The Mind of the Collector

phrenology head_490I was prompted to write this by a couple of wonderful pieces on Brian Wilson collecting, one on a chance find of a compilation of unknown material, and another on the curation of a catalogue of recordings.

Now I’m not by any means a big Brian Wilson fan. I love his work of course, when I listen to it, and  “Surf’s Up” is shimmering untouchable genius, but I don’t own anything and I certainly don’t go looking for bootlegs and lost material. Yet these pieces got all of my collectors juices flowing, just as I can get very enthused poking through – for example – the Passions Just Like Mine Smith’s site despite not really liking the Smiths all that much (yes, I know, heresy, get over it).

The reason touches at the heart of what drives what I do and why I do it. Reading these pieces, you encounter mysterious and shady “collectors” who reputedly have rare material and then disappear into the mist. It almost seems that there’s a secret cabal of people who have access to things we mere mortals don’t, who can find their way unnoticed into record company cupboards and extract rare treasures. Probably they have lizard DNA. I want to be one of them.

The reality is a little more mundane of course. Most collecting is about turning up day in day out and failing to find anything at all. It’s often a depressing business, you follow clues and you search, and everything is a dead end. The spectacular discoveries are very few and far between, but it’s the conversion of low probability finds with a hell of a lot of looking that leads to them. This is true of almost any serious collecting; I’m not talking here about amassing the full executive collection of Prefab Sprout vinyl which is really just a question of attaching your wallet to Discogs or Ebay and buying at a rate you can afford, but rather the sort of detective work that leads to demo’s or unreleased material or other such interesting things. For the Beach Boys of course there are armies of people looking, and the monetary value of the discoveries is such that more or less anyone holding something is aware of what they have, but it’s the same principle for Prefab Sprout collecting: everything needs to be searched for and found. Then when you find something, there is a moment of delicious euphoria when everything seems possible and all doors are open, and that drives you towards the next discovery.

Having said all of that, serious collectors are not quite normal people (I speak here in full self awareness). The title of this blog is a tongue in cheek reference to the “ologys” of AJ Weberman, the Bob Dylan obsessive who famously went through Dylan’s trash in the search for anything at all from which to construct dubious interpretations of Dylan’s work and life. I’m on slightly dangerous ground here, because I can’t honestly say that if someone plonked Paddy’s recycling bin in front of me I wouldn’t be tempted to root through his junk mail, but I don’t think I’m quite on the Weberman level of obsessive nutjobbery. Incidentally, Dylan eventually retaliated by beating him up, and Weberman entered a “hell hath no fury” phase of character assasination. Curiously the interactions became a collecting interest in themselves, with a bootleg of a phone conversation with Dylan being circulated.

The big collectors hoard like jealous dragons too. That’s understandable, if sometimes frustrating when you start out: rare material can often be exchanged for other rare material and it’s very often the case with the most interesting things that people are on a promise not to circulate or even acknowledge the existence of items. Personally my preference is to share, but there are some things I’ve agreed not to. It’s part of the collecting game, like it or loathe it. The objective of that game is to worm your way into that world of selfish, inwardly focused egomaniacs, to obtain things that have value to people who would otherwise ignore you disdainfully, and be able to hold them to ransom. I learned that very early, as a teenager swapping bootleg cassettes: one or two properly rare things give you bargaining levers. You can’t survive just by looking for things other people have, you have to seek out new things.

Above all, to become a “serious collector”,  you need a mixture of persistence and luck. Persistence in that you have to follow up every single lead, clue or hunch, even when everything leads to a dead end, and apply lateral thinking when you’re stuck. In fact this is precisely why it’s enjoyable.

I’ll give you a minor example: A couple of years ago I found a reference online to a 1985 French concert tape recorded in Rouen. This was on a dead “home page” from the early 1990s without any usable email addresses or contact information. I tried literally everything to track the owner down, looked for variants of the username elsewhere, went via the original ISP, trawled ARCHIVE.ORG and USENET archives, spent months on it, a little every week for month after month after month. Nothing. Lots of googling, messages on bulletin boards and on the front page of psgigs. Nothing. So I then started contacting everyone I could find who had a recording of any band in Rouen to ask them if they knew anyone who taped in the town, probably upwards of a dozen fruitless contacts over a period of a few months; then eventually high persistence intersected with low probability and I found someone who knew the taper. The result was a really great concert recording which was circulated on dimeadozen and which will find its way here eventually. I think it took about a year from start to finish to track down, and I just kept plugging away relentlessly.

And luck in that just occasionally things happen you couldn’t possibly anticipate and don’t expect. I’ve just this week had one of those which has led me to getting hold of a completely unique item. I’ll explain more about that here at some point later, because it is exciting and it might lead to something even more exciting still.

But the searching is almost the entire reason for doing it. The objects are just objects at the end of the day, they take their place on the shelves or in the archival boxes and you look at them or listen to them from time to time, but having them is almost secondary. I guess it’s about the idea of gaining control over the chaos, of bringing some sort of classification and order to a random universe which has chosen to scatter objects of desire in the most inaccessible places.


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