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 it is interesting that with this changing of technologies, Sibley seems to treasure her old records the most--and primarily the ones that trigger old memories. She picks up a reggae compilation record, Nonesuch Explorer, and holds it up proudly like a badge of honor. When she was in her 20s, she wanted this album more than anything, but she didn't have the money. She decided to earn about $10 or $15 by donating plasma. When the process was over, she immediately climbed onto her bike and rode down to Oarfolkjokeopus, only to become severely ill immediately after purchasing the album.

"When I got to Oar, my body went into shock. I had to go to the hospital, and my skin was literally gray," Sibley recalls. She holds out her arm. It is pale but healthy, streamed with the shadows of blue veins deep below the surface. One can only imagine what it must have looked like that day. "I guess you could say that I almost died for that record," she says.

So was it worth endangering her body to get this album? "Yes," she says, without hesitation. "It's a great album."

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 still listens to that record. It has become a track on the mix tape of her days: a sound, a song, an anecdote, a physical memory. Many of Sibley's albums have become fused with the experience that went with its listening. "The music I had on the tape player during the week of my mom's death brings that week back very vividly," Sibley writes in an e-mail. "But it's comforting in a way, too. The first song I heard after my mom passed away was Van Morrison's 'Across the Bridge Where Angels Dwell.'"

Hearing certain songs can bring a lost feeling back and combine it with the sort of nostalgia that makes a memory feel even stronger than the original feeling it was meant to recall. But when the song is over, one recognizes even more fully that an era of life is gone. And oftentimes, that's when the most maudlin mood sets in.

Sibley returns to the wall adjacent to her closet. She points to a Halloween photo of a woman dressed as Pele, the volcano goddess. The woman is lovely and draped in cloth. Her hair is a reddish blond. Her cheeks are rosy and glowing, and she's smiling.

"That's me," Sibley grins, seeming almost to shock herself with the statement.

Perhaps it is something about the coloring of the photo, or the fact that Sibley looks quite a bit younger. Looking at it is like stumbling back in time, coming upon an old snapshot of your mother in a drawer and realizing that she was once your age. It is like a relic from a lost life. The picture of Sibley was taken five years ago.


4. Attempting to Compete with a Record Collector and Finding Oneself Lacking

For those of us who will never buy the same album in vinyl, cassette, and CD form, who can't tell the difference between a 1971 version of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On and its 2001 reissue What's Goin' On, who recognize the fact that we will never come close to hearing every song ever made in that vast music library of history--for us, record collectors are creatures of mythic proportions. When they ask us if we've heard of an obscure band or album--like Mel Henke's 77 Sunset Strip-per--we learn the art of nodding our heads slightly so as to give the impression that we know what they are talking about without having to admit that we don't. (Later, we take notes.) We tell stories about them, trying memorize and recount their infinite mental repositories of trivia and wisdom as if they were our own. We talk about them in hyperbolic tones, separating them from ourselves.

Those of us who consider ourselves to be semi-casual fans cannot fathom how we could devote our time, our energy, and ourselves so completely to an isolated passion like record collecting. We feel the simultaneous shame and relief of being too naive, too ignorant, or perhaps just too social to devote the requisite energy to the pursuit of music. And so we are afraid of record collectors. Worse yet: Because we understand that they can lead these lives while carrying out a day-to-day existence that is otherwise very similar to our own, we envy them.

Barbara Sibley is a loner, an obsessive, and a true music lover. A novice music fan has two choices: Become like her; or fail to even come close. The choices are equally frightening.


Barbara "Blanche" Sibley's Top Ten Musical Influences

1. The Trashmen, "Surfin' Bird"
Jan and Dean, "Dead Man's Curve"

My first experiments in turntable trickology....You haven't heard that song till you've heard "papa oom mow mow" progress from 16 to 78 rpm and back again. To this day, our sister Sheila swears the Trashmen high jinks gave her seizures.

2. "Beaker Street" on KAAY-AM (1090), Little Rock, Arkansas
"Patterns in Music" on KNXR-FM (97.5), Rochester, Minnesota

Both taught me the concept of establishing a mood and a destination for radio listeners. If you looked at the shows' playlists now, you would probably howl at the dinosaurs. But it was underground for its time.

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