GARY STEEL has a mid-to-late-life crisis as he loses his man-cave and pontificates the importance of exactitude in the filing of record collections, and other related ephemera.
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The loss of a man-cave is no small matter. Over the years I’ve observed how previously happy marriages have become fraught with friction simply because the blissful couples have squeezed themselves into a completely shared space. As yet another relationship bites the dust, I’ve counted my blessings and the sheer good luck I’ve encountered.
The thing is, I’m not a typical male and it never occurred to me to turn a shed or a garage into a conventional ‘man-cave’, because tools and cars and engines bore me shitless and the idea of having grease under my fingernails and wearing blue overalls just doesn’t appeal.
It was a happy twist of fate that I discovered the benefit of the man-cave concept. In 2008 I bought a ‘character’ bungalow with a huge kitchen-cum-dining room at one end of the house and what had been an entertainment room at the other. The previous owner had been something of a hi-fi enthusiast in the late ‘60s and there was an inbuilt Fountain amp and record player and wires coming out of the walls for a pair of decommissioned old speakers, which I found rotting away in the damp garage. I never used the old gear but they were like a museum exhibit and the room – despite being more square than oblong – sounded great with my stereo set up in it. I loved that room in the eight years we spent in that house, and although I call it my man-cave, the wife was always welcome in there as it was also our TV room. It’s just that as a dedicated “foodie”, she spent much of her time in the kitchen, which gave me the freedom to indulge my music passion.
When we moved up North there was no man-cave, so my wife graciously conceded to letting me set up shop in the master bedroom, which would thenceforth become my office and dedicated hi-fi space. It worked great. The room was at the far end of the house away from the toddler’s room and the lounge so I could crank up the stereo, and again, although it was a square room (audiophiles reckon that rectangular rooms always sound better) it sounded remarkably good, and Paul Quilter from PQ Imports even personally delivered and set up the GoldenEar Triton 1’s that I would use in the room. Meanwhile, Yoko and myself squeezed our bed into a smallish bedroom, which was perfectly fine until now. With another little human due in early December, the space needed to be reclaimed.
So… I’ve spent the entirety of the past three days lugging furniture and hi-fi equipment and boxes and various doodads from one room to another, including my entire CD and LP collection. The stereo is now in the living room, a great big expanse of open plan lounge/kitchen, which now means that my real listening time will be more or less restricted to those times the four-year-old is at kindy or play centre, but somehow, that doesn’t bug me so much. The worst thing is that there’s no achievable ideal position for the stereo in this room with its endless expanse of fold-out glass doors, so I’m likely to be frustrated with the sound.
But to be honest, the whole process feels like a cleansing: not a baptism so much as a welcoming peeling off of old, tired skin. Working on a computer in a room with a beautiful stereo just waiting to be listened to meant that I was constantly frustrated. It wasn’t worth turning the stereo on while I worked because I was never in the sweet spot, and I like to be at a desk because I’m old-fashioned like that. For me, listening to music – unless I’m idly browsing YouTube videos – is something that requires concentration. So I really don’t care that I’m now working in a tiny sliver of an office with small desktop speakers, because there’s no temptation that way.
What I found emotionally difficult was dealing with my response to the moving and re-filing of my record collection. I’ve never been the ultimate geek or trainspotter, but I do like to have things filed right. Every time I’ve had to move my record collection in the past I’ve devoted days – if not weeks – to perfecting my idea of a an alphabetically and chronologically correct collection. The move two years ago, however, came at the end of such a profoundly stressful period and I was so exhausted by it all that I never quite got around to getting my collection sorted. What this meant was that for the only part of the collection that has its own section, ‘New Zealand’ music, that essential A-Z was abandoned altogether. And there were all sorts of anomalies in the rest of my collection. Usually, each artist in the general A-Z collection would be filed in order of when each of their albums was released, but I never got around to doing that. And some of my shelving had fallen apart and been abandoned in moving house, so I had huge piles of CDs I’d randomly pulled out of the main collection in an ad hoc ‘to listen to and possibly sell’ stack.
Because I’m so time-short, however, I never got around to listening to them, and what I discovered when I moved rooms was that a lot of my dust-covered CDs hadn’t been played for DECADES, and I owned some that I could barely remember buying, let alone listening to.
Now, we’re talking about a modest collection here. My late American friend Ron Kane owned around 30,000 albums when he died late last year. Because I’ve been a music journalist and reviewer for my whole adult life I had to decide on limits to my collection back in the 1980s when I was often moving from one grotty flat to another, and I set my vinyl limit at 1000 pieces. Over the years, that has grown a little, and my CD collection – which I’ve never counted or catalogued (shock horror!) – is probably around 3000 discs.
What I had been planning from around 2010 onwards was to make digital copies of all my albums and then only keep physical copies of the ones I REALLY ADORED. Then I lost the semi-completed digital archive when my external disc died and I realised I needed a mirrored external drive so that if one died there was a backup, so I bought a thing called QNap to do just that and had to consult my expert in the UK just to set the damn thing up. Subsequently, I somehow lost my password and couldn’t get in to use it, then finally sorted it about a year later. I copied up to ‘M’ in my CD collection before it all went askew and I discovered that many of the recordings seemingly hadn’t gotten the right metadata attached and had ended up as ‘unknown’ or divided up into single songs rather than albums, and I just gave up.
Instead, I’ve been listening to a lot of TIDAL, which is really amazing and sounds almost as good as CD but I want to OWN the damn things, not rent them, thank you very much. But what do I want to own, and will I ever get the chance to listen to all those old CDs and albums and ferret out those that I know I will never listen to again?
Another destabilising factor is that I might listen to something today and think it’s lost its allure and then sell it, only to find that in a few years’ time I do actually really like that. So much is determined by mood and what your personal space is at the time. Then there are all those albums you bought of artists that you always intended to explore really fervently but, when you do finally get to taste their wares years or decades later, just sound really ordinary or old-hat.
Yeah, I’m in a confusing space and I don’t want this clutter and half the time, if I think “I really need a music fix” I can’t even think of what I want to hear; or if I do, I realise a few minutes later that I’m just not getting off on the artist because I’m just not in the right headspace for that style/genre/sound.
Ideally, I’d have everything on a really simple digital interface, like a TIDAL or Spotify – yeah, that simple – that happens to be on my own server, and then my whole physical collection (save for a few beautifully designed artefacts) goes into boxes and under the house. But I’m not sure that I’ll ever get there, because my old head just can’t seem to figure out the QNap or the system I chose to import the discs, J-River.
For now, a lifetime’s worth of discs have gone into the old, small bedroom, which is now a storage room full of boxes and walls lined with neglected CDs and vinyl. And the Qnap has been turned off to save power. It’s all kind of sad, but I prefer to see the bright side. With a four-year-old and a new one on the way the foreseeable future is full of the soundtrack to Frozen.
And it might be a shock if our kids go to kindergarten spouting lyrics from Frank Zappa songs.