Against a side wall of an increasingly crowded basement crawlspace in Massachusetts, there lives a maroon bag that contains the entire career output of Fried Pig.
I’ve been wondering what to do with it for a while. And I’m thinking about it once again following the New York Times Magazine’s remarkable “The Day The Music Burned” cover story.
If you share enough of my interests to be here, you’ve probably already read the story, and been gobsmacked by it.
If not, here’s a quick summary: Universal Music Group’s main West Coast storage vault for master audio tapes burned in 2008. Until now, Universal maintained the fiction that little damage had been done.
But NYT reporter Jody Rosen, citing the vault’s former supervisor and internal documents, learned that hundreds of thousands of recordings were destroyed in the fire.
The toll includes some or most of the master tapes of artists like Chuck Berry, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Buddy Holly, Muddy Waters, Count Basie, Captain Beefheart …
(… actually, if you haven’t read the story, go read the paragraph in which Rosen lists the names of just some of the affected artists. You’ll know it by its heartbreaking length.)
I’ve been trying to fight off the natural pop-geek urge to be infuriated.
For one thing, I know that anything man-made dies or fades sometime. One had to imagine that the master tapes for “Maybellene” weren’t going to last a thousand years, any more than their creator was.
For another thing, formats go away. It wouldn’t shock me if, in my kids’ lifetime, there were no longer any more machines able to play those master tapes.
Still, the manner of the tapes’ passing — they were being sloppily stored in space rented from an amusement park! — and the baldfaced manner with which Universal tried to cover it up are galling. While I never thought those recordings were immortal, they shouldn’t have gone like that.
And, while we’ve still got some archived version of all the music that was released, not everything on those master tapes had been released. Anything that somebody hadn’t dubbed a copy of is now gone. As in, forever.
(A random side observation here: You know those fuzz-headed, shambling hippies, the Grateful Dead? The guys who were so far removed from music industry best practices? They kept their library of live recordings in a special vault in Marin County, equipped with a system that would suck all the oxygen out of the room in case of fire. Scoff all you want at the Grateful Dead.)
Which leads me circuitously back to Fried Pig. They were the hometown basement band in which I played bass, roughly from 1986 to 1992. (You might have read about them here.)
For almost the entire life of the Pig, I used this maroon bag as my jam-satchel, carrying tapes, extra strings, extension cords and other rock n’ roll effluvia to and from jam sessions.
It still holds a complete set of the cassette tapes on which we recorded music — songs with names like “Cesspool Ride” and “Nostril” and “My Testes Tingle” and “I Don’t Wanna Listen To You” and “Sex in the U.K.” and “Wolves of the Ivy League.”
(I am quietly astonished that I’ve taken better care of the Fried Pig archives than Universal Music Group took of the John Coltrane archives. OK, that makes the music-geek fury rise into my gullet a little bit.)
I’ve thought in recent months that it might be time to get rid of the Fried Pig archives.
I haven’t played the tapes in years; they might be unplayable for all I know. I’m down to one cassette player, a cranky old boom box. And there’s little or no musical justification to save 95 percent of the tunes.
And yet … who knows? It seems like the old-fashioned American garage-based guitar band is not what it used to be. Maybe if I can nurse this music through one or two more format changes, a Nuggets-style compilation of garage bands will come along to pick it up, and Fried Pig will finally get our overdue recognition as geniuses.
Plus, the Universal fire reminds me that goodbye is forever. Once I chuck those tapes, there’s no getting them back.
That seems, at least in today’s sentimental light, like a mistake. Music is a remarkable thing. And if music has been entrusted to you — or even if it’s just sort of wandered into your life like a stray schnauzer — you ought to take care of it.
So, the Pigbag heads back into the crawlspace.
That’s not a glamorous ending, and the long-term future is still uncertain. But at least, as tonight’s sun sets, the tapes still exist. Which may be more than can be said for “Johnny B. Goode.”