Song Of Songs

Barbara Sibley's all-encompassing love of music has inspired her to sacrifice her time, her blood, and a whole lot of shelf space. A look at record collecting as a metaphor for life--and life as a metaphor for record collecting.

I'm afraid that Barbara Sibley is going to play another record. I've been sitting for six hours now, listening to recordings of prank calls made to religious radio stations, samples from Chinese shadow-theater music, Balinese Ramayana monkey chants. It's two o'clock in the morning. We've already gone through stacks of Sibley's favorite records, and my eyes are stinging from exhaustion. My brain is filtering out the music, substituting its own internal soundtrack, which mostly involves the word sleep, repeated over and over. But Sibley, a KFAI DJ who spins many of these songs on her radio show Fubar Omniverse, is still digging through her crates of records, searching for another one to play. From the looks of it, she's even more energetic than when we started. While I wilt, the music is making her stronger.

Sibley, you see, is a fanatic audiophile, and her cranial matter is something that most casual music fans will never understand. It is a dense gray mass, swollen with parenthetical stuffing. (If the All Music Guide sponsored an edition of Trivial Pursuit, the questions and answers would be plagiarized, verbatim, from Sibley's conversational asides.) What I interpret as superfluous information to peruse on my lunch breaks and weekends (the album-release dates, biographical anecdotes of musicians' lives, and liner notes that I find in Wire or Mojo), she embraces as a greater paradigm for understanding the world. The content within these curvaceous forms of punctuation has become part of her larger purpose in life: Sibley positively lives within a set of parentheses.

Well, she doesn't actually live in parentheses; speaking literally, she lives in a two-story house in St. Anthony Park, where she is currently sitting, sifting through records. Stacks of music cover Sibley's floor, chairs, and record player: Femi Kuti, Sun Ra, Hoven Droven, Musci-Venosta, the Jam, Sonny Chillingworth, Lena Willemark. In the back left-hand corner of the room, a closet overflows with crates and more piles of records. This room is not just a storage space for music. It is Sibley's personal shrine.

Shall I play you Musci-Venosta, Akiko Yano, or Gabby Pahinui? Barbara Sibley prepares to spin Carson Daly's biggest hits during her show on KFAI
Michael Dvorak
Shall I play you Musci-Venosta, Akiko Yano, or Gabby Pahinui? Barbara Sibley prepares to spin Carson Daly's biggest hits during her show on KFAI

Sibley does not consider herself to be a fanatical music lover. Never mind that she owns more than 2,500 albums, 1,300 CDs and 2,500 cassettes (area: music would fill a garage band's practice space, floor to ceiling and wall to wall.) Never mind that for the past two decades, she has taken a break from her day job as a technical writer in order to rise at 5:00 a.m. and play these records for four hours on community radio station KFAI-FM (90.3, 106.7). (Sibley's DJ alias: Blanche.) Never mind that many of these programs are devoted to several of her sizable subcollections, which span genres that must by necessity be labeled obscure. (Hawaiian music subgenres: Jawaiian reggae, hula kahiko music, hula oana music, Hawaiian cowboy music.) And never mind that one could blindfold her, hold a record in front of her that no average music connoisseur could have possibly heard of before, and she could still name the musicians who play all of the different instruments on the album. When listening to R&B hero Slim Gaillard's albums, Sibley can distinguish which songs were aided by the backup vocals of Wini Beatty, the woman who recorded the John Birch Society satirical record Folk Songs for Taxpayers.

Ask her the date when the bootleg of Robyn Hitchcock's 7th Street Entry show was recorded--the one in which Hitchcock surprised and delighted the audience by singing an a cappella version of "Uncorrected Personality Traits"--and she will tell you (answer: Saturday, November 16, 1985). But then she will insist, "I'm not one of those eBay fanatics, and I'm not a professional record collector."

A record collector's system of storing knowledge is often just as personalized and unusual as Sibley's system of storing music. Ask your average devoted collector about the year in which a particular rare bootleg was recorded, and he will tell you without flinching. But ask him what films are popular at the local multiplex, or what program was on public television the night before, and sometimes he won't have a clue. Record collectors are well-educated people, but their knowledge reveals itself as a hyperspecialized way of understanding the world. It's a form of knowledge based upon an extreme attention to trivia and detail, and a compulsion to compile all of it somewhere in the brain.

To some, obsessive collecting could be seen as a neurosis. But then, what would we call the behavior of the person who fails to embrace the full glory of Sonny Rollins and Chet Atkins and Joseph Spence and Sally Timms, as manifest in all their B-sides and concerts and side projects and bootlegs? This choice--to remain musically ignorant in the face of such splendor--could only be called insane. This article represents an attempt to describe the psychological ramifications of record collecting, to examine the acquisitive act in an inquisitive manner. Barbara Sibley (the wonderful, afflicted soul) is our case study.


1. Collecting Records and Experiencing Love

As a young child, music critic Lester Bangs believed that his record collection was animate. He suspected that the albums were not only intimate friends of his, but that they had relationships with one another that he could help facilitate. In an article reprinted in the collection Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung he wrote, "I put the Mr. Lucky album into the record rack next to its old neighbor, the Peter Gunn album...I was thinking the two old friends, among the very first albums that I ever bought, must be delighted to see each other after so long."

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