Friday, July 22, 2005

The Concept of the Desert Island Disc

I haven't done any historical research into the concept of the desert island disc. It's not that I don't care about its origins; it's that I don't care very much. I suppose I first became aware of "DIDs" while reading Mojo, the English rock magazine that I used to pick up from time to time in the bookstore. (It's not that I enjoy rock music much, with notable exceptions; it's that I like, for some reason, to read about it. The same principle applies, I find, to truly bad movies ofthe 50s and 60s.) But it may well have been in Pulse!, the free magazine that they used to give out at Tower Records. Before long, they were everywhere. Letters columns filled with people sending in lists of their DIDs. Reviewers listed theirs. Music journalists solicited lists from anyone they could think of -- other music journalists, composers, pop stars, people in the street, writers, politicians, conductors, death-row inmates, unusual pets. I couldn't help but play this game every once in an idle moment. But, having the type of mind that I do (type B17, not that it's relevant), I couldn't help but analyze the implications of all of this. What were the official rules? Who created them? Who policed them? (Perhaps some authoritative international body of concerned listeners.) How many were permissible? (Usually ten, but occasionally five. This could vary, but there were ambiguities, such as the status of boxed sets. Clearly, multiples of five were favored, at least under our blessed decimal system.) When was the listmaker clearly stretching the limits of the acceptable? when was he flagrantly breaking them? Under what circumstances could a DID be utterly rejected as the work of an amoralist without the slightest respect for convention and common decency? Most importantly, what theoretical conditions, without which DIDs could not exist in any logically possible world, must obtain?

Today we will be discussing the last question, and will leave the others for such time as I have even fewer things I ought to be doing instead. Clearly, one must first be cast away on a desert island, an eventuality which, though possible in the event of a submarine emergency or a balloon flight gone wrong (both of which circumstances figure in Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island), is most likely in case of shipwreck (cf., Robisnon Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson.) We will leave aside the highly remote chance of an airplane crash; chances are overwhelming that you'd be lost at sea and drown, if indeed you survived the fiery wreck in the first place, and chances are that your discs would melt, sink to the bottom of the sea, or not be allowed luggage space in the first place. So DIDs imply seagoers. I will go further and say that they imply seagoers who can safely go lost without massive search parties being immediately launched in the area from which they last communicated. This implies small private vessels, such as sailboats, and the sorts of motor-powered craft that are often taken over by psychotic killers in modern movies. Larger sailing vessels are conceivable vehicles, such as those constructed by quasi-historians on PBS specials, recreating historical craft of (presumably) the "original" design, in order to prove that Greenland was discovered by the Fiji Islanders or something. It is also worth noting that nobody much would give a good goddamn if such a ship were lost at sea, but this is no place to editorialize about PBS specials. it is also likely that these PBS geeks would cheat a bit, and bring along their favorite discs to play "unofficially," but we can discount these, because they would probably consist of Vivaldi and of 1960s folk music recordings, so double who cares.

I like to think that my own DID experience would commence dramatically, as in its being attacked by pirates (whom I would bravely fight against overwhelming odds to subdue, until taken down by a foul blow to the head) whilst heading an expedition to the Galapagos Islands to research my life's work on the origin of species. However that may be -- and it could just as easily be an innocent typhoon -- I slowly regain consciousness on the shore of some remote -- and uncharted -- desert island. O vile fate that doth cast me on some unknown shore, yada, yada. But things are not so bad as I had initially envisioned. Although everyone else on board, it seems, died in screaming agony, I find I don't much care, and the island far too nice to have so share with the sorts of cretinous gallumphs who call everyone "matey." Besides which, my cache of compact discs, carefully chosen and packed months in advance against the possibility of just this sort of situation, has floated to shore, miraculously, intact. Because I'm a scientist in addition to being a pirate-repeller of heroic proportions, I find it a relatively easy matter to assemble some coconuts, a live eel, various minerals, and naturally occurring chemicals into a huge generator which, though not sufficient for a large city, will prove ample to meet my frivolous electrical power needs for decades to come. Similarly, I'm able to assemble a crude though brilliant sound system that plays my contact discs with all the sonic presence of the world's finest concert halls, and then some. I'll need shelter at some point, for rain does occasionally occur here on this climactically blissful island, and there's also the question of a nasty sunburn to consider. Food just sort of grows on things here, but for the time being I prefer the wide variety of fine foods that were being shipped to South Pacific gourmet shops but which just happened to float ashore. A quick swim out to the wreck finds me recovering a number of fine suits, quite a lot of books that I'd packed and marked "Desert Island Books," pen and paper for my self-indulgent diaries of my years as a castaway (doubtless liberally exaggerrated), a DVD player, a number of video discs, some rather lovely furniture, and other objects to be appended in lists hereto as the whim strike me. The sole thing I want for is human companionship in my loneliness, but innocent Edenic native girls have a way of turning up in these narratives.

Now that that's all taken care of: What discs did I bring? Let's say ten, for the time being, which may not seem an awful lot, until you recall that most magazine DID lists tend to be distinct and independent as to genre, and if I'm going to have to limit the number of discs in a single genre, I'm not about to go around and kick myself in the other end by restricting the number of genres I'd have brought. Or sub-genres. My feeling is that the point of the lists is that they be short; it's certainly not the point of being shipwrecked to listen to the same ten discs over and over again as I gradually sink into gibbering insanity. That's not the purpose of the exercise.

Okay, now I suppose the preliminaries are out of the way, so I'll have to list some discs, but I don't much feel like it at the moment. As I prepare to do that, it would not be remiss if any readers offered legitimate suggestions of a sensitive nature, or merely dumped their own DID lists on me. I'll certainly give them the respect they deserve.