Post 48: Merch Madness

We have a guest columnist this week: Terry Owen is a musician and music lover with an eye for the absurd. I was there when it happened: the moan of disappointment and disgust at what became the seed of his right-on rant.

“Nothing he’s got he really needs . . .”

Peter Sinfield, 21st Century Schizoid Man

I became a fan of British guitarist and composer Robert Fripp in the mid-1970s after my mind was significantly altered by “In the Court of the Crimson King,” the first album by Fripp’s band, King Crimson. (I call it Fripp’s band, but he has always maintained that he is not the leader of this constantly evolving ensemble.) The unforgettable cover painting by Barry Godber—the face of an anguished man, red-faced, howling in horror at some unspeakable calamity—perfectly complemented the brutality and beauty of the music on the vinyl. (Tragically, Godber died soon after the album was released, the victim of a heart attack at the age of 24.) I wasn’t aware of the range of Fripp’s skills at the time, of course; I was simply mesmerized by the juxtaposition of sounds: the crushing brutality of “21st Century Schizoid Man,” the gentle ballad “I Talk to the Wind,” the sweeping grandeur of the title track.

(And what, you might well ask, does this have to do with New Stuff Sucks? As the Wicked Witch of the West says: “All in good time, my little pretty.”)

I was both attracted to and repelled by the screaming human—referred to by band members of the time as “Schizoid Man”—years before I heard the record itself. I would sometimes come across the album cover in record stores as I looked for the songs I had fallen in love with, thanks to the AM radio that I smuggled into bed nearly every night. (This minor defiance against parental restrictions afforded me great pleasure.) Due to the striking visual force of the painting, the Crimson album was often displayed on the wall. It was horrifying. It was intriguing.

At that time, 45 rpm records were the focus of my desire. Apart from comedy discs—at the time, I was utterly besotted with Bill Cosby, although it makes me ill to think about it now—I didn’t concern myself much with albums. The song was the thing, the ne plus ultra of music; small symphonies distilled into two and a half minutes of shimmering glory. To maintain my habit, I earned money from a variety of sources: a paper route, periodic babysitting, a weekly allowance contingent on the outward maintenance of behavioral norms, the mowing of a neighbor’s lawn. Because I was on a budget—after all, there were also comic books and Slurpees to obtain—each purchase had to be carefully considered; the chosen single would constitute a major component of my entertainment diet for the immediate future.

Holding the 45 I had, after much agonized internal deliberation, finally decided to purchase—“Brown Sugar,” perhaps, or “Gitarzan,” “Hocus Pocus” or “Let It Be,” “Proud Mary” or “Frankenstein”—I would then head to the cashier, perhaps taking another furtive look at the man screaming at me from his perch on the wall.

Listening to music was, for me, an interactive rather than passive activity. I would play my 45s over and over on my portable record player, wondering what instruments made the gorgeous sounds, what the words meant, how the music was created, where these apparently otherworldly people came from. Occasionally, the B-sides yielded unexpected riches: the Ike and Tina Turner song “Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter,” for example, which I would sing along to with great gusto, not understanding the sexual connotations of the lyrics. Another favorite was the Beatles’ utterly incomprehensible but hypnotizing “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number),” which I liked even better than the A-side, even though I had no idea what was going on in the song. (And don’t get me started about “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.”)

To accompany the music, I would devise various scenarios, or skits, if you will, based on my admittedly naïve interpretation of the lyrics; then, in conjunction with my brother and/or neighborhood friends, we’d perform these one-act plays in conjunction with the music. When the song was over, we would move the needle back to the beginning and play the song again, enacting the same scenario, or else incorporating revisions and elaborations suggested by others, if I found they possessed merit. (I was very Fripp-like in this regard, actually.) Sometimes the performances involved dialogue; other times they were completely physical. I vividly recall my brother and me jumping from bed to bed during the closing moments of “Brown Sugar,” our leaps timed to coincide with the singer’s excited exclamation of “woo!”

It was an exciting day when my father brought home a reel-to-reel tape player from his work and said I could have it, if I was interested. He showed me how the machine worked; I was particularly fascinated by its capacity to record two tracks, which seemed almost like a miracle. Possessing this machine upped my scenario game considerably. I would play a song and record it on one track, after which my friends and I would overlay  our dialogue in conjunction with the music on a different track. (Another Frippian connection.)

On a more granular level, music was a method whereby we could create our own imaginary worlds based on a communal experience, similar to the way radio dramas used to ignite the imaginations of millions of enthralled listeners.

Eventually, I ascended to a higher tax bracket, which, in conjunction with my changing interests, allowed me the financial wherewithal to purchase proper albums. There was, however, no decrease in the agony accompanying the choice; If anything, the exponential number of possibilities, especially when compared to singles, resulted in a higher degree of consumer distress.  These days, I suffer similar feelings when I am tasked with locating an unfamiliar item—an esoteric spice, say—in a grocery store. The sheer number of products induces in me a sense of spiritual vertigo.

I was by no means focused entirely on one band; however, based on my experience with the first Crimson album, I decided that this Fripp chap was someone to whom I should pay close attention over the coming years. And pay attention I did: consuming new Crimson albums, of course, but also much of his solo work, as well as his various collaborations with Brian Eno, David Bowie, and the League of Crafty Guitarists. (His guitar solo on the song “Baby’s on Fire” still sends me into orbit, even though I’ve heard it approximately ten thousand times.)

As with most artists I admire, the extent of my interest waxed and waned according to the exigencies of life. I lost direct connection with Fripp’s work around the time my first son was born (hey, Aljosha!) and I found myself needing to actually launch a career of some kind. However, I still maintained vague tabs on his various projects. I was aware, for example, that a few years ago he had formed yet another iteration of the band and was playing music around the world; some of the exciting live performances were available to view on social media. More recently, I’ve been delighted by the “Sunday Lunches” he and his wife Toyah Willcox broadcast from their house. This is a weekly segment that features the couple performing cover songs from a variety of unexpected sources. That the eternally stoic Fripp revealed, in a public forum, the semblance of a sense of humor—with costumes and fake tattoos, no less—was a pleasant surprise.

Although I have never met the man, my impression of Fripp, based on the interviews I’ve read, is that he is an extraordinarily intelligent person, highly disciplined, and possessed of a fairly unshakeable code of ethics. For years, he did not allow his music on streaming platforms; this changed in April of 2019, which was welcome news to me. Having dispensed with my record collection many years ago, I was excited to once again attend to the music that had such a profound effect on me when when I was younger. And I was not disappointed. The music was still extraordinarily powerful. despite some of the songs on “Islands” and “Lizard” boasting the goofiest lyrics ever committed to vinyl. (If you don’t believe me, check out the words to “Prince Rupert Awakes” or “Formentera Lady.”)

A few days ago, hearing about an upcoming Crimson documentary, I visited Fripp’s website, DGM Live, to find out when the film would be available. While there, I noticed a “Shop” feature on the site, to which I navigated.

Which is where we finally get to the stuff about New Stuff.

As I said, I was both attracted to and repelled by the painting on the first Crimson album. When I looked at the offerings in the shop, these feelings returned, although this time there were inspired by the fever dreams late stage capitalism, represented by a mind-numbing array of utterly useless tchotchkes. I’m not referring to CDs and t-shirts, which at least have some utility; I’m referring to a plastic fly swatter, embossed with the Schizoid Man, on sale for the low, low price of twelve dollars. In fact, he was inescapable: on the face of a watch; duplicated on a tie; adorning pot holders and ornaments; featured on “decorative slate tiles” and drink coasters; portrayed on pillows, cufflinks, lamps, pins, shower mats, mugs, umbrellas, blankets, bumper stickers, and “bathroom accessories.” There were also “Lark’s Tongue in Aspic” Aloha shirts, bike jerseys, pub games, patches, keychains, and caps! There were “Islands” neckties, shower curtains, and more “bathroom accessories.”

Where does all this shit come from? What materials are used to make this shit? What is the environmental impact of this shit? Most importantly: what kind of person would buy this shit?

The troubling answer to the final question is “me.” I would be a prime target for many of the products listed at the store. The truth is, I have such an emotional connection to the music, as well as the accompanying visual images, that I found myself thinking, “You know what? A ‘Schizoid Man’ lamp is just what I need to really jazz up my front room. And wouldn’t it be cool to have a ‘Lark’s Tongue in Aspic’ apron?”

It’s revolting. It’s horrific. It’s . . . enticing. And nauseating. These mounting piles of branded merchandise, cheaply made, easily disposed, create a sort of toxic nostalgia, a sewage of treasured associations, that makes the music itself not a secondary consideration, nor a tertiary, but rather completely irrelevant to the business at hand. Who needs music when you can order cufflinks embossed with an image that triggers a Pavlovian response. The only real question is: credit card or Paypal? (And which shipping option accords with your lifestyle?)

Interestingly enough, the DGM shop is divided into two stores, one British, the other American; only the American store features the tsunami of garbage listed above. The British store sells only albums and CDs. Please feel free to draw your own conclusions.

I’m fully aware that the advent of digital downloads has mandated that many traveling musicians need to sell merchandise in order to sustain themselves. The detritus on offer in the DGM shop does not fall into this category.

As the number of resources it can extract has dwindled, the forces behind late-stage capitalism have become quite adept at selling people variations of products they have already purchased; in the field of music, where profits are no longer easily extracted from the wallets of aging Boomers, this trend seems to be accelerating. Thus, an endless flow box sets, album remixes, anniversary editions. . . at George Harrison’s website, for example there are numerous “new” versions of the 1970 album “All Things Must Pass,” including an “Uber Deluxe” collection retailing for $999.98 and which, according to the sales pitch, “includes the album on 8LP and 5CD/Blu-ray (sic) housed in an artisan-designed wooden crate, accompanied by two elegantly designed books paying homage to Harrison’s love for gardening and nature.” Jonathan Swift at his most acerbic could not have penned a more humorous line.

I don’t know about you, but I think I can live without outtakes of “It’s Johnny’s Birthday.”

The extent of Fripp’s involvement in the DGM store is unknown to me, although it is difficult to imagine a person for whom control is admittedly important to be unaware of the volume of garbage his site is dispensing. As for my part, it will take some time for me to enjoy King Crimson’s music without thinking of the plastic fly swatter eagerly awaiting the inputting of my debit card digits.

5 thoughts on “Post 48: Merch Madness

  1. Terry, what a great evocation of the horrors of “merch”—that bastard commerce in which workaday objects are dunked in popular culture to create new market segments.

    Like

  2. I almost bought a small SHONEN KNIFE hand towel at one of their shows but I resisted. At least I could have used it to wipe my brow.

    Like

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