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.

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.

Stevie Nicks
Photo: Kurt Wildermuth

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 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 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

This article was originally published on 27 November 2013. It’s been updated with new photography and a few corrections.

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