Zen and the Art of Record Licking
here's a room in my house that is almost completely filled with vinyl. It accumulates according to its own peculiar logic. At first, I merely trudged through the dollar bin and bought anything amusing, unfamiliar, or bizarre. Eventually I began working at a record store and handling the used records. Now it seems like they gather around me wherever I go. What began as a small trickle has become an unceasing flood. It's gotten to the point where I've become uncertain whether I'm collecting records or they're collecting me.
Most of my records are stored vertically in bookshelves, organized by ad hoc genres and the unwavering codex of the alphabet. But many just chill in crates, rest against the lowest shelf or simply occupy whatever twelve-by-twelve space they can find. There are mixtapes allegedly in process, records to be transferred to the digital domain, stuff waiting to be filed, things I haven't listened to yet, rejects to be sold in the store and a number of odd question marks. For instance, my Feist "Inside & Out" 12" is sitting against the Pop LP bookcase resting on a point, rather than on its bottom. I'm sure it means something, but what, I couldn't tell you. All this activity does signify one thing - the hectic disarray of iTunes and filesharing is nothing more than the digital mirror of the chaotic physical world of black plastic. Perhaps it's merely representative of the general avalanche, but there is simply too much music. Too much of it is good; too much demands of it attention. Insists on it, lest one be left out of the "current shit," as David Axelrod would say.
But back to the records—there is no way in my lifetime I can possibly give each slim piece of twelve by twelve vinyl its due. People's lives went into creating these slabs - hours and days spent practicing, writing, recording, re-recording, mixing down, pressing, advertising, slinging to radio and press, touring behind, writing about, ad infinitum. Records are a lot like people—we take 'em for granted, but they remain, as valid as ever, whether we acknowledge it or not.
We have to pick our battles, that's the main thing—and the selection of what to really pay attention to and what to blithely cast off into the night is a highly personal one, based on ephemeral criteria. For the overwhelmed listener or critic, one hour of time in which we scarcely pay attention is a cast-off, but for the artist we've taken all their hours and days and wadded them into a missile aimed straight at the rubbish bin. Unfair? Well, sure—but no more so than any other aspect of the process of natural selection in our media-crowded world. And it's only getting more and more jam-packed, day in, day out—just think, 300 years ago it was possible to have read every book ever written in English. Today, I doubt one could read so much as a list of all their titles. The same applies to music.
Still, there are people who insist on carrying on with this business of record collecting, and it boggles my mind. Sure, when I was ten and first got deeply into music I had some vision of owning every album I was curious about. Later, I settled for just being able to hear them. Now, I'm resigned to trusting luck and arbitrary decisions. It should be made absolutely clear to those who entertain some kind of vague notion of compiling the ultimate music library: give up. You cannot do it. And chances are, unless you're the heir of a vast commercial empire and have money to burn, you will drive yourself crazy and go broke even trying.
Therein lies the crucial distinction between two types of record collector—one is truly crazy, one is merely a freak. It took a Frenchman working at Tower Records in the 90's to articulate the phrase that most accurately describes the first type, which has stuck in my head since I heard it, and become my de facto description for this loose group of nutjobs that paw the vinyl in our store with a concentration that crosses into the realm of obsession. Diderot, a former colleague of my current manager, saw a man with a record half out of its sleeve and his peering face pressed almost against the grooves and said these immortal words: "look at heem. He's actually licking the record... freaking record lickers." Somehow it fits—a person who has a need for physical intimacy, a misplaced sense of possession, a completely warped sexual association with records. Record Lickers.
What does it take to turn an "ordinary" vinyl freak into a Record Licker? I can best determine this by examining some of the Lickers that haunt our store. Since I have begun the business of buying and reselling used vinyl, I have made a study of these men (make no mistake, there's not a woman amongst them) and a few choice examples will help us all understand what seperates people with a passion for vinyl from those who have gone too far. Nicknames have been altered to protect the guilty.
The classic example, and the first Licker that I noticed, we'll call... D.B. Both D.B. and his friend... Reynard are rather old men, disheveled in appearance and dusty of garment. D.B. walks with a permanent crook, the result of a life spent hanging over bins, thumbing through folk records searching for those elusive 17,000 pieces that will complete his collection. Nature built Reynard much closer to the ground, the better to scan the tiny print on endless rows of classical LPs. Unlike many of my regular buyers of the second category, there is no discernable reason for this constant scarfing of records. They are not DJs of the club or radio variety, they don't have blogs or podcasts, they aren't involved in any kind of musical activity other than the endless acquiring of niche vinyl. One imagines them slowly approaching death in houses packed from stem to stern with wobbling piles of mildewy records excavated from the dollar bin, piles that grow higher and higher with each passing month while the occupant swelters in the heavy heat of August in Virginia, piles that stretch up and up until... blam! Another poor, lonely old miser's life is crushed out of him by the weight of his own record collection.
As odd as these septuagenarians are, there exists a group stranger still. They are the truly affected, men one suspects may very well be mad. The two examples we shall draw upon are Left Eye and he who is only known as One Red Shoe, One Green Shoe. Left Eye is so called not due to a superficial resemblance to our dear departed Lisa Lopes. Oh, no. We call him Left Eye because even when he's looking at you he's not looking at you. One eye wanders eternally in a direction best described as "over there." His other habits include running very quickly to the info desk to see what CD is playing and then reciting a discography of similar artists, wearing a Sam's Club parking attendant's reflective vest over an orange hunting jacket, and, most infamously, making lists of records, their prices and location. One Sunday, he spent the entire six hours we were open making a meticulous graph of all the crates of records (the bins were overflowing) I had placed on the ground and their random contents. Imagine his consternation when I shuffled them and arbitrarily moved batches of records from each bin to another one the next day.
The enigma known as One Red Shoe, One Green Shoe is a far more nefarious creature. His habit is to arrive thirty minutes to closing and begin digging through the bins. Despite emphatic verbal announcements about our closing time, he invariably requires direct personal attention, which may range from "that includes you, in the back" to actually having to shut the lights off. At which point he proceeds to the cash register at the front of the store and examines each record (none of which, it must be said, ever cost more than two dollars), pulling it out of its sleeve, checking both sides, and questioning the cashier about it. "You ever heard of these guys? E.L.O.?" A lot of people don't know it, but Jefferson Starship is much better than that Jefferson Airplane." (Points to random REO Speedwagon record.) "How's this one? Any good?" Lest you think him just a nutzoid old fuddy, he has also remarked to our employees that he can control the lights in our parking lot with the power of his mind. Call me crazy, but I find it hard to believe that someone who prefers Starship over Airplane could summon the mental powers to start fucking with electricity.
These miscreants and numerous others have enabled me to create a codex of characteristics that define the Record Licker. I shall now share these with you, so that you might better identify this curious creature in his natural habitat.
The attributes of the Record Licker:
1) Record Lickers are uniformly male.There are a million records to be heard and enjoyed, each one as deserving of your attention as any other. You will never get to hear 99% them.
2) Record Lickers are almost inevitably single—or, if they have partners, they are never in evidence. The Record Licker hunts alone.
3) These men never spend more than a dollar or two on a piece of vinyl. They cannot afford to do anything else, lest the immensity of their collection suffer in the face of petty quality.
4) The Licker relies quite often on public transport—thus they shop often and buy only a few pieces at a time. This leads to three techniques to help them cope with the inevitable eyes-bigger-than-mouth situation. The first is list-making, the careful notation of where records lie and how much they cost. The second is hiding, the placing of one or more items in some "secret" locale, usually behind bin cards or amongst the used rap 12" singles. The third and final technique is the crusty barter. Never restricted to the person or persons who could actually do something about the price of a record, the Licker will haggle with the cashier, the clerk, or another customer before actually addressing the buyer.
5) One might think that the insatiable need of the Licker to accumulate would lead them towards petty theft, especially given the aforementioned cheapness. Not true. Either due to some innate sense of honor underneath the dirt, or merely because they're effing crazy, I have yet to catch a Licker stealing.
6) The Record Licker is invisible when travelling in most public places. Don't expect to see him getting a cup of coffee, standing in line at the bank, or perusing the women's magazines at Barnes & Noble. You will, however, notice him at yard sales, the Salvation Army, Goodwill, near your library's dumpster, by the dustiest, crustiest bin in your local record store, and wherever decrepit vinyl that no one in the bloody world wants but him can be found.
7) The final rule of the Record Licker is a much more ambiguous one, but I include it as a last-ditch attempt to speak to those of us who may have found ourselves exhibiting behavior similar to that described above. What seperates the freakish collector from the monster that is the Licker can be summed up in one word: proportion. Understand your place in this world, and understand the impossibility of ever comprehensively knowing all there is to know about even one genre of music, and you should make out OK. There is no need to panic, to paw, to obsess, or even to collect. Like what you like, love what you love, and track down one or two rare things if need be. But please, stay away from eBay. No piece of vinyl is worth getting in a bidding war over. Especially not with the Japanese—they will defeat you. And for Christ's sake, please put the records away once in a while and go outside. There's a whole world out there that has nothing to do with dusty old crates of secondhand records, or even shiny new CDs. Go for a walk. Go to the beach. Sit in the park and look at girls. Whatever.
Get over it.