The Psycho-Geography of Record Fairs
Utrecht record fair
Utrecht, WFMU and London Olympia
by Johan Kugelberg, Part 2
I witnessed a bit of what seemed like a healthy record gloat at Utrecht. Small packs of collectors, who had arrived at the record fair together, on a sacred quest as such, would upon finishing their 8-hour exploration then sit down together for a show and tell, interspliced with bites of tenderly deep-fried frikandellen and kroketten. Their shimmering greasy fast food providing a pleasant visual counter-point to their cyber-goth clothing, or their original Sisters of Mercy 45's. This seemed healthy. It gave the record fair a natural end- zone, a coda, a moment of reflection before the spoils of war were brought home to the turntable.
Oddly enough, at WFMU, I didn't see a lot of the sharing and gloating of spoils. Certainly, the lack of a café, and the general lack of space (this is NYC after all), didn't provide a physical locale for the end game, but I sensed that some of the collectors did hoard like lost children, lacking in this aspect of the situation. I imagine that a couple of pirates would have shown each other the sum of their pillage after they had sacked and burned some Caribbean shore town. Or maybe this too, is the demon/spectre up to no good, whispering "Hush! Keep your records to yourself! They don't need to know! You got the record, your precious!" This truly mirrors the alienated consumption of eBay. Your selection is anonymous, you bid under a pseudonym and you unpack your precious treasure alone.
So thank god for record blogs, where you can hype your recent finds, and attempt to increase their worth through the osmosis of the sound-file. This sometimes back-fires as records described as KBD punk monsters on the blog or in the eBay description have sounded a bit like poorly played REO Speedwagon to these ears, and described "Acid Folk masterpieces" have come across like James Taylor or the hippie couple in Mike Leigh's Nuts In May Pure gloating is also an option. An obsessive Swedish psychedelic fatso posts photos of his latest rare record finds, like others post photos of their cats or their grandchildren. This comes across as a bit sad, lonely and unhealthy. I'd rather hang with the goths and their frikandellen.
At record fairs, with portable turntable in hand, and if God and the dealer allows it, you have the opportunity to sample the wares, like you can do at all excellent used record stores, and never at the bad ones, a useful yardstick. Same can be used at the fair: the dealers who won't let you drop the needle, for some reason, are usually the ones devoid of bargains. I couldn't find one dealer at London's Olympia record fair that readily and willingly let me sample their wares.
This might possibly be as British dealers and collectors seem to be the vanguard pathfinders in the rarified field of the struggle against the second law of thermodynamics. In this world-view, the strife towards mint condition, counter-acts our natural world of entropy, gravity and how mint becomes VG becomes G as in grave.
A spurious moment along these lines was when a European record dealer listed a copy of the first Jefferson Airplane album in the Mint Plus condition in one of his record lists. Was it Gods own copy? Had someone snatched it from the Platonic idea of the pressing plant? When it comes to original copies of popular '60's rock records, it seems as if the importance of the condition of the vinyl is contradicted by the physical well being of the people who are safe-guarding their sixties memories through the collecting of artifacts. The records, posters and Beatles autographs are doubtlessly relics of the time of their lives, infused with such a potent voodoo of nostalgia that the psychotic amounts of emotional projection that is fixed on them is starting to be reflected by the stars themselves. One needs only to go to the grotesque Who documentary DVD Amazing Journey to hear a bunch of propped-up geriatric rockers inflict godlike self-importance upon the viewer, comparing their stage ass-wriggling and studio knob-twiddling with the people who actually did something actually important during the same era.
That the sixties survivors believe steadfastly that what they did was for the better good of the world, instead the commodified expression of the spectacle that they were is very sad. Autographs, posters, vinyl records in mint condition, saleable things infused with nostalgia, are not necessarily a bad thing. We drink a vodka drink and sing songs that remind us of our good times, where the problem lies is where a period of time in your life is pin-pointed as the only one directly lived, and the remainder of your days being devoted to a representation of said times. That the trickle-down of the 1967 yippie attempt to levitate the pentagon in 2007 is the attempt of a sizeable crowd at a Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin concert to elevate a truly leaden sixties rock reenactment. The Spruce Goose won't take off, but we can pretend that it will. Even if the performance of the aging rock dinosaur is VG minus at best, his haberdashery isn't, his conduct isn't and his appearance on a mint copy of Get Yer Ya-Yas Out isn't.
The mood at the Olympia Record fair was defeatist. It was as if the collective dealers and punters had woken up in May of 1945 and found out that they were lieutenants in the SS. There were murmurings that amazing finds of extremely rare records had occurred during the first half hour of the fair, but all this had happened to other people. Besserwisser psychedelic fatso and blog-toad records were legion, but they were all priced within an inch of the price-guide. I couldn't help but notice that the equivalent of the Utrecht punter show and tell, herein dwelled within a dealer showing another dealer his fanciest stock before he took it home again. Like a livestock competition, except that the holder of the most beautiful steer or the largest pumpkin would take home a blue ribbon, where the record dealer had to make do with a bit of upmanship and gloat before the mint copy of Odessey and Oracle was put back into the box for another year.
History has ended, and where what was once directly lived, has now receded into a representation. Be it the nightly civil war reenactment of 30-year-old gigs at the Mask, the Mabuhay, CBGB, or the 100 Club that take place in most major cities as we speak, or the Myspace pages of 50-something punk legends who hung out at the Mask, Mabuhay, CBGB or the 100 Club back then and won't let us forget it. They'll never die, as they are punk rockers, and as punk will apparently never die, neither will they.
What do we do then? We gossip about Black Randy on our blog. We glance at pictures of Penelope Houston from 30 years ago and sigh. Forty years ago it was called camp. People looked at photos of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks and sighed. Susan Sontag wrote a good book about it. This was when the Seeds, Velvet Underground and the Thirteen Floor Elevators had brand new records out. The people who were sighing over Pickford and Fairbanks weren't swooning over the Velvets or the Seeds. Rather the opposite.
And as for us, we never die- we collect those records, immersed in the sweetness of obsession aimed at a time and place that we certainly participated in with our breath, but certainly not with our bodies. It is not uncommon among fanatical record collectors to spend the span of their collecting career immersed in the years they just barely missed. Some collect the romanticized trickle-down experiences of their older brothers and sisters, some collect the sounds surrounding the years of their actual birth, and some collect what they felt immersed in the zeitgeist of, but could not follow through as lifestyle, usually due to age, sometimes due to geography.
This is bittersweet: it is possible that the collecting instinct stems from an attempt to reconnect to the very moment when art opened your mind to the endless possibilities of human expression for the first time. I think it started for me around the age of five, a la "Rock & Roll" by Lou Reed and then kept gaining strength (momentum) up until the catharsis of puberty brought punk rock seven-inchers within the general ballpark of Dogtown skateboards, Levi's 501's and Vans sneakers in commodity fetishism. Three events particularly warped my fragile little mind: the son of my nanny, Swedish rocker Peter Torsen leaving his copy of the Velvet Underground and Nico and his issues of Zap Comix within my reach when I was very small. Attending the Don and Moki Cherry children's jazz workshop at Stockholm's museum of modern art circa 70/71, and listening to a radio show called "Asfaltstelegrafen" commencing broadcast in Sweden circa 1976, where the sandwiching of pub rock, 60's punk, punk and 50's rock & roll was presented as if that was a natural thing, which at that point in time, it certainly wasn't.
This lead me directly to the mind-blowing lifeline of rock & roll fandom, since I spent a chunk of my teenage years in a village of a few hundred people, close to the arctic circle. Between rock fandom and skateboarding, an outsider status that unlike that of science-fiction fandom wasn't necessarily anathematic to success with girls, branded me (some would say scarred) for a life of record collecting. Skateboarding I gave up after a particularly nasty fall in 1999. I still miss it though.
Utrecht record fair
Our emotional projection on the artifacts that remain from our youth's cartoon rebellion, is supposed to necessitate our belief system of extended adolescent self-worth. The hedge-fund lower- upper- management aging hardcore kid spending four figures on Misfits test-pressings is battling the same laws of gravity that middle-aged women struggle against at the plastic surgeon or the cosmetics counter. This battle, masking against grave and aging process, and against gravity itself, constitutes one of the most necrotic abrasions into the body-fabric of our very existence: this perpetuated falsity that only certain years in our life-span really truly matter. That life in our youth is worth so much more a commodity, that once youth passes us by, we are obliged to forfeit what we directly lived and recede into a representation of said years for the remainder of our actual duration. Our choice of appearance, our choice of the most meaningful artifacts we surround ourselves with, our choice of the record we place in double plastic bags in alphabetical order, all representing time we address as having lived in qualitative actuality.
What sounds stream through our ears in our homes is very important, but more important is our choices of what sounds are to be streaming. The significance of the sound-event supersedes the experience of the sound-event. Whatever you do, don't sell the records. It might be tempting to buy a Volvo station wagon or a bigger apartment that can hold both your dog, Iggy, and your first-born, Syd. Don't do it. Look at your stereo, stare into the vortex of your turntable and remember that silence equals death. Even if you don't listen to your vinyl anymore, the idea of being able to spill that copy of Love At Psychedelic Velocity you once thieved onto the turntable means that the disc isn't gathering dust on your record shelf; it is levitating. Wicked gravity can't hold it down, as it can't hold you down, so the rare record or the botox injection as elixir of youth certainly does do the job you intend it to. But beware... the fix gets quicker and quicker, and you need more and more! We all enter the labyrinth and we build our own maze as we venture further into it, and so can the metaphor for life and/or record collecting reverberate.
But does it have to be a labyrinth? Can't it just be a repast, a good thing, a source of strength, a means of meditation? Sir Toby's hobby-horse in Tristram Shandy, utilized by us all as a source of order when that is in short supply in our everyday life, or for that matter, as a source of disorder when we need some more of that to get through our book of days. I could think of worse use for empiricism than record collecting: once the choices have been made of what sounds are to stream through our ears in our home, they can commence to stream, at least after the mailman has arrived and before we place them in double plastic bags.
I wonder if Utrecht, WFMU and London Olympia are entrances to the labyrinth, or if they are milestones within it, or mill-stones around our neck, or (gasp!) exits or perhaps tool booths? Are we lusting for death, death itself? Are we incapable of considering the passing of time? Or is it the opposite? Are record fairs well and truly Limbo, now that the catholics have given up their copyright claim, or should that be territorial claim? Have we brought Limbo into our homes? Does the instant graft-grift or grift-graft of an eBay-win and the gratification we hope for not ever arrive at all? Camus' Sisyphus is only ever stoked about the rare KBD-punk 45 he just won as he is logging on to bid on other records, the physical arrival in the mailbox of the actual record only reminds him of rolling boulders (his day-job) in order to afford to win other auctions.
Sometimes the map is on the territory and sometimes the map is the territory. As a turntable thrill-seeker, I will doubtlessly be going to plenty of record fairs for the remainder of this mortal coil. With the self-inflicted music biz disaster of digital downloading, vinyl is going to be collected and the Rolling Stones are going to symbolize rebellion for another century at least. Is this an ecumenical matter? Maybe. As I haven't really answered any questions in this whiff of an article, I might try to do so now, at the very end. So here:
Q: Do we collect records awake or dreaming?
A: We collect them awake, but we hope that the records will make us dream.
Q: Are we fueled by what the ancient Greeks called 'enthousiasmos': the ecstasy of the soul when it is communicating with a deity?
Q: What does a record fair mean?
A: It means that alienated consumption isn't that great.
Q: What happens at the record fair?
A: A lot of men venture further from their goal of having plentiful sex by looking for records that quite often sing about plentiful sex.
Q: How do we feel while we are there?
A: We salivate as our head gets struck by a mallet.
Q: How do we feel when we anticipate it?
A: We certainly salivate less.
Q: Where does its powerful allure come from?
A: The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living.
Q: How have things changed as we nowadays fester in alienated consumption on eBay?
A: Finding a copy of the Spunky Spider 45 for less than 100 pounds means going through vast quantities of bargain bin 45's.
|MAIN PAGE||ARTICLES||STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC||LINKS|