The Psycho-Geography of Record Fairs
WFMU record fair
Utrecht, WFMU and London Olympia
by Johan Kugelberg
by Jon SavageThe Utrecht record fair is so overwhelming that you have to engage some kind of philosophy, if not some kind of spiritual disengagement in order not to get swamped by the sheer immensity of what is offered there. Only then can you be calm about the opportunities missed, the bargains snaffled, and the expensive must-haves that turn out to be dogs (that deep gouge that you somehow missed).
Johan's text captures Utrecht's furious intensity, and carefully isolates the different characters that make up this patchwork of human frailty and death-avoiding obsession. There is the snotty British psych dealer with his rack of perfect originals that, somehow, you just don’t want to buy; the rabid fan of a perversion so unlike yours that it doesn’t prevent an instant camaraderie.
The best bargains I got in Utrecht were from half-demented dealers who didn’t, on some fundamental level, really give a fuck. Which is a lesson in itself. One lectured me in detail on the aesthetics of Q'65 B-sides (an absorbing topic) while another erupted in appreciation at my selection of an Aldous Huxley spoken-word LP: "that's a fucking GREAT album. GOOD CHOICE!"
Every record fan should take at least one trip to Utrecht: it's like you've died and gone to heaven. Or, as you survey the queues to the fast-food stand and bathe in its smell, pure hell. It's that kind of super-intense, bi-polar experience. Let Johan be your guide.
"The commodification of all forms of culture – turning all its aspects into saleable things – and the rise of mass communications led to revolutionary potential easily being diverted, sometimes turned reactionary." – Guy Debord
Do we collect records awake or dreaming?
Are we fueled by what the ancient Greeks called 'enthousiasmos': the ecstasy of the soul when it is communicating with a deity?
What does a record fair mean?
What happens at the record fair?
How do we feel while we are there?
How do we feel when we anticipate it?
Where does its powerful allure come from?
How have things changed as we nowadays fester in alienated consumption on eBay?
Does it matter what time you get in to the record fair? Whether you get in at four o' clock for an extra 20 bucks, or if you arrive with the average Joe at six o' clock? Or for that matter, if you chum up to a dealer and procure a coveted pass in the guise of being his helper. You know: like 'Santa's little...' What records are found during those first two hours? What records are found during load-in? Rifling through a half-open boxes as the dealer subdues his cardiac-arrest in mid-shlep -- powerlessly reflecting that the only exercise he's had since hauling boxes at the last record fair is hauling boxes at this record fair.
What records are found during load-out? Who are those members of the true lumpen proletariat of record fairs who peruse the bins at a leisurely stroll in the last hours of the last day of the fair? Not only are they in true contempt of the bump and grind of opening night, but blissfully indifferent to the feverish transactions fueled by existential urgency that in some cases took place before the dealer had even removed his records from the U-haul! There is a certain never-say-die panache of subtle one-upmanship when you spot someone you remember as a hardcore collector from way-back, strolling into the WFMU fair at noon on Sunday (the last day), carelessly flicking through a bin or two. Dark are the stories told around camp fires across the country of said careless strollers serendipitously purchasing a copy of the Mystic Zephyr 4 album in the WFMU station-benefit dollar bin on Sunday afternoon. "True story" sighs the hobo-esque record dealer who told the tale, emitting air in small puffs from a pursed mouth.
Does desire get satisfied? Is the strife of this love inside a dream?
Does the record sell for more on eBay? (the dealer dreads and the punter hopes)
Does the record sell for less on eBay? (the punter dreads and the dealer hopes).
Has a bumpkin rented a table on behalf of his family, selling the personal collection of his recently-deceased uncle, the editor in chief of a prominent hippie-era underground magazine, pricing all records and artifacts at two Euros each, with the exception of the records that are unplayed, and come with the press kit, in which case they are four Euros, or in case they are on a small label he has never heard of in which case he is selling them for one euro each? Yes. Dare I say yes. And then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes, and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
And then we awoke. Alas it was only a dream. All the world is a record fair, and we are rarely players, mere punters and portrayers.
I was sitting in a chapel, at the funeral of an acquaintance, noticing a long line of strangers cueing up to the coffin. The man at the front of the cue laid his hand on the coffin and exclaimed: "Excellent! Would do business again! Five stars!" He stepped away. The next man walked up: "Smooth transaction, great seller, thanks!" And the next one: "A great eBayer with great shipping and perfect communication! A plus!" This continued for quite some time. And then I awoke.
The record fair with the most fear in the room is undoubtedly New York City's WFMU.
There are plenty of unspeakably great and wildly rare records in the room, all haunted by the translucent scepter of pure paranoid angst. I whisper his name: Popsike. I whisper his other name: eBay, and the other names, The Most Unclean, The Little Whore, Beelzebub, Son of Partition, Lucifer. This demon sides up to the dealer, who is holding a vanity pressing he just took out of his box of records, that he has yet to price. He couldn't find any information about the record on-line, and not only does the record have a massive break on it, but also one song with a wild fuzz guitar solo, and one long tranced-out track with bongos and a flute. A back-pack wearing crate-digger wrapped in Evisu and Visvim with his record bag on wheels in tow asks him how much he wants for it. He wipes the sweat from his brow. How much do you want to pay for it? I don't know. How much you want for it? Well it is pretty rare… The specter is whispering in both ears simultaneously... I hear Cut Chemist is looking for it... I need to look it up on Popsike.com to see how much it is worth…It is on a Japanese comp... Maybe I should put it on eBay... I wonder if someone has used the break... I shouldn't spend a lot on a record the fair has just opened...
The complex inter-personal dynamic between these two gents could give Tove Jansson or William Faulkner a one for the money and a two for the record show. Whether you believe that the eBay-demon is real, or assess him as a figment of our imagination, or for that matter, address the concept of the demon as a half-baked metaphor used by a slovenly writer for his pursuit of moral judgments, you gotta admit that M.R. James would have had something to say about the eerie and uncanny emotional landscape of the WFMU record fair. Guy Debord would have flailed and shouted about its abject psycho-geography, spilling his calvados. And Pieter Breugel would have pulled his pencil out and started sketching, and Jacques Brel would have written a lyric about lost souls mired in life-long paralysis. But I jest, just a little bit. A VG minus of jest.
This past year, the WFMU record fair was less rugged than it had been for many years.
I am trying to understand why. The reheated pizza was still miserable. You couldn't buy coffee. The live radio broadcast transmitting from the event kept the already nasty booming slap of the noisy room marinating in a constant of avant-improv and free noise. This was inter-spliced with the grating voices of the DJ's: 30- and 40-somethings who feel like they are 20-somethings. "Not that there is anything wrong with that", said the glass-house to the brick. The dealers were in a particularly foul mood for the commencement of the fair, caused by the record load-in, which was seemingly based on cattle-loading techniques originating in Chicago slaughterhouses. The additional cause of the dealers' collective irritation being the habit of European crate-diggers to unpack their boxes for them, and not stopping when yelled at, as the diggers were all listening to particularly slamming break-beats on their iPod headphones. There were also a fair share of dealers who were truly miffed that nothing was really selling, and that the quality and knowledge of the clientele had really gone down the toilet. This assessment of the record fair situation becomes formally executed earlier for each year that passes. Apparently the record held is a Northern Soul dealer who started bitching about this at the fair before the dealers were actually let in to set up.
Notwithstanding all this and that and more, as I said, this year the WFMU record fair was less nasty and I just realized why: the ultra-harsh fluorescent tube lighting of yore had been replaced by something slightly less harsh. Apparently, the numerous fashion fairs that are held in the space had all complained that the light made the customers look grotesque. Oddly enough, with the splendid new lighting and all, some people at the fair still looked a bit on the grotesque side, a tad, a smidge. Like they'd stepped out of a drawing by Pieter Breugel. But I jest, I do jest.
Utrecht record fair
Utrecht, Utrecht, how do I love thee?
When I attempt to convince other New York dealers and collectors to just go buy a plane ticket already, and visit what I think is the best record fair in the world, my rap usually starts with the anecdote about the 6" 8" collector of Kim Wilde picture sleeves that sided up next to me as I was pouring over some bin at the Utrecht fair: "Hallo! I am Dieter from Germany" he howled. "Howyadoin" I mumbled. "I am doing so good!" he bellowed. "I have found so many today! So many Kim Wilde picture sleeve 45's! I collect Kim Wilde picture sleeves! What do you collect?"
For a split second, the nasty Anthony Bourdain-style cynicism almost overtook me. You know the kind: where you choose to ridicule the enthusiasm of somebody else because what they like doesn't fit your perception of what is cool. A powerful and dangerous mindset which rules many roosts of white middle class boys, an often applied survival kit for the person who was bullied in school, themselves becoming taste-bullies, or in worst case scenarios, taste-nazis. Like Sonic Youth. Or Vice Magazine.
I didn't fall in that trap. "Kim Wilde! Cool!" I exclaimed. "I am looking for European disco 45's with ridiculous sleeve art," I told him.
"OK!" yelled Dieter, Rain-man style. "I will tell you if I find some! Please tell me if you see really cool 45's by Kim Wilde!" "Sure will" I replied.
Dieter wandered off, or rather, slantered off.
I watched his permed red hair bop down the record fair alleyway, disappearing behind a couple of Matrix-goths. I remember thinking how unbelievably psyched I was that I had met Dieter, and how Dieter's raging enthusiasm for an artist best described as marginal was exactly the kind of holy quest that acted as as solid counter-weight to the kind of besserwisser mentality that usually reigns at record fairs. But then I started looking around: there were Dieter's everywhere. Even the sour British psychedelic fatso dealers had a certain je nais c'est qui of merriment that the very same dealers certainly were devoid of at the London record fair a couple of weeks later.
Why was this? Well, it is Holland. The Dutch have an extremely old merchant class, and with that, they have the aspirational refinement and tolerance of said class. You don't want to piss off customers, notwithstanding who those customers are, what they believe or what color their skin is. You also want to make sure that the success of your business leads to your kids having a better life than you, which means that knowledge, or how knowledge is stored, is respected whether it is books or records or paintings or ledgers or museums. It can also bring about a cosmopolitan hedonism (which it too is good too), international ideas of what is arousing, amusing or intoxicating brought to you by people from all over the world, trading at the most splendidly international ports.
The fair is tightly run, very professional. It is held in the middle of a ridiculously huge mega-complex that this very same weekend holds a giant sale of collectibles (Dutch kitsch rivals that of Ohio) as well as a book fair and a comic book fair, which means that if your attention deficit disorder is keeping you in check that day, you can wander away from the vinyl and Dieter, to enjoy the company of Dieter's friend who is the world's foremost collector and dealer of Rice Krispie box prizes (did you know that Snap, Crackle and Pop are Knisper, Knasper and Knusper in Dutch?). Look! His neighbor who will provide your life-span need for Italian erotic comic book figurines.
I am hard pressed to come up with a true downside to the Utrecht Record Fair. The closest I get to bitching is about the food, but the Dutch fast food also fascinates.
It truly is in the spirit of Pieter Breugel and Hieronymous Bosch. It is grotesque.
There are three foodstuffs avoided by the international record dealers, and eagerly gulped by the Dutch: frikandellen, kroketten and waffles. The waffles are gigantic and drenched in syrup, powdered sugar, sugary preserves, chocolate and whipped cream.
Vending machines & fatty Dutch treats
They are what you think people eat at the country fair. I'd argue that the smacked-out sugar O.D. would even intimidate an eleven-year-old boy. Frikandellen is extremely fucked up: a rectangular chunk of minced mystery meat (pork? chicken? cow? alpaca?), deep fried not so much to golden perfection, more to gray/brown grease-bombage. The dense rectangle is then sliced down its length, smothered in peanut sauce, and served on a bun. Fucked. There are rumors that the peculiarly Dutch curry-flavored ketchup is also utilized. Kroketten is or can be minced chicken or pork mixed with mashed potatoes, béarnaise sauce and vegetables, coated with a splendidly thick batter and then having its daylights fried out of it. The taste is oddly breakfast cereal-esque, with an added specialty flavoring of White Castle onion rings. Pretty damn scary. The international dealers sustain themselves on French fries. But beware: if the Dutch are left to their own devices, and the lionshare of the fast food professionals at the record fair are Dutch, they'll smother your fries in what they call "frit saus." This is mayonnaise as we know it. Adding a layer of fat to the layer of fat. The never-say-die battle cry of junk food connoisseurship as your arteries are visibly hardening for each and every terminal bite.
There are records everywhere. Records records records. In the morning of the Friday, which is dealer day and setup day at Utrecht, the vitality of the airspace is positively shimmering. People from all over the world are unpacking their wares. Overseas dealers are pacing the floor, waiting for their international expedited parcel full of rare vinyl from their home country. Records that aren't that rare in their home country, but that hopefully will fetch a fortune here in Utrecht. Plane tickets, hotels and meals are dear, so one must hope that the Peruvian, Brazilian and Mexican dealers have a mark-up of at least a few thousand percent. I hightail it over to the Mexican dealers first. Almost every year, I've found something special: talismans of pure magic, that sort of thing, usually in scratchy VG- condition, with picture sleeves as distressed and faded as the bizarro-world denim of upscale boutiques. There are rare records and then there are rare records, and then there are fucking rare records: as my collection of Mexican '70's punk is completed by the acquisition of the Rock En El Chopo triple-LP, I marvel at the absurd ecstasy of this endorphin-rush, set in motion whence internet rumors, old discographies and fanzine articles gel together on the ol' want-list, reaching acme as a scratchy and worn Moby Dick is harpooned by an Ahab with coffee-jitters, 8 A.M. on a Friday morning in a sleepy Dutch town.
As salted and peppered veterans of the interweb all know, spend enough nighttime hours far from the bed of your loved one, bent over in front of the pale demon white glow of the screen, eBaying away in your undermost wear, and you'll find most of the records that were listed as 'top-wants' on that piece of paper tacked up on the bulletin board of the dorm room of your youth. All you need is cash, cash is all you need. Misfits singles, mint copies of albums by the Monks, the Sonics, the 13th Floor Elevators, the private press version of 'Strings of Life,' a Beatles butcher cover, Velvet Underground and Nico in mono with unpeeled banana, easy as long as your PayPal account can withstand a couple of grand. The eBay listings that utilize phrases like "impossibly rare" are plentiful, but how can the record be "impossibly rare" when it is right there, in front of you on the screen, with a "buy it now" option of 1200 bucks? Popsike then tells you that five copies have been sold in the past year, so what is impossible is possible, even when the dealer tells you that it is de facto impossible, at least five times in the past year.
See Part II of the Record Fair article
|MAIN PAGE||ARTICLES||STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC||LINKS|