Churches of Vinyl: Archive and Authenticity in the Pop Music Novel

The recent publication of yet another big novel centrally preoccupied with popular music—Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, one of whose key locations is an East Bay record store in 2004 specializing ...

The recent publication of yet another big novel centrally preoccupied with popular music—Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, one of whose key locations is an East Bay record store in 2004 specializing in used jazz, soul, and R&B vinyl records—invites consideration of what Rick Moody has recently observed is the surprisingly ubiquitous presence, in recent literary fiction, of “the popular song.” The common denominator of contemporary pop-obsessed novels is, however, less the song than the recording: vinyl LP, cassette tape, compact disc, Mp3 file. This focus allows novelists to think about their genre’s own relationship to storage media, and about what happens to art when it sheds long-standing material forms: vinyl records, reels of film, printed books. Does dematerialization and digitization liberate art, or flatten it? Many cast the dematerialization of music storage as a narrative of decline: from the tactile vividness of vinyl LPs in gorgeous full-color sleeves to the “weightlessness” of the music on our iPhones and laptops, from authenticity to the loss of aesthetic meaning. Chabon’s novel stands out in this context, however, for the deftness with which it inverts this familiar logic by ultimately suggesting, instead, that the material weight of recordings might be something from which we might be happy to be freed.

If the authenticity of pop music is always at least potentially threatened by the ubiquity of its distribution, the most authentic recording may come to seem the rarest or hardest to hear.

Early on in Great Jones Street, a key influence on many of today’s pop music novels, Don DeLillo offers what becomes a recurring focus on pop music’s authenticity longings when his protagonist, rock-star-in-hiding Bucky Wunderlick, describes the effect of his band’s music on the audience: “We were the one group that people depended on to validate their emotions and this was to be a night of above-average fury … [W]e challenged the authenticity of the crowd’s passion and wrath.” Great Jones Street begins with Bucky in hiding, and we never see him performing his music, which he has come to experience as “next to meaningless.” Instead, the novel’s plot revolves around a struggle for control over a set of unreleased recordings—Bucky’s so-called “mountain tapes” (a nod to Bob Dylan’s “basement tapes,” which remained a legendary bootleg at the time of the novel’s publication). Those tapes acquire auratic power, and attract the attention of a criminal gang, because of their inaccessibility. If the authenticity of pop music is always at least potentially threatened by the ubiquity of its distribution, the most authentic recording may come to seem the rarest or hardest to hear. DeLillo here raises the questions, inescapable in pop music history, of whether, how, and when musical performance, especially music’s power to evoke strong emotional responses, can be successfully recorded and transmitted into the archives of tapes and records.

Versions of the authenticity longings and archive problems of Great Jones Street recur regularly in more recent pop music novels. These works frequently evince ambivalence and regret about how the quest for authenticity in music, especially through the amassing of  recordings, can become all-consuming and empty. Yet they also tend to return to the hope that musical recordings might continue to offer a lasting archive of otherwise ephemeral strong feelings.

Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize–winning A Visit From the Goon Squad, for example, finds in music history since the 1970s a generative source for ideas about temporality and history, aging, aesthetic value, and a fear that contemporary life has been evacuated of all powerful response to art. Scholar Jennifer Fleissner has commented aptly that the pop song is “the new madeleine” for contemporary fiction. Indeed, Egan signals some of her major themes in an epigraph from In Search of Lost Time, and she captures with superb nuance and feeling the ways that pop music serves as a major source for our experiences of temporality and memory. One of Egan’s thirteen individual chapter protagonists, a teenage would-be punk rocker named Rhea in 1979 Los Angeles, artlessly discusses the ways she and her friends work hard to earn admission to the authenticity club: knowing insider gossip and knowledge “makes us one step closer to being real, but not completely. When does a fake Mohawk become a real Mohawk? Who decides? How do you know if it’s happened?” Rhea’s love object, Bennie, “irons his hair in a Mohawk as shiny black as a virgin record”; Mohawk hairdos and vinyl records function at once as signifiers of their moment, and as markers of authenticity that can easily be faked. A Mohawk is ostensibly an expression of punk defiance and rage, with hints of indigenous insurgency, but it is also, of course, a fashion choice adopted by teenage poseurs.

However, as Egan’s characters encounter the “goon squad” of the title—namely time and aging, often especially unkind to the bodies of former punk rockers—they experience a disenchantment and disillusionment that are at once familiar from any bildungsroman, and yet also rooted in a more particular perception that contemporary digital culture diminishes art and our response to it. When, earlier in the novel, we meet the Bennie who wore a Mohawk as a teenager, he is “now” (circa 2006) a powerful middle-aged record producer who has parlayed his immersion in the punk subculture into a lucrative career in the music business, and who has also become overwhelmed by a sense that the music to which he has devoted his life has been drained of significance. Bennie judges the recordings he now produces and sells to be “husks of music, lifeless and cold as the squares of office neon cutting the blue twilight.” Listening to old punk recordings in the car, Bennie

listened for muddiness, the sense of actual musicians playing actual instruments in an actual room. Nowadays that quality (if it existed at all) was usually an effect of analogue signaling rather than bona fide tape—everything was an effect of the bloodless constructions Bennie and his peers were churning out…. The problem was precision, perfection; the problem was digitization, which sucked the life out of everything that got smeared through its microscopic mesh.

Egan daringly underlines Bennie’s hysterical overstatement—“An aesthetic holocaust! Bennie knew better than to say this stuff aloud”—by introducing a momentary misunderstanding into his conversation with his assistant, Sasha:

“It’s incredible,” Sasha said, “how there’s just nothing there.”

Astounded, Bennie turned to her. Was it possible that she’d followed his musical rant to its grim conclusion? Sasha was looking downtown, and he followed her eyes to the empty space where the Twin Towers had been.

Bennie in his alpha-male midlife crisis surely does not speak for Egan, and yet one senses a provisional sympathy on her part with his belief that contemporary art has suffered a veritable trauma in its increasing abstraction from the “muddiness” and imperfections of “actual” human beings and their bodies.

Most of the characters of A Visit from the Good Squad lament the loss of passionate emotional response. Ted, an art history professor, for instance, has experienced a simultaneous draining of aesthetic and sexual passions; his desire for his wife had become “so small” that he “could slip it inside his desk or a pocket and forget about it,” like a digitized artwork reduced to an Mp3. Viewing a marble relief of Orpheus and Eurydice in Naples, however, Ted experiences “a fibrillating excitement such as he hadn’t felt for years in response to a work of art, compounded by further excitement that such excitement was still possible.” Bennie too associates his disillusionment with music with a diminishment of sexual desire. “He’d had it, he’d had it!,” he says to himself, after experiencing a fleeting wave of lust; “But where had it gone?” The pop music recording becomes an ahistorical “empty space,” its gestures towards authenticity merely a contrived form of signaling and marketing that cannot evoke true longing or excitement.

Dana Spiotta’s engaging Stone Arabia is similarly preoccupied with questions of aesthetic authenticity and archiving. At its center is the obsessive self-curating of Nik, a failed pop star and brother of the narrator, Denise. As a boy, Nik begins his “personal archives” by creating his own comic books; “he would make three or four copies with carbon paper … each of the covers was created by hand and unique.” When Nik’s once-promising pop music career stalls, he revives these boyhood craft projects in what becomes his “Chronicles,” a counter-history of Nik’s imagined life as a major international pop star, featuring fan letters, journalistic reviews, commentaries and interviews both admiring and critical, record covers and liner notes; and, of course, the actual recordings, the one piece of the archives that can plausibly be described as authentic. Or can they? Positioned in an elaborately fictionalized phony discourse—one of Nik’s invented band names is the Fakes—the recordings themselves become just one element in a broader game of fabulation.

Nik’s entire life becomes a solipsistic self-construction, a kind of false memory. He has taken modern pop history too literally and turned himself into a fictional self-construction akin to a David Bowie persona.

One of Nik’s best early songs, “Versions of Me,” is “about playing poseur and then wondering why no one knew the real you.” Denise and Nik’s mother suffers from Alzheimer’s and so experiences moments of “deja reçu,” or false memory; Nik’s entire life becomes a solipsistic self-construction, a kind of false memory. He has taken modern pop history too literally and turned himself into a fictional self-construction akin to a David Bowie persona. Poignantly, Nik’s Chronicles are not absolutely false but rather an amplified, virtual version of his actual experience; “when Nik’s dog died in real life, his dog died in the Chronicles. But in the Chronicles he got a big funeral … [f]ans sent thousands of condolence cards.”

Nik seems an extreme case of the contemporary music obsessive who, in a form of Bovarism that appears to afflict men far more than women, stints actual experience for pop’s larger and more vivid emotions that feel “Bigger Than Life,” to cite the title of the James Mason movie Denise and her boyfriend watch together. Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (1995) established the template for such pop Bovarism with Rob Fleming, the owner of a used-record store who wastes his life composing top-five lists. But while Hornby’s Rob substitutes the discourse of pop music for his life, Spiotta’s Nik goes still further in replacing his actual life and identity with a counterfeit version of the same.

All of these novels, contemplating the big business of popular music, offer compensatory visions of unmediated purity. A Visit from the Goon Squad concludes with a brilliant foray into science fiction, the chapter “Pure Language,” which takes place in a near future in which Egan’s final protagonist, Alex, has been hired “to create ‘authentic’ word of mouth” for a mysterious, Bucky Wunderlick–like singer named Scotty Hausmann (whom we have in fact previously encountered as a member of Bennie and Rhea’s circle of teenage friends in L.A.). When Alex experiences “shame and guilt” at generating phony enthusiasm for Hausmann’s work through social media, the clever young publicist with whom he’s working explains patiently that his qualms are typical of what she dismisses as “atavistic purism,” a relic of twentieth-century attitudes.

Egan’s novel does, however, in some sense give the last word to atavistic purism, in the form of the singing voice of Scotty Haussman, who improbably emerges in the final pages as a visionary performer who can articulate and communicate his audience’s most authentic feelings: he was “a man you just knew by looking … was part of no one’s data, a guy who had lived in the cracks all these years, forgotten and full of rage, in a way that now registered as pure. Untouched.” Earlier in the novel, we learn that Scotty has disappeared and that “no computer can find him.” Egan offers a future where “two generations of war and surveillance had left people craving the embodiment of their own unease in the form of a lone, unsteady man on a slide guitar.” Egan is too canny to sentimentalize, in any simple way, the “pure,” “untouched” singing voice as an unmediated bearer of feeling—this is a novel, let us recall, in which arguably the most powerful chapter takes the form of a PowerPoint slide lecture—but the novel does finally locate, in a rock singer’s powerful expression of emotions, its most resonant figure for art’s capacity to transcend the “data” containing it.

Chabon’s novel is set in a polyglot Bay Area in which the business of a small retail establishment like a record store can’t help but become complexly intertwined with race, sexuality, and class, ambition and crime.

Michael Chabon’s sprawling new Telegraph Avenue, set mostly in 2004, is, among other things, yet another pop music novel—with cover art that disguises the book as a retro 1970s red vinyl LP, no less. Like Hornby’s High Fidelity, Telegraph Avenue’s emotional center is a used-record store, that increasingly poignant site of atavistic purities. Chabon’s male protagonists, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, and their store, Brokeland, have less in common with Rob Fleming and his Championship Vinyl, however, than with Marcus Clay and his employees at the Real Right record store chain in George Pelecanos’s excellent King Suckerman (1997) and its sequel The Sweet Forever (1998) (two of Pelecanos’s “D.C. Quartet” crime novels). Chabon has placed the African American Stallings and Jewish Jaffe, who are both married to professional midwives, in a polyglot Bay Area in which, as in Pelecanos’s Washington D.C., the business of a small retail establishment like a record store can’t help but become complexly intertwined with race, sexuality, and class, ambition and crime.

Telegraph Avenue reads a bit like a West Coast response to Chabon’s peer Jonathan Lethem’s brilliant Brooklyn-based The Fortress of Solitude, whose protagonists, Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude, are named for musical titans, and whose plot is shot through with pop music content. Dylan grows up to become a professional rock critic who supports himself by authoring compact disc liner notes, a now-vanished print micro-genre. Like Pelecanos—much more so than DeLillo, Spiotta, or Egan—Chabon offers a predominantly African American pop music history. (For his part, Lethem employs the white-black divide in American musical tastes as a structuring element of his novel; his white protagonist Dylan’s friendship with his black childhood friend Mingus is challenged when Dylan discovers white hipster music in high school.) Brokeland traffics primarily in R&B, soul, and jazz, and for Telegraph Avenue, pop music refers primarily to a black tradition running from jazz musicians like Freddie Hubbard through the funk era of James Brown and Bootsy Collins and on to hip-hop.1

As obsessives and nostalgics who define their identities in relation to the music they collect, Chabon’s Archy and Nat share qualities with Spiotta’s Nik and Egan’s Bennie, even if their playlists only slightly overlap. “Orphaned record libraries called out … a distress signal only Nat and Archy could hear. ‘The man could go to Antarctica,’ Aviva Roth-Jaffe once said of her husband, ‘and come back with a box of wax 78s.’” Chabon’s compulsively and brilliantly figurative prose returns continually to metaphors drawn from music and records, defining his characters in fundamentally (recorded) musical terms: “He was like a smaller, skinnier edition of Archy’s dad, a 45 to Luther’s LP”; “Only Mr. Jones had always stopped to drop a needle in the long inward spiraling groove that encoded Archy, and listen to the vibrations.”

Music, and vinyl records specifically, constitute Archy and Nat’s imperiled livelihood. Like the other authors discussed here, Chabon views pop music, performed and recorded and collected, as offering a privileged space for the expression and preservation of otherwise suppressed forms of passionate feeling. Archy is a typical American man, Chabon implies, in his emotional repression; hearing a 1970 Freddie Hubbard song on the radio featuring his former mentor on organ, “Archy found himself unexpectedly on the verge of tears. That verge was as close to tears as Archy usually allowed himself to come. Regret, hurt, bereavement, loss, to permit the flow of even one tear at the upwelling of such feelings was to imperil ancient root systems and retaining walls.”

The occasionally schematic plot of this long novel involves the threat posed to Brokeland by a proposed media superstore whose extensive stock will render the smaller shop superfluous. The novel figures a record store as provisionally “sacred ground,” an irreplaceable archive of ephemeral deep feeling crystalized in vinyl. When the owner of the proposed new superstore attempts to hire away Archy, he concludes an oration on African American musical traditions by claiming, “I am building a monastery, if you like, for the practice of vinyl kung fu. And I am asking you to come be my abbot.” In this account, a used-record store is a shrine, a “Church of Vinyl” (the title of one of the novel’s five parts).

for all their pleasures, vinyl records or other archives of pop music’s history can become oppressive or burdensome; objects, like Bucky’s mountain tapes, of greed and fixation.

Yet other, more skeptical perspectives are also offered, sometimes imagining a world entirely without records. Archy, who is contemplating selling out of his share of Brokeland, fantasizes at one point about what it would feel like “[t]o throw over all ballast and soar. Starting with, say, your record collection, just shed the whole off-gassing pile in a scatter of 180-gram Frisbees and rise up.” This image reverses the common tendency to view post-1960s musical history as traveling on a path away from satisfying heft, weightiness, and materiality—embodied in the LP held in one’s hands—towards an unsatisfying weightlessness. Chabon instead suggests the exhilaration that could come from shedding the weight of a record collection and “soaring” like a freed balloon or zeppelin (in fact a key image in the novel). When Archy’s wife Gwen imagines the possibility of fleeing her life to start over again, Chabon links Bay Area musical and culinary connoisseurship as she pictures “some town without fixations, one that had sent its vinyl records to the dump and would eat any kind of egg you set before it.” Nat sits at the front counter of Brokeland “hunched on his stool like some high-collared miser out of Charles Dickens,” a passing analogy that compares Archy and Nat’s huge collection of dusty records to Noddy Boffin’s wealth of dust heaps in Our Mutual Friend. Such imagery implies that for all their pleasures, vinyl records or other archives of pop music’s history can become oppressive or burdensome; objects, like Bucky’s mountain tapes, of greed and fixation.

Telegraph Avenue ponders the question of whether there can be musical pleasure, joy, or community in a world without record stores and their archives: “No more bins, writing up the little comments in Sharpie in the dividers.” Nat assumes this would have to mean “no more customers”—or perhaps even no more human beings listening to music. The larger threat here would seem to be a world without genuine aesthetic response of any kind. But Telegraph Avenue ultimately sheds its own burdensome archives. If the record store is a church or a temple, then the records and songs it collects must either be authentic sacred objects managed by priests, or spurious counterfeit icons; if this is so, you could never discard or digitize your music collection. But emergent models of musical distribution have opened the possibility of hearing, buying, and selling music in the absence of record stores and even in the absence of physical recordings of any kind. The novel’s imagery of zeppelins or balloons lifting off into air may be read as a figure for the promise of “the cloud” that can now store all of our music and other data virtually. In the novel’s conclusion, one senses a novelist’s own tentative optimism about a world in which novels, too, even 450+ page ones like Telegraph Avenue, are dematerializing: taking weightless forms, consumed without ever being held in one’s hands, but still offering pleasure. icon

  1. Canadian author Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues (2011) is another recent novel drawing on African American pop music history, if jazz of the 1940s can be considered to be in this category. Like Telegraph Avenue, its cover image is based on an LP record, and its plot revolves, somewhat like Great Jones Street, around a “lost” but recovered musical recording of auratic value—a seemingly discarded take of the most important sessions of a brilliant young trumpet player presumed to have died in a Nazi camp shortly thereafter. The novel’s musician narrator describes the particular vinyl recording as another madeleine of memory, a link from a disenchanted present day to a lost era of artistic plenitude: “I felt its presence so intensely … Its wax holding all that heat like a altar candle.”