of the other merchants I placed an order with was actually pretty efficient. I think I got the CD I ordered from them in about a week. So that made me happy. But a couple of weeks later, they sent me an email telling me that the package I ordered had been shipped that day. So either the package magically arrived two weeks before they shipped it, or they lied to me in their email.

Of course, when I use the word "lie," I don't mean to imply any deliberate intent to deceive -- what's much more likely is that they just don't know what they're talking about. I forget who first said this, but you should never attribute to maliciousness anything that can be explained by incompetence. If you remember nothing else from this post, you should remember that.

But back to the complete works of Edgard Varese: I like them, but I'm not wild about them. It's not the sort of thing you want to listen to every day, but then, so few CDs are. I happen to be listening to it right now, though, and you can really hear the influence Varese had on Zappa -- especially in some of Zappa's orchestral stuff, like Lumpy Gravy.

By the way, the DVD I got was Bad Santa, which is probably the funniest Christmas movie ever made. But don't take my word for it -- see it for yourself. And if you've already seen it, see it again. I suggest you watch the unrated version -- it's got a few additional scenes and extended scenes that were cut from the theatrical release. It was directed by Terry Zwigoff, who hasn't made a bad movie yet, as far as I'm concerned. He's apparently made five movies, but I've only seen three -- the other two being Ghost World and Crumb. You should see those two movies as well. One's a fictional story of a girl who just got out of high school and doesn't know what to do with her life, and the other's a documentary about the artist R. Crumb and the hyper-dysfunctional family he grew up in, but if you see them both, you'll notice that they're remarkably similar.

Okay, that's enough for this week. Maybe next week I'll write about something that you're actually interested in.