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The Completist Syndrome, Part 2 : Bootlegs

Last month was a preliminary take on the completist syndrome, that strongest of addictions that afflicts fans of creative improvised music: The need—incessant, real, and literal—to hear everything ever officially recorded by a favored artist. "Officially" is the operative word here because anyone who has delved into this music knows that what a musician has recorded, what has been laid down in wax or converted to zeros and ones, is only a small, infinitesimal part of a much larger, much more discursive picture.

For jazz and improvised music is not a music fixed in time, not a music following a linear path to greatness. It is a music of fits and false starts, of myth as much as reality, of names of places that motion toward the sanctified: The Plugged Nickel, The Village Vanguard, The Hillcrest Club. For many, the history of jazz is (ironically) not as much defined by the recorded artifact as it is sculpted in the myth surrounding the creation of the moment. (For an interesting take on this, read Jed Rasula's chapter "The Media of Memory: The Seductive Menace of Records in Jazz History" in Jazz Among the Discourses.) We want to hear Bolden, we want to know what the Hot Fives really sounded like, we want to believe that we would have been hip enough to like Ornette the first time he hit the stage—who among us would have got up and walked away? We want these things so strongly that we force them to become true. And so we create our own fictive history of defining moments never to be caught on record but that we can still hear.

But wait, what if we actually can hear? This is where the bootleg comes in, and where things begin to unravel. For those of us who can hear Bolden, he will always sound the same—some supernatural clarion call through the murky New Orleans street—a little bit like the sound of our own voices inside our own heads. But for those of us who can hear Miles' lost quintet, the mystery is erased—a little bit like the first time you heard your own voice played back to you. If you look hard enough, there he is, nearly every performance imaginable. The recorded document is available, the history has already written itself, and there is no room for speculation.

For those who have stumbled onto the bootleg, life can feel very much like an existence in quicksand. What one hopes to hear is actually available, and what one hopes to hear isn't always what one gets in return. We know this, but we forge ahead anyway—our capacity to creatively mishear denying our own rationality. Even when what we get, perhaps, does exceed our expectations, it can never match the sound of the music in our heads. But we must hear more, we must hear it all. And so we sink deeper.

For in the living imagination of the music, we forget that the musician is a working musician, someone who played/plays music for a living. We easily (try to) forget this, presumably because it doesn't jive well with our myth of the superhero. We construct musicians to reach those parts of our lives that we call dangerous, we define as beautiful, we think of as extraordinary, we dare not show. And we are somehow implicated in their greatness by our unique ability to hear. What we don't hear, though, is the day-in day-out toil, the road weariness, or the inability to get a gig. What we don't hear is the inner thoughts of a musician who thinks surprisingly a lot like you and I—whose mind may wander with horn to mouth, thinking about whether or not he has to do laundry tonight. We refuse to believe that those who we live for would ever be anywhere than in the moment they were in, and we want to desperately believe that Sun Ra dreamed of nothing other than Saturn.

But the bootleg history tells a different story, tells the story of the working musician who, as all do, falters. We may not admit this to ourselves, certainly not out loud, but we rarely listen to the bootleg as much as we listen to the real (read: selected and programmed) thing. We want to desperately believe that every moment is divinely inspired, like Milton conferring with his muse—"Invoke thy aid to my advent'rous Song"—and that an improvisation is always and forever new. But the bootlegged history tells a different story, tells of reliance upon known material, of the reconstitution of parts already plumed.

What we do get, though, is surely more real than we could ever hope for in that we see the working through of the thought, the actual process of refinement, of moving toward (or away from) greatness, a concerted effort unfolding over time. What we hear is the solidification of process, the abandonment of false starts, and the embrace of that which feels new (even if it was played the night before). What we get is not only the Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, but every draft and version along the way. And in this way, we get something even better then the sound in our heads.

This is why we turn to the bootleg, even though we may say we do so to be a fly on the wall. In actuality, the bootleg saves us from that fate, a fate that none of us would ever really choose were we given the chance anyway. (This is why for the music fan, traveling to NYC is far better than living there. When you spend an extended week, you actually go to shows most every night. Ask a resident New Yorker how many shows she's been to in the last month.) The bootleg captures the moment—OK, maybe we don't actually see the back turned away from us, or smell the sweat in the air—but it is a far better thing to be able to hear the sound from the safety of our own comfortable bed. It is a surrogate.

The bootleg also transcends. It builds community, a transcultural, transnational community of traders, of those devoted souls who live the life of the mind on stage somewhere, blowing tender through a horn. Even a cursory toe into the world of trading suggests an entire world of willing participants, a back scratch for a back scratch, a community who will literally send hours and hours of work to each other, asking nothing in return. This is another reality of the bootleg, as meaningful as any other. It is, for many, one of the great thrills of the music.

And then there are those scholars, those collectors and buffs that devote their lives to developing the historical document. A method of avoidance of devotion of clairvoyance of insanity of perseverance, certainly, and one that the rest of us can only look upon and applaud. There is a special place in the musical heavens for the likes of Peter Losin, Rick Lopez, Jan Ström, and David Wild, to name a few.

The bootleg is an alternate reality, one of unimaginable depth, a fortress of impregnable knowledge and modes of existence. It is the most real form of history available, and those who devote their lives to thinking about, writing about, praising, or defiling the music must contend not only with the proffered crafted message but the process incarnate. The bootleg can completely transfix, lock you in its gaze, beg of you to hear everything even though the very process of doing so quite possibly negates hearing anything at all. It offers the snapshot of a life, as Anthony Braxton would say, devoted to creative music. It offers unheard of combinations, bizarre sets, impossible but true gigs where Coltrane plays with Ayler, Ayler plays with Cecil, Cecil plays with Charles Gayle, Charles Gayle plays with Peter Kowald, and Peter Kowald plays with an unnamed Tuvan throat singer. It brings the music full circle, defies a linear process, defies easy reconciliation. Music is a lived reality, a breathing affair. It happens even when you're not looking and sometimes when you are.