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September 26, 2017 | Wow and Flutter

Wow and Flutter #6: Shelley Coburn

Tyler Koshakow

Wow and Flutter #6: Shelley Coburn photo

1.
My father died on Christmas Eve, 1986. I was three years old. When my mother broke the news, I responded in a startling way. "Death is just a figure of speech," I told her. Of course, at age three, I didn't know the meaning of death, or even the meaning of figure of speech. But that's what I said, and it has since become a staple of family lore.

Because my father died when I was too young to fully understand what had happened, I don't really have any memories of grieving. The earliest memory I have of crying over his death is this: I'm on the second floor of my parents' house, age 15 or 16. My mother goes into the attic for some innocuous reason. She returns some time later holding my father's cremains. The way I remember it, the ashes were in a sort of clear shrink wrap and packed into a box, a cube maybe ten inches.

Modern cremation is performed in a furnace that reaches temperatures upward of 1,600 degrees fahrenheit. The miraculous complexity of the human body is reduced to the carbonates and calcium phosphates of the skeletal system. The vast majority of the tissue that comprises the body is vaporized. An adult male reduces to about six pounds of homogeneous matter.

When my mother brought my father's ashes out of the attic, it was the first time I had seen them since I was a kid. I wasn't expecting it. I cried. My mom cried. That was that.

 

2.
If you buy enough records, over the course of a long enough period of time, you start calling yourself a record collector. It becomes a way to describe yourself to someone who doesn't know you well. What do you do for fun? What are your hobbies? Someone might ask. I'm a record collector, you tell them.

If you happen to become a record collector, people will start to ask you what your favorite record is. It’s a well-meaning question, but I find it impossible to answer. It would be impolite to explain the significance behind my copy of All Things Must Pass—that it once belonged to my dead father; that, in addition to the album’s primary motif of impermanence, George Harrison happened to be my father’s favorite Beatle (and thus his favorite musician); that, along with owning my dead father's copy of Harrison's three-disc masterpiece, I also I have a spiral notebook with the words All Things Must Pass hand-written across the cover. My father used the notebook to keep a travel log of a road trip across the country from his (and my) hometown, Milwaukee, to Portland (the city where I've spent the better part of the last two years). So to me, All Things Must Pass is priceless and irreplaceable, despite the less-than-mint-condition vinyl and falling apart box. But that doesn't make for good water cooler talk.

Instead, when asked what my favorite record is, I describe a one-off demo by Shelly Coburn, a songwriter that very few people have heard of. I purchased the record at a Salvation Army on a small island in the Florida Keys. The record is what is called an acetate. Unlike commercial records that are mass produced by pressing a blob of malleable vinyl between two metal plates, an acetate starts out as a blank disc, and the grooves are cut in real time using a lathe. Acetates were used to do things such as share demos, test final mixes, make bootlegged recordings. They are often one-of-a-kind pieces of musical ephemera. In the record collecting world, an acetate can be priceless or, more commonly, worthless.

After living in Key West for the tourist season, and working at a very popular restaurant on a very busy block of the busiest street on the island, Key West started to feel like the embodiment of everything that I hate about contemporary American society (see WAF #5). One of the ways my partner, Zoe, and I found relief was to drive north on the overseas highway, to a smaller island in the archipelago called Big Pine Key. Big Pine was nothing special, other than it had the one good thrift store in all of the Keys. This was where I bought an acetate with the name SHELLEY [sic] COBURN typewritten on the generic label.

When I got back to my apartment in Key West, I googled the name, and came up with very little. Shelly Coburn was as songwriter who was best known for writing the cheesey, albeit widely successful song "Only a Fool Breaks His Own Heart." Having no record player to listen to the album (my stereo was in storage 1,500 miles away), I stacked the acetate in my closet with the rest of the vinyl I had acquired during my four-month road trip and stint in Florida, and more or less forgot about it.

 

3.
The psychologist Maria Nagy published a study in 1948 that concluded that a child's understanding of death goes through through three stages. During the first stage, which lasts from ages three to five, the child regards death as a sort of faded version of life—the dead are not unlike the very sleepy. It's not until the second stage, ages 5-9, that children understand death to be final and irreversible.

 

4.
I remember being upset about something trivial when I was in first grade, so I lied to my teacher and told her that I was upset because I missed my dad. She let me sit quietly by myself for as long as I wanted.

 

5.
There are two worlds. There is the world we perceive through our senses and the world of forms. The world we perceive through our senses is messy, changing, hard to define; the world of forms is perfect, unchanging. This idea  was presciently intuited by Plato over two millennia ago in his theory of forms. Here is a description of the theory from the 3rd century biographer Diogenes Laërtius:

Each one of the [forms] is eternal, it is a notion, and moreover is incapable of change. Hence Plato says that they stand in nature like archetypes, and that all things else bear a resemblance to the [forms] because they are copies of these archetypes.

For Plato, the realm of forms was not the world we live in, but rather a separate world of perfect archetypes. I'm not sure how Plato arrived at this idea, but from the texts that concern the theory of forms, it seems to have something to do with our ability to recognize certain qualities. That is to say, a beautiful thing is beautiful because it resembles the form of beauty. This idea was later extrapolated by the Neoplatonists, whose ideas later influenced Christian theology, underpinning the idea of mind-body dualism—that is to say, the body is made of matter, the soul is something else.

When I say "there are two worlds," however, I am not talking about the platonic forms. I am talking about the digital world that humanity has spent the last few decades or so collectively building. In the digital world, information can be copied with perfection. Nothing in the digital world has to die.

 

6.
After college, Zoe and I sold most of our stuff and set out on the road indefinitely. We lived out of our car for four months, then settled in Key West to work through the winter. That winter I applied to grad school, and that spring, we packed our car again, and set out from one corner of the country to another, Bellingham, Washington, just about as far away as you can get from Key West without leaving the contiguous United States.

As we were leaving Key West, we made a list of things that we wanted in our new life in Washington. Our apartment in Key West was above a bank. It was dark and nearly windowless. One of our list items was "an apartment with lots of natural light," which is funny considering we were moving from the Sunshine State to the city that averages the least amount of sunshine in the lower 48. But we made it happen. We found a tiny apartment in a large building built on the side of a hill, with a giant picture window that looked out onto the Bellingham Bay. We would watch sailboats glide across the calm blue waters beneath the gunmetal sky that turned a burning orange as the sun slowly set behind the low-slung San Juan islands that framed the horizon. On clear days, we could see the snow-capped Canadian Rockies to the north, which were so perfect they often looked fake.

We set up the stereo system in the living room, and for the first time I got to hear the records I had acquired during our time on the road and while living in Florida. For the first time, I listened to the Shelly Coburn acetate. Under the surface crackle of the acetate, the recordings have a quiet, ghostly quality. They are simple pop songs, presented in their simplest essence, piano and voice.

The record soon became a favorite. One of the things I love about record collecting is the mysterious, sometimes unknown, connection you have with the physical object. This is a main point Walter Benjamin makes about collecting books in his essay "Unpacking My Library" (see WAF #1). This particular object could easily be one of a kind. When I listened to the recordings in my apartment in Washington, I may have been the first person to hear them in half a century.

Searching the internet, I found two of the songs were recorded by the 1960s pop singer Gene Pitney: "Flower Girl" and "Boss's Daughter." Beyond that, it seems like the other four songs were unsold. Of all the tracks, my favorite is the subtle "Morning Song."

It's a beautiful little ode to the morning. It starts with sweet piano chords played softly, over which the opening lyric “Lay here beside me and listen,” is gently sung. The song builds to the chorus: “Can you hear the morning sing? Can you hear what’s happening? Can your eyes see beyond the sky? Here are you, baby, here am I."

A song is like a platonic form. It can manifest as different performances, different recordings, different expressions by different performers; each iteration is different, but shares in common a resemblance to the same, singular form. In that way, a songwriter is a purveyor of platonic forms. The Shelly Coburn acetate is simply meant to capture the basic essence of each song. The recordings are not meant to be finished products. But in the case of "Morning Song," as far as I know, no other recording was ever made of it. This is it, the only existing manifestation of this specific form.

 

7.
Sometime in my early twenties I had come to the conclusion that, given the evidence, there was most likely no God. This had been a long process that began in my early teens, but it wasn’t until my early twenties that I really gave in to the idea of atheism. Eventually I had a realization that, when I think back on it, reminds me of the famous Madman section of Nietzsche’s The Gay Science. In the passage, a madman holding a lantern runs into a marketplace in the morning and declares, “God is dead.” Not only is God dead, the madman asserts, but further, “We have killed him—you and I.”  This scene, of course, is a parable, and the point that Nietzsche is making is that the knowledge that mankind has gained since the enlightenment is incompatible with the previous notion of God. God, therefore, is dead.

According to the book of Genesis, we live in a “dome amidst the water." In the beginning, after separating the light from dark, God “separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome.” Ostensibly, the blue oceans and the blue sky. But now we believe in planets and space, gravity and elliptical orbits. The dome is gone. The sky is no longer water. Thus the madman’s concern:

What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it moving now? Where are we moving now? Away from all suns? Aren't we perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Aren't we straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Hasn't it become colder? Isn't more and more night coming on all the time?

In other words, the madman asks: what now? And so there I was, 22 or 23. I lived in the finished attic of a large house that had been carved up and rented out to college kids. The vaulted ceilings were so low, and had such a steep grade that I could only stand without crouching in the middle of my room. It was a weird chapter of my life. I spent a lot of time in my room reading, listening to records, smoking cigarettes and drinking Irish whiskey alone. I don’t know what precipitated the revelation—though I was taking a class on Nietzsche at the time—but I realized that if I actually was an atheist, then surely I didn’t believe in any sort of afterlife. If I didn’t believe in any sort of afterlife, then everyone who is dead is gone completely. This applied to my father. My father is gone completely. I will never know him. All of this hit at once. It was late. I was drunk and alone. I fucking lost it. I wept like I’ve never wept since.

 

8.
Entropy is a term in physics that more or less means disorder. The second law of thermodynamics states that the total entropy of a system increases over time. In terms of physics, increased entropy is one of the only things (perhaps the only thing) that distinguishes the past from the future. The arrow of time is ever pointing towards a more entropic version of the here and now, a world with more disorder. In other words: this too shall pass.

 

9.
God is dead. What now?

We have already, collectively answered the question. We have built a second world. A world of forms. A world built on a logical system reducible to perfect units of information. The digital world is a world outside of our world. A digital form is made of numbers. What is a number but a platonic form, an abstraction? What is 1? What is 0? In the digital realm of forms, music never degrades, pictures never fade, manuscripts never burn. Not so for the analog, not so for us.

Analog recordings are made of the same stuff as us. Thus when a needle traces the groove of a record, it is the simple physical interaction that creates sound. Though a bit more complicated in modern record players, the earliest phonographs reproduced sound without electricity. Records are physical, mechanical objects. They change over time. No two records can ever be the same; though the difference between two brand new discs, warm off the record press, may be trivial, each contains minor variations. Everything that happens to a record after this point creates even more differences between each copy as it moves forward in time toward more and more disorder.

A digital file is made of 1s and 0s. A 1 will always be a 1, a 0 will always be a 0. If you want to listen to "The Art of Dying," from George Harrison's All Things Must Pass on the Spotify app on your phone, the information will be beamed to you invisibly from one of Spotify's many servers. In theory, that information stream will be the same no matter where you are receiving it, or from where it is being sent. We whimsically call the network that supports this system The Cloud. Even the nomenclature is ethereal, otherworldly, heavenly. Of course I oversimplify greatly, but it's easy to take for granted the miracles the internet allows us to perform.

 

10.
I have an absurdly nice tape deck (see WAF #2), and one of my favorite pastimes is making mixtapes with Zoe. We take turns picking songs, two apiece. A couple years after discovering the Shelly acetate, we were making a tape and I decided to record "Morning Song." When I played the song, however, I realized the groove had been damaged, causing a skip. There was nothing I could do. I had played it too much, and in playing it destroyed it.

 

11.
There is a belief among some Silicon Valley types that immortality is within our grasp. We are moving towards a technological singularity where our science of the mind will merge with our science of information. Two millennia after Christ walked the Earth, there is a new vision of life everlasting.

Before I played out the grooves of "Morning Song," I copied the entire album to cassette. When I decided to write about the Shelly Coburn acetate, I recorded the song from cassette to a computer. The analog signal has been transformed into perfect digital bits. So now I can share it with you, miraculously, as if from thin air, as if from a cloud.

 

 

image: Tyler Koshakow


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