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After the Fire

Desert-island discs are fine for the beach. But when the house is burning down, you find out which records really matter.
By DAVE TOMPKINS  |  April 14, 2011

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As long as the Scientologist did not steal my 2 Live Crew acetate, I was okay with her wearing my girlfriend's pajama pants. She acquired them while picking through our sooty remains after the fire, perhaps assuming that a lack of insurance meant that we'd disavowed our possessions. A week later, I passed our downstairs minister in the street, a failure of Dianetics flanneled marching blue umbrellas, chatting about how the heroin addict living in the basement next door had ignited his mattress to spite the landlord.

Actually it wasn't the fire but the fire department that destroyed our apartment, chopping down walls and hosing the TV, more flood than flames. Later that night, crouching in puddles over my Too Short 12-inch (Alias Crazy Rak), I heard the fire inspector in the next room —"Heyyy, the Fat Boys! I remember them!" — his flashlight playing on the wall where someone had put an ax through my Organized Konfusion poster. The blade had barely missed the 2 Live Crew record, a clangy aluminum "quad heirloom" discovered by a friend in a small closet in North Miami, tucked among the coke-era bass machines, drum computers, and keyboards.

Thank God your copy of Head Booty and Cock is okay. My girlfriend — now former — was understandably annoyed, as people only seemed to care about the record's well-being. When we returned to survey the damage, I expected to find a deformed tar pit of vinyl in our living room. Yet none of the records were warped, defying all heat-sensitive smack-arson logic. I would spend that summer in a Tokyo dust mask, spraying vinyl with a plant atomizer while sitting on the front porch, trying to whistle the ash out of my Cosmic Punk Jam cassette, hoping the particulates wouldn't get back at me in the wheezy future.

I first heard the Cosmic Punk Jam while immobilized by a stomach virus, soothed by its unmastered closet-door thump and vocoder drone. The tape was a dub of a dub's second-generation lo-bias bag of Cheetos half-cousin, once removed from a one-sided acetate found behind a furniture store somewhere north of Boston. The Cosmic Punk Jam was cosmic because it was of the unknown, an infinite, unearthly eight minutes that was never allowed to be a record. It was punk because it sounded broke as lint, recorded in Jazzy Jay's sock drawer in 1982. Afrika Bambaataa would test the Cosmic Punk Jam at the Roxy, a Manhattan club that allowed the song some nightlife. It woke as an unrecognized memory the morning after, despite the Cosmic Force's best efforts to chant themselves into your moment, riding the melody of Michael MacDonald's "I Keep Forgetting."

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  Topics: Music Features , vinyl, Art, Dave Tompkins,  More more >
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