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THIS IS NOT A TEST with Michael Phillips

You Can’t Always Get What You Want (transcript)

Published June 1st, 2019

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It was strange to watch Google Plus erode as the public side of it was closed down at the beginning of April. It’s stopped eroding now, and it’s just gone, but because I have some “G Suite” accounts I can still see the bits and shards that are still seeable. The only reason I have G Suite accounts is because they used to give them away – they were called “Google Apps for Your Domain” back in 2006 – but they let you keep any old accounts you might have when they started charging for G Suite. That’s how I was able to offer the @bukowski.net Gmail accounts, that’s G Suite.

Anyway, odds are you didn’t use Google Plus, but a lot of people did. I always thought it was funny when people would say, “Google Plus, oh that’s a ghost town.” A ghost town, right. It was a ghost town the same way Facebook is a ghost town when you open a new account. Unless you give Facebook access to your email contacts, which everyone did, even though now everyone realizes that maybe that wasn’t such a smart move, giving Facebook access to anything. But if you don’t let them suck up all of your contacts and spit them back out at you, there’s nothing in Facebook. Or Twitter. Or any so-called social network. You have to go find your friends or interesting people or whatever people do with Facebook or Twitter or Google Plus or Friendster. If you don’t bother, then yeah, ghost town. Like everything else.

Not that I was an early adopter of Google Plus or anything. At least I wasn’t until I sat through some talks at the now defunct New Media Expo conference. I used to attend that conference for work, but I was always on the lookout for things that could help me personally, and a session that I attended there is one of the reasons you’re listening to this podcast right now. I had a Google Plus account in, I think, 2011, when it was new, just because I want everything that’s new, but it was a 2013 New Media Expo talk by Amanda Blain that convinced me that it was worth my time to try to figure out how to put Google Plus to work for me.

I mean, you know, for the company that was paying for me to go to Las Vegas to hear that talk, of course. For them first, naturally. But if learning how to exploit it for them also made it possible for me to personally benefit, well, you can’t blame someone for that, can you? That was only six years ago, but Google Plus is already gone. Which isn’t too surprising considering the New Media Expo conference was originally called BlogWorld. Now who talks about blogs? No one. There are still eight billion blogs, but they aren’t the new thing anymore, so oh well, whatever, never mind about that.

But I had a Google Plus tab open on my computer at home and at work for at least six years, so it became part of my everyday life. Which makes watching it fall apart a little sad. I still have access to a podcasting community that had almost 32,000 members, but the only posts that are still visible are those made by other people with G Suite accounts. My THIS IS NOT A TEST collection, where I used to post new podcast episodes had over 500 members, and it still says they’re there, but they probably aren’t.

It’s just weird. Echoey, like an abandoned building. Or a ghost town. Har har. It is finally what its detractors were so fond of cleverly calling it. An actual ghost town, with just a few other ghosts rattling around. Why it’s gone doesn’t matter, it’s Google, what else do you need to know. They start a thousand things and close 999 of them down a few years later, after people have become attached to them. But it’s not like anything lasts forever on the Internet, or the web, or whatever we’re calling this interconnected mass of data centers these days.

Well there is one thing, boomshaka.com. Ha. I put that site up on September 19th, 1995, along with the first incarnation of smog.net, and it’s still there. I don’t know how many websites have been up and running continuously for 23 1/2 years, but it ain’t many. But everything else that I used to look at in 1995 is long gone, and one day even Facebook will be gone and your kids won’t even know what it was. So it goes with everything on the Internet. And everywhere else for that matter.

The boomshaka.com website is a site for my old reggae band, Boom Shaka, and I had been out of the band for five years by the time the website came around, but Trevy, the main man behind Boom Shaka, was one of the first non-computer type people I ever talked to about the web who instantly saw its potential. And trust me, no matter what anyone tells you now, in retrospect, no one back then thought the web was going to be anything but a bunch of nerds typing on a bunch of university computers that were somehow networked together with really long wires. But a few of us saw the publishing potential, and even though there was no audience for them yet, we started putting up websites.

But Trevy was interested in a lot of things, and when we lived next door to each other in Topanga Canyon, one day he came over, as he often did, and said, “Come on Michael man, let’s make a move,” and we wound up at a ham radio store shopping for a shortwave radio. When I asked him why he wanted a shortwave radio he said, “You know man, news and thing. Stations form the Caribbean…” Okay. What did I know about shortwave radio? He settled, probably with the aid of a helpful salesman, on an impressive looking Kenwood radio and paid around $800 for the thing. That was in 1987, so what, about two grand in today’s dollars? A lot of money.

I say “helpful salesman,” but as usually happened when we walked in to any store that sold expensive shit, everyone working in the ham radio store ignored us. We didn’t look like a couple of dudes with a lot of money, or any money for that matter, and Trevy being black, well I don’t want to say people were, or are, racist, but, you know, people are racist. Once they realized that he was serious about buying a radio, the salesman also informed Trevy that he’d need an antenna. Which was, I don’t know, another $75 for what was essentially a 100 foot long piece of wire.

So we took the radio up to Topanga and climbed a couple of trees to run the antenna, and started dialing around on the radio. I don’t know if we ever heard any stations from the Caribbean on there, but there was certainly news. After a few months Trevy stopped listening to it, he wasn’t really the type of person to sit in front of a radio turning the dial listening to static and foreign languages, so eventually the radio made its way down to my loft space above the rehearsal studio, and I am the type of person who can sit and turn the dial on a radio, so I heard a lot of cool stuff.

Radio Moscow was my favorite spot for news, because it was a really strong station, they did a lot of English language broadcasts, and it was amazing to listen to because it was so obviously slanted against the Reagan/Bush kind of United States thing that was happening. Bukowski used to say, “I’m the hero of my own writing,” and when you listened to Radio Moscow, The Soviet Union, which is what it was still called at the time, was the hero of everything. The greatest, most powerful, wealthy country on the face of the earth. That’s what the English broadcasts said anyway. I doubt that kind of message would be greeted with anything but eye rolling by people who actually had to live in Moscow.

The shortwave was also full of just plain weird shit: 24 hour a day military marching music stations in Korea, stations that just broadcast weird tones with the occasional little bit of speech, numbers stations. The numbers stations were actual spy stations. They just transmitted a voice, usually a woman’s voice, reading a seemingly random string of numbers, all day, every day. Spies around the world would know what to d with the numbers, how to use them to decode encrypted messages they received. It’s really a boring thing, hearing someone endlessly reading numbers, but whenever I’d come across one of those stations I’d always stop and listen for a while, because it was just so weird.

There was also music from all over the world, some great African stations, and I even heard Boom Shaka, on the fucking shortwave radio, coming from Europe I believe it was. I about shit myself and grabbed a little microcassette recorder to tape it because I knew no one would believe it. I probably still have that tape somewhere. But the thing about shortwave, the way it works, why you can hear a station broadcasting from Moscow or Nigeria or Queensland, is the signal bounces off the ionosphere that surrounds the earth to make its way to wherever you are. The further you are from where the broadcast originates, the more bounces it has to make to get to you, so it’s not exactly an audiophile experience.

The sound is distant and scratchy, and it fades and gets stronger – it’s really kind of a pain in the ass when you get right down to it. Which is why I usually found myself listening to the really booming, strong signals from the big countries. Anyway, like Google Plus, I was surprised to learn recently that shortwave is now all but gone. Apparently all of our wireless communication, wifi routers and some weird shit they transmit over power lines now all combine to make most of the shortwave frequencies unlistenable. And sure enough, I pulled out my little portable shortwave that I only use to listen to NPR on the rare occasion of a power outage, and the shortwave bands mostly sound like angry jackhammers or beehives or something.

Shortwave is old technology, or course, and not all old technology should necessarily be mourned when it disappears or dies out. The only reason I was interested in the demise of shortwave was because of nostalgia, and remembering those nights up on the mountain turning that dial and hearing the most random things from the most random places. But we don’t need shortwave for that now, do we. The Russian news agency’s tass.com website is just as easy to see as cnn.com. Anything you need to know from anywhere you need to know it is easy now, everything is easy all the time. But I guess when you have to go through a lot of shit to find something, like with shortwave, or digging through LPs in record racks, or the early web, it just kind of feels better when you find it.

It’s easy to feel like there’s no discovery anymore, mainly because there isn’t. Everything is just there, in your Facebook feed. But I’m sure something new will come along and it will be fun to explore it and discover new things. Whatever kind of new things those might be. I’m sure at the end of the 1800s some people were burned out and thinking that surely nothing else could come along to complicate the world. Then the 20th century happened. So I’m confident that there’s something new waiting out there for us. It’s inevitable. Funny thing I read somewhere, since everything is everywhere, a teacher said their student handed in a paper talking about something that happened in the 90s, and the student wrote about it happening, “at the end of the 1900s.” Which is funny, and kind of shocking to hear it put that way, but also accurate.

Oh, did I say earlier that Google Plus is a ghost town? Well funny thing, it’s not. In fact, it reminds me now of the early days of Google Plus, when it was a bunch of people who really believed in a new social network, and who were smart and funny and didn’t like Facebook. After the rest of you left I made a community called “Ghosts of Google Plus,” and a few people came around and said, “Hey, look, there are a lot of us still here,” and what do you know, there they were. One of them is even maintaining a list of all the people who are still active – there are 128 of us, if you were wondering – so you can follow them.

The system is really in a state of rickety flux, so they’re hacking it to make it do what they want it do, and it’s inspiring to see. The ability to +1 a comment disappeared, so they figured out how to do it. A lot of the connections to other Google services are messed up or hit an miss, so they figured out how to work around that. It’s really kind of amazing to watch it all happening. I don’t doubt that Google is watching too and they’ll eventually kill Plus even for the paying or educational or grandfathered-in Google-for-your-Domain people like myself, but for now it’s a little window into what the web used to be, and to me, that’s pretty cool.

Speaking of what the web used to be, cast your memory back to those pre-web days. Before the Internet entered and forever changed our lives. remember, if you will, the way we used to do things. By telephone and mail. The U.S. Postal Service. Waiting for the carrier to show up with that letter or catalog or plastic thing you’d ordered off the back of a cereal box months earlier. When I was a wee laddie, back during the industrial revolution, I seem to recall the mailman, and it was always a man, delivering twice a day. But, you know, the town I lived in was pretty small, so he probably could have delivered four times a day without breaking a sweat. The newspaper was also delivered twice a day, which, if you think about it now – you have to wonder who had time to read two newspapers in one day? Especially when you were busy with all that mail.

Anyway, I was looking at books on eBay, and for some reason I was suddenly reminded of a guy who used to come in to the print shop I worked at, up in Pacific Palisades in 1990 or so. I wasn’t printing there, somehow I was working the front counter, interacting with customers. Ringing up their pens, their notebooks and paper and all the other things people used to buy at those places we called stationery shops. We did Xeroxing jobs too, on a big monster of a machine that could crank out thousands of copies an hour and collate ’em and staple ’em and sprinkle them in fairy dust.

People who are buying things, I don’t know what gets into a lot of them, but they forget that the people they are buying things from are humans, and they talk to you, if you’re behind that counter, like you’re some thing that they have to deal with, like a hemorrhoid or an immigrant. This cunt in a necktie came in one day with a stack of paper at least 400 pages high, and he said, “I need 10 copies of this by four! That’s four p.m. today, not tomorrow, and it can’t be a minute after four! Got it? Do you need anything else from me?” And the manager, a guy who I’ll call Floyd, because that was his name, said, “Wait just a second, let me write up your order,” and necktie cunt just started walking out and said, “You know who I am, I’m the one who will be here at four for those copies,” and that was that.

There was barely enough time to get necktie cunt’s job done, but we had other jobs, of course, jobs brought in my people who weren’t cunts, and Floyd said, “Do these first, then put that asshole’s job in.” I finished up the other jobs and grabbed the giant stack that necktie cunt had brought in, split it up and laid it out so I could keep track of everything – you can’t just put 400 pages into the hopper and press a button and walk away – and started his job. After about half an hour Floyd came up front and he looked around and he said, “Is this that guy’s job?” I said yep, and he walked over to the input side of the machine, where the original documents were being fed, pulled out a page of the original just before it was sucked in, and dropped it into a recycling bin next to the machine.

“Oh shit,” he said, “I’ll bet he needs that page.” Then he pulled out another page of the original document and dropped it in the bin. “This is getting worse,” he said. “It doesn’t look good.” And he stood there, for a long time, pulling out every 30th or 40th sheet and dropping them into the bin. Eventually he had to go do something else, and as he was leaving he said to me, “I hope no more of those originals get lost,” which I took as his way of saying, keep pulling out the pages. And, listen, you know, he didn’t have to twist my arm. When the job was finished, at about 3:58 p.m., I took the recycling bin back to the press area and emptied it into one of the big 55 gallon bins. I looked forward to seeing necktie prick again, but at exactly four o’clock a woman showed up to pick up the job. She was very nice, but I was disappointed that I wasn’t going to see necktie cunt again. I mean, I saw him again, the next day, but that’s another story.

None of that has anything to do with anything I meant to say, which was that there was an old man who used to bring jobs in, 20 or 30 page lists of books. His company was International Bookfinders, and I just looked him up and his name was Richard Mohr. I probably knew that at the time, since he was in there all the time, but when I looked him up just now I saw a picture of Mr. Mohr and Black Sparrow Press publisher John Martin, in 1974. Martin was a collector, or is a collector, and he lived in Los Angeles at the time, so it’s not surprising that he knew Richard Mohr, since it turns out Mohr was the guy to know if you wanted to locate and buy rare books.

Rare is a funny word, and books are a funny thing, and when you put them together you get the weird marginal world that rare booksellers inhabit. Booksellers are middlemen, poised, expectantly, between people and things people want. But then the world is full of middlemen, most sellers of things are middlemen, but the middlemen who deal in rarities, whether it’s books or records or porcelain finger puppets are a weird breed. They invent languages to describe things that already have perfectly good ways of being described, and they elaborate on the truth and present you with a thing that’s priced way above and beyond its worth, and then expect you to haggle the price down to the region where they’re merely doubling their investment by selling to you.

Mr. Mohr became successful becoming a middleman’s middleman, because his entire business, by the time I became acquainted with him, was to take people’s requests and go find the seller who could fill that request, taking a cut on the deal in the process. You could get away with things like that back in the days of waiting for the U.S. Mail carrier to show up with that letter or catalog or plastic thing you’d ordered off the back of a cereal box months earlier. Not so much anymore, but back then you could.

I had just started reading Bukowski around the time my life intersected with Mr. Mohr’s and somehow I’d been made aware that there were Bukowski “rarities,” things I wouldn’t find at the Either/Or bookstore in Redondo Beach or the Barnes and Noble at the mall. So one day when Mr. Mohr was in the shop picking up his mail order list and I asked him if he ever found any cool Bukowski books that he could shuffle my way. As soon as the word “Bukowski” left my mouth though, he kind of involuntarily flinched and made a little face, then recovered and said, “Oh, those things aren’t rare.” So I let it go and didn’t give it much thought. As I recall his lists were pretty heavily populated with cowboy books anyway, so what did I know.

But the flinch and grimace are funny to me now in retrospect, after seeing the picture of Mohr and Martin, and knowing that they knew each other and likely did business. By the time of the picture in 1974 Martin was well-established in his creation of “special” copies of a lot of the Black Sparrow books, so Mr. Mohr’s reaction, I guess, summed up his opinion on that. And looking at books on eBay really gives a new meaning to “rare,” and kind of proves the point that nothing is really rare anymore. There’s very little that you can’t find if you really want it, and while the prices may be high, a high price does not rarity make.

Maybe the most “rare” Bukowski book, at least in terms of how often it comes up for sale, is a little chapbook made in 1962 called “Run With the Hunted,” and as I stand here now talking to you there are three copies for sale on eBay. Think about that, a slim pamphlet of poems by what was, at the time, an obscure poet, there were only 200 copies made almost 60 years ago, and right now three of them are available on one website. And I’m sure a couple more are available on bookselling websites.

So while all this old stuff may be expensive – and not only because it’s usually sold by middlemen – it is not rare by any definition of the word. Maybe we should start saying “valuable” in place of rare, I don’t know. But I think rare, as a concept we apply to something that was originally produced in multiples, is disappearing. Back in Mr. Mohr’s heyday, you could call a book like “Run With the Hunted” rare because odds are, if you went to every bookseller in your town, most of them wouldn’t have heard of it, and none of them would be able to sell you a copy. But we don’t live in that world anymore. Most of us.

All these middlemen though. If you like old things, they’re a pain in the ass. And it’s a weird profession or occupation to get into, isn’t it? “I know what I’ll do, I’ll buy old books and sell them at a profit!” I don’t know. Maybe not. If I could make a living selling old electric guitars I’d do it in a minute. Because I love old electric guitars. And new guitars, and every kind of guitar in between. But maybe after a few years of doing that and selling hundreds of guitars, I’d become jaded and just start looking at them as ways to make profit. It would just be a job. I don’t think that would happen though, so maybe I’m being too hard on booksellers.

Maybe they still really love books, and all the devious, creepy, and underhanded parts of their business just happened inevitably, and not because they are, at their cores, devious, creepy, underhanded people. It’s not nice to paint an entire group of people with a broad brush like that, I know that. I know better than that. And if you’re a bookseller, just assume I’m not talking about you, in particular. You’re one of the good ones. One of the three good ones. But don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.

But rarity and value are just constructs we’ve created, like time and space. They don’t really exist. That gold and diamond engagement ring you just bought for $4,000 – they dig hundreds of pounds of gold and diamonds out of the earth every day. The ring is $4,000 because the people who own the companies that dig that stuff up put a price on it. Then the person who buys it from the digging company, and the person who buys it from the person who bought it from the digging company, and the person who buys it from that person then sells it to the ringmaker, and some guy who managed to get himself between the ringmaker and the store that sells the ring, and then the owner of the store that sells the ring, and the person who works in the store and sells the ring to you face to face – they all want to make money on the deal, and all you wanted was a ring.

But then there’s also little bits of gold in the components in your computer or phone and little shards of gold leaf on top of that $50 desert in the fancy restaurant that you go to when you’re giving someone an engagement ring, and after dinner you can stop off at Home Depot and buy a circular saw blade encrusted with diamonds for $15. So what are those things really worth? Hell if I know. Everything’s worth what we’ll pay for it, of course, so just tell me the price and if it seems worth it, I’m a buyer. It’s not like there’s an alternate marketplace where people who don’t value gold in the same way as the rest of the world sell it for 100th of what the other marketplace charges. So what are you going to do?