Let’s be honest: vinyl is dead. Setting the current nostalgia surge aside, vinyl is an outdated medium in a digitized world, and the minor resurgence that’s filling the shelves of brick and mortar stores these days won’t last. That doesn’t mean that vinyl does not have value, of course. Personally, I see value in buying a large chunk of physical music. Once it’s in my collection, you can bet it will get occasional spins for decades to come. When I’m doing the dishes or cleaning the house, out comes my favorite vinyl. That’s much more than I can say for those “New Releases” I flash-scanned through last week on Spotify.
John Corbett, author of Vinyl Freak: Love Letters to a Dying Medium, would agree with me, but he’s on a whole other level. He’s a self-proclaimed “zealot of stuff”, and his main stuff is vinyl. His new book digs deep into the culture of the vinyl lover and digs even deeper into his personal record collection. In the process, he exposes a beautiful and dusty world largely forgotten but kept alive by that dead medium known as the vinyl record.
The biggest hunk of the book is dedicated to his titular column, “Vinyl Freak”, for Downbeat magazine, in which Corbett details the innards of some of his favorite and most mouthwatering vinyl finds. More specifically, he only wrote about music that was out-of-print at the time of publication, which only exhausts the reader as they scour the internet for some crumbs. Some of these releases are so obscure they can’t even be found online, at least by this reviewer. It was irresistible and quite exhilarating searching out audio for some of these obscurities. When Corbett explains Melvin Jackson’s Funky Skull with, “…unabashedly features himself sawing away, some zany sonic treatments hovering over the bass like a cloud. It’s unyieldingly stupid… yet somehow fantastic at the same time”, I had to try to find it.
More importantly to the perspective reader is the contents of these album reviews: they’re mostly jazz. He details extremely obscure jazz records by big names like John Coltrane, Herbie Mann, and Anthony Braxton. He also details some even more obscure records by virtually unknown artists. As a music fan who only has a cursory interest in jazz, much of the talk in the columns was not captivating to me. A jazz head might be enthralled though, as Corbett has an impressive grasp on Jazz history.
Whether he is talking about sessions of a well-known like John Coltrane or someone lesser known, like Steve Lacy (Whose Raps is worth searching out), Corbett can detail the sessions down to a singular musician’s performance. When he says that Oliver Johnson’s, “…swaggering, sometimes brutish drumming helps push this quartet over the top, injecting pneumatic energy into the rising and falling scalar slops of “Stamps” and the stabbing four-note repetitions of “The Throes”, it’s hard not to put the book down at that moment and search out those songs, even for a small-time jazz fan like myself.
For this reader’s money though, the best of the “Vinyl Freak” columns dealt with the weird and the singular. One example would be Phil Seaman’s Phil Seaman Story, which finds the noted jazz drummer telling stories of his career in a bizarre fashion while occasionally banging on his drums in between. It’s wild and hard to explain, but Corbett does well when he says Seaman has “akimbo wit and barroom wisdom”.
Another deep dig was a Residents single I hadn’t yet heard of, “The Beatles Play the Residents and the Residents Play the Beatles”, in which the Beatles ‘cover’ the Residents, which turns out to be a sound collage of Beatles songs haphazardly arranged. On the B-Side, the Residents cover “Flying”. Overall, the whole thing is just wild and worth the time for a fan of the irregular.
Besides the “Vinyl Freak” columns, the book has seven short essays, which Corbett uses to tell tales of his life as a collector as well as explain the sub cultures of other collectors. He begins by telling us how he became a ‘zealot of stuff’, explains the changing culture of vinyl record collecting, details the difference between a ‘freak’ and a ‘snob’, and tells the epic tale of a Sun Ra excavation. Corbett has a relaxed tone that can guide you right into his world of fanaticism without pushing you away.
In the opening essay of Vinyl Freak, “Formation of a Freak”, he states, “The more immersed I grew the more I discovered that the universe of records was one of exploration.” And that’s the point of the book, as well as the point of stuff collecting in general. It’s not about being ‘hip’ or a part of a subculture, it’s about learning about the past. How would we ever know Phil Seaman’s strange, jaunty story or understand the Residents strange deconstructionist vision of ’60s music without these little slabs of plastic? They’re artifacts and should be treated as such. That’s all Corbett is trying to say, although he is a little bit of a freak about it.