Monday, May 26, 2008

On Rare Records, Collecting, and Collectors

"Everything said from the angle of a real collector is whimsical." - Walter Benjamin

I wanted to look at what has been said about collecting and collectors and found that, for something that occupies the time of a significant number of people, not much has really been written. Even more, a look at the popular literature as a whole reveals that, while there are hundreds of books on collectables, there is a similar lack of attention paid to collectors and collecting. I believe this is so because only someone who collects finds the impulse to collect interesting (rather than annoying or pathetic) and collectors are, well, too busy collecting to bother with occasional moments of reflection. Among the things that will be found however, is the essay "Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting" by German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin.

Unpacking Benjamin

Unlike most work associated with the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, Benjamin's essay on book collecting is a very brief and very personal reflection on (although he does not use the phrase) the collector's consciousness. It represents so perfect a starting place that I want to begin by unpacking Benjamin; to root around for the things that are there (and the things that are not there) in order to fashion a foundation for a parallel conversation.

We start in a room in disarray, the air rich with the smell of old cardboard, and a mood "certainly not elegiac but, rather, one of anticipation - which these books arouse in a genuine collector" (p. 59). Benjamin invites us to join him amid "the disorder of crates", the "books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order" (p. 59). Could anyone familiar with the reference read the opening passage of Benjamin and not recall Rob Fleming, protagonist in Nick Hornsby's 1995 novel High Fidelity, unpacking his library?

Tuesday night I reorganize my record collection; I often do this at periods of emotional stress. There are some people who would find this a pretty dull way to spend an evening, but I'm not one of them. This is my life, and it's nice to be able to wade in it, immerse your arms in it, touch it. (Hornsby, p.54)

Sitting in my music room listening to an old album from my own collection, I will sometimes stick my nose inside an old cardboard sleeve and inhale deeply. Olfactory memories are powerful and I've found the best used record stores are always in basements. On the way down the stairs, somewhere between the third and fourth step, the possibilities below rise up and announce themselves in the musty smell of a room filled with old cardboard.

But I digress.

What is important here is that Benjamin's interest is not to provide a list of the rare editions he owns. Rather than talk about individual jewels in his collection, or their histories, or their usefulness to a writer, Benjamin has something more palpable in mind; "what I am really concerned with is giving you some insight into the relationship of a book collector to his possessions, into collecting rather than a collection" (pp. 59-60).

"There is in the life of a collector a dialectical tension between the poles of order and disorder" (p. 60). Entropy is surely among nature's more powerful forces and my own music room is in a constant state of disintegration strung out between what have become annual attempts to reorganize and tidy things up. When guests in my room make reference to some particular album I have always taken a secret pleasure in my ability to, amid piles of CDs set out for review, piles of recent acquisitions set aside to be played, piles of vinyl awaiting inclusion in a catalog, and more piles of things pulled and not yet re-filed, reach into some stack on the desk or by the bookcase and retrieve the request as if by magic, garnering a more enjoyable response than if I'd produced three live doves from my pants. I know that my occasional attempts at organization are most often initiated by the loss of this fragile tension; a sudden inability to find specific things without hours of effort.

Early on Benjamin approaches the crux of the matter. The collector's existence is tied to "...a relationship to objects which does not emphasize their functional, utilitarian value - that is, their usefulness - but studies and loves them as the scene, the stage of their fate" (p.60).

Just as a 12th edition paperback offers the same prose as a coveted first edition, the utilitarian value of a musical recording is captured perfectly well in a compact disc reissue of a record that may be exceedingly rare in its original vinyl form. Debates over digital-versus-analog sound aside, it is clearly not the functional, utilitarian value that dominates the relationship between the collector (of books, records, furniture, etc.) and the object. Benjamin explains that,

The most profound enchantment for the collector is the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them. Everything remembered and thought, everything conscious, becomes the pedestal, the frame, the base, the lock of his property. The period, the region, the craftsmanship, the former ownership - for a true collector the whole background of an item adds up to a magic encyclopedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object. (p. 60)

"Magic" and "truth" and "fate" oh my! What can cultural studies do in the face of such language? What can be done if indeed "magic" "truth" and "fate," central to human experience, are also central to the experience off the collector? Benjamin writes, "One only has to watch a collector handle the objects in his glass case. As he holds them in his hands, he seems to be seeing through them into their distant past as though inspired" (p. 61).

Most of the collectors I've spoken with share the experience of rescuing old records from the trash heaps of junk shops. The pleasures of this simple encounter are so thick and rich as to defy categorization, but let me try: I once sorted through 5,000 or more records stacked flat in six-foot piles at the back of a Good Will thrift store for the better part of three hours one afternoon, determined to look through every record. Nothing but the most banal array of Christmas, religious, easy listening and related records (and I search for the better titles in each of those categories) most out of the jackets and unplayable. At the bottom of the very last pile, second from the bottom so that it was not touching the rough cement floor, was a near perfect copy of the 1967 original UK pink Island label mono pressing of the band Traffic's first album, Mr. Fantasy.

The swirl of thoughts/feelings that I experienced belonged to me, to Benjamin, and to anyone who has ever felt the child-like fascination and pull of an object. In short: I felt the reward of the day laborer flush with the knowledge that, in this condition, the album had a value of about $125. I always have to wonder; how did this come to be here? What convoluted journey did it take from its manufacture somewhere outside of London in 1968; its shipment to some long defunct record shop via some long gone distributor; its purchase by some kid whose hair was just starting to "get good in the back", etc. Perhaps it was bought by some American visiting London; or made it to these shores in a container load full of the possessions of some emigrating British family. Perhaps it was taken in a box of old records to a donation center after the arrival of CD technology.

Regardless, my point is simply that the collector is never alone in the back of the thrift store, rather, he is in a dark room crowded with friendly ghosts. The ghosts are the imagined past owners of this individual copy, but also the ghosts of the younger selves of the band members; the ghost of a 15 year-old Stevie Winwood shouting the vocal on "Gimme Some Lovin'", the ghost image of Dave Mason's post-Traffic solo LP pressed on marbled vinyl (and the ghosts of all the novice collectors who believe it to be a bigger deal than it really is), the ghosts of all Jim Capaldi's solo records (thrift store and cut-out bin staples that all miss the mark), the ghosts of Carnaby Street and the Summer of Love, the ghosts of the thin guys with long hair in fringed leather jackets who sold the best blotter l.s.d. a few blocks from the corner of Cottman and Castor avenues in Philadelphia in 1969...

But I digress.

There is a CD reissue of this album that offers both stereo and mono US and UK versions with crystalline re-mastered sound and good bonus tracks. I own it and it's usually what I play when I want to hear the record, but it is nowhere near as interesting or pleasurable a thing; the CD comes with a nice booklet but does not come with the magical baggage of history tethered to the original object. How do these pleasures contrast with Benjamin's?

I am not exaggerating when I say that to a true collector the acquisition of an old book is its rebirth. This is the childlike element which in a collector mingles with the element of old age . . . . To renew the old world - that is the collector's deepest desire when he is driven to acquire new things, and that is why a collector of older books is closer to the wellsprings of collecting than the acquirer of luxury editions. (p. 61)

It is, to borrow Barthes' well-turned phrase, the pleasures of the text the collector seeks to embrace and, for the record collector, as odd as it may at first appear, the music is not primary in that inventory. No, that's not entirely correct; the music physically contained inside the grooves of the original object may not be of any particular importance. Record collectors will often own reissue LPs or CDs of the favorite rare records in their collections. They will say something about "wearing out the grooves" on the original but, as anyone who has played clean original records that are more than half a century old can attest - vinyl isn't "wearing out" anytime soon. I know myself that years have passed between plays on many to most of my rare originals but I regularly pull many of these same LPs out of their crates and hold them, turn them over in my hands.

Even more to the point, inside the record collector market it is the never opened still-sealed original copy that commands the greatest value and provokes the greatest interest. In late 2000, one Los Angeles rare record auction house sold a still-sealed stereo Beatles "Butcher" cover LP for $38,500. I owned a copy of the mono version in less than perfect shape that I happily parted with for $200. In neither case will the actual record inside the jacket ever be played again.

For the collector, the pleasures are in the object, not the music.

While there may not be a direct counterpart in book collecting to the unplayed record, Benjamin's comments regarding the unread book are strikingly apropos.

And the nonreading of books, you will object, should be characteristic of collectors? This is news to me you may say. It is not news at all. Experts will bear me out when I say it is the oldest thing in the world. Suffice it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, "And you have read all these books, Monsieur France?" "Not one-tenth of them. I don't suppose you use your Sevres china every day?" Incidentally, I have put the right to such an attitude to the test. For years, for at least the first third of its existence, my library consisted of no more than two or three shelves which increased only by inches each year. This was the militant age, when no book was allowed to enter it without the certification that I had not read it. (p. 62)

The collector's passion for collecting is the expression of a love affair with the innumerable pleasures both on the surface and impossibly deep within the object. To employ Barthes again, it is the joissance, the bliss of co-authorship/concomitant creation, that rests at the very center of the intersection of collector and object.

Among the rarest and most valued of 1960s British private-press psychedelic records is the 1969 LP The Love Cycle by Forever Amber. I owned one of the few known original copies for a few years and my relationship with it may help illuminate some of the complexities involved. The copy was battered and worn; one of the corners of the sleeve had been cut off at some point, the cover's seams were split from wear, the disc had many scratches and scuffs but still played through without too much distraction. The album is comprised of almost twenty short tracks that sound like a blend of Pet Sounds era Beach Boys and Odessey and Oracle era Zombies. There are more memorable musical hooks per inch on the album than any other record I've heard. I also had copies of an Austrian bootleg reissue LP version and US reissue LP version, as well as a copy of the UK CD reissue. My copy came to me from a wealthy stock broker/record collector in Madrid who had upgraded to a mint copy. Actually, the copy he'd won at auction for $6,000 was the copy that belonged to noted UK collector, Greg Van Dyke, and the copy that had been used as the source for the compact disc reissue.

99 copies of Forever Amber were pressed in 1969. In 1993 in an article published in the UK magazine Record Collector, British dealer and owner of the 10th Planet record label, David Wells, wrote that "If Forever Amber had been issued on a major label by one of the better known bands of the late-1960s it would be remembered as one of the best albums of that era. That it was recorded by a few high school students from the north of England who were never heard from again makes it an accomplishment of stunning proportion."

It is now 2008 and when I sit and listen to the CD reissue of Forever Amber I have a very clear memory of the battered original copy that had spent a few years in the same room I sit in as I write these words. I relive the considerable excitement I felt during the telephone conversation in which it unexpectedly became possible that I might have a chance to own this record that fell into the small category of records so rare that I have assumed that a copy will never come my way. I remember the friend in Ohio who found a very rare US LP, Creation of Sunlight, for next to nothing at a thrift store and traded it to me for a $200 record that I'd acquired in a trade that cost me about $2 and that that copy of Creation of Sunlight became the centerpiece in the trade of $1,200 worth of records I sent to Miguel in Spain for his old copy of Forever Amber. I remember when the LP arrived, sent by registered post and packed in a box inside a box. I remember the odd texture to the cardboard sleeve, the wide flaps on the back (common to 1960s UK album sleeves), and the almost silk-screened look to the board-printed art work. I remember being particularly taken by the labels - the one part of the album that I had never seen before having already seen the cover reproduced and heard the music - which had a certain character to the graphics, the fonts, colors, etc., that seemed quintessentially 1960's (or perhaps seemed like some artifact of a distant past civilization).

In my small music room I may be swimming in more pleasures than I can count.

The pleasure of possessing this object that less than a dozen collectors have ever seen before. The pleasures of avarice - knowing that this was a $2,000 object that I managed to acquire for an actual cash investment of $20 (but more than simple avarice, also the pleasure of having played the "collecting game" - the object of which is to acquire the object for a small fraction of its actual value - extremely well this time). The pleasure of now adding to my own personal knowledge base (and for collectors knowledge = power = pleasure) small details about the object's construction that only could be attained by a close personal inspection; the pleasure of some future conversation "Yes, that's a great record. Have you ever seen a real one? No? Well, the labels in particular are...." The pleasure of association, i.e., this copy being the copy that was the copy owned by Miguel de Miguel who now owns the mint one that was owned by Greg Van Dyke and was used to do the reissue CD (whew). The pleasure of being able to compare the sound of the original against that of the LP and CD reissues (and the pleasures of those future conversations, "No, the CD sounds exactly the same; I did a back-to-back comparison with a real one"). And the pleasure of adding that to my capital as expert, a reputation directly connected to my success in making part of my living selling rare records - and the expectant pleasures of the next trip to Paris made possible by all of this (in fact, when I listen to the record today I recall the first day of a short stay in Deurne, a suburb of Antwerp, at the home of a rare record dealer, out of whose LP collection I pulled the very same copy of Forever Amber that I'd owned a couple of years before.

Lastly, the myriad pleasures of the object-as-time-machine; the pleasures of being transported back to 1969 and the corresponding pleasures of not just this one record but of all records from that period. And recall that "for a true collector the whole background of an item adds up to a magic encyclopedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object" (p. 60). What record collector has not used his obsession as a map overlaid upon every new city and town he visits? I first studied the London tube as a means to visit the shop of the "Two Bills" on Blenhiem Crescent right off Portabello Road on the city's west end. I have approached the arrondisments of Paris, the canals of Amsterdam, the Boulevards of Chicago, the avenues of Dayton and the streets of San Francisco as exercises in tactics; each in a hunt for flea markets, junk shops and used record stores and find a resonance in Benjamin, writing some sixty years before:

The purchasing done by a book collector has very little in common with that done in a bookshop by a student getting a textbook, a man of the world buying a present for his lady, or a businessman intending to while away his next train journey. I have made my most memorable purchases on trips, as a transient. Property and possession belong to the tactical sphere. Collectors are people with a tactical instinct; their experience teaches them that when they capture a strange city, the smallest antique shop can be a fortress, the most remote stationary store a key position. How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books! (pp. 62-63)


Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, there were houses that only had one television set, all the pictures were in shades of gray and people had to go to the set in order to select from three or four channels. The families in these houses would gather to watch the pale gray images together; all in one room at the very same time. When I was 10 years old I sat with my family in front of the TV set on a Sunday evening and watched a odd parade of hand puppets, jugglers, dinner plate spinners all leading up to four boys from England who played music that changed the world forever.

Within a year of that evening I was at a friend's house who showed me some small records with colorful sleeves and all of a sudden I felt bad that he had these things and I did not. I liked him, he was my best friend at the time, but I left his house with a strange feeling that I needed to go and find things that he didn't have so that when I showed them to him he would feel like I felt when he'd showed these to me. My earliest forays into record collecting began with the British invasion and my first career as a pre-teen shoplifter of albums I could not afford from the music department of a long-defunct S. Klein Department Store in Northeast Philadelphia. My first job as a disc jockey was taken so that I might have access to the record library and, when no one was looking, give a good home to hundreds of never-played, abandoned and unwanted records. My #1 avoidance behavior while finishing my doctoral dissertation was the relentless rearranging of my record collection.

Over the years I have grown into my obsession in a unique way, as a wearer of many hats. I have been a record collector, a music critic, a "recovering academic", a mail-order record dealer, a wholesale music distributor, a recording artist, a record producer and a record company president. In the past twenty years I have spent a lot of time (and a lot of money) exploring the world of rare psychedelic record collecting. It was record collecting that sent me on my first of many trips to Europe and, on a month-long journey through England, France, Belgium and The Netherlands, I would come to know London, Bath, Paris, Normandy, Antwerp, Utrecht and Amsterdam in the company of my similarly-afflicted European counterparts.

Through these journeys and countless late-night-into-the-morning show and tell reveries in apartments overlooking the San Francisco Bay, upper-west side New York brownstones, the back rooms of London record shops, all-night Parisian cafes, back-alley Belgian bars and the coffee-shops of Amsterdam I have listened to thousands of stories, asked millions of questions, all concerned with the pleasures of collecting and the secrets hidden deep within the objects of our shared obsession. I have observed, both in myself and others, various stages that record collectors pass through as they and their collections grow. We all begin with an overwhelming desire to know and to possess everything.

Years ago, my best friend saw that I had seven copies of Freak Out, the first album by The Mothers of Invention. "Wow, I really like this record, can I have one?" He asked. I tried to change the subject. "I don't mean give it to me," he said. "I'll buy one from you." "Uh... no." I said. "But you have seven of them." He pointed out. "I know," I said. "But if I give one to you, I'll only have six." For reasons I don't fully understand, we're still best friends.

Over time, most collectors come to understand that having 100,000 LPs is not necessarily a good thing. Eventually, we marry or enter into relationships with very nice people who ask in very polite ways if it might be possible that the dining room be used for dining or the spare bedroom have enough space for a spare bed or perhaps one of the closets could be set aside for clothing. In the lives of most collectors (and the exceptions are truly exceptional) we reach a point where we understand that we cannot have everything. At this point the rooms spins around a bit and after we sit down and take a few deep breaths, we recognize that every time we find a new record we have to ask a new question: is this for me? As it is with books:

The acquisition of books is by no means a matter of money or expert knowledge alone. Not even both factors together suffice for the establishment of a real library, which is always somewhat impenetrable and at the same time uniquely itself. Anyone who buys from catalogues must have a flair in addition to the qualities I have mentioned. Dates, place names, formats, previous owners, bindings, and the like: all these details must tell him something - not as dry, isolated facts, but as a harmonious whole; from the quality and intensity of this harmony he must be able to recognize whether a book is for him or not. (pp. 63-64)

For the collector who has unlimited resources this is the most subtle and important of skills and one acquired through practice over time. Inevitably however, each record collector must develop a collection that is uniquely his own, only then can he recognize the record that is for him.

Imagine an enormous table on which millions of puzzle pieces are spread out in random order. Each different in size and color, and all representing the countless millions of records that have been released since the time of the earliest Edison cylinders. Over the course of a lifetime a collector selects pieces, arranges and rearranges, discards, using many of the same pieces others employ but in subtly, yet utterly, unique combinations. The collector only gradually and over time gains the ability to recognize those pieces that are for him and those that are not. This is nothing less than the product of a gradual process of self awareness or self recognition. Or self construction. Or self creation. Or all of the above. This is the process that Hornby's Rob Fleming finds so compelling:

When Laura was here I had the records arranged alphabetically. . . . Tonight, though, I fancy something different, so I try to remember the order I bought them in: that way I hope to write my own autobiography, without having to do anything like pick up a pen. I pull the records off the shelves, put them in piles all over the sitting room floor, look for "Revolver" and go from there; and when I've finished, I'm flushed with a sense of self, because this, after all, is who I am. . . . But what I really like is the feeling of security I get from my new filing system; I have made myself more complicated than I really am. I have a couple of thousand records, and you have to be me - or, at the very least, a doctor of Flemingology - to know how to find any of them. If I want to play, say, "Blue" by Joni Mitchell, I have to remember that I bought it for someone in the autumn of 1983, and thought better of giving it to her, for reasons I really don't want to go into. Well, you don't know any of that, so you're knackered, really, aren't you? You'd have to ask me to dig it out for you, and for some reason I find this enormously comforting. (Hornsby, pp. 54-55)

It may be that, for the collector, the self image that grows and changes across the years is mirrored in this individual organization of a portion of the body of 20th (and 21st) Century popular music (i.e., all portraits are self portraits). In the end, what we gain from Benjamin's brief reflection is a better understanding of one manner in which an individual may use culture (more accurately, cultures) in the construction of a self through the arrangement of mass produced cultural products and artifacts in a uniquely personal decoupage.

Once you have approached the mountains of cases in order to mine the books from them and bring them to the light of day - or, rather, of night - what memories crowd in upon you! Nothing highlights the fascination of unpacking more clearly than the difficulty of stopping this activity. (p. 66)


Stan Denski said...

A friend emailed me this morning and wrote: "I was catching up on my blog reading this morning and really liked your piece on collecting. I especially liked the quote about sorting through one's collection as wading through one's life. After displaying my much-loved pieces of antique fabric, some philistine asked me what I was going to make with it. Make with it?! These pieces have survived for over 200 years; they are perfect already. A different philistine once told me I should take one of the panels of the big bed curtain, take the stitching out, and sell one length of it. It would cause me physical pain to remove stitches put in 200 years ago with handspun thread."

Coffee Messiah said...

This is an excellent post and brings back the fond memories of record collecting, that I have since given up.

Even my book collecting seems to be waning these days.

Peter Scion said...

I read your essay with great pleasure and with a re-occurring smile of recognition. I agree with the previous poster, that it brings back many fond memories of collecting records. However, I don’t collect records as much as I collect music nowadays, and that’s where CD’s and even mp3’s have come to my rescue. There’s an important distinction to be made: The difference between music and artefacts. I admit still browsing through flea markets occassionally, and I admit sometimes still sticking my nose into old record sleeves taking a thorough sniff inside it. But for many reasons, I no longer collect those artefacts. Many of my favourite records come with an abstract price tag, and even ”lesser” objects are on the rise, and there’s no way I can afford it. And even if I could, I’m far from sure I would do it. Somewhere along the line, the childlike joy towards music seems to have been lost in the collector’s world including both dealers and buyers. It scares me when I see people I know and love suddenly turn into birds of prey fighting over albums with a rarity value much higher than the particular record buyer’s actual interest in the album’s musical merits. Conversation snippets of the ”Is it good? No, but it’s valuable!” kind more or less put an end to my own artefact hunting. The doubts that had started to grow when my Incredible String Band collecting made me keep Mike Heron’s ”Diamond of Dreams” for the sake of completion (the only reason to ever keep such a musical atrocity!), came into full bloom when I realized that what I was watching happening to some of my friends could also happen to me. I didn’t want to become that far removed from what triggered my interest in music in the first place. That said, I’m still interested in collecting as a phenomenon, including the psychological functions behind it, and so I enjoyed the essay of yours very much. It would be interesting though to read your thoughts on collecting as a plausible substitute for other things in life. That’s something I haven’t read a lot about either. Maybe the risk of stepping straight into the trap of kitchen table psychology is too great for people to write about, or maybe – like you point out – collectors themselves are to busy looking for records for that kind of self reflection!

Peter Scion said...

One more thing: After giving up the artefact collecting, my music interest has grown bigger than it has ever been before. It's like I now have a lot more time and energy for actually listening to music!

Stan Denski said...

Collecting records and listening to music are two very different activities, like following baseball and collecting baseball cards. Collecting baseball cards actually reduces the time you have to follow the actual game. I love the idea, abstract though it may be, that only books he has never read can be placed into Benjamin's "collection."

The whole "completist" urge of record collectors, to have ALL Mainstream or Rockadelic or Shadoks LPs for example, including the bad ones you will never play, even once, has nothing to do with an enjoyment of music.

DAVE SAMS said...

A lovely essay full of wit and wisdom. I was a little disconcerted to read Peter Scions' blog about the Mike Heron Diamond of Dreams Album. It is very rare but I know it is one of Mikes' favorite albums. It is obviously down to musical tastes but I and the rest of the band thoroughly enjoyed that album and still do to this day. In fact I have performed part of it just this year 2009, to great acclaim. Mike is thrilled that it is still doing the 'rounds'. It was reissued on CD a few years back but not available now. It's good anyway that Peter has a complete collection. I know all this because I am the keyboard player on the Diamond of Dreams Album.

capewood said...

Stan, I figured you for a record collector but not a baseball card collector. I was a record collector at one time although I don't buy many old LPs anymore. I'm more of a song collector now. My favorite find was a pretty decent copy of the first It's a Beautiful Day album from 1969. I found a copy in a used record store around 1988 after looking for it for over 10 years. I just recently purchased the songs from the album from iTunes. It's been at least 15 years since I last heard the songs.

Stan Denski said...

While there are similarities between card collecting and record collecting there's a fundamental difference as well. If it were possible to root in a thrift dtore basement and discover the card of a left fielder from the 1950s who was one of the greatest ball players ever, BUT nobody had heard of him until you found his card... then they'd be alike.