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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Love Letters to a Dying Medium
By John Corbett
Duke University PressCopyright © 2017 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Formation of a Freak
A Day in the Life of a Dinosaur was my first taste of vinyl. I was three. I remember listening to it, holding the bright red gatefold sleeve, studying the cartoon reptile, my special friend who multiple times a day would crawl into my ears. Soon thereafter I was given a Batman & Robin LP, my first encounter with Sun Ra, who worked as a session musician on the recording. I was a bit young to see the Arkestra in the mid-1960s, but because of records I could listen to the uncredited band playing the Batman theme, probably planting a seed that would be harvested forty years later. What did I know? I was just out of diapers.
I loved my records, even if I was rough on them. My parents tried to show me how to care for them, and I took their instruction to heart as best a drooling, uncoordinated little kid can, avoiding contact with the grooves, holding them between two flattened hands, learning to flip them by making a fulcrum in each palm, sliding them in and out of the inner sleeve, always putting it back in with the opening at the top so that the outer sleeve keeps the disc from slipping out. Habits that are now second nature.
At five I was listening to a Peter Rabbit record that had a big impact. Peter expresses confusion about why he sometimes misbehaves, singing: "Why do I do it, what can it be ...?" The way he phrased it, I heard "do it" as one word. "What does doyt mean?" I asked my mother. She tried to explain that it was two words, but I was adamant. If I relax my rational brain, I still wonder what he meant. When I trace my interest in sound poetry, I think this is its origin.
My folks had diverse taste in records, nothing too strange but some jazz, classical, folk, and pretty early on Beatles records. Babysitters were impressed at that. Maybe most interesting to me was an LP by Flanders & Swann, a British comedy team. I learned to recite the routines by heart, listening to them repeatedly. Snippets made their way into daily life, a gag from the track about a dinner party at a cannibal's house transformed into a little premeal mantra: "A chorus of yums ran round the table — roast leg of insurance salesman!" I can hear my father reciting this punch line incessantly.
Comedy records were especially formative. My mom's brother, Uncle Tim, turned me on to George Carlin, total linguistics revelation, probably why I am a writer. Neighborhood friends played Richard Pryor, another epiphany, and Monty Python's Flying Circus. On the latter, a slip groove — two grooves running in parallel so that any play might equally get one or the other — completely astonished me and brought my attention directly to the technology of the record album and its status as an object. Like any kid growing up when I did, Cheech & Chong were essential; later on Steve Martin assumed the position of a nerdy high priest with his hilarious first LP. An early girlfriend, when I was about thirteen, played Firesign Theater for me. The side-long track "The Further Adventures of Nick Danger, Third Eye" became a talisman, with submerged drug and sex references that I didn't fully understand for decades, all secreted within a self-referential narrative that set me up to read Donald Barthelme and John Barth.
I recall vividly my first experience purchasing records. It was at the mall, of course, right next to the Spencer Gifts, where I bought my velvet black light poster of a swooping owl and felt the inexplicable draw of a pet rock. I had enough money saved to purchase two LPs. After much consideration, I narrowed it down to Elton John's Greatest Hits and Honey by the Ohio Players. My best friend, Scooter Johns, and I loved Elton, so the music was the motivating force in that case, but with the Ohio Players, while I dug the record's hit "Love Rollercoaster," I must confess ulterior motives for buying the record, which sported a soft-core cover of a beautiful nude woman drizzling herself with honey. Already, it was not only the music that attracted me to vinyl but the whole package. The cover was a vehicle for other kinds of information and imagery, a springboard for fantasy. Also, I was an adolescent. I took sexy stuff anywhere I could find it. I remember the electric feeling that came with putting the record on the counter and giving the clerk some cash. It was a jolt that I came to crave, perhaps some kind of sublimated sexual thing. In any case, it never went away.
By this time I was already a seasoned collector. I was born with the genetic collecting disposition. I collected butterflies, chloroforming them and pinning them to mounts, and I was good at capturing very rare ones. I also collected live animals, mostly amphibians and reptiles. Uncle Tim bought me some stamps, and I got the philatelary bug, collected them seriously for a while; I was drawn to weirder specimens, like some beautiful triangular ones from Albania that were rarer if they had been canceled, a flip on the normal search for mint uncanceled ones. I managed to get a copy of the first stamp, the British Penny Black, and I invested in a bunch of sheets of the world's first self-adhesive stamp, thinking it would be valuable one day and not realizing that the glue backing was acidic and would burn through to the front. Next in the queue were baseball cards. I distinguished myself from my classmates by seeking older cards, buying weird black-and-white ones from the '30s and the tall, thin tobacco cards from even earlier. I would show them off, and my friends would scoff, holding out the dozen contemporary copies of a Hank Aaron card that they had extracted from hundreds of bubblegum packages. Again, the weirder and more arcane objects were fascinating to me. What my buddies did, I figured, was not collecting. It was amassing. A collector must hunt, and to hunt you have to have elusive prey. Anyone could amass, but it took something more to collect.
Record collecting started with those first two LPs and was always inextricably linked with a kind of connoisseurship, looking for new experiences in music, adding to my understanding of the world by way of sound. I eventually grew to see myself as a record collector, and by 1976, when I left Philadelphia, the town where I'd started the collection, I had already begun shopping at used record shops, acquiring such essential releases as the debut LPs by Starz and Dust (the latter sporting a Frank Frazzetta painting that caught my numbskull eye), Ted Nugent's Cat Scratch Fever, and several Pink Floyd releases, which were considered so weird in my circle of friends that I might well have been listening to musique concrète or field recordings of frogs. Good thing they didn't know about my small collection of ... frog pond records. I remember the feeling of ill ease going into the used record shop, the wooden bins full of things I didn't recognize, acres of jazz records, classical avant-garde, bluegrass and hillbilly and rockabilly and surf. These terms I could not yet decipher. Deeply meaningful labels that meant nothing yet. It felt the same as walking into an R-rated film, recognizing that there was a parallel universe of significance as yet unyielding of its secrets, a mute realm that was nonetheless uncontrollably seductive. I bought things indiscriminately, experimentally, sometimes foolishly, often led by the cover. Other times I researched like a hound, mapping webs of association, connecting the dots, plotting musical genealogies like I was charting a family tree.
The more immersed I grew, the more I discovered that the universe of records was one of exploration. I wrote the essay for my college application about how records had made me interested in world culture. It was true, if by world culture you mean the streets of 1970s London, but most of all records made me interested in more records. When I went away to school, I took my complete collection, totaling eight hundred LPs. Somehow, by the end of school, I had managed to push that to four thousand. How I did so on my nonexistent college kid budget is a mystery. But record fiends are just like junkies; they'd rather get a fix than eat or see a movie. Or pay their phone bill. I was studying film, so going to movies was covered, and I ate at the cafeteria, so hey, let them turn off the electricity. I get all the power I need from my new Cecil Taylor box set!
The bulk of my identity as a collector was done forming by the time I had my first full-time job. The primary excitement I felt at those initial paychecks, naturally, was because they meant I could buy more records. And the collection bulged helplessly in my twenties, through canceled credit cards and innumerable domestic battles, with new musician friends whose passion was as fierce as mine, and finally until I decided that I'd probably acquired enough, or better that I'd devoted enough time to building the collection, and I all but stopped adding to it. That's where I am now, a collector who's only barely collecting. Now and then, I buy for other folks, a different kind of vicarious thrill. Whenever I feel the urge to add to my own pile, I go into the basement and pretend it's a record shop. Truthfully, I have never been in a store that good. That's a nice feeling. I smile and hit the stacks, pulling out things I've forgotten that I have, sometimes realizing I've got a duplicate copy of this or that, putting it aside to trade, refiling the stray records, admiring them and then taking a few upstairs to the stereo to do what they were made to do.CHAPTER 2
"News of My Death, Greatly Exaggerated," Quoth the Record
Love letters. That's what the Vinyl Freak entries were. Passionate, intimate, probing little parries. For twelve years, from 2000 to 2012, I wrote magazine columns that were missives to a mistress or a missus, dedicated to the most beloved. Compiling them for this book was like unearthing a box of scented envelopes long ago sealed with kisses and hidden away.
Love letters to a dying medium. When I first imagined the column, vinyl's days were numbered. That was part of the plan — to write about a medium that was moribund. Inspired in part by former DownBeat editor Art Lange's Rara Avis column of twenty years earlier, which had invited critics to conjure the "rare birds" of their collection, Vinyl Freak was meant as a personal challenge to awaken in myself the critic as connoisseur rather than solely as judge and jury, sending me deep into my collection to retrieve an inspiring and fascinating object, just the way I would if I was listening at home with friends.
For a trade magazine like DownBeat, embracing Vinyl Freak was a very uncommercial gesture. In my mind — and in many of the e-mail responses I received during its run — this made it that much more powerful and surprising. To write about music that was not readily available to the consumer, to celebrate a record that was difficult or impossible to find, this was counterintuitive for a consumer periodical. I meant for it to spark curiosity, to tweak the little connoisseur that is latent in all cultural consumers, to charge up the competitive mechanism that drives cultural debate, to get listeners thinking about all that music that had recently become unavailable to them, and to urge them to think: that seems worthwhile, why can't I hear it? Maybe in all that jealous froth, I supposed, they would also wonder about how history gets told and who gets to tell it — the column's ulterior motive.
Toward the end of the column's existence comes a new twist: the patient begins to make a miraculous recovery. Vinyl is reborn, and the meaning of our enterprise is transformed. Rather suddenly a column on vinyl records is the hippest thing in the world; all the magazines are doing it. And the simple Vinyl Freak premise — covering music that has not made the transition from vinyl to digital — can be seen as irrelevant because vinyl reissues of out-of-print vinyl are now common, sometimes in lieu of CD or MP3 altogether.
Your lover was sick unto death but now has recovered. The forlorn letters remain. What do they tell you about yourself? About the nature of your love? About the object of your affection? And why these particular records? They're not the most rare, by and large, and they're not always an artist's crowning achievement. But they represent something rich — each one multilayered in itself, in its relationship to an oeuvre, in its existence as part of a moment, and in its potential to transcend that moment. Enough so to make me want to write about it.
At this point, there is nearly full remission. Vinyl's resurgence is going strong, although the question of what music is and is not obtainable remains on the table. Plenty of the LPs and singles that I covered have been reissued in the meantime, but many of those were released on small labels that have not kept them in print, hence they are again difficult to find. On the other hand, you can readily dig up lots of out-of-print material online. The lost and found of musical subcultures is as active as ever, though it's a little more tangled. To determine what's discarded and what's retained or rediscovered in a world awash in reissue compilations and YouTube posts is in itself a job deserving a detective.
Following the logic of successive technologies — the very same life cycle that vinyl's renewed health and well-being seem to be thwarting — it's the discs that are on their way out. Compact disc is the dying medium. But I will not be composing love letters to CDs. Ours has been a pragmatic relationship, not a romance. Looking back with dewy eyes upon the LP, single, ten-inch, and shellac, those love letters refer to a time when, weak limbed and short of breath, vinyl was but a ghost. Dead man walking. As they sometimes say of things when they pass, it was history. But it hadn't vanished altogether; it had just retreated into places like used record shops, college radio stations, and people's personal collections, where it gave witness to a time when records ruled the earth. And in those dark places it lurked, waiting to be rediscovered. No doubt we'll still have to chase the music — an apparition in whatever material form it manifests — deep into the woods of the future, to make sure it is not forgotten.
* * *
When I first proposed writing a regular column about vinyl records for DownBeat magazine, I could never have predicted the fate of the medium. At the time, CDs were still the primary way that music changed hands, with all sorts of downloadable possibilities in the brewing luminous. But the little world of music has since embraced the vinyl medium with a ferocity that even I, a committed LP collector of more than thirty-five years, find surprising. This resurgence is, in part, fueled by a fashion for nearly obsolete technology, the same impetus that has made '70s-style boom boxes and cumbersome earmuff-like headphones once again tenable. I initially realized how hip used records had become when I discovered that major clothing stores in New York were hiring buyers and selling LPs alongside their duds. Like all things fashionable, this wave of intense interest will come and go. But in the case of vinyl LPs, I have the feeling that it's more than just a fad; it is in part a resurgence caused by the special character of the medium itself. More on that in a minute.
In the initial period of decline for vinyl, which started with the advent of the compact disc in the mid-1980s, consumers witnessed the progressive dematerialization of music. First, there were CDs, with their artwork shrinky-dinked down from twelve inches to just over five, and much of the information that would have been spread over the sleeve buried in a microscopic liner booklet. From there, the road to complete object-less-ness has been swift and, it would have seemed, decisive. The heir to the Walkman, the iPod, has allowed listeners to cart around entire libraries in a tiny, digital case. What would have taken an entire basement to house now occupies an infinitesimally wee chip; each single track requires virtually no space, and for all intents and purposes it has no material presence. It exists as sound, not as stuff. For those who see music as an exclusively auditory experience, this is no doubt a sort of ultimate confirmation.
I don't see it that way. My proclivity has always been toward material culture. Not that I'm opposed to downloading, streaming, iPods, and the like. I'm not. I use them all, to one degree or another. But when it comes to the full-on experience, the sound of music has most often been accompanied by some object-ness, something concrete through which the music arrives and into which the power of the music can be projected. What's been interesting is to see a rise in the number of pressing plants, lowering the difficulty for young people wanting to produce their own vinyl. Students of mine have experimented with portable lathes, making their own one-of-a-kind record art objects; meanwhile, specialists are willing to manufacture really strange vinyl oddities, like locked-groove LPs or grooves that stretch out in a straight line rather than in a coil on a disc. The manufacture of record players has risen as well, making cheap players available alongside the ultra-high-end audiophile machines that continued to be accessible all along.
Excerpted from Vinyl Freak by John Corbett. Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsTrack One / Formation of a Freak 1
Track Two / "News of My Death, Greatly Exaggerated," Quoth the Record 5
Column One / 2000–2003
Philly Joe Jones, Philly Joe Jones 15
Paul Gonsalves, Cookin' 16
Takashi Furuya with the Freshmen, Fanky Drivin' 18
Carsten Meinert Kvartet, To You 20
Melvin Jackson, Funky Skull 21
Gloria Coleman Quartet featuring Pola Roberts, Soul Sisters 23
Elmo Hope Ensemble, Sounds from Rikers Island 24
Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath, Brotherhood 26
Morris Grants Presents J.U.N.K. 28
Tom Stewart, Sexette / Quintette 30
Kenny Graham and His Satellites, Moondog and Suncat Suites 31
John Coltrane, Cosmic Music 33
André Hodeir, Jazz et Jazz: Jazz Experiments; Triple Play Stereo, Pop+Jazz=Swing; Bill Russo Orchestra, Stereophony 35
George Davis Sextet, various acetates 37
Staffan Harde, Staffan Harde 39
Art Pepper, Chile Pepper 42
Jack Wilson, The Jazz Organs 43
Craig Harris, Tributes 45
Quintet Moderne, The Strange and the Commonplace 46
A. K. Salim, Afro-Soul / Drum Orgy 48
Tristan Meinecke, home recordings, 1939–43 50
Chico Hamilton Quintet, Sweet Smell of Success 52
Lehn-Strid, Here There; Klapper-Küchen, Irregular 54
Bill Leslie, Diggin' the Chicks; Thornel Schwartz with Bill Leslie, Soul Cookin' 55
Tony Scott and His Buddies, Gypsy 57
Herbie Mann, Great Ideas of Western Mann 58
Track Three / Freek, Not Snob 61
Column Two . 2004–2006
Afreaka!, Demon Fuzz 69
Contemporary Sound Series 70
Beaver Harris / Don Pullen 360-Degree Experience, A Well-Kept Secret 72
Mike Osborne Trio, Border Crossing 73
The Three Souls, Dangerous Dan Express 75
Steve Lacy, Raps 77
Halki Collective, Halki Collective 79
The Amran-Barrow Quartet, The Eastern Scene 80
Charlie Parke acetates 82
Tommy "Madman" Jones, A Different Sound and Just Friends 84
New York Art Quartet, Mohawk 86
Paul Gonsalves / Tubby Hayes, Just Friends; Paul Gonsalves All Stars Featuring Tubby Hayes, Change of Setting 88
Anthony Braxton, New York, Fall 1974 90
Herbie Fields Sextet, A Night at Kitty's 91
Air, 80° Below '82 93
Guy Warren with Red Saunders Orchestra, Africa Speaks—American Answers! 94
Barry Altschul, Another Time, Another Place 96
The Korean Black Eyes, "Higher" 97
Rufus Jones, Five on Eight 99
Johnny Shacklett Trio, At the Hoffman House 100
The Mad-Hatters, The Mad-Hatters at Midnight 102
Klaus Doldinger, Doldinger Goes On 103
Max Roach, Solos 105
Dick Johnson, Most Likely . . . 106
Phil Seaman, The Phil Seamen Story 108
Paul Smoker Trio, QB 109
Khan Jamal, Drumdance to the Motherland; Franz Koglmann, For Franz / Opium 111
Track Four / Brand New Secondhand: Record Collector Subcultures 113
Column Three / 2006–2012
Walt Dunn, seven-inch singles 123
Leonard Feather, The Night Blooming Jazzmen 125
Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Modern Jazz Expressions 126
Archie Shepp, Plays the Music of James Brown; Cozy Eggleston, Grand Slam 128
Black Grass, Black Grass 129
Yoke & Yohs seven-inch 45
The Bill Dixon Orchestra, Intents and Purposes 132
Orchestre Régional de Mopti, Orchestre Régional de Mopti 134
The Jihad, Black & Beautiful . . . Soul & Madness 136
Milford Graves / Don Pullen, Milford Graves & Don Pullen at Yale University 137
Heikki Sarmanto Sextet, Flowers in the Water; G.L. Unit, Orangutang! 139
Ernie and Emilio Caceres, Ernie & Emilio Caceres 141
Maarten Altena, Papa Oewa 142
London Experimental Jazz Quartet, Invisible Roots 144
Sunny Murray, Big Chief; Solidarity Unit, Inc., Red, Black, and Green 146
Dick Wetmore, Dick Wetmore 147
United Front, Path with a Heart 149
Joseph Scianni, Man Running 150
The Residents, The Beatles Play the Residents and the Residents Play the Beatles 152
John Carter / Bobby Bradford Quartet, Flight for Four and Self Determination Music 153
Johnny Lytle Trio, Blue Vibes 155
Orchid Spangiafora, Flee Pasts Ape Elf 156
Noah Howard, Space Dimension 158
Baikida Carroll, The Spoken Word 159
Randy Weston, Blues 161
Charles Bobo Shaw Human Arts Ensemble Çonceré Ntasiah 163
Lee "Scratch" Perry, Double-7 164
Eddie Shu / Joe Roland / Wild Bill Davis, New Stars—New Sounds 166
Cecil Taylor / Tony Oxley, Ailanthus / Altissima 167
Unidentified Kenyan Highlife Band, seven-inch test pressing 169
Track Five / Specialty of the House 173
Track Six / Anything Can Happen Day: Sun Ra, Alton Abraham, and the Taming of the Freak 221
Column Four / 2016
Le Sun-Ra and his Arkistra, "Saturn" seven-inch single; Tom Prehn Quartet, Axiom 243
Track Seven / Run-Off Groove 247
What People are Saying About This
"John Corbett has the too-rare ability to combine academic rigor with very readable prose, and he tells good stories. As an avid record collector and close listener to a broad array of music, Corbett really knows his subject. You can practically smell the musty cardboard."
"People who are just getting into vinyl—or who are returning to it after a long time away—will value John Corbett's enthusiasm, personal approach, and vast knowledge. Even the most diehard jazz enthusiasts, collectors, and crate diggers can learn from Corbett's insights."