Reason #278 to buy vinyl: Rescuing misplaced treasures from a vinyl purgatory
For any open-minded, intrepid collector and music enthusiast, Reason #278 might be the best reason of all to support vinyl. The earliest lateral-cut discs (the precursor to vinyl as we know it) had been produced nearly a century before compact discs stomped all over its turf like Godzilla over Tokyo; therefore, it’s no surprise that the breadth and variety of available music for the turntable knows no equal.
Wander any decent second-hand record store and you’ll be treated to unorthodox genres long since forgotten. At some point in our consumer past, sellers/distributors shoehorned all genres into a select few. Rock/Pop. Jazz. Country. Classical. Rap/Hip-Hop. Am I missing any? Shop vinyl and you’ll find genres like Hawaiian. Banjo. Soul. Rockabilly. I am always compelled to linger over these genres even though my knowledge of the artists contained within could be found lacking. I want to pick one at random, just to give it a listen. If nothing else, experiments like these provide great fodder for the bl-g. But the number of potential targets overwhelms and ultimately I move on to more familiar pastures. Next time I’ll come armed with a Google search and a list of obscure artists in obscure genres and do some exploration. After all, $2 per adventure seems pretty damn cheap these days.
I am much more comfortable making decisions at the intersection of the familiar and random. And it turns out that the best place to discover the intersection of familiar and random is at shops that are not just music purveyors. Half-Price Books, for example. While they have vinyl, they are predominantly a seller of other used media. The vinyl that winds up in the wooden crates at Half-Price is generally of the omnipresent variety: Tom Jones, Roger Whitaker, Anne Murray, Kenny Rogers, Barbara Streisand, Huey Lewis, Kenny Loggins, Chicago and so on and so forth. These stores are a dumping ground for entire collections that no longer have value to their owners. Many are inherited. Some are just unwanted, replaced by space-saving digital media. But when people dump collections indiscriminately, collectors are often rewarded for taking the time to dig a little deeper.
Last week I brought my daughter into Half-Price to do a little browsing. On this occasion she’d been the one that had asked to go to the “record store.” And who am I to disagree? I’m so proud of her—the “record store” resides right next door to Toys R Us and she never thinks twice about her decision. I’ve been through the crates at this particular Half-Price enough to know that I’ve pretty much picked out anything that would have interested me. My daughter sits down at my feet and re-sorts the 45s. And by “re-sorts” I mean she finds one with a spacious paper sleeve and crams as many as she can fit into that sleeve. These records are generally in such bad condition (read: unplayable) that I don’t monitor her too closely. If I notice she’s getting a little too aggressive I pick her up and ask for her help flipping through the 33s. This is for her benefit only. If you’ve ever tried to read a book in a toddler’s hands you’ll know the impossibility of browsing records when they’re similarly in control. It’s not an ideal solution but she’s two years old, almost three—there are no ideal solutions for two year olds and vinyl shopping. This particular day I noticed that she’d gone a little too far with the 45 molestation, reaching a crop of unsullied records that deserved a better fate. I bent down to redirect her attention to the previously mauled items or the Disney Princess card game (she is content to merely dump this on the ground) but as I did so I noticed the boxed sets of vinyl stacked up behind the piles of 45s. They were situated in such a way that from my angle I could not have seen them unless I’d been kneeling on her level. There were some mail order classical music collections from anonymous orchestras but the boxes were curious enough and unusual enough that I felt compelled to pull them out and peruse their innards. As I descended into the abyss behind the 45s, beyond the mail-order classical, I found a couple of boxes much more to my liking.
The first was a generic, blue vinyl folder. The Half-Price sticker labeled the set: “$5.00 – Random.” I unsnapped the cover and flipped through the sleeves. The book had been filled with 7” 33rpm singles of various big bands of the 40s and 50s. Almost all were in great condition. Bing Crosby. Louis Prima. Kay Kyser. The history of this folio intrigued me. Someone had taken exquisite care of these records, most produced between 1945 and 1955, only to have them dumped here. The value isn’t the point however. They could be worthless, everyday coaster-fodder, but it wouldn’t matter. There’s a history here that’s beyond monetary measure. Old records smell like history. They have a weight, an importance—even when they came a dime a dozen at the time of their original distribution. I could take these home and one by one, place them on my turntable and discover something old and potentially meaningful that is again made brand new. People that do not buy vinyl just do not understand this. They don’t take much care in browsing a used CD rack for oddities and curios. Anything that is odd is probably not worth having. And if there is some perceived worth in compact discs, the worth is measured in nostalgia or kitsch but not adventure or discovery. Vinyl shopping is a treasure hunt. Used CD shopping is a force of habit.
My second discovery wasn’t so much an oddity but a welcome and immediately identified necessity. Though the box appeared worn, somewhat torn and tattered around the edges, the picture of the front screamed “BUY ME”—Nat and Cannonball Adderly beneath the title: Great Jazz Artists Play the Music of Great Composers. So I did. I bought that sucker and the “$5.00—Random” folio. Later, I looked up the label that released the set, Murray Hill, and found that they mostly reissued other catalogues. Sure enough, there on the back of the set:
“…these unsual LPs, drawn from the extensive catalogues of Riverside and its affiliated Jazzland label, bring you a fusing of some of the finest and most interesting examples of both elements. Here are many of the best and best-loved melodies of our greatest songwriters, as interpreted by varied lineups of modern jazz talent…”
And some further interweb browsing revealed that the set sells for as much as $50. Again, the potential resale value isn’t important. Interesting… but not important. The find, the search, the discovery, the hope of finding something sacred in a slushpile picked through by hundreds before me. Sacred means something different to everyone. For me, it was looking on the back of Great Jazz Artists to find Cole Porter songs played by the likes of Bill Evans, George Shearing, Wes Montgomery, Cannonball Adderly, Sonny Rollins and Johnny Griffin. Thelonius Monk playing Irving Berlin. Charlie Byrd and Billy Taylor doing Gershwin. These names are sacred to me. And after only one listen through Side 1 of Record 1 I knew I’d found something special. The recordings are clear and the vinyl in excellent condition. I can’t help but imagine this set’s prior owner and their connection to the records. Did they consider it a gem or merely part of the overwhelming burden of their old music collection? Judging by the condition of the box (worn and split along one seam) compared to the condition of the vinyl (superficial scratches, no skips)—I believe it must have been treasured just as I treasure it now. And this thought gives me great pleasure, that I’ve again given this music a good home, having rescued it from a vinyl purgatory. I haven’t yet listened to the entire set—there are 12 glorious discs that must be savored and brought back to life, but all in good time. Listening is only part of the joy. Shopping for vinyl—going, browsing, inspecting—forever offers new opportunities to strike gold, but if you’re not taking the time to search those darker corners of the second-hand stores and flea markets you’re going to find a lot of Anne Murray records but nothing particularly as precious or mysterious as “$5.00—Random.”