The memories began while listening to Nina Simone on Friday afternoon. On the way home that evening, I stopped at the local record store and quite literally walked in to find a used LP of hers staring at me from the front of the new arrivals. Finally, on Saturday morning, I read that Harry Dean Stanton had passed away. A connection was made between these two people, long ago when my life was quite different, and it made me think about the costs of entertainment.
There was a time when we didn’t have everything we could imagine listening to or watching at our beck and call. If you wanted to listen to an album or watch a movie in the comfort of your own home, you had to possess a physical copy of it. I’m not implying these were “the good old days”, just that this was the nature of the way things worked in the world I was remembering.
In late-1999, I moved into a room in an old gingerbread house in Oberlin, Ohio. It only required two trips in my Ford Escort to move all of my worldly possessions there from Athens, Ohio, where I’d graduated from college a year earlier. Included in that modest but meaningful collection of belongings were two mixed boxes of compact discs, cassettes and VHS tapes. These things encompassed my personal, free source of entertainment, which somehow needed to be supplemented.
To be clear, at this point in my life cable television was prohibitively expensive, and, while it technically existed, the internet was in its infancy and provided little along the lines of entertainment. Of course, whether or not the internet contained quality content at that point was irrelevant because I couldn’t have afforded the cost of the connection and I didn’t own a computer.
This situation made me open to anything and everything someone would share with me. My housemates were all from Russia, students at the Oberlin Conservatory, who enthusiastically loaned me their Scriabin cassettes, weird pop music and creepy Soviet-era fairy tale movies. Regardless of what I thought, I attentively watched and listened to it all because there was nothing else available that wouldn’t have cost me money that I didn’t have.
My entertainment bundle was also supplemented by a box of discarded CDs and cassette tapes that previous tenants of the house had contributed to over the years. It was there that I found a cassette copy of a live Nina Simone performance, as well as a CD of the soundtrack to Wim Wender’s “Paris, Texas” which included a beautiful rendition of “Canción mixteca” featuring Harry Dean Stanton on vocals. I listened to them over and over, imagining I was in that audience listening to Nina Simone or that I was driving the the southwestern deserts at night listening to Ry Cooder’s mysterious slide guitar.
Finally and most importantly, there was one other source of entertainment that I relied upon in this relative void of electronic diversions: my own creativity. It doesn’t matter if the songs or paintings I made were good or bad, I created art as a way to entertain myself during periods like this. Every year resulted in a new collection of recordings and a stack of artwork which I was immensely proud of at the time. A few years later, when I acquired the tools and skills to make digital videos, the yearly projects were replaced with DVD-based compilations. These creative endeavors were the things I valued most in life, not just the physical manifestations that you could passively consume, but the experiences I had creating them.
So much has changed over the past ten to fifteen years. My budget for entertainment is large enough to satisfy my heart’s desire. I have subscriptions to numerous video and audio streaming services, the home studio I’ve built is capable of producing anything I could possibly imagine creating, and my entertainment system has an HDTV complete with cable DVR and multiple gaming systems… and I’m completely bored and uninspired. There’s nothing worth watching on Netflix or Hulu. There’s nothing to listen to on Spotify or Pandora. My primary urges are to sit on my ass and endlessly flip through social media accounts or drink enough booze to make the fast food equivalent of mass media entertainment seem half way decent.
I’m aware that it’s a trap to get older and believe that everything has changed for the worse. Something I’ve come to believe is that “the good old days” never actually existed, we just want to believe they did. If they didn’t, then I might as well just go to the nearest bridge and jump. Nevertheless, I did pay closer attention to the music I was exposed to when the catalog I had at my fingertips was much more limited. And, I was less critical of the new movies I had a chance to watch simply because I didn’t have the opportunity to watch that many.
Now, I can afford to spend what I want for the opportunity to watch or listen to anything I can think of and there doesn’t seem to be anything out there worthy of the time. Unfortunately, that’s just the financial cost of having a universe of entertainment at my fingertips. It’s the additional cost, the non-financial toll to my imagination which I’ve incurred due to this inundation of static that weighs heaviest on me. The cause of this malaise could be that I’m older and I’m not as easily inspired as I used to be or that I live an uninspiring life and art isn’t easily created in a void. However, I think it’s the number of options and the lack of barriers to acquire any of them that have ground me to a halt because it’s become much easier to passively sit back while it cradles me within its numbing fog of nothingness.
This seems like as good an opportunity as ever to share pictures of my home studios up through 2001 when I left that house in Oberlin.I’ve always preferred them to be on the ground.