Vinyl Excursions: Scarce Sounds in Canberra

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Australia National University, June 2019

Happy Saturday! I’m sorry to never have completed my entries on my trip down under, especially considering how fantastic Hobart and IAG were in general. I still hope to post about some highlights. In the meantime, I’m finally enjoying an hour or so of downtime out of my box-filled house, so I thought I would finish this post on one of the highlights of my first week in Australia – a meeting with author and archivist Ross Laird, known to the internet community as Scarce Sounds.

I’d been in touch with Ross off and on since I first began the Ben Irving project in earnest roughly five years ago. He came up in internet searches as an expert on the Okeh records catalog, so I emailed him to ask if he had any record of the Ben Irving Orchestra (or any proof that Ben recorded and released any music). He got back to me quickly and thoroughly, running through expansive evidence that there was no record of anyone by that name in Okeh’s catalog.

I got back in touch with him earlier this summer in the weeks leading up to my trip down under. It turned out that as a longtime employee of the Australian National Film and Sound Archive, he was based in Canberra and would be in town when I was there for the IASPM meeting. We met up in his old haunt on the Australia National Uni campus to chat a bit more about where our respective projects had brought us.

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Ross Laird and a bottle of Mount Majura 2009. Canberra, 6/28/19.

In an unanticipated bit of hospitality, he and his wife invited me to their home in the suburbs, where I’d be able to see one of the most unique and expansive record collections in the world. At least, I saw part of it. He mentioned that he had a shed full of shellac records (not so nimble and as prone to weathering as vinyl) and an additional office/storage room other than the one I saw. Here are some photos.

Thousands of records from his archive (including very rare ones) are for sale on his Discogs page, Scarce Sounds. As he explained to me, Ross doesn’t view himself as a collector as much an a curator. Pursuant to the name, most of his records are rare and don’t really exist within the public archive. He aims to change that for many great overlooked artists from the Global South, then sending the recordings afield to other music lovers. It’s a worthwhile pursuit and a point I hope I can reach one day.

 

He sampled a bunch of 78s and 45s for me, most of which were still shrouded in mystery (most, if any information that exists about them on the internet, he put there), but my single favorite song I heard all night was a bubblegum pop song by Rita Chao and Sakura, entitled “Bala Bala.” The song has a driving baritone sax lead, fantastic female duo vocals, about 4 different words in the whole song, and I loved it to death. Some good Samaritan put a piece of “Bala Bala” on a supercut they uploaded to YouTube about ten years ago.

Transmissions from Down Under: Week Two (Wellington Talk Friday)

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Morning in Cairns, looking south on Grimshaw St. June 30, 2019.

Happy Thursday, everyone! I’ve got (abridged) stories to tell.

First, I began this entry in Cairns, a very cool little city in Tropical North Queensland. I swam with the most stunning variety of fishes I’ve ever seen on the Great Barrier Reef, and I took zero pictures. I did get my Certificate of Recognition from the Divers’ Den (which they clarify, in my favorite part of the certificate, is NOT a Scuba Certification). Considering how uncomfortable I am (1) underwater and (2) cycle-breathing, Scuba seemed like a terrible undertaking. That is mostly because it was. As I write this, my ears are still ringing from when my head nearly caved in on itself, and I’m still wincing at how I looked when I first saw myself in the mirror after returning to the boat. I managed to pop a blood vessel in my nose in attempts to expel water from my mask and equalize the pressure. I think “not looking like Tom Savini designed your face” after removing one’s goggles is a skill that some of the finer divers develop. Also, considering how far self-contained underwater breathing apparatuses have come technologically, I couldn’t stop thinking about how terrifying those early dives must have been for Jacques Cousteau and his antecedents.

All that being said, it was 100% worth it. Granted, the snorkeling session in the afternoon was almost as majestic from up on the surface, but we were parked by an atoll with relatively high towers of coral. I’m clearly no ichthyologist, but every single fish I saw felt like a revelation, considering how massive and rainbow-toned many of them were. The guides emphasized to apply sunscreen at least a half-hour before diving and to avoid contact with coral or fish at all costs. I didn’t see any sharks or lethal jellyfish, so you’ll all be happy to know I’m alive and well unless one of the species applied some kind of slow-burn poison on my skin thaa;fwoij;oi4j……………Just kidding. I’ll post if anything changes. Maybe I’ll get lucky and have a run-in with a particularly vicious Koala. [Update: I did not].

 

Second, back to the tape. Before I get to my IASPM experience in Canberra, I’ll extend my gratitude to Maartje Roelofsen and Macquarie University’s GeoPlan Seminar for hosting me last Tuesday. I couldn’t have asked for a nicer setting and better group for my first international colloquium talk. Their seminar room featured a 19th century court room gate rescued from somewhere indeterminate in rural New South Wales, which most seminar rooms should have. Also, I saw my first Lorakeets. I probably confused Maartje with my overreaction, never having seen birds that beautiful outside of captivity before.

I’m looking forward to seeing several members of that faculty and student body again in Hobart next week. I would have enjoyed hanging out for a bit and seeing more of the campus, but I had to get back to Sydney to catch my coach to Canberra. IASPM was already well underway, and I’d missed a good handful of fascinating sounding papers.

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Aboriginal musicians’ panel kicks off the IASPM Wednesday proceedings at the Llewellyn Recital Hall at Australia National University’s School of Music (June 26, 2019).

IASPM was every bit as fun and insightful as a global conference of the world’s top popular music scholars (and me) would be, and Canberra was wonderful. I got to see a few old friends and meet some new ones, learn a nearly overwhelming amount about great new research in pop music studies, and watch Franco Fabbri bring down the house with “Space Oddity” at closing-night karaoke at the coolest bar in Canberra. Scotty Regan (Queensland Uni of Technology) DJ’d the set and closed with “New York, New York,” but replacing “New York” with “Canberra.” Feel free to dig into his Twitter for more details, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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Fakhran al Ramadhan presents his paper on the the Jakarta skinhead movement at IASPM at ANU (Canberra) on June 27, 2019.

I was honored to be on the Punk session with Paula Guerra, the co-founder of KISMIF, a Porto conference I’ve been dying to go to since I discovered it a couple years ago, and Fakhran al Ramadhan, who splits his time between the Cultural Studies program at the University of Indonesia and his band No Slide (whose t-shirt I’m wearing as I type this). It was one of the best-attended paper sessions I’ve been on, and as on many conferences outside of my field, the way my ideas resonated with the attendees was highly encouraging. It’s a shame I might never be able to experience IASPM in Canberra again, but I count on returning to both the meeting and the city at different times in the future.

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Paula Guerra, Fakhran al Ramadhan, and I express our thoughts after our punk paper session closes (ANU Canberra, June 27 2019).

While in Canberra, I also had the opportunity to meet and talk archivism and records with Ross Laird, one of the top collectors/curators in Australia, if not the world. In the interest of time (and making another quick announcement about a talk I have in Wellington, where I’m actually finishing up this entry), I’ll move my meeting with Ross to its own future entry.

For now, I’m pleased to announce here that I’ve added a talk to my excursion to Aotearoa/New Zealand! The kind and enthusiastic people at Victoria University of Wellington (Social Theory & Spatial Praxis Research Group) have invited me in tomorrow at noon to talk about Capitals of Punk and some more recent research directions that have emerged from it. I’ve pasted their flyer below in case you know anybody in Wellington and would like to pass word along. From what I understand, it’s free and open to the public.

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Thanks again for reading, and sorry I didn’t have enough time to go into further detail about IASPM. I can’t remember the last time I’ve taken that many notes at a conference. Not that I’m going to hold the IAG or AAG to this, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt if all academic conferences concluded with the organizer(s) singing karaoke with all of the participants.

I’ll do my best to get a Week 3 entry up from Hobart at this time next week! I hope you’re all doing well, wherever you are.

 

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It’s never too late to make new friends in your travels.

Who is this Street Musician? (San Francisco, 1999)

Go ahead and file this entry under the alternate title, “Yet Another Reason I’m a Music Obsessive.”

I suppose I have relatively little in my life to regret. None of the ‘big’ decisions I’ve made (where to move, what career to pursue, relationships to develop) can be changed, so whenever I do get a pang of regret, it’s usually something arguably small: a concert I didn’t attend (e.g. Dillinger Four in DC this October) or a record I didn’t buy (e.g. that Brainiac reissue in New Orleans). Though, to be fair, Dillinger Four haven’t played their final show (just wait for them to get drunk enough and find the right bar in Minneapolis) and according to an old colleague Oliver Wang, those records will eventually find their way back to you if you’re paying attention.

So, here’s an anecdote about something almost twenty years ago that I regret to this day. In April 1999, my family and I flew out to San Francisco on a trip with my sister’s youth jazz band. Being an aspiring filmmaker at that time in my life, I hauled my little camcorder around the city with me. My sister’s band had a gig at Ghirardelli Square one afternoon, and I decided to film my walk down (what I can only assume was) Beach Street beforehand. I stopped for a moment to film an old man with an acoustic guitar, singing a wonderful rendition of “Georgia on my Mind.”

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I glanced down at a small case of cassette tapes he had on the ground next to him, wondering if I had the cash in my wallet to buy one. I’d already spent most of my trip allowance (or conned my parents into spending their money) on CDs and I’m sure a small assortment of embarrassing souvenirs teenagers buy on trips to any big city.

Before I could act on that impulse, my Mom yelled for me to come join them over in the Square, since the show was about to start. I reached into my pocket and threw some change into the bin next to his tapes and left, already feeling pangs of regret for not buying a tape.

I have no idea what his name was, and no amount of video technology that’s been coded this century could focus and zoom in on the grainy video I shot of him that afternoon. Honestly, I’d have to go back to the tape in order to even see whether I’d even caught a glimpse of his merchandise case, but its doubtful. Not that having one of his tapes would necessarily answer these questions, but even at that age, I was incredibly curious about the stories behind his music. At any rate, I wish I’d been able to capture more than 15-20 seconds of him playing that one song.

So, I just figured it wouldn’t hurt to throw this out into the ether to my San Francisco friends or anybody who sees this that may have lived/worked around Ghirardelli Square at the time: does anybody know who this old man is? I would be amazed if he was still alive, considering how this was almost two decades ago and he already appeared to be well into his seventies. I wonder whether any of his tapes (I vaguely remember him having more than one different release) circulated locally, or whether any wound up in thrift stores after his patrons downsized? I recognize how unlikely it is that anything would come from this, but crazier things have happened on the internet. Come on, global village – redeem yourself!

 

Did YOU Have to Explain ‘Blossom’ to Your Students Today?

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In case any of you were wondering, yes my PhD is hard at work, discussing the dated early-career arc of Joey Lawrence to a group of confused students in my Population Geography class. Let me backtrack and explain how it came to this.

The University of Tennessee opened a 1906 time capsule left entombed somewhere in the Estabrook Building, one of my favorites on campus (and slated for demolition). I watched it on their Facebook Live video feed with my Population Geography students before they took their final exam this morning. I also paid attention the livestream of comments, which were a heady mixture of demands they stop blabbing and open it already, self-deprecating “jokes” about Tennessee Football, and (after they opened it and found… desiccated nothing) righteous anger and Geraldo Rivera references.

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They historians on hand, including my colleague Bob Hutton (who would no doubt appreciate that last link), did a great job recovering from the disappointment. They had a comprehensive catalog of the items the 1906 crew left in the buried box, most of which had been preserved lovingly in the UT Archives behind them. They also took this opportunity to reiterate the value of well-maintained and funded archives, a sentiment upon which I’ve doubled down on multiple occasions.

Another curious byproduct of this experience was the seemingly inevitable reminscing about the Nickelodeon time capsule, which Mike O’Malley and Joey Lawrence buried in Orlando, on live television, on April 30, 1992. It was moved when Nickelodeon studios moved in 2005, but it is still slated to be opened on April 30, 2042 – fifty years to the day after it was buried.

The first epiphany I had was that 1992 was 26 years ago. 2042 is in 24 years. Society is more than halfway to the finish line of waiting to unearth this sealed box of early 90’s ephemera, most of which is readily available in thrift stores and vintage shops. Popular movies on VHS. An Orlando-distributed issue of TV Guide with Burt Reynolds on the cover. A hat embroidered with “WHOA! ’92” in honor of Joey Lawrence, then at the height of his teenybopper fame.

The latter item made me and an older student in my class (three years my junior) laugh out loud. When I saw the younger students looking on in confusion, I informed them that once upon a time, there was a show called Blossom that helped catapult their teenage cast to fame. I never watched the show, so I forgot that it starred Mayim Bialik , who is still incredibly famous as a star on The Big Bang Theory, perhaps the worst and most culturally caustic show ever produced (not a personal knock on Bialik by any means).

gi_153511_green20gak20lo20resIt’s impossible to predict these things, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the video camera they put into the capsule (after being unable to eject the tape) wound up being the most valuable thing upon unearthing in 2042. That, or the Barbie Doll in it’s original packaging. Or, maybe even the tube of Gak, a sticky slime compound cross-promoted with Nickelodeon shows whose name, somehow, functions as a stand-in for cocaine. You can’t make this stuff up.

So, in conclusion, time is like sands through the hourglass; I fear I may blink and it may be time for Mike O’Malley’s great-grandson to crack open that thing LIVE on YouComvrizoncasTube Mentalscreen Googlevision. There are more important lessons here, though, which can be applied to our experience from today. First, keep your archives funded and well-maintained by enthusiastic historians and lovers of material culture. Second, whenever your university gives you the opportunity, pull up a local Livestream to watch with your students. It may pull everyone on board, even temporarily, with campus civic life, and you never know what cultural revelation you may find, even if the capsule is empty.

New Article Published in ‘Arts and the Market’ Journal

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aamcoverJust a quick announcement that I have a new article out this week! I wrote a piece about the idea of the vinyl record as a souvenir for the Emerald Publishing journal Arts and the Market. Thanks to the editorial staff for helping me sculpt this one, which originated as a research paper for a seminar on tourism. I drew equally on some older MA thesis research on the marketplace around vinyl as well as some PhD research on the seismic legend around harDCore.

Sonnichsen, T. (2017). Vinyl tourism: records as souvenirs of underground musical landscapes. Arts and the Market 7 (2), 235-248.

You can check out this issue as well as prior issues of Arts and the Market on the Emerald Insight page here. Depending on your institutional access, you may be able to find the HTML or PDF version of the article directly from there. If not, then don’t hesitate to contact me and I can help get you a copy.

RIP Wombleton Records

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via the LA Weekly

In planning my trip out to Los Angeles for EmoGeo (the Emotional Geographies Conference) next month, I stumbled upon some sad news. Wombleton Records, one of the three shops upon which I focused my chapter in The Production and Consumption of Music in the Digital Age (2015; B. Hracs, M. Seman, T. Virani, eds), closed its doors this past February. I somehow missed this news when it first came out in February; their normally fantastic newsletters stopped arriving and I guess I didn’t notice because I haven’t lived in California for a while now.

I’m mostly disappointed on behalf of anyone who stumbles upon my chapter in that book, gets excited to visit the store, looks it up, and realizes they’ll never get to. I hold no grudges over one of my case studies disappearing; it only emphasizes how transient these types of places are and how difficult it is to stay solvent in the modern urban economic landscape. It mainly sucks because it was such a cool little shop; the owners Ian and Jade emphasized design and atmosphere and curated their vinyl collection beautifully. I couldn’t even count the number of UK and European titles I found there that I would be highly unlikely to find anywhere else in the United States. I was already getting excited to flip through their 7″ section in the back trying to find any rogue single by the likes of Blur, Supergrass, or Manic Street Preachers.

At least LA (even the Highland Park area) isn’t particularly starving for good record shops these days. Wombleton was a clear labor of vinyl love, and the LA Weekly published a great retrospective on the storefront’s 7-year history the week it shut down. Best of luck to everybody who was involved!

Have a great weekend, everyone. More info about my California trip soon, as well as (while on the subject of Blur, ‘Grass, Manics, et al) a lengthy diatribe about the value of Britpop in Geography. Also, why Blur are categorically better than Oasis.

Lyrics, Letters and the Forgotten Lives of Ben Irving

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Click to watch at PechaKucha.org

Pecha Kucha Knoxville recently uploaded the PowerPoint and Audio from my November presentation about my great-grandfather. This was a 6 minute, 40 second truncation of archival work I’d been doing about over a thousand postcards he sent from the road in the 1930s and 40s. It is an ongoing project that has been as rewarding as it has been educational and surprising regarding both my family history and a different era in American cultural life.

Here is my respectful sales pitch: If you enjoy what you see above, let me know. I am always happy to bring this lecture (in any reasonable length) to present at your company, school, civic organization, for any interested parties. Feel free to contact me at sonicgeography [at] gmail. I presented an hour-long version of this talk, which included a handful of his original song lyrics, more news clippings, and personal history at the Kimball Farms Lecture series in Lenox, MA in November. I have an audio recording available for anybody interested in the extended version.

Anyway, I’ve hinted at this postcard collection before, but until now I haven’t been completely comfortable with sharing. But now that the cat’s out of the bag and I did this presentation for over a thousand people in Knoxville, I’ll be a bit more forthcoming with Ben Irving’s story.

I assume you’ll watch the video-slideshow at the link above (WordPress doesn’t allow embedding of iframe codes; apologies), but the long and short of it was that my great-grandfather, who went by his stage name Ben Irving in most of his professional life, was a prolific musician on the Hartford jazz circuit of the 1920s. When the Depression hit, he moved his young family (including my grandmother, then a toddler) to Brooklyn and hit the road as a sales representative. In his time, Irving got to see so much more of America than most anybody in his position, including parts of the country that were still mired in dark history and summarily unfriendly to Jews. Assuming that his wife and daughter would probably never see any of these places, he sent home multiple postcards from almost every city he visited.

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A few years ago, when I inherited the postcards, I began bringing selections with me whenever I traveled to particular cities in North America. I began to re-pose and re-create the shots, better terms as ‘rephotography’ (see Kalin 2013 for a great overview of this). I cataloged these attempts in a handful of entries (including in FloridaNew Orleans, Mobile, and Chattanooga) all of which are tagged with ‘Re-Photography’ and I included in my PechaKucha talk. I recently created a new tag (‘Ben Irving’) for the posts I make about my ongoing work focused on (or directly inspired by) my great-grandfather. Stay tuned for a pair of new entries that follow his postcards (including an overdue AAG 2017 retrospective), coming very soon.