by Vince Tinguely
From Vol. 2 No. 4, 2003
I went to the Colisée du Livre on Mont Royal East recently. Back in July – that’s about five months ago – I was checking the place out when I had no money; always a big mistake. The ground floor and basement are a sea of remaindered and used books. Mostly French-language, but there’s plenty of picture books, art books, stuff like the Taschen Eric Kroll bibles and so on. On the second floor are bins of vinyl records for 99 cents each – refugees from the now-demolished Palais de Commerce that got torn down on Berri. I went up just to take a peep – no money, remember – and spied an Osibisa album. When lately I chanced to hear some Osibisa on Basabasasoukousoukousoundz, an African-music themed show, I thought, “Shit, wish I’d bought that album!” So I went back, now with some money, on the off-off-off-chance I’d find the album, or at least something just as good and rare.
But what I was thinking about when I sat down to write this, actually, was the simple act of going through the record bins. This is an act of supreme patience. A form of meditation, I think, similar perhaps to the alpha state one might have gone into while foraging for berries on the remote Alsatian tundra ten thousand years ago. There are thousands of discs, and they are in no discernable order whatsoever. I think the way they’re organized is that boxes of records come in from somewhere – do people actually sell records to these places, or do the stores have access to some kind of vast, unimaginable dumping ground of the world’s useless vinyl? – and the new arrivals are simply plopped in the handiest record bin. So the intrepid shopper will come across a blob of Ecclesiatical Hits for Catholics, each disc (featuring rows of nuns with guitars marching through a meadow, or any number of artistic renditions of Jesus and Mother Mary) carefully labelled with a sticker, harking from some long-lost personal (or perhaps institutional) library. And then the Cheap Trick Live At Budokan album will be jammed down into their midst.
At first, it’s like an endless Tarot reading – with a nearly infinite number of decks all shuffled together, and each deck containing a nearly infinite number of cards. But although the serried rows of records approach randomness, their arrangement isn’t entirely random. One could try drawing a graph: one axis would be popularity, another would be disposability, or maybe some kind of obsolescence factor. Then there’s a third axis (it’s a three-dimensional graph) to do with time – most of the discs date from before the nineties, and largely after the fifties. Therefore, given these parameters, one is at least a thousand times more likely to come across a copy of the Alan Parsons Project album I, Robot, than a Patti Smith album from the same era. This becomes the challenge to the intrepid searcher – withstanding the increasing ennui of finding multiple copies of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours (which sold tens of millions of copies in its heyday) in order to locate that elusive Laura Nyro disc. There’s a demographic element at work here, too – you’re very likely to find copies of Harmonium’s third opus, or Cano’s first album, or a particular André Gagnon LP with a silver-on-white portrait that seems to have shipped big in its time, judging by the frequency with which it turns up in thrift stores all over Montreal. But good luck landing anything by L’Infonie!
Going through these bins – I only managed to do about half of them before I began to lose it – strange thoughts start flitting through your head. For instance, “What is all this crap for? Has culture really come down to this, artifacts which took thousands of man-hours in sweat and craft to create, only to wind up forgotten in bins, pawed over by an occasional obsessive, but essentially turned into dross, just flotsam, the byproduct of an intensive mining operation, tossed aside in the search for that valuable Roy Orbison disc?” (Only the lonely…) Furthermore, the representation of mortality that it transmits, like a decaying signal from a blaring past – the seventies, that loud, unselfconscious decade. Objects whose value has entirely evaporated since then – the Osmonds, the Van McCoy oeuvre, Supertramp, and most especially Chris DeBurgh. “There is a Spanish Train which runs – “ from one end of the fucking record dump to the other! What interests me is the fact that it is the most incredibly super-popular acts of the seventies which crop up in this vinyl necropolis with the greatest frequency – conjuring up in my mind’s eye images of endless rows of Madonna, Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys and Puffy Daddy CDs in some similar musty place of the near future.
It says something about Western culture, this correlation between mega-popularity and future inconsequence. Remember, in their heyday, acts like Supertramp shifted units like nobody’s business – and yet now they come across as empty shells. Husks. I was a fan, back in the seventies – hell, I saw Chris DeBurgh open for Supertramp on the Even In The Quietest Moments tour – but I’ll be damned if I can remember anything at all of significance about anything Supertramp ever produced. They had all the staying power of a bag of potato chips. This is what ‘junk culture’ means – it just passes through the system. Except it doesn’t. Because this kind of ‘culture’ has a physical presence which doesn’t simply vanish when interest in it dries up. It accumulates, much like toxins accumulate in living tissue over time. It accumulates in places like Geant Du Livre because our aquisitive entrepreneurial society can’t bring itself to just dump the whole shitload of dreck into the landfill – or, to be more politically-correct, recycle all that vinyl into brand new Moby twelve-inch singles that’ll clog up tomorrow’s Geant Du Livres in precisely the same way.
(The Colisée du Livre is located at 1809 Mont-Royal E., just in from the corner of Papineau.)