Thursday, July 30, 2009

Equipment Problems

I am not an autograph hound. I also don't collect test pressings. But if one comes around, I'm not likely to refuse. While this attitude may make my girlfriend uneasy, it is true that there is a strong correlation between my need for something and the unusualness of it. What I'm saying is that I, like any collector, will jump on a good opportunity even if it's not exactly what I'm into at the moment. I doubt this is helping the uneasiness.

Autograph hounds know what to do. They somehow get 8"x10" glossies and know where to wait to get them signed by the person in the picture. They have a Sharpie at all times. Those of us who are more casual about it don't have it down pat. If I think I'm going to be in a setting where I could pursue a particularly interesting autograph, I will come prepared. Record jacket (no record needed), cardboard mailer to carry and protect the record and a Sharpie. I can be just as prepared as the regular autograph people. There's just one thing I can't seem to master : How to remain unflustered when interfacing with the person. I have probably done this about 20 times total. Not counting signing events - these don't count as it's akin to fishing in a stocked pond - each time has gone about the same. I usually fumble around with my words, the record sleeve, and the Sharpie. It's a lot like how I would envision myself in a cash-for-sex situation : One party is not really interested and feeling a little invaded while the other is bumbling, ashamed and humiliated.

A few years ago I was invited by a friend to an art opening in Peekskill, New York. The artist was Richard Butler. He had apparently been trained as a painter from a young age. He was having his first opening at the age of 50 or so. Why the gap between his schooling and his first opening? He spent most of his life as the singer for the Psychedelic Furs. Sure, I like the Psychedelic Furs, but they were never my favorite band by any stretch. Didn't matter - this was an easy opportunity. I prepared myself by digging out a 7" sleeve that's pretty rare (Martin Hannett produced the B-side of the UK single), a Sharpie and some cardboard to protect it. No problem.

I met up with my friend and we went to the gallery with a group. My friend knows some people who know some more people and he was lucky enough to be on a distant-acquaintance basis with Richard Butler. Although I had a track record of choking badly, I was confident that the introduction and Richard Butler's diminished status due to the lack of activity in his music career would make for a smooth interaction. My friend introduced me, we all shook hands and the three of us started talking like old friends about the opening. Sounds good right? He kept talking. That voice is familiar, I thought. Uh oh. He sounds like that guy in the Psychedelic Furs. Then it hit home. My mind raced. This man's voice had been part of the soundtrack of my life since I was in elementary school. This is the man who sang "Love My Way", which was integral to a key scene in Valley Girl. After my brother's wedding in 1987, I sat on the floor in the hotel with some other kids and watched videos all night. "Heaven" was one. This is the man who sang "Pretty In Pink". John Hughes named one of his films after a song this man sung. This man, standing in front of me in Peekskill, New York, was part of the fabric of my existence. As this realization came crashing down on me, my friend did me a favor and told him I had brought something for him to sign. I clammed up and started scrambling to find the Sharpie. I found it, opened it, and handed it to him with the sleeve. He happily went about signing it. Here's the results.

Not so good huh? That's because I opened the thin side of the Sharpie. I realized it as he was writing. Feeling like an idiot, I thanked him and shrank away. After all this planning I had blown it. I had completely underestimated his impact on my life. He and his band meant a lot to me and it had completely snuck up on me.

I struggled for several minutes with the idea of re-approaching him, solo this time since my friend was off talking to someone else, and getting him to re-do his John Hancock. How pathetic is this? Not pathetic enough, I guess, since I soon had enough Diet Coke in me to make my move. I got over to him and he had a very different look on his face. "You want me to do that again?" He looked more than a little uninterested and plenty invaded. I was holding up my end of this awful interaction by feeling completely ashamed. The incredible tension was broken by the gallery agent came up to him. My friend had bought a painting - the first one to sell. Turns out a little cash helps everyone get what they want.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Changing Criteria

One question I get from the back seat on an almost daily basis is this : "What is your favorite song?" Tough question. I prefer the just-as-frequent discussions about my favorite color. That's blue. The answer to the inevitable follow-up, "why?", is "just because". End of discussion. So easy. Favorite song is impossible for too many obvious reasons to list. So here's a question worth some time : "What's your favorite record?"

A lot goes into what makes a great record to someone like me. Here's three records that are unquestionably great.

The Dils were a punk band from California. They put out not one, but two 7"s in 1977. The first was on What? Records. The second on Dangerhouse Records. The one above is the second. No titles, no sexy pictures to draw you in. Just a statement that sums up punk very succinctly. It's not important what the Dils look like. It's not important what the song titles are. If you buy this record, you will get two songs averaging 1 minute 39 seconds. There is no disco, no boring rock, no AM radio tripe. The songs : "Class War" & "Mr. Big".

Hey Mr. Big - you look so big to others. Hey Mr. Big - well I can see you're nothing.


This is a split release on the Matt Label and Land Speed Records from 1993. Small 23 were from Chapel Hill, NC. They were part of the scene that spawned Superchunk, Portastatic, Merge Records and much more. Small 23 included a young Eric Bachmann, who later went on to Archers of Loaf and Crooked Fingers. What's so good about this record? Great, non-retro, punk with hints of Superchunk, Husker Du and Dinosaur Jr. It took two labels to bring you this record. The two songs were recorded in two different recording sessions. The front and back cover have pictures of two different children sloppily eating spaghetti. Prior to this record they were called simply "Small". So, perhaps in some quest to improve their odds, they added the "23". They did it carefully, scrawling it by hand under the nicely printed "SMALL". They forgot to make the same adjustment to the back cover or either label on the record. Oh well. It's so good, I have two copies of it, just in case.

Hands down one of the greatest records ever made. Punk music is great, at times, because the bands truly have no intention (or prayer, for that matter) of commercial success. Nothing about this record could have helped them achieve any kind of commercial success or acceptance. Every last thing is incredible. The band's name is "Pink Dirt". A song called "Hooker". Did I mention it's from Norway? 1979? If you're thinking my copy is somehow missing its picture sleeve, you're wrong. This is it. They decided it would be best to just (carefully, as you can see) write the band name and song titles on white paper sleeves. In keeping with this approach, the band also decided to pass on printed labels and just write the letter "A" on side A and the letter "B" on side B. The music is driving punk, half derived from the British and half its own. The thing completely falls apart at one point and the singer gives you some thoughts on a popular religion. Radio ready stuff. Somehow someone stuck a name, address and phone number of a distribution company on the sleeve. This record is everything that makes punk great. A group of kids in Norway in 1979 decided the world needed this record in it, that they needed to be heard. And you should thank your maker that they did.

The three records above have their own charms and have their place in a discussion of great records. They would never win. Not when things like this exist.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Habit Forming Behavior

Some people commonly refer to record collectors as “addicts” as though we have something in common with substance abusers. At least I can take comfort that I have yet to see anyone apply the non-suffix “oholic” to the word “record”. Still, the implication of the word “addict” is clear. As much as many record collectors would dispute the similarities of drug addiction with their habit, there is a tendency we share with those who develop serious substance problems. At some point it starts to make a lot of sense to begin buying large groups of records and reselling them off individually in order to finance the pursuit of the few that are really needed. Sound familiar? Thankfully, while it can earn one the label “record scum”, this practice is not frowned upon by police. Aside from the same overall business model as drug dealing, there is another similarity : You can meet some truly fascinating people when you transact business. Since the re-distribution of records is not illegal, this typically occurs on ebay – an almost anonymous forum. That leaves most of the human interaction to the other side of the equation - the supply side.

One way to buy record collections is by looking on craigslist for people selling their collections along with other stuff they never use anymore. This usually amounts to someone who wants a dollar each or to sell the whole mess for a single price. My approach is to make sure it’s somewhere around 50 cents to a dollar a record, that they’re in decent condition and that there are minimal Broadway soundtrack or classical records. As long as it’s decent condition rock or jazz you can usually turn it around on ebay and make money on volume. And if you’re lucky you can get some good stuff that brings a bit more. I email the lister, ask a few questions and, assuming it looks good, set up a time and place to make the drop. I mean deal. I mean exchange.

Recently, I looked through some ads and came across and interesting one. What happened is a strange incidence of worlds colliding. The ad looked like this :

“100 records for sale – Beatles, Kinks, more - $1 each”

I emailed the poster and went about my business. I didn’t get a response so I figured someone else had made off with the stuff. Beatles records don’t last long. I was surprised to hear back from the guy about a week later, saying he had “just gotten to check his email” and to call him if I was still interested. I called him right away. He told me the records were in great shape and that he could meet that night. I got the address and made the drive to his house around 8PM.

No matter the condition of the home, I usually have a variation of the same thought as I walk into a stranger’s house with some cash to buy their records. I ponder what it’s going to be like for the police when they are trying to find my body or what’s left of it. They will see the email thread in my recent messages. The email address on the other end will be closed and will have been last accessed from some Apple store in a mall where thousands of people use the computers. The address will turn out to be the home of someone who was out of town when this whole thing went down. There will be no clues to the identity of the person who lured me to this home. This hasn’t happened yet. I suppose I won’t be able to let you know when it does either.

Anyway, the house was a nice, well-kept home on a residential street. There was a man standing in the front yard talking on a cell phone. He was about 40, dressed in slacks and a white shirt. I noticed that he appeared to be an Orthodox Jew. He looked at me and waved me to the house. Without saying a word to me, he led me into a mostly dark house and up the steps. We pointed in the direction of some records on the floor and walked into the next room. As I squatted down to pick through the records I looked around the room and thought for a moment that the decorating taste seemed a bit dated for someone his age. No matter – I forgot this as I started to look at the records. Some good stuff. Nothing great but good condition first pressings of the first two Elvis LPs, several nice condition later pressing Beatles LPs and some other common classic rock mixed in with some show tunes and junk. I have to admit I was a bit surprised to find rock and roll records in the home of an Orthodox Jew. I assumed their faith would have led them away from this kind of music. I only paid this a moment’s thought until I came across this :

Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables : the first LP from the Dead Kennedys. The record that single-handedly altered my musical taste and opened the door to another world. An early 80’s issue of Star Hits magazine included a quote from a pop star explaining that he didn’t understand why some people feel you “need to be covered in vomit” to play music and cited the Dead Kennedys as an example. I saved my allowance, bought a copy of this record and my life was literally changed overnight. But now the question loomed even larger : What is this doing in the home of an Orthodox Jew? More punk records followed – Cockney Rejects, GBH, Devo, Circle Jerks, Gang of Four.

As this was being uncovered in one room, I became aware of the man’s ongoing phone conversation. He was talking loudly now, not seeming to notice or care that I was within earshot. He was talking to a woman, explaining that he had no reason to live. He had lost his career, he was unable to see his children, he was massively in debt – “and everything else”. He explained that the “witch” had tricked him and that he was ruined because of it. I started to feel some sympathy. Then he said the magic three letters : “T-R-O”. Anyone who has been through a particularly nasty dissolution knows these letters. Temporary Restraining Order. She had tricked him into violating one and his life had spiraled downhill ever since. I felt sorry for him now. He went on for a bit longer while I sorted out the records I wanted.

He hung up and came into the room. It was very awkward as we both knew I had heard every word of his conversation. I clumsily said something like “I couldn’t help to overhear your conversation – sorry to hear that’s going on”. I let him know I had some firsthand experience on a similar situation and he looked relieved. He sat down and immediately opened up to me. He explained that when he and his wife (the “witch”) were getting divorced she filed a temporary restraining order against him because she wanted the house to herself even though he was living in the basement and didn’t cross paths with her. The TRO was granted (they have to be), he moved to a friend’s home and a deal was worked out so he could have visitation with his children from Friday to Sunday. Here’s where it gets interesting. “The witch – she, she put this thing in the visitation order that said I couldn’t approach the house on foot. And Friday is the Sabbath so, you know, I can’t drive. That witch.” So the guy decides to walk to what he thought was 500 feet from the house and wait for his kids. Turns out he misjudged the distance and the police showed up and threw him in jail for a couple days for violation of a restraining order. Wow.

I thought this was pretty awful. What a witch. But we’re just getting started with this one. He tells me that since he violated the TRO it became a full-on RO. Nothing temporary about it. Then he blurts out : “ I just got out of jail THIS MORNING.” Now my mind is racing in different directions. With one thought I deduce that the reason he had “just gotten to check his email” is because they don’t have an internet connection in the slam. With another thought I fleetingly think this could be the day I don’t make it out of the stranger’s house alive. I foolishly assume that this restraining order violation is the reason he was in jail earlier today. Not so fast. He says he was in jail today on “some child support thing”. Then he clarifies, “I owe $2,500 but they think I owe $25,000”. I mumble something about such a huge discrepancy being hard to understand and he clarifies for me :

“Well I actually do owe $25,000 but I don’t have to pay it yet. If you don’t have any means of income you can get a payment extension. And I was in PRISON for EIGHT MONTHS in the Tombs in Chinatown so I couldn’t work.”

Oh. Now I understand. Thanks for helping un-confuse me.

He continues. “I got behind in child support because of my legal bills. So I committed a crime to try to make ends meet.” Oh please tell me what crime. “I started dealing ecstasy.”

This is as good a time as any to remind you about something : Orthodox Jew.

He then explains that he’s a lawyer. “Was a lawyer”, he clarifies. Felony conviction = automatic disbarment. He can’t work in the only field he has ever known. He used to work at *******, one of the highest end law firms in New York City. He explains that if anyone should be disbarred it’s the guy who runs the place, since he’s got deep ties to the mob. He says he only sold to people at his office (who says lawyers are no fun?) until one of them set him up with a “friend”. The friend turned out to be the heat, the fuzz, the law as they say. Oops.

When charges were filed he found out that, because of the witch and her restraining orders, he wouldn’t get a suspended sentence and would serve prison time. He cut a plea deal that specified he serve his time in the Chinatown prison rather than one upstate. He made it very clear that he was an experienced lawyer who had had lots of clients. It was very important to him that he not be sent to ANY of the prisons upstate. Certain things happen there that do not happen in Chinatown. He said he is very happy he did not go upstate. Sensing that we were now pretty close friends, I asked “How was it?” He said it was not bad. The food wasn’t too bad either. I asked him what he did and if he did a lot of reading since this is always what I envision myself doing when I eventually go to prison. “I did a lot of reading,” he said. “Tons of reading.” Then he went on to say he was eligible for parole after three months but decided to stay for the full term. I had to ask why. He said that, since he was disbarred and didn’t have a plan for how to make money when he got out, he would stay in until he had a plan. It didn’t seem like he was any closer to having that plan in place since I’m currently his only means of income.

This went on for a while. He received a few phone calls from someone who I could hear moving around in the living room downstairs. By this point the whole night was so bizarre I didn’t think twice and asked him if he wanted to talk softer so the person downstairs wouldn’t hear. He was very frank, “That’s my mom – she’s deaf so we can say whatever we want.”

Eventually we got to the records. He pulled out the Gang of Four record (Entertainment! mind you) and said “This band was incredible. This is their best record. I saw them at Irving Plaza.” He got to the Circle Jerks record. “I saw these guys in Stamford.” Turns out he had seen a lot of the local punk bands in the 80s. Dead Kennedys. “My favorite hardcore band. I know I look like an Orthodox Jew. I mean, I am an Orthodox Jew. But this stuff is awesome to anyone.”

$40 later and I made it out alive. I wished him luck. He needs it.