Saturday, November 8, 2014

Vinyl Nirvana: Do Not Sell at Any Price by Amanda Petrusich

I am a collector who has a room filled with vinyl records, those 33s and 45s of my youth—and it turns out that they’re coming back. So when I discovered Amanda Petrusich's Do Not Sell at Any Price (which is subtitled The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records), I was hooked. I had to read it. Not that I’m a collector of 78rpm records, although I do have one or two in my collection, but I fondly recall shuffling through the batch my grandparents had stored under their record player. They had none of the “rarest” things that Ms Petrusich talks about, but instead some big bands and The Happy Gang which were all neatly packaged in albums that truly looked like big bound books with page after page (envelopes really) of heavy black discs. My mother had a bunch, too: Stan Kenton, Artie Shaw, and Rosemary Clooney. She only started listening to blues music later when 78s had been replaced by 33s and 45s. Southwestern Ontario was not a place to go searching for old Paramount blues records. Oh, sure, Richard Newell (King Biscuit Boy) had some (probably brought in from Buffalo), but in our neck of the woods it was mainly jazz. The first 78 that I bought myself was a Duke Ellington record, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” It wasn’t that I was so much a fan of the Duke’s but I had read a very interesting story about his receiving a royalty cheque for this record, and when I saw it at a flea market I just got carried away.

There’s a fellow who buys old records and travels around from university and college campus to campus selling them. He used to deal in CDs (and he still does) but these days much of his market is in LPs. Old LPs. He has boxes of them. And people are hungry to get ‘em. Before he even gets his stock unloaded he has requests for Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. These records were made in the millions, unlike the rarest 78s. They were produced in small batches, and sold in hardware stores, and other odd spots. You find them in peoples’ attics, under their porches, maybe at the back of a closet in an old suitcase. Amanda Petrusich goes to all these places. She talks to collectors, expresses interest, shows enthusiasm, and even catches a bit of the bug. She goes on a couple different odysseys to hunt for these items herself. The best one, I think, is when she takes up scuba diving in order to dive in the Milwaukee River and root around in the muck to search for detritus from the Paramount Records factory in Grafton, Wisconsin.

author Amanda Petrusich

Petrusich is a sympathetic ear to the collectors she meets. At first, they greet her with suspicion. Most of these collectors are men. Would a woman understand their obsession? She admits early on, “I missed pining for things. I missed the ecstasy of acquisition. (In 1993, it took me seven weeks to sniff out a copy of Dinosaur Jr.’s 'Where You Been,' and I spent the next seven memorizing every last crooked riff.) I missed making literal investments in music, of funnelling all the time and cash and heart I could manage into the chase. I had free CDs and illegally obtained MP3s and lawfully purchased LPs, but unless I was being paid to professionally render my opinion, I listened to everything for three or seven or nine minutes and moved on. I was overwhelmed and underinvested. Some days music seemed like a nasty post-modern experiment in which public discussion eclipsed everything else, and art was measured only by the amount of chatter it incited.” Then she met John Heneghan after Mike Lupica gave her his phone number and said, “These 78 guys are on another level.” Wow, that’s the truth. They’re on the search for things that might only exist in one or two copies, buried under water, in an attic, or elsewhere. And when they find one, if they ever do, it may not be playable. The grooves may have disappeared, and scratches have overtaken the music. But the label is still readable, so they soldier on, happy to add an unplayable copy to their collection, and hopeful that somewhere out there is a better copy.

I’ve spent years looking for a record. It’s easier now than it used to be. The Internet and e-mail made it possible to expand your search with friends and acquaintances around the world. However the world of the 78s collector is not quite so vast. Sure, there may be a rare copy of a South African pressing of a Beatles’ record with a different picture sleeve, and you might even see it on eBay, but Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman”? It’s available on LP, but the original recording was supplied to the label by one of these collectors. It was cleaned up, to get the best possible sound, and added to this or that anthology. The collector still would rather hear it on his turntable, gently removing the black shellac from its paper sleeve, and dropping the needle into the groove. Aah! Listen.

The story Petrusich tells is wild, and definitely obsessive. She describes her own thrill at finding a grail object, of wrapping it in bubblewrap and hoping it survives transporting it. She gets the mindset of these collectors and in no way demeans them or questions their quest. Her website includes mp3s of some of the songs she talks about. It’s worth a visit. You may never hear the songs any other way. She does meet up with one other woman along the way, Sarah Bryan “…the only other female 78 collector I’d managed to locate and meet. I knew there was at least one other—in 2010, a woman named Sherry Mayrent donated her collection of nearly seven thousand Yiddish and Hebrew 78s to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mills Music Library—but record collecting in general is a predominantly male enterprise, and 78 collecting almost exclusively so.” We can imagine them, they look like Steve Buscemi in Ghost World, or even like Robert Crumb. They sit in their dusty living room surrounded by yesterday’s music. It’s not even yesterday’s, or last year’s, it’s the music of the 1930s…the music of the spheres. Petrusich says this, “If you want to make someone’s day, play them 'Skokiaan.' If they’ve never heard it before, they will never forget you. Musarugwa’s wobbly saxophone carries the melody, and its particular tone is unlike anything else I’ve ever heard. His performance isn’t frantic or even drunk—it’s sweet and effortlessly joyful, a slipped guffaw, a good long laugh. It’s one of the most human sounds ever committed to record.”

That’s the kind of music the world needs—and Amanda Petrusich points us in the right direction.

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.

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