Princess Cornflakes

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Archive for March 2008

The Origins of Record Collecting

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Records line several walls in Steve\'s homeThe Internet is a musical sea, and we are all sailing upon it, collecting music as if it were fish or treasure. There are those who indulge in the perverse delight of fitting thousands of songs on a small solid pearlescent square which can be fit into the pocket. There are the “pirates” of the musical Internet, who spend hours downloading bootlegs, and enjoy sailing off into the uncharted territory of unreleased demos, unauthorized interviews, and obscure forgotten artists who were dropped from the catalogs years ago. There are ebay bidders, who might hop up from the dinner table, and bolt down to the basement to catch the last auction minutes of that rare single. Then there are the ordinary sailors, like me, who just buy an occasional disc from amazon…not really caring if it’s rare or import – just more music for the journey.

Steve Propes in his vinyl element

But long ago, in the 1950’s and 60’s, before this high-tech music world was mapped, when the recordings were all on vinyl, and when vinyl was relatively new, there emerged a whole generation of young kids who wanted to rock-and-roll, to cruise, make out, but most importantly to buy, every record they could find, that is. These were the first collectors, hard at work amassing and trading vast empires of vinyl. I recently spoke to Steve Propes, a collector in Long Beach, Califronia who started in the 50’s and told me how music collecting began…

Steve Propes lives happily today in a sunny ranch-style house with his wife, daughter, dog, many old books, furniture, cholo and weird thrift-store art, old roadside signs, and most importantly – a collection of at least 39,000 records.Saving for records for a long time

Propes’s records, shelved neatly on high bookcases throughout the house and in his rock-memorabilia filled office, chronicle the entire history of American teenage music. They include blues, RNB, jazz, rockabilly, rock-and-roll, punk, heavy metal, new wave, and countless other genres not least of which is Steve’s own personal favorite – doo-wop. It was the harmonious sounds of doo-wop and 1950’s Rythm and Blues combined with the smell of oil and rubber that first infected Steve with the collecting bug:

Bobby Darin and Bill Haley 45\'s“It was 1960. My high-school friend Bill Soon had a 1956 Chevy Bel-Air and we’d go to various drive-in diners in Long Beach – Hody’s, Oscar’s, Grissinger’s and The Clock. Everyone had their own sounds going in their cars, just like in American Graffiti. You tried to sound different and make your own sound, which could be slow or fast. Certain artists became popular through the cruising culture – Dick Dale, and Link Wray for example. We listened to Johnny Otis’s show a lot.”

But the turning-point moment – which transformed Steve from a car-radio-listening music fan, to an obsessive, or at least enthusiastic, collector of vinyl records, was not far away…..

“I started collecting between high school and college. We found out about Bill Braden, a Long Beach cop who would sell records out of his house every Saturday to college and high school kids. The records he sold were cut-outs (recordings which have been drilled or cut by dealers to indicate that they have been sold at a discount price and prevent full refunds). I think Bill would go into thrift stores in his uniforms and ask for records for charity.”

And like many collector discontented with contemporary sounds, Steve started turning back to R-n-B and not until several years after the recordings were made:

“I was collecting U.S. 45’s, mainly black music, so I overlooked a lot of rockabilly, country, garage, and surf. Black music was just the coolest thing on the radio. There was also a new interest in “teen collecting” – stuff like Frankie Avalon and Fabian. I hated that.”

Today thrift stores and record stores are decreasing in number. But back then they were plentiful and contributed heavily to Steve’s collection.A 1950\'s 45 rpm record player in Steve\'s office

“I’d go to Wallich’s Music City in the Lakewood Center. Hody’s was right across the street. I’d also go to Wenzel’s in Downey. There were stores specializing in black music, such as “Flash”. I knew John Raino, the counterman at Flash and we stayed in touch until he died two years ago. Flash had 5 turntables set up to play new releases throughout the store. But more often this would cause the song to end up playing out of sync. Other records stores in downtown Long Beach included Humphries on Pine, Morey’s, and Badarat. There were record stores in Compton where you could buy stuff real cheap out of the back room.”

Those who remember record stores remember their distinct culture of coolness, where music experts gravitated as they now gravitate to Yahoo music discussion lists. Steve describes the early record store scene:

“Record stores were a cool place to hang out and show knowledge about music. Jim Lamarand worked in the jazz department at record/instrument store Wallich’s. One night he was on his way out to dinner when a black cadillac pulled up. A black chauffeur opens the door and out steps Ray Charles. Charles comes in, starts looking at organs, sits down, and plays for 45 minutes while all of the customers are watching. A few months later Charles came out with an album of all instrumental organ songs: “Soul+Genius=Jazz” on the Impulse ABC jazz line. In the 1960’s a lot of labels had their own jazz lines.”

A 1950\'s cheesecake LP coverRecords could also be found in thrift stores and less likely places, as Steve recalls:

“My parents went to the Salvation Army on Alamitos near Anaheim St. in Long Beach. I hated it when they went, until one day I started looking at 45’s. There was a record on Red Robin which was always there. I shunned it but one day I brought it home and it was great. Every New Year’s Day and every 4th of July Thrifty drug store (now Rite-Aid) would put out big tables of 45’s at 10 cents each. We’d go to every Thrifty and buy lots of records. One guy named Claude found a phone number on one of the Thrifty’s tables, contacted the distributor and went to their warehouse the next day. This was rock-and-roll and R-n-B, stuff that Thrifty’s didn’t usually sell.

When did Steve decide that he was a collector and not just another kid buying records?old music magazines and a Doo Wop sticker\

“When Wallich’s was about to sell out on a record, they would put up a cardboard sign saying “no longer in stock.” That’s when i realized that every record would not be around forever.”

He then goes onto describe an unexpected fringe benefit of collecting:

“When I met my future wife Sylvia in college, I had a few thousand records all in one side of my room. She liked my collection. A lot of guys wives didn’t like it, but she did so I considered myself lucky.”

Of course it wasn’t all smooth sailing. I asked Steve what was the worst moment in his record collecting experience. There were a couple of bad ones –

“I once came home a bunch of good thrift store records. I left them on the dash and they melted in the California sun.”

Another story Steve tells is quite amazing:

“We’d go to parties and bring records with our names written on them. I brought a copy of Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie” that had been misprinted as “Louie Lovey”. Misprints were very rare and valuable but I left it at the party and never got it back. Then, one day my friend Jim called from the mountains where he was at the house of a woman who was getting rid of a lot of records. There Jim had found the copy of “Louie Lovey” with my name on it so of course he brought it to me.”

I asked Steve what he thought of record collecting today:

“Record collecting remains today. It’s stronger than ever but there are fewer record collectors. Good 78’s like jazz or rock-and-roll can be worth as much as 45’s or 33’s. I don’t really know how you can collect a computer file like an mp3.”

That\'s me in my dad's record room. My favorite band is Roxy Music!Steve Propes’s record collection will live long beyond him and I expect that it will be well-preserved and cared for. This is because Steve has a couple of daughters who love him and his music – even if they had to share a room until they were 10 so that he could have a record room. How do I know this? I, Princess Cornflakes, am one of these daughters.Steve's granddaughter Camilla may someday understand this

Written by nattie

March 9, 2008 at 7:57 pm

Posted in family, music

The Sadness of Techno

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When I’m at work I like to listen to techno on Pandora. It’s not that I like techno. I don’t collect it or talk about it or get excited about it really. Techno does not turn me on or make me feel the artist’s emotional moods, like rock often does. Nor does it even relax me and put me in a good mood, like jazz does. But techno does have one property that I like – it’s good background music for computer programming. My flickering screen merges with the drum and bass and sort of downloads my brain effortlessly through web sites, google search boxes, terminal windows, multiple desktops, lines of code and even odd unix commands. I feel nothing. I am reminded of nothing. I just move and work faster in a flurry of beats and flashing and circulating windows and HTML layouts.
I feel nothing. Or do I? As I sat absentmindedly listening to Pandora today, it occurred to me that techno is very sad. Oh, it’s not intentionally sad like Lou Reed’s “The Kids” –

They’re taking her children away
because they said she was not a good mother
They’re taking her children away
because of the things she did in the streets
In the alleys and bars, no she couldn’t be beat
that miserable rotten slut couldn’t turn, anyone away

Now that’s sad, complete with children crying at the end.

And it’s not even sad like the early synthesizer songs, which sound sad to me because they are from a distant time when everything seemed hopeful and new and synth music seemed the key to a strange and perfect world.

Techno’s nostalgia is vaguer and more uncanny. It’s not the feeling of losing touch with one era, but with the entire history of human culture. All those tiny little beats and half-tunes and soulful but disembodied female voices work together to remind me of the entire history of pop music, fading slowly and collectively into the horizon. All those songs that remind you of getting laid or dancing in a club, or driving in your car, or getting stoned (or something else), or discovering some great new sound like punk or funk or rap that you think will set you apart from everyone at school and make you truly bad-ass. All those songs are leveled and reduced to one note each, millions of little bits-and-bytes in a futuristic digital map that pulls you in and then slips effortlessly and digitally just out of your reach. You can’t get a grip on it anymore, and that produces a strange longing for me at least.

The connection with recognizable songs is getting further and further out of reach too. In the 80’s when house and techno first came about, samples were longer and recognizable. The female vocalist sang whole songs, like “Gypsy Woman” with choruses and so forth. Or at least they sang whole sentences:

“I don’ want/a place to stay/get your booty on the floor tonight/make my day”.

Over time the samples became smaller. Now all you might hear is “make my make my make my” or even less…”ma-ma-ma” – but you’d still recognize the original song, or maybe you’d just recognize that it was once a song! The vocals are the saddest part of techno for me. The little barely audible bits still contain all the joy and pleasure – and therefore all the sad nostalgia – of the original disco divas who sang them but whose voices now seem to be on the verge of disappearing into the electronic sea surrounding them.

Techno is like being in a space craft and moving slowly away from earth. Like the continents, the samples become smaller and smaller and more unrecognizable. Finally you are left inside an almost entirely computerized environment looking back sadly at a distant impression of the human world that once surrounded you.

Of course the feeling of moving away from human music, or moving away from earth, does not need to be sad. It could be bright and hopeful, a fearless new post-human future on the horizon. Perhaps with time it will feel more brave and fearless. Then I will be standing bravely at the precipice of this spacecraft, moving toward my space destiny. But for now, I just feel too attached to the memories of all those sampled songs that are being left abandoned like empty buildings on the side of the freeway.

Written by nattie

March 6, 2008 at 3:28 am

Posted in editorial