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 Matt O'Neill

Remembering The CD

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CDs

By Matt O’Neill

When I was 16, I had a teacher called Mr Reeves. While I always suspected he thought I was a bit of a loser, he was my favourite teacher – not least of all because he knew a lot about music. At the time, he seemed to know a lot about everything. Compared to a 16-year-old, he probably did.

In retrospect, a lot of the opinions he held about music seem a little strange. When I asked him which Nick Cave album I should start with, he suggested Henry’s Dream. When I asked him his opinion of Pink Floyd, he told me the best album they ever made was A Momentary Lapse Of Reason. When he discovered I liked Metallica, he asked me why I didn’t just listen to Iron Maiden.

(I did listen to Iron Maiden and, consistency-wise, they are probably a better band – but the idea that one could handily substitute them for Metallica was and remains a strange and stupid idea. Sorry, sir.)

The most shocking opinion he held at the time, however, was his attitude to CDs. They almost seemed a burden to him. Not in the sense of vinyl elitism but mere practicality. When I asked him where he recommended I should start with My Bloody Valentine, he just gave me their discography the next day. A friend of mine once asked him about Jeff Buckley’s Grace and was given a copy the next day. He once spontaneously offered to give me PJ Harvey’s entire back catalogue.

He explained it to me after I graduated. I’d just bought Sly & The Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and was extolling their virtues to him on a spontaneous visit to the school. I suspect I mentioned I’d just cracked 300 CDs or some other meaningless landmark because I remember him saying something along the lines of, “Yeah, but what do you do with them? They just clutter up my house.” I thought this was a stupid comment.

Five years later, I was in that exact position. I hadn’t even really been aware of the transition. All I knew was that I had a couple of thousand CDs (and their respective cases) and a house ill-equipped to deal with them. Years of reviews, interviews and simple consumerism had paved the floor of my bedroom with plastic and press releases. There were piles and piles of random junk just strewn around my lounge room. It was annoying.

Now, I could have sorted them but I decided I’d rather just throw them away. I kept most of the CDs in document wallets but the cases were chucked. I think the eventual toll was about four garbage bags worth of CD cases (which, by the way, are non-recyclable). Friends of mine expressed shock at this callous attitude to my once prized possessions but I simply explained packaging was irrelevant to me. I liked the music. I didn’t need the window dressing.

I firmly believed it, too. Despite my high school commitment to stay true to CDs (am I the only one who made one of these? Too true for downloads, too cheap for vinyl), I no longer saw the point of package fetishism. I never looked at the cases and, even if I had, they were tiny, mean, little plastic things. I’d never been one for vinyl, really, but I could always appreciate the expanded scope and luxurious viscera of vinyl packaging – but CDs didn’t even have that. They were thumbnails.

However, like most beliefs formed in adulthood, these ideas would eventually be complicated by convictions held by my younger self. I recently decided to clean up my studio space and finally place my studio monitors on stands after years of other musicians frowning upon my set-up. In the clean-up process, I found yet another surplus of discarded CD cases and, again, was preparing to chuck them – before I hit upon the brainwave of using my old CD cases as construction devices.

It was brilliant (albeit completely untested). I could build my monitor stands out of CD cases. I’d have new monitor stands and I wouldn’t have to put up with all those CD cases. Plus, my studio space would look all DIY and pseudo-retro and shit (it was late when I had this idea – I also had a cold). Half-delirious, coated in phlegm and giggling like a madman, I set to work building my stands – only to be completely blindsided by an absolute tsunami of nostalgia.

See, I thought CD packaging meant nothing to me. I’d forgotten that hadn’t always been the case. Because of my earlier cull, the only ones left were from when I first graduated high school and my early years as a reviewer (2005-2008, roughly) and each case I put in the stack was burdened with a whole array of memories. I remembered when I first discovered The Young Gods – I scoured eBay for months to get all of their CDs.

I distinctly remember one of them arriving on my 19th birthday. I think it was TV Sky. I’d gotten trashed the night before, lost my keys and magically locked myself in my own apartment. Melodramatically, I was imagining it to be the worst birthday ever. When I found my keys, I went outside and discovered a package waiting for me. It felt like God had been playing a good-natured birthday trick on me (I have a strange relationship with birthdays).

There were so many stories like that, too. I remember finally finding a copy of Miles Davis’ On The Corner at JB Hifi and sticking it in the CD player on the way home. It was everything I’d been searching for in music for years. I distinctly remember turning to my sister and decrying Omar Rodriguez Lopez of the Mars Volta as a rip-off artist. Between this and the copy of Can’s Tago Mago I’d bought with the money from my first ever job, I had all the proof I needed.

I even found myself recalling CD cases that hadn’t survived the cull. I remembered the copy of Ephel Duath’s The Painter’s Palette I’d waited weeks to get from the Ipswich Mall’s Cosmic Music. I remembered realising I had 15 spare minutes between debating photos and choir photos on photo day at school (yep – I was a badass) and sprinting nonstop to the mall and back to purchase The Bronx’s self-titled debut album.

The list goes on. I remember going completely without food at musical rehearsals (so badass) in high school purely to spend the money mum gave me on CDs. I remember the sheer joy of coming to Brisbane for the first time as a teenager and discovering Skinnys. I remember giving up buying CDs for lent and then having to buy two (Opeth’s Deliverance and Damnation, from memory) the day my best friend was expelled from school for nunchukking another one of my friends. Long story.

I could go on but, really, the story just gets sadder – because, eventually, the memories run out. Eventually, we catch up to where I am at the moment. Now, intellectually, I know a CD case is really a lot like a home. It isn’t the building you’re attached to but the meaning attached to it. Furthermore, with music, you get to decide how much meaning you attach to the medium. Still, it’s not the same for me.

Oh, I still discover music I love. I still have stories and surprises. Just recently, I uncovered an album I was supposed to review back in 2009 and never got around to – Minuit’s findmebeforeidiealonelydeath.com – and it’s since led me to discover the band’s brilliant and quirky back-catalogue. Earlier this year, NAPT’s N-Funk series of singles fuelled an exercise obsession that changed my life. Again, though. It’s not the same. It feels like I’m missing something.

I read a lot these days about how CDs are a dead medium. It’s all going to be vinyl and downloads from now on. Personally, I’ve always thought that a complete load of crap. I’d be surprised if some lo-fi weirdo isn’t planning on releasing his next five albums on Betamax. Mediums are like genres. They don’t die. They just stop being cool. Still, if that is true, I suppose I just hope people don’t think of the CD solely as some cheap, historical blunder. There’s a lot of love in there.

Well, there was for me, anyway.

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