A Life without Artifacts

By David Watts Barton, Under the Gum Tree, April 2012

I’ve decided: I’m putting what I have left in storage, and going on the roam.
Six months ago, I was living in a 1,600-square-foot, two-bedroom 1880 Victorian, with a formal dining room, a huge kitchen and bathroom, a foyer, a parlor and a library. A library full of books. Beautiful books, some mine for 30 years, some my grandfather’s for much longer.
But after two years of dealing with the twenty-first century American Nightmare—bad loans, unemployment, short sale, foreclosure—along with a perfect storm of even more personal losses of family and friends—I’ve had to learn to let go.
So I’m letting go with a vengeance.
In a couple of weeks, I’ll have a few remaining pieces of furniture, a few boxes of CDs and books, and some clothes. Most of those objects, which I once loved, or at least fancied, I simply do not sit on, listen to, read or wear any more.
In the house I used to own, I once had a twelve-foot long wall that was floor-to-ceiling LPs, CDs and let’s not forget, cassettes. I loved them, catalogued them painstakingly, kept them in strict alphabetical order and actually did get them out to look at. Sometimes.
But my physical music collection is now reduced to one bookcase of CDs, albums I really want to make sure I always have: Beatles, U2, Zeppelin, Je Buckley, Radiohead, Bowie, Bill Frisell, Prince. Other than those, the library that I built up over decades, through many thousands of hours of going through record stores, through my work as a rock critic on many mailing lists, is virtually gone.
I don’t miss the albums. When push came to boxing things up, I didn’t care about owning them, having them in my possession, any more. The music ultimately isn’t the object, and I can access those albums—or rather, the songs—from any of their current digital homes, in an instant.
So the artifacts are gone. The music remains, but while it is one thing to let go, it is important to reflect a bit on what might be lost, even if the losing is necessary, or simply the way life is. We come into life with nothing…and that includes the ultra-rare Yardbirds live album with Jimmy Page on guitar.
Records—cardboard and vinyl, skips and all—used to mean so much to me. Now, only music does. But as albums and even compact discs recede in importance in my life, I wonder if the music means quite as much as it did when it came encased in cardboard or plastic and art.
The world that physical albums had a place in has largely disappeared, and not just in my life, and not just because of the need to lighten up. I can’t remember the last time I sat and listened to an album— the archaic but still accurate name for a collection of songs, in whatever format—and read the sleeve notes and lyrics, etc. I no longer identify a collection of songs with an object.
Which is a good thing, but still: The albums I have grown to love in recent years—not as many as in the past—don’t FEEL like albums to me in the way albums did when they came packaged. There’s some way in which the album artwork, the container, as it were, held the albums together in my mind. That physical coherence is gone. And something has been lost.
Think about past classics: The experience used to be the album sleeve. Try to imagine the classic rock album, Sgt. Pepper, without the cover—without THAT cover. Would it have sounded the same minus the vibrant silk suits and the mass of famous and infamous faces on the cover? Sure, but would it have evoked the same wonder? Would we “see” that album the same way with a different cover?
It’s a subtle change, but it’s real, and recent albums I’ve listened to, albums I’ve gotten deeply involved with—Iron and Wine’s Kiss Each Other Clean, The National’s High Violet, LCD Soundsystem’s This Is Happening—have no visual element in my mind. I remember the covers, but I don’t identify the music in any way connected with them. Now I’m as likely to conceive of those songs in the context of iTunes playlists.
It’s no accident that after Sgt. Pepper, The Beatles made the cover of their next full album, The Beatles, completely white. Some of the music inside was less ornamented than the music on Sgt. Pepper, but it was no less diverse or labored-over. And “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, “Glass Onion” and “Helter Skelter” are not exactly stripped-down productions. But the cover de ned the album in people’s minds and held the music together in a visceral way. Would Dark Side of the Moon have the same mystique without the prism on the cover, and the pyramids inside? Would Exile on Main Street have the same freak show circus atmosphere without the cover photos? Would Diamond Dogs feel quite as decadent?
But it’s not just the covers. It’s the thing itself. The album is nearly gone, even in our minds.
Albums are just a bunch of digital files now. In the digital world, an album is a concept, not a thing. Albums have nothing binding them together the way vinyl or even cassettes used to bind them. The songs are just discrete files in the computer, linked electronically, but only just. And with shuffle and customized playlists, those links are extremely tenuous. We don’t even need to own the files anymore— we can just access them from “the cloud.”
The de-emphasis on the packaging—to the point that there is no packaging—devalues the entire album in ways that may mean the music is diminished, too. Music now is almost completely disembodied, and I wonder what that does to the experience. For me, as music has become a more malleable, portable experience I can do anything I want with, anywhere, at the push of a button, it is less concrete. When the music is everywhere—on your iPod, on your laptop, in the cloud—then perhaps it’s…nowhere?
Am I the same? With so many of the physical objects that have comprised my life as this man—in this house, in this location, with this job, and that girlfriend—with them gone, who am I? I am still embodied, for the moment, but as various objects and artifacts are given away to friends, sold to acquaintances, tossed into the garbage, what remains?
As I roam, though I’ll be looking for work, looking for love, looking for inspiration, and looking to make room for something new to emerge, I will also be trying not to look too hard for anything. I will not be amassing things. I will be trying simply to let things be as they are, pass through my life and enjoyed, but not possessed. Certainly, not “owned.”
There is a safety in this. Pursuing the albums-as-objects metaphor, I recall a friend of mine, who had a similarly large music collection, for similar reasons, who had a house re. His entire collection— Japanese jazz imports, limited editions, all manner of rare pressings and a huge number of albums that would cost a fortune to replace—went up in smoke. I’ve seen the pictures. It’s the nightmare scenario.
Having those albums, in their digital form, properly backed up, would have saved them. Having your files all backed up is fairly secure and all, inadvertent glitches aside. But when files disappear, it’s almost like nothing has been lost. I lost twenty gigs of music, and aside from a couple of Miles Davis titles, I can’t tell you what was lost.
When the re came, and then the junkmen to remove the horribly burned, melted and otherwise disfigured artifacts of his life, there was still some remnant. The objects meant something to him. He lost them, it’s true, but on the other hand, he lost SOMETHING. Something was there, and then it was gone.
Just like us: We exist, and then we don’t. No one lives forever, and when we die, we will leave, however briefly, a corpse. Not a digital halo of opinions and feelings and thoughts, backed up (twice for safety), but a lifeless body. The physical body isn’t us, the same way that the vinyl and cardboard and pasted-on artwork aren’t the music.
When something is lost, it’s because it “lived” in physical reality. It mattered enough to be lost. Perhaps in our digital world, even though we can’t “lose” anything that’s backed up, we have less to lose? But at the same time, there is less attachment. And any individual album is instantly replaceable, if it’s digitized.
Which is to say: Some things can’t be replaced, and therein lies the value. Like us.
We all build up a life, with people and belongings and accomplishments and big plans. But is that our life? Or is it what we use to dress up the life we think isn’t adequate just by being alive?
Putting together my house and belongings and record collection, along with my career accomplishments, my “good name” and my position in the community, did give me a lot of pleasure. These things are essential, and seductive: They give a sense of security. But as I’ve discovered, the pleasure wanes and the security….well, security is the most ephemeral of them all.
I am going on a roam, looking for something new. But it won’t be a thing; it will be a new version of myself. My home is gone, my parents are gone, and my professional identities in my hometown—editor in chief, talk show host, local personality—are gone. What’s left? Me. But what is that? That’s what I hope to find out.
What I’m starting to see is that life is like style: It’s what’s left when all the ornamentation and accoutrements and accomplishments are stripped away. It’s the music without the jacket, without the sleeve, and with liner notes still to be written.