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United Under the Sign of the (Record) Groove

Vinyl Freak: Letters to a Dying Medium is not a book for everyone. However, if you have ever had an obsession with collecting certain items, you may find it interesting. This is certainly the case if you “collect” music in any physical format and even truer if you collect (or did so at some point in your life) long-playing records (LPs). Although I am not the record collector I could have been if I had never had children, I have always enjoyed spending hours in record stores, especially those that sell used materials. This book is an inexpensive way to do exactly that. The author, John Corbett, wrote a column for the jazz magazine Downbeat for a dozen years. The column mostly discussed records that were never put on CD. Not only were his reviews intelligent and worthwhile to read, they were also an introduction to some of the most unusual and highest quality music ever recorded in (mostly) LP format.

When I first received this book from the publisher, I quickly leafed through it and set it aside; I had other books to read and review first. When I finally did pick Vinyl Freak up from my pile of books, I began it by reading the introductions to each section of the text. Corbett begins each title of each section with the word “Track” as in Track One, Track Two, etc. These introductory sections discuss everything from the meaning of collecting and the various types of collectors to the idea of culture as material item in an era when streaming media is the norm. As anyone who ever owned any record albums knows, an album is much more than just recorded music. They are also works of graphic art, a listing of songs, composers and performers, and if one is lucky, liner notes that discuss the recorded artist and the work itself. As for that work, many albums are more than just a collection of songs. Indeed, they are an entire set of works arranged in a certain order to create one single piece. As a well-known example of this latter form of record, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band comes to mind.

The bulk of the text is made up of reviews of dozens of records Corbett found in record stores, auctions, online and the want-ads over a dozen years beginning in 2000. The records reviewed are primarily jazz albums and, to be more specific, they are jazz of the avant-garde type. A friend of mine who works part-time in a small independent and locally owned CD and record store in Vermont (a store that has outlived many chains since its opening days in 1980) told me the records highlighted in Vinyl Freak were somewhat hard to find. He would know—he has a few thousand albums that he has been collecting since he was in high school in the late 1960s. When he was leafing through the book at my house, he pointed out which records he owned and like Corbett, had a story about each one; when he bought it and where, etc. He is truly a member of a nation Corbett describes as being “united under the sign of the groove.” When I was reading the book, I found myself going online to YouTube or some other online music streaming service to see if I could find the album being described. Most often, I did. If not the entire recording, then at least some of the songs recorded at another time and venue.

Corbett ends his book with a wonderfully told story of his collecting coup de grace: his involvement in preserving and curating a huge collection of materials scavenged from the home of jazz master Sun Ra’s manager, Alton Abraham. The tale he tells is one of obsession and love. Neither of these are strangers to the other, but to read Corbett’s story of the process of obtaining this collection one is reminded how they can work together in creating something good. From its beginning with an email forwarded to him from Minuteman’s Mike Watt to the final truckload of Sun Ra tapes, papers and other ephemera taken from Alton Abraham’s’ house, the reader is taken into a Corbett’s version of the cable television show American Pickers. As a person who is not quite an over-the-top Sun Ra aficionado but is certainly more than a casual fan, I am forever grateful for Corbett’s obsession. As a person who is always interested in discovering new and obscure music, I am also forever grateful for Corbett and his publisher compiling this collection of reviews. Although I read several of them in their original incarnation in Downbeat, this little book is now my reference guide for music I need to check out. Thanks again, John Corbett.