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.

Occasionally, you see major finds appear and then vanish. One of these for me was Hard Rain, an hour-long Rolling Thunder-era Bob Dylan concert broadcast on NBC in 1976. Like the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, it was broadcast only once in the pre-VCR era and never released commercially in any form. A couple of versions, one from Japanese TV, appear on the torrent networks intermittently—as does Dylan's other important TV appearance of that era, a 1975 PBS special on the work of producer John Hammond, released on VHS but long out of print. (That's a great example of the way fans' abilities to see their icons has changed as well: Through the bulk of the 1970s, Bob Dylan appeared on TV in any substantive way twice.)

You've heard of the Concert for Bangladesh, certainly, and maybe The Last Waltz; what about the San Francisco all-star benefit concert called S.N.A.C.K., which featured, among others things, a rockin' Bob Dylan/Neil Young set? The audio from that, drawn from a contemporary live broadcast, is easy to find. You can hear a powerful audio track from it, "Helpless," on YouTube. You a Stanley Kubrick fan? His early films— The Seafarers, Flying Padre, and The Day of the Fight—are a few clicks away.

And let's remember that on a level below the finished artistic works we're talking about here are untold thousands of pieces of creative endeavor, of interest to scholars and fans, of a different sort: Outtakes, demos, and rehearsals from the sacred and the profane, the high and the low. Eighties-arena-rock scholars take note: After I told a friend about this article, he volunteered that an acquaintance of his had given him a large set of rehearsal tapes from …. Van Halen's 1984 album.

The singularity isn't quite here: Over on Jeffrey Wells' Hollywood Elsewhere blog, the left column features a list of films never released on DVD. I found many of these just with cursory checks of the major torrent sites—just about all you could want of Peter Greenaway's penetrating film work, Bogdanovich's At Long Last Love, and the evanescent '70s cause célèbre Looking For Mr. Goodbar—but there were a few I couldn't as well. (Wells' position, incidentally: "If a film is not legally available, I don't want to know about it.")

And there are a couple of broad categories we might never see. The thousands of films and TV shows forever lost by careless storage or deliberate, if misguided, destruction—like most of Jack Paar's Tonight Show and the first 10 years of Johnny Carson's. And there are some films (and far fewer albums) made, but never released in any form and not yet seen, so to speak, in the wild. Jerry Lewis' The Day the Clown Cried has famously never been released and is not to be found on the Internet (at least by me).

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With exponential increases in storage space and even faster download speeds, the best way to find a lesser-known song or album is simply to torrent a discography of the artist in question. Interested in Frank Zappa? There's a 70-disc, 10-gigabyte collection—with about 250 seeds and peers participating on just one torrent site. By my crude estimation, you can probably fit whatever your definition of the pop music canon is on the 1 terabyte hard drive most desk computers come with these days—that's 1,000 gigabytes. Let's say that's the equivalent of some 15,000 albums, depending on the sampling rate of your MP3s, or the equivalent of an average of three releases a week over the last 50 years.

As a new generation of music fans comes of age unimpeded by moral or technological roadblocks to this form of collecting, even discographies will become too minuscule to play with. It will be increasingly easy for fans to share massive archives containing the complete works in given eras of music: the Complete British Invasion … Singer Songwriters from Dylan to Oberst … punk and post-punk—you get the idea.

Soon, we'll all have Lester Bangs' basement in our pockets. And it's just a matter of time that we'll be able to do something similar for film.

Torrenting and other file-sharing sites remain an ongoing nightmare for the large media companies. The vast majority of it involves current and popular movies and music, the illegal sharing of which unquestionably takes money out of the companies' pockets. Yet as technology evolves, the ways we share media—new and old, ubiquitous and "rare"—is changing in different and even paradoxical ways.

Consider that the industries are beginning to recognize that a danger greater than torrenting is represented by the so-called cyberlocker sites—places like Megaupload and Hotfile. (These sites conveniently don't leave the swappers legally exposed the way torrenting does.) Their growth is extreme even by Internet standards; according to the Alexa rankings, several of these are creeping up a list of the most popular sites on the Internet worldwide—a sobering indication of the amount of media being moved around. These sites allow users to put up anything—from a song to, say, a pristine HD version of a new movie—and tell their friends (or the world) that it's there for the downloading.

Personal websites, like the MP3 blogs, do the same thing. Here's one known as Never Get Out of the Boat. (The title's an Apocalypse Now reference.) NGOOTB Redux, as it's called now, after having been kicked out of its previous blogging home, specializes in uploads of and links to big collections of out-of-print and obscure rock and film nuggets, from unreleased early Stones blues material to an unreleased Jim Morrison-directed movie short to, um, a long unheard-of Hudson Bros. album.

The patron of the site goes by the name of (what else?) Capt. Willard. "Nothing's rare anymore," he responded flatly when I queried him. "If someone's got it, or done it, it's likely online somewhere." Willard has a mutual admiration society with the site And Your Bird Can Swing, which purveys the same sort of stuff, with an emphasis on fairly large archives of material, like this five-CD compendium of Peter Townsend's Who demos. A lot of these places allow immediate streaming as well. That creates a new, insanely broad game of Whac-a-Mole for the companies fighting illegal use of their intellectual property.

That's one way in which new online developments are creating previously unimaginable tsunamis of media. Another is more insular: Invitation-only archives, the private tracker sites, that share content, often with a thematic bent. These are basically no-trespassing media sandboxes in which members swap films and torrents (or just pass around cyberlocker links). They have sophisticated setups that reward you for uploading new product—and punish you if you're just grabbing stuff and not bringing anything to the table. They often have well-defined spheres of interest. One called Cinemageddon, for example, says it specializes in "the finest (ahem) rare, obscure and of course trashy horror, martial arts, gore, exploitation and action flicks."

The company Big Champagne has found an ever-more-influential niche tracking modern media usage on the Internet. (It's sort of like the Billboard charts of the dark side of media consumption.) John Robinson is a Senior Media Analyst at the company; he watches the flood of media professionally from his office in Atlanta. "Scarcity doesn't exist in the way it used to," he agreed, when I asked him about my interest. "There's still scarcity of a version of it, that is, a product a consumer would want to own in the physical world. But there's generally a way to find something."

I asked Robinson whether he had noticed previously unobtainable nuggets coming to the surface. "Visconti adapted The Stranger, starring Marcello Mastroianni," he responded. "If you hear about it in film school it's, 'Forget about it, you're never going to see this film. He hates it, his wife hates it, everyone hates it. It's completely buried. Forget about it.' " Citing online discussions, he said the film emerged in 1999 at a meeting of a group of cinematographers. One showed the film on VHS, and a copy eventually made its way to a private tracker site.

Robinson said some fans take a stab at restoration by running poor copies through programs to better their quality. "You can read whole threads going down about correcting the timing of the subtitles or running [the movie] through Avidemux," he said. "It gets incredibly technical." (Avidemux is an open-source video processing program.) Others annotate the files and create synopses. "All of this technical and academic-level stuff is happening totally behind a wall," he said. "You can't Google it, but it exists." But fans can't keep their digital creations behind a wall any more than the movie studios can. Luchino Visconti's The Stranger is now easily findable on any of the open-torrent networks.

The tracker sites' memberships self-select for obsessiveness and an interest in the unusual, so it's not surprising that they are at the forefront of this de-rarefication process. Poke around, and you can see some serious movie fans getting their geek on, keening for foreign obscurities, cult titles from the 1960s or '70s, C- and D-grade U.S. releases, ancient soft-porn films, and elaborate combinations thereof, like The Sinful Dwarf, a Danish adult-horror drugs 'n' sexploitation flick made in 1973. One site works at collective subtitling of foreign films that haven't seen an English release.

Given smaller file sizes and a decade's head start into digitization, the music world, by contrast, has seen an enormous percentage of its product made available. Genre is a consideration; jazz fans, I assume, aren't as Internet-minded as rock fans, so there's a lot of things that aren't online. On the other hand, perhaps because fans in that world are more likely than emo-loving college kids to pay for their music, a lot of material is available through legitimate channels. I don't know if this is representative, but I've noticed that the iTunes Store has the entire discography of one of my faves, the nutty Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo, while he's virtually nonexistent on the public file-sharing sites.

You can see the holes, slowly, being filled in the holdings of the legitimate online music services. I've always liked the ersatz novelty number "Fowl Owl on the Prowl," from the soundtrack to In the Heat of the Night. I used to troll the Internet for a copy of it, but always unsuccessfully. Now the Quincy Jones soundtrack album, complete with "Fowl Owl" and the soulful title track by Ray Charles, is in the iTunes Store. Similarly, I collect versions of certain songs—"Walk Away Renee," "Wichita Lineman," "Stardust," "Don't Fear the Reaper," "Ain't Misbehavin'," etc.—and have always had many more than the iTunes Store has traditionally offered. Now its selection is pretty good, and I occasionally can find versions I wasn't aware of.

But once in a while I still stumble across something that, to me at least, still qualifies as rare. I've always collected live albums, but I've never been able to find a digital copy Rod Stewart and the Faces' 1974 live effort, Coast to Coast: Overture and Beginners, for example. It was a fairly noted album at the time, as major-act live sets often were in the '70s, and was apparently released on CD out of Japan at some point, but interest in it seems to be absent on the file-sharing networks. It's available on CD or LP on eBay, for a price. I asked Capt. Willard if he'd ever seen it; he told me I just hadn't been searching for it correctly, and pointed to a cyberlocker site that had it.

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So the Internet today is very much like Lester Bangs' basement. In its vastness, cacophony, and inaccuracy, it's also very reminiscent of Borges' Library of Babel. Just as that library contained books made up of every possible combination of letters, in the corners of the Internet I'm concerned with here you can find similar chaos: The song "Let It Be" by the Beatles, sure, but also mislabeled as by the Stones, by the Kinks, by the Hollies, by the "Battles" … and also with, of course, those same labels attached to entirely different songs (like "Let It Bleed").

Anyway, is it enough?

For some, the enjoyment of art or culture has fetishistic aspects. To them, being a fan is about something more than just experiencing the art. There will always be collectors, fixating on the physical objects, like the great LP jackets from the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1990s, in the underground and alternative-rock worlds, labels like Sub Pop, exploiting their brand, played to this side of their fans' nature with innovations like the singles club, convincing people to shell out serious money for nonalbum Nirvana and Mudhoney 45s. (Their descendants today are coughing up for old-fashioned LPs of hep new releases.) And there will always be people who can't be happy unless they have something regular fans don't. Indeed, a friend of Bangs', long after he died, said to me that the unspoken corollary in Bangs' mind to his fantasy was that no one else would have access to it.

Still, it's all fun, and back in the day it could, sometimes, give one a thrill, like when a band in concert, say, played a song you knew but the rest of the crowd didn't. Those days are probably over. But I also know what fans don't always admit: That the vast majority of the rare stuff wasn't all that good. It was rare for a reason, however much the collectors and completists talked it up. A good rule of thumb is that if the fans (or the PR person) are talking about how you're hearing the music rather than the music itself, the music might not be that good.

It's probably still theoretically still possible for something to become rare—if only a few fans have digital copes of this or that movie, a few years could go by with no calls for it on the torrent networks and it might fall out of sight again. It might take just a few discarded hard drives for it to be come inaccessible. But again, with many terabytes of storage easily available to fans—and now with cloud storage becoming the norm—that's pretty unlikely.

In a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, the poet Dan Chiasson wrote at length about Keith Richards' autobiography and made an interesting point near the end, about how scarcity and rarity, long ago, actually fueled artistic endeavor:

[T]he experience of making and taking in culture is now, for the first time in human history, a condition of almost paralyzing overabundance. For millennia it was a condition of scarcity; and all the ways we regard things we want but cannot have, in those faraway days, stood between people and the art or music they needed to have: yearning, craving, imagining the absent object so fully that when the real thing appears in your hands, it almost doesn't match up. Nobody will ever again experience what Keith Richards and Mick Jagger experienced in Dartford, scrounging for blues records.

Point taken—but let's remember it's a small sacrifice. I have this or that fetish object—the White Album on two 8-tracks in a black custom case, for example, or a rare Elvis Costello picture disc. And I remember the joy of the find. But it's hard to feel bad about the end of rarity; didn't a lot of the thrill come from feeling superior when you had something others didn't? You really want to get nostalgic about that? We're finally approaching that nirvana for fans, scholars, and critics: Everything available, all the time. (Certainly Richards and Jagger would approve.) It's not an ideal state of affairs for a rights holder, of course. But for the rest of us, what is there to complain about? 

For more on how the Internet has corrupted the thrill of the hunt, read Matthew J.X. Malady's Slate essay " Eureka Lost!"

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of NPR and Salon. Read him at hitsville.net and follow him on Twitter @hitsville.

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