Record geeks and me

Some nine years ago, I had an opportunity to chat with Alan Zweig, whose documentary Vinyl brought the world of the obsessive record collector out of its plastic protective cover. Zweig’s subjects were otherwise-intelligent gentlemen too weak to resist the temptation of a must-have LP. And always in search of the next one.

I informed Zweig, himself a collector, that I could relate to his and his subjects’ situation.

“I hope,” he responded with genuine concern, “that wasn’t too upsetting for you.”

It wasn’t. Or, at least, it hadn’t been, until he raised the idea that obsessive record-collecting may be a bad thing.

But then, I considered myself to be in a better position than the pathetic figures profiled in Vinyl. Certainly, I was more together than the guy who had crammed so many albums into his tiny bachelor apartment that he had difficulty negotiating his way to the door. And as I walked home to my tiny bachelor apartment, populated by a bed, a wall of records and several additional boxes full of records, I took solace in that belief.

Last Saturday, as I walked into the Sandy Hill Community Centre for what was billed as Ottawa’s first ‘community record show,’ I further reassured myself that I am not the geek these other collectors have allowed themselves to become. I mean, some of these losers were lined up at the door well in advance of the show’s 2 p.m. start. Me, I arrived at 2:10 p.m.

See, all better now.

Once inside, I was taken aback by the size of the crowd of vinyl-vultures inside. Though, it should be noted, the Sandy Hill Community Centre’s hall pales in comparison to the size of past record-show venues such as the Chateau Laurier, the Sportsplex or the University of Ottawa.

(I know what you’re thinking: How can one speak of past local record-shows when Saturday’s was “the 1st Annual Ottawa Community Record Show”? Well, apart from the fact that it can hardly be billed as an annual event until at least its second year, the show is merely a new take on an event that has been a feast for collectors for decades.)

More startling than the size of the crowd was the presence of women among the rabid record-searchers. Not so many years ago, record shows, like Star Trek conventions, were the exclusive domain of men with too much time on their hands. Women, presumably, had better things to do.

But while the males outnumbered the females severalfold, women were on-hand Saturday, toting finds such as the magnificent first Cowboy Junkies album, Whites Off Earth Now, or vintage platters from The Beatles or the Stones. I gave props to one woman for purchasing The Right to be Italian, the 1981 Holly and the Italians (or, as it says on the spine, Holy and the Italians) album that gave the world the power-pop classic Tell That Girl to Shut Up. Oh how it brought me back, to imagine this record-buyer’s reaction when she, as I did years ago, discovers that Tell That Girl to Shut Up is the only decent song on the album.

But what a song!

The size and diversity of the crowd may be attributed in part to relatively-recent reports in the media of the return of vinyl. All the cool kids are buying vinyl records, the papers were telling us a year ago.

They aren’t. And records are not about to come back.

For one thing, records never left. Not entirely. Yet, sales and availability of vinyl records have increased little in recent years. What has happened has been an acceleration in the inevitable demise of the compact disc. And yes, it is difficult for those of us that had never lost faith in the durability of vinyl, not to feel a tad smug about the collapse of the CD. But finding records remains a challenge, and will continue to be so.

So no, record sales have not gone through the roof, unless you compare the figures to CD sales. Sure, labels are taking a chance on releasing new titles on vinyl, and making a handful of old titles available again. But only out of desperation. Bless ’em. The way they treated record-buyers for nearly 20 years, they are only getting what they deserve. We, meanwhile, are not.

Unfortunately, enough people bought into the record-revival myth a year ago for thrift-stores such as Value Village to significantly up their prices on selected platters, and for garage-sale finds to suddenly increase tenfold in price (to as much as $2 apiece). In neither case was the condition of a given record an issue.

That’s what happens when you place such matters in the hands of amateurs.

Or, rather, professionals. Record-collecting has always been about the amateurs. The wide-eyed kid stumbling upon a Chocolate Watchband or Mink DeVille or Helen Humes record and deciding to take a chance on something new. The second-hand-store owner unaware of the value to collectors of a UK pressing of Trout Mask Replica. The thrill of finding that Run-DMC album wedged into a bin of James Last and Tom Jones records.

It was with such memories in mind that I entered the Sandy Hill Saturday for another go at finding the elusive record I never knew I’d been spent my entire life searching for. I anticipated that I would run into many a ghost from record shows and garage sales past. Old friends, both of the human and the vinyl variety.

As indeed I did. Local musicians selling surplus items. Representatives of local stores the Record Centre, Vertigo, Birdman and Sounds Unlikely. The usual array of music geeks in search of gold. Collections that made me feel I was thumbing through my own.

Overall, though, it was not the enjoyable experience it once had been. Elbowing people aside in order to peruse overpriced Byron Lee or Ray Charles records had somehow lost its appeal for me.

Call it maturity. Or call me jaded. Recent record fairs have seen a marked increase in prices while offering little in the way of once-in-a-lifetime discoveries. For that, the blame may be laid squarely on eBay. No more must a dealer in rare vinyl greet each morning with the hope that this will be the day that someone finally takes that dusty copy of The Bee Gees’ Odessa off his hands. Thanks to the Internet, that copy need not ever gather dust.

And so, my usual gameplan of seeking out vintage jazz records was quickly abandoned. Such items are now reserved for online sales. Best, I decided, to eschew the good in favour of the bad and ugly. For, while it’s a thrill to happen upon a Coltrane album on the Impulse label, a similar thrill can be derived from, say, the Laverne and Shirley Sing album, if you keep an open mind and decidedly low standards.

I was drawn early on to three bins full of francophone albums, complete with a number of country titles. The prices, however, seemed a little steep. True, $7 for a Quebecois country album one may never see again is hardly extortionate. But it’s no bargain either. Besides, it can be argued that I already own all the Paul Brunelle and Les Alexandriens albums I need.

Again, maturity.

Eventually, after more tables full of frustration, I asked a fellow geek where one might find a bargain. That geek was Bill Guerrero of local rockers Weapons of Mass Seduction, and it so happened his records were priced to sell. What are the odds?

(Guerrero shared a table with Patrick Shanks of Shanker + Romps and Cold Coffee and Salty Boots fame. Shanks was selling, among other things, The Kinks’ Percy soundtrack, an album that contains a killer lounge version of Lola. Asked why he was selling it, Shanks shrugged, “It didn’t pass the five-year test.” Me, I like to give an album 10 years. Sometimes 20. Just in case. Sure, I may not feel like listening to Ringo Starr’s Rotogravure album today…)

And sure enough, I came across an album by late-’60s American band The Road, about whom I knew nothing other than that their self-titled Kama Sutra release includes a cover of the garage-band staple I Can Only Give You Everything. Good enough for me, given the $1 asking price. Guerrero told me he too had bought it on the strength of that title. Is it worth a dollar, I asked? A dollar, yes, he replied. Done and done.

So I did not come away from the crowded room empty-handed. Indeed, I purchased three other LPs, including David Johansen’s glorious 1982 album Live It Up as well as The Five Man Electrical Band’s 1969 release that has, thanks to a recent CD reissue, become all the rage among European and American collectors. (Had to pay ten bucks for that one. But it was worth it.)

For me, though, the real score on this day was The Golden Hour of Benny Hill. I had rejected Zingers From the Hollywood Squares on the basis that, at $8, it was overpriced. Plus, it was being sold by the Record Centre guys, so I know where it is if I change my mind. And I probably will.

But back to Benny. Wild Women. Pepy’s Diary. The Egg Marketing Board Tango. All that, and more. For a mere $2. (Thank you Bijon Roy, fellow CKCUer, for your willingness to part with it and to see to it that Benny’s best found a good home.)

Over the years, I have been to many a record convention in Ottawa as well as a number of shows in the UK and one or two sizable ones in New York City. Back in the day, the $20 limit I set for myself Saturday would have enabled me to come home with an armload of treasures. Today, four LPs.

Four LPs, a bit of catching-up with fellow geeks and an opportunity to take a step back and observe a curious social phenomenon. All for a $2 admission price. Well, plus the $18 I spent on records. Well worth it.

Plus, it is always comforting, or at least reassuring, to know there are so many people out there suffering from the same affliction that has driven me to accidentally accumulate duplicates and triplicates of records I’ve never played. And to know that there are still more records out there waiting for me. So long as I can get to them before those other freaks.

True, it would have been nice to have found a few more must-have gems. But, Alan Zweig would be pleased to know, that too is no longer upsetting for me.

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