What makes me want to save this collection is the world is dead out there. They have their ears closed. They don’t understand what is going on at this moment, and it’s going to take them ten, fifteen, twenty years to wake up and realize what they missed.
In at least one way, Paul Mawhinney is undoubtedly right: our move away from viewing music recordings as physical objects has resulted in tangible losses. The first of these, the fall of the album as visual artifact, has been lamented at least since the rise of the eight-track. The association between the auditory and visual senses, which hit full stride with the beautiful LP gatefold covers of the sixties and seventies, has been nearly completely severed by the rise of digital downloading and mp3 players, and arguably the album cover is now dead. My first album purchases were cassettes, so this type of sensory interplay has been dulled for me from the beginning, but still, I can feel the pull of the perfect cover. This might be my favorite example:
Simple enough, right? But the loss Mawhinney refers to is less immediately quantifiable. He’s talking about the quality of the music itself, the fullness of sound and how its been radically reduced:
Chop off the highs, chop off the lows, and then they compress everything. How can that possibly be equal to the open sound you get on a record?
This argument, let’s just admit it, is totally justified. His description certainly captures the action of digital compression to create mp3s, and hell, even Justin Timberlake agrees that vinyl sounds better. So in this way, Mawhinney presents himself as a tragic figure, a hero even, and really, don’t all true heroes appear a little crazy? Look back to Beowulf and King Arthur, and it should be clear: heroic narratives typically consist of dudes (yes, this does appear to be a primarily male obsession) doing crazy shit that makes them famous. The attempt to amass at least one copy of every record ever made firmly puts Paul Mawhinney in this long line of heroes, men who, despite their accomplishments, are probably best appreciated from afar.
But the ultimate heroic act, of course, might be one of selflessness, and the owner of the Archive doesn’t, after all, appear willing to simply donate his collection to an institution such as the Library of Congress. If this is, in fact, “The Greatest Record Collection in the World,” then he is “The Greatest Record Collector in the World,” and for this, Mawhinney wants not only money, but personal validation of his life’s work. In other words, this isn’t just about the Archive; it’s about him.
Take the tear-jerking concluding scene of “The Archive.” When he listens to “Music” by John Miles, Mawhinney is visibly moved by the lyrics:
Music was my first love
And it will be my last.
Music of the future.
Music of the past.
“It’s my life song,” he tells us. “I’ve given my life to music. That’s what it’s all about.” Earlier in the film, he’s even more blunt when talking of his collection:
The world doesn’t care or give a damn to save it for future generations, but I’m not going to throw my life away because everyone is sleeping.
Could the equivalence be anymore clear? His records, his life. His life, his records.
For my wife and I, the meaning we attach to our possessions has altered over the years, most significantly since living in New Orleans and evacuating for Hurricane Katrina. At the time, we conveniently resided both in an upstairs apartment and on a geographic ridge, so our stuff survived mostly intact, but for some time, we had nowhere to put it. Due to an odd set of circumstances, we had to gather our possessions in a moving van and leave New Orleans before the city had even reopened. At this point, we were still staying with friends and family, so everything that couldn’t fit into a suitcase had to go into storage for several more months. As far as Katrina stories go, this is mild and undramatic, but for us, it provided a strange clarity.
Our possessions may offer a narrative of our lives, but this narrative is endlessly mutable. A work I recently saw by the Brazilian artist Rivane Neueschwander provides a rather lyrical illustration of this. The first piece in an exhibit currently showing at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum in St Louis, it is entitled Joe Carioca and Friends and consists of pages, as the accompanying literature states, “from a popular Brazilian comic starring Joe Cairoca (Joe from Rio), a soccer-playing parrot created by Walt Disney in the 1940s, who would later replace Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck in Brazilian comics.”
Neueschwander, however, has removed all the content from the pages, leaving simply a series of blank comic strip panels and empty thought balloons. Underneath them sits pieces of chalk and an invitation for visitors to fill the panels in with their own stories.
This is similar to how I like to think of my personal ownership. Over the years, I’ve amassed plenty of records of my own—and books and comics and fifties tchotchkes and so much more. You could walk into our apartment when my wife and I aren’t home and instantly form a picture of us:
The real beauty, though, is in how that picture can change. When I visited the Mildred Kemper, Joe Carioca and Friends was filled with fairly insipid scribbles. People had chalked in ads for websites and bad, fifth-grade-level jokes. But sitting next to the chalk was also an eraser, and whenever a visitor or museum employee wished, all those scribbles could simply disappear.
I truly believe that someone should take the Archive off of Paul Mawhinney’s hands. By all reports, the collection could function as an important library in and of itself, a cultural repository as we cycle back, like Mawhinney believes we will, towards physicality—a theory, by the way, the current vinyl resurgence seems to support. But most importantly, before he dies, Paul Mawhinney truly needs to experience a life unencumbered by his records. He needs what we all need, even if only for a few stolen moments: to contemplate an empty room.
Johnny Damm has taught creative writing at Stetson University in Central Florida and Tulane University in New Orleans. He is the founding editor of A Bad Penny Review.