Friday, April 29, 2011

The Rarity of Rarities: My Journey Through The Internet

A few weeks ago, after reading a book about one of my favorite bands, Kraftwerk, I became aware of the existence of a bootleg recording. Kraftwerk had done an American tour in 1975, and it turns out that there was a recording of their concert in Denver floating out there somewhere. The fact that this concert was supposedly not very good only intrigued me more; Kraftwerk is known for their pristine studio productions, so I wanted to hear what the group sounded like in its early stages, when they had to haul bulky, primitive analog synthesizers across the United States. 

So I did what anyone my age would do - I immediately jumped on the Internet and began to search. But I soon faced something that I have rarely had to deal with in the past decade or so - the bootleg was not immediately available. Searching the standard torrent sites revealed nothing, and even the Kraftwerk fansites only offered old cassette tapes of the event for hundreds of dollars. No one, it seemed, had put this 1975 concert on Internet for general consumption. This was not exactly a surprise - most of Kraftwerk's hits came later, and this concert was considered of pretty poor quality in any case. But it still came as something of a shock - some kind of media that exists, but is not available online? There weren't even any burned CDs for sale on Amazon. If I wanted this, I would have to cough up hundreds of dollars to sketchy record collectors for what may or may not be a legit recording of the concert in question. 

I must have spent hours perusing the skeezier parts of the Internet - the land of pornographic pop-ups, illegitimate requests for my credit card number, and so on. At one point, I even utilized my German language skills and delved into a whole another section of the Web, hoping that the Europeans might have more Kraftwerk available. Alas, nothing. One recently deceased Kraftwerk collector had his entire library for sale, including the bootleg, but I didn't have the eight thousand dollars to buy the entire set. Another would only trade for bootlegs even rarer than this one.

By all standards, this should not have been a major event for me. But the farther down the rabbit hole I went, the more I wanted this Kraftwerk bootleg. And I wanted it immediately. Hours later, I had to lean back in my chair and blink and question what the hell I was doing, spending my entire evening furiously racing through the Internet in search of some quasi-mystical Kraftwerk concert that even die-hard fans admitted didn't sound very good. 

But I was stunned, because in the past five years or so I have been conditioned to expect any rarity to be found on the Internet. The myths of my childhood - the Star Wars Holiday Special, the Dune Encyclopedia, those classic SNL sketches my parents had told me about, all sorts of obscure pieces of classical music - are now easy summoned with a Google search. In 2002, when James Murphy sang that, "I heard you have a compilation of every good song ever done by anybody," the Internet was still slow and small enough for this line to be taken as somewhat of a joke. Now, of course, it's a prerequisite for any iPod. (Everyone has that friend who browses through your music library and, bewildering, exclaims, "You don't have any [X]?").

There's been a lot written about the infinite library capacity of the Internet in the past couple of weeks; at NPR, Linda Holmes writes about how there's so much available stuff out there now that "we're going to miss almost everything"; at Slate, Bill Wyman writes about the Internet as the actuality of Lester Bang's mythical basement "with every album ever released"; Keith Phipps at the AV Club recently wondered if the Internet isn't creating a rash of completionists-for-the-sake-of-being-completionists. 

All these articles have something in common, something that I pretty much agree with: they all agree that, while the Internet has destroyed the thrill of the search and the domain of the hyper-obsessive pop culture nerd, the equalizing benefits of this technology more than outweigh this loss. I'm glad I live in a world where I can get any movie shipped to my house in less than 48 hours, where I can order pretty much any book ever printed off Amazon, where scores of musical recordings and bootlegs are available to stream. My quest to become a music snob would be debilitatingly expensive without the magic of Grooveshark (and, of course, my public library). 

But damn, for those hours while I was searching for the May 20th, 1975 Kraftwerk concert at Ebbets Field, Denver, that was thrilling. I can't deny it. The search got more and more exciting as the bootleg turned out to be more and more obscure. I had searched for that mythical recording that Shall Not Be Searched For. I had broken the Internet. 

In the 1941 short story "The Library of Babel," Jorge Luis Borges describes a seemingly infinite library in which its denizens discover that every possible combination of letters and punctation marks exists. Some of the library's residents spend their time searching for the one fabled book that will make sense of all the rest, others spend their time discarding the books that are nothing but nonsense, hoping to purge the library of all bad books. It's a neat little story of the perils of too much information that's surprisingly relevant - now that we have all this stuff crammed onto the Internet, how do we even begin to process it?

Is it crazy that I just wanted my shitty Kraftwerk bootleg when there's terrabytes of other, better music available instantly? Maybe. But like the characters in Borges' story, I walked past all the books in my current section of the library, progressing through this fragmented pop-cultural potpourri, looking for that one fabled combination of letters that would give me what I was searching for. I was obsessed with finding that which I could not find. 

Borges' story ends with the narrator positing the hope that the library, the universe, is "unlimited and cyclical," that after one walks across the entire thing, "he would see the same volumes repeated in the same disorder" a pattern that would present its own kind of Order. It represents the hope that, even in our chaotic, information-inundated digital world, there is some sort of beauty in the whole, some sort of pattern that escapes us but is perhaps right under our nose. One can spend their whole life searching for the one book that will explain everything else, but the chaos and disorder are their own sort of explanation. The Library is an ouroboros, ever curling back into itself whenever one tries to venture outside to find some sort of reason behind it.  

And, like Borges' story, I found this pattern only by coming full circle, trekking across the entire Internet. After hours spent on obscure German file-sharing sites, as a last desperate hope, I cued up YouTube and searched for my Kraftwerk bootleg. It was right there. It had been there the whole time, on that website known to everyone and their grandmother with a dial-up modem. I had been so convinced that I had been searching for some rare gem, I had completely discounted the possibility that the recording had already been catalogued and streamed by the most popular site on the Internet. In a search that had spiraled ever outward, the solution had been right there at the center. My search had led me so far outside the realm of the established Internet that I was back in the heart of it. 

I listened to the bootleg. It wasn't very good. Honestly, it was more interesting before I had heard it. There's something comforting in the fact that there's a pattern to this Library of Babel, something even awe-inspiring, but something a little saddening as well. Like the 100th name of God in Islam, perhaps that which is most holy is that which remains unknown.