Thursday, September 11, 2008

Refections on Being a Record Collector

All photos from the Internet

“Hello, my name is Robert, and I am a record collector.”

Is the term “record collector” usable these days? Maybe “music collector”? Perhaps “physical music collector”?

My very first record was one of those yellow plastic kid ones, with a song about Noah that I can still recall part of the chorus (“It rained for 40 days and nights/It poured and poured and poured…”), though I can’t seem to remember what was on the flip side (Moses?). It was played on a portable electric all-in-one player that was a 1-foot square cube (when the lid was down), and played 4 speeds (78, 45, 33-1/3, 16!). My mom used it to listen to her 78 RPMs, including Vaughn Monroe’s “Stout Hearted Men”, Nelson Eddy’s, “Song of the Mounties” (but not Jeanette McDonald, oddly enough), a truly cool version of “The Volga Boatmen’s Song,” and Al Jolsen doing the “Hatikva.” And yes, I still have most of them.

My father only knew Big Band Swing, like the Shaw brothers, but my mom was a bit more contemporary, loving Nat King Cole and especially Johnny Mathis. Both parents were pretty clueless, however, about rock and roll. My dad hated it, and my mom wasn’t against it, she was just never interested.

I’m not sure how my dad made his choices in what to give me and my older brother, but he seemed to rely on soundtracks and greatest hits. He brought us Mary Poppins and West Side Story, as well as collections of hits by The Beach Boys, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, and the Four Seasons. He also got us Beatles ’65. And, yes, I still have them all.

Sometime in the mid-1960s, one of my mom’s cousins decided she didn’t want her record collection any more (all 15 or so), and she gave them to my mom, who gave them to me. It was a weird grouping, from Jackie Mason’s I'm the Greatest Comedian in the World, Only Nobody Knows it Yet!, Gretchen Wyler’s Wild Wyler Wildest, the Broadway soundtracks to Funny Girl and Carol Channing’s Show Girl, and even one of a military brass band! And yes, I still have almost all of them.

When my brother was old enough, he started bringing home some Simon & Garfunkel, The Who and CSNY. Somehow, they got incorporated into my collection. While I don’t remember the first LP I purchased by myself, I do recall the first singles, a 3-for-$1 sealed-in-plastic set of The Blues Image’s “Ride Captain Ride,” Ray Stevens’ “Mr. Businessman,” and Manfred Mann’s “Quinn the Eskimo.” And yes, I still have them.

Around 1970, my cousin moved out of his parent’s house, and unknown to him then, my aunt gave me his 45 collection, which consisted of two 45s boxes (the cardboard ones with the plastic handles and metal latch that never latched). She must have had some prescient knowledge that I would be interested. A large chunk of it was doo-wop era, like The Crests’ “Trouble in Paradise,” Randy & the Rainbow’s “Denise,” Bobby Lewis’ “Tossin’ and Turnin’,” and Frankie Avalon's "Why." It was a music history lesson, and I loved it. And yes, I still have them all.

By the early ‘70s, I probably had about 75 albums and about 100 singles. Then I met my first influencial record collector in high school, Bernie Kugel. The first time I hung out at his house, I saw his shelves of vinyl. I fully admit that at the time I met him, I was still pretty clueless, but then again, compared to Bernie’s extensive musical knowledge, I always would be (in relation). He played all this music I had never heard before, like Slade, Move, Roxy Music, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, and rare Dylan. I liked some of the stuff he played, others I didn’t. Yet, I still didn’t get the collecting bug.

Bernie and I headed into Manhattan pretty often, usually in Greenwich Village, but occasionally uptown. One time we were rifling through the bins at Colony Records, which is connected to the Brill Building, on Broadway and 49th Street. As I languidly flipped through one of the discount bins, Bernie looked at the other. He walked over to me excitedly, holding an LP. He said, quite bluntly, “Buy this!” It was $1.97, and I had never heard of it. Bernie briefly gave me a history of International Artist Records from Texas (who also put out the 13th Floor Elevators). He convinced me into buying the Red Crayola With the Familiar Ugly’s The Parable of Arable Land. There were two copies in the bins; he took the Mono one, so I took the Stereo. It was pretty wild, and yes I still have it. I thought I had gotten off pretty easy, actually, because I remember being in shock around that time at Bernie having paid $15 for a Flamin’ Groovies EP.

It was after I started going to CBGB’s, Max’s Kansas City, etc., that I really started to get interested in music. I liked the bands, and I wanted to learn more about where they stylisticly came from. There were so many albums that became sought out a couple of years later that one could find in the dollar bin in the mid-70s, like the Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls, and the Modern Lovers. But what really got me started is when the bands I was watching starting coming out with music, such as those on Ork Records. At the time, it was pretty easy to just buy them as they came out, if one knew the stores to hit, and we did. From Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel (Parts I & II)”, to Talking Heads’ “Love ß Building On Fire” to the Heartbreakers’ “Live at Max’s,” to Richard Hell’s seminal “Blank Generation,” to even bands we hadn't seen, like the very first EMI single of “Anarchy in the U.K.” by the Sex Pistols, we just bought them one by one as they were released, and then two by two, and so on. And I kept them all.

What pushed me over the edge into serious collecting started in July of 1977: I published the first issue of my fanzine, FFanzeen, which ran until 1988. The records started pouring in to be reviewed, including most releases from SST, Alternative Tentacles, Frontier, BYO, Placebo, and many other important independent labels. Even when I didn’t like a particular record, I respected the work and financial payout of the indies, so I refused to get rid of them; I kept them all. Of course, my collection was expanding enormously, getting around 50 or more records a month, on top of those I was buying.

Meanwhile, I was still hitting up record stores, garage sales, and Sallie Ann-type places to see what was available. One time in New York, I went to a thrift shop and found this really cool EP (that’s a 7” that played at 33-1/3). It was a doctor explaining about diseases of the heart. He would interject between the sounds of heartbeats to explain what was physically wrong with it in medical terms. I thought this was so cool; I brought it up to Bernie’s house in Buffalo, where he attended college. After I played it, he reached into his own collection and brought out just about the same record, except it was the sounds of the lungs. Seems it was part of a series. In the other direction, I was entertaining (i.e., playing records for) a younger friend (who would later go on to have his own extensive and expensive collection…sorry Walter). He said, “Have you ever heard of this band called Love? I hear their records are hard to find.” I casually reached behind me and pulled out four of them. “You mean these?” I thought his head was going to explode.

Still, even as my collection grew and grew and grew, it was still dwarfed by Bernie and some of the people he would introduce me to, such as Greg Prevost of the Chesterfield Kings, and Mad Louie the Vinyl Junkie. Those were record collectors on a scope I couldn’t even fathom. Still are.

Through these associations, I learned not only about collecting, but also about collectors. In a grossly general way, collectors usually fold into two categories: there are the completionists (hunters) and the serendipitious (gatherers).

The completionists are those who have a gap in their collection, and will go to extraordinary lengths to fill that hole, sometimes paying exorbitant amounts for a record. These tend to be people who are into things that are hopelessly obscure, which takes a large knowledge of music to know when something is rare-first-printing level or just a reissue. Sometimes completionists can be a bit elitist, only wanting to deal with others who know nearly as much as they do (though they tend to respect those who know more), but fortunately most of the completionist collectors I know are happy to share. I remember a few times standing in the House of Guitars in Irondequoit/Rochester with Bernie, Greg and Louie talking, and I didn’t really understand much, but I listened and learned. It was like being in a really cool school.

Then there are the serendipitious, like myself, who feel like they score a coup when they find something exciting and hopefully rare, but look in general, not going out of the way searching for that particular item. Such a case was finding a doo-wop single on its original, local label in southern Florida in some obscure store for 5 cents, rather than the national one released later. While the completionists would search in magazines like Record Collector , the Rock Marketplace or Goldmine, one thing they both have in common in the love of the process of hunting in garage sales and thrift shops. But the former will be willing to pay the extra fee to get to a collector’s market early to grab up the goodies, where the serendipitious are happy to hunt and find in a more casual manner.

I will leave this topic for now with a true story: During the late 1980s, I was hanging out in Kenmore, New York (essentially a suburb of Buffalo, though I doubt they see themselves as such) at a used record shop on Main Street owned a friend, Friday Night Dave Olka. Dave and the kids who hung out in his store (who would later form Green Jello) smoked tobacco like fiends, so I had to get out of there after a while and get some air. I decided to walk around the block.

Around the corner, I saw a sign for a garage sale, so I stopped in. There I found a nearly mint condition first edition of the Stones’ Their Satanic Majesty’s Request, with the 3D cover. I bought in for a dollar, and brought it back to Dave. I saw that Dave had been selling a pretty beat-up copy for nearly $30. I walked back into the store and said, “Hey Dave, look what I bought around the corner for a buck!” I thought he was going to laugh, but instead he turned bright red, and threw me out of the store. Later that evening, he called me and apologized, saying he wasn’t really mad at me, he was projecting at the person who sold it to me. He said, “I have a used record store right around the corner. Why didn’t she just sell it to ME?” Well, I would say now, it was just serendipitious. And yes, I still have it.


  1. Robs, These are the stories they missed in HIGH FIDELITY though I hafta admit I like the film. I'm really digging your blogs. I'm so glad you're back in print. And once again you've inspired me to get serious about my blogging. Are you going to see DMZ at Maxwell's? Hopefully we can meet up! Cheers, Miss Nancy Neon

  2. Yeah, I liked HIGH FIDELITY, too. I recognized a lot of characters in it as people I know or have known (even have it on VHS somewhere). As for DMZ, I haven't been to Maxwell's in a long time, though I like the people who run it now (including Dave Post, who was in Ronnie & The Jitters, who played the last night at Max's... If I remember correctly, you were there that night, too; and you were the last person in the famous back room before they closed it down). Of course, the question I have is...can I get on the guest list? Either way, I'm sure we can hang out, maybe Dojos...