Lester Bangs' Basement: What it means to have all music instantly available.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
April 19 2011 11:55 AM

Lester Bangs' Basement

What it means to have all music instantly available.

Is there any song now that can't be found online? Click image to expand.
Is there any song now that can't be found online?

Lester Bangs, the late, great early-rock critic, once said he dreamed of having a basement with every album ever released in it. That's a fantasy shared by many music fans—and, mutatis mutandis, film buffs as well. We all know the Internet has made available a lot of things that were previously hard to get. Recently, though, there are indications of something even more enticing, almost paradisiacal, something that might have made Bangs put down the cough syrup and sit up straight: that almost everything is available.

Music and movie fans of a certain age and a certain bent have strong visceral responses to this issue of availability. We grew up in an age of excited, roiling change in the music and film worlds, but the vicissitudes of the technologies and industries involved made the logistics of merely keeping up—much less being an expert—a time-consuming, expensive, and sometimes impossible chore. I won't bore you with the details, but let me tell you—it was a drag.

Actually, I will bore you with the details. The music you wanted to hear wasn't played on the radio and you couldn't find the records you wanted to buy. You couldn't even find the magazines that told you what records you should want to buy. It was almost impossible to see filmed footage of the artists you wanted to see. And movie fans? We scurried like rats after what could be, for all we knew, once-in-a-lifetime viewing opportunities to see this or that film at movie theaters or in unexpected showings on television.

Fast forward a few decades, and we're approaching a singularity of sorts—one in which the digital convergence, in a gradual warm flash, is nearly complete. If you were born to this it's an unshakeable, seemingly permanent feature of the world. The rest of us marvel that a significant part of everything out there that should be digitized and made available has. And once it's out there, getting your hands on it is a fairly simple process. The concept of "rarity" has become obsolete. A previously "rare" CD or movie, once it's in the iTunes store or on the torrent networks, is, in theory, just as available as the biggest single in the world. (In practice, there are marginal differences, like having to do a few extra searches or wait a bit for a download, but that's a big difference from, say, driving across town to a Tower Records to find that they don't have a CD in stock.)

A rarity might be less popular; it might be less interesting. But it's no longer less available the way it once was. If you have a decent Internet connection and a slight cast of amorality in your character, there's very little out there you might want that you can't find. Does the end of rarity change in any fundamental way, our understanding of, attraction to, or enjoyment of pop culture and high art?

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The phenomenon crystallized for me while working on a story about the Rolling Stones. I wanted to see the 1972 documentary Cocksucker Blues again. The film, a porny, drug-soaked cinéma vérité by the noted photographer Robert Frank, was never officially released. Indeed, under some sort of legal agreement with the Stones, Frank can show it publicly only when he is physically there. It tends to be presented at college events or in museum screening rooms.

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The film took me about 30 seconds to find on the torrent networks, and perhaps half an hour to download. The movie was in great condition. Indeed, I was surprised at how explicit the sex scenes were; although I'd seen it twice before, I didn't remember them. I wouldn't swear to it that they hadn't always been there, but it made me wonder whether Frank had shown expurgated versions at the showings I'd seen in the 1980s and '90s—and that the illicit one on the Internet was the definitive version.

Later, I noticed that I'd made the process unnecessarily difficult on myself: The thing is on YouTube, complete with gobs and gobs of sex. And if you're into the Stones you can of course find tons of other footage, right down to a circa 1964 Rice Krispies commercial. All the Ed Sullivan performances; odd documentaries, like one from Australia, or another bit of foofara called Charlie Is My Darling.

Sometimes the quality isn't great, but on the other hand they uniformly lack the bad aspects of official DVD releases: No intrusive previews, many fewer commercials; no security warnings from the FBI or Interpol in multiple languages or legal announcements regarding the commentaries; no inconsistent navigation; and so forth. The so-called "illegal media" are often more consumer-friendly and easier to use than the legal.

On a roll, I looked for Let It Be, the wan Michael Lindsay-Hogg feature documentary on the making of the Beatles' penultimate recording sessions, never released on DVD. It took maybe an hour to download. (By the way, I'm sure some of the hard-to-find works I'm talking about technically had a release, whether as an import, on laser disc, or whatever. Let It Be, for example, was put out early in the VHS era; here's a copy of it for sale on eBay for $200.)

I like the director Richard Rush—he did The Stunt Man. Long ago, Rush did a buddy cop movie—arguably the ur buddy cop movie, Freebie and the Bean. I don't think it was ever released on DVD, is entirely absent from Netflix, and was only recently put up on Amazon in a printed on-demand format. That's been on the torrent networks for a while.

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