All Things to All People Vol. 18 August 11, 2016 14:18

I've been meaning to write for quite some time about why I hate sports. I'm sure there are a lot of you out there who are very much not on board with this statement, so let me explain.

I got my PhD from the University of North Carolina, which happens to be a part, along with Duke University, of one of the bitterest and most contested rivalries in all of spectator sports. It's a longstanding tradition at Carolina that graduating seniors are guaranteed tickets to the UNC / Duke basketball game. This is a HUGE deal. Even when both teams are completely in the toilet, the UNC / Duke game always sells out and is always hotly contested. Fortunately for me, the "graduating seniors" rule includes graduate students completing their degrees. Despite the fact that I only paid the most minimal attention to basketball the entire time I was at UNC, I decided to take advantage of this perk during my last semester of grad school.

I have to admit that it was pretty cool. I'd been to a couple of basketball games before, but sitting in the student section was wild... the energy level was actually comparable to a big hardcore show. There's definitely a kind of power in groupthink... you get a bunch of people in the same room all thinking and feeling the same thing and the power and momentum of the group can sweep you away. Further, it was a really good game. UNC pulled way ahead at the half, but Duke chipped away at the lead throughout the second half and finally won the game on a buzzer-beater 3-pointer. The stadium went completely quiet... there were over 20,000 people in that room and you could have heard a pin drop. It was amazing.

I had a lot of fun at the game, but I went alone and was surrounded by people I didn't know, so I had a lot of time to reflect on what was happening around me, and something kept happening during the game that really bothered me. Every time the refs would call a foul on a UNC player everyone in the student section would scream "BULLSHIT!," even when the UNC player had clearly committed the foul. Every time a UNC player missed a shot and a Duke player was within arm's length, everyone would scream "FOUL!" I felt like I wasn't watching the same game as these people... I was watching a really exciting contest between two evenly-matched teams, while they were peering into some alternate universe where UNC was always right and Duke was always wrong.

I taught English at UNC throughout my time there, and it wasn't lost on me that these were the very same students whom I was trying to teach critical thinking skills in my classes. The same students who, instead of thinking honestly, deeply, and rationally about the questions I asked them, consistently groped blindly for what they were "supposed" to say. At that moment it dawned on me what I was up against. One semester or even one undergraduate curriculum wasn't going to cure these students of the habits of mind that fandom taught them. Logic is grim, complicated, and doesn't always tell you what you want to hear. Fandom is simple and straightforward and you're always surrounded by like-minded people.

Once I observed this habit of mind I started seeing it everywhere: people who idolize bands and refuse to consider that they may have ever written a bad note; or, conversely (and much more common in punk and hardcore), people who have written off bands and refuse to consider that they may have ever done anything worthwhile; people who stick to ridiculous premises like "vaccines cause autism" or "global warming isn't happening" despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary; religion; nationalism and patriotism; the preference for certain consumer products over others... I mean, I could go on all day. Once people decide they are on a certain "team" they are committed to their cause at all costs, whether or not their allegiance is based on anything rational or even real.

By far the most insidious of these calcified habits of belief is political affiliation. Nowhere is the fan mentality more apparent than when it comes to American politics. Really, it's probably worse when it comes to politics than sports because the political divisions in the US correlate with much deeper social and cultural differences, while it's pretty arbitrary whether you decide to become a fan of the Minnesota Vikings or the Chicago Blackhawks or whatever. The force with which a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat can believe that Republicans don't have a single good idea (or vice versa) is mind-boggling to me. However, it's the fan mentality at work. Donald Trump says it? Then it's wrong. Bernie Sanders says it? It's right. No further consideration or investigation needed. If you really want to understand the political gridlock in the United States I think that you have to think about this fan mentality. When you see a black-and-white world where your team is always right and the other time is always wrong, there simply isn't space for compromise.

So that's why I hate sports, and why I hate contemporary American politics even more than I hate sports. There are few things in this world I like more than a good conversation or a stimulating argument, and these institutions propagate exactly the kind of bullshit (a carefully chosen word) that gets in the way of me having more of those things.

And now a tale from the record-buying front...

In my last blog post I wrote about my recent interested in Mixcloud, but in addition to Mixcloud shows I also like a handful of more traditional podcasts. I'll spare you the list for now, but over the past few months two of the podcasts that I listen to have featured Walter Schreifels, and on both episodes he mentioned a radio station called WLIR.

One day I was sitting in the back room of the store when I got an email from the secretary for a boat manufacturer in Edenton, North Carolina. Edenton is a tiny town on the northern bank of the Albemarle Sound in eastern North Carolina and is, almost literally, in the middle of nowhere. The email mentioned that her boss had a collection of several thousand records that once belonged to a radio station that his brother helped run in New York in the 70s and 80s. I wrote back and asked for more information and she couldn't tell me much about the records, but she did tell me that the radio station's call letters were WLIR.

When I looked up WLIR on Wikipedia I nearly fell out of my chair. In particular the following sentence had the record collector in me salivating: "As punk and new wave rock started to become popular at the end of the 1970s, most rock stations in the United States ignored these genres. WLIR, again, bucked the trend by playing artists from these genres." Reading further about WLIR's new wave years, I learned that, "WLIR became the first radio station in the country to play U2, The Cure, The Smiths, New Order, Duran Duran, Madonna, George Michael, Men at Work and Prince." I asked if this was the same WLIR whose records she had and she confirmed that, yes, it was, and that her boss's brother had run the station throughout the 70s and 80s.

One cold, rainy morning in early February I drove out to Edenton, which is a couple of hours away from Raleigh. The entire time I was driving I tried to convince myself that this wasn't what I thought it was going to be, that this was going to be a collection full of the same kind of dross that I see in at least half of the collections that I look at. However, another part of my mind spun little tales about what might be there. I mean, if you were a punk band in New York in the 70s or early 80s and there was a big commercial station playing music kind of like yours, wouldn't you take a chance and send them a promo? Let's say you're Agnostic Front and you've just released United Blood, or you're a band called Chronic Sick from across the river in New Jersey and you just put out your first single... wouldn't you drop one in the mail on the off chance they'd play it?

As I weaved my way through sleepy downtown Edenton and down toward the shore of the sound, I had no idea what I would find. When I pulled up I saw what could only generously be termed a building. By this point it was raining buckets so I knocked on the door a couple of times but quickly just opened the door and let myself in. No one seemed to notice. The wood-paneled office was eerily quiet, and I could hear big, fat raindrops falling in through the barely-functioning roof. After poking around for a minute or two I found a quiet, dingy little office where a 95-year-old man sat at a shiny new iMac. This was the owner of both the boat manufacturing facility I was in and the record collection that I came to look at.

He told me a bit about his life. He grew up in New York and had been in advertising on Madison Avenue through the 50s ("Mad Men was a very accurate show," he told me), and eventually his love of sailing had brought him to Edenton to start a company that manufactured custom, high-end sailboats. His brother, he said, was in the media industry and ran WLIR for a few decades until he lost control of the frequency through some sort of strange bureaucratic coup that I didn't really understand. His brother, though he was younger, had advanced-stage alzheimer's so it was left to him to deal with the records. Apparently they had been deposited in the boat factory sometime in the early 90s.

Finally, he said, "do you want to see the records?" and he led me to a room where I saw this:

My heart leapt and sank at the same time. The spidey sense I have for records definitely dinged and pointed my attention toward the copy of The Smiths' The Queen Is Dead on top of one of those giant stacks (you can see it on the right-hand side of the photo above)... this was the fabled WLIR library. However, the room smelled of mold. It was raining and water was literally dripping onto the records. They had been stacked horizontally for twenty-five years... the mix of emotions was profound.

The owner guided me through the collection, which they had sorted by condition. They had several hundred sealed records sitting on a counter. The Smiths LP was in a pile of several thousand records that, he told me, had jackets that were "not in good condition," which actually meant that the jackets were stuck together and the paper was so brittle that it would crack like a popadom. The other, larger stack (easily 5-8000 LPs) he insisted were in good condition, but honestly weren't much better. Jackets were stuck together, many were water damaged, all smelled musty, and of course the big problem was that after being stored in those stacks for so long warping would be a huge problem. He left me to it and I started sifting through the stacks, unable to use Discogs because I had no data reception in such a remote location.

I pulled a box of 100 or so LPs that I knew would be worth the effort of cleaning up and selling. One of the first things I found in the stack of sealed records was a sealed original Braineater pressing of the Wipers' Over the Edge, and the other big score was several sealed copies of the Labrynth movie soundtrack, which was a particularly hot ticket item since David Bowie had just died. I found lots of bigger-name '77 punk like the Jam, the Rezillos, and the Buzzcocks... TONS of promos from labels like Sire and IRS. Some stuff I grabbed just because it looked cool, which resulted in probably my favorite discovery of the trip, the German synth-punk / proto-industrial artist Tommi Stumpff:

It was impossible to go through everything there, so in addition to the records I cherry-picked, I also convinced the guy to let me take one or two of the big vertical stacks of  records you see in the pic above, the idea being that it would serve as a representative sample and I could use it to figure out what kind of deal I could make for the entire lot. I made my way through that stuff over the next few weeks, but there were no great shakes there. There were plenty of OK LPs, but lots more promo 12" singles for long-forgotten power-pop bands, and given the issues with the records' general mustiness and the fact that one out of at least every five records was severely warped, it just wasn't worth the effort to go back and get the rest of them. I'm sure there are plenty of gems there, but it's only one out of every 500 or so records, and I can't take 10,000+ records into my possession just to get a few dozen interesting items. Further, the owner was convinced that he could find someone who was a fan of the station to buy the entire lot for nostalgia purposes... he thought that there had to be some rich New Yorker who grew up listening to WLIR and would want to put the collection in their basement or something, but I don't think any rich people would want to fuck with 10,000+ moldy records.

Oh, and you may be wondering why I started this by bringing up Walter Schreifels. Well, on both of the podcasts that I heard him on, the hosts asked him why he thought Gorilla Biscuits' music was so much more accessible than the music of the other bands of their time and place, and both times he gave more or less the same answer. He said that there was this radio station out on Long Island called WLIR that played all of the hip new British music like the Jam and the Smiths, and that he discovered all of that at the same time he was discovering Agnostic Front and Minor Threat. His songwriting, he insisted, was a fusion of those two sets of influences. So, the copy of The Queen Is Dead that you see above could very well be the exact same copy that was played on the air and inspired Walter Schreifels. Wild, huh?

I've had a lot of response to my last blog post, which has been really nice. I feel like I must have been fishing for compliments because people have been so nice to me. Honestly, though, it has been a difficult summer. About two years ago I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, which up until this summer I thought I'd kicked with a combination of meds and therapy. Basically, I get caught in these cycles of worry that I can't break... my mind keeps thinking about all kinds of terrible scenarios and I can't force those thoughts out of my head in order to concentrate on the things I need to be thinking about at any given moment. Even worse, my body is constantly in fight or flight mode... all of my muscles are clenched tight, my heart races... it's that feeling when you feel like you're about to be in a fight, but I feel like that almost all the time. Not only is it terrible in and of itself, but even when I manage not to feel keyed up I feel sore, exhausted, and irritable because I've been in this anxious state for so long.

Over the past few weeks my anxiety has come back with a vengeance thanks to a kind of perfect storm of stress factors. If there are two things that can send me into this spiral it's money problems and worry about disappointing people (hence the title of this blog), and I'm dealing with both of those things in full force right now. I've mentioned in the email newsletter that they demolished the rehearsal studios where my band and almost all of my friends' bands practiced here in Raleigh, and I've been trying to find a new option. Basically, what I've been trying to do is find a new commercial space that can serve as a rehearsal studio and also serve a handful of other Sorry State / Raleigh punk functions. I've been looking at properties, talking to realtors, trying to figure out business plans... it's a lot to handle and it's occupied almost all of my attention this summer. Now I'm finally close to the point of signing a lease, but unfortunately this is coming at the slowest part of the year for retail and we have basically no spare cash. The last few weeks of July and the first few weeks of August are always tough and I'm always low on money, and this year is no different. I found a space that I think could be the future of Raleigh punk rock and I've put in an application for a lease, but it will cost me over $4000 to move in. Right now I just don't have that money, and it's frustrating. Further, not only do I not have the liquid cash, but Sorry State has a pretty substantial (to me at least) debt, so I wonder if I should even be starting a whole new venture when I haven't actually figured out how to make a profit or even pay myself with the store and the distro. Not that my goal is to make a profit, but when I lose money (and I always do) the bills have to get paid somehow, and that's when the anxiety starts. 
I see this point on the horizon where I want to be, but I can't figure out how to get there. It may work itself out, but in the meantime I've been spending pretty much every waking hour making myself sick with worry about whether and how I can make this work.

I wish I could just figure this out and get it settled, because when I get in this anxious state I become numb. Worries consume me and I lose the ability to feel. The worst is that I just don't enjoy anything. I try doing the things that usually make me happy--listening to records, reading, playing guitar--but I feel like I'm just going through the motions, or like I'm watching a movie of someone else doing these things. That's probably why there aren't any notes about what I've been listening to in this entry... I've been listening to plenty of music because I'm always listening to music, but I haven't been feeling music in the way that I want to. So, sorry to leave off on such a depressing note, but that's it for now. Hopefully I'll have some better news next time.