New York Stories: Rich Juzwiak

A writer remembers the thrills of pre-Internet musical compulsion.

Anton Pearson

I had a ticket to see Frank Ocean at Terminal 5 in July and I didn’t go. A storm was brewing and the sky looked like a painting of Armageddon. The idea of standing in a swamp of perspiration and atmospheric humidity in that giant warehouse for a calm, sensitive show didn’t appeal to me. I couldn’t muster the strength. I felt like I should work out or read instead. I’m getting older. Besides, all the good stuff would be filmed from the crowd and wind up online anyway, right?

I bought this ticket myself, so my absence was an act of frivolity. But it’s a more subdued, less disruptive type of frivolity than that of my concert-going youth, when I’d line up hours and hours ahead of time for a spot at a general admission show, stand for more hours once let in, experience a chain of bands I didn’t care about, whose warm-up sets often deadened my eardrums, so that by the time the band I actually was there to see finally came on, I heard them with the clarity of someone whose head was underwater. That’s what it was like seeing Pulp in 1998 at the Hammerstein Ballroom.

Sometimes devoting an entire day to seeing a show at night had its advantages – I once lined up so early to see Elliott Smith during his Figure 8 tour that he walked by me after his sound check. I talked to him for a bit and asked him to play “St. Ides Heaven.” He stammered that it probably wouldn’t be possible as this was a full-band tour. But it was possible. He did end up playing that song solo-electric during the encore and it was a perfect moment of clarity – sonic, emotional.

Elliott Smith – St. Ides Heaven

I started at NYU in 1997 and within days went to my first Tiswas party at Coney Island High, which was on St. Mark’s between Second and Third Avenues; I think it’s a noodle bar now. This was when St. Mark’s was still synonymous with heroin (or so my NYU tour guide would solemnly have had me believe) and when Alphabet City probably spelled certain death for a 19-year-old who repeatedly called it “Alphabet Street.” My friends and I would go to the under-attended Britpop night and flail like children to New Order and Underworld, shout loudly along to Blur’s “Parklife,” and drink gin and tonics because Liam Gallagher mentioned them in “Supersonic.” Or at least that’s why I did it.

I would listen to CDs in their entirety and if I didn’t like them that much, I’d listen to them again and again, willing myself to find something, anything, to justify the money spent.

During that time I would walk around everywhere with a Discman and booklet of no fewer than 20 CDs. I remember being stopped outside of class one day by a fellow student who informally polled me on why I was listening to music in public. I barely understood why she was asking – why wouldn’t a person listen to music in public? Music scored reality into something cinematic. It made walks fly. There was so much of it that I had to know all of it deeply and spend as much time as possible studying it. I suppose now she was implying that by shutting out the noise of the world, I was shutting out the possibility of social interaction, even though she had proved it wrong – and music was a conversation always in my head anyways.

Those were the days when CD shopping was an event – I would scour the used bins at Kim’s on St. Mark’s for good deals and as-yet-unreleased promos. I would visit Tower and Virgin, coveting import singles; they charged a lot for a few songs and seemed like the ultimate in attainable luxury. I would arbitrarily trust write-ups on index cards at Other Music and blind-buy albums I’d never heard of from artists I’d never hear from again. I would listen to CDs in their entirety and if I didn’t like them that much, I’d listen to them again and again, willing myself to find something, anything, to justify the money spent.

The MP3 player was a dream come true, a sleek way of managing my need for musical options. But it soon took me from musical love to compulsion. I am now musically promiscuous – always on the prowl, always looking for new and better, and finding it often enough to justify the search. As a culture consumer, sometimes I feel like I’m devolving. Whereas before I forged deep and meaningful relationships with artists and entire albums, now it’s mostly a series of one-night stands, one-off experiences. I’ve listened to Kate Bush’s The Dreaming probably 200 times. I don’t even remember what my favorite album from last year was and I maybe listened to it all the way through a dozen times, if I’m being generous. It’s all so fleeting now.

In a way, that’s how it has to be, right? You grow up, priorities shift, the importance of leisure activities evaporates. I don’t listen to music less and I listen to far more music than ever, but now it takes up far less emotional energy. I think we can agree that when music became essentially free and available wherever/ whenever, it became a lot easier to take for granted. It’s just not precious anymore. I remember wanting to hear Stacey Q’s “Two of Hearts” so badly when I was a freshman in college and having to sift through rows of ’80s compilations to find the one that featured it. (Napster wouldn’t take over until a year or two later.) There was a time when sometimes it was impossible to hear the song that you wanted to at any given moment. There was a time, not even that long ago, when discovering new music and cultivating taste was a bigger process than turning on a faucet.

Fighting technology is a losing battle, and I’m not bemoaning progress. I’m glad that I can carry around 140 gigabytes of music in my pocket so that I can hear literally every single thing I would ever want to hear at a moment’s notice. That comforts me. But it has also jaded me. I find myself a lot less impressed in general. I saw Solange a few months ago and thought, “Okay, whatever.” She thinks her songs are dancier than they are, that her charisma is more infectious than it is. I saw Disclosure more recently and was impressed by the energy they put into replicating precisely what their music sounds like on record. I suppose had they showed up to just press play I would have been pissed, like, “You babies think you’re Kraftwerk.”

Everything sounded just alright until sonic architect Morgan Geist came on and provided a depth of sound. That guy conducts a sound system like an orchestra.

I miss youth. I miss those internal gasps and roller-coaster belly drops. In the early 2000s, the world seemed so open and ready for me, even when I knew it was ridiculous. I went to Luxx a few times to experience electroclash and the Italo-disco retroist scene, which made it okay to play beat-matchable music without beatmatching, and where everyone thought they were Larry Levan. It was intoxicating, the trashiness of the sound, the queerness of the boys. I guess people were on drugs, but I never would have thought to take them. There was too much stimulation as it was. Now it takes chemicals and/or a brilliant sound system to really move me – the best, most comfortable I’ve ever felt in a club was at Cielo when UK disco revivalists Horse Meat Disco played their handful of holiday-weekend DJ sets. (And even then, I sometimes get resentful for recognizing so much of the second-tier canon they regularly play, like Cerrone’s “Supernature” and Chemise’s “She Can’t Love You.”) I was at a warehouse party in Bushwick recently, and everything sounded just alright until sonic architect Morgan Geist came on and provided a depth of sound and clarity that was at least ten times better than what was on before. That guy conducts a sound system like an orchestra. That makes me excited.

But that excitement is fleeting, too. So often for me now, music is just a backdrop, something to acknowledge from time to time while in pursuit of different fleeting emotions, something to half-realize I’m enjoying while I’m making out with some guy in the middle of a sea of them. Things change, priorities shift. Sometimes now I walk around the city with my iPod paused or even with my headphones out of my ears. It’s not necessarily to conduct any kind of social interaction. It’s to see what else is out there.

A version of this article appeared in The Daily Note, a free daily newspaper distributed in New York during the 2013 Red Bull Music Academy.

By Rich Juzwiak on May 27, 2013

On a different note