While I was in Los Angeles helping my brother abandon me to a lonely existence in Kansas City, I visited my favorite music store in the world, Amoeba Music in Hollywood. I didn't have as much time as I would have liked, meaning anything less than three hours. But as is always the case, I found something surprising, even when I thought there was no way I would.
It had been two years since my last trip to Amoeba, and I was fearful the place would be gone. People are hardly flocking to hard-format music shops these days. But, as my brother drove east from Highland on Sunset Boulevard, I saw the neon sign shouting like a gaudily clad mute person and my world was kept whole.
Amoeba Music deals mostly in used CDs. It sells other merchandise -- DVDs, records and even new music, complete with shrink-wrapping. But its focus is on compact discs of the secondhand variety. The store is huge, but it maintains an intimate, "High Fidelity" feel, in part because the workers are all musicians.
I have a long history with used music. In times of my life when I didn't have any money, I could rarely justify paying $12 for a new album. This meant hours spent thumbing the racks at Hastings in Topeka, Kan., and at a now-defunct record shop in Ames, Iowa, whose name inconveniently eludes me. My shopping trips weren't always fruitful, but I usually didn't care. The search was more than half the fun. I felt like a collector of rare art, even though my quarry was a piece of plastic that cost about $5 less than it should have.
I haven't spent as much time in the used racks of late, partially because, as my collection grows, it becomes less likely that I'll find something I don't already have among other peoples' castoffs. But a more probable culprit for my abandonment is, of course, the Internet. Before, the only method I had for discovering new music was gambling on cheap CDs. Now, it's BitTorrent.
Each month brings new, faster ways to download music for free. It's difficult to blame people for doing so. I often play basketball for significant amounts of money, and even I have a hard time pulling the trigger on $12 worth of music I've only read about. The solution, I suppose, is the used MP3, a concept proposed by a friend when I told him that I had been to Amoeba Music and that I had actually bought CDs. He said it right after he noted that I might have been the only person in the restaurant to have purchased a CD in the past month.
He was probably right, but he shouldn't have been. As I wandered the aisles at Amoeba Music, I remembered why I like to do my music shopping like a bipedal organism. It's fun to be at record stores. I like the posters. I like the clacking sound the CDs make as people bang them together. I like watching the nerdy girl's eyes light up when she finds an old PJ Harvey album. It's all tangible; it's real reality, as opposed to the virtual kind offered up by a computer, a mouse and a credit card.
My trip to Amoeba resulted in the following purchases: "Exile in Guyville," by Liz Phair ($4.99; checked it out from the library once, dug it, have always forgotten to buy it); "Wax Ecstatic," by Sponge ($3.99; have always liked the title track, thought it was worth the risk); "I Asked For You ... First," by Pointe Claire ($5.99; a friend is in the band and told me to buy it after I told her I was at Amoeba), all in addition to the trip's surprising find, and the reason record shops are still important:
"The Hunter's Lullaby" by Raine Maida.
Raine Maida is the lead singer of one of my favorite bands, Our Lady Peace. I found myself staring at the Our Lady Peace section in Amoeba because I've discovered over the years that I don't know everything even about my favorite bands -- they might have slipped in a new release or put together a compilation of rarities while I was in whichever location overseas. Thus, I was both surprised and unsurprised when I learned that Raine Maida had released a solo album in 2007. Someone smart had filed it under Our Lady Peace, and someone dumb (me) had found it there.
It doesn't matter that the album will probably be awful -- as I read about it on Wikipedia, I noticed that Maida let his wife do a substantial amount of work on the album. Wives are never good for eccentric Canadian musicians. But that's not the point. The point is that a trek around Amoeba Music led me to something unexpected. That unexpected thing might lead to something great or to something terrible, or it might lead nowhere. (Musically, that is, I don't expect Raine to help me find the fountain of youth.)
Maida's album might be terrible. But I'll always remember where I got it. Subconsciously, listening to it (or throwing it in the trash) will take me back to a rainy Friday evening in Los Angeles, just like listening to a particular Oasis album takes me back to a snowy Sunday afternoon in Ames, because that's when I bought "Be Here Now." Music takes us places, not only because of the sounds we hear but because of the circumstances surrounding our experience with them. We might remember the store, the girl standing next to us when we unwrapped the CD or the sex we had when we listened to it for the first time. Or, more likely with the music in my collection, the sex we didn't have when we listened to it for the first time.
A download, legal or il-, doesn't have the same potential for sensory overload. There is no shared experience. And, as I'm learning all too well -- in this house of mine that is now completely free of other Shirleys -- life is about nothing if not shared experiences.
So next time you're in Los Angeles, check out Amoeba Music. You might not find the perfect album, you might not have a "High Fidelity" moment and you might not have sex with a nerdy girl who likes PJ Harvey, but I promise you'll be glad you went.
Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams -- the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. He can be found at myspace.com/paulshirley and at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, now in paperback, "Can I Keep My Jersey?" can be found here. With his brother, he also co-hosts an online radio show, "Off Topic with Matt and Paul Shirley."