In matters of collecting, context is everything.
I was once looking at records at a Manhattan flea market near the scuzzy one when a prosperous-looking white out-of-towner and his wife walked up. The out-of-towner approached the somewhat-down-and-out-looking black woman who was selling the records. Who knew where these records had come from? I was holding copies of Bruce Springsteen’s The River and Neil Young’s Hawks and Doves, both of which I’d owned as a teenager, sold, and longed to hear again. I doubted they were from the black woman’s collection. She was just collecting money, and not very much money—I think the records were two for $5—from people who wanted these things. She might even have been standing in for the real seller.
The out-of-towner took a cursory look through some of her wares. “I have original Beatles albums,” he announced, grinning. “Still in the plastic! What would you give me for them?”
Without batting an eye and with a hint of disgust, the woman answered, “I’d give you nothing.”
The out-of-towner stopped grinning and stepped away.
The Savvy, Older Woman Again
So, I said, “all sorts of things.”
“Well,” the savvy, older woman told me, “I have folk. Joan Baez, Bob Dylan. Sgt. Pepper’s. Rolling Stones.”
“I’m interested in all of those,” I told her, “but I have a lot of them. The specifics really matter.”
“That’s why I ask. I have”―holding her hands out to the right and left, indicating a shelf full of LPs―“so going from that direction to this one isn’t easy.” Meaning if I could name what I wanted, she’d tell me if she had it. As though I was at an outdoor eBay and needed to think of something to search for, trying to conjure some psychedelic classic from the ‘60s or some garage rock obscurity I’d neglected to buy in the mid-‘80s…
Moments like this are why I bring my lunch to work every day. I hate having to think of what I want on the spot.
“Maybe another time when you’re out here.”
“I’m not out here that often.”
If she had asked me to go to her apartment right then and there and have a look at her records (don’t get any ideas—just her records), I might have agreed. But I hadn’t even checked the quality of the records on the table. The last thing I wanted was to get upstairs and find a shelf full of great old records that looked like they’d been played with screwdrivers. I’d have needed to get a sense of her records’ general condition, but I don’t like to work too hard for my discoveries.
I don’t mean to sound callous, but I might as well be honest: At this point, I have enough music to keep me entertained, enough artifacts to keep me amused. My crate-digging days are all but over. And as a particular, peculiar kind of music collector, I like to deny myself things, to toughen my resolve for moments that really matter.
Sometimes you give to the universe. Sometimes the universe gives to you.
Why am I like this? Not only why am I a music collector, but why am I the kind of music collector that I am? I might as well ask why I breathe the way I do. It comes from my being an only child. Not a lonely child, but a child who knew intuitively how to keep himself entertained. A child who always loved being in control of his physical and imaginative space. Equally, it comes from my growing up in a suburban house where life tended to be pleasant and uneventful. Music opened worlds. Records were a route to ecstasy, exoticism, challenge, and fun. So I’m playing—playing at collecting, then playing what I collect.
Miss Kassimer and the Beatles
Allan Gurganas asks, “Does buying groups of things leap from some childhood fear of scarcity?” My answer is, Not necessarily!
In second grade, our general-music teacher, Miss Kasimmer, once brought in a copy of the Beatles’ Something New. This album was one of the assemblages that Capitol Records, the band’s American label, put out instead of the original British versions, which are now the standard catalog in the US as well as the UK.
Something New consisted of songs from the original Hard Day’s Night album, ones that didn’t make it onto the US soundtrack, plus two tracks from the British E.P. Long Tall Sally and, bizarrely, the German-language version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, which had been on a single with the German-language version of “She Loves You”. On the Hard Day’s Night recordings and others, the Beatles created the template for what we now call power pop. And on that day, in 1972 or 1973, the Beatles’ pop had the power.
General music was over for the day, and we were waiting to return to our homeroom. Nothing else was supposed to happen. Then the needle hit the platter, and a roomful of kids spontaneously exploded, jumping to their feet and dancing. It was the most exciting moment I’d ever experienced. For me, it set the template for how exciting and surprising life could be.
That afternoon, I asked my mother to buy me the Beatles’ Something New. My record collecting started with that request. No, I didn’t collect the record myself or immediately go on to acquire more Beatles albums. But wanting Something New and the thrill of getting it are the experience I’m still re-creating. I continue to look for the kind of ecstasy in everyday life that Something New induced in that roomful of second graders.
My Mother and the Beatles Again
In the’70s, Something New wasn’t exactly state-of-the-art rock. My mom stopped in at least one record store where a staff member tried to dissuade her from buying that album. Maybe they didn’t even have it and didn’t want to be bothered ordering it. Didn’t she want one of the other, more sophisticated Beatles albums? Mom held out. Since I’d asked for Something New, eventually she brought it home. Bless her.
My mother was sophisticated enough to know that when someone asked for a specific record by a specific artist, the person wanted that and only that. She was once in a record store, probably buying something else I’d asked for, and heard Springsteen’s live “Devil in the Blue Dress Medley” over the sound system. She was so knocked out by that blast of E Street Band rock that she immediately bought the three-LP No Nukes concert compilation just for that one track.
For a few weeks, she blasted that one track in our living room. Few people she knew understood that compulsion. My dad probably found that music way too raucous and noisy, but he accepted my mom’s love of it. I loved the music and loved my mom for loving it, but I was appalled that she now also owned music by soft pop-rockers such as James Taylor and Jackson Browne. Mom didn’t care what any of us thought. She wanted what she wanted.
Now that my parents are gone, I own that No Nukes album. One of these days, I need to play that medley and crank it up.
And now I’m left to wonder what would have happened if Mom had settled for one of the other, more sophisticated Beatles albums instead of Something New. If she’d bought The Beatles (the White Album), would she have heard “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” and confiscated the record as inappropriate for a second-grader? If I’d been allowed to keep whatever she bought, would I have been able to comprehend this other, more sophisticated Beatles? Would it have warped me forever or turned me into a sophisticate on the spot?
The music on Something New captivated me so much that I brought the LP to school. My friends and I drew pictures of the Beatles as they appeared in the cover photo, which was a still from one of their appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. We turned those drawings into stick puppets and put on an ill-fated puppet show for our classmates. The album provided the soundtrack for a Beatles concert that was the whole point of the show.
Eventually, the vinyl became unbearably scratched. I continue to put on puppet shows in my head, sort of.
By the time I got home from my walk, the odd, older guy, Stephen, had left two messages on my machine. He sounded a little excited. First, he wanted me to know he’d been wrong about the turntable. Someone had looked at it and told him it was an Audio-Technica, but in fact it was a Dual. If I was still interested, I should call him or just come over. In the second message, he reiterated that most of his records were classical, but I was welcome to take a look.
So I went to the apartment with low expectations, feeling mellow. I’d never heard of Dual.
Little did I know that inside his place I would become one of the “Pickers Guys” from the History Channel show American Pickers. These searchers, seekers, dealers stock their vintage shop by traveling in a van around the country. They visit people’s homes and storage spaces by appointment, but they also “freestyle”, seeking hidden corners of accumulated Americana. They scan woods, crawl around attics, and scavenge in basements. You never know what they’ll find or buy. One guy specializes in bicycles. The other gravitates toward cans. They both love signs. They claim to not know enough about old records to make such purchases worth their time, but I once saw them buy an old Johnny Cash album.
At my “pick,” it was first things first: One look at the ’table told me it was vintage and special. “It’s beautiful,” I told Stephen. “I’ll take it.” He looked pleased.
“It works?” I asked.
“It did the last time I played it.”
He’d used it to play 78s, which he’d collected, so I’d need to replace the stylus before playing my records.
He directed me to a pile of records. On top was some generic disco, not my thing but not classical. Below that was the 12” single of Malcolm McLaren’s novelty “Madam Butterfly”. Again, not my thing, but interesting and in perfect condition! This “pick” would not be about a horde of dusty, scratched classical LPs. I lingered over “Madam Butterfly”, trying to remember what the track sounded like. I decided I’d never play it and didn’t need it, and I moved on.
That pile yielded several dozen finds, as did the one across the room. At that point, I was taking anything I was interested in hearing or owning. Judy Collins? I passed, never having liked her voice. Sylvia Plath Reading Her Poetry? You bet I wanted to hear her voice. If the record proved dreadful or unplayable, I’d easily be able to find a good home for it. But I also wouldn’t mind just having it in the collection as a curiosity.
So many of these LPs were so promising, and most of the covers were in such good shape, that I didn’t even check the condition of the black vinyl. I didn’t want Stephen to get the feeling a friend once described as I looked over her records: that she was taking a test she couldn’t study for.
Stephen needed to sell his apartment, so it was time for him to clear stuff out. He’d long ago sold his 78s and boxed up his Dual. As I flipped through the records, I saw some of the same titles on his CDs, which were shelved nearby: Sgt. Pepper, Songs of Leonard Cohen. He’d kept up technologically, yet stayed true to at least some of the musical touchstones of his youth.
“Are you sure you don’t want to sell these?” I asked.
“I tried. No one wants them. But now, seeing your reaction…”
“Did you call Academy, the store on 19th Street?”
“They said that for only a few hundred records, it wasn’t worth coming to look.”
“Really? I’m surprised. They definitely sell some of this stuff.” Stephen had seemingly the complete works of Phil Ochs, including some unusual Folkways albums. Maybe if he had boxed them up, taken them down in a taxi… Instead, he was probably one of the people who had called the store the last time I was there, or the time before that, or the time before that. The record buyer always asked the same questions: What kind of records do you have? How many? But if he had been there, at Stephen’s place, wouldn’t he have been doing what I was doing, scooping up Mobile Fidelity audiophile pressings of Abbey Road and the White Album?
Photos fell from the gatefold of the original Sgt. Pepper. I was thinking they were the photos from the original, number-stamped White Album—yes, I took two different collectable copies of the White Album. Stephen grabbed the photos. As he stashed them, I saw that one showed a naked female torso from behind, a flash of breast. “An old girlfriend, who posed at the time,” he said.
Later, I picked up an album by a band called Isis. On the jacket were naked women painted silver. “What’s the music like?”
“I don’t remember,” Stephen said. He chuckled and grinned. “I bought it for the cover.” The shrinkwrap was still on it but unsealed.
I checked the back. “Ooh! It was produced by George Shadow Morton. He Produced the Shangri-La’s.”
Stephen looked impressed. The record went onto my pile.
Later, the Isis album proved a route into some rock-historical pathways. On the Web, I discovered that Isis included members of Goldie and the Gingerbreads, a groundbreaking all-female group from the early to mid-‘60s. Goldie and the Gingerbreads were most famous for their lead singer, Goldie Zelkowitz. After changing her name to Genya Ravan, she fronted a New York City jazz-rock band called Ten Wheel Drive, recorded some solo albums (one of which includes a duet with Lou Reed), and produced the Dead Boys.
Isis was the fifth-ever all-female band to get a record deal. They opened for bands such as Aerosmith and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Their debut album made it to the Billboard Top 100, partly because of that cover with the silver naked women. My man Stephen might not have been the only person who kept the record for decades but couldn’t remember what the music sounded like.
At last I reached the end of the last shelf in Stephen’s bedroom. The final record was an obvious pick for me: Queen’s Jazz. An odd purchase for Stephen? “I promised that one to someone,” he said. “Because it still has the poster.” I nodded and smiled and put it back. Later I remembered that the poster is a photo of fat-bottomed girls in a bicycle race.