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THIS IS NOT A TEST with Michael Phillips

Would you like to come up and see my etchings? THIS IS NOT A TEST #43 (transcript)

Published October 17, 2015

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Hi, it’s me, Michael Phillips, and you are about to marinate in a bubbly fresh batch of THIS IS NOT A TEST. That’s why you’re so excited right now, and why you’ll feel so confident and springtime fresh in only 30 minutes. Your results may vary. Bubbly fresh batch – try saying that three times fast. If you can, I’ve got a job for you.

Well, here we are again, and just like every week there’s a decision to be made. There’s a decision to be made because there are a few different things I want to talk about, but I have to narrow it down to one and leave the others for later. Even though what I leave for later often just gets left forever. Not that that’s a great loss to art or humanity, but who knows. Maybe I’ve thrown out the podcasting equivalent to my masterpiece, my CATCHER IN THE RYE. Well maybe not CATCHER IN THE RYE. I’m still disaffected, but not the same way I was when I was a teenager, and that’s really who that book seems to speak to. I didn’t read it until I was 18 or 19. I stole a copy out of a car. Well – is it stealing if it’s a convertible and they park the car in the middle of a run-down downtown and just leave stuff sitting on the seats out there in the open? Is it still stealing? Yeah, of course it is. Well, I wasn’t a very nice teenager, and I make no excuse at this late stage of the game.

Okay. So, time to decide. Do I talk about work as I promised I would for the past couple weeks? Or do I talk about self-publishing, which is something else written on this paper here. Or do I talk about neither of those, and go with something I’ve been thinking about, but I’m not sure it’s enough to go on for the next half hour? What to do, what to do. The last one sounds more exciting, doesn’t it? Like more things could go wrong. Like it has more of a chance to crash and burn. Let’s do that one. Let’s talk about collecting things. And more specifically, being a collecting completist. Someone who has to have everything. If they collect bottle caps, they have to have every bottle cap. If they collect old 78 records they have to have every Son House disc or every acoustic recording ever made. It’s sick and it’s usually impossible, having everything. I guess if you collected TV Guide magazines you could confidently say that you have every one of them, but with a lot of other things, like bottle caps or athletic shoes, you can never have them all. And yes, people collect those things.

People collect everything. You can’t find a thing that exists anywhere that someone, somewhere doesn’t have a hundred of. 100 different versions of the thing. Or a thousand. If you throw it away, you can be sure someone saves it. Empty soup cans? I don’t know, but I’ll bet someone has a collection somewhere, with a few super rare cans that only came out during world war II or something. I like going in to someone’s house and seeing a shelf full of baseballs or cat-eye sunglasses or a little stack of old records, and that’s their collection. It’s small and they really love the stuff, and they don’t care if there’s one rare thing out there – one elusive Burger King snow globe or paper advertising dress – that they don’t have. It doesn’t bother them, they enjoy what they have and that’s the end of that. For them. But a lot of people who collect things have a screw loose. A very specific screw that makes them crave completion. Complete sets, complete runs, complete, not missing any example or version. It’s sick and it’s sad and pointless, and I do it myself.

I’m not a collector, per se. I can’t rank myself up there with those people who devote their lives to amassing certain things. But I’ve always kept things. Rock magazines, records, books, guitar picks that famous people dropped onto a floor or stage. I think some of that saving of things came out of a need to create order in a chaotic life. I’m sure there’s some psychological reason for every weird thing that people do. I can’t think of any other reason I’d carefully stack my CIRCUS, CREEM and ROCK SCENE magazines in little chronological stacks and be really, really upset if I couldn’t find a latest issue somewhere. “We have to go over to the drug store, sometimes they have it there!” I don’t know why. I know that I still have a few issues of those old magazines. Not whole stacks of them anymore, but some still linger in a box in my closet. And that’s where they’ll probably stay until we move out of this place and have to go live in a car or something. And that’s the rub with most collections, they’re utterly useless, and even if the things themselves are useful, the collector probably doesn’t use them.

Look at the people who collect toys. Or model car kits or a hundred other things like that. The best collections have all the toys in their original boxes, or worse yet, sealed in the original plastic, never opened, never touched. They are toy collectors, technically, but in reality what they are is packaging collectors. An old friend of mine collects model car kits and when I asked him if he ever built any of them, he laughed right in my face and asked me if I was crazy. Kind of half-apologetically he said, “I don’t even open the sealed ones, I’m a ‘box rattler.'” He was a little embarrassed to tell me that, and maybe he wasn’t supposed to share the secret lingo with someone outside the club, I don’t know. While I can understand the need to amass things that belong to certain categories, I can’t really figure out what compels people to spend money on things they are never going to use. Not only not use, but never even open.

Some collectors take that to a really – if you think about it – insane level by sending things off to special grading companies to have them evaluated and graded. When the grading company finishes their evaluation, they seal the item up in hard plastic. So that no one ever touches it again. Imagine that. Comic books, baseball cards, coins – all of those things, and probably some things I don’t know about – are graded and sealed up in plastic tombs. “Here you go. We’ve graded your Harmon Killebrew rookie card, now you can never touch it again.” The grading companies assign a number grade to the items, but I always thought that was nothing more than a brilliant scam. Considering that the condition of something, unless it’s absolutely perfect and unused, is subjective. But those grades determine value, you see, so you have to have them, because people can’t trust their own eyes and sense. “It’s a 9.5, that means it’s worth 10 times what your lousy 7.5 is worth.”

I’ve bought things from collectors in the past and opened them, which would probably give the collector I bought it from a heart attack if they knew I did that, but I did. I bought some old View-Master viewers from the 1940s, still in the original boxes, never opened. This guy found a case of them, and described them like they were treasures from King Tut’s tomb. I have some old View-Master reels so I thought it would be nice to look at them through the vintage thing, right, instead of some bright red plastic thing from the 80s. So I bought a couple of the viewers and soon as they came to the house I opened them and Carol and I looked at View-Master reels through them for a while. Did taking them out of the box and using them destroy their value? Probably. To a box collector. But I wanted to look through the things.

I’ve also bought old sealed records that I’ve then opened, and I carry around an 1879 silver dollar right here in my pocket every day that I bought from a coin guy who had it graded and sealed up. It’s a beautiful Morgan dollar, big and heavy and toned and magnificent. When I got it I took it out of the holder and stuck it in that little watch pocket in my jeans. It’s always in that pocket. I pull it out and look at it every few days, and it makes me think about what was happening 136 years ago, and how this thing was made in the old San Francisco mint, from silver that probably came from Nevada. And I think about who could have carried it around and what they could have bought for a dollar in 1879. Having that dollar in your pocket then was like having 35 dollars in your pocket now. Anyway, I like having something that old in pocket next to my android phone.

And that kind of sealing things in plastic approach doesn’t apply only to toy collectors, it applies to all sorts of people, even if they don’t actually seal their things in thick plastic. There are book collectors who go to great lengths to find a certain copy of a certain title and then after they aquire it, they never open it. It just goes away, into the collection, it’s absorbed. The same thing happens with some record collectors. They collect so many records that they could never listen to all of them, even if they wanted to. Though I have to say my favorite story about collecting happened probably 20 years ago. I was living with a woman who had a young son and he collected baseball cards, so I wound up taking him all over town to these baseball card shops – they were everywhere back then – and since I was standing there while he spent hours looking at that stuff, I ended up learning a little bit about that weird subset of lunatics. Anyway, some things are legendary in that world, like the 1952 Topps baseball card set, the high number series with Mickey Mantle’s rookie card in it.

Well someone uncovered a full, unopened case of those cards, and sold them at an auction. They asked the guy who won the auction what he was going to do with all those packs – 24 boxes of them – and he said, “I’m gonna open ’em.” And he did. Which probably mortified half of that collecting world and made the other half think, “Yeah, I’d do that too.” Maybe baseball cards aren’t the best example for that, because you could probably “part out” the contents of the case for more than you could sell the unopened case for. But the idea is the same, and that is: why keep things you never look at or touch? I’ve stopped a lot of that kind of amassing-of-things-I-never-look-at, but I still have some things laying around that I could probably get rid of and never miss. But moving around a lot when I was younger kind of broke me of the habit of keeping too many things. For the first 5 or 6 years I lived here in California I could fit everything I owned into my little Honda Civic. And that was just the way I wanted it. But time passed as time does, and I would up with some things sticking to me.

Mostly books and records, though I’m not a “collector” of either, by collecting standards. I may not be a collector collector but I am something else, something maybe even worse and more annoying and ridiculous – and that is a completist. Well I’m not a completist by definition because I’m not indiscriminate, but I am a completist in spirit. What does that mean? Well, just that if I have something and it’s part of a series or a group of any kind, I’m inclined to want or try to get everything in the series. For example, there was a Bukowski zine called SURE, it started in 1991 and ran to 1994, all pre-web, and in those days a zine was a good place to find info about a subject, whatever the subject might be. So being interested in Bukowski I was interested in SURE, and once I had one, I had to have them all. But I never did find 4, 5 and 6, and it still bugs me that I don’t have all 10. 5 and 6 are a single issue, so there are only two I need to find. Every once in a while I pull them off the shelf and see which numbers are missing and look around on the Internet for them.

And that’s the problem. I’m not obsessively looking for them, if I was I’d have them already. But I’m looking for them on the periphery of my consciousness. Which is worse to me, because it’s just another thing that’s sitting in my brain taking up space that I could be using for something important. But it’s not even hard to find some of the things that I get completist about. Sometimes it’s stupid things that don’t have to be had in a set. Like a certain guitar effect that I want to buy. Electro Harmonix makes it, and they make some really off the wall shit, have been since I was a teenager. But a few years ago they came out with this thing called a B9 Organ Machine. And it emulates a bunch of organ sounds, but you plug your guitar into it. It doesn’t use a trigger like some old guitar synthesizer things, it’s a guitar effect, a stompbox, so it’s fast, but it can sound just like a god damn Hammond B3. And, you know, what guitar player doesn’t want their guitar to sound like something else? When I heard some demos I wanted it, but I didn’t buy it because it’s like $225 dollars and I already have a hundred guitar effect pedals, so I just thought, well, maybe one of these days I’ll just grab one. But then those fuckers came out with another one called a C9, which makes different organ sounds, and it’s good too, so now there are two of them. Or I thought there were two of them, until the other day when I learned about the Key9, which works just like the organ pedals but it’s electric keyboard sounds.

So now there are three, and for some reason I can’t bring myself to just buy the first one, the B9, without buying the other two. Now tell me if that makes a lick of sense, because I don’t think it does. And what if I had all of them? I’d probably only really like one of them, or maybe I wouldn’t use any of them, but they’d be sitting there in a pedal board, as a set, waiting for me to, you know, have a band or something. What if I had all the issues of the SURE zine? Then what? Well then I would know everything that was in there. Because I’d have them all. Then since it would be a complete set I’d probably sell them. See? No sense at all I make I tell ya. Speaking of Bukowski, he appeared in over a hundred issues of a literary magazine called The Wormwood Review. Some of those issues were only Bukowski poems, so they are sometimes classified as Bukowski “books.” Now I had most of those books, but the other 90 or so issues he appeared in I didn’t have. I never bought one, because I knew if I bought one I’d have to find them all, and that would have taken the rest of my life. Especially since the magazine started publishing in 1960, so some of those Bukowski issues are really old.

But then a PBA auction came up with a lot of Bukowski stuff and one of the lots was a full run of Wormwoods that Bukowski appeared in. Imagine that, a pre-made set, right up my alley, yeah? So I bought them. For 1500 or 1600 dollars, around there. Which is a lot of money, but it was really a steal if you consider what it took to put the set together. When they arrived I started looking them up and counting and found that it wasn’t at all a full run, that there were some later issues that were missing. So guess what I had to do? That’s right, I had to find the missing issues to make the set complete. It was useless to me without those few later issues. How ridiculous is that? Even more ridiculous is the fact that I went to the late Wormwood Review publisher’s daughter to get them. Then when I had them I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if all of the Bukowski poems in here were scanned and like, bundled up in a pdf? So they could be easily read and searched?” So I scanned every Bukowski poem in every issue. All 400+ poems. Then I sold the set. Which is kind of how I know I’d sell SURE if I ever get my hands on those two missing issues. So what kind of sense does that make? Maybe you can tell me.

One thing I think it isn’t crazy to collect though is records. And when I say records I mean those big vinyl things and the little sliver plastic things. Records are different. A book or a group of books or magazines or baseball cards sit on your shelf, and the only time they’re likely to see the light of day is if an equally crazy person happens to be at your place and they want to see them. But you actually play the records you collect. Or I do, anyway. They’re much more likely to be used than other kinds of hoarded shit. And for the most part I don’t suffer from the completist thing with records. Well, not as badly as I might with other things anyway. Except when it comes to one band, and that’s the Wailers. Now if you go to record store and flip through to the Ms or Ws you’ll find 10 or 12 Bob Marley albums, but the Wailers are more than just Bob Marley. And collecting all of their records is quite literally impossible. I mean, one man came close, Roger Steffans, but even he never had all of them.

So that was something I never tried to gather up, a lot of Wailers records. Until other people started gathering them up for me and releasing them on CD. The Wailers as a group – Bob, Bunny and Peter – only recorded for about 10 years. How many songs do you think a band can record in 10 years? Well, a lot, as it turns out. Like 300 songs a lot. I have about 90 CDs of the Wailers, both as a group and their solo stuff. But of those 90 CDs, at least a third of them are the original 1964 to 1974 Wailers. I kind of got sidetracked here, because I love to talk about the Wailers, but the point is, collecting all of that Jamaican vinyl would be a never ending chore, so I never even tried. But almost everything – or maybe everything, it seems like it – everything has been released on a few different CD collections.

Well easy then, right? Just buy all those. Sure. Some of the collections are easy to find, others, not so much. It took me about five years to finish the hardest set, because the last volume in the set was only released in small numbers in France. In France! But did I say, “Well, volume 10 is just to hard to find, fuck it.” What do you think? You’re right, I kept looking for it on the periphery of my consciousness. Like those god damned SURE magazines. I found it eventually, but I won’t be selling that complete set, ever. Though I sure wish someone else would have sold it to me a few years ago. You know, done all the leg work for me. I would have gladly paid a premium for that. But to be fair, it isn’t all records and books over here, I don’t want to give you the impression I’m that cool. There are a few dumb things too.

I mentioned View-Master, and I have some of those, not a lot, maybe 100. Same with the old stereo photo cards that predated and inspired the View-Master. I used to be into photography and had my own darkroom and those stereo photos fascinated me so I learned how they worked and made a little rig to adapt a single lens film camera to shoot stereo. So I dicked around with that a lot and that’s why I’m drawn to the stereo images. I mean, honestly, that’s not why. I loved View-Master since I was a little kid, for as long as I can remember. because that shit is fascinating, admit it. The View-Masters were fascinating to me the same way the stereo cards were fascinating to my great grandmother I suppose. because it was a little realistic slice of a world you didn’t live in. Far away stuff, places you were never going to go. Even the sculptural storytelling ones with the puppets or models or whatever they were. I loved those too because HOW THE HELL DO THEY MAKE IT LOOK LIKE THAT?

But what is it with all this stuff? This collecting, this amassing of things, objects. I don’t know. I know that not everyone does it, so I don’t know if it could be considered normal. And I’m pretty sure people who don’t have any money to spend aren’t chasing after a zine to fill a hole in their collection. But it can’t be that unusual, since there are millions of manufactured “collectibles” out there. And millions of people to buy them. Just junk that has no value to anyone other than the gathering of the thing. And manufactured rarities cover a whole spectrum of fields, not just plates and thimbles and spoons and Elvis tie racks.

Manufactured collectibles killed the baseball card industry. As soon as an “industry” started to pop up around that hobby, companies came in with their newly made “ultra-rare” collector’s edition this and that, and the whole thing became a sludge pile of little cardboard rectangles with pictures of tremendous assholes on them. Most professional sports players are tremendous assholes, didn’t you know that? Okay, I don’t know that to be a fact, but who cares about them anyway. Watching two pro sports teams play a game is, to me, like watching Elon Musk and Bill Gates play chess. I don’t give a fuck which billionaire wins. And even Bukowski’s publisher, Black Sparrow Press manufactured rarities, to sell to collectors at collector prices. If only 25 copies of a book are made, who does that appeal to but a completist?

Which leads us to the unpleasant fact that a lot of collectors aren’t lovers of the things they collect. They just collect them. No one who collects modern first edition books loves all of those books. They can’t. They just collect them. And like I mentioned before, completists by definition are indiscriminate, which means they don’t really care about the things they are stockpiling. Those are the people I really don’t understand, and they are why I said before that I don’t consider myself a collector. Because as crazy as I am, I ain’t that crazy. And I don’t have enough money to be indiscriminate about anything. If you want everything, you’ve got to have the dough to buy everything.

It will all end up in a landfill one day anyway, when we die and whoever has to clean up our stuff looks at all the books or pie tins or beer cans and says, “What is this shit?” and rolls their eyes and throws it into a dumpster. Or our stuff will be buried under a hundred years of dirt and radioactive dust, so what does any of it matter? I suppose we hang on to the things that we believe define us. Which is a little sad, but understandable. There are just so many of us now, and most of us don’t work at jobs that define us anymore, and we don’t have a popular war to serve in to define us, so there has to be something. There has to be some signal to the world that we are here and we really dig View-Masters or whatever.

Previous generations didn’t have as much need for that it seems. An old friend of mine posted on Facebook that his father had died. I said, “I always liked your dad, he was a no nonsense guy, a man’s man,” and he was. Probably fought in World War II, came back, raised a family, worked at the slaughterhouse. A no nonsense guy for sure. Now me, I’ve never been accused of being no nonsense. I’m 80% nonsense. But I had it pretty easy in the scheme of things, my generation and the generation right before mine and every generation since. There hasn’t been a war here in America in 150 years. We’ve gone elsewhere to die in wars, but things have been relatively peaceful here, you know, if you’re white.

So what defines us? I don’t know, man. I’d hate to have to define this current generation. And I wouldn’t want to be one of them. To be defined by a phone or a computer in whatever shape or size. The social media generation! Ha, what a drag. I can hear them, though, in 20 years, “Yeah, the kids today, they don’t know what it was like to grow up in the social media generation, man!” And I know they’ll say that, because every generation says that about the next generation coming up. We’ve been doing it since we lived in caves. “Look at these kids, growing crops and domesticating wolves! What’s wrong with them?” Yep, yep, yep.

So send me all of your View-Master reels and Jamaican Wailers 45s. I’ll take care of them for you. On second thought, do you know anyone who wants to buy a bunch of View-Master reels? And vintage viewers in original boxes, only slightly used? Send them my way. Until next time.