Dem Bones: On Musical Nostalgia.
I’ve been busy lately with my record label Paradise of Bachelors, so I haven’t had time for much writing, but Shuffle Magazine recently published this piece about futures past. The formidable music critic Simon Reynolds, whom I quote herein, had some kind words for the essay on his Retromania blog.
Dem Bones: On Musical Nostalgia.
Our age is retrospective… Why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? –Ralph Waldo Emerson
On the eve of el Día de los Muertos, not coincidentally also the release date of Hiss Golden Messenger’s autumnal and spectral Poor Moon LP, I’m thinking about ghosts. Poor Moon, as informed by its cosmic country and wah-wah cowboy ancestors as it is conversant with new horizons in Southern songcraft, is just the second album on Paradise of Bachelors—not counting our distribution of the remaining back stock of the 1984 North Carolina garage comp Tobacco A-Go-Go—but the first comprised of new music. From the outset, we’ve broadly defined Paradise of Bachelors as a label, a soundsystem, and an archive dedicated to documenting, curating, and releasing under-recognized musics of the Southern American vernacular, regardless of vintage. As musicians, curators, and folklorists, everyone involved in the album’s production senses a common lineage with the workaday poetics of both Tobacco and our inaugural record Said I Had a Vision: Songs & Labels of David Lee, 1960-1988, a reissue of North and South Carolina soul and gospel. But it has been fascinating to note and circumnavigate the more hesitant, even suspicious, reactions of press and market alike to music recorded in 2011 as opposed to 1971. Audiences today seem to crave the patina of authenticity imputed to unheard or heretofore obscured history, sometimes regardless of quality. Hence the rabid hunger for archeological reissues of out of print and private press records of dubious musical or cultural value beyond their previous scarcity.
Who wants yesterday’s papers?/ Nobody in the world. –The Rolling Stones
In his 2011 book Retromania, music critic Simon Reynolds argues strenuously against what he sees as a pervasive, self-consuming recycling impulse in contemporary pop music, provocatively claiming that “the world economy was brought down by derivatives and bad debt, [and] music has been depleted of meaning through derivativeness and indebtedness.” It’s ostensibly easy to sympathize with this anti-nostalgic position. Today we can stockpile, compile, and catalog our music ad infinitum, because the things we collect are not exclusively physical artifacts with an actual dimensional scale, but increasingly they are digital files of simulacra, binary data that we can cram into and electronically catapult between steadily shrinking plastic consumer containers: mp3s, jpegs, avis, and other mediated acronyms, even digital avatars of human artists in the form of our “friends” on social media platforms. Hard drives are not so hard to fill up with bullshit of any era, cheaply scored or pirated. Access is effectively immediate, and the archive is among us, on our bodies and in the ether, in the thickly wired and wireless interstices between our homes.
I understand, but I don’t see it/ I understand, but I don’t read it/ Futures and Pasts/ You can cry for your lost childhood/ Will you cry for our lost childhoods?/ Futures and Pasts –The Fall
Collecting music today is arguably easier, more ubiquitous, and more banal than ever before. Our digital collections are particularly rampant, containing more data than we can experience in a lifetime. Oddly, oldness imparts realness—it’s one index, however arbitrary, to help us wade through and order the chaotic glut of sound—and through the digital archive, there is suddenly much more old music easily available to explore (and cannibalize) than there is new music. (And anyway, the new is constantly in retreat.) The act of collecting, and the process of achieving record head status, involves much less temporal investment in research and less spatial ranging than ever before, and so devotees seek artifacts that can incorporate a more corporeal devotion, such as vinyl. (As I write, some righteous crate-diggers are already refusing to digitize and share their analog excavations.) Music is mechanically and physically inscribed in vinyl, so the data is tangible, concretized; the impending digital apocalypse may render much contemporary audio media obsolete, but enterprising folks can still build a record player with a wheel, a needle, and a horn. I find that idea appealing, and beyond fidelity, it’s one reason Paradise of Bachelors concentrates on producing vinyl artifacts. (Wax cylinders are probably rather expensive to produce these days, though my artist friend Jina Valentine has cut her own player-piano rolls.)
The trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be. –Paul Valery, appropriated in song by Mickey Newbury, among others
It can make you grumpy, for sure, and so I recognize Mr. Reynold’s worries. But personally, I don’t see a cause for real concern. Musical nostalgia is not an intrinsic problem with our culture, but simply a reflection of exponentially increased access to music, which is ultimately a positive, democratic development. Not only is there nothing new about nostalgia, but there’s also nothing new about bemoaning a contemporary rut of self-reflexive nostalgia. (In 1733, on their brutal march into Germany, the Russian infantry was so overwhelmed by nostalgia that military doctors and officers invented and enforced a terrible, but highly effective cure for this unmanning brain disease: burying the afflicted, the nostalgic, alive.) Historically speaking, our cultural obsession with originality—as epitomized by Ezra Pound’s contagious dictum “make it new!”—is a relatively recent one. For thousands of years, musicians primarily aspired to achieve mature mastery, tempered by subtle innovations, within an ongoing, stable tradition by effacing traces of the personal or original. Recorded music and radio (and now the internet) changed that radically, but the traditional impulse continues unabated in the worlds of folk and vernacular musics. Those worlds, and those histories, are as worthy of documentation and presentation as the more rarefied milieus of the avant-garde frontiers, and the boundaries between the two are highly porous.
The past is the new future. –John Crowley
So what to do? As a record label conjuring both old and new dreams, the challenge of Paradise of Bachelors is how to render this inexorably waxing musical nostalgia productive rather than reductive. I’m a fan of many contemporary reissue labels, and there are hundreds—Mississippi Records and Light in the Attic, two of the finest, both helped distribute Said I Had a Vision for us. But we’d like to position Paradise of Bachelors as more than a reissue label—introspective, rather than retrospective, and opposed to the fetishized nostalgia peddled by lesser labels than those excellent examples. We hope to release music, historical or futuristic or otherwise, with contemporary relevance and resonance—the music’s rarity matters far less than strong curatorial and aesthetic coherence, compelling narratives, and our ability to articulate untold histories through engagement with the artists, through interviews, oral histories, photography, and friendships. For us, that means looking backwards, to heavy American Indian psych, to Vietnam vet laments, to Carolina soul and gospel, to coastal honky-conch, to Communist disco (some of our intended future subjects), but also to the contemporary iterations of the infinitely mutable, mercurial traditions of Southern vernacular music. It’s the dialogue between those modes, and through those years and artifacts, that we find interesting.
Make it new? No, just make it good. Don’t sweat those ghosts, because they aren’t going anywhere, and without them, there’s nothing new anyway. These are the days of the dead.