I’m a history person. I’ve loved reading history since I was a little boy, and like most history people I have a pretty good memory, with little nooks and crannies to store vast quantities of useless information. My wife says I am a sponge-that I can walk by the television with a news show on and a couple of day later I can repeat whatever was said with precision.
Every now and then one of my students will ask me a question about something specific they are interested in or they heard of and if I can’t answer them, they’re disappointed. “You’re a history teacher; you’re supposed to know.” My response is always the same. You just can’t know everything kid. Well, one upon a time maybe, but not anymore. It’s said the last man who knew everything was the British philosopher John Stuart Mill, and he died 150 years ago.
It’s sort of that way with collectors of vinyl records too. Rock and Roll was officially born the same year as me, 1955, though its roots and influences go back much further. Wouldn’t it be nice to know the work of every artist, to own every record of significance and interest. Why is it I have all the Jefferson Airplane/Starship records, but only one Bowie album? I have some awesome Paul Revere and the Raiders albums, but no Elvises-Presley or Costello.I have American punk rockers-The Ramones and Patti Smith-but no Brit punks like The Sex Pistols or The Clash.
It just comes down to, like history, I can’t own everything. With the limited space I have, and working with a reasonable, but not unlimited budget, it’s not ridiculous to understand why I don’t have a Butcher Block cover of Yesterday and Today, or any copy of Yesterday and Today for that matter. It also is about priorities. I will have Elvis Costello music in my collection because I simply love his music. I’m just not sure when.
But the real reason for writing this post is the death of Prince. Prince was only 57, three years younger than me, and a figure I’ve always admired. He was a musical difference- maker when he burst on the scene in the early eighties and a cultural icon by the time he began to dominate MTV. Prince could play all the instruments, was an incredibly talented guitarist and guitar stylist. Drove Tipper Gore around the bend with his incredibly sexual stories. He stayed loyal to his Minneapolis home town. In the weeks before he died, he was playing local venues for a ten dollar cover.
I’ve known he is a unique talent for decades, yet I own absolutely none of his music in any medium, and explored his catalog nearly not at all. To be clear, Prince’s catalog suffers from two issues: it is not streamable, except on the artist friendly site, Tidal. This limits one’s ability to explore his catalog before making the decision to invest in hard copy. The other issue is that his vintage vinyl is spendy. To get a nice copy of any of his records, from the semi-obscure to Purple Rain, you’re likely dropping fifty bucks. Rhino/Warner Brothers has re-pressed many of his albums for about half that. However, with his death, availability is sure to be a problem for a while, and currently all of his Rhino recordings are out of stock at Amazon.
I’m not sure quite why I’ve waited this long to seek out his Purpleness, to learn more about what made him so special. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that I waited too long, that he is gone now, and that in waiting to know and understand what made him great, I now know nothing. I should have acted earlier. Melodramatic? Perhaps. But as this meatgrinder of a year continues, it is difficult, as a music lover, not to hear the names and see the faces we lose with such regularity and feel a generation is passing before our eyes with none to take their place. No slight intended to those who struggle to be heard.