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July 22, 2016

When I lived in DC, one of the very few things that kept me sane was the city’s sporadic record fairs. There was no set schedule for them, but they usually popped up two or three times a year, cramming a bunch of vendors and their wares into some mixed use structure (which I’ll note here were located in Maryland or Virginia more often than they were in the city itself, and then I promise not to bitch about how awful living in DC is again in this post).

I usually spent more money than I wanted to, but I also came home with an armful of obscurities I was eager to take home and spin. The fun of collecting records (for me, at least) comes from buying music without knowing what it sounds like, and the real thrill exists in the time between the purchase and when you finally drop the needle. It’s like when you’re a kid and your mom buys you a toy and won’t let you open it until your actual birthday, but you’re allowed to look at the box, imagining for yourself all the possibilities the toy might provide. Or when you buy a lottery ticket and spend the time until someone else’s numbers are called fantasizing about what you’ll do with the winnings. It’s a catalyst for imagination. It’s fun.

Most of the vendors at the fairs were there on behalf of actual record stores (mostly from the DC/Maryland/Virginia area) who simply shlepped whatever inventory they could fit in a van from their brick-and-mortar locations to the fair, but my favorite booth was usually a private seller. I don’t know whether this was his main vocation or just a side hustle, but he ran a business buying records and flipping them on eBay, and he showed up at events like these as well. The draw for me was the weirder corners of his inventory. While other sellers usually just had crates broken down into generic categories like “rock” and “jazz” (mostly containing records as bland as those categories would imply), this guy had an entire section just for avant-garde and experimental pieces, another for psychedelia, and so on, hitting all of my sweet spots. I probably spent more money at his booth than at all of the others combined over the years.

But while the stuff he was selling brought me in, his personality usually kept my visit brief. If you spend a lot of time in record stores, you’ve without a doubt encountered a person like this before, but similar sorts of folks exist in every subculture I can think of. If you name a band for this person, he can tell you every record in their catalog, the year each of them came out and on what label, who produced and performed on every one, and so on. It’s impressive until you realize that his encyclopedic knowledge is as sterile as a spreadsheet. It’s unclear to what extent he’s even listened to any of it. To him, music is simply a list of names and dates and facts and figures to be memorized. Ask him the blue book value of mint condition original pressing of Odessey and Oracle, and he’ll tell you without hesitation (or in my case, he told me without my asking), but try asking him what makes that album any good. He’ll stare at you blankly. He sucks.

This would sound like a straw man to me if I hadn’t met a number of folks just like this over the years. A disproportionate number of Elephant 6 fans even fall into this category, but they are not my target audience. There are certainly a whole lot of facts in there (plus no small amount of factoids), but that’s only a part of it, and they’re there to serve a larger goal. My goal is to allow readers to feel like they really know the people I’m writing about. I can pull up a Wikipedia entry on, say, Magic Johnson, and I can learn where and when he was born, his career average for assists per game, and that he played five games for a Swedish team in 1999. But regardless of whence I had gathered that information, even from Johnson himself, I would be an idiot to characterize knowing those facts as knowing him. Knowing someone requires a greater depth of understanding, and that’s what I’m hoping to convey with my book.

 

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