Music is ubiquitous and confusing. Twice a month, Eric Spitznagel stares into the bottomless chasm of new (and old) songs, albums and musicians that permeate our lives, and tries to pretend he has any idea what it all means.
All photos in this piece courtesy of Joshua Mellin.
The guy in the unnecessarily tight karate gi was failing to understand why I was so upset.
"You're looking for a record store?" he asked. He said "record store" with a hint of contempt, like I'd just walked into his karate school and asked what happened to all the child pornography.
"Yeah," I said. "It used to be in this building. Did it move or something?"
He glanced around the room, where kids dressed like Ralph Macchio were pretending to karate chop each other. "Looks like it," he said, barely suppressing a smile. "A record store, you say? What kind of record store?"
Was he kidding? I couldn't tell. He lived in this neighborhood and had never heard of Record Swap, the greatest vinyl emporium in the central time zone? The only place on earth where you could walk in with twenty bucks and walk out with a handful of reasons to feel superior to the Phil Collins-loving assholes at your high school?
"Never heard of it," the karate guy sniffed.
News of Record Swap's death was painful on many levels. I'd traveled over an hour from the city, into the desolate Chicago suburbs of my youth, with the intention of blissfully wasting a morning surrounded by bins of musty vinyl, having my musical tastes silently judged by old men in grey ponytails and Sonic Youth T-shirts. Instead, I was being silently judged by a middle-aged guy with a perm whose entire music collection probably began with the phrase "Now That's What I Call—"
But that was just the bitter icing on the sadness cake. The real heartbreaking part of all this was that I wasn't going to be reunited with the records I'd foolishly sold, in this exact building, almost 20 years ago to the day.
I blame Questlove. I wouldn't have been there in the first place if it wasn't for his bragging.
Questlove, as he told me, has an amazing record collection. By his count, it's somewhere in the vicinity of 70,000 records. In his recently-released memoir, Mo' Meta Blues, he claims that the very first twelve-inch he purchased, an original pressing of the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" in 1979, is still in his possession. I asked him how he did it. How'd he hold on to a little piece of plastic for over three decades?
"I’ve always taken meticulous care of that stuff," he told me. "I’ve always had some sort of library system for my records, so nothing just disappeared without me knowing about it. Not just 'Rapper's Delight,' but all my records. They've never been in any danger. You're probably the same way about your records."
"I don't have records anymore," I said. "I sold them all in 1993."
There was silence on the other end of the phone. "Oh man, I'm sorry," Quest finally said, his voice a whisper. He seemed sincerely shaken by my admission, like I'd just told him my dad was on life support and I'd personally pulled the plug. He never said as much, but the implication was there; what kind of monster does something like that?
For weeks afterwards, I was haunted by the memory of my bad decision. At the time, during the early '90s, it sorta made sense. CDs were the audio format of choice, and hauling around milk crates crammed with vinyl was just so cumbersome and unsexy. Also, I needed a cash source to support my post-collegiate lifestyle (which didn't include getting a 9-to-5 job), and you could get a surprisingly generous payout at Record Swap if you found a sympathetic clerk. My Clash records alone paid for an entire month's rent (for an apartment shared with three roommates) and a few cans of groceries from the liquor store down the block, which at the time seemed like an incredible deal.
I was determined to correct my past mistakes. At first it was "I'll buy a few records, just the ones I miss the most. Maybe I'll slowly build another vinyl collection from the ground up." But by the time I was on Lake Shore Drive, headed for the interstate and the cultural wasteland that is the south suburbs, I was determined to buy back every record I'd let slip away. Not just the closest approximate, the EXACT RECORDS I'd sold to Record Swap all those years ago. I wanted the Police Ghost in the Machine record with my (then) girlfriend Heather G's phone number written on the back. I wanted the Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) that still had the "Property of Richton Park Public Library, 4045 Sauk Trl" sticker on the front. I wanted the Rain Dogs with the red lipstick drawn in sharpie on Tom Waits' lips, which I'd done absentmindedly while listening to "Gunstreet Girl" in my first Chicago apartment, subsidized by my grandmother (both the apartment and the Tom Waits record.)
I knew it was a long-shot, but given the near-nonexistent market for vinyl since I sold all 300 or so of my records, it wasn't a complete improbability. They could still be there, gathering dust, waiting for a new owner who never came. Who wants a record that's been manhandled and over-loved, like an old dog in the pound with a limp and matted fur who never gets adopted? I was hopeful -- optimistic, even -- that I could buy back if not all than at least a good 80% of my original collection.
I hadn't counted on Record Swap going out of business.
"Aren't there record stores in Chicago?" the karate teacher with the perm asked me, his smirk growing wider.
I was well aware that he was mocking me. My commute made as much sense as living in New York City and driving an hour to find pizza. But the record stores I frequented during the '80s and '90s are mostly gone now. I've checked. The place at Clark and Belmont, whose name I don't remember anymore, is now a Dandy Dollar. The church-like Evil Clown Records on Halsted, once located on the same block as an S&M leather shop and a coffee place owned by a sweet old man whose son was eaten by Jeffrey Dahmer (true story!), is gone too. It's been replaced with something called Festa Parties. The legendary Rose Records in the Loop, with an escalator to the second floor where they kept all the budget stuff (and an elevator to get out), is now a barber school. The only one left is....
"Reckless!" I almost shouted at the karate guy. "Holy shit, I forgot about Reckless!" I turned and ran like I thought my life was in imminent danger.
Reckless Records, the one in the Lakeview neighborhood, has been around since the late '80s. It's where I bought the majority of CDs with the blood money I earned from selling my old vinyl to Record Swap. When the Swap went under, it would've made perfect sense if Reckless bought their remaining inventory. My records could still be out there, closer to home than I ever imagined.
Walking into Reckless was a Pavlovian rush of good feelings. Everything about it made me happy; the familiar decor (I swear the "No Future" poster hasn't moved an inch in decades), the super-obscure store soundtrack designed to make you feel musically illiterate (all I know is that there were trumpets, and a voice that sounded like Iggy Pop trying to do a Bono-circa-Rattle-and-Hum impression), the sullen, friendless men guarding their sections as they flip through records like old-timey accountants tapping calculators. I went straight to work, looking for as many vinyl favorites as I could remember.
I found most of it, but nothing predated my college years. The Pixies' Doolittle? A reissue. The Smiths' The Queen Is Dead? Another reissue. Anything by the Replacements? Only one Tim and two Pleased to Meet Mes, both reissues. Even the crown jewel of my collection, the record I bought solely because a guy with a mustache and shaved head behind the counter at Record Swamp recommended it, the Screeching Weasel's How to Make Friends, was only available as a reissue.
I'm all for superior sound quality, but vinyl made post-9/11 is fundamentally different from vinyl made in the 20th century. That sounds insane, but I swear it's true. It smells different, it feels different. I assume it's made from the same materials, but it's like comparing turkey and tofurkey. The last record I bought on vinyl, Pearl Jam's Ten, is not the same record that's currently for sale at Reckless, the reissue at $19.99. I don't mean different in terms of cover art or price or sound. It's DNA is different. It's different in such a subtle way that only people in their late 30s or 40s can recognize it. We see the differences like dogs can hear high-frequency screeching.
It wasn't until I wandered over to the bargain rack (the "Last Chance Saloon," as it's called at Reckless) that I found what I'd been yearning for. Here were the records that might've come from my personal library; not just the titles, but the general poor condition. They smelled like something that'd been left in the basement during a Chicago winter. If you grabbed them with too much force, the sleeves folded back like dead skin on a sunburn. I spent almost a full minute cradling albums like Bryan Adams' Cuts Like a Knife and the Greg Kihn Band's Kihnspiracy, not because they were records I particularly cherished, but because they had the physical battle scars of music from my era. Also, it didn't hurt that the average price for a bargain bin record -- 59¢ on the high end -- meant I could probably buy back my entire collection for about $100.
"Can I help you?"
A female employee with blonde hair and pink highlights had noticed me loitering near the register, obviously wanting to ask something but lacking anything resembling courage. She looked exactly like you'd want an attractive woman who works at a record store to look; punk but not so punk you think she might cut you, a Cramps t-shirt and lip ring, eating grapes seductively because that's the only way a hot girl in a Cramps t-shirt is capable of eating grapes.
"Do you have-?" I stuttered. "Could I get-? I wonder if-? Job application? Or whatever?"
She smiled warmly at me. "We don't have applications. But if you want to drop off a resumé, we'll put it on file. We're not hiring at the moment, but you never know."
I thanked her and smiled back. And then I just stood there, not saying much of anything, and not walking away either. She kept popping grapes in her mouth, watching me a little warily, probably wondering if she should be concerned. It was hard for me not to stare. It'd been years since I'd been in a record store, much less talked to a women with pink highlights and a lip ring who worked at a record store. It was like seeing a Dodo bird. I thought people like her were extinct. It wasn't sexual attraction. It was a realization that THIS was what I missed. Not my record collection. I missed the experience of being in a place like this, surrounded by the smell of old vinyl, just one flip of old cardboard away from saying "Burt Reynolds made an album called Ask Me What I Am? How the fuck am I just learning about this now?" I missed talking to a girl with pink highlights and a lip ring who probably knows fascinating minutiae about music I never knew existed but would change my life. I could be having those conversations again, if I was just 20 years younger and was willing to survive on a minimum wage salary, no health insurance and a store discount.
"Can I help you find anything else?" she asked.
I didn't know where to begin.