Reviewing the Soundtrack of My Life
Even in this age of streaming, it's difficult to part with CDs that still have emotional impact
When a reporter from the New York Times real estate section came to interview me about my rental apartment in Westbeth Artists Housing, she couldn't help but notice my hundreds of CDs stacked in tall towers and stored in an open cabinet.
"Do you listen to them?" asked the scribe who appeared to be in her 30s. Was she judging me as a boomer stuck with dated technology? Or was I overreacting? I liked that she was using a notebook, as opposed to recording our talk.
These musical artists were like my close friends and therapists combined.
"Yes, I do," I said, a bit defensively. But that was before my CD player broke and before I finally converted and started streaming music from my computer and bought a Bluetooth speaker to stream music from my iPhone.
At this point, I hadn't played any discs in over a year, so why did I still have so many piled up in my small loft? Was it time for a purge? But who could I lose? These musical artists were like my close friends and therapists combined. Their voices soothed me and lifted me up and brought back memories.
The History of My Music Collection
Since I'd worked as a music reviewer for many years, I thought I had good taste and an eclectic array of compact discs: rock, jazz, blues, R&B, folk, new age and world music. From Santana to Enya. From Amy Winehouse to Ella Fitzgerald. I'd been collecting music since before I went to Woodstock in 1969, starting with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan albums.
When I moved to this West Village building over 25 years earlier, I gave away my entire album collection. By then, I didn't even have a turntable and I listened to CDs exclusively, with a few cassette tapes in the mix.
I had almost no storage room in my smaller starter apartment (400 square feet). But my collection grew and grew. I had since moved into a bigger space (600 square feet).
But I could certainly find something else to put in those cabinets and removing those stupid towers would be a good idea since I was always bumping into them and knocking the discs all over the floor.
I was quite sure my (paid) digital music subscription (which included millions of albums and songs) could find anything I wanted. But streaming music was not the same as listening to a CD, where I could open up a booklet and follow the lyrics to every song.
But streaming music was not the same as listening to a CD, where I could open up a booklet and follow the lyrics to every song.
I asked my friend Peter what he thought about my keeping this stockpile. He indicated he still has his entire collection of albums and all his compact discs. And he listens to both. But he lived in an 1800 square foot condo in New Jersey.
Of course, by now, vinyl was back in style, so having records was retro cool. Owning CDs was not cool. So I thought, until my friend Jeff sent me an article that sales of compact discs had recently gone up for the first time in many years.
The easiest solution would be to take all of them downstairs to the basement of my building and donate them to the flea market, which we have every spring. Or I could have a sale in my apartment and make a few bucks. Or I could keep my stacks and replace the broken player. Or I could just thin out my collection.
But what if I tossed my cherished discs and wanted to hear a certain album and it wasn't available to stream? I decided to do test runs and pull out some of my more obscure ones and see if they were online.
Byrd, Nyro and Madonna
I started with "Jazz Samba" by Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd, originally released as a record in 1963. Check! It is in my online music library. I was impressed. Same with "Free Form" by trumpeter Donald Byrd, originally recorded in 1961 on tape. But if I gave away these classic jazz recordings, I couldn't check the personnel on the session. (Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock played on this Byrd LP.)
This album got me through a horrible break up as she chanted in Sanskrit and I danced around to her song "The Power of Goodbye."
I picked up "Lhasa: The Living Road." I hadn't heard this in a long time but it's a beautiful album of world music from the Canadian American singer Lhasa de Sela who performed in French, Spanish and English. This album came out in 2004, and sadly Lhasa died of breast cancer at 37. I remember listening to it with my mother at the beach house. I had to keep this.
Will the internet library have "Mother's Spiritual"? Released in 1984, it's the last album by Laura Nyro to hit the charts. Yes, it was there! I loved this cheerful album, a departure from her earlier more brooding work. I related to the bouncy lyrics about goddesses and sisterhood and saving the planet. She sounded happy and content — in love with another woman — exactly how I felt in my life at that time.
When I saw Nyro at The Bottom Line, it was like a religious experience — just her wailing at the baby grand piano with a candelabra on top. I felt an emotional connection to her songs. I owned five of her releases and must save them, especially since she too was gone.
Then I spotted Madonna's "Ray of Light" from 1998. It's my favorite LP by the material girl. Of course, it's online because it's Madonna. This album got me through a horrible break up as she chanted in Sanskrit and I danced around to her song "The Power of Goodbye." Another keeper because looking at the cover reminds me that I survived an awful situation and I'm not there anymore.
My Musical Memoir
I couldn't bear to part with my CDs from out lesbian singers like KD Lang and Melissa Etheridge. As a gay woman, I cheered when Etheridge came out in 1993.
Now I realized that if I have an emotional connection to the artist or the album or if it reminded me of a person I loved (like my mother) or if it recalled an important time period in my life, I wouldn't give it away. Except those criteria pretty much applied to my entire collection.
After a few days of sorting, I stopped and decided I'm keeping my collection.
Combing through my stacks, I considered what my shrink said about my father being a hoarder. (At least I am not saving boxes of useless carbon paper.)
With hundreds more CDs to go through, I decided to apply Marie Kondo's process to my collection. I will hold up each disc and ask myself "Does this spark joy?" If it does not, I will donate it. Now I had a system.
I held up "I Learned the Hard Way" by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and felt a rush of joy. I recalled seeing the high energy soul singer, Sharon Jones, and her sizzling band at Summer Stage in Central Park in 2008, the best live concert I'd seen in years.
I loved the fact she made it after 40 and refused to listen to the people who said she was "too short, too fat, too Black, too old." Sadly, she died at 60 after a valiant battle with cancer. I have eight of her CDs and I'm saving all of them.
After a few days of sorting, I stopped and decided I'm keeping my collection. This was my life story — my musical memoir — from the 1980s until my last purchase in 2021. But that's it. When Feist's new album comes out this month, I plan to stream it.