.Holy Writ

A peek inside Shredding Paper.

When I was fourteen years old, I found the Bible. I had no idea at the time how much the discovery would end up costing me, socially and financially, over the next decade. All I knew was that I had found something that finally made sense to me. The mythic characters meeting gruesome fates, the confusing lists of begats, the tales of life in faraway lands — I maniacally catalogued all of it, and was able to cite chapter and verse on the drop of a dime.

In retrospect, my obsession with that holy text — Rolling Stone magazine’s 1987 “Top 100 Albums of the Last Twenty Years” issue — makes perfect sense. To be a seventh grader is to experience a whole new level of personal incompetence. Most of us couldn’t even manage our own bodies, much less have any impact on the machinery of popularity that controlled our middle-school fates. But taking that Rolling Stone to the record store and spending my lawn-mowing money on its recommendations opened up new possibilities for mastery. Granted, it was a kind of expensive path to self-esteem, and it didn’t help me figure out how to slow-dance with a girl. But, given enough time, I could have explained to her why London Calling was the best Clash album. Somehow that seemed like a pretty okay trade-off.

Those heady days of musical discovery came rushing back to me this week when I picked up the Bay Area-based Shredding Paper. For its latest issue, the magazine sat down and hashed out the fifty greatest singles of all time. It’s the kind of monumental (and monumentally nerdy) task that most indie pop zines would use as an excuse to showcase a list of hyper-obscure songs and artists.

But Shredding Paper is different. Their omnivorous picks juxtapose Elvis Presley with Joy Division; Ike and Tina with the Feelies. As I devoured editor-in-chief Mel Cheplowitz’ friendly, rich explanations of Buddy Holly or the Cramps, I was transported back to the moment when I first realized that music is inexhaustibly rich and beautiful, and that a record store is probably as good a place to find God as anywhere.

Cheplowitz started Shredding Paper in 1998 with KALX DJs David Hill and Steve Yaver. Knowing how little money tiny-circulation magazines like theirs made, I got the trio to meet me at the Emeryville Public Market, where I asked a lot of dumb questions about the magazine over cheap Afghan food.

I wasn’t at the top of my game, interview-wise, and I think they were kind of confused why anyone would want to write about their magazine. So we just talked about music until I dragged them off to take their picture in Borders’ record department.

As we were wrapping up the Polaroid session, a young preppy college student approached us. At first, I thought he was going to ask us to leave, but it turned out he had something much more dangerous on his mind.

“Hey,” he said. “Do any of you guys know what Talking Heads album the song ‘Road to Nowhere’ is on?”

My heart froze. I could see my subjects kind of tense up, too.

“I think it’s on Little Creatures,” said Hill, after a long pause.

The dude nodded, then started to leave. Whew. Okay. Geek explosion averted. Then he circled back.

“Is that a pretty good album?” he asked, innocently.

These were the moments that music nerds like the four of us had trained a lifetime for. Run, man! I wanted to tell the guy. You don’t know what kind of forces you’re unleashing here! A second later, Cheplowitz was on him.

“Well, not as amazing as Talking Heads: 77, because that was back when David Byrne … ” The words were a blur of dates and album titles and band history. The guy was probably learning way more than he wanted to know, but somehow it seemed both meaningful and important, this torch-passing of Talking Heads trivia.

We listened, nodding, as Cheplowitz wrapped up the comprehensive lecture on the band. And when the guy walked off towards the “T” section to pick out his CD, I felt the same flush of pride I imagine I will have when my kid rides off on his first bike mission without training wheels. We had just held a baptism there in Borders, a ritual dip in the same font of arcane knowledge that sustained me (and likely these three guys) though some pretty awkward years. The dude would do with it as he pleased, but that didn’t stop all four of us from hoping he would make the right decision.

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