Monday, April 18, 2011

Exiles: A Passover Meditation

Passover has always been a favorite holiday of mine, filled with gratitude and awareness, a review of a tragic history and a hope for an idyllic future. When it begins tonight, Passover will have for me an additional layer of meaning, a deeper level of personal connection with the themes of the seder and the meaning of redemption. We are taught to feel empathy with our ancestors, and we say “For we were slaves in the land of Egypt” to express our oneness with them. But this year, I understand more clearly about banishment, about constraints, restrictions, wanderings. About exodus, the search for a home and, finding it, the relief and gratitude and joy of freedom. I feel I have been redeemed. I believe, in this season of renewal, that I am starting over, and in the words of a spiritual that was popular in the Civil Rights movement (which also had great empathy with the Passover story), I ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.

One of the themes of the Passover story is that of exile. Joseph, the eleventh of Jacob’s twelve sons, was sold to passing Arab traders by his jealous brothers, and ended up in servitude in the house of the Pharaoh. That his dreams ended up making him a valuable advisor to the Pharaoh is no lasting reprieve for the Israelites, for when famine spread to Canaan the brothers came to Egypt to beg for mercy and corn. Joseph commanded that the brothers and their father move to Egypt and from that time the Israelites grew and multiplied until some generations hence the new Pharaoh grew suspicious of the large Israelite population and so enslaved them.

By treachery, Joseph was exiled to Egypt. By hunger, his brothers and father came to Egypt was well. For centuries, the Israelites were trapped as slaves there. Once freed, they endured forty years of wandering in the desert, a nomadic people trying desperately to reach a Promised Land they were long deemed unworthy to inhabit.

Last July, with the embers of my failing marriage still hot and glowing red, I was forced to leave my home and my children. For the next five months, I lived out of a plastic storage container, finding shelter through the kindness and generosity of friends who let me stay on their couches and spare rooms. I had no permanent forwarding address, no groceries to call my own (or a place to put them), and I despaired of ever knowing normalcy again.

With no money to set off on my own (I was still responsible for the mortgage and other expenses of the home I was no longer welcome to inhabit), I was at the mercy of others and in their debt. Finally, in late December a crisis took the floor out from under me and my already unstable existence began going into a free fall. It was at that point that I knew I could no longer live as a wandering Jew.

Thanks to more generosity from those around me, I got an apartment of my own as of January 1. An unspectacular two-bedroom studio in the attic of a house in a lousy part of town – but only three miles from my children – my Promised Land was, at first, barely promising. I had, after all, no furniture of my own. But again, more friends pitched in, colleagues too, and with some resourcefulness on my part (I grabbed a bureau, bookcase, and other items from curbs where they were awaiting the garbage truck, and got many other items for free or very little money from craigslist and dollar stores), my dingy apartment suddenly became a comforting and comforting place filled with my stuff, a true sanctuary I was happy to wake up in and come home to.

Best of all, my kids like it here and have had sleepovers. My oldest just returned from Israel with a gift for me of a mezuzah, which Jews place on the doorposts of their homes in fulfillment of a Biblical commandment. That she would not only acknowledge this place as my home but also want to consecrate it as such was the most extraordinary gift of all, better even than the mezuzah itself.

In two days, my wife and I will appear before a judge and our marriage will finally be put out of its misery. Which doesn’t mean that my troubles are over, not by a long shot. But when the strings are cut, I will not fall helplessly into an endless pit of despair. I have already come out the other end of exile. I have reached the far distant shore. I am home. I am free. The other day I was on the phone with a friend I last spoke to just after getting the apartment. She was impressed by the difference in my voice, how it had so much more energy and optimism. Next year in Jerusalem? A nice thought, but to be still here in Linden Square, Malden, next year will be blessing enough.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Musings on Record Store Day

Yesterday was Record Store Day, an annual, nationwide, well-intentioned attempt to get people back to record stores – specifically, independent neighborhood stores. Whether it ultimately is successful long-term in stemming the tide of online purchasing and downloading of music, or just a last-gasp effort from a doomed industry, I enjoy RSD and treat it as a holiday of sorts. On this day (it's been going on since 2008), my kids know to leave me alone and let me commune with thousands of pieces of plastic.

They don’t quite understand my fascination with record stores, of course. Being 14 and four, they (well, the older one anyway) get their music from the radio, YouTube, and any number of music-sharing sites. The idea of cracking a cellophane seal, handling a disc, God forbid flipping a platter that had to be removed from not one but two sleeves after 15-20 minutes to hear another 15-20 minutes of music speckled with pops, is as beyond their comprehension as a washboard is to me.

I, too, no antiquated primate, have downloaded plenty of songs from the Internet. It’s faster and cheaper, though the physical space savings are offset by the amount of hard disk space they take up on my computer. Many websites also offer free (and illegal) downloads of albums, as well as bootlegged live recordings you would never find at most reputable record stores.

To offset the allure of sit-on-your-ass music procurement, Record Store Day has become a trigger for the creation of special products to be sold or distributed at RSD-participating stores. These are publicized well in advance and as a result many stores see long lines of collectors (and, unfortunately, eBay resellers) assembling outside hours prior to opening. This means that many of the most coveted items sell out quickly, which is a shame for those of us of a certain age that may be coaching their kid’s soccer game that morning. But from the perspective of a local, independent record store, this is the whole point of RSD and a signal of its success. For that one day, anyway, hordes fill the stores.

Every RSD, I enjoy picking up special sampler discs and other cool stuff. The store I frequent, part of a legendary local chain called Newbury Comics, uses RSD as an excuse to give away piles of promotional materials that have been taking up space in their storeroom. Posters, stickers, magnets, poor-selling or promo-only albums are free for the taking. I’ve often found wonderful treasures in these piles. Just yesterday, I came away with a Beach Boys 78 rpm set that features official and alternate takes of “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains” over four ten-inch sides on sale for $9.59, the new CD by The Band’s Robbie Robertson on sale for only $7.99, two free jazz CDs, a free t-shirt for a movie I’ve never heard of, and a free promotional poster for Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin. Two years ago, I got a free orange-vinyl single by Brian Wilson so he’s become sort of an RSD totem for me.

Still, no matter how much fun RSD can be, to me the allure of being in a record store is not about the products or the pricing. Rather, it’s the atmosphere, the community. A record store like an archives or a library. There’s history there, and lots and lots to learn. Some of my favorite music-buying experiences have happened in record stores where I was shown something or where I had the opportunity to point something out to someone else. It’s the sharing of information, sharing the passion for music and musicians, that makes record stores indispensable, and no music BBS or Amazon review section can replace the hands-on, face-to-face experience of seeing someone’s eyes light up when a rare album is found or a new, exciting sound is discovered.

If you’ve read the book or seen the movie High Fidelity, you get a sense of what I’m talking about. But here are a couple of examples from my experience of how being in the physical presence of others in a record store helped me to find music of great personal value to me.

1979: I had just gotten into the progressive group Gentle Giant. I was in a now-defunct store called Popcorn, which had a large selection of import LPs. I was looking through the domestic Giant albums, and then looked in the import section. I noticed that there were two albums with the same exact cover art, except that one just said Gentle Giant on the front and the other said Gentle Giant/Three Friends on the front and a list of songs on the back. I was holding the two albums side by side, apparently looking confused, until a salesperson came over and told me that Three Friends was the group’s third album but only the first to be released in the U.S. The other one was the rarer eponymous first album. That’s the one I ended up buying and it contained a song called "Funny Ways" that became very important to me (though a female friend sneeringly calls it "Progboy's Lament") and cemented the group as a favorite.

1984: Early in the days of CDs, I was not particularly eager to buy digital versions of LPs I already owned and listened to. Instead, I saw CDs as a way to fill gaps in my collection. I’d decided I needed some Pat Metheny because while I was unfamiliar with his music, I understood him to be an artist whom the musically literate must possess works of. I went to a local store and stood next to someone who was browsing through the Metheny section. When he moved on, I took over. It was hard to choose since I had no frame of reference but one recording stood out: As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, featuring the 20-minute title track. The fellow whose spot I now occupied saw me scrutinizing the disc and asked me if I was familiar with it. I said no, in fact I don’t know any of his albums but I want to buy one. “That’s a great album,” he said, “but it’s not for everyone. It’s very atmospheric and there isn’t really a rhythm section.” Sounds interesting, I said. “You just have to know that it’s pretty different from his other stuff," he continued. "It’s good, but it’s different.” It almost seemed as if he was trying to warn me away from it, but I was only getting more and more intrigued. I thanked him for the information and proceeded to buy it. It’s now a desert-island album of mine.

In truth, I don’t spend much time in record stores anymore, either because I’m chasing my kids through malls or because I don’t have the expendable cash flow to allow me to buy music as I once did (in high school, I would spend $50 a week at a used record store where most of what I bought was priced from $2.99 to $7.99). But whenever I do have the opportunity to visit one, I always feel a sense of belonging, a feeling of being home. I especially like used record stores, where every bin holds a potential surprise, and the smell of old vinyl and cardboard brings back happy memories of my adolescence.

I salute the record stores, past and present, that I have frequented in my life, sources of soul-enriching sounds and sympathetic seekers of musical treasure. Some of these are dead or dying, but some are still around. Thank you Nuggets, Disc Diggers, Looney Tunes, In Your Ear, Popcorn, Good Vibrations, Stereo Jack’s, Cheapo Records, Salem Record Exchange, Main Street Records, Newbury Comics, Tower Records, HMV, Midland Records, and others whose names I can’t remember. I also want to mention the Newton Centre Music Shop, where I made my first music purchase on my own, a 45 rpm single of Andy Kim’s “Rock Me Gently” back in 1972.