Thursday, March 1, 2007

A Fine Madness: Record Collectors and Collecting…..

I was a record collector for as long as I can remember. I’ve had 2, 3, maybe 4 collections that I’ve built and then either sold or just lost along the way. The biggest was somewhere around 20,000 LPs and that was my last one.

One day I walked by the room where the primary bulk of this was, covering a wall with crates and stacked across the floor – a room that today maybe 8 or 9 people can sit comfortably in was pretty much a room that held me and the vinyl. I don’t know what happened exactly…. Once in a while it happens with mirrors, you catch a glimpse of yourself when you aren’t expecting it and the image you’re looking at is so utterly alien compared to the image you see when you look in a mirror on purpose that seconds can go buy before you realize that it’s YOU looking back.

I glanced without any intent into the room with the record collection and - for the briefest fraction of a second - I saw it through the eyes of someone who didn’t give a shit about records. It was terrifying, disturbing, unsettling… it was really, really weird.

I had to sit down.

I remember that it was like a switch was thrown. The switch had been set to “on” and now it read “off.” I wasn’t a collector anymore. Metaphorically speaking, I glanced at those records through the eyes of Hickey, the main character in O’Neil’s The Iceman Cometh, the fellow who comes to preach the sermon about putting one’s pipedreams to rest.

Record collections are stuffed full of pipedreams.

I had a couple radio shows back in college and enjoyed them enormously. I always played my own records and I would put a show together by pulling stacks of LPs from the crates and sitting on the floor in my music room and every decision would lead to another decision and another; every decision limited what could follow and soon I’d have a set put together.

I looked at it like it was a post-structuralist jig-saw puzzle with multiple correct solutions.

I kept this enormous room of vinyl because I had a pipedream of doing radio again. It finally came to a head when I was offered a show, much like the ones I’d had in the past. When I thought about the work, the commitment, having to fight my way through the weather, traffic, etc. – and, naturally, there was no actual money involved - I decided to pass. I knew I’d never do another radio show.

I kept records so that anytime someone came over I could say “What do you want to hear?” and most of the time I’d have something that would amaze them. But nobody came over that often, and the people who did would always say “Oh… I don’t care, play what you want.” Once every 12 to 15 years someone would come by who knew how impressed they were supposed to be by the really rare records.

Finally, the single greatest trick in getting rid of a record collection is this: PLAY THEM.

Play them, and as they play, try to imagine if there is any condition under which you can imagine ever playing this again, ever; most of the time – with a collection that size – the answer is “HELL NO!”

I have said on occasion, and I like the phrase well enough to stick it in quotes, “A record collection is like a mill stone, carved into the shape of an albatross, hanging from your neck.”

The question “How do you get rid of this stuff?” is harder to answer than you’d think.

One… eBay. I started listing record after record on eBay. Sometimes I’d be disappointed at the selling price; but very often a record I knew was worth $6 would sell for $87.42 and that would help it all even out.

It was hard at first; I’d wake up wondering if I could really live without a copy of that record in the room downstairs. But then – and I have NEVER been able to really articulate this properly – I started thinking that I could live with the record downstairs and not in my bedroom. I could live with it in my office and not in my house. Soon, I started to consider that ALL the records in the world were all part of one big record collection that anyone could access if he really needed to. There were few, if any, records I got rid of that I couldn’t just get back with some time and effort.

Once the walls of my house no longer described the boundaries of my collection, all records were my records.

This was easy.

Not as easy was what to do with the records that didn’t sell on eBay. I stopped doing a mailorder list years ago, and most things that didn’t sell on eBay wouldn’t sell that way anyway.

I had a friend whose son was just turning 16 and had a turntable and a great musical curiosity and whenever I’d visit – a 6 hour drive so not that often – I would take a crate or two full of this stuff to give him.

I also hooked up with an old friend who was now selling records at a local flea market and I’d put together 700 LPs for $300 batches for him and even take a bunch of the $300 in trade from his stock – records he wanted $20 for that I knew would sell on eBay for more.

Pretty soon, when I shuffled my vinyl there were crates at the end that were now empty. I was making progress.

Recently, I’ve started buying some vinyl; I feel a twinge of the old madness returning. I’m buying old mono LPs, loads of Stones and Beatles, but other things as well. It’s one of the complexities of record collecting that the object can be BOTH really cool, AND worthwhile sonically. The Beatles’ White Album has to be heard in mono to really BE heard. Same for Sgt. Pepper. Same for a bunch of others that don’t exist on CD in their mono form.

This doesn’t at all explain the Modern Jazz Quartet LP I bought recently. A 1957 copy of Third Stream Music. I already have original stereo and mono copies of the album, and a CD. But this was the original French pressing with the same cover except now the title is “Force Troisième” and the record is on an Atlantic label variation I have never seen before. To top it off, inside the cover is a price tag showing that the record, when new, was sold at a drug store on the Champs-Elysées.

Serious aura.

Majorly cool.


Ted Barron said...

Great post.

The collector/accumulation thing is a bitch. There are days when I want to haul the whole thing outta here. I'm quite familiar with that glimpse you described, and it's true, nobody ever appreciates hearing them like you want them too. I've been widdling off the fat of my LPs and trading them for 78's. Trying to consolidate. I stopped buying records for years until a friend gave me an old KLH model 20 last year with what I thought was a shitty speaker (but it's not) and I was off to the races. I found the sweet spot where these old mono recordings sang better and more true than anything i'd heard in years. Anyway, actually doing something with them (posting them on my blog) has somewhat quelled my desire to accumulate more and more. I'm enjoying your blog and have linked it to mine.

Stan Denski said...

Thanks for the kind words. I remember one of the best record stories I ever heard was at a record convention from a guy who was doing some work for The Bear Family in putting together a box of pre-Robert Johnson blues. He told me about visiting a collector who had 100,000+ pre-RJ 78s who played him a mint original test pressing of Johnson's "Kind Hearted Woman." The guy's system was all EQed for the pre-RIAA curve and 78 sound reproduction - if done correctly - is an amazing thing and the fellow telling the story said it was like an encounter with a ghost, as if Robert Johnson was sitting 5 feet away from him, playing. When it was over he realized his face was wet because he'd been crying. Great story about the POWER of these little artifacts can have if you open yourself to them.