CHAPTER ONE – THE SCYTHIAN CHAPTER TWO – WHY WE COLLECT CHAPTER THREE – IT’S A SEROTONIN THING CHAPTER FOUR – THE LURE OF VINYL CHAPTER FIVE – ON THE ROAD 1: RELICS IN TEXAS CHAPTER SIX – BEHIND THE COUNTER WITH PETER BUCK CHAPTER SEVEN – ROBERT CRUMB: “COLLECTING IS CREEPY!” CHAPTER EIGHT – ON THE ROAD 2:SOUL HEART TRANSPLANT CHAPTER NINE – VALLEY OF THE STRANGE CHAPTER TEN – OUR FAVORITE SHOPS CHAPTER ELEVEN – LOVE AND VINYL CHAPTER TWELVE – GEEKERY IN THE U.K. CHAPTER THIRTEEN – EXTREME COLLECTING CHAPTER FOURTEEN – THE ULTIMATE FIND CHAPTER FIFTEEN – THE SOUNDTRACK OF YOUR LIFE CHAPTER SIXTEEN – BONUS TRACK
Many thanks to James and Jacqueline Milano for always insisting I’d write a book. To Pat McGrath, Jenny Toomey, Damon and Naomi, J.J. Rassler, Barbara Mitchell, Steve Wynn, Mary Lou Lord, Lauren at Rounder, and Eric at Fantagraphics for their ideas and contacts. To Peter Wolf, Thurston Moore, Peter Buck, Peter Holsapple, and Jeff Conolly for sharing their reflections and collections. To Colleen Mohyde and Michael Connor for running with it. To Julia Parker for support and sushi. And to all who tossed in ideas, shouted encouragement, or just hung out: Perry Roy, Marlene, Jon, Zoe, Jonathan, Amy and Gay, Karen, Kevin and the Shods, Ellie, Joe and the Charms, David, Lisa, Andrew, and the LA contingent. This is also dedicated to the bands I love; especially to the Continental Drifters, Lyres, the Real Kids, Guided by Voices, Robyn Hitchcock, and the Radiators for inspirational shows. Long live the Abbey Lounge, the Middle East, and the 1369 Coffeehouse.
I have been a passionate and fanatical record collector my whole life, and in the words of author Brett Milano, I am a “vinyl junkie,” with an ever increasing collection of nearly 10,000 vinyl record albums and 45 RPM singles, spanning my entire lifetime. My records are my friends.
It was my mania for obscure 1960s garage/pop records that inspired me to pick up a guitar, write some songs, and form my band, The Smithereens, over twenty-three years ago. We were record collectors first; we became “serious” musicians much, much later, totally inspired by our love of collecting, and the desire to put out our own records. Why? ’Cause records were cool.
And they still are. I started collecting records way back in the early 1960s, when at age seven, I bought my first single, “Wipeout,” by the legendary California instrumental surf combo The Surfaris, on the Fine Dot Records label. That is when the madness began and it has continued unabated ever since. I just won’t listen to CDs. They don’t sound right. They don’t look right. They don’t feel right. I believe that there is something intrinsically wrong with them. I listen to records. Good old noisy, loud, black vinyl 12” phonograph records. On a turntable. Or a record player. They just sound better. And there is a difference. I revel in the artwork, liner notes, and photographs of the colorful cardboard record sleeves that contain my records. I don’t have to squint to read the liner notes. Brett Milano knows lots of people like me and understands that we are only “as sick as our secrets.” He is one of us. I spent nearly twenty-three years of my life searching frantically for an unloved, unwanted, obscure, and totally uncollectible country and
western album entitled Ernest Tubb Record Shop, simply because I liked the absurd album cover photo of good ’ole Ernest Tubb grinning from behind racks and racks of his own records, which he would sell at his own record store in Nashville. My quest for this miserable record had absolutely nothing to do with the music whatsoever.
But there it is. Recently, when a record dealer/collector friend of mine in the Baltimore area finally turned up a copy for me after all those fruitless years of searching for what, for me, had become a “holy grail” of sorts, I broke down in tears. Why? There is no real or defendable reason for this compulsion, this mania, this terrible malady. But in Vinyl Junkies, Brett Milano does seem to make sense of it all. And he brings to light a fascinating, strange, and shadowy pop subculture inhabited by obsessive record-hunting and hoarding vinyl junkies that you probably never knew existed before.
I am currently on the prowl for the mystifyingly difficult-to-find, vinyl-only release of the original soundtrack to the Vincent Price early 1970’s cult horror film The Abominable Dr. Phibes … Why?
Brett Milano knows why—because he is one of us. I spent many years unsuccessfully trying to track down what is perhaps the most obscure, bizarre, and elusive Elvis Presley album ever released, an early 1970s live recording on RCA Records titled Having Fun with Elvis Onstage.
The Smithereens were signed to the RCA Records label for a brief period in the mid-90s. I spent a considerable amount of time haunting the hallways and offices of their corporate headquarters in New York City’s Times Square. One afternoon I ran into the vice president of RCA. At the end of my rope trying to find this great lost Elvis album, I begged him to go into the vaults and find me a copy. He said he would be more than happy to do so.
Then I good naturedly took him to task, letting him know in no uncertain terms that they were losing tons of potential revenue off the Elvis catalogue (Elvis is still, unbelievably, twenty-five years after his death, RCA’s biggest money-earning artist) because unbelievably, RCA had let the great live Elvis album Having Fun with Elvis Onstage go out of print for many, many years, and that Elvis’
army of fans were still clamoring for this disc, and very upset that they could not purchase it anywhere at any price. He was shocked to hear this news, and, in earnest, promised me that he would look into this matter immediately and do his best to see that the record would be reissued, and he promised to find me a copy of the record.
He scrambled to the RCA master tape vaults to unearth this potential new Elvis blockbuster, only to discover that the joke was on him.
When he listened to the master tapes of Having Fun with Elvis Onstage he discovered to his utter horror what I already knew; that Having Fun with Elvis Onstage was a “talking album only,” a limited-release Colonel Tom Parker Elvis Fan Club oddity; a horrible record that featured no music, no songs, and no Elvis vocal performances at all, but instead showcased over forty minutes of inane, unfunny, incoherent, and Quaaluded-out mindless onstage in-between-song audience “raps” and ramblings by an intoxicated and druggy Elvis Presley well past his prime.
Needless to say, the vice president of RCA was not amused. He didn’t get the joke, but I got the record. These are the lengths that vinyl junkies will go to. We will stop at nothing to get the records we need.
Brett Milano has spent his entire life writing passionately about music, musicians, and rock and roll. He is first and foremost a true music lover and, most importantly, a true fan. These are the best credentials a music writer could ever want or need or hope for. I hope that you will enjoy reading these true-life tales of record-collecting, devotion to a lost cause, obsession, and “vinyl junkie” madness with as much delight and joy as I have.
“Give him the Scythian!” shouts Monoman from across the room. Pat waves his hand with a proper flourish: Nope, I’m not ready for the Scythian yet. We’ll just have to build up to it.
I’m sitting in a record-crowded apartment in the Boston suburbs, staring directly at a few hundred thousand dollars’ worth of stereo equipment. Pat’s stereo is nearly as eclectic as his record collection, which includes—just taking in the ones within eyesight—the Who, Doris Day, Tammy Wynette, Motorhead, Tom Jones, and Henry Mancini; this is a sensibility well beyond any standard notions of what’s hip. The stereo is evidence of one man’s quest for the perfect sound. The turntable is Pat’s pick of the three dozen he’s got in his house: suspended
on air and perfectly calibrated to be vibration-free, it’s designed to make sure that no small disturbances—like, say, an earthquake or a nuclear detonation—interfere with the listening experience. The turntable was made by a stereo buff in New Hampshire, the tone arm came from Germany and cost another few grand. There are pillowcases stuffed into the corners of the ceiling to keep those precious soundwaves inside. Then there’s the piece of wood.
“Don’t forget that piece of wood,” his assistant Jeff, a.k.a. Monoman, points out. Sure enough, it’s a piece of wood: cut in the shape of a beehive with a hole in the middle, it screws on top of the center hole to make sure those dreaded vibrations don’t get through—according to Jeff, “The only good vibrations come from the Beach Boys.” The piece of wood cost a grand on its own, but as Pat assures us, “It’s a really good piece of wood.”
I’d already had some of my best record-listening experiences on the crummiest stereos ever made. Stereo isn’t even quite the right term—that thing I owned as a kid was more accurately a record player, a phonograph, maybe even a Victrola, but I believe the technical term we’re looking for is “piece of crap”: there was exactly one speaker, approximately the size of that little “O” you’d make if you closed your thumb and forefinger; and the needle tracked at something like two pounds, enough to cause instant damage to every record it touched. But it did go impossibly loud, and for ears trained on ’60s AM radio, that was enough. The first record I remember
playing on it was “She Loves You” by the Beatles, and it came out with that AM-radio sound: those harmonies at the start of the song sounded like a jet taking off. Which, culturally speaking, is exactly what they were. And when I later heard the same song under more desirable circumstances—on vinyl on a proper system; then on the CD reissue—it never had that compressed, unnatural sound that I always took for part of the recording.
By the time I was thirteen, I owned what I thought was a luxury stereo. It was made by Magnavox, just like my parents’ TV set. The speakers folded out, and the little turntable could be closed up into the player; it was a “portable” stereo that weighed close to fifty pounds. Unlike my childhood monstrosity, this one didn’t ruin your records until the second or third play. You also had the option of ruining your records instantly by stacking them on the changer, where they’d be scraped by the changer-holder on top and by other records on the bottom. By now my musical tastes had become more refined, or so I thought at the time—I was deeply into Yes, Genesis, and their progressive-rock brethren. I’m still willing to argue till closing time about those bands’ musical merits, but one thing is certain: their albums were incredibly detailed, full of sonic textures and mellotron overdubs—exactly what my introverted teenage ears were looking for. At this point, records weren’t something I played over dinner or with company: I wanted to experience all those deep, layered sounds. Armed with my Magnavox power station and a pair of weighty headphones that made your ears throb after the first album side, I listened intently enough to catch them all.
But now I’m hoping to get my mind blown in Brookline, to get the high-velocity sound I dreamed of back in my old bedroom. My guides for this trip are well known in the loose-knit community of Northeast collectors. Pat runs Looney Tunes, a used-record store that sits within the high-rent vicinity of the Berklee College of Music. The place’s very existence looks like a slap at Starbuck’s, Barnes & Noble, and the other upscale, uniform chains that fill up the same block. But there are enough Berklee-ites who are glad to snap up the vintage jazz and soul vinyl that clutters up the place—though they’d probably be a little spooked if they knew that their record’s previous owner is likely as not to be six feet under. More than once has the widow of a collector made a call to Pat and his pickup truck; his unofficial motto is “You die, we buy.” Sometimes the collections survive, but the marriage dies. Pat’s been there when disgruntled wives have hit their husbands with the dreaded line, “It’s me or the records.” That’s the cue for the husband to make his stand in front of the turntable, the wife to storm out, and Pat to go home empty-handed.
Big and gregarious, with a Southern accent that he’s maintained through decades in the Northeast, Pat was drinking martinis and name-dropping the Rat Pack before it became a trend. “This is obviously the house of somebody with a problem,” he notes, surveying the unfiled discs that take up every bit of floor and shelf space. But unlike the stereotypical record collector—the hyper-geeky type most recently seen in a dark attic in the film Ghost World—Pat doesn’t shut himself
away with his vinyl. He has girlfriends, eats barbeque, and has used record-collecting as an excuse to travel. For him, collecting is an intrinsic part of the good life. He’s fond of quoting the line “Music frees your mind from the tyranny of conscious thought.”
Monoman is unkempt, eccentric, and the leader of the best rock ’n’ roll band I’ve ever seen. The long-standing nickname refers both to his love of monaural sound and to his relentless single-mindedness. The name has changed spellings over the years: On a 1978 album with his first band, DMZ, he was Mono Mann. More recently, he fell in love with Japanese cartoons and briefly re-christened himself Pokemonoman. His current band, the Lyres, has been together twenty-two years and shows no signs of either slowing down or changing in the slightest degree. They take their cue from ‘6os garage punk, the three-chord stomp that was invented by countless teens who took “Louie Louie” as their gospel. In fact, Jeff learned many Lyres’s songs by scouring the globe for obscure ’60s singles, paying up to a grand for an original 45. But I’d doubt that a lot of those teenage ’60s bands, hormone-driven though they were, could ever match this one on an especially hot or especially drunk night. He has destroyed instruments and friendships onstage: once he fired the drummer in the middle of the show (the drummer then got pissed off enough to play the set of his life). But he’s just as likely to hit you with something truly soulful; the signature Lyres song, “Don’t Give It Up Now,” has gotten me through more than one crisis of faith. I once saw him earnestly explain to an audience that he wasn’t in it for the money: “That’s why we’re playing
this crappy club for all of you cheap assholes!” There’s been times when you’d swear that he’s bypassed the tyranny of conscious thought altogether.
Today Pat’s commandeered the turntable while Monoman is sinking into a couch, welcoming the chance to blow off his part-time gig cataloging records for Pat’s shop. The first thing he has in store is a Doris Day record. “Why that one?” I ask. “Because it was on top of the pile, and I like it,” Pat explains. First he makes sure I’m positioned in the “sweet spot,” where all eight of the speakers are facing me in equal proportions. Then he advises me to lean back and keep my eyes closed. Finally he sets the needle down, making sure not to turn the volume up until it’s landed. And I sit back waiting to hear the heavens open.
Instead, all I hear is Doris Day. On this particular record—a 1962 set with Andre Previn and his jazz trio—she does sound more sultry than her wholesome legend would have it. Between her alleged sexuality and the suggestive winks in a few of her hits, she could have been the Madonna of her time—go on, give “Teacher’s Pet” and “Pillow Talk” another listen. Still, I’m getting no great revelations from this disc, other than that forty years of scratches add up to a whole lot of surface noise. When the drummer kicks in, it does sound as if the drumset was right there in the room. But as someone who sees live music a few times a week, I’ve been in enough real rooms with real drumsets that it’s no big deal. And sorry,
but neither is Doris Day. She may be close to sultry and modern on this record, but not quite close enough. So far I’m not impressed.
Neither is Monoman, who only looks up from his magazine long enough to note that “It’s good to listen to things that aren’t rock. That just makes the rock sound so much better.” Like many rock-eared collectors, the three of us grew up at the mercy of our parents’ musical tastes. Fortunately, mine were savvy enough to slip in the occasional gem like Ravel’s “Bolero,” whose primal rhythms would be the first that spoke to me—even now I’m impressed that I was able to sit through fifteen minutes of it at such a young age. For Monoman, it was show tunes: he first got the beat in “76 Trombones.” From there it was ’60s AM radio. “I loved the Dave Clark Five because they had the organ,” he recalls. “I had a fit when I was five because I didn’t get an organ for Christmas. So I ruined Christmas for everybody, and I damn well got a piano next year.”
So if Doris Day can’t open my ears, maybe some of that ’60s music can. Pat first pulls out a cult classic, The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands, and picks out the track called “I’m Chief Kamanawanalea.” Yep, that one sure brings back memories of how much fun it was to shout the title at high school parties. (You can get the joke by saying “Kamanawanalea” out loud, but it’s truly not worth it.) Not quite the stuff of audio nirvana, however. Okay, Pat goes for the heavy artillery: a pristine copy of the mono edition of the Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He carefully slides the
disc—with the original, sleek black U.K. Parlophone label—out of the jacket and cues up, of all things, “She’s Leaving Home.”
Not that one, I plead, I hate that song. “Wait till you hear it in mono,” he promises. “Just check out the Lennon harmonies.” Nope, still hate it. But at least I’ve just learned why some vinyl diehards are sticklers for mono sound: with a good mono mix, the music sounds complete, as if it’s all being pumped from the same heart. And John’s chorus counterpoints are indeed louder in this version, always a plus. None of which is enough to keep this tearjerker of Paul’s from being one of the small handful of Beatles songs that I just can’t deal with.
Mono Beatles albums have a cachet in the collector’s market, in part because they’re so scarce—stereo was no longer just a luxury item by the time the Beatles split up—and, because at this point, any newly-mined variation on a Beatles record is to be treasured. In the case of Sgt. Pepper, there are certain vocal bits—like a spoken rant by Paul right before “A Day in the Life”—that got mixed into oblivion on the stereo version. Beyond the collector’s value, vinyl junkies detect a richness and warmth in mono records of this era, something to bring you closer to the sound of the period, to hearing the record in its original context. For a time Monoman refused to listen to anything else, and he still spends an inordinate amount of time and money questing for original editions of ’60s singles, and he won’t allow his Lyres to perform a ’60s song unless an original copy is sitting in his collection. Most
recently a European dealer sent him a tape of a little-known single and he fired back three hundred dollars for it—even though the music itself was already there on the tape. But it’s about something more than just hearing a song: “Those original pressings are what you need to bring you closer to the original event.”
So are collectors just looking for a great musical experience like everyone else, though maybe with more fervor? Not quite. Because there’s an element of fetishism in this as well, and it gets unleashed when Pat pulls out that vintage Pepper. Ninety percent of the people in the world would register an album cover they’ve seen a million times and move on. Not the case here: the picture may be the same, but the plastic lamination is different. “Whoa!” Monoman leaps from his chair. “I’ve never seen that one before.” “Pretty unusual, isn’t it?” Pat says. “The cover doesn’t feel as heavily embossed as usual.” Here’s where we get into the deep details. Old Bob Dylan records, for example, have distinguishing marks on the labels. You can spot a first pressing by an indent around the edge of the label itself (and collectors swear you’ll be rewarded with a better-sounding copy). The date of this Pepper is more elusive: maybe in the ’70s, when some new cardboard stock came into the pressing plants? But doesn’t the record itself sound closer to that desirable first pressing? The mystery isn’t about to get solved, and the original owner isn’t around to clear it up. When you start wondering about the personal history of a disc you’ve just acquired, you’re getting close to the point of no return.
Time is wasting, however, and I still haven’t had my mind blown. “Give him the Scythian!” Monoman yells. Not quite. Pat has one more trick up his sleeve. This time it’s Louis Armstrong. The disc is Satchmo Plays King Oliver, a 1962 release on the Audio Fidelity label. It’s theoretically from the dark ages, when stereo recording was still in its infancy. But damn, now we’re talking revelation. Every note on this thing is beautifully vivid, and it doesn’t hurt that the music (the New Orleans standard “St. James Infirmary”) is stellar. My memories of a lesser Louis Armstrong doing “Hello Dolly” or the sentimental “What a Wonderful World” (a song I’d rank down there with “She’s Leaving Home”) are melting away by the minute. And here I’m learning one of the secrets: that good stereo sound is a psychedelic experience. I’m not just seeing Satchmo’s horn, I’m seeing the shape of the notes and the color of the sound. When he sings, I’m looking deep down into his throat while the drums and bass push me from behind. So now I understand why a lot of record collectors don’t do drugs—when they crank that stereo up, they’re already doing one.
Every vinyl junkie has a moment like this, when the sound hits you between the eyes and you’re hooked for life. Pat got the rush when “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes was blaring from a car radio. Producer Phil Spector made that record to be overwhelming—with its massive drums and heavenly choir—and in Pat’s case (and that of the Beach Boys’s Brian Wilson, who also loved the record) it did the trick. As for Monoman, he gets reinitiated every time he discovers a new medium. Lately his
drug of choice is reel-to-reel tapes, the ones that were issued in the ’60s and only played in high-class bachelor pads. “It’s the Hugh Hefner thing. Those tapes were the high-end item, the compact disc of their day. The goal is to get as close to the master tape as possible. That’s where the reel tapes bring me, and the turntable is another path.”
It’s getting late, however, and though Louis Armstrong started me down the path, I’ve still got a foot in the real world. So now it’s time to pull out the heavy artillery, as they prepare to give me the Scythian. That would be the “Scythian Suite” by Prokofiev, but not just any copy. This is the 1957 recording by Antal Dorati and the London Symphony Orchestra on the Mercury label—one of the first stereo recordings ever issued. The legend “Mercury Living Presence” blazes proudly across the cover; the same design is still there on the current compact-disc edition. But we’re looking to get close to the master tape and deep into the music, and the preferred path is that original 1957 pressing, made while the master tape was likely still throbbing. Pat produces the item from the middle of a stack, in a dark corner of his collection. “Is that a real one?” asks Monoman, raising his eyes. Pat nods his head with proper gravity. This is starting to look like the glow-box scene from Pulp Fiction—hell, maybe a pristine copy of the “Scythian Suite” was the box’s mysterious contents.
“Just feel how round that edge is,” notes Pat, running a finger around the LP’s circumference. “Yeah, it’s the real deal,” Monoman nods. The glossy laminated cover is also studied, and the disc’s runout groove is inspected for the distinguishing mark: the letter “I” stamped into a small circle.
That stands for Indianapolis, which means the record was stamped at that city’s RCA plant—in other words the record is like any good fix, clean and uncut by cheap additives. As Pat bears it to the turntable, Monoman gives the music some perspective: “Those Scythians, man, they were fuckin’ pagans! Human sacrifices, you name it.” I have been warned.
Maybe Pat’s discreetly jacked up the bass and treble, maybe he’s slipped something in my tea. In any case, the Scythian starts and all hell breaks loose. A big unearthly screech—that’s the strings making fire-and-brimstone noises. A roll of thunder from dangerously close—that’s the orchestral bass drums. “AAAH! We’re all gonna fuckin’ die!”—that’s Monoman feeling the spirit, running around the room with hair shaking and shirttail flying. If Prokofiev wasn’t aiming for exactly that response, I’m sure that whoever engineered the record was. The roller-coaster construction of the piece only helps the effect: there are a few moments of deceptive calm before the thunder starts up again, this time with added gongs. “That’s it, that’s heavy metal!” is Monoman’s reaction, his shouts becoming a perfectly fitting vocal part. “Hey, Led Zeppelin—you suck!”
This is where the addiction starts: when the music and the sound get so beautifully overwhelming that you wouldn’t mind devoting a chunk of your life to more of the same. For now, the purple vacuum tubes are starting to calm down, and any more music would be overkill. Pat can take pride in making another convert, and Monoman can come down off his vinyl high. “The Scythian, man. Can’t get enough of it.”
“I’m not a collector, I’m a friggin’ archivist,” Monoman tells me soon after, spreading a bunch of CDs on the table in front of him to make his point. I’m trying in vain to play devil’s advocate, suggesting that he really doesn’t need as many mid-’60s, European punk singles as he’s got. Maybe I can make him see the error of his ways. Or, at least, maybe he’ll consider selling a few of them to me. No luck.
“My trip is about using the music,” he explains, choosing a CD to use next. “I don’t believe in the idea of ownership—hey, we’re all gonna die someday so you don’t own that record, you just get to use it for awhile. There is no joy in ownership, the joy comes when you play the record. The
hair stands up on the back of your neck and that’s it, that’s what you’re living for. So my track record can show that I’ve used the music, and so I can sleep at night.”
Another musician who doubles as a collector, Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, is also something of a friggin’ archivist. “When you’re a collector, you’re creating order out of this chaotic information,” Moore tells me. “That’s necessary in a way, and it caters to creative impulses. There’s something I really like about the archival nature of it—you’re gathering information that falls below the radar, so it becomes less ignored. That’s why I separate myself from, say, Beatles collectors. Collecting mainstream material is a different thing, more like collecting toys, more object-oriented. I’m more interested in defending the cultural value of music that’s not allowed into the mainstream. That’s more of a renegade practice.”
His own collecting has gone through different phases. “All of the rock stuff I own, either vintage or modern, was collected sporadically between bouts of being completely destitute through the ’80s. In the ’90s I was finally able to make enough money to buy records, by then I wanted things that were even more subterranean in the culture. Right now I’m getting a lot of English psychedelic folk stuff, that’s become a really interesting genre to me. Many collectors are artist-specific, but I’m just as likely to go by labels—I like discovering the independent labels of the ’60s, because there was a whole scene that existed concurrently with the major labels,
before the majors put a stranglehold on the whole culture. You get a jazz label like Impulse! in the ’60s, and that’s something that collects really well, because they were seriously into design. They were just so amazing-looking.”
Love for the music, love for the artifact, the thrill of the chase: those are the three elements that turn a garden-variety music lover into a vinyl junkie. Like many collectors, Monoman is on an eternal mission: There’s always something out there that he hasn’t yet got. And he’s sealed his lifestyle forever by choosing those ’60s singles as his main passion: those aren’t hanging around in just any closet, or even any record store. There may be two copies sitting in Holland somewhere. Your job: find them.
Right now he’s chasing down an EP by Tony Jackson, whom history remembers (if at all) as the original lead singer of the Searchers, of “Needles & Pins” fame (as fate would have it, bad-boy Jackson got kicked out of the band just before they cut that song). When Jackson recorded his solo EP in 1966, he wouldn’t have guessed that a bad xerox of the picture sleeve would be hanging on a refrigerator in Cambridge, Massachusetts some thirty-six years later. Barely a few hundred people bought the record in the first place; hardly anyone has bothered tracking down Jackson himself lately, much less his record. “Somebody in America has to own this record,” Monoman says. “And I’m convinced that it has to be me.”
When and if he finds this record, he gets more than a slab
of vinyl, more even than bragging rights. He gets to experience whatever the vinyl holds, to know exactly what the music—which he already owns on a cassette dub—sounds like in its original pressing. He’s collected many such experiences over the years: did you know that the original single of “96 Tears” by ? and the Mysterians, on the regional Pa-Go-Go label, was longer than the Cameo/Parkway version that everybody’s heard? Monoman does. “There’s a lot of mysteries trapped in those grooves, and I get joy out of learning those mysteries. If I can learn one thing a year, that’s great.”
They were the same mysteries that hooked me into collecting. When I was a kid I remember staring at records for hours, trying to figure out where the music was. I figured out early on that it had something to do with vibrations and amplification, once I realized that the Beatles weren’t really sitting inside that big gramophone waiting to break into song, at exactly the right spot, whenever I dropped the needle. Beyond that it was all a mystery, but as I held this thing in my hand I’d try to figure out how it could make the songs materialize out of thin air. How were these flat plastic slabs able to do such great things? How come they all looked the same and all sounded different?
I learned to read by memorizing record labels; I’m sure that “Elvis’s Golden Records” were three of the first words I learned to recognize in print. That was the first album I remember loving—at four years old I was cute enough to get away with stealing it from my older sister—and it had my
favorite label as well: that old, chocolate-brown RCA one, with the little dog staring into that contraption on top. The dog’s being there made perfect sense to me: “Hound Dog” was the first and best song on the record, right? But I always felt a little sorry for that mutt as well. No matter how intently he faced forward and stared into that horn, whenever you played the record he always spun backwards.
Even if I didn’t love the music, the records were fascinating in themselves. The labels were all brightly colored and full of space-age squiggles that made it clear how much of a technical marvel this was. The Capitol album label, with its colors on the edge that blurred into an endless rainbow when you played it; the cherry-red Columbia, with its stylized antenna; the rarefied gold-and-silver Warner Brothers designs—all were enough to make you feel that you were participating in some great experiment when you played one. My favorite design, appropriately enough, was on some long-gone label called Design, which specialized in cheap-shot easy-listening versions of the hits of the day, as performed by some anonymous orchestra—my parents’ chosen alternative to “She Loves You” (whose original U.S. incarnation on Swan sported an inappropriately blah, flat-black label). Design’s music was pretty grating—in fact, one quasi-Dixieland novelty, “Autumn in Azusa” by Jerry Colonna, was awful enough to stay lodged in my subconscious to this day—but it was nearly worth it to watch the multicolored, interlocking triangles of its label spin round. Jerry Colonna, if you’re out there, can I have my money back?
The urge to collect records begins with the fascination
with the record as an object, going beyond simple appreciation of the music. Any music fan could get to know a song on a favorite 45, a bigger fan might risk playing the B-side. But a vinyl junkie would make discoveries from the record itself. Compact discs will remain a sticking point for collectors, but you don’t have to be one of those vinyl snobs—the kind who think that digital sound is flat and heartless—to appreciate that playing a record is a whole different experience. Placing the needle in the groove is a physical act—maybe a sexual one, if you really want to stretch the metaphor—and it’s just not the same as pressing the button on your CD player, where you can’t even see what’s going on. And even though they’re more high-tech, CDs just aren’t as mysterious. There’s a computer-age explanation for why that digital sound gets reproduced, just as there’s a computer-age explanation for everything.
Record collecting itself has changed shape in recent decades. During the ’70s, it was necessary for any serious music fan to be something of a collector, since so many important albums—by the likes of John Coltrane, the Velvet Underground, and even the Beach Boys—were either out of print or available in truncated, shoddily packaged or badly mastered editions (the Beach Boys albums with songs taken off them, or the first Velvets with the banana skin permanently pressed on, rank with the dregs of the era). Meanwhile a few mavericks, like artist Robert Crumb and his crew, were scouring the country for 78s that had been languishing in garages and basements. At the same time, the punk revolution was rediscovering the thrill of the instant collectible—45s with exclusive songs, picture discs and colored vinyl. By the mid-’8os, the twelve-inch rap and disco single was proving just how much loud bass could be captured on a vinyl slab. This was the vinyl era’s last real moment of glory.
There are certainly exceptions, and it’s safe to say that every halfway desirable record out there has a collector who wants it. But most of today’s collectors are running after music that’s barely two decades old. Punk and rap singles from the ‘8os have largely replaced vintage jazz and R&B as the most sought-after items. “Early doo-wop 45s and 78s were the Holy Grail of collecting during the ’70s,” recalls former Goldmine editor Jeff Tamarkin. “Now you can barely give that stuff away. Even Elvis seems to be dying as a collectible artist. That’s partly because the people who would collect that kind of music are getting older and have different responsibilities. If you’re twenty-two and just getting into collecting, you’re not going to be into that.”
Today, nearly everything that’s ever been on vinyl is on CD somewhere, and available from eBay and its clones (I’m partial to the set-sale site gemm.com, where you may have to pay more but are spared the bidding). The amount of time for the average treasure hunt has been cut down drastically: I recently developed an uncanny craving for A Bag of Soup, the Soupy Sales album on Motown—to my mind, the cultural accident of the pie-faced comic being on the same label as Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye was too much to resist. I cruised the Web for a few minutes, and had it within days. One of these years, I might even play it.
Neither development has made record collectors any
scarcer—though the eBay phenomenon means that many collectors, a secretive group to begin with, can do a lot of their hunting in private. But it’s also made collectors even hungrier for the peak experience of finding something desirable tucked away in a box in someone’s attic. And the ubiquity of CDs has only created new appreciation for the aesthetic perfection of vinyl.
“A record is that object that you can hold and watch and learn from,” notes Miriam Linna, who’s made a few of those objects herself. She was the original drummer for the Cramps, and today runs the independent Norton label. “Look at the label, it’s got all that information that somebody wanted to give you. There’s the names of the people who wrote the song, the names of who published it, and maybe where the record comes from—if you don’t find that one, it’s just another mystery to solve. And the record, that’s a couple minutes of instant gratification; it’s as good as a good cup of coffee. And it’s a common denominator, you want people to be clued in. You play someone a great record and they don’t react to it, you know it’s time to get them out of your house.”
Besides, she says, a record has the human touch embedded in the grooves, the stamp of someone who once believed in it. (True, a CD has that, too, but it’s easier to imagine those digital discs being untouched by human hands.) “When I grew up, I always had the attitude that you had to be good to make a record. In the early days of rock ’n’ roll, you couldn’t just buy a pressing plant if you were a teenager. It
was all about making a racket for your friends and doing something that would be offensive to adults. So I thought it was a great mystery how those records got made. Even if it was on a smaller label, somebody, somewhere, decided that person was good. They could make a record, and that was a fabulous, important thing. Now I know how they’re made: some piece of black rubber gets thrown on, then a stamper stamps ’em out and trims them. Seeing a record made is the coolest thing because you’re seeing something that can actually change the quality of somebody’s life, or change their mood, or make a chemical difference in their bloodstream. It’s a really heavy deal when you think about it.”
A long cool woman in her forties, Linna radiates enough energy to put many teenagers to shame—so much for the stereotype of geeky, mild-mannered collectors. “It’s not about being a geek, it’s about being mental,” she says—that term of course being a high compliment in rock ’n’ roll circles. “If you’re a record collector, you’re looking for the source of something that’s great. If you go to a record show, you see some really mild mannered guys there with their collections, maybe they run labels. But to me that’s more mental than some guy walking around with leather, tattoos, and his hair sticking out.”
Like any kind of collecting, record collecting represents a small, irrational stab at immortality. If you’ve bothered to accumulate all that vinyl, you must believe on some deep, optimistic level that you’re really going to have a use for all of it. How else to explain the reluctance of most collectors to purge the sillier things they’ve acquired? To name one of
the thoroughly useless items in my collection, I can tell you that I’m holding onto Bad Animals by Heart for shock value, or because nobody’s ever going to buy it from me, or because they made some good albums (of which this isn’t one). But the fact is that I really believe that someday I’ll have the forty-five disposable minutes in my life that this record was just made to fill. And I always have the luxury of getting up, putting the thing on, and proving myself right.
Such is the dual nature of record collecting: it’s pathetic and it’s glorious. Yes, you’re filling your life with extraneous stuff—vinyl and aluminum slabs that will never transport you back to youth, or get you a hot date, or bring Nick Drake back to life. If you’re far enough along, you’ve probably got a handful of things you forgot you even own, and a few that your ex-girlfriend misfiled ten years ago. Somebody will unearth those discs one day, and it might not be you. Never mind that you can’t take it with you, you can’t even find a tidy place to put it in the meantime.
That’s the egalitarian aspect of collecting, in that rich and poor collectors devote the same space to their collections—namely, whatever space they’ve got. In either case, you’ve made a decision to accumulate. And somewhere along the line, you lost the possibility of keeping track of it all. Thus it’s always a collecting rite of passage when you first buy something twice by accident.
Not surprisingly, some musicians who collect tend to be less organized about it. “I’ve got few dozen boxes of rare punk
singles sitting in my basement,” admits Steve Turner, guitarist for the pioneering Seattle grunge band Mudhoney. “They’re not sealed; they’re lucky if I get them back into the sleeves. For every good record I’ve got, I buy twenty shitty ones. I go to thrift stores, a lot of times I’ll buy a pile of things just for the covers. It got pretty random. When Mudhoney was touring I’d grab the phone book, look up the record stores, and hop in a cab. Touring would have been pretty boring otherwise. If someone told me a store sucked I’d probably go there—that would mean it hadn’t been scoured as clean as the other stores.”
’70s and ’80s punk singles are Turner’s specialty, and he wound up perfecting one shopping tactic: “I know how record store people work—if they don’t know what something is, they’ll just ignore it. So let’s say I’m poking around an attic of a store, and I find something great. I’ll stick those at the bottom of the pile and put something crappy on top—say, a single by Generation X [Billy Idol’s first band, not quite revered by punk scholars]. They’ll see my pile, say, ‘The one on top is ten dollars, but the rest are a buck.’ So I’ll put the Generation X one back and take the rest.”
Turner would be hard-pressed to tell you exactly what he owns, but he can look around his bedroom and survey the thrift store finds from the past few weeks. Since he’s in the middle of recording an acoustic album, he’s been on a Joan Baez bender. “That stuff isn’t really worth anything, so I picked up loads of it. It’s starting to make sense to me now that I’m getting into middle age. I’ve been known to steal riffs off records that I’ve bought—most of them, in fact—but
I can always steal something that the other guys in Mudhoney haven’t heard, so they’ll play something different along to it.” Turner’s collecting does have a methodical side—he’s especially into the Killed By Death series, a semi-bootleg CD compilation of rare punk singles, and tracking the original copies of those singles down. But he also loves to simply have loads of vinyl lying around. When the name of another prominent guitarist, collector, and Seattle resident, R.E.M. member Peter Buck, comes up, Turner’s mock-pissed off response is, “I’ve seen his collection and I’ve got more records than him, dammit! I mean, they may not be good records, but at least I’ve got ’em.”
Representing the more methodical collectors is Geoffrey Weiss of Los Angeles. He’s also an industry veteran who’s done A&R at the Warner Brothers, A&M, and Hollywood labels. Weiss has a separate building to hold the 100,000 discs in his collection, not counting the ones that are still hanging out in his parents’ house. His love of music grew at about the same rate as a need to accumulate and catalog it. “When I was ten I decided that I had to buy all the Beatles’s records. I was under the impression that I was preserving them for posterity, because such important things were going to be lost.” He’s become something of a punk and psychedelic specialist, citing his discovery of the Ramones and the ’60s reissue series Chocolate Soup for Diabetics as pivotal events. But his hunger goes beyond the constraints of those categories. “When people
ask me what I collect, I just say ‘everything.’ I’m not in this to accumulate the most records—it’s more that I just want to have all the music that I love.”
But for a true collector, the buzz comes from owning a record—playing it is something extra. “My records would have value to me if I was deaf,” says Weiss, known as one of the most devoted collectors in the music industry. Not only won’t he have time to play all his records, his kids and grandkids won’t either, even if they started right away. “Of course, I get more from them not being deaf. But I get pleasure from looking at the covers, making connections between the credits. It isn’t just what’s in the grooves, it’s the whole thing—what’s on the label, what’s in the dead wax.” And he insists that the highest quality experiences come from tracking down the original object. “Take a record like Heavy Petting by Dr. Strangely Strange,” he says, naming an eccentric Irish folk-rock band, greatly beloved by the few dozen people who’ve heard of them. “It was on the Vertigo label with that die-cut cover, the custom inner sleeve that matches the label. There’s a tactile aspect of that, that’s very hard to reproduce; I doubt that anyone’s even tried. Or Once Upon a Twilight by the Twilights—they were an Australian band with great, melodic, pop/psychedelic songs, and their album had this incredibly ugly pop-up in the gatefold. There’s something magical about seeing one that’s not a reproduction—the way it was intended, flaws and all. There’s no experience you can have with that record that’s anything like taking it out of the original cover and putting it on the turntable.”
On a more emotional level, collecting puts you into a world that you can control; each record is a small piece of emotional essence that can be plugged into your life. San Francisco musician Roger Manning has been into records all his life, but it took an emotional shakeup, the 1994 breakup of his band Jellyfish, to push him over the line. Along with vinyl, he was into collecting vintage gear. “I really didn’t want that band to break up, so it was traumatic for me when it did—a very draining, very psychotic time. And now that I look back on it, that’s when I started collecting like a maniac; I realize that it was self-medicating. I started looking for whatever vintage instruments I could afford with my savings, and I started getting pretty good at finding them. And that started taking my mind off the daily blows—devoting my time to this obsession. On some level I was doing fine as long as I could be better at the hunt than the next guy—I was gonna be the one that found that old synthesizer, that vintage piece of vinyl. The escapism of that search wound up buffering the pain of what was really going on in my life.”
In his case, collecting was also a regression to childhood, since some of his favorite teenage memories revolved around record-scavenging. “I grew up in a suburb of the Bay Area. My friends and I would save our money over the course of the week, then we’d take a bus to Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley; an area that has five or six used record stores. Then it would be a free-for-all—we’d just raid the dollar section and start pulling out whatever we could. We liked jazz, so we’d see a Herbie Hancock record and say, ‘This guy played
with Miles, I hear that he’s cool.’ Then we got into progressive rock and new wave, which were nearly as obscure as jazz.” No surprise that Jellyfish itself was much liked by collectors with a pop bent: the band’s two albums were even packaged to look like ’70s albums, released on vinyl with gatefolds. “What really got me was the smell of the records I grew up with—maybe it was the pressing plant they used, for some reason records on the Casablanca label had a smell that blew our minds—when you smell that, it brings you right back to childhood. So we wanted to find a way to make our records smell that way, but of course nobody at our label knew what the hell we were talking about.”
It might be a passing phase or a permanent persuasion, but collecting does require a leap of faith; the belief that some emotional core can be found in those grooves—admittedly a tall order when you’re talking about Soupy Sales on Motown. One of the few lapsed collectors I’ve encountered, novelist Pagan Kennedy, puts this into perspective. “I think that as Americans we can get sidetracked … into stuff,” she says, her thick glasses and fast head movements giving her the air of a sharp urban cynic. “The paradox of collecting is that people are trying to put something in a cage. I used to get a lot of records; I thought of it as my escape from the prevailing culture. Then one day I woke up and said, hey look at me—here I am obsessively going to yard sales, just like all those people going to the mall! I’m still surrounded by all this … this stuff! It’s the same revelation I had about marijuana
years ago, that if one puff makes me happy, it doesn’t mean that two are going to make me happier.”
Yet the album that indoctrinated her was the same one that won many collectors over: the Pebbles series of ’60s punk reissues. “Someone played it for me in college and I’m feeling—Oh, my God. This is good music, and it’s music that I never knew existed. It was what I wanted to hear all my life, it was amazing, and it pointed the way to some vision of life that I couldn’t even name. But it was only a glimpse; that’s me, and that’s what’s important to me. And I’ve been struggling in my life to remember that the feeling isn’t something you can buy: The thing you love is ephemeral, that little evanescent pleasure you can get. It speaks to some world that you want to be in. And you’re not going to get into that world by finding the B-side of some Italian single. You’ll probably find that there’s a reason it was a B-side.”
What she says makes perfect sense, but the appeal of collecting is that it doesn’t necessarily make sense. On some level, there are times when you’ve just got to be mental.