This week, Josh Modell asks: What are you a pop-culture completist about? (You own every album and all B-sides, or complete filmography, or bibliography, etc.)
I used to be fairly fanatical about any artist I liked—if I enjoyed their first album or book or film, I’d doggedly seek out everything else they did, even if I didn’t much like albums/books/films numbers two through eight. But I got over that when I was fairly young—I think about the time I realized that Piers Anthony books are terrible and repetitive, and that just because I liked the first few Xanth books when I was 13 didn’t mean I should still buy everything he put out, out of some sense of dogged responsibility. And these days, our house is so overstuffed with books, DVDs, and music that I actually prefer to get things from the library, or borrow them from work, or rent them from Netflix, or buy them in electronic-only format, just to avoid accumulating more stuff. Thus I tend to only buy things that I like so much that I want to lend them to a bunch of other people. The weirdest exception: Book collections of my favorite webcomics. I generally think of websites as ephemeral and likely to just suddenly disappear on me at some point. I rarely buy any other comics anymore because we get more material via work than I can actually manage to read, but I’ve still shelled out for every single print collection of Girl Genius, Digger, and The Order Of The Stick. (I get no points for owning “all” the print collections of things like Hark, A Vagrant and Perry Bible Fellowship, which have only put out a book apiece, but as they continue, I’m likely to be a completist about them too.)
For the benefit of both my bank account and my sanity, I gave up on completism a few years ago. But back in the day, I was rabid about amassing the complete vinyl discographies of a handful of bands—and it’s an odd handful, considering that none of them are necessarily my all-time favorites. Part of it was the challenge; The Fall was (and remains, to some degree) a madly prolific band, and once I’d stumbled across a few of their Beggars Banquet-era LPs for cheap in the early ’90s, I started backtracking and digging up the older, harder-to-find Rough Trade stuff. And it just went nuts from there. I also gathered a pretty healthy (or is that unhealthy?) Unrest collection at one point, including weird shit like a 7-inch bootleg of their Peel Session and a promotional toothbrush (!) for their Perfect Teeth album. (The latter now resides in the Unrest archives of one Josh Modell of Chicago, Illinois.) A few other, long-since aborted: Nico, Morrissey, and Curtis Mayfield. Honestly, no rhyme or reason to those choices, other than the fact that they’re all great artists, and it seemed like a challenge at some point. Label-wise, I was (and still am) pretty obsessed with Dischord Records—even the unfairly forgotten bands like Slant 6, Severin, and Fire Party—but now that they’ve started remastering and re-releasing most of that old stuff on vinyl, it seems kind of pointless. Not to mention the fact that I refuse to move all these goddamn crates of LPs to one more new apartment, especially seeing as how a hard drive is so much more portable, though way less cool.
I used to get really obsessive/completist about a few things, particularly toward the end of high school, when I would try to track down every album, B-side, and notable bootleg of my favorite artists, R.E.M., Prince, and Elvis Costello. (Morrissey and Robyn Hitchcock got added into the mix toward the beginning of college.) That completism waned a bit over the years, largely because my attention got drawn in a lot of different directions. Would my $13 be better spent tracking down some 12” import single with a different mix of a Prince song, or finding out what What’s Going On was all about? The answer wasn’t that hard to figure out. I still have some completist tendencies, which technology has made easier to satisfy over the years. (Complete seasons of TV series on DVD? Yes, thank you.) But I’m also okay with not being a completist even with the things I loved, or at least keeping some items on the shelf for later. I’ve seen most of the major Alfred Hitchcock movies—I think—but I’d never watched To Catch A Thief until a couple of weeks ago, when my wife and I cracked it open on a lazy New Year’s Day afternoon. It was great, too. I’m glad it was out there waiting for me.
I would say that I own the DVD set of every show Joss Whedon has ever been involved in, but this is the Internet, and that won’t seem all that odd to anyone here. (I’d like to try to claim that owning the second season of Roseanne stems from wanting to own the one season of that show he worked on, but, no. My wife just really likes Roseanne.) So I’ll head in another direction and say that I continue to buy pretty much everything Ben Folds puts out, even though I’ve found his solo work decidedly hit-and-miss. I’ve liked individual tracks on all his solo releases, but not a one hits me like his Ben Folds Five work did when I was 16. (It also doesn’t help that his last album is one of the most needlessly bitter divorce albums ever recorded, even though Folds is the one who broke up the marriage in the first place.) And yet I keep buying them, right down to that weird a cappella album he released earlier this year. I iTunesed the Over The Hedge soundtrack because he had songs on it. Hell, I even got really excited when he turned up on The Sing Off. I guess I keep thinking that something will strike me right dead between the eyes like “One Angry Dwarf And 200 Solemn Faces” did when I was a teenager, but it seems less and less likely, the older I get and the bitter-er he gets.
I used to be much more of a completist, like my colleagues. As a teenager, I used to make a sacred pilgrimage up to Evanston on my bike to scour the used-CD stores and search for Morrissey, Oasis, and Blur singles. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that my obsessive tendencies have receded a little, though I do make a point of collecting every DVD set from The Simpsons and many of my other favorite shows: The Office, 30 Rock, and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Other shit I collect compulsively: every Little Brother side project and every MF Doom project. Oh, and I have all my Criterion DVDs arranged in numerical order on a special shelf. Because I am a huge fucking geek.
As I talked about in a typically self-indulgent blog way back when, my compulsive need to collect things is in direct opposition to my abiding belief that the world is going to end any day now, at which point all of my carefully amassed stores are just going to be so much flotsam floating in the ocean water swelling up from the Gulf Coast. However, I embraced this philosophy only after I’d already gathered a ridiculous amount of stuff related to The Fall. Sure, you could just collect the albums and be a total poseur like Heller over here, or you could get serious: Thanks to the inordinate amount of time I spent measuring fanboy dicks against the members of the Fallnet newsgroup, I’ve amassed enough Fall recordings that if I started playing them one after the other right this minute, I’d finish sometime around the 21st birthday of Mark E. Smith’s future girlfriend/keyboard player. The stats: I’ve got all the albums on CD, vinyl, and cassette, because my last car would only play the latter. I’ve got all the 7-inches and CD Maxi singles. I’ve got all those totally unnecessary Receiver compilations and “best-ofs” like The Collection, just so I could own that cover of “A Day In The Life” or live version of “Big New Prinz” that’s supposedly different from all the others. I’ve got bootlegs from every year of the band’s existence—including shows I personally attended that I already know aren’t very good—as well as several homemade concert videos, including one of that infamous NY show in 1998 where he gets into a fight with the band (plus Camden Joy’s novel Pan, which immortalizes the whole incident). I’ve got every single Peel session, and not just the officially sanctioned CD release, but a stack of 12 meticulously labeled cassette tapes with all John Peel’s effusive intros and “Faaaantastic!” outros preserved intact. I’ve got a video compilation of every single one of The Fall’s UK TV appearances from their first interview in 1978 through Mark E. Smith accepting his 1998 “Godlike Genius” award. I also paid far too much for a copy of Mark’s Post-Nearly Man album, which is basically just him ranting incoherently over random keyboard sounds, and I’ve also snapped up any and all tangentially related bands to The Fall, like Martin Bramah’s Blue Orchids (awesome), Marc Riley’s The Creepers, Tony Friel’s The Passage—and God help me, I own an Adult Net album. Somewhere around here I have my “Mark E. Smith” compilation, featuring every guest vocal he’s ever done with Elastica, Long Fin Killie, Inspiral Carpets, et al., and I even bought D.O.S.E.’s Plug Myself In, which is just six tracks of Mark going, “I just can’t seem to plug myself in-ah” over various lame techno beats, but whatever. I’ve also got self-made comps of bands like Sonic Youth doing Fall covers, plus another one of bands doing songs about The Fall, like Barbara Manning’s “Mark E. Smith And Brix” and one that My Dad Is Dead’s Mark Edwards (a fellow rabid Fallnet user) did just for us about the time he saw Mark E. Smith piss himself. Fuck me, are you convinced yet? Point is, I have way too much Fall effluvia—and the kicker is that the man just keeps on going, making it near impossible for me to ever be complete. I’m pretty sure the world will end before my Fall collection does.
You know who else is a crazily obsessive Fall fan, Sean? David Gedge, singer-guitarist of fellow British band The Wedding Present. You know whose records I obsessively collected at one point? The Wedding Present. They’re still one of my favorite bands of all time, though I’ve given up purchasing every single 7-inch, 12-inch, and LP. That doesn’t mean I’ve thrown them away—I’ve got a special little box of Wedding Present vinyl singles that I like to stroke every once in a while, including both the original and re-pressings of the 1985 single “Go Out And Get ’Em, Boy!” (First pressing: 500 copies!) Not to get all old-man on y’all, but the singles are lovely to look at—much better than seeing a representation on a computer screen. (Side note: The Wedding Present will be playing its classic 1989 album Bizarro on an American tour this April. I’m very psyched.) Other bands I’ve collected in similarly obsessive ways over the years: The Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets, and The Smiths. As far as just collecting a band’s entire discography (all the music, not all of the things), I have too many of those to list!
Ever since I started filing my DVDs by director, I’ve felt an obligation to “complete the set” whenever possible, especially when it comes to my favorite directors. That gets tricky with guys like Robert Altman, Joe Dante, or Steven Spielberg, who worked in television off and on. But I remain stalwart, which is why my DVD cabinet is full of DVDs for Eerie Indiana, Night Gallery, Combat, Bonanza, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. (Well, that and the fact that those are all good shows.)
Oddly enough for an obsessive-compulsive geek type, I’m really not much of a completist. I buy DVD sets of TV shows I like and collections of comics I’ve enjoyed, and occasionally I’ll accidentally discover I own everything by a particular artist. (For example, I found out just recently that I own every book ever written by the novelist B. Traven, something I accomplished without even realizing it, and since he’s been dead since before I was born, he’s not likely to make me come up short.) But it was going through a phase of musical completism in my 20s that cured me of the habit of this particular habit: Back in the pre-Internet days, when it was real work to get hold of everything a band ever released, I indulged the habit only to find that it was a huge investment of money for a very small return. Why? Because ain’t nobody bats a thousand, that’s why. I got sick and tired of paying for some obscure EP or collection of pisstakes, only to discover there was a good reason it was rare. Nowadays, with the advent of digital media and file-sharing, it’s not as expensive or time-consuming to be a completist, but I find it’s still generally a waste of time: the hours or dollars I spend on the bad movies of a director I like would be better spent on the good movies of a director I’m not yet familiar with. From time to time I get a wild hair about amassing a complete collection of some cultural item or another—every comic book to ever feature Dr. Doom, for example, or a baseball card for everyone who’s ever played for the White Sox—but luckily, these are absurd and completely unattainable, so I’ll never even bother to try. And that’s much less frustrating than building a collection that’s almost, but never totally, complete.