Henry Rollins: Snapshots From a Lifetime of Collecting Singles
Photo by Heidi May
As much as I enjoy listening to music, I like searching for it almost as much.
The Internet has brought a lot of obscure records to light but also has priced many of them out of reach for many enthusiasts. I liked it when you could be a collector type and all you had to worry about was getting tossed into the loser bin as a vinyl-spotting, elitist micro-snob who didn’t get out often enough. Now, you still get all that but it’s much, much harder on the wallet.
There is nothing like having searched for a record for years and finally finding it. There was a book called Volume: International Discography of the New Wave, edited by B. George and Martha DeFoe, that nearly made my head explode when I was able to locate a copy in the early 1980s. The editors painstakingly catalogued thousands of bands, labels, fanzines, venues, records and record stores. It must have been a ton of work. From repeatedly poring over every page, I realized that the world of independent music was huge and there was a ton of listening ahead.
After this book, George and DeFoe, with an expanded team of info gatherers, released the 736-page follow-up, International Discography of the New Wave, Volume II (1982-83). From these two books, I had a want list that threatened to burst into flame from the heat of my curiosity.
I would carry my want list with me on tour and go into every record store I could find. A single that I had found out about in Volume was by a band from Scotland called The Valves. Their first two singles, both released on Zoom Records in 1977, were great. But the third and last one, with “It Don’t Mean Nothing at All”/“Linda Vindaloo” on Albion Records in 1979, had eluded me. Locating a copy turned into an obsession.
I forget what year it was; 1985, perhaps. I was somewhere in the Pacific Northwest; Oregon, maybe. I was in a record store that was mostly major-label stock. In a last-ditch effort not to leave empty-handed, I asked the man working there if he had the proverbial “import singles box” lying around. In those days, small-label records often were tossed into a box, where they would languish.
Amazingly, without hesitation, the man reached under the counter and pulled out a box of singles. I went through them and, unbelievably, there was The Valves’ single on Albion. I tried to explain just what a huge event this was to the guy, but it didn’t seem to register.
One of the most memorable record-hunting experiences I ever had happened in New York City. I was there to see Sham 69 at Hurrah’s on 12-05-79. Before the show, Ian MacKaye, myself and the others who had crammed into our car and hauled up from Washington, D.C., walked into the legendary Bleecker Bob’s record store at 118 W. Third St. We had heard about this place and were awed as we entered.
I went up to the counter with my want list and timidly asked Bob, a man who would bellow as much as speak, if he had the records I was looking for.
It was as if I had insulted him! That I had the temerity to suggest that anything on my list could possibly not be in his store? An outrage! With every request, he vaulted away from the counter, increasingly annoyed with my youthful impudence, and came back with the requested single.
The standout record he had in stock from my list was the first single by The Misfits, with “Cough/Cool” and “She,” on Blank Records. Ian and the rest all got copies as well, at a friendly three bucks each. I think Bob had every record I asked for.
Nothing like that has ever happened to me again.
This is one of my favorite collector anecdotes. Ian has a label called Dischord. Dischord 001 is the Teen Idles’ Minor Disturbance EP, released in 1980. Ian placed five copies of this record on consignment at a record store down the street from where I worked back then. I went in there on my lunch hour and bought all of them in a show of support. Ian later told me that the single had sold through and the store had taken more. I never told him what I had done.
Thirty years later, I removed them from the loose shrinkwrap they were still in and carefully put them into protective, acid-free sleeves. Copies of Minor Disturbance in good condition have gone for over a thousand bucks. A few months later, when Ian was in town, I told him the story and showed him the records. I think he raised his eyebrows a small fraction of an inch, pursed his lips and nodded ever so slightly.
Now and then, I send Ian pictures of recent acquisitions like they’re newly discovered works of Van Gogh. Test pressing of X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” single on Virgin Records, 1977. “I’veneverseenoneofthesebeforeamazingright?!”
Ian humors me in reply: “Looks great!” I can almost see that slight nod.
I am finding, like a leopard that cannot lose its spots, that my interest in music and different pressings of records is only getting more intense.
Now so much music is established, and repackaged to death. But there was a time when things were somewhat naive, more “brave new world” excited and “no future” fearless. Not only can you hear it in the music, you can often see it in the artwork.
The search never ends.
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