A Day in the Life of a Musician, by Erik Satie, 1913:

Erik Satie: Only food that is white, please.

Erik Satie: Only food that is white, please.

An artist must regulate his life.

Here is a time-table of my daily acts. I rise at 7:18; am inspired from 10:23 to 11:47. I lunch at 12:11 and leave the table at 12:14. A healthy ride on horse-back round my domain follows from 1:19 p.m. to 2:53 p.m. Another bout of inspiration from 3:12 to 4:7 p.m. From 5 to 6:47 p.m. various occupations (fencing, reflection, immobility, visits, contemplation, dexterity, natation, etc.)

Dinner is served at 7:16 and finished at 7:20 p.m. From 8:9 to 9:59 p.m. symphonic readings (out loud). I go to bed regularly at 10:37 p.m. Once  a week (Tuesdays)  I awake with a start at 3:14 a.m.

My only nourishment consists of food that is white: eggs, sugar, shredded bones, the fat of dead animals, veal, salt, coconuts, chicken cooked in white water, mouldy fruit, rice, turnips, sausages in camphor, pastry, cheese (white varieties), cotton salad, and certain kinds of fish (without their skin). I boil my wine and drink it cold mixed with the juice of the fuchsia. I have a good appetite, but never talk when eating for fear of strangling myself.

I breathe carefully (a little at a time) and dance very rarely. When walking I hold my ribs and look steadily behind me.

My expression is very serious; when I laugh it is unintentional, and I always apologize very politely.

I sleep with only one eye closed, very profoundly. My bed is round with a hole in it for my head to go through. Every hour a servant takes my temperature and gives me another.

A man must regulate his record collection: My music as artifact

Sinatra's albums are often perfect icons of lonely cool.

Sinatra's albums are often perfect icons of lonely cool.

I dropped to my knees in genuflection, and whipped out my wallet in retribution, on a recent visit to the used-record stores of Toronto’s Queen Street.

Retribution, I say? A decade ago, in an inexplicable spring-cleaning frenzy, I unloaded most of my vinyl records at a yard sale. My apologies to the guy who ended up with Blue Swede’s Hooked on a Feeling, but I’d really like my Atlantis Philharmonic back.

After years of neglect, that piranha-picked vinyl record collection is being re-constructed, a piece here, a piece there. In Toronto, I uncovered a handful of musty stuff that included Sounds in Space, a 1958 stereo demonstration album narrated by Ken Nordine, another by the Estonian prog-rock folk band Ultima Thule and one of Jackie Gleason’s romantic old 10-inch orchestral records.

And Moog: The Electric Eclectics of Dick Hyman, a 1969 recording by the restless jazz pianist. Working with the relatively new Moog synthesizer, Hyman wrote a handful of compositions for the instrument, filling the spaces with weird beeps, flutters and whale calls that left my dog staring at the speakers as though she’d seen a fairy for the first time.  Is it “the music of the future,” as Hyman claims in the liner notes? No, it seems to have gone the way of the Jetsons’ robot maid.

Gleason's orchestral albums are surrealistic delights: This cover is by Salvador Dali.

Gleason's orchestral albums are surrealistic delights: This cover is by Salvador Dali.

A few years ago, I heard the iconoclastic Lou Reed — in that deadpan, dismissive, drop-dead tone of his — lecturing a music-convention audience against the evils of accepting the poor quality delivered by Internet software. Reed hears sounds on his vinyl records — trumpets, dead people, stuff like that — that gets lost in the webosphere. This is unacceptable, Reed said, and until consumers demand a better product, the mysterious cabal that runs the Internet will never be compelled to deliver higher quality. If you once owned a Ford Pinto, you know what Reed was talking about. Only when Americans began demanding cars that didn’t erupt into flame when you walked behind it with a lit cigarette, showing their displeasure by turning to Japanese-made vehicles, did U.S. cars begin to get up to speed.

The rabbit ears among us can pick up the difference. “MP3s are like watching TV on an 8-inch screen with little speakers,” Dick Storms, co-owner of one of the indie stores that I haunt here in Rochester, Record Archive, told me. “CDs are like watching a nice, flat-screen TV,” he insists. “Vinyl, on a good system, vinyl is like going to the movies. There’s that big a difference. It’s the full sonic range, a depth and a warmth and a presence that digital reproduction has not achieved.”

A '58 stereo demo LP narrated by jazz poet Ken Nordine.

A '58 stereo demo LP narrated by jazz poet Ken Nordine.

But other vinyl aspects intrigue me even more. Lost in the digital tsunami is the thrill of discovery, and the album itself as artifact.

“As much as audio people say it’s about the sound, a lot has to do with the social aspect of it,” said another Rochester indie store owner whose counsel I seek, the Bop Shop’s Tom Kohn. “I think of it as being like old bookstores in the ’50s and ’60s, when beatniks used to hang around and talk about their books. There is an actual intellectual exchange. There’s still thinking, people are still interacting with one another.”

The conversation is, when Side A is done, do you flip it over and play Side B? When Side B’s over, what album do you play next? Does Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica lead your brain to Frank Zappa?

It should, if you’re properly wired. The five-CD changer, or the iPod with its 4,000 songs, makes those decisions for you. Paul Dodd, the drummer with the Rochester avant-garde jazz band the Margaret Explosion, is an interesting mix of eclectic savant and wired technocrat (He and his wide, Peggi, designed this site). Dodd has confessed, with some sheepish excitement, that he  has loaded his entire music collection into his computer and that, if he leaves it running 24 hours a day, he wouldn’t hear the same song repeated for 280 days.

Where's my pants? The 1957 film starring Ben Gazzara doesn't live up to this cocktail orchestra soundtrack.

Where's my pants? The 1957 film starring Ben Gazzara doesn't live up to this cocktail orchestra soundtrack.

He probably knows better, although their house is remarkably free of clutter. The best bands are hip to these musical voyages of discovery: Southern Culture on the Skids’ Rick Miller follows his muse to the thrift stores. As a songwriter, his primary source remains the old records that you sold at grandma’s estate sale. “It’s harder now than it used to be,” Miller told me. “They’ve done a really good job of raiding the vaults. But what’s cool is, a lot of these old records came out when stereo was just going, so there’s all kinds of sounds from these guys just showing off what they can do.”

Showoffs like the big-band Enoch Light and the Light Brigade, and the early electric guitarist George Barnes.  Miller had recently acquired a copy of Barnes’ Guitar Galaxies. “The Barnes record actually has a schematic of where everybody stood, and what mikes were used,” he said, with a bit of awe-inspired geek in his voice. These records are often a direct source: Each Southern Culture on the Skids album usually has a song rescued from the thrift bin.

Not only the best Cash album cover ever, but a fine concept album as he rides through the American psyche.

Not only the best Cash album cover ever, but a fine concept album as he rides through the American psyche.

My own vinyl impulse seems to be driven by the album as artifact. It is a tactile experience that the CD, marginalized by its convenient plastic case, cannot match. The vinyl album has a smell: like an automobile fresh off the assembly line, if you get it new. Musty, if it’s used. It has a sound: the crack of the spine, if you’ve just purchased a gatefold album that opens like a greeting card. And the art. Not just the eerie posters that came with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, but the cover of the album itself. The album is big, 12¼ inches by 12¼ inches, so that you can actually see Roger Dean’s fantastic alien planetscapes on the Yes albums, or the aliens ripping through the English landscape in Jeff Wayne’s 1978 two-disc version of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (with Richard Burton narrating!). Kohn remembers a German prog-rock band, Floh de Cologne, whose 1971 anti-capitalism album Profitgeier came with a cover drawing of a chicken slashed with a knife; reach into the gash, and you could pull out the bird’s paper entrails.

The nearly fatal holes in my vinyl collection are healing. A handful of kitschy cocktail albums from Kohn’s store have been a salve. Storms gave me a 1976 album from Bluebird Records, I Miss You,  a great collection of music by a swinging Harlem R&B group from the late 1930s and  ’40s, The Cats & the Fiddle. Chain record stores and box outlets are generally populated by sales people whose only qualification as a music authority is they know the alphabet: “You’re looking for the new Metallica record? That should be here, next to Meat Loaf….” But as properly portrayed in the film High Fidelity, indie record stores employ only music geeks whose sole purpose in life is to blow your mind with the unlimited possibilities of music.

More excellent music:

No. 1, Neko Case, "Middle Cyclone."

No. 1, Neko Case, "Middle Cyclone."

And not a one that you can dance to. I guess I’m the last guy you’d invite to your party. Unless you want to talk about broken hearts, murder, vultures and truckloads of marijuana. First up is Neko Case: Is she a spurned lover, or really a tornado in love? Click on this story for more on Joe Henry, Tom Waits, Vic Chesnutt, Rosanne Cash, The Vijay Iyer Trio, Pink Martini, Orenda Fink, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Ryan Bingham. Not only will this list impress your friends, but thanks to Waits your dating life will improve dramatically after you learn stuff like there are more insects in one square mile than people on the earth, the moon smells like fireworks, you can make 14 omelets out of an ostrich egg and Spam is actually embalmed meat.

Questions and Answers with Jeff

Q: Why is there always so much politics in your writing? Did Ted Nugent really say you were out of your mind?

A: There’s politics in my writing because that’s what people are talking about. That’s what musicians are writing songs about. Even Burt Bacharach’s last album had an anti-war song on it. The people who criticize musicians for speaking out on issues have forgotten the great services rendered by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Dylan, Cash, Joan Baez, Richie Havens. What qualifies a politician to speak for me, anyhow? Why can’t the words of a musician, or a writer, do that? And yes, Nugent did suggest I am out of my mind, and I respect his judgment: He has a personal relationship with the concept.

Q: OK, what do you listen to?

A: I’ve never stopped listening to Tom Waits. When the book is closed on his career, he’ll be ranked as among the greatest musicians of the past 100 years, alongside Dylan, Cash and Coltrane. It’s just that a lot of people can’t see greatness in a guy who looks like he slept in his car last night. Nanci Griffith’s CD, Ruby’s Torch, has a couple of Waits songs on it that bring me to tears.

Q: Music makes you cry?

A: Oh yeah. Especially American Idol.

Q: What’s your favorite band?

A: Frequently it’s Pere Ubu, the Dada-inspired art-rockers from my hometown, Cleveland. Some days, my favorite band is early Stones. Or the Margaret Explosion playing at The Little Theatre Cafe — whatever’s in front of me. I own all of the albums by the Lounge Lizards, so I guess I like that band, too.