One of the most practical gifts I received for Christmas was a CD book the size of a photo album. It’s made out of faux leather and holds about 375 CDs, which is about half of my music collection. I’m going to need another one at some point, but I was able to clean out half of the dresser that houses my CDs and I did something that I have never been able to do in nearly twenty years of owning compact discs: I threw away my jewel cases.
That sounds completely ridiculous because I am sure that there are plenty of people who were throwing jewel cases out the moment they bought their CDs a decade ago and didn’t feel the need to write about it. Then again, I have that hoarder’s mentality where I hold on to some things because I feel like I am going to miss out on something, which is why I never threw out my jewel cases the first time I had one of these large CD books fourteen years ago, or during my twenties when I hauled box after box of CDs up and down flights of stairs during move after move.
So why pull the trigger now? Well, as I was making my Christmas list, I realized that I had absolutely no CDs on it. I certainly had been listening to a lot of music, but I couldn’t remember the last time I had purchased a new CD (which, after some thinking, I realized was The Gaslight Anthem’s American Slang), and the dresser where I keep the CDs was taking up so much space in my office that I wanted to get rid of it. I began with the start of the alphabet, or ABBA Gold, and in a few hours found myself staring at a pile of empty jewel cases on the floor.
It didn’t seem right that they—along with the CD booklets—were so disposable. If this were a record collection, I would have been carefully preserving the album sleeves and covers as much as the albums themselves. But so many of the jewel cases were cracked and missing pieces that preservation wasn’t exactly going to be an issue. And I don’t think that years from now, a guy on Antiques Roadshow will be telling me that my copy of Ride the Lightning would be worth more if the jewel case didn’t have a crack in it.
I first heard of CDs back in the late 1980s, when my friend Jack’s dad bought a huge home CD stereo system. The first CDs I ever listened to were some of his dad’s classical albums as well as bits and pieces from the Les Miserables soundtrack because we were singing songs from the musical in that year’s spring concert. I was pretty pop music inept at the time, so I thought that owning that much Beethoven and the original cast recording of Les Miserables was pretty awesome and it seemed like CDs were going to be one of those things like laser discs, which friends of my parents or parents of my friends had but nobody I knew ever owned.
Then, as I headed toward high school, the price of the average CD player dropped and my friends started receiving them for Christmas and their birthdays. Through both my freshman and sophomore years, however, I was still taping songs off the radio, borrowing people’s tapes and dubbing them, and buying blank 120-minute-long blank tapes to give to my friends so they could make me copies of albums like Metallica’s black album and Ministry’s Psalm 69. They’d reluctantly do so, telling me that I needed to get a CD player with the same snotty tone they used when telling me that I needed to get cable.
Cable would take another four years, but the CD player came my way courtesy of my sixteenth birthday and along with it three albums: Metallica’s … And Justice for All, The Spin Doctors’ Pocket Full of Kryptonite, and Queen’s Live at Wembley ’86. I received these three in the middle of a huge packaging change for CDs, which was the transition from the cardboard longbox to simple shrink wrap on the jewel cases, a decision motivated by environmental concerns, as longboxes used an enormous amount of cardboard and were very wasteful to produce. Plus—and I’m not sure this was an actual reason or not—the jewel boxes took up less shelf space. The Spin Doctors CD proved hardest to open because not only was it shrink-wrapped but there was a silver tag in the middle of where you would open the case. The tag didn’t come off completely (and honestly never would), and left behind a residue that I had to laboriously scrub clean using a cotton ball doused in nail polish remover.
Thankfully, the manufacturers believed what a pain that silver tab was and went to a longer clear tab that they put on the top of the CD and were even labeled, which is what we have today, and I’m sure there are a number of people who struggled to open those tabs as well. In fact, they probably wound up cracking the jewel case as much as I did. But in all honesty, the jewel case’s creator figured that was going to happen because when PolyGram developed the cases, they were trying to find a way to protect the CDs from being scratched before they were purchased. The first jewel cases were actually pretty heavy but as time went on and demand increased, PolyGram developed a version of the case made out of thinner plastic that could be produced more quickly and easily.
So it was more about functionality and less about aesthetics, and the manufacturer left the aesthetic up to the record label and album cover artists, who would sometimes put as much effort into the booklets as they did album covers and even made the discs works of art themselves. Many of the discs had track listings on them, but there were some that you wouldn’t be able to identify if you were flipping through someone’s CD case and didn’t have the accompanying booklet (two I remember off the top of my head are U2’s Achtung, Baby and Stone Temple Pilots’ Purple).
Which was one of the first steps of getting to know someone when you were in college, after you’d taken the time to ask what his or her major was. Many a guy or girl in the ‘90s, when in a random dorm room, took the time to either peek at a CD rack or flip through a small case of twenty discs to determine the owner’s taste. In fact, I bet that many a guy looked through a girl’s music collection and after getting past all of the requisite Dave Matthews CDs used that to determine whether or not he is going to try and hook up with her. I mean, I have absolutely no experience with the random hook up, but I can imagine that there are certain red flags, like if she’s got more than one Enya CD she might not put out.
Possible wanna-be lothario tactics aside, flipping through all of those CDs did feel like a trip back into the 1990s, when I wound up purchasing some of the most random albums just because I “needed” to have one song for a mix I was making or because I couldn’t get it out of my head and didn’t have access to something like iTunes for a quick, cheap download. Or bands that I liked for all of a day or because of a girl. I suppose I could throw those CDs out with their jewel cases, especially since I don’t listen to bands like Live at all anymore, but if I may get all Rob Gordon for a moment, there’s something about having those CDs in my collection that shows that I’m not afraid of my past. Throwing Copper—and the embarrassment of owning it because of a girl—is like a tattoo that I regret having but still own up to.
Here, by the way, is where I make my old man statement—that while I love my iPod because I can make my collection so personal, having all of my music stored in such a small place is almost too personal. Your records, tapes, or CDs being out for a visitor to see was like having a certain poster on the wall. You’d actually have to pick up my iPod or open iTunes on my desktop to see all of the randomness of my music collection.
Although that’s beside the point since the CD with the concert tickets in the booklet doesn’t need to be there for me to remember going to that concert, and the spine of ABBA Gold doesn’t need to be there to remind me of when my wife and I first moved in together more than a decade ago. The stories behind the albums and their purchases are still with me, ready to be recycled like the cases of plastic where they were once housed.