Soon will come the day for me to stop putting off the call to Gary, my insurance agent, in which I will possibly inquire about perhaps taking the necessary steps to maybe think about perchance taking out a rider on my record collection.
At least some of that anxiety is due to the fact that I recently cashed in a $10,000 claim to repair the frozen pipes in my ninety-year-old Colonial style home’s bathroom (thanks a bunch, Polar Vortex). That project involved no fewer than a half dozen contractors, including one to tear out the concrete from the floor (they used to put concrete in the floor of these old-ass bathrooms! Who knew?). I’m sure it’s irrational, but I think Gary is going to be mad at me about the ten grand.
I also don’t want the bad news that I’m just about one hundred percent certain I’ll get; I’ll need to catalog my collection. Artist name, record title, year, condition, whateverthehellelse. One might think that, as an obsessive record collector for over twenty years, such a project might excite me. After all, I love to spend time on the third floor of said Colonial where I keep my collection stacked around the room on the Ikea Expedit shelves that are the hallmark of many too-large collections put together by someone without the means to get some candy-ass built-ins. There’s not much better than spinning some Iron Maiden or This Year’s Model or Built to Spill on my warhorse of a NAD turntable while I pull the next selection from the 4-mil (never 3-mil, and 2-mil is for Millenials who don’t know any better) polyethelyne that I use to keep dust and cat hair (and, for too many years, cigarette smoke) away from the surprisingly resilient contents. I love to just sit in my chair and look upon it. Seriously. I’ll sit in a chair and stare at the entirety of my nearly-half-a-life’s-work, the booty from hours spent thumbing through the racks at Encore in Ann Arbor and The Quaker Goes Deaf in Chicago, Grimey’s in Nashville or my beloved Square Records in Akron, Ohio, where I live and work and where I’ve lived and worked at increasing my collection for the past five years plus.
I have too many records.
My biggest fear, when I allow myself to be slightly irrational, is that the records’ weight is too much up there on the third floor of the house, and that the cumulative tonnage (I’ve calculated) is causing floor joists to slowly shift and crack, putting pressure on the foundation that will eventually tip the whole fucker over like a beaver-ravaged pine. I inspect the ceiling of our bedroom (directly underneath those packed Expedits) for changes in the cracks, bouncing on the floor with paranoid belief that I can sense changes from the last time I did the same bounce which was probably less than ten hours before this bounce. My wife Alison knows exactly what I’m looking for and bouncing about, and if she deigns to ask what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, she’ll invariably remind me that the house inspector and anyone with more knowledge about home construction than I have (which is to say, essentially anyone at all) have all told me with confidence that the first-growth lumber used to construct homes in Akron in the early part of the twentieth century is heartier and stronger than twenty-first century steel (they did put fucking concrete in the bathroom floor, after all). That is to say, it could hold twenty times the number of vinyl LPs safely in its steel-lumbered joists for a hundred years with no strain at all. None of this has made me stop studying the cracks or bouncing or worrying.
Nor has it made me stop collecting, hauling armloads of new/old long players up the flights every few weeks, stuffing in titles missing from the Fairport Convention catalog (nothing after Angel’s Delight) or cramming another John Cale LP into the shelf next to the VU and Lou Reed, but before the David Bowie. Maybe I should explain how things are shelved? But that’s really part of the problem when it comes to the prospect of cataloguing because, like Billy says to The Kid in Purple Rain after the “The Beautiful Ones” debacle; “Your music makes sense to no one, but yourself.” There’s the Beatles and the Stones, sure, but how would I explain the movement and intricacies of the New Wave section? What constitutes hard rock versus proto-metal? Where are my They Might Be Giants records?
My fear of cataloguing boils down to this; there are too many records. They’re bizarrely organized. If I were to sit down and make notes of each and every one, I’d be forced to finally reckon with the monumental, even totemic silliness of what I’ve built, and I might not ever be able to sit and lovingly stare at it again.
My music makes sense to no one, but myself.
At Christmas 1979, I would’ve just turned eight years old. Given the age and era, most of my contemporary late-70s boys were after GI Joe dolls (call them action figures if you want, but they’re still dolls), Tonka trucks, Matchbox cars and maybe BB guns from Santa (wasn’t Ralphie eight, after all?). Not me. I was quick to put away childish things, and asked only for records. I remember which three I received quite vividly; The Cars’ Candy-o, Aerosmith’s Night in the Ruts (still somewhat underrated, if you ask me, although I guess you really didn’t), and Styx’s Cornerstone. Give me a break on that last one. Two out of three isn’t bad for an eight-year-old. For whatever reason, I liked “Babe.” It hasn’t aged as well as Night in the Ruts.
Flash forward three and a half decades, and it’s the childish things that have put me away. Don’t misunderstand, I love collecting, and sitting and listening to records brings me a lot of pleasure. But not as much pleasure as it might if it weren’t so solitary. Recently I was perusing the racks at a well-apportioned store in the neighboring county when I entered into a brief conversation with a fellow patron. I don’t remember who spoke first, but I wondered aloud where the owner of the establishment in which we found ourselves was able to come across such large amounts of prime stock in an increasingly competitive environment. “I think I know,” the man, older than me by at least two decades, remarked. “Guys like me who’ve accumulated all this junk and die, and then our kids don’t know what to do with it. They bring it here.”
I knew he was right, of course. Boomers had supplied my initial rush of vinyl as they replaced their records with CDs, now they were doing it again as they died. But my fellow shopper wasn’t done talking, even as I became mildly preoccupied with a cache of Michael Schenker Group titles. “Take me, as an example,” he continued. “My son, he’s about thirty-five. All I want for him is to come to me and say, ‘You know, Dad, you’ve accumulated a lot of great junk here. Let’s have a couple of beers and you play me some records.”
I didn’t know what to say. I mumbled something about it never being too late (which is, of course, a lie; someday my fellow shopper will die and then it will definitely be too late), but thought immediately about how a) if he were my dad we’d have those beers and listening sessions all the damn time and b) I’d never thought to fear the very real possibility my own sons could turn out just like this guy’s ingrate, lugging the tonnage to whatever future record dealer would be all too happy to pick over the bones of my collection.
I have too many records.
The first time I read Jean Baudrillard’s essay on collectors from The System of Objects, I found myself continuously searching for loopholes so that the Frenchman’s cutting classifications couldn’t apply to me. But it’s of little use. My records won’t save me from death, any more than they will provide the elusive impetus to bond that my fellow shopper was in search of. He will die. It will be too late. I like to think the essentially life-long pursuit of record knowledge began with the desire to put away childish things, but, like Baudrillard wrote:
The collector is never an utterly hopeless fanatic, precisely because he collects objects that in some way always prevent him from regressing into the ultimate abstraction of a delusional state, but at the same time the discourse he thus creates can never — for the very same reason — get beyond a certain poverty and infantilism.
Great. I knew it. I’m still just a child. But even worse, Baudrillard continues and asserts, “collectors…invariably have something impoverished and inhuman about them.”
It’s hard to be objective about record collecting, but, objectively, collecting of any sort isn’t all that cool. Rock n’ roll will always be cool, one supposes, but part of the reason that Guru Guru records are hard to track down is because they were never cool to just about anyone. There might be a small community of people who think what I do is cool, but they’re generally guarded and competitive and would never admit anyone else is better at the hobby than they are. I know of which I speak.
What this means is the hobby is even more inscrutable to what I will be forced to refer to as “outsiders.” Take, for example, Connie, the representative for my insurance agency who was unlucky enough to take my query. That’s right. I bit the bullet and made the call. I didn’t get Gary, which is just as well considering my fears about the $10k; I got Connie. I waited for her on hold for a few moments, listening to the guy who played Ryan O’Reilly on Oz prattle on about being protected from mayhem like him (or, I suppose, polar vortices), sitting in and amongst my records, quietly spinning the debut record by Doug Tuttle. Let’s get down to brass tacks, the hard, cold facts and the cold, hard cash and the dollars and cents here, Connie. If it costs $1.20 per $100 to insure jewelry, what’s going to be the cost to insure a copy of Run the Jewels?
Connie was smart and experienced and interested. She expressed a love for Patsy Cline and Bob Marley and INXS, although she preferred CDs. I get it, they’re portable. I didn’t point out that digital music isn’t really music at all; I was happy to have someone with a passing interest in what I was trying to accomplish. But for all her smarts and experience and interest, it turns out mine wasn’t an easily answerable question. We discussed the ins and outs, and I put a value on my collection at $75,000.
I have too many records.
I surmised that the average value of each record was between $10-15, some being worth much more, but many others being worth less. We talked about what the differences were between the homeowner’s policy and the “Scheduled Personal Property” attachment I’d be purchasing. Connie explained that one could insure just about anything—jewelry, golf clubs, a hearing aid—for the right price. After a pleasant enough conversation we hung up with a promise for more concrete information once Connie had the chance to speak with an underwriter.
Then I waited.
Connie also waited.
As she later explained, she spoke to one, then three, then five separate underwriters, none of whom could or would give her an answer. In a large insurance company with the sort of budget for two separate, completely different, simultaneous advertising strategies, there didn’t seem to be a vinyl specialist. What exactly am I paying for?
But none of this was Connie’s fault, although she was very apologetic. She also took the time to answer many of my questions, and did her best to explain what would and would not be covered should I choose to insure my records. One of the boys leaving some crayons on top of records, then the crayons melting and ruining said records? Covered. Theft during a party? Covered. Alison becoming extremely angry with me and tossing my Toots and the Maytals records out the window? Not covered.
The trouble is no one seemed to know where to categorize records, since they were not jewelry or golf clubs or a hearing aid. Connie’s best guess was fine arts, but she couldn’t get anyone in fine arts to answer their phone nor to return her calls, and she feared it’d be worse for me should I ever need to speak with anyone in fine arts. But fine arts it was, for the time being, and Connie figured if she gave me a dollar amount and if I said yes then that would force the issue and someone in fine arts would either have to say yes or else ask more questions and either way it was more action than we’d seen so far.
Did I want to move forward? Connie asked.
In light of the 2010s so-called “Vinyl Revival,” which has seen LP sales climb from under one million units in 2007 to over eight million in 2014, people who learn I’m a collector invariably ask me what I think of the Johnny-come-lately Millenials who are driving this spike. Given my general cynicism and overall sourpussed façade, I’d guess those who ask are looking for some sort of anti-Gen Y rant. I might have plenty of ammunition for exactly that in regards to many things, but the Vinyl Revival ain’t one of them. Buy ‘em up, twentysomethings. I remember the dark, dark days of the late nineties and early 2000s, when labels might press 500 LP units of any given title if they pressed vinyl at all. I’ve watched the value of some pieces in my collection skyrocket as a consequence (barring unforeseen financial ruin, I ain’t sellin’). It’s wonderful that multiple re-issue companies spring up and re-press previously impossible-to-find titles (even if several of them are of dubious quality or questionable rights-clearance—I’m looking at you, 4 Men With Beards, or, for that matter, any re-issue company without a website, as who on earth doesn’t have a website?!). There are still brick-and-mortar record stores, when everyone assumed they’d be long gone as the 2010s dawned. I couldn’t be happier that the Millenials think vinyl is cool, even as they ruin their investment by playing their LPs with what I can only assume are the equivalent of sewing needles on those cut-rate Crosley portables that Urban Outfitters foists on them (my advice? Invest in a real stylus).
I was there for the original vinyl revival (no need to capitalize that one). In the early-to-mid nineties, when anti-corporate culture was the rage (not sure how or why that ever fell out of fashion), indie kids raised a fist at The Man by refusing to pay double for a CD version of what they could happily own and love and hear on vinyl. In the 2010s, most labels charge a minimum of twenty bucks retail for their oily wares, but in my day, Sonny, that plastic was under ten. In addition, for a burgeoning music geek like me, used vinyl couldn’t be equaled in terms of quantity per dollar spent (if you were patient). I would make giant lists of crucial pieces based on leafing through yellowed record guides, then peruse any number of locales filling in gap after gap after gap in my musical knowledge. It was the equivalent of getting a Sorbonne education for state school money, and I sucked it all up like a buttery croissant.
There exists, in baseball sabermetric terms, a predictable career arc for most everyday Major League players who last in the bigs for more than ten years. It suggests struggles early in their twenties as they learn the game, peaking in their late twenties as size, strength, speed and smarts intersect. After thirty, it’s all downhill. But that confluence of smarts and physicality also has the potential for what’s called a late-career spike year, a season usually around thirty-four or –five in which the wily veteran stays healthy and uses what he’s learned to make up for what he’s lost in strength and speed. I consider my first decade or so of collecting to be like those early years in a ballplayer’s career. I had the endurance and the desire, but the knowledge wasn’t there yet. I liked what I liked and I wasn’t all that willing to test my limits. I shudder to think about the pieces I left behind due to ignorance; if I could time travel, it’d be wonderful to peruse those nineties racks armed with my 2010s knowledge so that I wouldn’t be all, “What the hell is Amon Duul II?,” and pass right by in eventually-not-at-all-blissful ignorance. I look forward to my late-career spike year.
The point is, when I started buying records I was young and stupid; I couldn’t handle the curveball. There was also one major hassle I didn’t foresee: moving an increasingly large number of boxes of vinyl nearly a dozen times during my mildly nomadic twenties and early thirties. At first it was only a small annoyance, but by the time Alison and I bought our home, it had become a daylong project to get them into boxes, a second daylong project to get them out of boxes and onto shelves, and a third daylong project to get them reorganized according to my (arcane) method of organizing them.
I have too many records.
If I were to stay awake twenty-four hours a day for as many days as it would take to play each record in my collection, it would take over one hundred thirty-eight days. More reasonably, let’s assume I could play records for two hours each day. This is a tremendous stretch, given the general responsibilities of life, but we’ll say I can play records in the background whilst cooking or cleaning or grading papers, but not while one or both of my children are in my care. Of course I’d prefer to give each record my undivided attention, or at least as much as required to space out with my Grado cans over my head staring at the cover of Meddle. Anyway, the two hours a day method means I’d need to listen for an awesome 1666 days before I’d get through the collection. A little over four and a half years. A president and then some. And all of these numbers presuppose that I’ve somehow stopped acquiring records which is a laughable proposition considering I ordered a couple of Manilla Road reissues from Rockadrome while typing this very sentence. Given four years and change, I’d probably be looking at adding one thousand or more additional records to what is already there, maybe even more if someone finally starts reissuing Freedy Johnston’s catalog.
In the end, I bought the insurance. It amounted to a little less than a hundred fifty dollars a year. Gary and his company made good on my frozen bathroom, so I assumed they’d make good on my SPP claim, should I ever need one. I hope I never need one. I doubt I’ll ever need one. I also felt a little bad because Connie worked hard. I figured she deserved the commission, or at least the thrill of a job well done. Perhaps most important, there’d be no cataloguing. As long as I have an appraisal of the entire collection, there will be no need to go through and keep track of each and every piece of vinyl, its condition, its value. I’m happy about that. It allows me to keep one foot in adulthood—being insured—and one in something other than adulthood—collector with arcane system of classification that means nothing to no one. In the end, who cares if I didn’t really put away childish things, or that I’m going to die? What’s the difference if my sons never end up sharing the joy of analogue, and if I’m really only ever alone with all that vinyl? Why should I care if I never file a claim, if my current first pressing of eels’ Electro-shock Blues is the same one I have until I’m dead, and that it’s then shuffled off to some nameless, faceless reseller who won’t know me or know how great my taste was or how many hours I spent tracking these things down and how many more hours I wished I could’ve spent enjoying them, listening to them, cleaning them, touching them, gazing upon them. What’s a hundred and fifty dollars a year until I’m dead for if not for the peace of mind that I’ve protected my copy of Piece of Mind? Does it matter if I’m inhuman? Or is collecting the thing that made me the most human?