Sunday, January 20, 2019

Farewell to my youth: Selling my vinyl

Minor Threat Out of Step EP cover

Over the past couple of weeks I've begun selling my vinyl records. It feels like I'm saying farewell to my youth—although clearly my youth said farewell to me quite a few years ago.

The symbolic meaning of getting rid of my vinyl seems inescapable. My records represent a decade-plus in which I spent literally hundreds of hours haunting used record stores. I did so not because I was a record collector, but because music was such a huge part of how I defined myself. To say goodbye to my records is saying goodbye to the person for whom each record purchase was a vital selection because it expressed a part of who I was, or wanted to be.

Like every addictive substance, vinyl records were expensive. Being perpetually underemployed I could only afford new ones on very rare occasions, so almost always when there was a record I wanted I had to hope to find a used copy. I was also fastidious about condition, which made my search even harder. Fortunately the Bay Area was home to some great record stores: in Berkeley, Rather Ripped, Universal Records and the Mint Platter; in San Francisco, Recycled, Reckless and Streetlight. (All are now closed.)

I was fortunate to spend my record-hunting years around the time of the emergence of CDs, when vinyl was being significantly devalued. Back then the list price of a new vinyl album was typically $14.98; I generally paid a budget-friendly $3 to $5 for my used finds (about $7.75 to $13 in today's money—then as now about the price of a burrito. Yes, that meant I sometimes sacrificed lunch or dinner to my music habit).

I also sought out a lot of punk and post-punk music that was issued in limited pressings on small labels. Those records, I now discover, have become collector's items. As an example, in 1983 the scene-leading DC hardcore band Minor Threat issued a nine-song 12" EP, Out Of Step. The EP contained an unlisted final track, "Cashing In," that ended with lead singer Ian Mackay singing "There's no place like home. . .so where am I?" It was a moment of naked emotional vulnerability that resonated with my own feelings of anxiety and uncertainty.

On Out Of Step's first pressing that question faded into an echoing silence. But (as I discovered when I brought home my brand-new copy of a later pressing) on subsequent pressings the band added an overdub of an orchestra tuning up. I thought the added orchestra was horribly pretentious and ruined the song. But the first pressing had sold out almost instantly and was unobtainable. So I had to search for nearly two years before I could find a used copy of the first pressing (identifiable by its black, blank back cover).

Out Of Step sold for $3 when it was released. Later I bought my used first pressing for $5, which was then the list price for a new copy, but I thought it was worth it to lose the orchestra. I note that the current median sale price for a first pressing of Out Of Step on is $325, and one intrepid (or delusional) dealer has a copy listed at $1200.

It's prices like these that have convinced me that we are near the peak of the market for used vinyl. Sure, there are a lot of techies in my town earning six-figure salaries; perhaps they wouldn't think twice about spending $1200 on an easily-damaged artifact of a culture they are too young to have experienced in person. (Not to mention that spending $1200 for this record is antithetical to everything that Minor Threat stood for and expresses in their music.)

But I also suspect that the time of vinyl-as-fetish-object will be coming to an end in the next few years. None of my friends or relatives with kids in their twenties report that they own records (or any physical media), and almost everyone I know that's my age or older is either in the process of getting rid of their records, or got rid of them long ago. They're certainly not buying new ones.

So it seems as though it's primarily people in their 30s who are buying vinyl; will they continue to do so for another decade? I'm thinking not; the disadvantages of vinyl records—they're easily scratched or warped, they're heavy (an album in its sleeve typically weighs half a pound or more), they require a lot of room for storage, they need to be cleaned before and after every play, and they only provide 20 minutes of music at a time—will ultimately spell doom for the vinyl revival.

On the other hand, this is a prediction from a person who didn't think tablet computers would go anywhere, didn't see the point of smart phones, and didn't think that anyone would want to give up ownership of (and resale rights to) their music and movies in place of perpetual subscriptions. So what do I know?

But I've decided to sell my records now not so much because of their renewed value (although that sure makes it easier), but because I've stopped listening to them and need the space that my vinyl collection is taking up. As part of my grieving process I'm going to offer five songs from vinyl albums that I no longer own. Pretty much a random choice, in no particular order:

1. Buzzcocks: "I Don't Mind" from Singles Going Steady (1979). The Buzzcocks wrote songs about romantic misadventures and the minor humiliations of daily life. Instead of turning their anger outward they turned their dismay inward:

"I used to bet that you didn't care / But gambling never got me anywhere / Each time I used to feel so sure / Something about you made me doubt you more."

2. Descendents: "Suburban Home" from Milo Goes to College (1983). What distinguished the Descendents amid the noise and rage of other Southern California hardcore bands was their humor and their ability to write irresistible, almost Buzzcocks-level pop-punk melodies:

"I want to be stereotyped / I want to be classified / I wanna be masochistic / I wanna be a statistic / I wanna be a clone / I want a suburban home."

3. The Smiths: "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" from The Queen Is Dead (1986). In my discussion of lead singer Morrissey's Autobiography (the "biggest disappointment" in my Favorites of 2014: Books), I wrote that The Smiths "gave expression to certain inchoate feelings of loss, regret, and lack of direction in my post-collegiate 20s. Johnny Marr's crystalline guitar was the perfect accompaniment to Morrissey's arch, funny, and bitterly true lyrics":

"Take me out tonight / Where there's music and there's people / Who are young and alive / Take me anywhere / I don't care, I don't care, I don't care."

4. Prince: "Anna Stesia" from Lovesexy (1988). While I never could pretend to (and fortunately never tried to) carry off Prince's air of omnisexual magnetism, his albums were always sonically compelling. Just listen to everything that's going on in this track. And if even Prince felt lonely, perhaps I wasn't as alone as I thought:

"Have you ever been so lonely / That you felt like you were the only / One in this world?"

5. The Velvet Underground: "I Found A Reason" from Loaded (1970). Like many people, I'd guess, I had favorite sides of all my albums, and would often just repeatedly play my favorite side instead of flipping the record over. One thing that would condemn a side to rarely being played was a lame song in the middle (at the beginning or end it could be skipped). I often wished I could take a hot knife and just carve a groove right through the offending track so that I wouldn't have to listen to it ever again.

The second song on Side Two of Loaded was "Lonesome Cowboy Bill." How the band that created "I'll Be Your Mirror," "I Heard Her Call My Name" and "Pale Blue Eyes" could have committed this utter throwaway to vinyl escapes me. (I blame John Cale's replacement Doug Yule.) But its presence on Side Two of Loaded, and that of "Sweet Jane" and "Rock and Roll" on Side One, meant that Side Two almost never got played.

But perhaps a decade after buying this album I rediscovered the second side, and in particular the songs "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'" and this one, which despite the smirk in Lou Reed's spoken-word interlude is still delicately beautiful:

"I found a reason to keep living / Oh, and the reason, dear, is you."

My reason to keep living is still the same as it was then, but my musical cravings have shifted. So I'm bidding farewell to my vinyl, and farewell to my younger self. I can only hope that what comes is better than what came before.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Maria Edgeworth: Patronage

"And a letter which I see in this same hand-writing, madam, if you please."—She gave it;—and then, unable to support herself longer, sunk upon a sofa:—
Illustration by W. Harvey from Patronage. Image courtesy Internet Archive

It was one of my vanities, like your not reading Patronage.  
—Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra, 1814 [1]
The best-selling novelist of Jane Austen's time wasn't Austen herself, but Anglo-Irish writer Maria Edgeworth. As a reflection of Edgeworth's popularity, in 1813 her publisher purchased the copyright of her new novel Patronage for £2100. To place this sum in perspective, Austen's publisher had purchased the copyright of Pride and Prejudice (1813) for £110, while the publisher of Sir Walter Scott's Waverley (1814) bought its copyright for £700. [2]

In her 1815 preface to the third edition of the novel Edgeworth called Patronage "a slight work of fiction" (p. vii); perhaps a small joke, since the book weighed in at four volumes and more than 1600 pages. Patronage is Edgeworth's longest and most elaborately plotted novel; this may be why Cassandra Austen could not be convinced to attempt it.

As you may suspect from its size, Patronage is stuffed, if not overstuffed, with characters and plot twists. The novel centers on the travails of the Percy family: a shipwreck, a fire, a lost deed and the underhanded machinations of a scheming relative and his unscrupulous attorney cause them to lose their estate and sink into genteel poverty. This, of course, has an immediate effect on the marriage prospects of the two Percy daughters: Caroline, the elder and wiser, and Rosamond, the younger and more romantic.

If the sudden loss of a family fortune affecting the prospects of two daughters with different temperaments sounds at all familiar to readers of Sense and Sensibility (1811), there may be a reason. According to scholar Marilyn Butler, Patronage was initially based on stories recounted to Edgeworth by her father in 1788 and 1789. [3] But the novel was extensively reworked between 1811 and 1813, and Edgeworth may have known of Austen's novel.

She was going towards the house, and did not perceive the young ladies till they were close to her. She turned suddenly when they spokestartedlooked frightened and
Illustration by W. Harvey from Patronage. Image courtesy Internet Archive.

Unlike the second Mrs. Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, the Percy family also has sons, and the loss of the family's standing affects their careers as well. Godfrey is a captain in the army, Alfred has chosen the law, and Erasmus has become a physician. In each field of endeavor having family connections eases advancement, but like most of Edgeworth's fictions, Patronage was intended to convey a moral lesson: to show the virtuousness of those who, "independently of patronage, advance themselves permanently by their own merit." (p. vi)

However, readers are to be forgiven if they draw entirely different conclusions from Edgeworth's narrative. After Mr. Percy decodes a secret document that unveils a conspiracy against the statesman Lord Oldborough, the grateful politician repeatedly uses his influence to benefit the Percy family. At Godfrey's request Oldborough has a worthy friend of Godfrey's promoted to head his regiment. Oldborough also sends much legal business Alfred's way (after first assuring himself of Alfred's competence and discretion, of course). Meanwhile, Erasmus is able to set up a medical practice thanks to his enthusiastic recommendation by the rich merchant Mr. Panton to his equally rich friends. And finally, when the marriage of Alfred's sister to Lord Oldborough's loyal secretary Mr. Temple is delayed when Temple's promised new position doesn't provide as much money as he'd hoped,
Mr. Temple told his friend and master what had delayed his marriage, and why he had hitherto forborne to trouble him on the subject. Lord Oldborough, astonished and indignant. . .applied directly to the highest authority. The consequence was that a place double the value of that which had been promised was given to Mr. Temple. . . (Ch. XLIII)
At every stage the influence of the rich and powerful makes a decisive difference in the lives of the Percys and their deserving friends. In a telling exchange early in the novel, Mr. Percy discusses the question of patronage with the cravenly obsequious Mr. Falconer:
"I have endeavoured to give my Alfred and Erasmus such an education as shall enable them honestly to work their own way to eminence."

"A friend’s helping hand is no bad thing," said Mr. Falconer, "in that hard and slippery ascent." 

"As many friends, as many helping hands, in a fair way, as you please," said Mr. Percy: "I by no means would inculcate the anti-social, absurd, impossible doctrine, that young men, or any men, can or ought to be independent of the world. Let my sons make friends for themselves, and enjoy the advantage of mine. I object only to their becoming dependent, wasting the best years of their lives in a miserable, debasing servitude to patrons—to patrons, who at last may perhaps capriciously desert them at their utmost need." (Ch. XII)
This somewhat fine argument—that preferment by the powerful is good when exercised for the advantage of the deserving, but pernicious otherwise—was widely assumed at the time of the novel's publication to be the work of Edgeworth's father, the educator Richard Lovell Edgeworth. In Maria's preface to the third edition, she was careful to address these rumors: "It has been supposed that some parts of PATRONAGE were not written by Miss Edgeworth. This is not fact: the whole of these volumes were written by her, the opinions they contain are her own, and she is answerable for all the faults which may be found in them." (p. vi)

Faults indeed were found, both in the descriptions of legal and medical proceedings and in the details of the plot. In the first published version of the novel Mr. Percy is imprisoned for a claimed debt on the wedding day of his daughter, who rather than leaving on honeymoon with her new husband instead accompanies her father to jail. In response to readers' objections this incident was eventually eliminated, but not until the Collected Edition of Edgeworth's novels published in 1825.

The 1825 edition also addressed another reader complaint: the novel's sheer length. For the new edition Edgeworth's half-sisters Honora and Harriet, with her approval, cut about 35,000 words—over twelve percent of the original total. This shorter and substantially revised edition became the basis of most subsequent versions.

Contemporary readers also thought that some characters were based on real-life figures, including Lord Oldborough (Sir Robert Walpole) and the King. But despite the protestations of Edgeworth and her father to the contrary, there was indeed a character who was based on a real person: Count Altenberg (German for "ancient mountain"), whose steadfast love for Caroline Percy meets with obstacle after obstacle.

She endeavoured to go on, but her voice falteredher colour changed. Rosamond, whose quick eye followed her sister’s, [instantly caught a glimpse of a gentleman coming up the path from the glen. Rosamond started from her seat, and clasping her hands, exclaimed, "It is! It is he!—It is Count Altenberg!"]
Illustration by W. Harvey from Patronage. Image courtesy Internet Archive.

Count Albert Altenberg was based on the Chevalier Abraham Niclas Clewberg-Edelcrantz, a Swedish courtier, writer and inventor, whom Edgeworth had encountered while in Paris with her father in the fall of 1802. On December 3 Edgeworth was writing to her father's sister, Margaret Ruxton, when she had to put down her pen to greet a visitor who was asking to see her:
. . .Here, my dear aunt, I was interrupted in a manner that will surprise you almost as much as it surprised me, by the coming in of Monsieur Edelcrantz, a Swedish gentleman, whom we have mentioned to you, of superior understanding & mild manners: he came to offer me his hand and heart!!
My heart, you may suppose, cannot return his attachment, for I have seen but very little of him, and have not had time to have formed any judgment, except that I think nothing could tempt me to leave my own dear friends and my own country to live in Sweden. . . [4]
Edgeworth remained steadfast in her refusal, but with the passage of time perhaps regretted her decision not to marry. In November 1810 she wrote her cousin Sophy Ruxton about a conversation Sophy had had with George Knox, a family friend who had just visited Sweden and met with Edelcrantz:
I hope my dear S—indeed I am confident that when Mr K asked why I did not marry Edle [sic] you answered so as to preclude the possibility of his blaming my father for what was my fault—If I had known my own mind—but that's past and there is no use in thinking of it—except to make myself wretched & ill—which for the sake of myself and my friends I never will do more. [5]
The portrait of Count Altenberg in Patronage certainly suggests that in the intervening years Edgeworth had idealized Chevalier Edelcrantz. Count Altenberg is a paragon of manly virtues: he is described as handsome, polite, charming, agreeable, entertaining, and eloquent; he is discreet, a good dancer, a lover of theater, and a good judge of men's (and women's) qualities of mind and character.

It is this picture of Count Altenberg that may have been one of the reasons for Austen's approval of Patronage—he bears a striking resemblance to Sir Charles Grandison, the exemplary hero of one of her favorite novels. Austen may also have been drawn to Edgeworth's rich cast of characters: the stern but fundamentally good-hearted Lord Oldborough; the scheming Mrs. Falconer and her coquettish daughters Isabella and Georgiana; the upright Mr. Percy and his sons; Rosamond Percy, who in her vivacity and impetuosity is reminiscent of Marianne Dashwood; and Caroline Percy, whose calm, rational surface conceals deep feeling.
The accomplishments, good sense, and exalted sentiments of Count Altenberg, and the marked attentions he had paid her, had made an unusual impression on the mind of Caroline. He had never declared his love, but involuntarily it had betrayed itself on several occasions. Insensibly Caroline was thus led to feel for him more than she dared to avow even to herself, when the sudden change in his manner awakened her from this delightful forgetfulness of every object that was unconnected with her new feelings, and suddenly arrested her steps as she seemed entering the paradise of love and hope.

At night, when they were retiring to rest, and Caroline and Rosamond were in their mother’s room, Rosamond, unable longer to keep her prudent silence, gave vent to her indignation against Count Altenberg in general reflections upon the fickleness of man. Even men of the best understanding were, she said, but children of a larger growth—pleased with change—preferring always the newest to the fairest, or the best. Caroline did not accede to these accusations.

Rosamond, astonished and provoked, exclaimed, "Is it possible that you are so blind as not to see that Count Altenberg—" Rosamond stopped short, for she saw Caroline’s colour change. She stood beside her mother motionless, and with her eyes fixed on the ground. Rosamond moved a chair towards her.

"Sit down, my dear love," said her mother, tenderly taking Caroline’s hand—"sit down and compose yourself."

"My dear mother, you required one, and but one promise from me—I gave it you, firmly intending to keep it; and yet I fear that you will think I have broken it. I promised to tell you whenever I felt the first symptom of preference for any person. I did not know my own mind till this day. Indeed I thought I felt nothing but what every body else expressed, esteem and admiration."

"In common minds," replied Mrs. Percy, "esteem and admiration may be very safely distant from love; but in such a mind as yours, Caroline, the step from perfect esteem to love is dangerously near—scarcely perceptible."

"Why dangerously?" cried Rosamond: "why should not perfect love follow perfect esteem? that is the very thing I desire for Caroline. I am sure he is attached to her, and he is all we could wish for her, and—"

"Stop!" cried Caroline. "Oh! my dear sister! as you wish me to be good and happy, name him to me no more—for it cannot be."

"Why?" exclaimed Rosamond, with a look of dismay: "Why cannot it be? It can, it must—it shall be."

Caroline sighed, and turning from her sister, as if she dreaded to listen to her, she repeated, "No;—I will not flatter myself—I see that it cannot be—I have observed the change in his manner. The pain it gave me first awakened me to the state of my own affections. . .Mother, I beg it as a favour that you will take me away from this place—this place, where but yesterday I thought myself so happy!" (Ch. XXIX)
Patronage may be overlong, overelaborately plotted, dubious in some of its details, and contradictory in its message. But even in a novel that doesn't always match the standard set by Belinda or Helen, scenes such as this one show Edgeworth's keen insight into the painful uncertainties of the heart.

For more on Maria Edgeworth, please see:

All quotes from Patronage in this post are taken from The Novels of Maria Edgeworth in Twelve Volumes. Vol. VII-VIII: Patronage. J. M. Dent, 1893.
  1. Jane Austen, letter to Cassandra Austen, Tuesday 23 - Wednesday 24 August 1814.
  2. Reported in Marilyn Butler, Maria Edgeworth: A Literary Biography, Oxford University Press, 1972, pp. 490-493. In all cases, purchasing the copyright entitled the publisher to all profits from the sale of the book. As it turned out, although Patronage went through three editions in the course of two years, the publisher, Rowland Hunter, claimed to have lost money on the transaction.
  3. Butler, pp. 155-156. There are even more specific parallels with Sense and Sensibility: the younger and more romantic sister is courted in turn by a young man who has a history of seduction and indebtedness (like Willoughby) and a man who is kind and wealthy, but old enough to be her father (like Colonel Brandon). The older sister's potential suitor, we learn, may be engaged to another woman (like Edward Ferrars).
  4. Quoted in Butler, pp. 192-193.
  5. Quoted in Butler, p. 217.