It feels like my entire room is shelves, and somehow I’m still always running out of space. I squeeze books into the crevices above more neatly arranged (but not organized) paperbacks. I move a handful of records from one shelf to the next, trying to give them a little breathing room, transposing a stack from each subsequent shelf to settle the score. I flip through magazines piling up next to my bed, deciding how many weeks’ worth of issues is reasonable to keep, tossing the rest into a recycle pile.
I’ve always kind of been a collector. After reading David Anthony’s newsletter about collecting vinyl earlier this week, I’ve been thinking a little bit more about why I do this kind of thing. Like Anthony hints, the reasons are probably deep-seated and kind of embedded in my personality. When I was a kid, I had a thing for boxes. Just...boxes? I didn’t like to see them thrown away—I liked nice little boxes that you could hide things in and big, refrigerator-sized cardboard boxes that you could hide yourself in. My room was filled with these kinds of things, and I’m still not all that clear on the reasons.
Here’s another little anecdote I tend to hang on to from when I was a kid—I used to kind of arrange things on my dresser. I can’t remember exactly what, but I think it was probably whatever toys I was into or whatever cool rock I had found in my backyard. My dad used to come into my room and ask if I was running a store, since it seemed like the way I had placed these items was designed to entice somebody toward them, I’m not sure who. It’s not like I was a particularly neat child, but I guess I liked to pick some things out of the pile and give them a special platform.
My parents also used to call me a pack rat or a hoarder. Probably on account of all the rocks and cardboard.
The point is that I feel like my tendency to collect things is a little bit compulsive. Last year, I wrote about how I had started to collect cassette tapes and the reasons why I find them to be satisfying in spite of their apparent impracticality. Probably the last thing I need is another thing to collect, considering that I just had to ditch the wobbly old bookshelf that I yanked from an old landlord’s home and shell out IKEA prices for one of those square 3x3 things to store my irresponsibly swelling assortment of LPs. But now I have a shelf full of little towers of clattering plastic cases as well.
I talk a little bit about this in that article, but getting into cassettes really was a way for me to cope with everything happening with the pandemic. I needed a new kind of energy around to break up the monotony and the anxiety, and the strange, personal closeness that comes from the sound of a fuzzily-dubbed cassette tape was welcome to me in a time when it’s hard not to feel disconnected from pretty much everybody.
I still stand by all of those sentiments. In fact, I had a wonderful time listening to the entire Touché Amoré cassette box set over the weekend, hearing these songs that I’ve heard a hundred times before in a new, fuzzier way. There’s just something different about bouncing around my living room to “Reminders” while the little blue tape player whirrs in my hand.
But I also think that the act of collecting something new was the main coping mechanism for me here. Like, here’s something that I understand. That I can control. Something that’s within reach (I mention the affordability and low cost threshold for getting into the cassette game in the article). It was something to spill my time into when I suddenly felt like I had way too much of it. That was remarkable in itself, that I found a way to fall back into my old instincts when I had spent a lot of time feeling spaced out and overwhelmed.
And those instincts went back pretty far. I found myself sharing pictures of new arrivals, trying to make the most of my absolutely pathetic photography skills to show everyone what I was seeing in these little pieces of plastic. I carefully curated which tapes I thought it might be worthwhile to own, putting aside those releases that are probably better suited to another format. I arranged my growing towers with pride on my dresser. I could imagine my father joking once again that it seemed like I was running a store.
A couple weeks ago, I devoured the seven episodes of Pretend It’s a City, a documentary series in which Martin Scorsese interviews Fran Lebowitz and films her walking, annoyed, around New York. It is exactly as I have described it here and not much more—the show is mostly a sounding board for Lebowitz’s prickly musing about pretty much everything, from inconvenient subway station renovations to the films she likes to her indifferent perspective on ubiquitous technology.
The show kind of sounds, on paper, like it’d be too much or like it’d be too boring, but it’s honestly so pleasant and free-wheeling that I watched it twice through. There’s something strangely soothing about the show, comforting in its pleasant routine of jazz background music and consistently recycled city-walking footage.
The reason I bring up Pretend It’s a City is because of one of the show’s running themes. A couple of times, Lebowitz touches on her struggle to find an affordable apartment that would accommodate her collection of 10,000 books. 10,000 books. At one point, she holds an old hardback book up to the camera and says “I love this book. And if anything happened to this book, I would be completely heartbroken.”
Elsewhere during the show (the episodes are divided by subject but the format is such that it feels like one lengthy ride, so it’s difficult to remember what happens when), Lebowitz mentions that it appears to her that young people don’t have any things. Like most generalizations about younger generations, I find this observation to be overly reductive and not true to what I’ve experienced as part of that demographic—probably like all generations of people, the people my age are all over the map in terms of whether or not owning a thing matters to them. I know big obsessive collectors and I know people who might as well be minimalists, and everyone in between.
But the point is that I experienced a certain deep recognition when I watched Lebowitz express that odd preciousness that comes with those particularly special pieces of a growing collection. I think about the first vinyl record I ever bought, The Early November’s The Acoustic EP, and how I feel more protective over that one item than I do over most other things I own, even if it’s such a niche thing that not many people will care about at all. I am wary of the dangers of materialism and of course I know that things or having the perfect assortment of things isn’t important at the end of the day. It’s likely that I’ll eventually have to sell off or donate or pass down a lot of what I’ve built. But honestly that’s pretty exciting to me, thinking of all the meaning that has been poured into that book or that record or that tape, all that history that its new owner might not even know the half of.
What I see in Lebowitz—and what I feel when I get all of my records, all of my books, and all of my tapes to fit just perfectly into my limited arrangement of shelves—is a mutual understanding of what it feels like to hold that special piece of your collection in your hands. That feeling of being a little bit in awe of the actual substance of what lies beneath that cover. That feeling of letting that item be a proxy for all of the memories and, ugh, feelings you have connected to that substance, just for the brief moment that you take it out of the plastic case.
On the other hand, I get a little nervous sweat when I think of what it might look like if I tried to pile 10,000 books into my bedroom. I don’t know where I’d keep all of my cool rocks.
You know those words that you read or say out loud enough times that they start to be unrecognizable? I guess maybe it can be any word, if you have the strength and the bravery to say it enough times. I just had this happen to me while I put together this week’s mini-playlist, which is composed only of songs that have some variation of the word “happy” in the title.
I didn’t do this to be cute or overly positive. I’m all for optimism, but there’s no reason to be overly positive right now. But I was just listening to that song by The Wrens, “Happy,” and thinking about how it is decidedly not a happy song, and then I got to thinking about Elliott Smith’s own “Happiness” which is a surprisingly happy song, at least for him, and that led me down this little rabbit hole of collecting different songs that bounced off the word and how, if you were to listen to them all together, the word itself might dissolve and all you’d be left with is that distilled sentiment. I don’t know. Here are some fast thoughts on each song.
I’ve been in a real Elliott Smith mood the past month, but that mood brought me back to Figure 8 only just recently. My first favorite Elliott Smith record, such a vibrant and shiny and beautiful document. It has fallen down in my rankings over the past few years—it’s difficult to deny the understated and unique power of his self-titled and Either/Or—but I still love this album. I guess “Happiness” is the marquee song from that era. I called this a happy song earlier, but maybe that’s a little too simple. But it does offer that brightness, that sunbeam organ sound, that breezier quality that permeates the record.
This still might be my favorite Mitski song. I think maybe because it felt like such a huge moment when Puberty 2 came out, and this is such a vibrant and surprising introduction. The saxophone! Also, talk about twisting the meaning of the word “happy.”
This song is so important in the context of Painted Shut, for my money one of the best rock albums of the last ten years. That’s such a loud, stomping record. But “Happy to See Me” is the through-line from the early records to Bark Your Head Off, Dog, their more folky past to their more layered and patient future.
Don Giovanni Records recently digitally reissued the first two Atom & His Package LPs, so I’ve been listening to those a bunch recently. My sister used to love the live album Hair: Debatable, and it’s got me thinking back to when these weird little songs would appear through the speakers of her old red mustang, and I’d always laugh and ask “what the fuck is this?” That’s a kind of happy, I think.
I feel like not a ton of people talk about Rabbit Fur Coat, the album that Jenny Lewis made with the Watson Twins in 2006, but I feel like they should! It’s such a wonderful record, and this song has such a warm and lonely quality to it, one that makes Lewis’s voice hit particularly hard.
There’s that wailing little guitar sound that appears all throughout this Kevin Devine track, I hear it in my brain all the time. Bulldozer is one of Devine’s more understated records, and I think I tend to underrate it. I always find something I didn’t expect whenever I come back to it. This song shows happiness from the outside looking in.
I’ve been listening to The Meadowlands a ton this week since Steven Hyden interviewed Charles Bissell this week about their long-gestating follow-up record (that’s two weeks in a row I’ve mentioned Hyden, I don’t know what that says about me). I love the way this song sets the stage for the rest of The Meadowlands, how it feels like a little subtle odyssey through all the sounds they’ll touch on throughout the album. I only got into this record maybe a couple years ago, so I always feel some type of way when I get excited for new music for them. Some of their fans have been waiting 18 years, I don’t think I could possibly have that kind of intensity. But regardless, I can’t wait.
Here are a couple random things I wanted to say real quick:
First of all, I wanted to say thanks so much to everyone who has read, subscribed, shared, or acknowledged this newsletter over the past four weeks. This past month was kind of an experiment and I have to say that your encouragement has really helped me out. This is by far the most I’ve ever written in January, a historically slow month for music stuff, and it seems arbitrary but I think this has helped me start the year on a good foot.
Speaking of music writing, I contributed to The Alternative’s list of most anticipated albums of 2021, which went up last week. There’s so much great stuff to look forward to on this list and as always I’m so stoked to be a part of this group of such talented writers with such eclectic tastes.
As an aside to my thing about collecting, I’ve never been the kind of person who like needs to have a specific edition of something or will seek out and pay exorbitant prices for a particular variant. Don’t get me wrong, I love a pretty record but just having a decent copy of something is nice enough for me.
That being said, I am really drawn to this advance cassette promo of Jimmy Eat World’s 1996 album Static Prevails. I still cannot afford to pay much for one if it ever appears, but if you see one around tell it I said hi.
For next week’s newsletter, I’ll finish out my lightning reviews of all the books I read in 2020. These have been super fun to do and I’m excited to do a whole bunch more this week. If you want, you can get caught up on part one here.
Thanks again for reading I Keep a Diary. I don’t watch a lot of music videos these days but this is my favorite one I saw last year:
My name is Jordy Walsh, and I’m a writer based in Philadelphia. I write about music for The Alternative and Slant Magazine. I Keep a Diary is a newsletter about music, books, writing, and probably a lot of vague emotions. You can follow me on Twitter for more thoughts on all that stuff and also a lot of pictures of my dog. Thanks for joining me.