David Grubbs, I Am a Recording. I Don’t Age.
(or I Started to Live When ‘I Started to Live When My Barber Died’ Died)
(This essay first appeared in Black Clock no. 11, Fall 2009-Winter 2010.)
I am a recording. I don’t age.
Perhaps the recorded object ages. I don’t.
Perhaps the style of music of this particular recording ages. It may age more or less well. I don’t.
The performers on this recording age. That seems a certainty. Equally certain is this fact: I do not age. I do not depart from the date of recording.
I have proof. I am proof. I am my own evidence — just listen.
Increasingly, anyone can listen. Increasingly, anything that has been recorded — anything that has been recorded and circulated — can be listened to. Time, recent time, has increased my accessibility. I can always be found.
The recorded object ages. Styles age. Performers, certainly. The recording does not age, and everything can be found. The proof is easy to access. Anyone can listen to the recording, to its reinstantiation, to its incarnation in the present. To play back. As Tony Conrad writes, “History is like music — completely in the present.”
Playback happens in the present. The recorded song performs itself. The recording testifies to its embodiment, it is ready to reenact embodiment. The recording is its own proof — it does not age. Everything can be found.
The recording could be juvenilia, it could be late work. It will remain late work, it remains juvenilia. The recording artist ages. Didn’t everyone see the photos of Phil Spector in court? The object ages. The style, the same. The recorded voice will not age — so long as it can be found. But everything can be found, right?
As searchability increases, as increasingly everything can be found, the fallibility of memory proposes itself as an aesthetic category — as creative misremembering. In contemporary art over the last decade, works based on the distortions of memory have become commonplace. A particularly influential example is Mike Kelley’s Extracurricular Activity Reconstruction Project, which when completed is to encompass 365 video works and their sets, which can be exhibited as sculptural installations. Kelley has finished about three dozen of them. The Extracurricular Activity Reconstruction Project grew out of Educational Complex, a 1995 installation work that Kelley describes as “a model of every school I ever went to, plus the house I grew up in, with all the parts I couldn’t remember left out.”
One of the more lauded albums of the past couple of years is the Dirty Projectors’ Rise Above, in which lead Dirty Projector Dave Longstreth recreates from memory Black Flag’s album Damaged. But because tens if not hundreds of thousands of copies of Black Flag’s Damaged are still floating around and may well be available for the remainder of human history, Longstreth’s reimagining can be called a willful act. He could have consulted the source.
I currently teach a college course on popular music and technology. One Monday afternoon I asked the students to describe what they had listened to over the weekend, and by what means they had accessed the music. The first person to shoot her hand in the air said she had seen an ad with music that she liked when she was out shopping. So that she would remember the song, she typed a line from the song’s lyric into her cell phone. When she returned home, she googled the lyric, discovered the name of the artist and the title of the song, and listened to it on YouTube, where someone had posted it without a video. Search with quotation marks and everything can be found. In playback, it doesn’t age.
If you had asked me to name my favorite song in 1973, the answer would have been “I Started to Live When My Barber Died.” I had it on a one-sided single that I purchased at a rummage sale organized by the Emmet Field Elementary School in Louisville, Kentucky. I was in first grade. What do I remember about this single? That I loved the fact that it had music on only one side. That it was thus more strictly a “single.” That the uncut B-side was shiny, smooth, reflective, metallic, and cooler to the touch than the A-side. That it was physically heavier than the other 45s I owned, which included the Carpenters, the Sweet . . . and that’s about it. Maybe the Fifth Dimension. (In matters of taste, I followed my mother’s lead. After dinner my father put on Helmut Walcha Plays the Great Organs of Europe.) That its label was dark lime green. That it came without a sleeve and was scratched up. That it had been owned by somebody else, but I didn’t know who, which for me was fascinating and unprecedented. No one else had heard of this record. It was as if I had summoned the record into existence.
I remember these two lines, no more:
I started to live when my barber died
My hair grew curly and my sideburns wide
I was scandalized by the lyrics: Perhaps the main reason I loved this record was that I found it difficult to fathom that someone would treat the subject of death in so cavalier a fashion. “I Started to Live When My Barber Died” immunized me against future encounters with pop-music sacrilege, the first step on a path — we also know it as the highway to hell — that was to include “My Generation,” “Sympathy For the Devil,” “Horses,” “Bodies,” “Anarchy in the UK,” Throbbing Gristle’s “We Hate You (Little Girls).” If I only recall the opening couplet, I do remember the song’s basic conceit: There is a singer. His career is going nowhere. His barber dies. His hair grows long, his sideburns wide. He’s a distant honky-tonk cousin to Chaplin’s amnesiac private in The Great Dictator, too lazy or heartbroken or emotionally stultified to find a new place to get a haircut. In time he’s mistaken for a hippie, or rock star. This was all kind of vague to me. I wasn’t sure if, because of his long hair, he had been mistaken for a particular rock star, or if with long hair he looked like a hippie which was a precondition of becoming a rock star. But if he grew long hair and had wide sideburns, how could that not make him a hippie? How could you look like a hippie and still not be one? Important lesson to a child: appearances deceive. Either way, the singer becomes rich and famous. He rides around in limousines — the last verse is definitely about riding in a limousine, even if that’s all I recall of it — and it’s because his barber died. The wheel of fortune only turns so far and then stops. Long hair, sideburns . . . limousine.
The music was twangy. Uptempo, redneckish, hillbilly-like, wiseassed, kiss-my-grits-ish. From the vantage of the present I’d guess it sounded like Hank Williams, Jr. There was a zippy smart-aleck steel guitar. It was cartoon-like, and I liked cartoons. I thought it was crude and unprofessional and told it like it is, and that it was OK the record was covered in scratches and didn’t have a sleeve. It was very no shoes, no shirt, and who gives a rat’s ass about no service?
A tornado cut its way through Louisville on April 3, 1974, and I have no recollection of ever seeing or listening to this record after that date. Our house was lightly mangled in the tornado — the roof twisted a few degrees, nothing compared to nearby neighborhoods. I seriously doubt that the record blew away in the storm. There was a record called “I Started to Live When My Barber Died” and then there was a tornado, and at some point the record was no longer there.
Last year I was interviewed for the “Song and Memory” series on the public radio program Weekend America. I was asked to select a song that I had remembered from my childhood, and that I had reflected upon throughout my life. The choice was easy. I was giddy at the thought of once again spreading the gospel of “I Started to Live When My Barber Died.” After we recorded the interview, it turned out that neither the show’s producers nor I could find any evidence this record existed. In the absence of a recording of “I Started to Live When My Barber Died,” the producers recorded me singing the opening couplet a few times, energetically humming the tune, mimicking the steel guitar, and so on:
I started to live when my barber died
My hair grew curly and my sideburns wide
In the end, it was decided that without an actual recording of a song, no episode. I’m still a little disappointed. I assumed that, like on America’s Most Wanted, I’d take it to the airwaves and plead for someone to verify and expand upon my blunted recollections, and that someone who knew someone who vaguely remembered something about someone at some point they briefly knew, whose beloved weird uncle from Louisville or somewhere in Kentucky or Tennessee had made this hillbilly hapax legomenon called “I Started to Live When My Barber Died,” would contact me. Broadcast it from coast to coast. Archive it on the Internet.
Alas, I continue to search for this recording. Between completing the previous sentence and starting the present one, I once again foolishly, fruitlessly attempted a number of different Internet searches. How did this most excellent song come to be entirely off the grid? I used to love the fact that no one else had heard of this song; now its inaccessibility — when everything else can be found — is precisely its own brand of torment. How can it truly be beyond my grasp? How can it age? Was it just an acetate, like the single that the very young, still unrecorded Elvis Presley cut for his mother? The shocking fact is that I can find no proof this record existed. The recorded object aged. The style of music aged. The musicians on the recording aged. The singer is probably dead. The lyricist, who may or may not have been the singer, aged or is also dead. This is music not currently or completely in the present. This is not music to be reinstantiated; this is music misremembered. I can download Black Flag’s Damaged and consult the source. Ditto for the Dirty Projectors. Damaged does not age. Damaged does not depart from its date of recording.
The recorded voice does not age. The performers’ bodies are as supple or as grizzled as they were on the date of the recording. They play back. They are forever grizzled, forever supple. They forever reinstantiate. They come again and again.
I am a recording entitled “I Started to Live When My Barber Died.” I am lacking in evidence. I am also currently lacking in existence. I have no proof, and I am no proof. Two lines of lyrics remain, as do a few probably inaccurate details about the form of the record itself, and some fairly obvious guesses as to its origin. I cannot quite recall, and I am only distantly and dismally recalled. It’s no exaggeration to say: