Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Record Collectors Anonymous

My name is Jeff, and I'm a record collector.

For years I told myself that it was just about the music. I bought records because I loved music, period. And that is the main reason I buy records (including CDs). But, in retrospect, that has never been the whole story. I still remember the first record I bought - how it smelled, how it felt in my hands, what the typeface on the jacket looked like. I love the music, but I've always loved the objects themselves. My iPod is a great convenience, but it will never be my primary method of listening to music, and not just because of the inferior sound. (To anyone who argues that MP3s sound as good as CDs or mint LPs, I would say that your ears ain't that good.) With my iPod, I can't hold the LP cover or CD booklet, see who wrote the third song, or look up who the trombone player is.

I was looking through a stack of blues 45s at a record show a few years ago, and I thought to myself, "Wouldn't it be cool if Calvin Leavy's Cummins Prison Farm on the Soul Beat label turned up in this stack?" Two records later, there it was. It was a great moment. Cummins Prison Farm was a regional blues hit for Leavy in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Memphis in 1969. While it's not that well-known a song, I certainly could have found it on a blues CD reissue, but I wanted the original 45. Why? I'm not totally sure. Sometimes I think the blues were made to hear three minutes at a time, on 45 or 78 RPM singles. I just know that I wanted both the music and the object. And what a cool thing this single is: three minutes of intense blues with a weird, searingly loud guitar solo in the middle, backed with three minutes of relaxed funk/blues - all encased in a seven-inch circle of vinyl with a big hole in the middle.

A few nights ago I was listening to an album I prize highly: Pee Wee Russell Plays Pee Wee from 1957. I love this album for a lot of reasons. Here are some, arranged from most reasonable to most insane:

1. The music, which is a delight. A solid rhythm section, including Walter Page and George Wettling, provides a surface on which Pee Wee traces his odd, thoughtful, abstract clarinet lines. Pee Wee was one of the real improvisers of jazz; he was never predictable. The music here is excellent.

2. The vinyl is in mint condition, or pretty close. Okay, this is reasonable for a music lover - you want the music to sound as good as possible, so you want the record to be well-pressed and in excellent condition.

3. The album is pretty rare. Hmmm... now we're on slightly less solid ground. I mean, I guess any real music lover would be interested in a hard-to-find example of one of his/her favorite artists. But you can find Kind of Blue by Miles Davis in any mall CD store, and I'd have to say that the Miles album contains greater music.

4. The cover is in mint condition. Okay, this is just ridiculous. If the vinyl is in good condition, a music lover shouldn't care that the front cover, with its semi-abstract painting, is glossy and unstained, or that the seams are solid, with no splits, or that the back cover is full of interesting information about the short-lived Stero-o-craft label. Ridiculous.

5. Finding and buying this record was a rush. This is even more pathetic. Why should my memories of coming across this record in an antique store on Montgomery Street in Savannah still give me pleasure five years later? It's the music that's important.

The last point states a truth about record collecting: part of the appeal is the thrill of the hunt and the excitement of the unexpected find, especially at a bargain price. Musically, A Fireside Chat With Lucifer on the Jupiter label is one of my favorite Sun Ra albums. It's also one of my favorite pieces in my collection, partly because I paid nine dollars for an album that regularly sells for 250 bucks at auction.

Yeah, it's mostly about the music. But I recognize that, to a small extent, I'm a sick boy. Years ago, my friend Brian had a dream about my record collection. As I remember, he dreamed that I had three copies of every record in my collection: one to listen to, one to read the liners notes from, and one to just sit on the shelf. It's sad how cool I think that idea is.

1 comment:

robo said...

Why must you fetishize the inherent and delineated meaning of music?