an autobiography through objects, or a poem.. of sorts. the hum turns two.

By the time my parents passed its threshold, carrying me in their arms, the house was nearly two centuries old. Built in the years immediately following the American Revolution, somewhere along the way it had been rolled down a hill to the center of what, by the end of the 1970’s, was a New England mill town in its death throws. Across its first hundred years, the square symmetry of its original four rooms – two up, two down, had been burdened by a jig saw of eleven more – a sprawling assembly which, as time passed, fell slowly into disrepair.

For more than a decade this structure remained a knot of chaos – my parents, year by year, room by room, restoring it to something resembling its original state. It was an existence spent within, and hunting for, a vision of the past – which, at any moment, might – and it did, come spilling out of the ceilings and walls. To occupy an old house is to share space with ghosts – the imprints of those who have passed through its rooms and halls. It is to know your own fleeting impermanence – to see it through those unknown others, and to acknowledge how much of, and how easily, a life lived can be lost. It is to draw value from what is, as much as what is not.

My mother found joy in things turned from the hands, in wood, clay, and cloth, of men and women, long since past. At her side, much of my youth was spent under the clattering cadence of an auctioneer’s chant, filling the house with elegant objects made by once neighboring Shakers – damned to extinction, and from the period of its birth – ghosts – vessels carrying shadowy truths of their makers, and of the periods within which they were formed – learning that beauty is bound to loss.

Like my mother, I became a collector. Like my mother, I began with books. She was the daughter of a man who traced his bootstraps to the written word – his passion rippling through the generations, long after death. Then there was her death, scattering us to the wind with our memories – beauty bound to loss.

It’s not much a family, but thin ties, histories, and passions remain. We are voracious readers, entrenched among overflowing shelves. My mother and her twin sister both taught literature. One uncle was a lapsed poet, while another was a journalist with a Pulitzer, last seen disregarded at the bottom of a cardboard box. Of my few cousins, one is an author of fiction – his partner a poet, another teaches Proust at a college in Maine. Ours was, and remains, in its dysfunction, a world of words.

That house of ghosts was a prison. That town, in its death throws, a prison. That state – New Hampshire, with its conservatism and bigotry, prison. In the end, as it turned out, so too was the nation within which each sat – a prison of nesting dolls.

I was an awkward child, covered from head to toe with eczema – sticking to the bed sheets, allergic to everything, dressed in cloths handmade or knit by my mother, or in L.L Bean – a dystopian vision for social integration. I hunched. I was shy. I was diagnosed with learning disabilities and ADD before they were widely understood – forced, in pained humiliation, to take my tests in what was referred to as the “retard room”. For years I smelled like the skunk which had died below our coat closet. An intuitive nonconformist, I couldn’t see the argument for tying my shoes, condemning me to a sentence of Velcro straps – yet another target for ridicule. I didn’t like sports and wasn’t allowed to watch TV or play video games. Beyond the fact that it left me with nothing to say, I didn’t mind. I had begun to live my life – to form my dreams, among the pages of books, and, before long, within the sounds of Punk.

The act of collecting began as a gesture of dissent, or, perhaps more accurately, as a means to connect with the dissent of others – to stitch a bubble of belonging among the minds of those who had never belonged. Somewhere around the age of 11, I staked an ethereal home in the counterculture, beyond the reach of geography and time, locked in groove, page, and tape.

The act of collecting began out of necessity. The objects of my desire – the comfort and belonging they offered, in the age before the internet, were most often unobtainable, unknown, or long out of print. Prodded by what I read and heard, possessed by a need for more, I began to break my chains and disappear – taking solitary bus trips and hitching rides, my parents unaware of my whereabouts, to dig in second hand book and record stores in Boston and New York – sleeping in parks or on the floors of a handful of friends, eating as little as I could manage – every meal meant the loss of spoils. As these objects began to gather around me, overflowing the shelves in my bedroom, the voices and ideas of the past bled through the spines – cracks in an eighteen year sentence. Ghosts stacked high.

Nearly three decades on, as I approach my fortieth year, these sensations remain – early wounds and revelations. Bleeding boundaries. A debt. The prison and reprieve of a man who never entirely found his place in the world – who has spent his years darting from city to city, country to country, continent to continent, dragging the weight of objects – voices and histories, in his wake.

To read – to look – to listen, is to take the being of others – their voices and truths, into one’s self – to become them, to cherish them, to offer them sanctuary in your world.

To collect is to share space with ghosts – to allow them to haunt you – to face your own fleeting impermanence – to see it through those others – known but unknown – to acknowledge how much of, and how easily, a life lived can be lost. It is a mirror for self – its life and death. It is joy. These things will likely outlast us all.

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Today The Hum concluded its second year. Over that time I have labored to share, to support the remarkable creative efforts of others, and to offer some vision of community and belonging to those who encounter my words.

From my earliest years I wanted to be a writer. I wanted nothing else, but for most of adulthood that dream remained far from my mind – the product of a teenage rebellion so complete that it penetrated the core of self. I followed another path – to art school, and then into the world which surrounds those crafts.

Between the years of 1996 and 2016, a period during which I moved to and from Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, London, and back to New York, before leaving again, this time for Mexico City, my external reality existed almost entirely within the world of fine-art, maintaining an internal world more closely connected to my roots – those passions for music and the written word.

As time passed, the art world changed – increasingly corrupted by ballooning wealth of hedge fund managers – the consequences of exponential deregulation and growing global economic inequity. While the ethical quagmire regarding the marriage between fine-art and extreme wealth is nothing new, in this case it began to effect the art itself, including the culture and ideas surrounding and giving birth to it. It’s one thing to ignore the source of blood money when it supports and enables great things. It is another when that money slowly creates a context which is engineered to satiate its own idiocies and evils.

As faith began to fail, I increasingly focused my displaced optimism on private pursuits – words and sound – my sanctuary – creative realms which are comparatively free, due to ease of independent publishing etc, from authoritative tendencies currently undermining the context of the visual arts. Books and music, as containers for art forms, are more economically accessible, while their critical appraisal rests more comfortably in the hands of those who engage with them directly. Their being is, at least presently, more democratic – their purpose more clear, their intention and utility more difficult to corrupt.

I was ill suited from the beginning. I had become an artist because I loved art, but could never manage to weigh the value of my voice against others. I wanted to contribute to a conversation without bringing attention to myself. I was easily bored by my own work, because, being the product of my own mind, it lacked the mystery, wonder, and displacement that I longed for and chased. I was always far more interesting in discussing and engaging with the work of others – in living beyond myself.

The Hum began as means to contend with a debt to the objects which have brought so much joy into my life – which had elevated and saved me – to give back. It was, and remains, an extension of the passion which has compelled me to sacrifice my economy for them – of collecting. The uneasy question regarding my own place in the conversation – my voice and craft, has remained a central struggle for the last two years. While my writing has resolved so many of life’s loose threads – allowing me to do the thing it seems I was meant to from the start – to write, to support others, to be forced continuously to learn and exist beyond my depth, my own place remains unresolved. In the service of objects which bring great joy into my life, I am intuitively compelled toward anonymity – to get out of their way – to indicate and celebrate, with just enough to stick the teeth. I do not view my own voice as important. It is the product of a necessity in the service of things far greater. I do not value my critical abilities over those of any other. I have absolute faith in my reader’s ears. The only reason The Hum exists is because it didn’t, and far too many wonderful things we being neglected and lost. I am conscious, in taking on the task, that what I write is the result of a single and subjective mind, and thus I am to be held to account. As such, I have struggled to maintain a difficult balance between my presence and its lack.

The community surrounding the music about which I write is small and strong. Many of those who read The Hum know or have met me personally, a great many more have been kind enough to correspond with me, striking a form of friendship and acquaintance. In both cases, as with the attention of those who remain beyond my direct reach, I am grateful for the support, attention, and faith I have been offered. It has been one of my life’s greatest gifts. It has been a wonderful two years. That said, despite whatever access I grant to my thoughts, who I am, where I come from, and why I pursue what I do – what I am trying to assemble and encourage, has largely remained outside of the conversation. Within the thousands of words, I am a relative unknown.

On the second anniversary of The Hum, I open a window, offering a patchwork of fragments – an autobiography or poem of sorts, drawn from memories and experiences which form a foundation for this effort – why I advocate bringing these objects into our lives.

I am a staunch advocate for buying and living with the physical object of music. I have written about this a number of times, focusing primarily on how this activates an important, evolving relationship and value system surrounding music. And of course there is the crucial issue of economic support for the arts, for which we are all responsible.

While these are incredibly forward concerns in my mind, particularly in the era of streaming and digital downloads, my years hunting for out of print books and records taught me an important lesson. Like those who make them, these objects can be easily lost and forgotten. They disappear. A life lived is easily lost. As much as we are able, it is our responsibility to preserve them for those who follow behind us. The are our voices. They are who we are.

It is a fear of loss, of forgetting, that lingers below my words, and forgetting, for an increasingly cluttered mind like my own, is something I must face. So many of the objects which changed my life, exist as hazy ghosts in memory, but a ghost has presence, while the forgotten does not. They are ghosts because they remain on my shelves – haunting me, calling me to return.

There is that famous poem by John Donne..

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as any manner of thy friends or of thine

own were; any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

These words are locked in a dance with my entire life, lingering beneath my own. Bringing the words, sounds, and images of others into our lives, allowing them to occupy us and our space, is to build a bridge from the island of self to the continent of collectivism. It is to make and recognize the connection between us all – to bend geography and time. Collecting isn’t about the objects in their physicality – the clutter and shackle, it is about people – their continued lives through the objects which they have made – the eternity of voice – being open to them, learning from them, becoming them. It is to draw value from what is, as much as what is not. This is the hardest thing to express – the words which hang just out of reach, in the hands of the ghost of an eczema covered child.

-Bradford Bailey

 

 

 

 

 

 

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