Ah, history. Few are the students, many the volumes; everyone’s got a contribution they want to make to the written and visual and sonic record of “what people do.” With the advent of the Internet the masses have been enabled to make such contributions — witness the proliferation of new music of variable quality on SoundCloud and Bandcamp and YouTube. The massive whoompf of content that worried analysts predict will turn the Internet into a jungle of human output (whaddaya mean “will,” ya fuckin’ egghead?) has swamped me and everyone else seeking to connect, superficially or deeply, through the traditionally recognized arts, and at some point the average observer will be sorely tempted to light his hair on fire and run screaming from the three hundred hours of video uploaded every minute to YouTube alone.
Let’s step back for a minute. Who says there’s any sifting to be done? Why do we treat this profusion of content as something to be waded into a la the Ganges River, or a sewage pond? We despair at the idea of finding good music in the swamp — not for nothing are SoundCloud rappers a national punchline. What we need is a new philosophy by which to guide our search for “the good stuff,” as nebulous a term as that may be, and wide-netted besides; we need to accept one thing first of all: that we are bound to miss some great music. It sounds painful, and it is, to realize that this is the truth we live with, but it is a necessary realization to preserve one’s sanity in this kind of frenzied productive climate. It’s like dating, in a way, because we must learn not to drown in the opportunity costs of unknown prospects; even Julian Cope had barely any idea of what his favorite band would sound like, only that “it would have to be the Sensational Alice Ra Pop & his MC Cheer, when Damo ‘Ozzy’ Morrison was still on vocals, and before Manuel ‘Sonic’ Van Halen had sold his FX pedals.” (For those who don’t get it, that band is a composite of different names and doesn’t exist; in short, there is no such thing as PERFECT MUSIC.)
If we miss out on some terrific stuff, the reasoning goes, then we should concentrate on two things: one, the music we love, which we have discovered ourselves and are permitted to love like our own spouses, the music without which we would have never become the people we are today — we shudder to imagine a world without it. This is acceptable and healthy, because we know that we love the music that we know of absolutely; we can’t pine after something unless we’ve heard and then forgotten it. Secondly, we should concentrate further on our collection of new music, and work ahead steadily to increase its size and quality. Here we can focus our attention on what we read about, what we hear online, what friends tell us about, what we find in shops, what we discover in a distant relative’s cabinet. Lewis and Clark didn’t pole-vault to the Columbia River — they made a fucking journey out of getting there, and that was where they found prairie dogs and shrikes and coyotes and dozens of wildflowers for the first time. They didn’t find mammoths on their way, which is probably important to the metaphor too; but they found a lot more than what they were looking for.
Treat collecting like a journey, in other words, and celebrate all your specimens. In the past the big labels acted as our tastemakers, and took it upon themselves to conform to what they believed “the people” would want from music’s vast talent pool; of course they ended up passing over Captain Beefheart and the Ninth Amendment and Earth and dozens of the great punk and pre-punk and post-punk and kraut-rock groups in the process, and ended up becoming so unhip that people really didn’t feel too obligated to keep feeding them money in the late ’90’s when piracy started to eat away at the major-league record companies. No one cries for Atlantic or RCA or Columbia (though maybe Columbia kind of deserves some tears, after they bankrolled some of the better acts of the twentieth century [the Byrds, Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, the Hampton Grease Band, etc]). We can’t accede our newfound power to labels once again, just so that they can promote a couple of big-ticket groups and make shitloads of money to waste on promotion; see Steve Albini’s commencement address for the history of this kind of horseshit. WE are the gatekeepers now, and it’s going to stay that way. Therefore I suggest you follow my ideas for collecting in the Internet age.
As I mentioned, the big record companies were often heavy-handed and sloppy in their selection of artists; on occasion, however, they got their picks exceedingly right. Buddah Records would have had a bona fide success in Captain Beefheart, but they kicked him to the curb before he peaked; their loss, I guess. Columbia, on the other hand, had the wrong idea when they signed the Byrds, in hoping that they would remain the electric counterparts to Peter, Paul and Mary and the Weavers by covering Bob Dylan songs which were somehow too raw for contemporary teenagers. Apparently the group had other ideas, and in 1966 they completed work on Fifth Dimension, in my experience their best album and one of the most wonderful I’ve ever heard. I picked it up by fleeting chance in a musical-instruments shop in Portland, when we stopped over because my sister wanted clarinet reeds. My copy sounds played unto oblivion, crackly and distorted throughout and with a skip that interrupts the very end of “Eight Miles High” right as the cymbals fade from the flailing outro and the guitars simply hum out. I still adore the album, though — I would say that parts of it are beyond words, but I’m writing a fucking review. Come on.
Some of it takes longer to grow on me than the rest, of course. “5D” was hard to assimilate before a few listens hammered it into my memory; I was wary of the string-laden folk-rock tracks too, and of course the novelty songs (“Captain Soul,” “2-4-2 Foxtrot”) were a tougher sell. I grew to enjoy all of them, however, and the rest of the album was a seamless piece of wonderful work that gives me an almost matchless pleasure. Only a few times have I heard rock musicians approach harmony so in such strange and compelling ways, while yoking the music to a badass rock beat; Jack Endino’s solo work plays with similar ideas, as do Keith Levene’s hilarious and fascinating reharmonizations throughout Metal Box. The Byrds’ guitars play with musicality itself, sending a steel-wool lead guitar scurrying through the chords of “I See You” and “Eight Miles High” and consequently propelling each song into a breathtaking frenzy. The dissonances don’t kill the songs, I eventually figured out; they sting them, antagonize the rhythm players until the songs seem to physically burst from the record. Witness the last verse of “I See You” and how Michael Clarke and David Crosby are compelled by the Roger McGuinn’s flaming, flitting leads (birds of fire?) to attack the song with unanticipated strength. These new Byrds no longer cover Bob Dylan, whose songs are refreshingly absent from Fifth Dimension; they are a sensitive and adventurous war party who can coax unprecedented performances from the traditional rock instruments. We will ignore the full-on fury of the Sonics and the Monks from the year before, and the tepid avant-garbage of the Velvet Underground a year later; in the 1966 mainstream, the Byrds were the most ferocious and outward-facing group around.
If it’s not already clear, I adore the Byrds’ Fifth Dimension record, and believe that it’s their best album; it is complex, energetic, adolescent rock music at its apex. Make it a priority to find a copy somewhere soon — you will not regret it, I promise, whomever you are. Fate or recommendations, I noted above, will bring you to as much good music as you could ever hope to hear, and no matter how much listening you do or how much crap you will probably hear there will always be the Byrds around to appreciate and celebrate. Now go keep collecting, and don’t forget to cherish all the precious things you have — in love, in music and in life.