A short response to an old post from Steve Donald…
Casa Beleza, Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro.
Rio is a thin city (as Calvino would have it), strung out along the coast with famous peaks separating its districts and its beaches. The hills are occupied by older districts (like Santa Teresa) and the favellas spreading poverty stricken and picturesque up the slopes. In the top tiers of the amphitheatre around the bay where we are staying the sound is pretty mixed up though an occasional ship’s horn cuts through the background noise.
In a room with shuttered windows…outside – a terrace, a garden, a quiet street. Each night the dogs barked in the adjacent gardens like they were passing on a message up the street. Sometimes the really insistent dogs would start a cock crowing before sunrise. But sunrise itself brought, not just the crowing of cockerels, but the sound of other, nameless birds. Nameless for me anyway. During the day the most noticeable bird call was that of the parakeets…a proper squawk as they shot past in ones or twos. At dawn the bird songs were more complex…phrases that seemed at first to be straight repeats but actually modified subtly like programmed minimalist music. Melody…gap…shift melody…gap…shift melody…so that after a few minutes the song was recognisable but different. Each avian performer seemed to have an allotted time so there was no chorus…rather there was a series of virtuoso solo pieces. Further away a song like a car alarm but in short bursts.
(On the sharp bend car horns would sound warning other road users of impending collision but only in daylight…at night and early in the morning the headlights performed the same function. And also later in the day not humming hummingbirds would hover outside the window. A silent song).
Ibis Hotel, Avenida Paulista, Sao Paulo
(Double-glazing.) The sound of the refrigerator. Faint traffic sounds and sirens.
Just to get some practical things out of the way: I bought this copy of ‘Another Side of Bob Dylan’ in Oxfam on Friday. It cost 99p but is in awful condition. The kind of condition that would make it unsellable elsewhere I think. That said it seems to be an early issue of the LP…maybe the first British pressing. For the gen on this look here:
The title I have used for this piece comes from the song ‘Ballad in Plain D’ (side 2 track 4). In the context of the song the phrase is hardly relevant to my subject matter (‘Her sister and I in a screaming battleground, And she in between, the victim of sound…). In fact what I am really writing about is sound – the victim of time.
On Friday night I decided to risk my stylus and play the record. There is a lot of background noise throughout and the record skips and pops. In fact background noise is probably the wrong phrase – the music and the scratches are on just about equal footing. This should class it not just as unsellable but unlistenable, however I found myself listening to it all the way through. There was something complete about the ‘damage’ to the record that made the extraneous noises continuous with the music. I wondered how the record had reached this thorough state of destruction. Someone had gone on playing this record for years as it deteriorated. At first (in 1964? 65?) the scratches were minimal and probably annoying but maybe it didn’t skip too much – especially if the listener taped a coin to the arm of the Dansette. But then the record was left lying around on the floor and in piles of other records. Maybe it wasn’t played too much at parties – certainly not if there was dancing involved but probably later on when everyone was too drunk or stoned to dance. So did it belong to one person through the years of its decline? There are fragments of a sticker that suggest to me that at some point it has been re-sold. And if that is what happened, did its second owner buy it in this state or were they responsible for the deterioration? Obviously I can never know these things.
But, hearing these mostly familiar songs working their way out from behind all that surface noise I was aware that what I was experiencing was a kind of listening archaeology. And what I was discovering was sound with patina…a patina that hinted at the possibility of a story without divulging that story. I can listen to the songs from this record as digital files and they come out clean and pristine. (I just checked that I do have this album on my computer…I do. but all the songs are labeled as ‘Black Crow Blues’…another kind of corruption/deterioration). But that sounds like a different album to me. Hearing the thoroughly messed-up vinyl was like really hearing something from the 1960s. ‘Another Side of Bob Dylan’ was released nearly 50 years ago. Harry Smith released his Anthology (archaeology?) of American Folk Music in 1952. The oldest selection on the Anthology (‘Sail Away Lady’ a fiddle tune by “Uncle Bunt” Stevens) was recorded in New York on March 29th, 1926. That’s only 26 years before the release of Smith’s compilation. When I listen to ‘Sail Away Lady’ it sounds to me like it is coming from a long way away…both spatially and temporally. (I’ve just listened to it on my computer with all its grain and digitized patina). Does ‘Another Side…’ now qualify as ‘Old Weird America’? After all, the recording pre-dates a huge number of Alan Lomax’s field and studio recordings that are now seen as an American national musical heritage. Does the fact that Dylan is still alive, that he has had chart hits, that he is commercial, that he plays huge venues, that he is, among other things, a rock star preclude his induction into the Old Weird Hall of Fame?
If I listen to ‘It Ain’t me Babe’ (Side 2, Track 5 of ‘Another Side…’) on my computer it sounds like it is existing in an eternal present. It probably does not sound like it did in 1964 after all its transformations and processing but who knows? Who can say what something sounded like 49 years ago? Our ears were different then. Now it is a file, a collection of zeros and ones – no longer the sound of a tiny sapphire point bouncing along a track between the ridges in vinyl. So my experience of listening to my fucked-up copy of ‘Another Side…’ is neither authentic nor definitive. Instead it is a slice of a past, freighted with the marks of too many moments to comprehend.
I guess I should do my own damage and put the thing back into circulation but I’m not sure I can trust the next person who picks it up and looks at those mangled grooves to put it aside. Sometimes what seems like a palimpsest is just a piece of junk.