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.

But as Bangs biographer Jim DeRogatis noted in a recent e-mail conversation, "Lester [was] the exact opposite of the record-collector neurotic as personified by Rob in High Fidelity--Lester would have priceless collectible records and literally walk on them. He believed these things existed to be played and loved, not collected."

Loved is the key word in most record collectors' relationships with music, and it is also a term whose meaning is slippery. Sibley first began to "love" music (love def. 1.: the accelerated heartbeat, the woozy lust one feels for abstract things--melodies, instruments, rhythms) when, at age 19, she went to see the Jam perform live and was so energized afterward that she couldn't sleep the whole night long. ("The Jam lead me to the Clash, and the Clash to reggae, which in turn led me to African music, and then I just kept going and going. I guess that's how I got all of these records," Sibley explains.)

When she was 26 years old, that love for music became love (def. 2: the tangible, mature affections--often initiated by record collectors' shared lust for music--that involve another human being) for her former husband Jerry Modjeski.

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 moves to a photo of Modjeski, which hangs on the wall. She smiles in the slightly embarrassed manner of one looking back upon her high school yearbook photo. "That's him on the left," she says, pointing to a thin, fuzzy-haired figure with thick glasses not unlike her own.

"We would be working at KFAI, which at that time was in the old Walker Church, and he would be doing production," she remembers of Modjeski. "He would throw up a strange record and put it on the wall. I would be doing the show, and I would see this record on the wall, and I'd put something equally strange up there. We kind of went back and forth between us, trying to outdo each other. Our human flirtation became a radio flirtation."

After separating from Modjeski in 1991 and getting divorced from him in 1996, Sibley reflects, "We found the number one cause of divorce: marriage."

Many record collectors tend to be loners. When one's bed, couch, or entire living-room floor is covered with stacks of records, one is presumably not expecting to entertain guests. Why would one need guests? But Sibley is not the antisocial type. To the contrary, she seems to have a wide range of friends, many of whom have made mix tapes for her over the years (one suspects she has a separate relationship with the tapes). And her house is filled with letters and mix tapes and even pet photos sent by devoted listeners. Yet she seems to be more comfortable spending time by herself than your average person is, and she also admits to feeling no need to pursue a romantic relationship.

"I think creative people are rightly gun-shy about losing themselves in a union, of turning into something compromised that they don't recognize as themselves a few years down the line," Sibley wrote in a recent e-mail conversation. "The need for space and solitude to think things through just comes crashing up against the need to be there for someone else and not hurt their feelings."

For Sibley, collecting seems itself to be a way of channeling the tongue-tied, flushed passion that one has for another human being into the pursuit of musical knowledge, and musical expression. But there would seem to be a loneliness about choosing music over companionship And although she seems content living on her own now, Sibley recalls many of the times when she was young and inspired by music as being solitary ones. "[Wire's 154] was the soundtrack for my summer of 1980," she remembers, slipping the record onto the player and cuing it to the track titled "Map Reference 41 Degrees North 93 Degrees West." "I spent almost all of my time alone, working as a security guard. I remember so much solitude, walking around when everyone was gone. I did a lot of midnight to 8:00 a.m. shifts, and I associate this record with seeing the world in the middle of the night, the empty buildings, walking around and checking doors."

Sibley almost seems to attribute a similar mood to her records, and she treats them with the kind of care one would usually reserve for other human beings. "I buy the ones that nobody wants, the ones that would eventually end up on sound collages somewhere," she says sympathetically.

On KFAI, when no one is within Sibley's immediate vicinity to listen to her problems, she can always just listen on her own. Pull a record out of the pile. Choose a song carefully. Connect with the emotions the singer once felt while writing and recording. Express herself by selecting the right music. Reinforce her mood. Her listeners are her partners. Her record player is her partner. And simply by moving its arm and setting it back down again in the perfect position, taking the musicians' thoughts and feelings and broadcasting them as if in her own voice, she can control the music.


2. Collecting Records as a Method of Creating a Personalized System of Order

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