What do you get when you cross the aimless pleasures of vinyl browsing with the ecclectic sensibilities of the biggest, baddest, most ragtag freeform music station on earth?
You get over 200 vendors peddling everything from Beatles 7″ singles to bins and bins full of super cheap albums, which to a more discriminating listener might seem like crap, but to folks who both love music and will listen to just about anything at all presents an annual treasure hunt of almost unimaginable proportions.
You get, that is, to stumble upon a session musician who both worked on Pet Sounds and produced Glen Campbell’s crossover career — and who sports a seriously hefty toupe — doing elevator versions of themes from Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, and the Bacharach-composed theme from The April Fools. (Of course I knew none of these things when I bought the disc for a quarter.) The key words for de Lory are “current” and “today,” as in “Today’s Most Exciting Piano & Orchestra” (the album’s subtitle), or this, from the personalized track notes on the back sleeve:
“Easy Rider” is quite a picture. It’s really current, in that it not only shows how a lot of people are living today, but it’s honest in the way it depicts a certain hypocrisy on both sides of the social scene. Naturally, the music is current too, and I’ve tried to stay with the feeling of “today” in my interpretation.
Maybe that’s just the kind of anxiety someone putting out an elevator collection labors under, but if I were a cultural historian of the late twentieth century I’d have a heyday with lines like that.
When you’re confronted with a room full of 200 vendors and $40 or so to spend, how do you determine which records to add to your stack? I’m neither a completist nor a serious general collector; I’m in it simply for good tunes or for kitsch. To start with, I rifled through the records being sold by WFMU themselves — all sales to benefit the station. These were pricier picks, four or five bucks apiece, most of them from bins labeled “The History of Rock”: Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life and Innervisions, a couple Rolling Stones LPs (including one minor hits retrospective called Sucking in the 70s), serious music I already own in some other format but wouldn’t mind popping on the turntable now and again.
Other choices were simply sentimental:
This was, perhaps, my favorite record as an eight-year-old. I played it at home (where my other favorite records were greatest hits compilations by Neil Sedaka and the Bee Gees) but even better, I listened to it at school, in the back of my second grade classroom, whenever I earned enough points to get to go to the “listening booth.” I’d put on those mammoth studio headphones and set the needle down on side 1, track 2, the best song ever: “Top of the World.” Of course now I recognize that “Superstar” is the superior song, but there was something about the fantasy of being on top of creation that I never could quite shake. I had a fantastic teacher in second grade; they fired him because he was gay. Of course they let teachers paddle kids in the classrooms, but gay teachers? Run ‘em out of town on a rail!
I found a benefit LP for the Clearwater, one of the boats my friend Don had captained.
For professional, eighteenth-century lit reasons I took home The Ballad of Fanny Hill: An Original Musical Monodrama Based Upon The Book Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland. This is something like the soundtrack to the original porn bestseller, with song titles like “Truth, Naked Truth,” “Alive, Alive, Oh,” and “Laden with Maiden.” I bought this record for $1 but find it selling on eBay for $40. Not that I could ever part with it. It has a lyrics sheet!
The kitsch factor climaxed, for me, with Good Housekeeping’s Plan for Reducing the Sporting Way, an exercise LP that encourages its “reducing” listeners to imitate backstrokes, golf swings, and bowling ball flings as part of its “fourteen slimming exercises.” It also comes with a calorie guide.
Then there are just musical finds too sweet to pass up: Sarah Vaughan: Songs of the Beatles, for instance, a 1981 collection that falls somewhere between R&B, jazz, and high disco.
And maybe my favorite find, again from the 4/$1 bins: The 1969 Warner-Reprise Record Show, a label showcase for that year’s new releases.
How could you go wrong with a 2-record set that kicks off with “Cinnamon Girl” and also features songs by the Dead, Arlo Guthrie, Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell, The Kinks, Van Dyke Parks, Jimi Hendrix, and Randy Newman? You couldn’t. But the real pleasers here are the less familiar ones, the songs that provide unexpected contextualizations for the now-canonized standards: Bert Jansch, the folk guitarist who’s only just enjoying a revival; Geoff and Maria Muldar (“the most celebrated husband-wife duo in all of jug-band music”); and other leftovers from the Village folk scene. Mephistopheles, one of Warner-Reprise’s “newer boss rock and roll outfits.” Or unexpected gems like Fats Domino singing “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.” I didn’t notice it when I added it to my pile, but the compilation even includes one of my favorite soul singles ever: Lorraine Ellison’s heartrending rendition of “Stay With Me.”
In short: the best 1969 mix-tape ever, but it’s on vinyl! I’ll close with its blurb on the Fugs, a band I’m contemplating writing about at length in my history of New York, and whose “Yodellin’ Yippie” is collected here. I can’t figure out why the copy-writer was so snide about a lot of the acts represented on these records, but the tone here is fairly typical. Was it cool and ironic to put down your bands in 1969? Did it prove you weren’t yet co-opted by the Man, part of a big commercial rock and roll machine? Or did the bands write their own copy?
THE FUGS are a disgusting collection of perverts, anarchists, and general no-goodniks from New York’s hotbed of hippie depravity, the Lower East Side. Individually they are Ed Sanders, the bathless head perpetrator of the troupe’s smut, a notorious poet, and the owner of the Peace Eye Book Store, a favorite gathering place of the pruriently interested; Tuli Kupferberg, who was immortalized in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl as the creep who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge; and Ken Weaver, whose shocking irreverence for our dearest political institutions is evident in his crumby poetry and in his forthcoming comedy album.
Exactly the kind of stuff, in other words, that I want playing in the background while the kids get ready for school this morning.