Who is that charming looking man at the right of the picture? Why that's me, your humble blogger. But I didn't post this picture because it's so flattering of yours truly. It's because of the company that surrounds me.
I came across this photo and the two below a couple weeks ago when I was cleaning out my office on campus. I had almost forgotten I had them - they were sitting amidst a huge pile of papers and I probably hadn't seen them for about four years. They were taken in 2002, during my first year teaching at Smith, and they capture an occasion worth recalling.
The occasion was a poetry reading by Nathaniel Mackey - he being the African American gentleman standing third from the left in the top photo. Mackey is a gifted, awe-inspiring poet, critic and prose writer. He is one of the nation's best, and he has a deep, abiding, passionate interest in music. I got to know his work through my friend and former professor Maria Damon, who turned me on to a series of prose fiction works that Mackey had written. The books are epistolary novels, following a running, years-long exchange between an experimental jazz musician named N. and his correspondent, named Angel of Dust. They go deep into the creative processes of making music, the cultural background of African American jazz, and the perils and pleasures of making difficult, demanding art. The books are titled, Bedouin Hornbook, Djbot Baghostus's Run, and Atet A.D.. They constitute some of the best fictional music writing I have ever encountered and I cannot recommend them highly enough.
Encouraged by Maria, I had invited Mackey to give a reading at Bowling Green State University the year before this photo was taken and had a great time getting to know him. A year later, by coincidence, he was invited to give a reading at nearby UMASS by Peter Gizzi, another great poet and former colleague of Nate's who had just joined the UMASS writing department. Peter is standing to the left of Nate in the photo, with his wife Liz - another talented writer - on his other side. Nate knew that I had moved to Smith, recommended to Peter that he invite me to the reading, and that's why I'm in the picture with them all.
But of course there's more to the story, because at the center of the image is Thurston Moore, co-guitarist, singer and indie-rock demi-god member of Sonic Youth. I can't claim to be friends with Thurston but he's lived in this neck of the woods longer than I have and, unsurprisingly, our interests intersect enough that we often wind up at the same events. He's had a long standing interest in various sorts of avant-garde activity and so there he was at Mackey's reading, accompanied by a mutual friend, Michael Ehlers, who is hidden in the top photo but standing next to Thurston in the one below (Michael just moved away from Northampton a year or so ago after living here for years; he was the head of the great independent free jazz record label Eremite, and put on some amazing shows here over the years before he left).
On a closing note, I need to acknowledge the photographer, who goes unseen. Her name was Lori Kemp, and she was a student at Smith during my first year. She was a non-traditional aged student (we call them Adas, for the program that admits them) with a punk rock past, and accompanied me to the reading with camera in hand. I haven't seen her for years so Lori, if by some chance you come across this post, drop a line and say hey.
That's 1001 records, which is how many I own now that I went on a bit of a spree after my last post. That's one thing about keeping a blog - writing about something can reflect what's on your mind but can also make something implant itself in your head all the stronger. After I wrote about my recent record buying experience I just kept thinking about how much I wanted to buy even more records. And so I did.
(Part of me is tempted to go off on some extensive tangent concerning how this impulse of mine is so much emblematic of consumer culture in general, the way that desire to purchase and own some thing builds irrationally, such that it seems impulsive, almost beyond one's control...but I'll leave it at that).
I made one of my periodic trips to the neighboring town of Amherst, which I do every now and then because I get sick of sitting in the exact same couple of coffee shops every day, but also because Amherst has music buying options that Northampton lacks. Specifically, in this case, Mystery Train Records.
Now, in my last post I went on about some of my mixed feelings concerning the used record selection at Turn It Up! in downtown Northampton. My feelings about Mystery Train are also mixed but for different reasons. This is a place where used vinyl remains the main attraction, which in itself makes it a fairly rare and special place. The problem is that as with so many used record shops I have visited in my time, the inventory doesn't turn over often enough. The "new" bin is always pretty well stocked but when you go into their regular stacks of old used stuff you just see the same things over and over for months or in some cases even years on end.
This seems even more true since the store moved from their old location next to Amherst Brewing Company to a new, less central location just down the street. The new Mystery Train has its charms - it's in a quaint little house tucked away at the end of a dirt driveway, kinda cool. But it also seems half the size of the old location despite there being two floors, and while I haven't asked to confirm I'm sure they keep less stuff out for browsing than they used to. Which is a bummer given how few good places there are to shop for used vinyl in the first place.
Part of the upshot of this situation is that if I'm really in the mood to buy something, as I was on this particular day, then I will often wind up buying something I only sort of want, something I've probably looked at literally 100 times before and decided that I didn't especially want or need but after so much exposure decide that maybe I'll take it after all. Of the eight albums I bought on this particular day, the one that most fits that description is Queen's News of the World. Not that it's a bad album, but like so many of Queen's albums it's a mixed bag and I already own some of the more choice cuts on various compilations. But, on this particular day it suddenly had an appeal it hadn't before, and it was decently priced at $4.50 to boot, so it became mine.
As for the rest, eclecticism was the order of the day. One thing I was happy with was that my desire to bring home a good selection (and break that 1000 records mark) led me to look a little harder in certain sections I don't always pore over. In this case that meant giving a good hard look at the Soul/R&B albums, three of which I took home with me, including Rags to Rufus by Rufus featuring Chaka Khan which has some great 1970s funk tracks. But this leads to one last bit of whining, which is that it was a very hot day and the upstairs of Mystery Train, where the regular stash of used records are kept, is not air conditioned and must have been damn near 100 degrees in there. I'll mark it as a sign of my ridiculous dedication to the task at hand that I didn't let the heat deter me.
Axman is Steve Waksman, a professor of music and American Studies at Smith College, author of Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience and a new book on heavy metal and punk.