Table of Contents: Music


More Cake, Please…

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{RERUN: Originally Published Apr 1, 2009}
 In the crowded field of choice rock obscurities the Cake rank among the choicest. Musically they were a strange hybrid of Phil Spector-esque girl group, baroque folk, and weirdly medieval psychedelia – the Ronettes crossed with a a distaff Left Banke. Their considerable aura was further intensified by a wicked fashion sense and enough personal melodrama to out-beyond Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

Besides their sonic adventurousness, the Cake is worth celebrating for the splendid design of their two sole records. The logo is a typographic masterpiece. Set in ornate hand crafted blocks and nearly square, each letter reads as both a decorative tile and as type. The motifs are a motley mix of psychedelia, Eastern European embroidery, and circus signage – a fine metaphor for the band’s composite sound. The sophomore record ups the ante with a splendid Carnaby street pop cartoon worthy of anything by Guy Peellaert or Hapshash and the Coloured Coat.

After years of scarcity, Rev-ola finally reissued both records on a single CD with generously thorough liner notes that do justice to their sound and their story.

For your pleasure, some selections.

Baby That’s Me:

Rainbow Wood:

Annabelle Clark:

 

 

For Your Pleasure 2014

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The first thing I ever really used Napster for was to hunt down and assemble Brian Eno’s legendary lost vocal album My Squelchy Life, finally given official release this year.

Imagine a crinkled & warped VHS of 80’s 1-900 chat line commercials, porny aerobic videos, low-budget soft core, late night cable talk shows, with crackle on the tape, bad tracking, fuzzy scan lines & brutally oversaturated color and you have the feel of TOBACCO’s broken, cracked electronica. Unremittingly sleezy but yet so gorgeous & sexy I’ve spent the whole year fiddling with the tracking dial and not being able to look away.

All the usual camp trappings of oh-so-Morrissey-ness around the release of World Peace is None of Your Business — cancelled tours, bitter press sniping, a humdinger of a snit with new label Harvest that resulted in the album being withdrawn — obscured what a tremendous record it really was. If you told me this was a late period Smiths record from an alternate universe I’d believe you. If that sounds like heresy I don’t care — make mine Moz.

If you are predisposed, like me, to thinking ELO could use a little ABBA & ABBA use a little Van Der Graf Generator then I give you, again, after five long years — Music Go Music.

Perhaps six people total in the audience, battling a temperamental glitched out key-tar and yet for 30 minutes Scale Model inspired me to forget that I missed Berlin live this year on account of Hurricane Arthur.

Built from a lego box of identikit parts, every element & reference of the Bad Doctors’ synthed punk is obvious. And yet the ingredients never are the dish. I have yet to tire of a single song on this record.

I’ve been searching for the Fashion B-side Sodium Pentathol Negative since high school. How ace to find that the A side is also the nuts.

It never occurred to me that Goth deserved it’s own version of the legendary garage comp Nuggets. It does now. Killed By Deathrock Vol. 1 is a Rubic’s cube of bat-cave sounds — Let Kitchen & The Plastic Spoons charmingly spooky obscurity stand in for a record packed full of them.

Stumbled across Essential Logic at long last and the only word I can think of to describe them is fearless – tunes that owe nothing to anything other than their own self-willed need to exist. Punk not as a received sound & attitude but as a response to a challenge & a dare.

There is a permanent psychedelic transmitter on Mount Davidson in San Francisco. You can see it if you squint through two kaleidoscopes. So say the hippies anyway. I can hear it though, now & then and this year they spun a lot of White Fence.

Jim Roll is an old pal from my rekkid biz days. Over the past decade his restless avant-garde flecked Americana has widened & matured. Big heart, big brains, big star.

Every now and then I find myself thinking about RIOR cassettes, these little nostalgia bombs with those flat flood colors, multi-fold j-cards, and stubborn & doomed allegiance to the cassette format. One of the most coveted was the The Great New York Singles Scene compilation, showcasing debuts by Patti Smith, Television, Richard Hell along with period salvos like US Ape, Theoretical Girls & the Mumps. Came across a digitized copy this year and for all the heavy history it was the ace single by Nervus Rex that rang my bell. Like a fling with an old flame, it reminded me of all the reasons I went gonzo for power pop to begin with.

I treasure Mary Timony’s every mood, cause every mood begets a tune. Her latest, Ex Hex, is, as she put it “…what your babysitters listened to, rumbling from the Kenwood in the basement.” Perfect. Think then, of each song on her new record, Rips, as darts thrown in that very same basement — short, sharp & feathered.

Arriving at last at the intersection of Xanadu & Gerry Rafferty the New Pornographers demonstrate that all you need for a spectacular return to form is an arpeggiator.

The years best show, hand down, was Hawkwind, fronted by 74 year old psychedelic warlord Nik Turner. Flanked by Barbarellas playing vintage synths & violins, with Nicky Garratt from U.K. Subs on guitar, the band didn’t play so much as channel transmissions from beyond the fringe; waves of sax & flute, pyramids & atlantis, sonic attacks & deep space, orgon accumulations & high zonk. I got to sing the chorus of Silver Machine with Turner. I grabbed the set list and when I got home I discovered it had Roky Erickson’s phone number written on the back.

(Front cover photo by Katch Silva, back cover Hawkwind at the Boot & Saddle, September 9, 2014 Etc: This year I kept the running time under the LP limit. It just seems a decent serving size. As a result, some other notables not represented — still in deep dub, lost in Record Store Day’s re-release of Lee Perry’s Super Ape, late this year started really digging Colin Newman’s first post-wire solo record A-ZShellac’s Dude Incredible was a barrel-full of monkeys; Ian Anderson’s Homo Erraticus tour was a highlight, as were shows by Damned & TSOL; More Chrome & Helios CreedThe Chills BBC SessionsSleaford Mods, Cleaners From Venus, Fingerprintz, Palmyra Delran, and when it’s time to clean the fishtank, Exploited.)

DOWNLOAD THE COMP, HERE.

Golden Years

Every time I look at these photos they light up my noggin like a pinball machine. I linger over them, careening from detail to detail, setting off little bright explosions of nostalgia, recognition, longing and sheer delight.

Some context… They’re snaps taken at a Sam Goody’s record store in mighty Paramus, New Jersey from about 1976 until 1980. They were taken by a friend of an old acquaintance of mine, and I spotted them one day out on the more distant orbits of the Facebook. The photographer, one of the employees of the shop, kindly gave me permission to post them.

I was transfixed the instant I saw them. Aesthetically they’re amazing – the pale yellow cast of the film encasing the era as if in amber. A wistful melancholy sets in when you start to weigh what we lost as a culture when we lost places like this. But it’s the people, finally – this wonderful, quirky, ramshackle cast –  that really bring these photos to life.

I’ve tried many times to describe their effect on me – jury-rigging metaphors that do justice to their peculiar spell. It’s weird. I’m just old enough to recall when the texture of life felt like this. So sometimes they trigger deeply felt, familiar, yet sketchy, memories. Other times they read like fiction – especially vivid stills from a movie that one the one hand I desperately wished existed and on the other I feel like I’ve already seen. Like I said, weird.

Japanese Surf Monster

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{RERUN: Originally aired Feb 19, 2009} Takeshi Terauchi is the Dick Dale of Japan, if Dick Dale was the Jimi Hendrix of America. He is exactly as obscure abroad as he is huge at home. His technical prowess, melodic complexity and sonic expressiveness qualify him an overlooked giant in the genre. Pinpoint guitar runs and exquisitely sprayed distortion gallop over a bed of rich organ washes and a sturdy back beat. The requisite minor key melodies often enthrallingly digress into Japanese folk. The fact that his instrumentals were an influence on the Dead Kennedys’ surf derived sound is just icing on the awesome…. Hopelessly out of print, the entire This is Terauchi Bushi album can be found at WFMU’s Beware of the Blog. Radness incarnate.

Opening salvo, Kanjinncyou, below:

 

Recipie

SAVILLE POSTER-YELLOW

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All designs by the inimitable Peter Sevillle (Factory Records, New Order, OMD, Durutti Column, Ultravox, Duran Duran, King Crmison…) It a’int my manifesto to buy vicodin exactly, but I’m stirred nonetheless by its brash glitz cut with a swoon for the assembly line.

For Your Pleasure 2013

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This year was ruled by bands & musicians I hold very dear dropping career defining albums out of nowhere. Albums that were reconnections, reminders & remembrances of their fundamental radness — each, though, indelibly colored by an autumnal mood, recognition of age, time & wear.

I thought the best rekkid honors were done & done as early as February with Bad Religion’s exhilarating True North — songs firing like model rocket engines, a compressed crackling burn and then, a minute or so later, lay smoldering. A career capper, a middle age manifesto, and the last classic of mid-80’s SoCal melodic hardcore.

Months later I’m in Toronto at a record shop where I finally scored the long coveted debut EP by Men Without Hats. Can that snigger, bignuts — this bands gifts are substantial & buried, like Wall of Voodoo’s, under the debris of their sky-blotting single hit. You fucking bet you can dance if you want to…

Anyway — this leads me to wonder what they’ve been up to recently. The answer? A stunner of a record, Love in the Age of War, recorded in late 2012 (news about MWOH travels slowly) on their original analog gear. It was originally titled Folk of The 80’s Part IV, thus deliberately planting it in line with the band’s killer run of raw synth records before the more painterly & ambitious Pop Goes the World. Alternately thrilling & poignant, this ruled the headphones for months.

Then Bowie drops The Next Day, the last word on last words as far as Olympian rockers go. Superfan Rick Moody nailed it in a long exegesis for the Rumpus — it’s a particularly tuned masterpiece, functioning as a hall of mirrors & memory palace of Bowies guises, obsessions, and, above all, vocals. For the heaviness of its agenda, it’s a remarkably unlabored listen — a great batch of songs, carefully & secretly handcrafted then released with Bowie’s characteristic savvy. The record cover tells you every single thing you need to know about it, a conceptually brilliant shorthand to a tremendously rich & deep listen.

Weaving amongst these heavies was the year’s big discovery — the Aussie all-lady foursome Beaches. Their second album, She Beats, was a swirly, gauzy, fuzzy, fuzzy, swirly, gauzy pleasure. Melodic swells dove in and out of  the din like dolphins, underpinned by a steady motorik beat (Harmonia’s Michael Rother guests) The grin-goosing “Chase Those Blues Away” was the tune of the year.

Welcome electronic transmissions resumed from the Boards of Canada & Barbara Morgenstern – bleeps and bloops both heavy and light.

Psych alchemist Kelley Stoltz has long completed his apprenticeship — this years Double Exposure, a fusillade of handmade pop-psych bliss, is a killer follow-up to 2010’s equally ace To Dreamers. The spellbinding cover, featuring Stoltz’s mom back in the 70’s drawing a bow in what looks like hockey pads on a shag rug backed by a large op art painting & a hi-fi, was the year’s best.

Spelunking in the shops yielded treasures galore this year — Babe Buell’s Covers Girl EP where the fetching groupie (and Arwen Undómiel’s mom) is produced by Rick Derringer, backed by the Cars, and covers Love & Iggy; James Freud’s forgotten mod/synth mashup, bought on the strength of the cover alone; vinyl versions of high-school mix-tape staples interred for decades on cassettes like Flipper’s “Ha Ha Ha,” Vagina Dentata’s legendary Darby Crash penned “Golden Boys”, Frightwig’s careening “Wanque Off Song”, and Hawaiian Pups’ resolutely odd & yet irresistible “Baby Judy.”

Nick Cave played the year’s best show. A few songs into his set at the Keswick Theatre, Cave, exasperated by the staid & respectful audience, demanded a stage rush. As a result I finally got a sustained barrage of legendary close-up Cave — thin, ungainly, tall & lanky, mustachioed, posture lurching & off kilter, reminding me of no-one as much as a demonic Fawlty Tower’s era John Cleese… a gobsmackingly riveting performance.

A few ace re-issues appeared, each a welcome surprise. Dark Entries’ collection of the early recordings by Algebra Suicide is a public service, helping to secure the legacy of the formidably talented Detroit Ukrainian poet & singer Lydia Tomkiw. And then a delightfully random Clothilde collection! Clothilde was weird salvo in the barrage of 60’s French girl pop, or ye ye. The moodiness of Francoise Hardy, the bubbly delivery of France Gall, set to ramshackle fuzz & harpsichord  constructions reminiscent of Joe Meek. Light In The Attic kicked off the Public Image Limited reissue series with a lovingly reproduced 7” of their debut single, complete with foldout faux tabloid. I’ve loved this song for over 25 years – it hasn’t lost a drop of it’s power, originality, venom, or pop and it sounds, as it always has, utterly vital.

I listened to a lot of Reggae on Sunday afternoons. Weird — music just finds you when you are ready for it, I guess.

Then out of the blue ether, the Chills drop Somewhere Beautiful, a rough & crystalline live recording of a small New Years party they played a while back. Prolific, yet sporadically recorded back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, New Zealand’s the Chills were led by the preposterously gifted, big hearted, but troubled Martin Phillipps. Their first singles, and two LPs (especially Submarine Bells) were peerless muscular, shimmering beauties. After a brush with popularity that found them recording with R.E.M. and Van Dyke Parks, Phillipps’ crushing heroin habit subsumed the band. Living hardscrabble, he managed only one more proper LP, a demos release and a home recorded 4 song EP since then — all excellent. Then this miracle. The band has more heft & swing than before, and even with a few lovely embellishment the sound is more garage-y than gossamer. Phillipps’ voice, though, is a revelation. While still melodically supple, a rawness tears through the songs, the edge of his sharp New Zealand accent present as never before. Each song is recast, invested with new energy, and inflected by real pain & directness. It’s a fucking stunner, and hands down the years best record.

DOWNLOAD THE COMP HERE. ENJOY!

cover image: Boucher, François, Allegory of Music (detail) National Gallery, DC

 

Guitarist Wanted

‘The Perfect Guitarist’
for Avant Rock Group
Original, creative, adaptable
melodic, fast, slow, elegant, witty
scary, stable, tricky
QUALITY MUSICIANS ONLY
‘Roxy’ 223 0296

Ad placed by Bryan Ferry in Melody Maker soliciting a guitarist to join him, Andy Mackay, and Brian Eno in the fledgling Roxy Music.

Some Swedish Type

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So, recently I was over in Sweden visiting IKEA HQ (more on that, later-ish…) IKEA is located in Älmhult, a small picture postcard of a town. Quaint cobblestone square anchored by statue of Carl Linnaeus (you remember Linnaean taxonomy, yes? — three kingdoms, divided into classes, orders, families, genera, and species, eighth grade or so, feathered hair, Toughskins jeans, 3/4 black sleeved Cars T-shirt…sorry, pardon my corduroy reverie…)

Anyway, I’m wandering around and happen upon a gas station / burger & ice cream hut / thrift store (!) where, between fan belts, spark plugs, a row of swedish potboilers, needlepoint, and axel grease, I spot these 10″ records in a crate.

What a score! Each one of these Swedish type compositions is gorgeous — and each anchored by a contrastingly dense, filagreed record label. Häftigt!

Public Image Limited

In retrospect, the album cover designs of the early releases by Public Image Limited constitute one hell of a brilliant run. By his own admission John Lydon’s music has been basically a big conceptual media prank, playing with, subverting, and looting the whole notion of the public image. Therefore it’s no surprise that packaging and design figured so heavily in his work from the very beginning.

Arguably British tabloids were the closest things in the cultural landscape, both aesthetically and attitudinally, to punk rock, so it was fitting that Never Mind The Bollocks was designed like a cross between a tabloid and a ransom note (which, incidentally is an apt description of the record itself.)

With Public Image Limited, those influences and themes became more sophisticated and overt. The mock slick magazine design of the debut was an ironic riposte to the expected image of Lydon as a young savage. This was followed by the unprecedented, and justly buy vicodin here celebrated, configuration of 1980’s Metal Box – 3 12inch singles in a, um, metal box. After that came the aggressively sexy glamorous cover for 1981’s Flowers of Romance. Among other things, it strikingly prefigures the the snapshot aesthetic of current fashion and nightlife photographers like Nikola Tamindzic and, ugh, that skeezy doofus Terry Richardson. The sleeper of the bunch is the cover of 1983’s cynically bland cash-in Live in Tokyo – shot and composed perfectly. Dig the way the commercial riot of neon signage converges and perfectly frames the iconic PiL logo, interrupted only briefly by Lydon’s fab shiny suit.

What ties it all together is the same tension that animates the music – a constant flickering between art and commerce, sincerity and fakery, and, ultimately, what is false and worthless and what is true and enduring.

Public Image Limited: Public Image: [download]

[audio:http://shepelavy.com/audio/PIL_PublicImage.mp3]


Public Image Limited:
Careering (astonishing BBC version): [download]

[audio:http://shepelavy.com/audio/PIL_CareeringBBCSession.mp3]

For Your Pleasure 2012

The year in music was spent under the vast shadow of Christian Mistress. This colossally awesome band rose up from the waters in early March, unbidden, unknown, and wrapped it’s massive hulk around the turntable, it’s grip unshakeable. It’s like some scruffy metal kids in Portland got a hold of the fax/phone modem contraption that synthesizes Kelly leBrock in Weird Science and shoved in pre-Bruce Dickenson Iron Maiden, Hawkwind, and — most improbably — Sandy Denny era- Fairport Convention. A lean and wooly metal monster, this Mistress, but what defines them are the rough yet transcendent vocals of frontwoman Christine Davis. Possession is thier first full-length, handily the record of the year. Everything they’ve done to date though – the Agony & Opium EP and the debut single — is simply crushing.

The only thing more absurd than the idea of a sequel to Jethro Tull’s beloved 1971 prog-rock masterpiece Thick as a Brick is how absurdly good it actually is.

M83’s Hurry Up We’re Dreaming still goes on the hi-fi just about weekly – this giant pipe organ of 80’s nostalgia remains a pure undiminished pleasure to listen to…

Blanche Blanche Blanche and US Girls beam fuzzy transmissions from deeply quirky imaginations, tuned to personal obsessions and record collections… 70’s AOR radio for the former, girl groups and glam rock for the later.

Wonderful and obscure new music appeared from two wonderful and obscure acts I thought utterly dormant – arch disco provocauter and Roxy Music cover model Amanda Lear (that’s her walking the panther on For Your Pleasure) and muscular 80’s synth band B-Movie (Nowhere Girl, a staple of the savvier 80’s hits comps)

Gobsmacking songwriter and all around American treasure Stew launched another tune into the Negro Problem’s indelible songbook.

2008’s best of included Lissy Trullie which I loved, despite being the kind of too-cool for school hipster new wave they play at photoshoots. She’s gotten a lot of jaded flak for being a singing model, hangin’ with Sevigny blah blah. Nonsense. Her full-length debut album is stunning. The downtown moves are still there, mellowed and matured by Siouxie-esque moody touches.

Speaking of Siouxie, a good portion of the year was spent channeling the summer sountrack of a precocious 16 year old Long Island girl circa 1986…

Winged Victory for the Sullen is a collaboration between Stars Of The Lid member Adam Wiltzie and composer Dustin O’Halloran. It is piano based ambient music in a Satie vien. It is simply gorgeous. Thanks gentlemen.

This year saw the US release of the legendary Des Jeunes Gens Moderns compilation documenting France’s 1978-1983 postpunk and cold wave scene – sort of a Euro-Nuggets for new wavers. Poking around the blogosphere I happened upon the swinging soundtracks of Gallic meatro Guy Peterson. A fizzy sonic tonic.

The new OFF! record sounds exactly the same as the lst four EP that preceded it, which were, collectively, my favorite record of 2010. Keith Morris continues to prove how hard and elusive it is to create pure vintage American hardcore – and how exhilarating its rush still is. Thier church basement show with the Spits was the years second best live show. Surf monsters Daikaiju’s show at tiny Kung Fu Necktie was hands down the years best. Played mostly from within the small audeince the show culmiated with the entire drum kit stacked into a giant heap over a delighted fan who drummed it from underneath. Aces. Worship psycho-surf band Daikaiju daily for good luck and health!

When my wife would go out for drinks I listened to a lot of Chrome.

[Download the comp, here.]

Swing Era

A boxed record set spotted in a motley pile at the Cackleberry Farm Antique Mall in Paradise, PA… Funny, Swing has always struck me as hopelessly wacka wacka, a square pantomime of exuberance and abandon – but this New Wave Cinema poster style composition and the freeze frame cutouts invest them with a crackling energy and style… a sock hop away from the iconic poster for Antonioni’s Blow Up and a frug and a boogie-woogie away from Robert Longo’s skinny tie 80′s series Men in the Cities, about which I’m reposting, below. 

For Donna…

This is it, look no further. This single is going to change the sound of music for the next 15 years. – Brian Eno

With disco albums, we started using themes…I was always the ideas man, and so for Love Trilogy I came up with the idea of having three separate songs and then a fourth song consisting of those three songs linked together, all combined into one. Four Seasons Of Love was a double album, with each side featuring a season, and my next idea — having just read Anthony Powell’s A Dance To The Music Of Time, which is 12 novels inspired by the painting of that name by Nicolas Poussin — was to record an album that chronicled popular music up until the present and on into the future. So, we started out with a ’50s song, ‘I Remember Yesterday’ — I was rather peeved when the album was changed to that name, because I really wanted it to be called A Dance To The Music Of Time — and continued with a bit of rock, a Tamla Motown number and so on, and then brought it up to date with disco, before the final, futuristic song was ‘I Feel Love’. – co-writer Pete Bellotte

Blondie: I Feel Love (Donna Summer Cover) 

 

Cherry Vanilla

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[Reposting this jem in light of two things – finally happening upon the 7″ of “The Punk” in a dusty box under the counter at the endlessly magical Molly’s Record and Book Store in Philly’s Italian Market, and the publication of Lick Me, Vanilla’s deliciously lurid memoirs. Cheers.]

At the Rock n Roll High School cafeteria, Cherry Vanilla was the wild tag-along little sister who sat with the Ramones whenever they decided to attend, and never got over the one time the New York Dolls asked her to share a cigarette behind the gym. But what she really pined for was the part of Magenta in the class production of Rocky Horror Picture Show.

At first, The Punk, her greatest (and single) moment, seems plugged into the same outlet that powers Sheena is a Punk Rocker and Personality buy vicodin 10mg online Crisis – all buzz-saw chords and pounding keys. But what really beats at the heart of this corker is The Time Warp. That is what makes this song so awesome, its utter fakery, its schmaltz. It’s not gutter rock, it’s musical theatre. It’s a prime exponent of the other great strand of New York Punk, the hammy glammy one that gave us Rocky Horror, the Mumps, Klaus Nomi, etc…

Cherry Vanilla was David Bowie’s publicist until the mid 70’s. After they parted ways she embarked on a short lived rock bender. (In a wonderful footnote, she’s also the object of Blondie’s catty classic Rip Her to Shreds) All of which is perfectly fitting. “The Punk” is punk written by a publicist – insanely enthusiastic but utterly inauthentic.

Cherry Vanilla — The Punk:

 

Music Hang

Some observations  – I have a sneaking suspicion that T.S.O.L’s whole spooky-washy punk/goth sound might be lifted straight out of Siouxie and the Banshees’ Into the Light. Sort of the way that Eno’s Third Uncle seems to beget all of Bauhaus. That first Fear record is really something – it’s got New York Dolls moments and Deep Purple moments, sections that sound like Robert Fripp and Greg Lake singing hardcore and during a song called Foreign Policy there’s a section that sounds like a punk version of Loverboy. Oh, and the first two songs on After the Snow by Modern English top Melt with You. Which remains melty.

Siouxie and the Banshees: Into the Light

Eno: Third Uncle 

Fear: I Don’t Care About You [download]

Fear: Foreign Policy [download]

Modern English: Someone’s Calling [download]

Modern English: Life in the Gladhouse [download]

Going to Melody…

Leon Wieseltier writing in the New Republic on the closing of his local record store. It’s an perfectly articulated tribute to the deep pleasures of browsing; a eulogy; and a defiant, fierce refusal to accept all this as collateral damage in the interest of progress. Read, treasure – and if it stirs you, take time to tend to and nourish the analog rhythms…

# # #

GOING TO MELODY, February 2, 2012

In a country as injured as ours, there is something unseemly about all this sagacious talk of creative destruction. A concept that was designed to suggest the ironic cruelty of innovation has been twisted into an extenuation of economic misery—into capitalism’s theodicy. Where there are winners, there are losers: praise the Lord and pass the Kindle. I have always believed that the losers know more about life than the winners, though I wish affluence upon us all; but it does not romanticize the poor to demythologize the rich, and to propose that sometimes creative destruction is not very creative but very destructive. The brutality of large businesses toward small businesses, for example, is neither brilliant nor heroic. They do it because they can. Last week a record store in Dupont Circle announced that it was closing. The immediate cause of its demise—it had outlasted national and regional chains—was Price Check, Amazon’s new idea for exterminating competition. It is an app that allows shoppers to scan the bar code on any item in any store and transmit it to Amazon for purposes of comparison, and if it compares favorably to Amazon’s price, Amazon’s special promotion promises a discount on the same item. In this way shoppers become spies, and stores, merely by letting customers through their doors, become complicit in their own undoing. It will not do to shrug that this is capitalism, because it is a particular kind of capitalism: the kind that entertains fantasies of monopoly. For all its technological newness, Amazon’s “vision” is disgustingly familiar. (“Amazon is coming to eat me,” a small publisher of fine religious books stoically told me a few weeks ago.) Nor will it do to explain that Amazon’s app is convenient, unless one is prepared to acquiesce in a view of American existence according to which its supreme consideration must be convenience. How easy must every little thing be? A record store in your neighborhood is also convenient, and so is a bookstore. There is also a sinister side to the convenience of online shopping: hours once spent in the sensory world, in the diversified satisfaction of material needs and desires, can now be surrendered to work. It appears to be a law of American life that there shall be no respite from screens. And so Amazon’s practices raise the old question of the cultural consequences of market piggishness. For there are businesses that are not only businesses, that also have non-monetary reasons for being, that are public goods. Their devastation in the name of profit may be economically legitimate, but it is culturally calamitous. In a word, wrong.

WHEN MY FRIEND at Melody Records told me about the death of his store, I was bereft. This was in part because he is my friend—after my father died, I received a letter from the Holocaust Museum informing me that he had made a donation in my father’s memory—and now he must fend for himself and his family and his staff in the American wreckage. But my dejection was owed also to the fact that this store was one of the primary scenes of my personal cultivation. For thirty years it stimulated me, and provided a sanctuary from sadness and sterility. “Going to Melody” was a reliable way of improving my mind’s http://www.honeytraveler.com/pharmacy/ weather. The people who worked there had knowledge and taste: they apprised me of obscure pressings of Frank Martin’s chamber music, and warned me about the sound quality of certain reissues of Lucky Thompson and Don Byas, and turned me on to old salsa and new fado. They even teased me about my insane affection for Rihanna. When they added DVDs to the store, my pleasures multiplied. (Also my amusements. Not long ago Marcel Ophuls’ great film arrived in the shop, and the box declared: “Woody Allen presents The Sorrow and The Pity.” Beat that.) Of course all these discs can be found online. But the motive of my visits to the store was not acquisitiveness, it was inquisitiveness. I went there to engage in the time-honored intellectual and cultural activity known as browsing.

IT IS A MATTER OF some importance that the nature of browsing be properly understood. Browsing is a method of humanistic education. It gathers not information but impressions, and refines them by brief (but longer than 29 seconds!) immersions in sound or language. Browsing is to Amazon what flaneurie is to Google Earth. It is an immediate encounter with the actual object of curiosity. The browser (no, not that one) is the flaneur in a room. Browsing is not idleness; or rather, it is active idleness—an exploring capacity, a kind of questing non-instrumental behavior. Browsing is the opposite of “search.” Search is precise, browsing is imprecise. When you search, you find what you were looking for; when you browse, you find what you were not looking for. Search corrects your knowledge, browsing corrects your ignorance. Search narrows, browsing enlarges. It does so by means of accidents, of unexpected adjacencies and improbable associations. On Amazon, by contrast, there are no accidents. Its adjacencies are expected and its associations are probable, because it is programmed for precedents. It takes you to where you have already been—to what you have already bought or thought of buying, and to similar things. It sells similarities. After all, serendipity is a poor business model. But serendipity is how the spirit is renewed; and a record store, like a bookstore, is nothing less than an institution of spiritual renewal.

MY FATHER HAD furniture stores. I grew up with the pathos of retail: you throw all your money into a location and an inventory, you hang out a sign, you trick out a window, you unlock a door, and (if you lack the resources to advertise formidably) you wait. If they come in, you use your skill; but they have to come in. When my father was ill, I would quit the library and mind the store. One day I set a house record for sofas sold because the store was located in a neighborhood where many U.N. people lived, and I knew more than most furniture salesmen about the crises in Iran and Cyprus. Eventually the store failed. But the failure of some stores is more repercussive than the failure of other stores. The commerce of culture is a trade in ideals of beauty, goodness, and truth. A hunger for profit exploits a hunger for meaning. If the one gets too ravenous, the other may find it harder to subsist. The disappearance of our bookstores and our record stores constitutes one of the great self-inflicted wounds of this wounding time.

NOTE: I’ve quoted this essay in its entirety because it deserves to be read widely. It says important things in beautiful ways. I’ve taken it, though, from behind The New Republic’s paywall. Pay them a visit. Linger, read, and please consider subscribing… thank you.