Vinyl record
Photo by Immo Wegmann on Unsplash

Black Vinyl: Confessions of a Music Collector

When I touched a copy of the Beatles’ Rarities from the odd, older man’s box of records, the hair stood on the back of my neck. These are the tales of a record collector.

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 a 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.

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.

Beatles white album
Photo: Kurt Wildermuth

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 an 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 collectible “Rocky Racoon” misspelling on the label (though not the other collectible 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 collectible 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 collectibles 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.

Phil Ochs
Photo: Kurt Wildermuth

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 two copies of Jim and Jean’s second 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 a piece, I’d have bought some if the black vinyl turned out to be in decent condition. Had they been in that same thrift shop at $5 a piece, 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.