Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Serious record collectors are always in need of prayer. This is not because they have sinned any more than their fellowmen, but because they are in purgatory. Their existence is simultaneously haunted by, and given meaning to, by the same thing – the records they collect. It gives them a reason to live, and yet it is also the source of a gnawing emptiness that eats away at their lives. Records keep their existence from becoming a colourless hell-hole; they are also what stand between them and absolution - that great big room full of albums in the sky.

Is there a difference between a collector and a serious collector of music? Or a collector versus an accumulator of music? There are, and the great tragedy is that no one except serious collectors cares about these distinctions. Collectors have never been able to come to terms with this fact, and those who continue to harp incessantly on about them find themselves cast out from polite society. Perhaps that’s just as well. True collectors have and always will be a sub-species, alienated from the mainstream. In High Fidelity, Nick Hornby describes what a true collector look like - “…young men, always young men, with John Lennon specs and leather jackets and armfuls of square carrier bags…young men who spend a disproportionate amount of their time looking for deleted Smiths singles and ‘ORIGINIAL NOT RE-RELEASED’ underlined Frank Zappa albums. They’re as close to being mad as makes no difference”

I may as well confess that I am one of these aforementioned collectors, have been one for years now. The realisation dawned on me when I realised I was barking at classmates who replaced ‘Automatic for the people’ with whatever Outlandish came out with in 2002, in their car stereos. I also started making giant lists of the CDs I would buy as soon as I could afford them. Like Kanye West put it “I always had a passion for flashin', before I had it I’d close my eyes and imagine”.

As my collection started to take shape, it became intertwined with the guilt on spending my parents’ money on cassettes and the occasional CD. When I finally started earning my collection accelerated. The old guilt was gone, replaced by newer and more evolved guilts. I will speak about these, and outline other characteristics which I have come to believe are universal to all serious record collectors. I have, if you will, managed to pinpoint symptoms of the disease even as I suffer from it. I now present before you…

6 key characteristics of a serious record collector

  1. He is not an accumulator

To the casual glancer, collectors and accumulators may appear as one and the same. But there are important differences. One, accumulators may think they are collectors, but collectors know they are not accumulators. Two, accumulators are the kinds who would collect the entire discography of an artist and keep it in their hard drives, because, like Mount Everest, it is there. A collector always knows the value of that which he collects. Three, accumulators will normally not be familiar with their musical collection; true collectors will have heard (or at the least, intend to hear) everything which they own.

  1. He is a rationaliser

Serious record collectors would never have been able to continue being what they are unless they were experts are rationalising their bordering-on-obsessive behaviour to themselves. Take, for example, the variety of explanations a collector could give oneself for picking up a particular album…

“This is a really good album”

“This is a really rare album”

“I really like this band”

“I don’t really like this album, but it’ll complete my collection”

“ said that he stole every note he ever played from , so I have to hear this”

“I know every note of every song on this album, but I still don’t own it on CD”

“I have this album, but only on tape”

“I didn’t really take to this band on first hearing, but its got such good reviews that I think if I sit with it, I’m sure I’ll get it after a while”

“I don’t know if I’ll like this album but it’s a landmark recording and my collection never be taken seriously unless I have it”

“I think a hip-hop record will look good amongst my classic rock CDs”

  1. He is a sponge

Serious collectors know exactly what they should buy. They understand the consequences of having to live with themselves after missing out on some essential purchase and thus take all possible steps to avoid such a catastrophe. They know entire discographies of artistes relevant to them. They know what their album covers look like. They know which artistes are good for singles, and which ones should be bought album by album (only a serious collector could explain how it is acceptable to buy ‘Motown Legends: Martha and the Vandellas’ but a deep insult to music in general to buy ‘Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits’). They may take a risk on an unknown Iceland post-punk band, but it’s not really a risk if Blender, Pitchfork and Rolling Stone all have them on their ‘Artistes to watch out for’ list, is it?

  1. He is a hawk

Have you ever observed serious record collectors when they are in a shop? If you did, you’d notice that they follow certain regimented patterns, as sacred to them as palette cleansing is to a wine-taster, or push-ups to an athlete. First they will check for new releases (no record collector likes to be left behind). Then they will scan the racks perfunctorily, looking for new albums which may have turned since the last time they were there. Finally, they will settle down and really start looking – artist by artist, shelf by shelf. All the while, they are carrying on an internal dialogue with themselves. It goes something like this - “Hmm…Beatles, Live at the BBC…I know its great but I picked up the White Album last time…better give another decade a chance…there’s that Radiohead album I wanted to pick up a few years ago…how much am I missing out by not picking it up? How much money do I have? Should I be spending this much…oh shit, there’s an offer on a 2CD+DVD thingy on I.R.S-era R.E.M…I don’t really need this…but it’ll complete my collection…damn it, I’ll take them all…why else am I earning…”

  1. He is obsessive

Normal people fraternise at social gatherings; collectors stake out potential new sources of music.

Normal people don’t really care whether people like the music they have or not; as far as collectors are concerned, you’d be on safer ground criticising their passed-down-for-generations recipe for soup than their Toots and the Maytals albums.

Normal people gaze at CD racks in a music store and move on if nothing interests them. Collectors bend, kneel, contort themselves. When they glimpse a CD they didn’t expect to find there they clutch at it like hobbits clutch at rings.

Collectors never ask the store-helpers for assistance – this is their alone time. They do not want advice, or indeed anyone in their line of vision. They are aware that the language they speak in is different and all they want is to be allowed to go on speaking it.

  1. He suffers for his art

Would you want to meet the kind of person described above? Be honest. You are not alone. The only people who can stand serious record collectors are other serious record collectors. Their lives are grey and dismal. They have a finer sense of guilt than most. Why are they seen as different? Why do little children shy away from them? Sometimes they daydream for a while and imagine that the world has come to see them as Gotham City saw the Dark Knight, as the kind of hero they deserve but do not need right now. A masked crusader, swooping in at the last moment to prevent them from buying ‘Led Zeppelin on Panpipes’. But then they wake up and realise that the truest thing about a serious record collector is that they are, like all uncompromising souls, destined to be alone.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Fancast #3: Stillness is the move

It is important to admit one’s mistakes. So I’ll start off with Roxy Music’s Avalon. I got lucky with Roxy albums two, four and five. Avalon unfortunately was eight, and eight, as they say, is often too late. MOR, AOR and EOR (elevator-oriented rock) all rolled into one, it was a horrible way to spend 300 bucks.

On the other hand, I did get hold of REM, Live at the Olympia. The story – already semi-legend in REM fan circles – goes something like this. Sometime after releasing Around the Sun, their worst album till date, REM decided that they needed to work themselves back into relevance. They devised an ingenious high-wire solution. Instead of going the traditional way and performing the new songs on stage once they have been worked over and perfected, why not perform them in their rudimentary stages and see if they click? The result was a serious of shows – which REM insists repeatedly from the stage, are not shows at all – which alternates songs dating as far back as their earliest demos to the jagged tunes that would go on to comprise the majority of their 2008 return-to-form Accelerate. For those who have heard that album, and wondered how they got there from Around the Sun, Live at the Olympia will play like a missing link.

The setlist is carefully chosen, many of the 39 songs being plucked from their IRS catalogue. There seems to be a very deliberate attempt to get back to their roots – they perform nearly all of their debut EP, Chronic Town – and to redefine them. There’s an urgency in the air which is invigorating, and familiar to long-time fans. REM is capable of sublime delicacy on their records, but their stage act has always been charged with the energy of punk. Michael Stipe misses a few notes here and there but is still a driving, and playfully compelling frontman. Mike Mills’ backing vocals are upfront (at least as much as backing vocals can be) after a decade of neglect. And Peter Buck…well, one can only hope he gets his due someday. Like Kipling’s ideal man, he meets with folkie strum and powerchord riff, and treats those two impostors just the same. It’s also a rare opportunity to see an album take shape in front of one’s eyes. For instance, ‘Supernatural Superserious’ has little of the impact that made it the lead single on Accelerate – it's simply called ‘Disguise’ here and sorely lacks that mighty opening riff. You can tell from the band’s performance that they know it needs work. It’s one of the few weak spots in a remarkably charged up testament to REM’s song-writing and performing capabilities, and, let’s face it, their unprecedented act of bravery after 20 years in the musical arena.

Have been hearing a good deal of Wilco lately. Heard Wilco, the album, released last year, which tuned out to be a lot better than the temperate reviews it received suggested. Also heard Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, their celebrated 2002 effort. I’ll say this – it left me somewhat cold to begin with, but it definitely improves upon subsequent hearings. I would still question the critical hosannas which followed its release (and continue till the day) but that feeling could wear off with time. If you’re a fan, you should also try and get hold of a documentary shot during the making of YHF. It’s called ‘I am trying to break your heart’ and documents the troubled times which led to their being forced to leave their record label, Reprise, upon completion of the album, and also lays bare the friction between soon-to-be-fired Jay Bennett and the rest of the band.

It’s been an interesting month for singles (of the musical variety). I stumbled upon ‘Maki Madni’ at work – it’s a collaboration between the Derek Trucks Band and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, and it’s quite brilliant. As is ‘Stillness is the move’ by the Dirty Projectors, a kind of R&B-art rock fusion that is very weird and very cool. ‘Losing my edge’ is dance-rock courtesy LCD Soundsystem; I don’t have much time for this sub-genre, but this one was so funny I kept playing it again and again just to hear the tone of the guy’s voice. Animal Collective’s ‘My girls’ was most critics’ choice for track of 2009; it’s a shimmering, glittering thing, decked up in electronica and complex harmonies, recalling the Beach Boys at their sunniest.

I go now. I make fire. I bring meat. You cook. Wait. Me feminist. Me cook. You do dishes.

In my car stereo:
Beatles, Live at the BBC
In my CD drive:
Tom Waits, Swordfishtrombones
In my head: Lady Gaga, ‘Poker face(damn…)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

7 reasons to dislike 3 Idiots

3 Idiots is so amazingly amazing I’d like to take it home with me. I wish I had had someone like Rancho with me in college, so I could have been inspired to drop out, grow my hair long, join a rock band and change my name to Gorgeous Sheep Killer. That would have given me the subsequent opportunity to dump the band five years later, changed my name to Rajkumar Hirani, and make a movie which is 50% sermon and 50% gags of the ‘ageing paraplegic driven to hospital on a two-wheeler’ variety, and rake in crores of rupees. And, like him, I wouldn’t do it for the money, but for the unique opportunity of changing the entire educational system and to see the smiles on the faces of the leaders of tomorrow.

3 Idiots is probably not as bad a movie as I’m making it out to be. Then why, you must be asking, do I appear to have it in for Hirani and Co? I think it’s definitely one of the following reasons:

  1. No amount of sermonising (and there’s a lot of that) can change the fact that the issue which this film actually centres around is both prescient and pressing. But why do our filmmakers lack the necessary belief to be able to present an issue in a non-manipulative manner and trust the audience to see the truth behind it? Why beat them over the head with it?
  2. The setup in the scenes leading to the discovery of the student suicide was masterful. That the preceding scenes were comic in nature made it all the more jarring. But then the film zig-zags back and forth – slapstick, followed by attempted suicide, followed by slapstick, followed by parental disapproval, and so on – until the viewer eventually gives up trying to differentiate between the emotions that are being provoked from him at every turn
  3. This one sounds churlish even as I write it. Its even stranger when you consider that a) I’m an Aamir Khan fan, and b) he does as a fairly convincing job as a college student, appearing for the most part, through a combination of ability, sheer determination and anti-wrinkle cream, younger than both Sharman and Madhavan. So while I can’t say that it was a mistake to cast him in this role, its sad that we had to forget Aamir Khan, the 40 year old, before we could enjoy him as Rancho, the 20 something college student (There’s another attached problem along with this. Previously, when you cast Aamir Khan, you got yourself an actor willing to subsume himself in a particular role until you could see only the character. Now when you cast him, the result is a hybrid of ‘Aamir Khan, thinking man’s actor’ and whatever character he’s playing. This may or may not have been a contributant to the rampant preachiness of this movie (which was also the only real flaw in Taare Zameen Par) though Hirani is known to indulge this vice as well. Of course, it could have been worse – today, when you cast Shahrukh you only get ‘Shahrukh, former actor and star for all time’. And no director knows what you’re going to get when you cast Hrithik Roshan
  4. There’s this amazingly bugging female going ‘Mmmm mmmmm mmmmm’ during every emotional scene in the second half. I doubt I would have liked these scenes anyway, but the voice made me want to throw things at the screen
  5. It is unforgivable the way the movie sets Chatur up as an object of ridicule when he is the most representative, of all the characters shown, of the way the youth of this country evaluates their success today. We laugh at him because the movie makes it easy for us to do so. Then all of us will leave the hall and go back to living our lives according to the exact principles he espouses in the movie, but will be too stupid (or too dishonest with ourselves) to admit to it
  6. The man who brought us some of the best comic setups of the past decade with the two Munnabhai films is now rehashing gags. We’ve seen all these ones before – the guy peeing onto an electrified surface, the ‘noses come in the way’ line, the forgetting of pants, the token gay jibe, the handicap gag…
  7. More on that handicap gag. That, and the entire treatment of Raju’s family as a ‘typical 1950s Bollywood movie’ is not only extraordinarily insensitive, but also extraordinarily clever thinking on the part of the makers. To acknowledge their situation as true-to-life and representative of any number of struggling families that send their kids to college would make it a lot tougher for the audience to wholeheartedly encourage Sharman to follow in Racho’s difficult-to-emulate footsteps. The audience would then have to do some soul searching, but why make the audience think when they are ready to let you think for them?

Finally, somewhere in the midst of all this, there was a memorable line to the effect of “How come you managed to start out as an engineer, then do an MBA, and finally end up working in a bank”. This is a question destined to niggle away at all those who, like me, are at a loss to explain their ridiculous career decisions. This movie could have spoken volumes about my current situation in life. It could have…