I used to buy records based solely on the cover art.
To be clear, I don’t actually need much prodding to pick something up, but usually you have some reason that is based on the content of the disc, as with the Purchase Based on a Half-Remembered Review (Did Byron Coley say he liked these guys? Was this the record Kim Cooper mentioned where I pretended I knew what she was talking about so I didn’t look like a dope?). Then there’s the Sideman Solo Project (hence Rick Danko or Jerry Douglas, or Billy Strange’s transcendent “In a Mexican Bag”?), the You’re Supposed to Have Something By This Artist (explaining anything by Laura Nyro in my stacks), or the Predecessor Band Curiosity Factor (ALRN, Red Crayola). When you bought a record like that you at least had a reason.
But here I’m talking about pure blind purchases based on a picture, a logo, an album title.
I liked to believe that it was an act of reckless faith in a world that rewarded neither faith nor recklessness. But I had sufficient bandwidth for calculating the probabilities that arise from such a lopsided transaction—devoid of the minimal assurances that came from knowing the artist or the label or the producer or the bass player—and I could afford the moments where after putting stylus to groove, then lifting the arm and replacing it randomly two or three times, I could shrug, take the thing off the turntable and put it into a corner to be traded back in.
My goal was to be fair to the record, to wait until I was in the right frame of mind to be won over. I wanted to like these discs, I needed to find new territory, it was my mission. Sometimes, I liked to try and pre-audiolize the music based on song title—cross-referenced to the photo, the font, the year of creation. Usually, I was disappointed, but many a gem was discovered this way, too: “Dexter Blows Hot and Cool” (the first post-1950 jazz record I ever bought), “Mrs. Miller Sings”, “Kaleidoscope”, “Hazelwoodism”—these were records whose content turned out to be at least on a par with the sheer neck-prickling rightness of the package itself.
Sometimes they never actually got played. I would get it home from the 99 cent bin, take one look at the scorched earth of the surface and decide to spare my stylus, but only once have I elected to not play the record based on the fear that it wouldn’t live up to the promise of the cover.
This is it: Bruce Murdoch, “33 1/3 Revolutions Per Minute”.
A folk singer and his guitar caught in the crosshairs of a rifle scope. This guy is so dangerous, they’re gonna take him out. And he’s gonna get plugged while he’s playing, so it’s not some Robert Johnson You’re Screwing My Old Lady killing. Bruce Murdoch is telling you that The Man is going to turn him off for playing a song. The flat-out ballsiness of it gives me chills.
I can’t remember where I got it; the price is scrawled in marker across the front—and the thing was still sealed back then. I know I had it in college, and it sat in a box in my mom’s closet while I was living in Berlin for a couple of years. And I can recall filing it somewhere between “Astral Weeks” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” when I got back. But I never played it. I just didn’t want to be let down.
But I need this record right now. As I write this, the election is still a week away, and I want to believe that the power of dissent is still potent enough to shake the foundations of our society. Sure, you say, Eminem has emerged as a voice of protest, but will that be enough? Where are the guitar slingers? I know, I know, Steve Earle’s got his radio show, but he can’t be everywhere. Who’s going to lead us to the barricades?
But what if I have the weapon we need, a record so powerful that it was suppressed on release—the record company couldn’t get stores to carry it, no trucking company would transport it, customs was alerted to prevent it escaping our borders. Every acetate destroyed. One single, near-mint-plus surviving copy (not cut-out, in original shrink-wrap) smuggled out of the pressing plant by radical folk monks who kept it safe, a relic to be worshipped and guarded. But eventually the brotherhood splintered in a nasty Limelighters vs. Kingston Trio schism and the relic disappeared. Fast-forward to ‘84 and it emerges mysteriously in a New Arrivals bin in Santa Cruz, California. Coincidence? You decide.
And perhaps it was correct to suppress it. Perhaps we weren’t ready for it. Even now, I imagine the chain-reaction of rebellion and protest that would result from a single playing of this disc and I worry—will the cure do more harm than the disease? What of the utter anarchy that could be unleashed? And what of Murdoch? According to various shady internet sources, he’s still alive, albeit in Canada, possibly in some sort of folk-singer relocation program. Would I be shining a spotlight on him? Putting his life in danger?
It’s a big burden, which I accept only grudgingly. But currently, the polls are looking favorable. And Eminem is in heavy rotation on TRL, so maybe it won’t be needed. I am writing this in the past, and only you here in the future know whether I unleashed the power of pure protest upon a complacent populace. I have children to protect, and I need to go to work to pay the bills, things Bruce Murdoch might have mocked. But don’t worry, if I feel it’s necessary, I will play the record, and God help us all.
Postscript: Not sure if the Existence of the record has leaked, but those exit polls conveniently lulled me into a state of smug confidence. And by the time Fox called Ohio it was too late. I opened it anyway, prepared to destroy the thing out of pure rage but at the last moment I caught Bruce Murdoch’s eye and I swear the motherfucker winked at me. So it went back in the sleeve. But he and I will be ready next time, you can count on us.
© 2004 Kenneth A. Rudman, Do Not Reproduce Without PermissionPosted by krudman at November 30, 2004 10:46 PM | TrackBack