Last week, an eBay user known as “reallylivinretro” tried to sell a sealed copy of the first Velvet Underground album for $3,999. This was at least the second time he’d posted this item at this price. There were never any bidders.
I needed a moment to think about reallylivinretro because I don’t know what high-end collectibles are going for in 2019. More than that, I needed to remember what records do, the same way I grind for a minute when I try to speak French. I once collected records (lots) and spent money (lots) on them. The parameters of an almost-daily practice are lost now. Records are like the parents I used to see at drop-off and pick-up. I remember only a little about them.
When I moved apartments in 2006, I started selling off my records. It seemed likely that, even if I had space again, I wouldn’t want to fill it with a record library. Recordings would be out there somewhere and I no longer had to figure out where that was. But I expected my sentimentality about books and records to carry on. Even if I was listening to Davy DMX through Spotify, my relationship to that CBS 12-inch with the blue label would somehow remain intact. These objects would maintain a hold over me, even if I didn’t own them. That is not what happened.
A person plays a book, but a machine plays a record. This is mundane and also escaped me for a while. A book is a place and a thing at the same time, and it demands that you interact with it. An album is a beautiful tile, a container for something you give to a machine and walk away from. If records feel like part of an incantation, it’s because there are recordings inside of them. Render the recording in another format and the magic goes along. Books work perfectly well as PDFs and what-have-yous (shout out to PDFs and what-have-yous) but the book book sets up a reaction that alchemizes the text, both trapping and releasing it. Somehow more of the text gets into me. I’ve gotten rid of all my vinyl and I’ve kept every single book.
Roland Barthes wrote this about photographs in “The Rhetoric of the Image”: “The type of consciousness the photograph involves is indeed truly unprecedented, since it establishes not a consciousness of the being-there of the thing (which any copy could provoke) but an awareness of its having-been-there.” My awareness of my experience is the having-been-there of the nostalgic memory, and that’s what has subsided. The huge benefit here is I can hear the music—or whatever is at hand—more clearly. Reverie gave way to research.
When I shower, I listen to online radio stations through a mediocre Bluetooth speaker which will likely be damaged by water soon. It is often sublime (as showers go). I have no idea what digital format any of the music is in. By the time it gets to my phone, the music is a fairly small file. Doesn’t matter.
In November of 1990, Simon Frith wrote about ditching records for his column in the Village Voice. (Thank you to Joe Levy for telling me about this piece.) Frith was more than a little prescient about sound quality not mattering, to either the form or the market.
I have a story about record collecting which seems to be a story about not collecting.
In 1990, I went with my girlfriend to Cambridge and ended up at Mystery Train records, a tiny spot near Harvard Square that shared its space with a clothing store. I had been in the store for maybe three minutes when I found a sealed copy of Eugene McDaniels’ Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse. It was sitting in the used bin, priced at four dollars. I bought it because it came out in 1971 and was on Atlantic Records—I had no idea who Eugene McDaniels was. Alphonse Mouzon was the drummer and Miroslav Vitous was the bassist. Whatever else happened, there would be thirty killer seconds and it would be well-engineered.
That’s it below. That is not my copy.
A month before we went to Cambridge, A Tribe Called Quest released its first album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. Quest were opening up rap and taking it to places suggested by the records. When you heard Cerrone’s “Rocket In The Pocket” coming out of a Malcolm McLaren remix and you knew it would sound so good if if if if you just added I don’t know and your face scrunched up and you did your one b-boy move—that’s what Quest felt like. They were the music that the music made you want to make.
At the end of the first track on People’s Instinctive Travels, “Push It Along,” there’s this killer chant and a kind of foot-dragging vamp, a non-song tucked into a song.
When I got my Eugene McDaniels album home from Cambridge, I sliced it open. There was a full-color insert and it all smelled like the absolute thing—ink, cardboard, cheap paper, fancy paper, and the weird staticky ozone smell of new vinyl unhooking from the generic Atlantic sleeve, the one that always had Zeppelin on it.
That figure from “Push It Along,” that drone chopped up into little pieces, was right there at the opening of “Freedom Death Dance.”
“No amount of dancing is gonna make us free” is a key line from the McDaniels song. The whole album has that jacked up nihilation vibe, which is maybe why nobody namechecks McDaniels. “The Parasite (For Buffy)” is a good anti-Thanksgiving song, and points out that a bunch of “jailbirds” landed at Plymouth Rock and then killed everyone. “Supermarket Blues” is about being beaten and called a “Communist jerk” while shopping. Negative R&B is still unfinished.
When you’re looking to hit paydirt in a record store, this is as good as it gets. The album had beats that were co-signed, so it was socially cool if that kind of thing mattered to you. The playing is uniformly tight; if you had a sampler (I did not) you could easily chop up the other, unsampled songs and make a new banger. But wait! McDaniels and his band were already sampling themselves. A slightly tweaked version of the groove in “Freedom Death Dance” is also used for “Jagger The Dagger,” the McDaniels song that Q-Tip actually sampled. Recursive, and revisiting the album led me to make the same mistake I made almost thirty years ago. It’s not this track—it’s that one.
Seven years later, when Deborah was pregnant with Sam, we rented out the apartment and decamped to the country because we were terrified of having a tiny clean baby in a big dusty apartment at the filth nexus of Canal and Broadway with no AC. (We were dumb. Subways are much safer than cars.) We were renting it out to Harvard Law students, which I didn’t love, but Deborah was a pro at arranging things like this. It had never gone wrong before, and usually some nice couple from Europe would show up and stay for a week and leave us a sachet of lavender and a note.
These jagoffs overfilled the washing machine, flooded the building without telling anyone, and stole my twenty most valuable records, including Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse. (It seems most likely that a friend who knew about records came over and wiggled into the music room. The records stolen weren’t just valuable; they were the pieces that only a DJ or collector would recognize.) There was a back and forth with the students, who were nightmare vortices, except for one guy, who was sweet. Eventually, they had a lawyer write to us, threatening something about the value of our rent versus the value of the stolen records.
That lawyer was Alan Dershowitz.
I never got the albums back. I didn’t really want to collect records, or anything, after that. In 2004, along with three friends—Hua Hsu, Dave Tompkins, and Jeff Chang—I started an MP3 music blog called Sticker Shock. That link is dead but there is mention of Sticker Shock here in an August 2004 blog post, complete with a full Hua feature. The blog lasted for only twenty or so posts. I can’t speak to what the others did or didn’t feel like doing. I remember reaching two conclusions: Dave had more records than all of us combined, and that this was entirely OK. I wasn’t ceding ground. I had already ceded it.
Six years ago, the god Alphonse Mouzon found “Freedom Death Dance” on YouTube and asked the OP to credit him. It worked. At some point after this, Alphonse died.
It was a lot to take in, that someone of Alphonse Mouzon’s elevation would get up into the comments, and that he could die.
Losing valuable records turned out to have very little to do with money. Something like my copy of Headless Heroes was irreplaceable not because it was (you could find a decent copy without too much fuss for about $40 in 1997) but because the story of finding it was impossible to reproduce, the having-been-there. Same for my copy of The Howlin’ Wolf Album and Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath and the uncredited, shit hot Ethiopian jazz record called Jazz.
I only spent real money for an album once, and it felt infinitely stupid, right away. I went to the record convention at the Roosevelt Hotel and paid $75 for a sealed copy of The Whole Darn Family Has Arrived. You know it because you know “Seven Minutes of Funk,” which shows up first on “Superappin’”—replayed, not as a sample, because there was no sampling in 1979. You likely know the sample because both EPMD and Jay-Z used it for their debut (or almost debut) singles.
But the fancy original didn’t sound any better than the bootleg version on Ultimate Breaks & Beats I’d had for a decade. What the heck. If the act of finding the record wasn’t a gas and the signal in the vinyl wasn’t anything special, what was the point? I never had money for collectibles anyway, which is why I never had sealed Velvet Underground albums. The prices on decent rock records were fully douched out by the late eighties.
The idea of unlocking something stuck in 1967 is delicious, though. Think of all the people who saw this album in Woolworth’s and thought “What’s with the banana sticker?” They stood there, next to the plastic sweaters, and figured it was only forty-four cents, so why not. Then they brought it home and said “Gah!” and tossed it.