Written by: Dave Cantrell
These days he tends to descend the stairs cowboy-style, a bit bowlegged, a hitch in his gait, like every bad impression of Walter Brennan. Favorite of his dad’s in the wayback, and he knows many years ago he tried to explain Walter Brennan to his own then ten-year-old daughter, the throwing of an imaginary hat to the ground, the akimbo arms, Dagnabbit, Luke. Blank face. She never got old enough to find out for herself who the guy was, what a character actor is and now he’s down the stairs and in the basement and what’d he come down here for? Dagnabbit, Luke.
His hand at rest on the newel, placed there at the end of his descent and he twirls lightly around it, mules twisting under his feet, no glide on the indoor/outdoor carpet. Let’s see, coming down here had something to do with..
“Oh, yeah, that’s right,” he says, “the JB Hutto.”
Surrounding him, 270 out of the 360 degrees, are walls of records floor to low ceiling, 33 1/3 long playing records in protective plastic sleeves, simple alphabetical. All blues and jazz down here and he lets them intermingle.
Shuffles in his mules to the GHI, clicks on the gooseneck, the ceiling fluorescents needing enhancement and there are two of these goosenecks stationed left and right at every pine bookcase. Vinyl, to be rightful, requires a jeweler’s set-up.
On his knees on the kneeling rail he had installed three years ago, a padded upholstered 6-inch wide thing that runs the length, he runs his fingers along the spines in a trill of polyurethane, Sugarcane Harris, Wynonie, past the Hawk and Lightnin’, past Peg Leg Howell and Howlin’ Wolf, up to Alberta Hunter and here we are, JB Hutto and the Hawks. LP-wise nothing of Hutto’s worth the spin was issued on anything but the Delmark label, the D in the square, logo of a simpler corporate time. Not one of the guy’s records is rare enough to tweak the hairs on a collector’s neck except possibly the promo copy of Hawk Squawk he’s certain he has, the cover green not orange. This user, Janrax47, says he’ll offer big, he’s in Zurich with his euros in a sweat. In theory these vinyl cognescenti span the globe – there have been Afrikaaners, Filipinos, Israelis, Argentines, even a Sri Lankan in 2005 – but when reality cuts to its chase it’s all Europeans, northern Europeans mostly, and Japanese. Some Americans, yes, some Canadians, there’s a hardy handful over here that still speaks vinyl, but overall the North Americans have gone for ones and zeroes in a very big way, a saturation that has managed to overtake even the standard music freak, the ones like him that aren’t him. He’s bought entire collections that have been reduced, in effect, to the head of a pin. Big surprise. The zealot succumbs to a pocket gizmo redolent of the spy toys he dreamed of as a boy. In his view, however, reductive gadgetry should not be mixed with passion.
It comes from its crisp original white paper sleeve with a coaxed slide, nesting into the same hand that has just guided it out and which now no-touch holds it like a relic, the record’s edge tucked against the webbing of his thumb, the inner label near the spindle hole resting on the tips of his fingers, middle one imperceptibly raised. This a kind of rigor mortis, the collector’s rigid paw, inspecting condition. He’s heard of some can’t do this anymore, dealer’s carpal tunnel. Of this at least he has been spared. Washed his hands twice before coming down, an unabridgeable requirement, fresh towel. For a short time some years back he used cotton gloves but the added layer made him clumsy and the loss of the tactile was heartbreaking.
Vinyl’s virgin so far as he can tell, not a single spindle mark, the black shine immaculate and he gentles it back into its sleeve. Whoever had been this promo’s recipient had had no cause to sample it and now the buy he’d bought it in comes back to him, a grapevine buy pre-internet, he’d flown to LA on faith. Industry type with a thinning scalp of blond hair punctuated by hair plugs, hopeful tufts jumping out of the bald spot in a coil pattern. The imperative to not comment on it was possibly the loudest unspoken command he’s ever obeyed. Two garage walls of sealed record boxes filled with such, all of it small label blues and jazz, an unordered chaos of joy and near dizziness. Throughout the process a level of excitement unachievable for him via any other agency was kept suppressed. Though clear from the off that every box would offer no less than those that came before, he nonetheless inspected each with a methodical cadence, mouth and brow both locked in the setting of serious business. Few words exchanged between the men. An amount was put forward that went unchallenged and not until the check had been written and ripped, the boxes stacked into the rental van, the handshake shaked and he was back on the 405 did he let it all register, the magnitude of the score, and he grinned so hard his face ached.
Never show them, everyone knows that. Even when the seller’s well aware, as that one had most certainly been, had at least had an inkling, you don’t let on, don’t let the fever show. Funny the codes, the idiotic etiquette, but so it is, cool rules in these matters and that’s the end of it. First thing you learn.
From whence the Hutto a thin dark sliver of emptied space leaned into by the crush of albums from its left which he tugs at sideways with a kind of claw grip, slides the album back into place in a way you’d handle samples of glass. June used to accuse him of exhibiting a greater tenderness toward his records than any living thing – their daughter, the cats they had, her. “Heirloom dandyism” she called it once, oh how June could throw her words around. His rebuttals proved as feeble as they were futile, consisting primarily of spluttered ‘That’s not true’s and indignant bursts of ‘Nonsense.’ Not that his tepid defenses reflected with any accuracy his convictions, they didn’t. Handling vinyl could never compare to nor supplant the yearn of animal touch – it’s a different yearning altogether – and neither could the potential loss of its touch ever make him cry and Lissa’s image flashes in his mind with its same cruel vividness, she’s always on that school bus, at the window, framed in pencil yellow. She’s smiling, she waves, classic sixth grader off to classic sixth grade camp, that pale purple knit beret. In a sense she’s already dead by then. First case of meningitis in Mason Elementary’s seventy-three year history. Middle of the pitch black cabin night because apparently bacterial meningitis doesn’t know any other time to strike and sixteen schoolbus miles from the nearest anything and by now he’s upstairs and the light to the basement’s turned off behind him and he’s holding himself against the wall where there’s nothing to hold on to, just wall. His mules, there they are down there, that indistinct pink beige color, his insteps leading into them a similar hue but more on the yellowed end of the spectrum. Veins like worms the skin’s grown over. The feet begin to move, bit of a shuffle, really, type pace that could belong to someone hospitalized or in shackles.
Back at the desk the screen has saved itself to its floating logo and he takes a slug of thick black cold coffee, over four hours since he made it, much more of a nurser as he’s gotten older. The Hutto and the status of his answer to Janrax47 hang in the air between his stare and his next hand movement. In such situations it’s his policy, once he brings the screen up, to know. Seven, perhaps eight times in the previous twelve months the answer’s been yes, countless times no. It’s never the money, or isn’t yet. Easy to imagine that day on the horizon but until then he’ll ignore it. No, somewhere in the request he has to sense the need, the text has to insinuate a hunger, not just for the thing itself but everything it represents. Nothing to do with the intense, dry collector’s minutiae – label, condition, issue, the matrix stamped in the runout groove – but instead a palpable pulse of desire and what led to its possession. What riff or hook or chorus or chord progression accidentally heard on an uncle’s backyard radio, or a friend’s brother’s 60’s stereo, or under the covers late at night, a stray signal fighting its way onto their Panasonic transistor when they were thirteen or fourteen, what moment unleashed, slowly at first then gushing with momentum by the time they hit their twenties never to let up, the torrent of curiosity, the driving need to know to hear to devour that shaped, quite literally, the contours of their life? The obsessive’s birth moment, in other words, that must be in there somewhere, vibrating somehow between the words or wrapped like tensor wire around the syntax.
His own had come at a flea market, of all the. Dusty Sunday afternoon, a drive-in in Rockford Illinois, 1971. His mom was trying to sell these things she’d sewn, stuffed fabric gingerbread men, their gingerbread wives. The hippie vibe had soaked its way into everything by then, TV shows, newspaper ads, Family Circle magazine. Dad was a union man down to his boots but a traditionalist up to his sergeant’s haircut and he wouldn’t let mom work, not a real job, that was his job. Didn’t mind her having a hobby, though, especially of the needle and thread as that recalled his own mother and therefore all was right and tidy in the world. So this craft project on the back pages of Family Circle and Mom had at it with a singular drive, made scads of gingerbread families, varied their poses and sizes, added beaded hair upon request. And every weekend through a hot dry summer she dragged her son along and he was deep in his gawk and inhabited a strange, remote quietness, a shell within a shell recently acquired. Just in general sharing how he felt was unthinkable, as was in fact much of what even six months previous had been an effortless repertoire of gesture and action, the rambunctious thereness of a boy. He had no answer for this but the seemingly irresistible staring at of feet. A world that not that long ago had met him at the door every morning as navigable and in most ways accommodating now seemed to twist down sinuous alleys without obvious reason or destination and something of a surly din had become noticeable at the edges. He felt hounded somehow.
Thus was the boy that stepped into the seller’s tent, a large canvas affair, big enough to stand in. You could still smell sleeping bags and campgrounds in the trapped canvas heat but at least no direct sunlight, the man in the folding steel chair made a point of saying that. Said man was big, old, or old by the standards of a blinking 13-year-old boy with sweat at his temples. The bulk of him hung over every edge of chair as if some mass was starting to melt and his eyebrows were wild with gray and black hairs and the hair on his head though receding was long into a ponytail and gray as Granny Clampett. “Got cancer, gotta sell ’em,” he heard the man say to another browser nearer by, voice as blunt instrument.
With oblique sidelongs the kid he was had, for several seconds, watched that other customer, modeling having become one of his primary strategies for deciphering the world outside his parents, a world that was vast and sharply alien now that he found himself noticing it. This other guy flipped through records as if they were extra large file cards, and did it quickly, the middle finger a flicking blur. Of a sudden he stopped, pulled out an album with a blue and darker blue cover with a picture of whomever and said to the seller “Has this got The Loneliest on it?” then turning the album so it rested against his forearm answered himself with an “Ah yes, thought so.” Meant nothing to the kid but seemed sufficiently out of joint to prick his intrigue and so he turned and delved.
Despite the quick lesson, that goddamn awkwardness rose in him with a flush and infected every movement, every moment, his fingers stiffening with hesitancy as he picked through the man’s stock, the rock section next to which he happened to be standing when he came in. A few names had a radio familiarity of course – he’d had AM favorites, like any kid, and every summer and into fall for the last few years a transistor had been taped to his handlebars (WROK, the spirit of the rock! Rockford..) – but, by a logical illogic that made perfect sense even as he couldn’t articulate it, he decided to forgo anything he’d heard of, not that that was much. For half the wooden crate, past dozens of curious unknowns, his fingers walked across the tops of albums as he awaited the one arresting cover that would cause him to stop and when it did it wasn’t name or image it was shape and color, rounded at the top like a tombstone and stoplight yellow. Love Sculpture, it said, Blues Helping, three dollars. He’d turned it on to his arm to check out the back cover but clearly that was show, all it did was double his ignorance and anyway this was the one he was going to buy and that was that.
As he crossed the asphalt floor to the seller’s corner, enclosed within his usual cloud of self-consciousness, some other element seemed to effervesce inside it, some kind of excited apprehension in the mix and not many years later he’d recognize it as bearing a great similarity to the purchase of a bag of weed, a hit of acid.
The five bucks his mom had given him – ‘You’re cut,’ she’d said, though she’d barely sold twice that amount’s worth yet – came out of his pocket in a sweated-up wrinkle and he held it out to the man, his heart beating faster than reason could explain. In expressionless silence the man took the record and jutted out his lower lip.
“You know these guys?” he asked, glancing up at the stick of midwest teen in front of him.
He stammered, “No..I..umm..,” something to that effect. A momentary gag of confusion overtook him; could it be that he wouldn’t be able to buy this album if he couldn’t answer with sufficient knowledge? Absurd but his brain was turning in its same old circles and this was a foreign land.
He was about to say ‘I like the shape’ when the other customer said “Oh man, Edmunds can really lay it down” to which the fat man said in his corrugated voice “Yeah, well, it was all laid down in single takes, you know that, right?”
“You are shitting me,” came the reply, “man that is fucking amazing” and the two went back and forth a few more times and the kid heard the words ‘blues purist’ in there, heard ‘Freddy King,’ the tent had its own language and at some point during this the man had taken the five and given him back the record and his two bucks change and he had stepped outside the tent and was squinting at the cover in the summer sun. A sense of having gotten out alive was attended by an odd stomach thrill, it was rollercoasterish and he’d walked back over the drive-in bumps and gullies oblivious to vendors or heat.
That afternoon, after helping Mom unload the Impala, “The Stumble” had come charging off his rinky-dink Sears stereo with this wildly controlled impatience, it was merciless and wonderful and he’d stood in his cut-offs and T-shirt, sweat cooling on him, he’d stood there rigidly slackjawed, equally disbelieving and ecstatic. It was as if someone across the room had thrown a body-sized sheet of frozen adrenaline on him, it was like nothing he’d ever heard or even known existed and though he’s heard plenty to rival it since, and much in many ways that surpasses it, nothing’s ever quite felt like that again. By its very nature a virgin revelation, the god-seeing gist of that moment is irreclaimable, only a fool would not know that but only a fool would allow himself to quit trying to reclaim it. Hence the collection that weighs as much as the house that holds it, hence a life that forty-one years ago this summer found its central drive, everything else spins off that, has spun. Still has that record, filed in the den with rock. Blues LP but Love Sculpture’s next was classics on amphetamines so they weren’t, strictly speaking, blues. Therefore, et cetera, he doesn’t break them up. Fleetwood Mac same deal. Every archivist’s dilemma.
The screen comes up with the merest touch and he types ‘I’m sorry, not today. Would you like me to add you to my contact list? Let me know. Regards, Vinyl Lomax,’ words that could write themselves.
Rises, finishes his coffee, its coldness giving it a shuddering metal taste like rust made liquid. Let it sit that long it all becomes Taster’s Choice.
[feature photo by Owen Maercks]