This is the interior of the once great Cheapo Records on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota. It's lost now to time...and an endless stream of online options.

This is the interior of the once great Cheapo Records on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota. It's lost now to time...and an endless stream of online options.

It was a tale passed from twelve-year-old to twelve-year-old like a reverie, like a sacred oath. That older kid? The ninth grader at the bus stop, the one who moved out of town with his parents after only a year? He had an older brother who owned a set of late ‘60s, early 70’s mint condition Fantastic Four comic books, and his copy of issue #100 was autographed by Jack Kirby himself! Everyone new about the story, even if nobody actually saw the collection. The story had too much information and detail for it not to be true. It had to be true. The guy clearly knew the value of what he had. It wasn’t just that particular run of legendary issues. He understand the value of the particular artist.  Anyone who understood what Jack Kirby meant to the Fantastic Four must also be good for a whole range of other cool surprises.

There used to be a record store a few blocks from my college campus. Now there are no record stores anywhere, of course, but in 20th century (so long ago…) the location of one’s vinyl considerations could confer as much credibility as the music itself.  The best stories had sales clerks who obsessed over their stock, who knew what you wanted before you knew it yourself.  The music may have been obscure, but to those in the know, the knowledge alone meant membership to an exclusive club.

Remember that great diner across town, the place across the street from the warehouse with the big metal door? Remember that art gallery on 2nd Street, the place that somehow seemed to survive with surprisingly sophisticated shows no matter how the neighborhood changed around it? Remember the time you heard about a showing of George Lucas’s first movie THX 1138 at a college auditorium(projected from 16mm film print, no less!), and you made the enormous effort to get there as if it were a pilgrimage? Walking in you realized everyone else in the theater made the same trip, too, knew the value of what was once an obscure film, knew it mattered. There, sitting in that crowded theater of other people who shared the same hard earned, rare knowledge, you not only saw a young filmmaker’s work, but felt buoyed by a sense of tribal community. You were not alone in the world. Somehow a pod of rare blue whales had found each other in the open ocean and come together for a pow-wow.

Something has been lost by everything becoming easily discoverable. There are no obscure cafes anymore. If they’re not discoverable and well reviewed by masses of patrons these days, they don’t survive. There are no obscure contemporary recordings of musical greats. If they’re really, truly great, they get discovered tout suite or they disappear.   The creative process as a shared cultural trading experience has gained immeasurably since the recent dawn of the networked era, with cross pollination and endless ideas exchanged more frictionlessly than every before. But obscurity had it’s unexpected virtues. Discoveries of the obscure produces depths of emotion that are not equivalently met by mere accomplishment. Obscurity suggests adventure, and adventure fills the soul. The irony is that we’re now all awash in tidal waves of information, yet there’s rarely a sense of anything being a surprise anymore. There’s just an endless stream of “have you gotten to it, yet?”, andthat’s not even close to knowing about something awesome that others may not have yet found.

In second half of the twentieth century the only Western cultural penetration of traditional Asian martial arts were through hard to find and often culturally degrading chop-socky movies. The movies traded in stereotypes, the production values were often crude, and the stories were often blunt and obvious. Nonetheless, there was sheer bravura in some of the storytelling, with a physicality unparalleled by western standards and implicative of knowledge that only the most intrepid fan might discover extraordinary expressions.

Just a few decades ago suburbanites didn’t go to dojos. They didn’t even know the word. But then ideas began to spread. People got exposed. An accelerating rush of information spread ideas to a global audience, carried by the typically prurient wings of the entertainment mega-culture. And guess what? Along with all of the most base aspects that attracted superficial interest, more substantive aspects of Asian martial arts crept in to the mainstream.  Western people studied foreign (to them) philosophies, demystifying Eastern ideas. Standards of excellence grew. Stereotypes began to erode (long distances still remain on that score), and a sense of foreign “otherness” started to fade. But then, once ordinary middle school students wanted to take classes, the thing that initially attracted crowds become commodified. The thing was no longer the thing. It became ordinary, and then it lost its mojo, except for the most dedicated and disciplined.

But knowledge spread. “Information wants to be free”, as the saying goes, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill.

No one wants to remain obscure, especially if he or she believes in what they’re pursuing. But one of the reasons people thought Dr. Strange and The Silver Surfer were such cool comic book characters years ago is because they both made us believe that there were distant places where special knowledge might be obtained for the most probing devotees. That inspiration led to passions. Those passions led to change. In obscurity, the seeds of greatness wait. 

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