Black Vinyl: Confessions of a Music Collector

[27 November 2013]

By Kurt Wildermuth

“Odd, her obsession seemed to bore so many otherwise reasonable people. She whispered, ‘Care to know the secret of happiness, young man?’

Born acquisitive, I nodded.

‘Collect something,’ she said.”

—Allan Gurganus, “When the Saints Come Marching In: A Novelist Discovers the Secret to Happiness”, The New York Times, 17 October 2013

I haven’t read Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, but the movie disappointed me. Touted as depicting the wacky subculture of music stores and the people who love them, the flick only skimmed the surface of that swamp. A Richard Linklater movie could do justice to the mania and fanaticism (please get on it, Richard—think Slacker meets Dazed and Confused, maybe). High Fidelity, the movie, whetted the appetite, then failed to deliver the nitty-gritty, reaching for a mass audience by substituting romance for records, swapping cuties for record-collector scum.

Accept no substitute. Here’s the real music collecting deal. It’s a love story, but the love is polymorphous: taking many forms, extending in many directions, all the while gathering details like they’re dust particles. 

The Odd, Older Man

I’m the middle-aged guy who enters the thrift shop and generally heads straight to the LPs and CDs. I’m an unabashed hunter seeking that dopamine hit of finding something.

One Saturday, I came home and found a little note taped to my door. It was from the odd, older man two apartments away. “I have an Audio-Technica turntable I have to get rid of and since you’re the only person I know who still plays black vinyl, I’d be happy to give it to you. I also have lots of LPs (but mostly classical). Phone # on back.”

Black vinyl. As opposed to…? As though he knew lots of people who played colored vinyl, or as though records were made in other materials, such as blue rubber or brown wood? He’s a very nice but odd guy, something like the kind of guy I’d have become if I hadn’t moved out of my parents’ house, if I hadn’t had long-term romantic relationships, if I hadn’t ended up (so far) living in this Manhattan apartment with my girlfriend, Susan.

The odd, older guy has lived his entire life, 70 years, in that apartment. As a child, he played with the kids in this apartment. He has seen tenants come, and he has seen them go. When Susan and I moved here, six years ago, he and his mother lived there. “I’m a mean old lady,” his mother said, and she meant it. A couple of years ago, the mean old lady died.

In all these years, he had never been near this apartment. How did he know that I still played “black vinyl”? There were two possibilities.

A couple of years ago, my old, beloved Sony turntable finally gave out, and I experimented with ways of replacing it. First, I brought up from my storage area in the basement the old turntable that Susan’s father gave me. When that turntable proved unusable, I bought a cheap, vintagey-looking one at a thrift shop; then an inexpensive, new, but fairly useless one at an audio store; and finally a moderately priced Audio-Technica, which I love even more than I loved my old Sony. So the first possibility was that the guy down the hall remembered seeing me in the elevator with one of those turntables. At the time, he and I had a brief, pleasant conversation about audio.

The second possibility was that he’d overheard a recent exchange between Susan and me. She opened the door to the trash-and-recycling closet on our floor, two doors from his place in the other direction, and asked if I wanted to look at the records someone had left there. “You probably don’t want them,” she said. “They’re classical.”

She was right.

When I phoned my neighbor—let’s call him Stephen—I got his answering machine. I left a message saying that I’d be happy to take his Audio-Technica off his hands. I’d give it a good home and probably store it in case my Audio-Technica gave out. I’d also be happy to look over his records, but I wouldn’t be interested in the classical. I wanted only pop, rock, folk, and jazz. Anyway, he should call me whenever it was convenient for him, and I’d come over to “pick up da shtuff.”

The Odd, Middle-Aged Guy

I am a music collector. I don’t mean a downloader. I have shelves full of LPs and CDs. They’re shelves, though, not rooms. For decades, I have been obsessed with music and the artifacts of recorded music—the art of the physical objects—but I’m no hoarder. If I play something and decide I’ve spent enough time trying to like it, I’ll most likely donate it to a charity thrift shop, let the shop make maybe a few bucks (these days, alas, maybe less than that), and let someone else appreciate the music, the artifact, or both.

But there’s no denying it: I’m the middle-aged guy who enters the thrift shop and generally heads straight to the LPs and CDs. I won’t elbow you out of the way to get there or block the whole selection with my body so you can’t get a look, but I’m an unabashed hunter seeking that dopamine hit of finding something. I can’t believe what I’ve just found or I can’t believe what I’m listening to. For me, the impulse to collect music is as simple as that reward system, but from there, as the impulse branches out, the motivations become quite complicated. It’s not as simple as giving the rat some cheese for navigating the maze.

The Savvy, Older Woman

Here’s an example of how complicated it can be to collect music.

After leaving the message for Stephen, I went out to run errands and look in some thrift shops. About an hour and a half later, I was walking home. Two older women had set up tables on the sidewalk and were selling some of their belongings. I’d stopped at their tables before, but I’d never bought anything. This time, I looked through some LPs, which were interesting but nothing I wanted. I don’t often see copies of The Best of Wilson Pickett, Vol. 2, but that relative rarity doesn’t mean I want a copy. Need a copy? Unless it’s for work or to satisfy the wish of an ill person, no one needs any recorded music. We own music because we want it.

The owner of the records came over. She looked like she wanted to lead me by the hand through this whole process: Ah, I’ve seen your type before, you people entertained by the idea of old records. She didn’t bother saying hello. “Do you have the turntable?” she asked. You know, the turntable you’ll need to play those round things.

“Yes, I do,” I said.

She didn’t pause. “I’ve just started using mine again,” she said. “But,” gesturing at the records, “I’m clearing out some.” A bad sign for me: Would she be clearing out the good stuff or just the oddities and not-so-hottities? “And my prices are better than what’s on eBay. I checked.” Another bad sign: “Better” prices don’t translate to $1, which is my preferred price for a used LP on the street. I’ll even go as high as $2. OK, I once paid $5 for the Feelies’ Crazy Rhythms, but that was the original, on Stiff Records, being sold by some dude on a blanket in the East Village. He looked like he was selling the records because he really needed the money.

Now I nodded at the woman. “These are interesting, but they’re not what I’m looking for.” I started to move away.

“What are you looking for?”

“Oh, all sorts of things.”

The Creepy Store Owner

An answer like that can get you into trouble.

About 25 years ago, I was kicked out of a used-book-and-record store in Binghamton, New York, for giving the owner an answer like “Oh, all sorts of things.” He was an odd, older guy who seemed to take his business way too personally, as though I’d just walked into his home and he wanted to offer me a refreshment.

I’d just driven into Binghamton for the first time, seen the store, and stopped to check it out. I went straight to the LPs. He came straight for me, smiling. Could he help me? What was I looking for? As though we were about to begin a long, fruitful friendship.

After I answered him honestly but vaguely and kept flipping through the LPs, he stopped smiling. “I’m sorry,” he said sharply, “but there’s nothing for you here.”

I thought he was kidding. “Excuse me?”

“There’s nothing for you here. Come on—out.” He shooed me through the store, out the door, and down the stairs. Begone, riffraff. I didn’t argue because I didn’t care that much. He seemed to be a very particular, finicky kind of people person, and I decidedly was not his kind of person, but I’d meant no offense. All I meant was that I like all sorts of music, and when I’m not shopping for something specific, I have no idea what I might buy.

That’s one thrill of collecting: stepping up to the selection somewhere and not knowing what you’ll find, not predicting what’ll prompt a purchase. I tend toward pop, rock, folk, and jazz, but under the right circumstances, I’d buy a classical album, a spoken word album, a sound effects record. It all depends on what’s in front of me and what’s inside me at that moment.

The Russian Vendor

Here’s an example of how much the circumstances can matter.

In Manhattan, there’s a scuzzy weekend flea market in a parking lot. Part of that market is in an area I call the Alley of Dubious Legality, where you get the sense that people’s pilfered belongings are on display. You know those CD holders that are like photo albums, with pages of plastic sheets into which you slot the discs after removing them from jewel cases? CD holders like that are among the items offered in the Alley of Dubious Legality, spread out on tables as though they’d just been lifted from an apartment where the window by the fire escape was left open.

I won’t set foot in the Alley of Dubious Legality because it makes me feel sleazy, but I sometimes brace myself for the scuzzy part of the flea market. I can deal with scuzzy but not with sleazy.

One Sunday at sundown, when the vendors had started packing up, I approached one of the regular vendors at the market. I was holding two CDs from his selection: Bob Marley’s Legend and something else. Neither one was anything special. You see copies of Legend everywhere, and I’d never picked one up because I’d been waiting for the right price: namely, next to nothing. Neither one of these discs was priced, just as none of his wares were priced, just as most of what’s at the market isn’t priced. I always get the feeling the vendors are sizing me up, judging how much I’d be willing to pay for this or that.

I figured: It’s closing time, so the vendor should be willing to deal. I’d never tried dealing at the market before, but what the hell. I got his attention, held up the discs, and said firmly but (I thought) politely: “I’ll give you $5 for these.”

He looked at me, looked at them, looked back at me, and took the CDs out of my hand. “No, you will not,” he said in a thick Russian accent.

“OK!” I said. I laughed, left, and vowed never to go near his tables again.

The Russian Vendor Again

Years later, I was looking at LPs in boxes near that spot but far enough away, I thought, to be out of the Russian zone. I was holding a couple of alternarock classics, probable collector’s items, in excellent condition. I was planning to go through all the boxes, assemble a pile, and then try to negotiate a price. Who knew where the seller was or what the asking prices would be?

Suddenly, over my shoulder, the Russian vendor said, “I have Nirvana, whole collection. I’ll give you good price.” Since this was years after our first exchange, he had no idea that we’d ever spoken. I was just a potential customer. He had walked toward me, but stopped far enough away that at first I wasn’t even sure he was talking to me. But he was! He thought I was some kind of alternarock trash, and he wanted to sell me poor dead Kurt Cobain’s legacy. Once I knew that the LPs I was holding belonged to the Russian, I put them back in their box and left. I just won’t do business with him, no matter what he’s selling.

Maybe at that point I was taking a twisted, internal form of revenge against the store owner in Binghamton. I was thinking: “I’m sorry. There’s nothing for me here.”

The Prosperous-Looking White Out-of-Towner

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.”

I was kicked out of a used-book-and-record store in Binghamton, New York, for saying to the owner, who asked what I was looking for, “Oh, all sorts of things.”

“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.

Old Girlfriends

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.

Rutherford Chang and the Beatles Yet Again

Let’s talk about collecting as an art form. To do so, let’s talk more about the White Album.

In January 2012, over a year before I became the proud owner of Stephen’s White Albums, the artist Rutherford Chang opened “We Buy White Albums”, a one-room, ground-floor store in Soho. The store stayed open until March of that year, but it sold nothing. As the name specified, the store only bought, and it bought only White Albums.

Susan and I love art and the Beatles, but we were skeptical when we first heard about Chang’s installation. So an artist collects copies of the White Album. So what? That question turned out to be the starting point for appreciating Chang’s ongoing project, which is all about the particulars of this particular album.

Standing in the “We Buy White Albums” storefront, surrounded by White Albums and looking at White Albums and listening to the White Album proved to be an enlightening experience, even a spiritual one. We felt cleansed, freshened. Our love of the White Album increased, and the White Album was already my #1 Desert Island Disc(s), so that’s a whole lotta helter skelter.

Rutherford Chang’s artworks examine and play with mechanically reproduced artifacts from popular culture. For example, he has taken pages from newspapers, then used black marker to block everything but the pictures. His point is that the page was originally, from most people’s perspective, identical in every incarnation. He has turned the reproduced image into a unique creation.

My collection is a whale absorbing these pilot fish. No one but me will ever know the hybrid origins. Each item will simply be something I chose to keep.

But what about collections of mechanically reproduced artifacts? Is every collection, even of mechanically reproduced artifacts, necessarily different? If two people have collected identical sets of electronic files, can their collections differ? Shift the focus from the collections to the collectors, and even their downloads differ. The impulses to have this and not that reflect the people, their contexts, their worlds. Still, downloads can’t differ, can’t reflect their owners, the way, or the ways, that two physical copies of the White Album necessarily differ, by showing the effects of time and use.

For many years, in its earliest analog incarnations, the White Album conspicuously reflected the effects of time and use. The cover, a gatefold to hold the two black vinyl discs, was white and nearly nothing but. All the printing was inside the gatefold and on the poster and the individual portraits of the Beatles. The album title, The Beatles, was a raised embossment. Nearby, each cover was stamped with a unique serial number, which made each copy part of a series of separate artworks—numbered, potentially unlimited editions.

When the British pop artist Richard Hamilton helped the Beatles conceive the cover of The Beatles, before anyone had taken to calling it the White Album, he incorporated uniqueness into mass production. Every copy was, oxymoronically, unique. The wear and tear on that unique copy—the decrepitude we lament in most objects—became a planned part of the artifact: planned obsolescence as unplanned, interesting detail. The Beatles reportedly rejected the idea of including a faux coffee-cup mark on the cover, and they were wise to do so. A faux mark would have cheapened the concept. The cover would have been less a work of art unto itself—a not quite blank canvas—and more a novelty.

In collecting as many copies as possible of the original White Album, Rutherford Chang makes the concept, the conceptuality, visible, tangible. By amassing so many White Albums, he celebrates the sheer physicality of each White Album and the history of whoever has owned each one. At the installation, a bit impishly, I told him about the one copy of the White Album I owned then. It’s a Dutch pressing from the ‘80s. Even that late, the Dutch were still using the raised lettering for the title and stamping the jacket with a serial number. The individual photos of the Beatles are on cardboard, and the poster is on thick stock. The vinyl is high quality. I feel like a proud father when I take that unique album out of its protective plastic sleeve.

Chang’s eyes lit up when I described my copy. I smiled, but said, “I’m not selling.” Hey, sorry, but if we buy only White Albums, then we must have a deep understanding of why they’re worth keeping. And we do—he does. He nodded in understanding.

To my prized Dutch pressing, I’ve added Stephen’s Mobile Fidelity pressing and his original original, which has the collectable “Rocky Racoon” misspelling on the label (though not the other collectable mistakes, the unhyphenated “Obladi Oblada” and the shortened “Bungalow Bill” rather than “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”). To those copies, I’ve added Rutherford Chang’s White Album, a special—dare I say, artisanal—pressing that continues his “We Buy White Albums” installation. The gatefold cover, inside and out, incorporates the layered images of 100 White Albums from his collection. The labels do the same. The music consists of those 100 White Albums layered atop each other, playing more or less simultaneously until the ravages of time jumble up the running times.

Collections pile upon collections. Rutherford Chang continues to buy White Albums. Will I stop at four? My one White Album was special, but my four are a collection unto themselves and lend the individual items an extra specialness.

Phil Ochs Again, Buckingham-Nicks, the Beatles One More Time

Stephen wanted me to know that he didn’t normally live this way. When we entered the bedroom, I saw what he meant, but I suspected that the clutter had been there a while. I spied sheets of paper with scrawls. I stepped over a dress shirt still in the plastic. Maybe he’d just purchased the shirt. Maybe it had sat there a long time. Maybe it had been in a closet or a drawer and somehow ended up on the floor.

Mixed in with the classical records, there were more Phil Ochs records. “Lots of Phil Ochs,” I said, taking all of them.

Stephen was surprised I’d heard of Ochs. We briefly discussed a PBS documentary about Ochs’s strange career and tragic life. I find it odd that Stephen owned so much Ochs, some Cohens, a Baez, and so on, and not a single Dylan. If I had to choose, I’d trade all those albums, together—his entire collection—for Blonde on Blonde or John Wesley Harding.

I pulled out a copy of Buckingham-Nicks, with Lindsey and Stevie naked on the front and back covers. They made this album as a couple, and as a result of it they were invited to join Fleetwood Mac. I’d listened to it on YouTube, so I knew it wasn’t very memorable. I’d also searched for it on eBay, so I knew the vinyl is collectable and the CD is hard to come by. “Now this, I can tell you this is worth money,” I said.

Stephen shrugged. He seemed more interested in my reactions to the records than in their “objective” value. He was hoping to sell his apartment for a lot of money, enough money to relocate somewhere else, a lot more money than even these collectables would bring. He was also contemplating his move out of the place he’d lived his entire life. These records weren’t his entire life. He’d been an audiophile, but he hadn’t invested his spirit in the listening experience. Or if he had invested his spirit, he had retrieved and relocated it a long time ago.

I’d mentioned money because I was starting to feel guilty about walking off with this bounty. But I’d walked in with the understanding that I’d be welcome to what I found. I’d expected to find one or two things, some folk or jazz that he’d picked up for some reason. Had he forgotten about the numerous non-classical records here? More likely, he didn’t know my tastes and had no idea I’d be interested in his “obscurities.” He hadn’t wanted to risk rejection.

Rejection? When I found a copy of the Beatles’ Rarities, the hair stood on the back of my neck. That posthumous collection has never been released on CD and might never be. I’d bought it when it came out, then sold it during one of my periodic purges because it isn’t very good. Not all of the Beatles’ rarities are that interesting, it turns out. The slightest variations don’t necessarily add up to good entertainment, as so many of the bootlegs make painfully clear. But lately I’d wanted to hear Rarities again, wondering if I’d made a mistake by selling it.

Sometimes you give to the universe. Sometimes the universe gives to you.

What motivated Stephen to buy these albums and not others? Why did he have Rarities but not, say, Let It Be? Why did he have two copies of Jim and Jean’s first album, Changes, and two copies of Ochs’s second album, I Ain’t Marching Anymore? Why did he own nearly every Ochs album, including some obscurities, yet never open the shrink wrap on his only copy of Ochs’s first album, All the News That’s Fit to Sing?

What value would I have put on Stephen’s collection? Monetary value was hard to calculate. Had those records been sitting in the recycling area on our floor, I’d have taken them. They were, to put it mildly, worth taking.

Years before, I’d picked up Santana’s Abraxas on black vinyl from the building’s giveaway “library” in the basement. Had that record come from Stephen’s collection? It was the first Santana album I’d ever heard, and it opened my ears to the wealth of riches in the band’s and the man’s work. That album inspired me to buy a bunch of early Santana recordings. It ended up being worth a lot more than money to me. But if that album had been in a thrift shop for $1, would I have bought it, or would I have assumed, based on the few hits I’d heard, that I didn’t need, or want, any Santana?

Had Stephen’s records been in a thrift shop for $1 apiece, I’d have bought some if the black vinyl turned out to be in decent shape. Had they been in that same thrift shop at $5 apiece, I’d have bought fewer. None were worth more than $5 to me, but which ones were worth how much? To me, I mean; on eBay, many of them were worth considerably more than $5. Together, “objectively” they were worth several hundred dollars, but I found that out only later, after digging around on the Web.

Stephen, Brian, and DeDee

Had Stephen decided he wanted money, I’d probably have passed it all up with apologies. Better, then, to have not calculated value and just honored his impulses as a collector. “You couldn’t have found a more grateful recipient,” I said, shaking his hand.

“Do you have control over your space?” he asked. I wasn’t sure what he meant. “Will anyone get upset when you bring all that in?”

“My girlfriend will freak out when she sees all these records. The turntable’s going in my storage space.”

But Susan didn’t freak out. As I write this account, Stephen’s records stand together against a wall near my Audio-Technica. We enjoy looking at and commenting on whichever album cover is facing out at a particular time. At some point, maybe after I’ve finished writing, I’ll fold them into my collection. They’ll be alphabetized by artist’s last name and placed in date order.

Unless I somehow end up needing the money, I won’t sell any of them. I’ll think of it as “the Stephen Collection.” I’ve been given a sacred trust, a testament to something—if only the merit of being nice to your neighbors. Meanwhile, I’ve been using my Audio-Technica to slowly make my way through the albums.

After a few days, I braced myself and started checking the condition of the black vinyl. One album—a rare one, Ochs’s live Gunfight at Carnegie Hall, released only in Canada—had a big, nasty scratch. The rest were unbelievably pristine. While the covers and some of the inner sleeves showed signs of age and wear, the records looked like they’d never been played. Yet Stephen knew at least some of this music very well. True, he’d bought Isis for the cover. I wonder if he also bought Buckingham-Nicks and Linda Ronstadt’s Silk Purse for their covers, plus Jazz for the poster. But when I held up a compilation called Copulatin’ Blues and said, “This must be fun!” Stephen sang a verse from one of the most explicit lyrics.

And, of course, he’d replaced some of these original pressings with CDs. He liked Sgt. Pepper and Songs of Leonard Cohen enough to own them in analog and digital forms—yet his original pressings, presumably from 1967, looked virgin. How had he managed to keep the black vinyl so mark-free and glistening? Had he used a record-cleaning machine? Did he tape the albums soon after buying them and then just play the tapes? When did home cassette recorders become available?

One of Stephen’s albums, a Modern Jazz Quartet soundtrack composed by the pianist John Lewis, sent me to a different collection that I already owned. Years before, my girlfriend’s parents, Brian and DeDee, had given me their records. Some of the artists overlapped with ones in Stephen’s collection. Brian had given me three albums by John Lewis, English pressings from the late fifties that he’d probably brought with him when emigrating from England to the United States. DeDee had given me a Joan Baez album from the ‘60s, and Stephen had given me one from the eighties.

I’d been afraid of playing Brian and DeDee’s records, which looked pristine but had been sitting in their lake house, collecting whatever schmutz between the grooves. But after enjoying Stephen’s MJQ album, I finally listened to and loved the John Lewis albums I’d been storing for so long. And as I did with those records, I folded the earlier Baez in with the later one.

Eventually, all the records from Brian and DeDee—Edith Piaf, Ravi Shankar, Slavik folk—moved from their sequestered spot into the collection from Stephen. Eventually, I’ll slot them, too, into my collection. My collection is a whale absorbing these pilot fish. No one but me will ever know the hybrid origins. Each item will simply be something I chose to keep. Who was I? I was the guy who collected this music.
The Vinyl Anachronist

When my old, beloved Sony turntable finally crapped out, I sought advice from Marc Phillips. Phillips writes “The Vinyl Anachronist”, a periodic column for the Web site Perfect Sound Forever, for which I’m a staff writer. In his column, Phillips celebrates records and the devices we play them on. In his reply to my email, he first advised me to spend real money on a high-end turntable. When I explained that I didn’t want to fork over that much, he said he’d heard good things about the Audio-Technica that I ended up buying.

Phillips has devoted many columns to his love for vintage turntables. So after leaving Stephen’s apartment, the first thing I googled was “Dual Vinyl Anachronist”. It turns out that the Vinyl Anachronist is a big fan of the Dual. He claims that if I restore Stephen’s ’table by getting it cleaned and installing a new cartridge, I’ll have something far superior to my Audio-Technica. I’m pondering the possibilities. The Audio-Technica forgives imperfections in my vinyl, most of it decades old. What if the Dual is warmer but less forgiving? Alternatively, what if I try the Dual but can’t hear any difference?

A few days after I visited Stephen’s apartment, an electronic device appeared outside my door. It turned out to be an SAE 5000 Impulse Noise Reduction System. I googled that name and found out that this unit was made for a very sensitive audiophiles. It captures the analog signal from vinyl and then, aided by delay, removes the pops and crackles. Theoretically, the result is cleaner, maybe digital clean. Some online commentators claim that highlights of the music get lost in the process. After reading up, I stored the Impulse in the basement along with the Dual.

A few weeks after that, Susan ran into Stephen. She told him how happy he’d made me with the gifts. He mentioned that in fact he owned another, even more high-end turntable. I’m sure it’s one of the gems that Marc Phillips champions. Stephen explained that he’d want money for that one. If I wanted to buy it, I should let him know.

While someday I might take Stephen’s Dual out of storage, soup it up, and spin some records on it, I won’t get in touch about his other ’table, and I’ll probably never hook up the Impulse. Perfect sound forever? I’ll settle for reasonably good sound, with a bit of surface noise, now and then. There’s fanaticism, and then there’s fanaticism. We all have our limits.

Kurt Wildermuth has written nonfiction, fiction, poetry, illustrated children’s books, and the occasional email. For more information, please visit KurtWildermuth.com

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/176475-black-vinyl-confessions-of-a-music-collector/