Vinyl Freak: Love Letters to a Dying Medium by John Corbett

Mark Sullivan By

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Vinyl Freak: Love Letters to a Dying Medium
John Corbett
264 Pages
ISBN: #0822363666
Duke University Press Books

John Corbett is a music critic, record producer, and curator. For twelve years—from 2000 to 2012—he wrote a column titled "Vinyl Freak" for Downbeat magazine, and those collected columns form the backbone of this book. Corbett wrote about out of print LPs in his extensive collection: ranging from the extremely obscure (and in a few cases, unreleased) to well-known artists. On one level the column was a paean to the joys of collecting records: the thrill of the hunt, the satisfaction of finding a long-sought item, and the possibility of discovering something new by serendipity. Out of print status also raises potential questions about the long-term accessibility of recorded music. If it's been recorded, why can't I hear it? And who picks the winners and losers?

When Corbett began the column, vinyl seemed to be on the way out, forever: technologies that are replaced (in this case by the compact disc) rarely come back. Ironically, vinyl actually began to see a resurgence about the time the column came to an end. Of course it's no longer the mass medium it was when he started collecting, but at least it survives as a subculture. Corbett ruminates on the medium and the urge to collect in short essays called "Tracks" that are interspersed throughout the book, breaking up the flow of columns and providing a broader perspective. There's something about the LP as a physical object that remains attractive. They're large enough for sizeable cover art and liner notes in a large, readable font size. They establish a physical bond with the listener that even compact discs lack, never mind the virtual aspect of downloaded music.

Corbett make the distinction between hoarders and collectors: it's not hard to amass a large quantity of records, but unless they're chosen with a connoisseur's eye, you're just hoarding. He says he's a "freak, not a snob." Generally preferring vinyl for both the sound and the attractiveness of the physical object, he'll take music in other forms if that's the only way to get it. He even acknowledges that some very quiet music (classical music in particular) is better heard on CD than LP, because of the high noise floor that plagues even excellent vinyl pressings.

The Downbeat columns were inherently noncommercial: why promote recordings that are unavailable to anyone who is not willing to search for them? He updates the status of the recordings since the original article was published, and they are not especially upbeat. Some of the recordings have been re-released in limited editions which are themselves rare and hard to find, while many of them are still out of print in their original releases. Corbett himself has attempted to reissue many of them, with varying degrees of success. His choices for the column were at least somewhat oriented towards the magazine's audience: more jazz than other genres, and more mainstream than not. So he devotes Track Five to free jazz ("Specialty of the House"), a particular personal interest that he chose not to emphasize in the column, but presented here in a similar format.

Track Six ("The Taming of the Freak") describes the climax of Corbett's life as a collector. He purchased salvage rights to an enormous Sun Ra archive in the home of a longtime manager in Chicago. It's a surreal scene: Corbett, recovering from a hernia operation, supervising a team working to take everything of value out of the house, working against the clock and limitations imposed by the heirs. The team rescued unissued tapes, original album artwork, business plans, contracts, correspondence...a vast array of the record of an iconoclastic career in music. After the haul had been put into storage there was a long process of inventorying it and finding appropriate homes for exhibitions, and eventually museums and archives where the materials could be properly conserved and made available for study. The entire intensive, exhaustive process made record hunting look insignificant by comparison. After years of hunting down rare Sun Ra LPs, this was the mother lode, and it cured Corbett of the urge to collect records.

The reader probably has to be (or have been) an avid record collector to truly enter into Corbett's story. It is a personal journey in many ways. But since the discussion is at least as much about the music being collected as the vinyl package, there is also a lot of intriguing music in the book. Much (but not all) of it jazz, and all of it worth seeking out: it comes with Corbett's highest recommendation.
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