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.

A sign hangs directly above Sibley's record closet. It reads: "YOU ARE THE HONOR SYSTEM."

"When KFAI was operating out of the Walker church, that was used to make people return the records they borrowed," she explains. Then she smiles. "I stole that sign."

Beneath the moral warning, Sibley's records are piled into various cubbies, shelves, and boxes. There seems to be no Library of Congress-sanctioned system to the way they are stored. A Javanese pop album by Idjah Hadidjah hangs on the wall next to music performed by the Fiji Police (an actual, law-enforcement body, not some Sting-fronted Polynesian band), which is displayed near a record of stripper music (title: 77 Sunset Strip-per) performed by Fifties jazz musician Mel Henke. (Sibley explains, "There's a version of Farmer John on there that has pig noises and there's this woman's voice that just keeps saying, "John! Oh, John!") Bands like Japan and Faust have their own shelves, and Sibley even keeps a shelf of Halloween music for use on her favorite holiday. When she tries to explain what goes where, she falters.

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

"Some are alphabetical, then I throw in a little bit of everything into there, and out on the periphery are thrift-store and serendipitous finds, the classical are up on that shelf, but some of them are organized according to region," she pauses. "Well, I guess there really isn't a certain way that I have them arranged," she says. "But I know where to find them."

Nobody else can claim the same knowledge. To the average onlooker, the system is a puzzle. There is no real risk of having someone come into the closet and steal a particular, rare record: No one would be able to find it. The collection abides by the world according to Sibley, a world that does not progress in a linear manner, but rather seems to emerge as a synchronic pattern of heightened moments, sounds, events. It is a form of control through the abdication of control.

Sibley exhibits similar behaviors with regard to her records. She enjoys disrupting the usual start-to-finish trajectory of a pop record in order to find something stranger and more interesting than what the artist may have originally intended. Her first "sound experiments" were in controlling records' speed. At age five she repeatedly took the Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird" and put it through four speeds on the portable phonograph in her childhood bedroom. ("You haven't heard that song until you've heard papa oom mow mow progress from 16 to 78 rpm and back again," Sibley insists via e-mail. "To this day, my sister Sheila swears the Trashmen high jinks gave her seizures.")

The young record sadist also warped Jan and Dean's "Dead Man's Curve" by attaching a giant sewing needle to the stereo's tone arm, giving it "the double needle treatment." The record went from sounding like something akin to Dick Dale to something more along the lines of Terry Riley or John Cage. Later she discovered that "Smoke on the Water," when sped up, tended to sound like the Go-Go's.

For Sibley, these songs bring back memories of her initial fascination with music in childhood. For many, certain songs come to represent distinct memories. But perhaps the most frightening thing about using records to create a personalized system of order is that you inevitably find things records cannot control--like the passage of time.


3. Collecting Records as a Means of Manipulating the Space-Time Continuum

In Sibley's closet--the inside of which is covered with obscure album jackets, racks full of music, records strewn all over its floor--an early photo of the Who hangs from a shelf. All of the band members look like gawky teenagers. Someone has marked cartoonish thought captions in felt-tip pen above each performer's head. Pete Townshend: "Hi, I'm Alfalfa!" Roger Daltrey: "Hi, I'm spiteful." John Entwistle: "Hi, I'm grateful." Keith Moon: "Hi, I'm dead."

Dead. The caption is playful, but in truth, we sometimes need a small reminder that musicians are mortal beings. We play their records in endless loops, reviving the sounds of the concerts we saw so long ago. The more faithful among us still believe that Elvis is lurking around this world somewhere, or that Sun Ra didn't die, but simply moved to Saturn.

In Alan Zweig's 2000 documentary probing the psyche of the record collector, Vinyl, one subject admits that when he had testicular cancer, ordering CDs over the Internet gave him a feeling of invincibility. As long as records were being mailed to his house, he said, he felt that he couldn't die. He had to be around to sign for the packages. This man, who had been very ill at the time, had left no indication in his will of who should inherit his half a million records. Why should he? He wasn't planning on dying.

Yet, as Sibley notes in her e-mail, the very structure of recorded music seems to highlight the passage and decay of time. "I guess the whole process of looking through a lifetime of records and music memories makes me look at how some things change, and how quickly they change. If anything, when you are a record collector, the passing of time is apparent in technology--watching how cylinders gave way to 78s, and 78s in turn to 45s and LPs, which then surrendered (at least temporarily) to CDs, which are now being challenged by other media forms [like] MP3s."

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