Begging Bowl Blues

Back in 2010 I was a still freshly-minted New Yorker, still adjusting to my new life in the Big Apple. While I’d visited the city extensively in the eight or so years previous, this was now my home. Because of that I enjoyed something of a personal renaissance.

I have to admit here friends, before settling in NYC I was on a sad trajectory. I was entering my mid-thirties. My adventurous wanderings through popular culture had stagnated into keeping up with some favorite bands from the 80s and 90s like U2, Green Day, R.E.M., P.J. Harvey, Garbage, and Green Day. When I wasn’t listening to classic rock and alternative radio I was I was mostly listening to news stations and – shudder – talk radio.

The latter was a thankfully brief flirtation with the dark side of angry white middle-aged men who blamed “teh liberals” and “the immigrants” for every ill, not the least of which being a loser spending his day listening to talk radio. Though to be fair this was Canadian Talk Radio; a much friendlier, less-angry version of the stateside brethren. But I was a long way from the college-rock Lollapalooza-alternative music era of my youth.

It was, ironically, creating Mixtape that snapped me out of my reverie. I’ve written elsewhere but the basic gist was the discovery of my old comic book collection, old music magazines, and old boom-box in my mother’s basement that led me back down the memory path, listening to old mixtapes and thumbing through old magazines. I rediscovered the simple joys of music, and once settled into NYC, began digging into more contemporary artists who stoked those same feelings: Yeah Yeah Yeahs, MGMT, Sleigh Bells, Mumford & Sons, Florence and the Machine, and a little-known, little-remembered Fratellis side-project called Codeine Velvet Club.

Spearheaded by John Lawler with Scottish singer Lou Hickey, their first and only album was short, sweet, jazzy, poppy, melodic, and to the point (and featured a great cover of The Stone Roses’ “I Am the Resurrection”). I’d love for you to listen to it but that’s going to be difficult outside of YouTube, and is sadly the point to this whole exercise in memory.

You can listen to the album here … but for how long is the real question

To listen to Codeine Velvet Club takes some effort. The album is long out of print and while you can stream it on YouTube you won’t find it on Spotify or Apple Music. You can’t even buy it on iTunes and while used copies are available through Amazon a “new” unopened copy will run you close to 60 bucks. That’s just one example; one album released fourteen years ago this very year. There are many more. More movies, more TV series, more albums and books unavailable and in many cases largely forgotten, all thanks to this Streaming Apocalypse. Thankfully I own a physical copy of Codeine Velvet Club. I can listen to it whenever I want to because I own a physical copy of it.

Back in November came the news that for the first time since streaming movies and TV became popular you couldn’t find a single James Bond movie on any streaming service. Fifty years of 007 just vanished with nobody along to pick up the slack (Apple TV currently has the streaming rights so it was just temporary as long as you’re an Apple subscriber that is). I myself was unconcerned as I already owned the complete 25-film Blu-Ray box set so could actually watch any of the Bond films anytime I wanted. But their temporary disappearance was troubling on multiple levels because this wasn’t some obscure arthouse film; this was Bond. James Bond.

Pictured: Bond, James Bond.

And yet after years of loyalty to the various streaming services I believe consumers have begun to wise up to the fact that ownership of physical media – books, music, movies – means to curate, not just to consume and they have begun to answer this with a drive back to physical media. 4K and Blu-Ray copies of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer sold out everywhere on its release in December. People are anticipating the 4K Blu-Ray release of Dune Part Two to accompany their copy of Part One. It was almost as if we suddenly re-discovered the pleasures of unwrapping a DVD or Blu-Ray box set of a favorite television or film series.

I’m not the buyer of physical media or indeed any media that I once was but I am shifting more to curation. Over Christmas I acquired Blu-Ray sets of the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street film series, the complete 1978 Battlestar Galactica, the complete 1979-1980 Buck Rogers, the Criterion Collection’s remastered edition of Mean Streets, and the two Guillermo Del Toro films – Nightmare Alley and Pinocchio – I didn’t yet own but now do. They sit alongside my Blu-Rays of Star Trek (The Original TV and film Series), The Twilight Zone, and Planet of the Apes film series. I own the Despecialized Star Wars Trilogy, all the Bond and Mission Impossible films, and roughly five to six hundred other assorted DVDs and Blu-Rays spanning the early silent era to recent releases. Thanks to physical media I can watch both the theatrical and TV versions of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the Extended Editions of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, numerous behind the scenes documentaries, commentaries, and special features, any time I feel like it and even without an internet connection.

Of course there’s my still growing collection of Movie Novelizations as well which while tapering off in recent years still stands as a curation of yesterday’s trash paperbacks with a projected short shelf-live now containing books over fifty years ole.

With comic books my reading has mostly shifted to digital as time and money demands more of both from me in other areas. Yet over the last three months I decided to seek out and acquire a complete run of Marvel’s The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones comic book series which ran from 1982-1985 and continued the narrative begun in theaters with Raiders of the Lost Ark, running 34. Back issues remained easy and inexpensive to acquire, but furthermore outside of some astronomically priced trade paperback collections released by Dark Horse Comics in 2008, the only way to read this series was by acquiring the actual individual issues.

Which I did …

Between physical media resurgent and people stepping back from streaming it’s almost enough to give one hope for the the media we love. Even the studios seem to be coming around to admitting that for all their investments in services HBO Max and Paramount Plus, that Netflix is still top dog and that it’s a lot easier (not to mention profitable) to license their films back out rather than keep them under lock and key on their own services which cost a lot to maintain. Just a quick perusal of Netflix and Amazon offerings in January displayed a bounty of DC Warner Superhero titles and giant shark movies that while I had absolutely no interest in actually watching were at least an option whereas before I should have had to subscribe to Max to watch.

Thankfully I have a library; my home library and the public one in our town. That library has an extensive movie collection I can borrow from on a whim, and a library borrow is usually more than enough to scratch a particular itch rather than buy a movie, watch it once, and let it gather dust on my shelf ever after. We’ve come a long way from the days of Blockbuster Video and Tower Records, Borders, Virgin, and Barnes & Noble (the last of which being the only game less standing and even their DVD/Blu-Ray section is a shade of what it once was). I doubt those lost behemoths are coming back, and physical media’s position in our fat-paced world remains precarious, but as long as they’re still producing I’m still buying.

As was the case with the video rental and sales era, there was a golden age of streaming but that age ended with Disney Plus, followed by Peacock, Max, Apple, and all the services cropping up. What once was limited to Hulu, Amazon, and Netflix is now spread out over a dozen rival services. To have access to everything streaming would cost you hundreds a month and you’d never have time to watch all of it (I have films in my Netflix queue I added years ago I still haven’t gotten around to – probably time to admit as much and delete them). We’ve come full circle back around to the 500 channel universe cable TV once promised less than ten years after abandoning it for streaming.

Now, there are some great free ad supported services like Tubi and Plex. I binged in old episodes of CHiPs, Miami Vice, Knight Rider, The A-Team and The Greatest American Hero, and fun lesser-known movies like Raise the Titanic, Southern Comfort, Rolling Thunder, Hell Night, Dreamscape, Strange Invaders, and a lot more. Thanks to PBS and my wife and I being supporters of our local affiliate we have access to a near complete library of documentary series on a variety of subjects. Frontline, Nova, Secrets of the Dead, the American Experience, and scads more.

Books? Obviously I still buy them, having devoted a fair amount of shelf-space to the Movie Paperback collection that carried me through the COVID era, but that too is winding down partially because the easiest “gets” have already been “got” and because I’m legitimately out of room to store them. That said there is nothing, nothing quite like a big bulky expensive book, like this massive Omnibus Edition of The Art of G.I. Joe, all 20 lbs, $150.00 of it:

Collecting things is my hobby, and a good hobby to have. Hobbies are good to have in general and you can tell the difference between those with and those without. The busybody condo association president or HOA member butting into everyone else’s business? No hobbies. The person glued to the daily outrage of their phones? No hobbies. Collecting books, movies, comics, toys, games and the like are a two-fold experience in both the acquisition but also the enjoyment of. I don’t think I’m ever as relaxed, as chill, as I am when stretched out on the sofa reading an actual book printed on actual paper.

That’s the other great factor in favor of physical media: it’s yours, and nobody can take it from you. With the plethora of special-interest groups out in the world agitating for and launching book bans targeting school libraries and public ones, it’s no paranoia to suspect at some point these “goose-stepping morons” (as derisively and accurately named by Henry Jones Sr.) might start gunning for what we watch as well. Not only external forces but internal ones as well. Disney made headlines last year when they began removing low-rated, low-performing original content (like their Willow series spinoff I was never able to find time to watch) from the service, leaving the people who hadn’t yet caught up with them adrift with no other means to watch other than sailing the high seas of Pirate Bay.

All of the above is very much on my mind for another reason as I work my way through the first draft of a narrative non-fiction book based on my popular Celluloid Heroes webseries. Over the course of its 140,000 or so words I take a deep dive into those bellwether GenX films that inspired me to become a storyteller myself. Some of these films are well known like Star Wars, The Goonies, E.T., Back to the Future, L.A. Confidential, The Matrix, and Avatar. Lesser known are films like Dragonslayer, Blue Thunder, La Bamba, Singles, Lone Star, The Limey, Bubba Ho-Tep, and Inside Llewyn Davis. To adequately research this book I couldn’t rely on the here today/gone tomorrow world of streaming; I had to draw from my collection of movies and, where lacking, purchase the physical copy of the movies I had yet to own (fortunately I’d say a good three-quarters of the films covered I already owned and the remainder were easy to pick up).

Frankly, the studios would love it if everyone ditched their physical media for streaming. They’d love for you to pay them ten to twenty dollars a month in perpetuity to have access to their respective libraries of films and exclusive streaming services as well. All the more reason to deny them that pound of flesh. Especially as we may be entering a golden age of physical media too, with the resurgence in remastered vinyl, 4K Hi-Def, an upswing in excellent behind the scenes features and more bells and whistles, like the near hour plus of deleted scenes that come with a very affordable version of Cameron Crowe’s grunge-era romantic comedy Singles. You won’t find that on streaming.

With a physical copy there are no ads. There are no disclaimers about content, no un-skippable notices informing you that Gone With The Wind, The Searchers, or even Blazing Saddles were the product of different times, and different mores. A physical movie will not be pulled from your library, and occasionally re-inserted minus offending scenes or minus politically “offensive” episodes, like Community’s infamous “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons”.

Which was supposed to be offensive to point out why Dark Elf-face is wrong and … (sighs in irritation)

When art is owned by corporations that corporation decides how accessible it will be. Sometimes maliciously, often times pure indifference. There are many, MANY Canadian bands of my teenage-twenty something years whose music is nowhere to be found online outside of shoddy YouTube clips taped off Much Music thirty years before; National Velvet, Grasshopper, hHead, Glueleg, and many more I’ve forgotten about because they’re otherwise unavailable outside of used record and CD stores, themselves a dying breed.

For years I began to see my shelves laden with books and DVDs, my long-boxes of old comics stowed away in closets and storage spaces as something of a burden; the detritus of a life that’s seen many years, many cities, and many homes. There are e-books, e-comics, and streaming video; who needs physical media anyway? Well, as one who owns examples from all of the above that are out of print, out of circulation, not available to stream, and just plain rare, well, I like to think curating a collection of physical objects still has a place in this digital age. And because of that digital age where things can disappear at the click of a button, holding those objects closer feels more essential than ever.

I like owning things. I like my books, comics, vinyl records, CDs, DVDs, Blu-Rays, Lego sets, toys, and games. I enjoy having them around me, just like I enjoy being able to decide to pull Excalibur, Tombstone, No Time To Die, Ravenous, The Breakfast Club, The Irishman (thank-you Criterion), the “Space Vampire” episode of Buck Rogers, or binge watch Season One of The Twilight Zone by taking it down off the shelf. These things we own hold their own magic, their own alchemy. There’s still a little thrill I get when the DVD or Blu-Ray menu pops up on the screen and I select “Play” on the remote. In that moment I, not the studio, not the streamer am controlling the horizontal and the vertical. I am deciding what to watch, when to watch, and how to watch.

When was the last time any of us were able to say the same?

32 thoughts on “Begging Bowl Blues

  1. I’m going to send this to my wife the next time she says we have too many DVDs in our home collection.

  2. You raise a good point and one I’ve seen echoed elsewhere; streaming services control what gets seen and what gets buried, same as a studio like Warner Brothers can shelve the latest Batgirl and Wile E. Coyote movies for the tax write-off. It’s why I still haunt my local bookstores and still buy DVDs – because I want to own my media, not rent it from a service that can pull it at any time it wants.

  3. I’m a Criterion collector as well. The bonus features they included with the films makes them well worth the price. And you’re right that a lot of movies are hard to find if not impossible to find on streaming services – movies like Man Bites Dog, many Hong King action films, lots of international stuff not “popular” enough for Netlix or Amazon to carry. I thing streaming can serve a purpose but mostly with movies I have no interest in purchasing.

  4. For me it’s all about the vinyl. So many albums not available even digitally, especially those 80s-90s Canadian bands you mention. There’s a lot of music that’s just not available through a digital delivery. Makes going to the used record stores and digging through their selection so much fun.

  5. Welcome back after your hiatus! I really enjoyed the Marvel Indiana Jones books – surprised they haven’t been collected beyond the omnibus you mentioned. You’d have thought with the most recent film they would have collected and re-issued them but I guess it flopping kind of killed that. A shame as they were some fun stories.

  6. I have that Codeine Velvet Club album! I liked it a lot too and wish they’d done more but I think with any side project it’s lifespan is limited. Though I do know Lou Hickey released some solo stuff afterward and still performs in and around Edinburgh.

  7. I downsized to a smaller apartment and got rid of a lot of the books, CDs, and DVDs I used to own and I have to say I regret it. Streaming services seem to be charging more and giving more but it all feels so sterile. Of course I’m an 80s kid so I remember going to the video store to borrow my movies. But let me say I’m really exited to hear about a Celluloid Heroes book!

  8. I have a simple metric to use with my media consumption: streaming for first watch or listen, physical copy if I want to add it to my collection. Many times one watch is enough but if I really enjoyed the movie and see myself rewatching it I’ll pick up a physical copy. Notwithstanding the physical media always looks and sounds better than the compression you get with streaming the bonus features make the buy worth it (that Fast Times Criterion blu-Ray is a prime example of such features like having two versions of the movie to choose from).

  9. Your comment about Canadian bands gone MIA sent me down a YouTube rabbit hole to videos by bands like Bootsauce and Frozen Ghost and I have to say if you were looking for even a digital download of “Everyone’s A Winner” or “Should I See” you’re going to be disappointed as the only places they seem to be available online are streaming or grainy vhs uploads of their videos. It’s a tragedy that these little pockets of our musical culture in particular are vanishing so quickly!

  10. Ian – I’m the same way. I’ll stream a movie or borrow it from the library if I’m on the fence with it or just want to scratch an itch. But in several cases I’ve liked what I’ve seen and purchased physical copies after watching. The Norwegian film Kon-Tiki includes 2 versions of the film on Blu-Ray, not streaming for example, as does Doctor Sleep, which gives you a choice between theatrical and director’s cuts.

  11. Jennifer – That’s a shame. When we got Disney Plus I was tempted to sell off my physical copies of the various films Disney produced that we owned but opted to just box those up to free up shelf space. But I want to keep them because they’re often so packed with bonus features that aren’t available anywhere else.

  12. Lindsay – I’ve listened to Lou Hickey’s solo stuff as well. Of course if there’d been no Codeine Velvet Club I might not of heard of her at all.

  13. Bill – Disney’s poor treatment of the Indiana Jones series is a topic for another day that I might actually pen at some point.

  14. Marytn – There’s a lot of old vinyl, CDs and cassettes from my college years I wish I’d hung onto because in some cases no copies exist anywhere outside of secondhand stores and ebay.

  15. Looking at your photos of your movie collection I see a lot of Spielberg and Scorsese. Do you collect whole runs of works by directors?

  16. Put me down for a copy of Celluloid Heroes Warner it hits shelves. I guess this means no more entries in that series?

  17. The dark side of collecting is eventually a place has to be found for them. My father was a big book guy and when he had to downsize left the books to us as as “gift” but we too had no room for them. We held onto them for sentimental reasons until he passed then gave them to a used bookstore.

  18. I’ve been something of a pack rat when it comes to books, movies, music. When I needed to downsize my living space I kept only the ones that meant more to me than just things. Favourite albums, movies, comics, books. The rest are available digitally or through second hand shops. So I think for people like me there are good reasons to let some things go.

  19. In my twenties many years ago I worked a lot of minimum wage jobs before establishing my career so I really had to pinch pennies. I couldn’t afford travel or big items but every two weeks I’d hit the Borders bookstore and buy a book. Sometimes hardcover, mostly paperback, but the result was an inexpensive form of entertainment that would keep me going during the down periods, I still have those books because they remind me of that time in my life and how far I’ve come,

  20. Matt – This is true. While I wasn’t particularly interested in Batgirl it’s an insult to all the people who worked on it to have it buried, same with Wile E. Coyote. Warners is not winning many friends in the industry with their behavior.

  21. Pat – I’m a Criterion collector since the Laserdisc Days. Just picked up several titles in the last flash sale too.

  22. Tim – I try to. I have every Spielberg, Cameron, Del Toro, working on completion with Scorsese, Nolan, Wes Anderson.

  23. Terry – still a long way from any publication should it happen but I do have a new CH series entry coming this summer to mark the 35th anniversary of a classic comic book movie.

  24. Jeff – yeah same here. Have a lot of books belonging to my grandfather with no idea what to do with them. I don’t have room for them and while there is sentimental value attached to them I can’t hang onto them forever.

  25. Wyatt – I do a big cull every year or so, unload some that have been following me around for years. i tell myself though if I clear some things out I can replace them with others.

  26. Nick – same with me especially in t he mid-late 90s. I’d hit the Beguiling comic shop when I had some extra money in my pocket, pick up a trade paperback from the Sandman, or Watchmen, or some other epic 12-issue collection nd spend the weekend with it. That $150 I spent on The Art of GI Joe was worth the price considering it’s been two months and I’m still only half-way through it.

  27. With so many DVDs and Blu-rays how do you know where to find a specific title? Alphabetical? Genre? How?

  28. Lisa – a bit of a mishmash. I had alphabetized them at first but then wanted to curate sections based on director. Now it’s a mix of that and in order of release by year so there’s a section of films from each decade – 1910s-20s and onward. Film series like Star Wars, James Bond, Mission Impossible are bundled together. Really it’s just a matter of knowing where they are.

  29. I employ a mix of both streaming and physical but I have to say I’m convinced more and more that in streaming media I’m just feeding the algorithm by my choices which isn’t really what I want. To wit: if I watch say a western I don’t then need it recommending hundreds of westerns to me instead of the horror or action movie I actually want to watch.

  30. Brian – I agree and would also say that the algorithm frequently gets wrong what I may actually want to watch. It wasn’t until perusing the Netflix at my in-law’s house that I discovered a ton of shows and movies I had no idea were on the service because the service assumed I was only interested in horror movies because I watched several around Halloween.

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