The vehicle which transmits a particular media can itself be part of the artistic expression–secondary, certainly, it isn’t on equal footing with the creator or artist but rather subtly intertwined with the expression itself as an added layer of entertainment. This is not always the case either, because the vehicle of transmission is often totally irrelevant. But when it is part of the entertainment package, the vehicle of transmission enhances the experience of a particular media item wonderfully albeit sometimes imperceptibly.

Two particular things got me thinking about this concept specifically at this time. First, I recently took a beach vacation and before going I stopped by a few local used bookstores to stock up on cheap paperbacks. Now the ideal beach read, at least for me, has to be something that is fast-paced, exciting, and page-turning and not to dense or hyper-literate yet without being dumb, poorly written or overly cliched. Thus a good beach read is by someone like Michael Connelly who detours “literary fiction” without becoming a James Patterson and does so by writing creatively and, well, “good.” Anyway, it had been a long time since I had bought fiction paperbacks; typically the sort of thing I’d want in a fiction paperback is something I’d try to find at the library; I’d resort to buying it if I couldn’t find it there, but any fiction item I purchase typically is something by a favorite author I know I’ll want to re-read and keep or something I’ve read before and know is a classic that I want to hold onto, in which case I want a nice, presentable softcover TPB or Hardcover; if a classic work of literature, I want it in an even nicer format if I can find a deal on it.  Anyway, since I was in the process of moving and thus in between libraries, because I wanted specific authors and books, and because I knew there was a high-probability that what I read on a beach would get sandy and water-logged, my best bet was purchasing these books myself.  So armed with a stack of Lee Child, Michael Connelly, and Graham Joyce paperbacks I made way to the beach. Down by the water each day, I realized that there’s no better companion to a shady beach chair, a cooler of drinks, and a fifteen minute dip in the ocean every hour or two than a great paperback thriller or mystery. Certainly the story itself has to be good–the author has to suck you in, get you flipping the pages, and never drag on to bore you out of the forward momentum. You have to be dying to know what will happen next, otherwise you’ll just throw it down and zone out in the sun. But the paperback format itself adds to this enjoyment tremendously; looking around to see what other beach-goers were reading I spotted the occasional Kindle and I just kept thinking that I would be continually nervous that the water dripping off of me, the waves rolling in, the sun beating down, and the sand everywhere would have me constantly nervous that my electronic device would go kaputz and not only would I be out a hundred or more bucks, I’d be without a read for the day. Armed with a 2 or 3 dollar used paperback, I could fold the pages, toss it in the beach bag, read it while covered in sand and not be overly concerned with its overall condition–it just had to hold up for me to finish reading it. If I fell in love with the book and wanted it for my library, I could hunt it down later in hardback. Even off the beach, the perfect format for a thriller you only need to read once is the used paperback; it’s fun and perfectly sized for reading wherever you want and easily portable. I suppose the Kindle could replicate this experience better than many other reading experiences if and when the price per item is comparable but until that is a reality I’ll hold out.

The other thing that made me think of this format as part of the art argument came from a few Yahoo news story. One story was the rehashed filler they pull out every month or so, the “businesses that are as good as dead”article which names video rental stores, costume stores, etc. Record Stores made the list, with the same old reasoning that people download, and when they do buy CDs they do so cheaply in big box stores. The article said that despite what hipsters, DJs, and collectors want to believe, the indie record shops are largely on the way out except for the ones who’ve managed to adapt and adopt business methods that work in the digital economy. Conversely, there was a story a day or two later that talked about how many record shops that struggled when the bottom fell out of the CD business were gaining enough ground to level off by switching to vinyl for the bulk of their sells. Indie stores in big cities and college towns around the country now devote more of their sales floors to LPs and 45s than to CDs  and the annual “Record Store Day” event in which artists release limited edition vinyl releases directly through independent music retailers was another huge hit this year. Vinyl sales were up more in 2010 than in any year since Soundscan began taking numbers in 1990. New albums by established artists and up and coming indie acts release their albums not only on CD and download, but on at least 500-1000 vinyl pressings; vinyl reissues of albums by The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Who sell very well each and every year. Such stores in areas like Charlottesville VA, Cincinnati, OH and Louisville Ky have begun stocking high quality turntables because they were tired of turning away the teenagers and college kids stumbling into their stores to buy vinyl but needing the system to play it on. Now, vinyl collectors and audiophiles have kept vinyl in business and popular for years (this even made it to film in the classic 1990s comedy “High Fidelity” based on the Nick Hornby book), but the popularity among indie rock fan teenagers and twenty-somethings has helped it boom out more than ever to such a point that artists as mainstream as Taylor Swift make sure to press vinyl editions of their new work. Of course it’s still a niche market and the price of new vinyl coupled with the limitations and requirements it poses to mass consumption will never make its sells a drop in the bucket compared to legal and illegal digital downloads. But it is interesting. The part of this prompting the argument I am making here comes largely from the comment-thread in that last story. Every time there is a “vinyl is booming” new-story, there are dozens of people commenting things like “Huh? Why?” and dozens of audiophiles posting about the superior sound quality of vinyl vis-a-vis digital. These comment threads explode into over-the-top arguments as people seem to find each others arguments completely incomprehensible. Both have their points but both miss a key aspect of this hobby too. Vinyl does offer a warmer, fuller sound when the record is clean and well cared for, the turntable is of good quality, and the amp and speakers are the correct components. The clicks and pops won’t be there on new cared-for LPs (contrary to the arguments of those never having heard a new vinyl) and on older items a few introductory pops are indeed pleasantly nostalgic. The sound on a vinyl copy of, say,  “Abbey Road” compared with every CD pressing before last year’s remastering overhaul was miles ahead–I had no idea there were as many instruments and notes in the background as there were because of digital’s habit of maxing every sound to its top volume and then leveling it flat in a digital sample onto CD. Vinyl has a particular sound, one that jazz, blues, and classic rock built itself to suit for many years so of course a Charlie Parker, Bob Dylan, or BB King record from the 1960s will sound miles ahead of its CD pressing. Yet the digital folks have their point to; properly mastered CDs sound great on the right system, are more portable and sound great cars. MP3s are enervated a bit every time they are opened to a certain extent but aren’t susceptible to human sound warping through scuffs and scratches and are the height of portability thus far. They do limit the sound by compressing it more than any format before (LPs give off sound waves, CDs sample soundwaves, mp3s compress those samples even more), but now high-quality 320 and up kpbs digital tracks are available that in most cases catch the quality of a sound recording the way it was supposed to be; the fact that sometimes that results in a high-gloss sheen that sounds “artificial” to some in comparison to the “warmth” offered by vinyl is due more to aesthetic and nostalgic sensibilities than fact. What both sides of this (admittedly to the outsider rather pointless and arbitrary) argument don’t give priority to nearly enough is the format-as-part-of-the-art fact: it certainly isn’t just sound that draws collectors and hipsters to vinyl. If I just want to hear a new album, a download is the most efficient way to get to do so, often cheap or free; I can carry it around with me and hear it in my car or with headphones. If I want a better sounding copy to carry with me most anyplace that also offers me the intended packaging, there’s CD. For me, I preview and listen and can love albums that I download but once I truly find a great one (or know beforehand it will be a great one), I don’t feel I have it in the proper format until I get it for my turntable. Not just for sound–for presentation, collection, and process. It sounds good on an old fashioned home stereo; it requires my involvement in that I place it on the turntable and put the needle to it. I hear the first and last track of the first side, which especially in vinyl-era releases was the result of a deliberate sequencing decision and then I flip it to side two and repeat the process. It requires my care in that I keep it clean and safe. It gives me a giant cover with full-size artwork and an inner sleeve, often liner notes and extras tucked within. It gives me a collectible to place on the shelf and pull down when I want to. The vinyl hobby itself sends me to new and used and out of the way places in the towns I live in or bargain hunting on line. There’s nothing better than getting a record never pressed on CD or sampled digitally or one you’d never have thought to get and getting it for a few dollars only to find out you love hearing it spin on your turntable.

Great art is great art regardless of how it is presented. Yet the vehicle of transmission can add to the joy of the experience one has when consuming such art. Certain movies look great on the big screen and are a joy to see collectively in a theater and seeing them alone at home on the TV often cannot match that. A visually stunning movie looks excellent on a a Blu-Ray player with a proper screen and sound-system and can be much more fun that trying to squint your eyes at your smartphone to watch it. A classic jazz record sounds best on the turntable; a nineties hip-hop album sounds best on CD in a car with great bass speakers. A great comic-arc reads best in a nice and carefully presented Omnibus but a one-off fun short story comic works best as a single issue. A thriller works best as a cheap paperback, a dense erudite work is best in a hardcover sewn volume. I would argue that a newspaper still reads best via newsprint but those days are almost gone. So sure, this involves primarily matters of opinion and personal taste and I’m sure there’s an entire generation of kids growing up right now who will find no problem digesting every bit of their media with a handheld device. Perhaps by then every bit of media will be created and be tailored for display on such a device and thus be unfit for presentation in any other way. But for now, in the supposed last days of physical media there are still things that work best in the format they were created in and for; and hey, if the digital pulse ever comes knocking out all RF, satellite and wi-fi signals those of us with any digital media at all might be able to use our collectibles as widespread currency ala “The Book of Eli.”

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Farewell to the Big Man

June 27, 2011

Clarence Clemons died on June 18. E-Street fans knew him as “the Big Man,” from the famous line in “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” in which Bruce shouts out “when the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band,” to which Clemons steps up to blow out a great sax riff. It works great on record but even better live–it’s one of those moments that has been repeated on stage around the world at dozens of E-Street concerts every year for the past 30+ years (give or take a hiatus or Bruce-solo year here and there). Yet such a moment never seemed cliche, trite, or “done.” It always worked, just like so many other repeated bits work at an E-Street concert. If you’ve had the chance to see the band live or have watched any of their great Concert sets on DVD, you’ve seen certain stock moments repeatedly. Sure Bruce and the band have always been able to improvise, to switch up the way songs are performed, to give in to the moment and do something no one might have expected when the show began (including the band), but those repeated lines, bits, and events gave the essential Springsteen show a rock and roll liturgy–a canonical ethos born out of sacred repetition.

I fell in love with the music of Springsteen and the E Street band the summer after I graduated high-school. That summer was lucky for me in the music department for two notable reasons. I stumbled onto a cassette of Little Earthquakes by Tori Amos for a quarter at a yard sell and added a used copy of  Springsteen’s 18 Tracks on CD to my pile of albums during a music run from my town to the closest big independent music store. That was how you discovered music back then–word of mouth, magazine reviews, singles, impulse purchases. I-tunes was a few years away from us that summer and though napster had launched and the college kids who were home for summer tried to show me how it worked, with my dial-up internet causing it to take 45 minutes to download one low-quality digital track wasn’t really worth it.

18 Tracks was a single disc sampler of the Tracks box-set which made available for the first time around 100 songs Springsteen and the band had kept off of albums in the name of “thematic consistency” (that was common once too, and still is for many artists, that an album is a work of art itself and the songs are supposed to fit together thematically). Anyway, it was a great record. I had heard Springsteen before; whenever I got into my Dad’s truck and rooted through his cassettes as a kid, Born in the USA was one of my favorites and my older brother owned the first “Greatest Hits” disc Springsteen released which I selected for the stereo anytime I had the choice. But 18 Tracks insired me to see what this band was about and before the summer was over I had Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, The Wild, The Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle and Tunnel of Love on CD. Born to Run quickly became my favorite record and is to this day. It’s the perfect rock and roll record and I have devoured it in every CD, SACD, and vinyl pressing I can find.

The cover of Born to Run is an iconic picture of Bruce with a guitar strapped on his shoulder grinning in a laugh as he leans on Clarence Clemons who clutches his saxophone to his lips. The two look like brothers, and that seems to be the point of the photo. If you read biographies of the band you get the sense that until Clemons walked into the bar that night to see Bruce play and soon became part of the band, there was no band, not in the sense of what the E-Street Band became. If you read Clemons’  autobiography you see how intense the moment they first locked eyes was–Clemons’ tries to reassure the reader that it wasn’t a sexual or romantic moment, and the reason he has to do so is because the only language he can find to describe that moment and the partnership they created deals heavily with the soul, with finding another person out there who shares your vision, purpose, and reason for living.

Clarence Clemons could play one hell of a saxophone solo, but he can’t be labeled as the best to ever play the sax; an argument might be made that he was the best to do it in rock and roll, but up against the jazz greats like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker or Sonny Rollins he was no match. His greatness didn’t come from his musical mastery. It came from his presence, his personality, and his inspiration. Pull out “Live in New York City,” or “Live in Barcelona” on DVD and catch Clarence playing the solo for a song like “The River.” There’s the traditional version, but there’s also an alternate version of that song Bruce often does in concert in which Clarence gets a long, slow, plaintive solo that introduces the song. The minute Clarence steps to the front of the stage and blows into that horn, he commands every eye in the house. He controls the stage and channels the energy that is usually spread out amongst the entire band all by himself. Bruce can preach everyone into a revival fervor with a rock and roll gospel, but Clarence could subtly pray and meditate every soul into spiritual ecstasy. I know such exclamations sound like cheesy hyperbole; I’ll grant you a level of cheese but if it’s hyperbole, it is so only slightly. Writing about great rock and roll always sounds this way to the unconverted. So Clarence was great in his presence. In his personality, the best way to catch that now is to read his autobiography; his wit and charm leaps off of each page and from his own “grey” sections in the book which contain “legends” rooted in truth but not in the details. Lastly, Clarence was great in his inspiration. Bruce is a remarkable songwriter, guitarist, vocalist, and showman, but you could see in his on-stage interactions with Clarence just how much of an inspirational spark he got from his best friend. That spark carried over onto the records, as Clarence packed excellent solos, background riffs, and an inspired presence even when his sax was silent–Clarence Clemons is felt at every part of every classic Springsteen song even when he isn’t playing.

So can there be an E-Street band anymore? Two years ago the band, the family, and the fans lost Danny Fedirici and his absence is felt by every missing accordion note in live performances of “E Street Shuffle” songs. I can’t see the E Street band continuing as they were. Bruce could easily go on as a remarkable solo artist or as an artist perorming with rotating members of the surviving band. But the abscence of the “Big Man” is just to big a space to fill and I can’t see Bruce choosing a new sax player. Stevie Van Zandt has said the band members will continue on because it’s “all they know how to do,” but that what continues on will be remarkably different.

Clarence wrote in his book that before every performance he prayed to reach out and touch at least one person in the audience–to make someone feel better, to give someone a moment of pure happiness. He wrote that to give happiness through his artistic gift was his single most important mission in life, a mission he felt tasked by God to do. His own pain, from injuries and hardships, replaced joints and broken bones taped together from a life on the road, vanished when he got the opportunity to share and spread joy. Here’s hoping (and believing) that all the pain he felt is forever gone and that he is somehow rewarded for all the joy his art, music, presence, and personality gave to so many over the years and continues to give to new people every day through the recorded music he has left behind.