“Perhaps all pleasure in only relief” – William S. Burroughs
As a Recoverist, an activist in long-term-recovery from substance misuse, I have spent much of the last seven years reflecting on the complex needs, behaviours, tendencies and spectrum-related issues that have shaped my self-medication of the existential pain that dominated my misusing existence. Somewhere between what Raoul Martinez defines as the twin peaks of ‘the luck of birth’ and ‘the myth of responsibility’, I eventually realised that I was no longer prepared to accept what I had become. This process of change has inspired a critical re-evaluation, an ongoing process of personal discovery.
Whilst it is important not to get hung up on labelling, it is also vital to understand the personality of disorder, and the fundamental principles at the heart of dysfunction. We all share more in common than we do differences, and we all sit on spectrums of disorder, as well as continuums of improving health and wellbeing. Obsession and compulsion play their role in the choices we make, of both lifestyle and self-medication, and long after the toxins have been removed from the bloodstream, these disorders seek explanations, and, eventually, compromises, in order to allow us to instal order where chaos once ruled. Learning to ‘be here now’ is way easier to say than it is to do.
“Not all addictions are rooted in abuse or trauma, but I do believe they can all be traced to painful experience. A hurt is at the centre of all addictive behaviours. It is present in the gambler, the Internet addict, the compulsive shopper and the workaholic. The wound may not be as deep and the ache not as excruciating, and it may even be entirely hidden, but it’s there” – Gabor Maté, ‘In The Realm Of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction’
I have taken much from the work of Maté, himself a self-confessed compulsive-obsessive classical music collector, and I fully recognise the importance of attachment, conditioning, trauma and resilience in shaping human responses to what Bruce K Alexander frames as ‘the Age Of Dislocation’: “Global society is drowning in addiction to drug use and a thousand other habits. This is because people around the world, rich and poor alike, are being torn from the close ties to family, culture, and traditional spirituality that constituted the normal fabric of life in pre-modern times. This kind of global society subjects people to unrelenting pressures towards individualism and competition, dislocating them from social life. People adapt to this dislocation by concocting the best substitutes that they can for a sustaining social, cultural and spiritual wholeness, and addiction provides this substitute for more and more of us”.
Although I have no formal diagnosis in place, extensive psychotherapy and screening by the National Autistic Society strongly suggest that Autistic Spectrum Disorder and Anxiety Spectrum Disorder have historically shaped my response to the world around me. Understanding spectrum behaviours allows me to improve not only my own responses to the world, but also those I work with professionally as a substance misuse practitioner.
Having detoxified the substance pollution from my personal landscape, it has become increasingly possible for me to identify negative behavioural and personality traits and manage them appropriately. For those of you by now wondering where this month’s column is going with all this, my consumption of music and the collection of vinyl artefacts features heavily in this suite of behaviours. Over the years, I have grown and lost many a collection, and the forces of compulsion and obsession have played their part continually.
As a teenager, I began to grow my first collection in the land of the dinosaurs, the older-brother-dominated world of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Rainbow and progressive rock. Back in those days, the cultural tendency to long-ponder the proliferation of gatefold sleeves on the event horizon of double live albums meant that I spent as much time polishing the record’s covers than the records themselves. I was obsessed with the pristine nature of the artwork, rather than the quality of sound. Once I had satisfied myself that a sleeve was free from any evidence of human contact, I would compulsively slide it into a protective PVC cover. Before long, I would extend this practice to polishing the PVC sleeves themselves. This presented untold anxiety whenever my nascent collection was under scrutiny from visiting friends. Girlfriends teased mercilessly with regard to the polishing, and certain friends would deliberately remove album covers from their sleeves just to check out my disproportionate reaction, often verging on palpitation. Elements of this obsession survive to this day in my inability to care for records whose sleeves have been damaged: bumps, dinks, grinds, stains or, heaven forbid, seam splits, the curse of the mail order shopper.
The arrival of punk rock’s year zero revealed a new tendency: I exchanged the thirty or so albums of my meagre collection in one transaction, and left clutching records by The Damned, The Clash, The Stranglers, and the ‘New Wave’ compilation on Sire Records. This process illustrates the irrational variation in the perceived value of a record whenever it’s engaged in some kind of exchange process. These days, collection culls lead to yard sales on Discogs, to fund the ever-increasing cost of meeting the need of incoming desires and purchases. Heaven knows the amount of money I’ve lost on the terrible deals I’ve carried out, desperately motivated by the compulsive need to own a particular record, in that particular pressing, now.
Back in the day, vast tracts of time would be consumed travelling the record shops and vinyl emporiums of the land, digging through the crates, in search of illusive ‘wants’, and brand new ‘needs’, bartering deals with a proffered carrier bag of considered gems in the hope of exchange. The death of the record shop and the rise of the internet has inevitably changed this practice intrinsically, but the song remains the same. Every night, on returning from work, I trawl the online portals of Boomkat, Soundohm, LVEUM, Mr Bongo, Honest Jon’s Records, Low Company, and beyond, in search of vinyl medication at the close of another day at the coal face. Increasingly, the moments between discovering a ‘want’ and clicking ‘add to basket’ resemble the rush a gambler experiences when their horse crosses the line, or the euphoria an opium smoker embraces as another deal burns on the foil.
In the last few years, I have been forced to face the fiscal reality that this practice cannot go on indefinitely. Around eighteen months ago, I set up a Discogs account in a bid to address the situation in a meaningful and constructive manner. Whilst I still outspend what I bring in by some measure, I am now at least functionally accountable for my actions, and, although I would hate to be labelled a ‘flipper’, from time to time records do sell for more than I paid for them. For a while, I naively figured that this could become some kind of business, replicating the unbridled joy I experienced as a youthful sales assistant at Discovery Records. Unfortunately, the cost of postage, mailers, commissions to Paypal and Discogs, and the time spent tripping between the post office and home, means that I’m kidding myself to be thinking that I do anything other than break even. In the end, I view it instead as responsibly managing my mental health.
Storage, meanwhile, presents its own collection of obsessions: filing; alphabetising; quandaries over genre pollution, leading, inevitably, to genre quarantining; PVC versus poly sleeves; ringwear; accessibility issues. For many years I’ve operated an A/B/C system, with the A) shelf housing my contemporarily treasured items; the B) shelf housing punk, hardcore, black metal and industrial/noise; and the C) shelf being, presently, a space on the floor where aforementioned relics from the pre-punk dinosaur days languish in the shadows of their former glory. Then there are the culled overspills, a couple of hundred items of which are listed on Discogs, and hundreds more awaiting listing, or a bulk disposal at some opportune juncture. Thousands of records, thousands of pounds, hundreds and thousands of grooves. The crown jewels of the 1976-84 British punk rock explosion represent a pension of sorts in their own right, but this cache was sadly depleted following a psychotic episode in 2008, triggered by Interferon/Rebetol, leading to the disastrous dissolution of that particular collection, along with the a catacomb full of extremely valuable black metal.
As someone who considers themselves to be a Marxist, it’s somewhat perplexing to consider the extent to which capitalist markets dictate the way I consume and collect music. In my defence, the majority of the records I’ve bought in my lifetime have been released by independent labels, or, these days, by the artists themselves, but I am guilty of using Amazon on occasion in a ‘must have immediately’ moment of compulsion, for that next-day-delivery delirium. A few years back, a girlfriend would text me nightly with the words: ‘do not add to basket’. As I ponder the passage of time, and reflect on these issues had they not been flagged-up, or, worse still, were I ever to operate a computer whilst under the influence, whilst in possession of a valid credit card, things could be far, far worse. Sober, drug free, and with a working understanding of the compulsions and obsessions that shape my behaviours, I am able to build responsibility parameters of my own, and police myself through the process of maturation.
According to relevant research, around one-in-three people in the Western World collects something or other. Collectors are often portrayed negatively as obsessive, socially maladjusted oddballs, in thrall to acquisitive drives, yet collectors cherish things about objects that few others appreciate, and are not necessarily materialistic in their motivations for collecting. At worse, record collectors have been described as socially maladjusted obsessives, no different to trainspotters! However, research by Dr. Susan Pearce reveals collectors as a group to be socially average, in many respects. Pearce argues that “collecting falls into three distinct categories: ‘souvenirs’, items or objects that have significance primarily as reminders of an individual’s or group’s experiences; ‘fetish objects’ (conflating the anthropological and psychological senses of the term), relating primarily to the personality of the collector; the collector’s own desires lead to the accumulation of objects that feed back into those desires, with the collection playing a central role in defining the personality of the collector, memorializing the development of a personal interest or passion; ‘systematics’, with the broader goal of creating a set of objects that expresses some larger meaning. Systematic collecting involves a stronger element of consciously presenting an idea, seen from a particular point of view, and expressed via the cultural world of objects”. I recognise elements of all three of Pearce’s categories in my collecting habits. Records to me have always been objets d’art (both aural and visual), as well as cultural expressions of intent. As well as the accumulation of artefacts, as musicologist Simon Reynolds has observed, record collecting also involves the amassing of data, information and knowledge of the culture surrounding artists, cults, scenes, milieux and movements. Is there something unique about recorded sound that dictates such slavish devotion?
The soundtrack to this month’s column reflects its subject matter. I’ve been obsessed with the following records for the last four weeks:
As I warned you last time out, Keiji Haino‘s ‘Watashi Dake?’ (Black Editions) has remained close at hand at all times. A work of sublime genius, its a record that demands devotional attention. It was recorded in the dark, in the dead of night, and I find those the best conditions in which to lose myself in its thrall. Utterly captivating in a way only true improvisational wonderment can attain.
Jac Berrocal‘s ‘La Nuit Est Au Courant’ (Souffle Continue) is described by the label as ‘Don Cherry jamming with David Bowie and Brian Eno in Berlin’, and is perfect for long summer’s nights of reflection. Alongside Jacques Thollot, Bernard Vitet and Michel Potage, Berrocal represents the pinnacle of the 70s French free jazz underground.
Jean-Francois Pauvros And Gaby Bizien – ‘No Man’s Land’ (Souffle Continue) is considered to be the the unsung hero of French No Wave, with absolutely no equivalent to challenge it in the massed ranks of France’s avant-garde. The record is rightly championed as the key artefact of a nation’s improvisational output. Recorded in 1976, it sits alongside This Heat‘s S/T debut as evidence that mediums other than punk rock were available that long hot summer, long ago. The irony is that it has outlived its spikey-haired contemporaries, in terms of shelf life, and is here now, for the first time to these ears, to stimulate and beguile in equal measure, a testament to its uniqueness.
Jean-Francois Pauvros And Gaby Bizien – ‘Pays Noir’ (Souffle Continue) collates three unrelated recordings from the same sessions as ‘No Man’s Land’, an essential addendum, there’s a godlike genius element to the spontaneity of this duo that sets them apart from the in-crowd.
Paolo Modugno – ‘Brise D’Automne’ (Archeo Recordings) – originally released on Stile Libero (Italy), ‘Brise D’Automne’ pays sumptuous homage to the Spiritual/New-Age/Folk/Electronic and Experimental coordinates of the 80’s Italian underground.
Lal and Mike Waterson – ‘Bright Phoebus’ (Domino) – 1972 folk-noir masterpiece, long recognised as one of British music’s legendary lost classics. Demonised on release, canonised by revisionist historians, ‘Bright Phoebus’ was widely regarded as folk music’s ‘Sergeant Pepper’ moment, a folk-psyche gem that has only been polished by the passing of time.
Croww – ‘Prosthetics’ (The Death Of Rave) – a record made from bits of an old record, namely Slipknot’s 1999 S/T debut: “Croww has turned Slipknot’s cultural cadaver into a polysemous mutant that works as a brutalist DJ tool, or indeed as an introductory mixtape/imagined soundtrack boldly expressing the artist’s individuality, which feels deadly important in an age swamped by mimetic clones blindly chasing empirical populism on one hand, or all too happy to wallow in staid ideas of nostalgia on the other. It’s a beguiling reminder that there’s always a third hand, a third track or third path”.