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.

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

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.

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."

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.

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

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.

"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."

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."

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.

3. The Jam, St. Paul Civic Theatre, 1980
Sun Ra and the Arkestra's cameo during a Burning Spear show at Duffy's

These concerts were critical in blowing every last stale note of Seventies arena rock out of my head, jump-starting a passion for live music, and increasing my record collection by 500 percent in a shockingly short time.

4. Wire,154

Wire's smart, sarcastic, sometimes scary music dovetailed so perfectly with my solitary, upside-down days and nights. Some mornings I'd go out on the roof of a big building at sunrise and look out at the sprawl of the waking city, hearing the refrain to "Map Reference 41 Degrees North 93 Degrees West."

5. The Best of John Coltrane

After a couple of years of two-minute punk anthems, it was time to step across the record-store aisle for some 13- and 20-minute songs. I still get goosebumps when Trane swoops in after Tyner's solo on "My Favorite Things" and when I hear the first notes of "Equinox."

6. various artists,Music and Rhythm
various artists,The Nonesuch Explorer Sampler

Music and Rhythm was a good way to get rock kids like me to shut up and listen to sounds and instruments outside the guitar-bass-drums mold. Sounds like drums from Burundi, a chorus of Balinese men chanting frantically, and the ecstatic force-of-nature blasts from Qawaali master Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

7. Akiko Yano,There Must Be Love
Yukihiro Takahashi,What, Me Worry?

The folks who loaned me these records taught me an eclectic approach to music that, done with an open mind and a good heart, can end up being celebratory and sublime instead of self-consciously clever and ironic.

8. Musci-Venosta,A Noise, A Sound

It combined the best of everything I liked in music: a world of instruments, field recordings, found sounds, adventurous, original composition, passion and humor. Startling, adventurous, and so very well put together, this record raised the bar for all similar attempts at fusing music genres. It's also fun to drop on unsuspecting listeners at 7:00 a.m.

9. Sonny Chillingworth,Sonny Solo

One listen to Sonny's slack-key guitar and gorgeous vocals and I was a goner. Slack-key is such nahenahe music--soft, sweet, and a little bit sad, a music of place and full of aloha.

10. Lena Willemark and Ale Möller,Nordan

This is music that speaks so strongly and fiercely of nature, seasons, cycles, grappling with life and death, celebrating the sweet blossoms of summer, leaning into the cold wind of winter. It's music that makes so much sense here in Minnesota, where, try as we might to deny it, we are children of the seasons.

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