Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Finest, RIP

"What are your three favorite bands?"

Oh great. I'm sunk. This is an application question? This is at once wonderful and terrifying. Wonderful in the sense that I could land a job where this was one of the interview questions. Terrifying in the sense that I'm probably not going to answer the question correctly. Really, how do I answer? What are my three favorite bands? What do I want people to think my three favorite bands are? What three bands could get me this job?

And the kicker:

"What is the most Obscure Band you know?"

Oh, the pressure! Most obscure? I'll have to dig deep and come up with the most magical band ever here.

The year is 1989, I'm staring at an application for a job at "the Finest". The Finest is Fort Collins' well, finest record store. They have all the cool music. As a music lover it would be an honor to work there. I would be considered a music elite -- or snob, more likely. Call me what you will, but I would be on the front lines of all that is new and interesting and experimental about music! I would be a music sage. But was I worthy of it? Likely not.

But try I must, apply I must, for this is 1989 and I am a freshman at Colorado State, working at an indescribably awful job cleaning dirty dishes in my dorm cafeteria for minimum wage. This job I took after quitting my job making bagels for a local bakery, a job which lasted all of one sweaty flour-filled afternoon. In hindsight the bagel job was probably much better than the cafeteria job, but the bagel job was admittedly crappy also, and much farther away from where I lived.

But neither job could hold a dirty food tray to working at a record store! I could be just like those guys in "High Fidelity"! Of course this was before that movie came out. Now I wonder, which High Fidelity character would I have been? John Cusack, the crabby snobbish delusional owner? Jack Black, the unkempt recalcitrant snob? Or the bald thin dude who looked like Moby, the snobbish reserved recluse? Or (gasp) the square old man who gets dispatched upon requesting new Stevie Wonder music instead of the good stuff? I mean really, I spent all of my spare money -- such that I had, which wasn't much -- on music anyway, maybe I would get a discount working there. Maybe the other clerks would make me cool music mixes. I was lost in a reverie of being that guy; the guy who knew all the cool music.

Things were different in 1989, pre-Internet and pre mp3. Alternative or Indie music was difficult to come by back then. Even if you knew what you wanted, you had a hard time finding it. And even when you found it you could rarely afford it. Those import discs were expensive! People with cool music collections were heroes of a sort. They had rare albums. Their opinions mattered. Frankly it was difficult even to know what the cool new music was. Small bands, indie bands, didn't have the ability to market themselves effectively. If they weren't signed to a big label, they had difficulty getting their message out, getting their music heard. The listener had to make an effort to find music for themselves. But where? How? It helped to have an older sibling who listened to music, and I had two, actually, who both had good yet different taste. Otherwise one had to befriend the weird people at school. You know, the ones who dress up like it's Halloween, every day (what a give-away).

And my weird friends L_ and K_ had the best, coolest musical taste of anyone I knew. New Order, the Cure, the Smiths, of course, but also deeper stuff like Bauhaus, Skinny Puppy and Public Image Limited were familiar territory to them. I got by on recommendations and mix tapes. But the independent record shop, "the Finest" in my case, was the ultimate treasure-trove of interesting and unusual music. I tried to discover new music for myself, but it usually seemed to end up all wrong. I'd go to the music store and peruse the racks, and look at the recommended music. All the clerks at the Finest got to "recommend" something, on a special rack right next to the door. Music you'd never heard of. Music, probably, too amazing and different for you to enjoy. But one felt compelled to purchase it in order to gain admittance to the club of cool music lovers.

I was always intimidated by that recommended music rack. There were 16 different bands there and I've never heard of any of them! Do I go based on cover? That cover has a candle on it. How arty! I wonder if it would be too difficult though? That one has a topless lady on it! How provocative! I wonder if it would be too confrontational though? But would I really like it? Probably not. I'd buy it, take it home, listen to it 10 times in a row and try really hard to like it, and then put it away, never listen to it again, and sell it 5 years later. Was the joke on me? Or was my taste just too provincial? I thought I really liked cool music, maybe just not quite cool enough for the record store clerks. I mean I liked New Order, at least I thought I did, but not the early stuff. I liked Ministry, but only the early stuff! I tried and tried to like Joy Division, but largely to no avail at the time, except for the "hits". But I thought, maybe if I worked at the Finest, I'd learn to appreciate these crazy obscure bands. Maybe someday I could have a recommended album of my own on the rack. I was compelled to try.

So I would frequently end up walking round the store with the Candle, the Topless Lady, and 3 or 4 other records in my arms, trying to decide which one of the group, if any, I would take home. It seemed like the most important decision in the world at the time, a decision that would literally change my life for better or worse depending on the choice. Choose well and be rewarded with an album that you would love forever, that would become a part of you. Choose poorly and forever rue the wasted money, the wasted time, and perhaps most importantly the wasted emotional investment.

Now if I was being honest in 1989, my three favorite bands would probably have been: "New Order, INXS, and The Cure". At least those were the ones I listened to over and over, much to the annoyance of my roommate, I'm sure. Not too outrageous there, but better than, say, "Def Leppard, Guns 'N Roses, and Jimmy Buffett" (the three most popular bands at school that year), but probably not cool enough for the Finest. I considered stepping it up a bit: how about "Joy Division, Bauhaus, and, uh, The Clash". Yeah. But what if they asked me questions about those bands? "Who was in The Clash?" Mick Jones? Wasn't he in Foreigner? That can't be right can it? "What's your favorite Bauhaus album?" Uh, the one with the face on it? "How come Joy Division broke up?" Oh you either know it or you don't; no way to bluff out of that one. Am I, *gasp*, a poser? Now I'm ashamed. I realize that my taste, my musical knowledge, my cool just don't measure up. I can see the dismissive smirk of the clerk at the Finest as he brushes back his black bangs and reads my application. I can feel his withering stare as I face the rack and ruminate over his recommended music, music he knows I can't appreciate as much as him.

Now I'm angry. Those fascists! How dare they try to pigeon-hole me into three bands! I like all sorts of music, damn it! I should have answered, "Screw, You, and (The) Fascists". Ha ha, those are probably all real bands. In retrospect that just might have gotten me the job. But I decided that it was better to be honest. If they can't see my raw potential then I don't think I'm cut out for working at the Finest. Ok, "New Order, INXS, and The Cure", it was. Ironically Joy Division, Bauhaus, and, The Clash ended up becoming much more popular with me than any of those other bands, but in due time, not right away, not in 1989.

So the dreaded 3 favorites question was now answered. But what about the Obscure Band? How do I answer that? I think they were looking to see if I was keeping up with the latest music. So I put down the most recent band I'd heard of. In retrospect this turned out to be a bad choice. No, not Milli Vanilli, thankfully they hadn't burst upon the scene yet and I was spared that choice. The night before I had watched "120 minutes" on MTV, and I picked a band whose video I saw that night: Camouflage. Obscure, certainly, but ultimately pretty bad. Turns out Camouflage was a second-rate German Depeche Mode wannabe band. Really not a horrible choice, and one pretty consistent with my other answers, but a band that would probably be laughed at by my heroes at the Finest.

I turned in that application, along with dozens of other music-snob hopefuls, but I didn't think I had much of a shot. I liked New Order, sure, but I still liked Rush. Heck I still liked Ratt, for that matter. Still do! And I didn't get the job at any rate.

So really what is the point of this story? Actually it is a sort of eulogy to the Finest. You see, the Finest is closing it's doors this Saturday for good. The days of the record store are over, my friend. I mourn its passing because it represents a culture of music aficionados that largely no longer exists. I won't miss the store per se, I'll miss what it represented. I still love music, I still buy a lot of music, but it's been years since I bought anything at the Finest. And if I'm not buying there, that place is in trouble. I'm on-line now, just like everyone else. I get my music recommendations from music blogs and on-line reviews. Amazon and iTunes recommend new music for me, based on what they know I already like. And they're frequently right. And much less condescending about it than the raven-haired clerk at the Finest.

But even still there's something about the passing of the Finest that makes me melancholy. Certainly its passing reminds me of the passing of my own years and reminds me that I'm not as young as I once was. But also it reminds me that the thrill of discovering new music is not as exciting, difficult, or rewarding as it once was, ironically because it's so easy to find great music now. There's less joy in finding that new incredible band, because everyone already knows about it now, there's no arduous act of discovery. That rare song? Nothing is rare anymore. Everyone has everything on their hard-drives. The mystery is gone. Every song I could ever want to hear is always at my fingertips, and that ease of access somehow makes the music a little less special.

Part of me loathed the Finest because of how mainstream, how un-cool it made me feel. But part of me loved the Finest because of the mystery is represented. If I could just unlock its secrets and slip past its traps, I could discover great treasures. The Finest was a castle with a beautiful maiden locked in its tallest tower. iTunes is a brothel. Everything you iDesire is iThere, and assessable, and doled out to anyone with the means, regardless of worth. The thrill is, indeed, gone. Thank goodness the music is still there. So Rest In Peace, the Finest, the times have surely passed you by but your memory lives on in song. Weird, indecipherable song.

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