They used to call them ‘records’. I still call them records. People concerned with my cultural literacy gently recommend that I should use the word ‘cd’. It isn’t a word. I can tell that it isn’t a word, and so can you. It’s like ‘esso’, or ‘sunoco’: They told you it was a word years ago. There didn’t seem to be a synonym that did the job well, and so you buckled under and submitted to this baby-word sounding thing, and now its in the cultural landfill of things that, because they’ve been around for a couple of generations, must be true. They want you to be product-faithful, and they give you the lingo to do it: “Just ask for ‘gronk’”, they tell you, “and everything will be fine.” Before you know it we have ‘gronk’, and everything still isn’t fine.
Anyway, they’ll always be ‘records’ to me. I suppose it sounds a bit lost, bordering on dissolute, to continue using the word when the thing it referred to is just about nowhere to be found. Here’s an example: I was in New York – New-frigging-York, mind you – a few years ago during a teaching tour, and my host asked me what I wanted to do, and I said that I wanted to go to a record store. There was a strained silence that descended on the room, everyone looking at me and then looking away. “A record store”, he said. I thought his tone suggested that maybe there was something more New Yorkish we could do with this only open afternoon in my schedule. I thought about it for a second: It had been a long time since I’d been to a record store, and I was due for new tunes at home. “Yes, that’s what I want to do. This is New York. The selection’s going to be great.” It turned out his tone suggested something more like pathos, like I’d just made it clear that I was so desperately out of touch that my credentials for standing before a room full of strangers and talking about anything was in serious question. “Well”, he said, ‘there aren’t any.” I didn’t understand, obviously, because I asked him, “They aren’t open today?” “No, no. They don’t exist”, he said. “They’re gone.” And then I was filled in as to everyone downloading and the rest. Mournful news.
A record was an event in a young person’s life, back in the day. It was an artifact, part fact and part art. A part of one’s room was given over to their display and storage. There was a something called album design, probably, at the record company. There was enough creative real estate to establish the look and feel and the cool of what was inside. The jacket was an object of pride and literacy. The notes themselves were a literary genre. There were influences acknowledged, inside gags, stories from the studio, references to the last record. They were worlds. You could hear them.
A record is a sign. It’s tracks in the dirt, whorls in the sand. It means that, while you were busy, something happened. It is like a faithful witness to something that would otherwise come to naught. Hearing a record is like watching mist rise from yellowing leaves when the sun finally finds them on one of the last warm October mornings. It’s a telling. If it’s good, it’s a kenning, conjuring a language that grants the hearer a chance to attend something fireside and venerable, something old.
I’ve been granted the life of a performer the last decade or so. I have the good fortune of seeing parts of the world, hearing about the lives people are obliged to live, and I wonder aloud with them for hours at a time about how it has all come to this, and how it might yet be otherwise. The technology has been simplified now that even the likes of me can make a record of what he says on such occasions. There must be hundreds of them by now somewhere in the house. I’ve done so largely because the winds of consternation and inspiration blow through these events so frequently that later on I’m unable to remember much of what I said. I’m curious as to whether they were as good as I often remember them to be. People routinely ask for copies of the recordings, offer to pay for them. I tell them that the events are for them, but that the recordings are for me. They are for helping me get a sense of what I’ve been trying to do over the years, since I don’t have a master plan. We put out a few recordings in the early years. There was no editing, no fine tuning, and each of them would have benefitted from a bit of that. I haven’t considered doing so again since then.
But your mind changes. With luck, it changes in concert with your changing life. By means marginal and miraculous I acquired a band for part of this Orphan Wisdom enterprise, one Gregory Hoskins. Tours materialized. Wonder of wonders, philanthropic and government funding materialized, and this strange endeavor qualified for it. The application forms were utter torment: What even to call this thing that I was doing? Theater? Music? Spoken-word improvisation? I applied for visas to do this thing on the up and up, and came to realize that I was being vetted for the opportunity to offer cognitive dissonance to the general public. Roadies volunteered. People crowd funded roadies to accompany us. People offered their cars and their navigational devices, their connections. Strangers threw themselves into organizing gigs in other countries, on the other side of the world. Then the chance came to do a proper, gear-lugging tour of Australia and New Zealand earlier this year, fifteen or so gigs in a month, and we brought proper recording capacity with us. After a few gigs the kinks were ironed out, and it worked pretty well. Then came a tour of the U.K., seven gigs in eight nights, and more recordings.
We got home. I went about fulfilling book-contract obligations, readying myself for upcoming school sessions, worrying about the daily rains and what they were doing to the corn in the field. Mr. Hoskins turned his producing chops upon the tapes. (I know: They aren’t tapes anymore. I’m calling them tapes. Some things don’t change.) After a while he called and said, “Maybe you want to listen to this.” He’d done something more than clean up the sound, more than fine tune what happened when we walked out onto the stage: He’d made another event.
You’ve heard of dry lightning. The storm’s far enough away that there’s no rain, but your sky alights, and the rumble of elsewhere is there at the edge of your alertness, and something happens to your understanding of the world: It’s bigger than you remember, and there’s that miracle of the Other Place, not a copy of your own.
So there’s a record coming out in a few weeks. It’ll look like a cd, but it’ll be a record. It’s called: Nights of Grief and Mystery. That is surely what they were. But to me the record is dry lightning: A sign caught in a jar that things happened, and are still happening. When I get one, I’ll put it beside my other records, on that Wonders Never Cease shelf.
So we haven’t ‘cd’d’ anything here. We recorded it.