discaholic interview R Crumb, feb – march 2013
Photo © Sebastien Gokalp
- Do you consider yourself as an official discaholic? Has the discaholic bug bitten you?
I am absolutely a “discaholic.” I never heard this term before. Did you invent it? It’s totally appropriate. I have it bad. Collecting addictions in general have a lot in common with drug addiction. Very bad for the bank account, bad for human relationships. Why is it that you never see an ardent collector as a hero in movies? Collectors are perceived as creeps by most people, craven hoarders, narrowly obsessed little men. There’s something contemptible about collecting in the eyes of non collectors.
I became an obsessive collector very suddenly around the time I turned nine years old in the late summer of 1952. I remember it well. Suddenly I wanted to save things, to have the series; to line them up, stack them up, accumulate them. I started with comic books, trading cards, matchboxes, bottle caps. I spent a large part of my childhood and adolescence hunting for old comic books. At age 16 I suddenly became a collector of old 78 records. I already had a great attraction to old music that I heard in old movies from the early 1930s, old animated cartoons and the Hal Roach comedies. When I discovered that this same kind of music could be found on old 78s, that was it. I was hooked, and I knew it. That was in 1959, just at the end of the 78 era, ironically.
The first 78s that really hooked me were the dance orchestras and jazz bands of the 1920s. Don’t ask me why I was so powerfully drawn to this music of my grandparents’ time. I have no idea. And since I was at first completely isolated from other collectors and had no information, no books, no discographies, I learned from the ground up. I bought a lot of records on mere chance. Very few of the names were known to me. Fortunately at that time you could buy second-hand 78s very cheap, ten cents to a quarter, usually. There were lots of them around, stacked up in Salvation Armies or in big second-hand furniture stores. Only in big cities like New York and Philadelphia were there any shops that specialized in selling “out-of-print” old records. I was living in a small town when I first started, far from any big city. I had very little money, but collecting 78s was a cheap hobby back then.
I would occasionally buy 33 1/3 LP reissues of old jazz. Nowadays I will acquire CDs of reissues if the original 78 records themselves are just impossible to find and possess, but I’d certainly rather have the 78. One of the problems with LPs and CDs is that they are collections of performances. I never ever listen to recorded performances in the same sequence. I always make my own program, making a new choice after each three-minute piece is over. I much prefer that way of listening to recorded music. I also usually give the music my full attention when I play records. I can’t work and listen to music at the same time. Giving music your full attention is how you become a connoisseur, how you slowly but surely move toward the best, the music with the most character.
- Do you collect other stuff?
Like I said, before I began collecting old records I’d already been a serious collector of old comic books since the age of nine. I gave up collecting comic books in a serious way when they started to become exorbitantly expensive. I didn’t have that kind of money and still don’t. Old 78s are still generally not a terribly expensive thing to collect except for the most sought-after rare items. I also used to collect, for a while, old toys until that, too, got too pricey for my bank account. I also collected old magazines, sheet music, old music-related photos, it goes on and on. But it’s only the 78s that I collect with the grim, obsessive determination to possess that holds the true “discaholic” in abject bondage, a monkey on his back, a millstone around his neck.
- What was the first record you bought with your own money?
The first record I ever bought with my own money was a late 1920s blues record called Down in the Cemetery Blues by an obscure singer-guitarist named Billy Bird. I was 14 or 15 years old, rummaging around in Willkie’s second-hand furniture store in Milford, Delaware, where my family was living at the time (1958), looking for interesting old books, comics, magazines…. I was just attracted to old stuff. There was a box of old records. I was fascinated, intrigued by this one with an attractive 1920s label design, song title, artist’s name. I took a chance on it for ten cents, took it home, played it. All record players at that time still featured 78 speed and a 78 stylus. The music was strange and alien to my ear, saturated as I was by the popular music of the 1950s. This Down in the Cemetery Blues, by contrast, was primitive, stark, introverted, a voice from a world so far removed from mine, I didn’t know what to make of it. I put the record in a box of random books and magazines under my bed and found it a few weeks later in there busted clean in half. Oops!
And I never found another copy. Turns out it’s a very rare record.
It was about a year later that the 78 collecting obsession kicked in when, again out of curiosity, I bought a few old records. This time they were 1920s dance orchestras, and this music thrilled me immediately. This was the music I’d been searching for. It wasn’t until several years later that I began to appreciate the old-time country blues and white country music of the 1920s and ‘30s.
- What was the first vinyl you bought only because of the cover?
I never bought a record just for the cover, but I am sucked in by the period graphics of the 1920s and ‘30s record labels and sleeves. Until they began making 78 albums in the mid-late 1930s, 78s didn’t really have “covers” (plus, they were made of shellac, not vinyl). They only had paper sleeves or jackets showing the label name and sometimes had lists of current releases on them. Sometimes these sleeves were graphically attractive. I have a collection of them. But I don’t keep my records in their original sleeves. They’re very fragile, printed on cheap paper. I keep my records in stiff cardboard jackets. These jackets are blank when you buy them, no graphics, nothing. Sometimes I write notations on them about the music or the artist, and make note of when I’ve taped them or recorded them on CD for someone.
- What is the approximate weight of your collection? For real discaholics, meter and kilograms are a more valid scale that exact amounts…
My collection weighs many tons, I’m sure. No way to know precisely. Lucky for me, this house is made out of stone, and underneath the room which houses my records there are massive vaulted arches supporting the floor above, so my records are not going to cause the place to collapse. I have about 6,500 78s! Crazy… Nuts… Must be out of my cotton-pickin’ mind.
- Alphabetical or genre?
I have them classified by geographical location and then, within that, alphabetically by artist. First, I have U.S. jazz, dance and popular music, then blues and gospel, then white country, then Cajun (Louisiana French), then French Canadian (Quebecois), followed by Scottish Canadian, then Anglo-Canadian country, then Canadian popular music, then Mexican, Caribbean (Porto Rican, Cuban, West Indian), then South American… Well, on and on, finally ending, at the furthest right-hand end of the last bottom shelf, Japanese music. I have only a few of those. There’s not much that I find appealing in Chinese and Japanese music, even of the 1920s and ‘30s, but then, I haven’t yet visited those countries to look for records. Who knows what’s there!?
photo: Jerry Brook
- How do you get hold of your records? Shops? Internet? Friends? Enemies? Private contacts?
I’ve spent hundreds of hours of my life hunting for 78s in second-hand stores, flea markets, yard sales, antique shops. I don’t do that so much anymore. I’ve also spent inordinate amounts of time looking at auction lists. I still do that. I also do some trading with other collectors, and I will do drawings in exchange for 78s. In that respect I am a whore for old records. I’ve gotten some of my most valuable records in trade for artwork. I can’t pay $1,000 or $2,000 for a record, I just can’t do it, but I will trade a drawing for one or two or three records of that level of value.
- Is trading records the ultimate gesture of sharing?
Pfah! Are you serious?? Every record trade I’ve ever been involved in was a scheming, conniving, craven affair, both sides trying to outwit the other guy, trick him by whatever device would work on him to come out the winner, to take away greater value than you’ve handed over, to get the better of the exchange. I’m guilty of it myself but mostly I’ve been the loser in these deals, as I’m not very good at this kind of manipulation. Some of these collectors seem to have spent a lot of mental energy devising strategies for coming out ahead in their dealings with other collectors. But it sure-as-shittin’ has nothing to do with any “gesture of sharing.” I don’t know, maybe collectors are nicer where you live, more enlightened or something, but somehow I doubt it.
- What do you hit first when entering a new record shop that you haven’t visited before?
I would only enter any record shop if there was the slightest hope that they might have some 78s for sale. If it turns out that they do, the 78s are usually in the back somewhere, in boxes or on shelves in no particular order or categories. One has to just start in, look at every label. This can go fast if you’ve had a lot of experience at it. First, I just skim over almost all labels from the 1940s and ‘50s. Most of what you find in random stacks of 78s is bad pop music of the ‘40s and ‘50s, and classical music. The good stuff is harder to find. Not only because other collectors have been there before you, but also that the only type of music I and many other collectors are after was originally pressed in smaller numbers and came out in a low period for the recording industry, the 1925-’35 period. A vexatious situation for the obsessed collector, this rarity business, but also part of the magic aura which surrounds these old discs. I know many collectors who are so dazzled by the rarity thing that the music sounds better to them if the record is rare. I’ve seen it often. Absurd, but such is the human condition.
Nowadays, there are really no more record shops in which the proprietor has an extensive stock of old 78s, categorized by type of music and artists. That’s pretty much over. They sell them on eBay instead. Unfortunately, I don’t do eBay, as I am computer illiterate, or maybe fortunately. One could spend all of one’s spare time and money searching for and buying 78s on eBay. I know some guys who do just that.
- What is the most important factor of a vinyl release? Can you rank the following in order? (Music, rarity, obscurity, smell, cover/graphic art work, message, liner notes, overall feel, other aspects….).
“Vinyl release”? For the 78 collector, it’s a “record,” not a “vinyl release.” That term applies strictly to LPs… Maybe EP 45s too, I don’t know. Well, for me the most important thing is the music, absolutely. It’s always disappointing to come across a rare label that you know issued some great music but this particular one is no good, or to find a record by an artist that made some great sides but this particular one is mediocre or lackluster. It’s tempting to keep records that are borderline — rare label, blues genre, etc., but just not very exciting, or records that have quirky lyrics but are musically dull. Ultimately, though, this stuff gets purged from my collection just because I don’t have room for anything that I’m not going to want to listen to more than once. I have to be ruthless and keep only the best performances. Even so, I’ve accumulated 6,500 records! Yow!
Condition is the second most important factor. But if all you can get is a worn, scratchy copy, that will have to do. Then there’s the tough choice between a later reissue in good condition or an original issue in lesser condition.
What makes a musical performance interesting and enjoyable to listen to is another question. It’s such a subtle combination of elements that are more or less beyond words to describe, though many have tried. “Over all feel” has something to do with it.
- What is the biggest score you actually made?
I’ve made a few big scores in my time. The most recent was in Delhi, in India, where I managed to locate a veritable El Dorado of old Indian 78s of native Indian music. I sent back 55 records from that place, the Shah Music Centre. Fabulous Indian music, and since then I’ve bought more records from them and had them shipped over here.
Mostly, though, I’ve found records one at a time, or, you know, by winning a few on an auction list.
One of the first big scores I made was in 1960, still in Delaware, where I discovered an ancient music store in a little town, Smyrna, run by an old couple, that was perfectly preserved from about 1930. One wall was lined with shelves containing only Victor records, unsold copies, from 1925 to around 1930. As I didn’t have much money, I had to keep going back there to buy more records. I had to pester my mother to drive me over there, about twenty miles from where we lived, as I couldn’t drive. I never did learn how to drive.
- What would be the greatest find ever? If we talk about records you don’t know about. What would really surprise you to find?
What gets harder and harder to find is an intact stash of great old 1920s jazz or blues or country 78s that haven’t been cherry-picked by other collectors yet. I would be very very surprised to find a collection or even a stack of, say, twenty 78s like that at this late date. It still happens occasionally. You hear about it on the collector grapevine, legendary stories of fabulous discoveries… An obscure stash was found a couple of years ago of great country records from the 1930 period, all mint copies. Some guy’s father had a music store, that sort of thing.
Records that I don’t know about? Recently an old man from Norway gave me some boxes of records that had belonged to his father. Among them was a group of about fifteen records made in Uzbekistan in the 1930s and ‘40s. They were great! Who knew? Uzbekistan! Big surprise. There are still plenty of surprises out there if your musical curiosity extends far enough. I keep discovering byways of music that were recorded in the old days that were completely unknown to me, great obscure regional traditions of music. It’s amazing how much was recorded, how those A&R (artists & repertoire) men got around. Some of those old Indian 78s are quite surprising. The Lucknow Zananas… I asked the man at Shah Music Centre what the meaning of “Zananas” was. They were eunuchs, he informed me. Strange music.
Another sort of surprising collecting experience I’ve had a few times is finding rare early blues and “hillbilly” 78s in Europe. How did these esoteric records end up in Europe? What’s their story? Such records are hard enough to find in the U.S. They were not issued in Europe, were not exported to Europe. I’ve read of sophisticated, cosmopolitan Frenchmen who traveled to the U.S., shipping back trunkloads of jazz 78s to Paris, but I don’t think these booshwah bohemians of 1930 were hip to country blues and hillbilly music. In the post-World War II era, there were lots of European collectors interested in blues, and, maybe, in white American country music, who bid on American 78 auction lists. Plenty of good American records got to Europe via these collectors. My collection has benefitted greatly from a few of these older European collectors who were selling off their records. Happily for me, these older guys were not aware of the huge increase in value of old blues records. Even so, I had the decency to pay them a fair price — not top dollar, but enough to surprise them.
- DC has a favorite early jazz recording: the American Music 10” release of Bunk Johnson talking and whistling in the style of Buddy Bolden. We believe this is as close as you can get to the beginnings of jazz (through the bunk filter of course…) http://matsgus.com/discaholic-corner/?p=983. Do you have any similar early fav’s? From a historical point of view… that is putting light on the “real thing” and the birth of it all?
I’ve not heard this Bunk Johnson record you’re talking about, though it sounds interesting. I kinda sorta like the “New Orleans revival” bands of the 1940s and ‘50s, but I’m so stuck on the twenties– Ah, the golden twenties — that I seek the origins of jazz in a small handful of bands recorded in that era, a few from New Orleans and even some from other southern cities that are obviously more or less playing in an older, archaic proto-jazz style of an earlier era. This would include such groups as Sam Morgan’s Jazz Band, Louis Dumaine’s Jazzola Eight, Oscar Celestin’s Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra, all from New Orleans. These are the musicians who stayed behind when King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Freddie Keppard, Jelly Roll Morton and others left New Orleans for Chicago and other points north. Then there’s Williamson’s Beale Street Frolic Orchestra from Memphis, who played something halfway between ragtime and jazz, recorded circa 1927. There are not a large number of examples like this, but enough to get the idea. But, you know, there was so much music from before recording began that we can never know… I have an old photo of an English street band from the 1860s playing a variety of crazy looking horns — I’d love to know what they sounded like. Reproductions of medieval music played on authentic medieval instruments doesn’t cut it. We just can’t know what that music really sounded like. It’s not possible, until someone invents a time machine.
- At the end of the “Crumb” film, when you’re moving from the US to France, you have sold off a good portion of your collection. Was this a painful process? Are there any titles you now regret getting rid of?
This is not true. I shipped the entire collection to France. I spent months packing up the records, and as a result not a single record got even a hair crack! Now I probably have twice as many records as I had when I moved over here in 1991. God help me.
- Has moving to Europe made it easier or harder to collect 78s?
Moving to Europe has certainly made it easier to find European 78s! Also, in France, finding fabulous North African records — Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Egyptian… Great music. But in general, two contradictory forces are at work simultaneously. One is that, obviously, with the passing of time, fewer 78s can be found “in the field,” that is, from primary sources such as people’s houses, second-hand shops, antique shops, flea markets, yard sales… 78s just don’t turn up in these places as much as they used to. On the other hand, there’s this other force at work; the social media, eBay. Tons of 78s are now for sale on eBay at all times. I know some younger collectors who have quickly amassed amazing collections just by sitting in front of their computers for hours at a time. And, except for the rare jazz, blues & country fetish items, eBay has driven the values of 78s down, there are so many for sale. It’s still a lot more that if you found them at a flea market. But it’s also a lot less work, clicking buttons on a computer than it was driving around, or in my case taking busses, spending the day going through the stacks in Salvation Armies and maybe at the end of the day coming home with one or two hopeful items, or knocking on doors in black neighborhoods. I did that in 1960-’61, found rare blues and jazz 78s, indeed I did, and paid ten cents or a quarter for them. I was 17-18 years old. The people in the neighborhood started calling me “the ol’ rekkid man.” I still have some of those records! Amazing to think of it. I started bidding on auction lists in 1962. I didn’t have much “disposable income” so never bid more than two dollars, maybe two-fifty. Too bad — if I’d had more money then I could’ve gotten fabulous, rare blues and jazz records for piddling amounts. Those days are lo-o-ong gone!
- Do you work with a want list when communicating with fellow discaholics?
Yes, I always have my little want list going. A younger collector friend of mine who looks for records on eBay has posted some of my wants on some kind of mechanism that alerts you if something you’re looking for is up for sale anywhere on eBay. He’s found some of my wants for me in this way. I’ll pay, I’ll pay. This is an amazing phenomenon, this eBay. I could spend years out searching, searching, asking around, for a certain record, and never find it. Now, blip, there it is on eBay. ‘Course, if it’s a rare fetish item, it’ll still be out of my range, but I’ve acquired many records I never thought I’d see through this eBay connection.
- Does the weight of shellac automatically make the music “heavier”?
Of course, all 78 collectors know this. Plus, the original master pressing has a “presence” that cannot be reproduced by any technical process yet known, even the most state-of-the-art digital remastering techniques. Something is lost, something that’s embedded in those grooves on that shellac. Even a scratchy shellac 78 retains that “presence” that’s lost on the cleanest digital transfer.
- What holy/unholy gems are you looking for at the moment, Of course you don’t need to be precise, since telling it in public might make it impossible to find it… we know…
There are still so many great jazz, blues, country and ethnic 78s out there that I don’t yet possess. There’s no end to it. The deeply satisfying feeling of finally getting your hands on a long sought-after record — that moment of slipping it into its place on the shelf, is very fulfilling, but soon the craving returns for yet unfound, coveted items. Such is the collector’s curse. It’s nuts, but there it is.
I’ve tried to stop it, to control it. I consider it a great weakness, this addiction to shellac. But it’s hopeless. I have to live with it. Yeah yeah, it has its positive, “noble” aspect; you are rescuing, preserving cultural artifacts of significant value to the human race, etc. etc.
- Do you have a fixed routine when receiving parcels with records? Such as a fav knife to open up the boxes? Is there a specific ritual you are using?
It is a very exciting moment, receiving a box of records in the mail. I usually can’t wait, I have to open it right away and see the coveted records with my own eyes, to know that they are now truly in my possession, mine all mine. I can’t put off this moment. I have no specific ritual. Why? Do some collectors have a specific ritual when opening boxes of records?? That’s sick! Sometimes if a box of records I’ve paid for is delayed in arriving, I can get worked up into a terrible state about it. Day after day, that moment of deep disappointment when the box does not arrive with the mail. I can become truly obsessed with anxiety, the longer it goes on. Eventually the box always arrives. I can think of only one time in all these years when a box of records actually got lost in the mail and was never found.
- We know how to properly package a vinyl in a parcel, to make it a safe travel to fellow discaholics… But do you have any special advice / tips how to pack a 78 carefully enough? We are terrified at DC to do this, since the fragility of the 78.
78s will never get broken in shipping if packed properly. It’s not all that complicated. You have to make a tight sandwich of the records with one or two pieces of corrugated cardboard on each end of the sandwich, wrapped tightly around with tape, packed in the box with padding material on all sides, top and bottom, and Bob’s your uncle. Some people pack carelessly and records get cracked or broken. A few times people have sent me a 78 in an envelope with no protection of any kind. I can’t imagine what they were thinking. The record arrived broken every time. Once it was a very rare blues record a guy sent me as a gift out of the blue. I wrote back to him and thanked him, but told him it was a cruel joke, as the record arrived in pieces. Another time it was a very rare and unusual Estonian jazz record from circa 1930, again hopelessly smashed. These guys were just ignorant amateurs, not serious collectors, but come on, you’d think common sense would tell you… Rant & rave…
- What existing record shop in the world is your favorite one? Why?
There are no good record shops in the Western world anymore for 78 collectors — It’s over. But there’s that shop in New Delhi that I mentioned earlier, where I found so many fabulous Indian records, the Shah Music Centre. These Indian hipsters who took me there were astonished that I was interested in old native Indian music. Their eyebrows went up. Apparently it was very unusual for a Western person to go there in search of old Indian 78s. After two hours of going through 78s, the proprietor, Mr. Shah, a gracious man who let me test every record on a little machine he had there, told me I had looked at barely one percent of his 78 stock. I did some business with him later through the mails and acquired more records. I now have a very good collection of old Indian music of many different kinds, but, again, it’s a vast field. I know there’s still many many surprises to be found. I should make a trip back there and spend more time going through Shah’s stacks before, you know, the place is suddenly gone, the old 78s taken to a dump site. Happens all the time.
There are dealers here and there who sell on the Internet but if you go to their house they will let you look and buy records directly. I found two such goldmines while in Argentina a couple of years ago, one in Buenos Aires, the other in Montevideo, Uruguay. I bought hundreds of 78s from these two dealers, mostly South American, but the guy in Uruguay also had a lot of North American jazz of the 1920s, which apparently was distributed widely in Latin America in those days.
- What record shop is the best in history? The ultimate? Why?
The best record shops in history existed when I was too young to know about them, or before I was born, big places in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, L.A., that specialized in “back date” 78s. This was back in the 1940s-‘50s. By the time I reached these shops, they’d been cleaned out. I looked through thousands of old 78s without finding anything of real significance, some second-rate 1920s dance bands, that’s what I usually had to settle for…
- How much time per day do you spend categorizing/cataloging your records; listening to records?
I spend some time listening to records almost every day when I’m at home, and I spend time just pawing through the collection, just looking at what I have. Sometimes I’ll pull a record off the shelf and just marvel at it, that it exists and that I own it. Again, it’s a sickness. It’s embarrassing to admit openly to such behavior, like talking about masturbation or something. Sometimes I have to listen to records in the endeavor to purge and make room for new acquisitions, since I’ve run out of room to put new additions to the collection on the shelves. I have to get rid of something before I can put the new ones in. This involves tough decisions. My natural impulse is to save everything, don’t wanna get rid of anything. If I had endless shelf space, I guess I’d have ten times as many records. Purging, however, is good for the soul and just makes the collection better, more intense. Borderline items must be eliminated, moved out, sold if possible.
- Has that changed over the last years?
It’s amazing when I think about it how little I’ve changed over the last fifty years when it comes to this thing about old records. I still listen with great pleasure to some of the first 78s I ever found. I think my appreciation for the music has even deepened over the years, become more refined. It’s amazing how abiding this passion has been.
- Do you dream about your records?
I have vivid dreams of finding records. In these dreams I’m staring at exotic labels I’ve never seen in real life, filled with excitement. Sometimes I’ll even be listening to some great jazz band or incredible esoteric ethnic band that’s a total figment of my dream imagination. It’s always deeply disappointing to wake up from such dreams.
- What artists make you wanna have their whole discography, to become a completist of someones entire output?
I’m not one of these completists who has to have every record by particular artists. I do have some completes on great bands of performers who only made a few records. I have all three of Big Chief Henry’s Indian String Band records, I have all five records made by McLauchlin’s Old-Time Melody Makers — they’re all great, gotta have them all. But even with the best performers — take the great Delta blues singer Charley Patton for instance — he made around thirty sides. Some are exceedingly rare, but though they’re all great, some are very similar to others, the same basic tune with slight variations, different words. It’s just not necessary to have them all to have a spectrum of what he could do on record. The more prolific the artist, the less necessary it is to have all their recorded output.
Funny thing, the most records I have by any one artist are of the French accordion player Fredo Gardoni, who made hundreds of records in his time. They sold well enough in France so that they have not been so difficult to find at the flea markets. I have found hundreds of them but have only kept about thirty of them. The problem is, while the musicianship is excellent, the tunes are often no good, corny, irritating. But when the tunes are good, they are beautiful, splendid examples of the musette style. So I have a lot of them… More than any other single artist!
- How many record covers have you created over the years?
A lot! I don’t know exactly how many. I’ve never counted them.
- What record would be a great challenge to make a cover for?
The biggest challenge would be to make a cover for a band or performer that I didn’t like, or even hated. This challenge I just don’t take on. I don’t do it. I have to like the music to some degree or other to be inspired at all to do a cover. I’ve done lots of covers in exchange for old 78s, but even there I have to like the music.
- Do you listen to records while working with your drawings? What is the favorite situation listening to 78s? Do you have a fav sofa/chair to sit and enjoy it all in?
I cannot listen to records while working. I think for me the most pleasurable listening experience is when I’m completely alone, or maybe sometimes listening with other serious collectors who also deeply love the same kind of music that I’m into. That can also be pleasurable. When I was young and more naïve I used to evangelize about old music and try to turn people on to it who were not familiar with it, but too often they just talked over the music or became restless and obviously bored. This was an anxiety provoking experience for me, so I’ve stopped trying to “convert” people to my beloved old music.
Just last night, though, Aline, my wife, made a big Indian dinner for us and eight friends. She makes great Indian food. She suggested that after the meal we all retire to my office and listen to some of those wonderful Indian 78s that I got from the Shah Music Centre in Delhi. I played what I consider some of the most powerful of those records. Aline likes them very much, but a couple of the other women present just wanted to talk, and they involved her in conversation. Their voices just drowned out the music and I wasn’t about to turn up the sound and make it harder for them to talk, or tell them to be quiet. One friend simply fell asleep in his chair while the music played. Others picked up magazines off the coffee table and flipped through them. A vexatious situation, but what can you do? You can’t expect them to have the deep appreciation for the music that you have. You have to consider where they’re coming from, the kind of modern, commercial music they’re used to hearing, the unfamiliar, esoteric strangeness of this old music…
Like I said, I mostly enjoy listening when I’m completely alone. I sit on the wicker couch that faces my old hi-fi set up, often I close my eyes while listening. It can be a profound aesthetic experience, if one isn’t too distracted thinking about other records one needs to acquire, stuff like that.
- Can diskaholism be cured?
I doubt it. I certainly can’t be cured of this habit. I keep thinking, when I get old I’ll give it up, get rid of these 20 tons of records. I used to think, when I’m seventy… but now that’s only a few months off, so that’s not going to happen… Maybe when I’m eighty.
- The best looking labels/logos?
There were so many beautiful label designs in the early days of the 78, the 1910s and ‘20s… The label designs declined through the 1930s and into the 1940s and ‘50s, along with the rest of commercial graphics. I keep a special section just for graphically striking records and sleeves that has nothing to do with the quality of the music. But then, I also have a lot of old products on display just for the beauty of the package graphics. It was a golden age of commercial graphics as well as recorded music.
- Except the record player itself, what is your fav machine? The jukebox, the vinyl cleaner or the vinyl cutting machine? Or any other machine that attracts you and your records?
Being highly non technical, I am not much into machines. I just want something that will bring out the music that’s in the grooves to the best possible extent. In the 1970s I had some hi-fi components put together for me by a sound engineer wizard, which I’m still using. When this set of components wears out, I’ll have to get some help in finding the right stuff to replace it. About once a year I have to order a new stylus from a small company in England, the Expert Stylus Company, which will re-tip your stylus with a new diamond tip specially made for pre-WWII 78s. It now costs about 100 euros for this service.
- In 1973 you released your own 78, “River Blues/Wisconsin Wiggles.” Was it hard to find a place to do a 78 at that time? Your remaining releases were 12” LPs, would you have preferred them to be 78s?
It was a dumb idea to put out a 78 rpm record, even in 1973, ‘cause — DUH — guess what? Nobody could play them! There was no longer a 78 speed on modern record players! I was so blinded by my love for 78s. It was fun to create the graphics, and for our little band of 78 collector-musicians to have our own 78 record! We liked it so much we made two more of them! By that time the publisher got wise and told us to knock it off, that this was an exercise in economic futility. In the 1970s it was still possible for a few American pressing plants to manufacture a 10-inch 78 rpm record. It became will-nigh impossible through the 1980s. Sure, I would have preferred to make all our records on 3-minute single 78s. I don’t like the long-playing album idea, or the micro-groove vinyl technology of the 33 1/3 record. The only nice thing about the LP album to me is the big 12-inch cover, with lots of room for nice graphics and notes. Otherwise I think it’s a jive idea, a sales pitch, as is stereophonic sound. Gimmicks to sell more product. I think the 78 record of 1930 with the level of sound quality achieved at that time was as good as a sound recording for commercial retail needs to be. The only possible genuine improvement would have been a truly unbreakable record, and the light-weight tone arm to prevent surface wear. The ideal would be to do away with the stylus altogether and have, instead, a beam, a laser perhaps, that reads the groove, as with the compact disc.
- Would you consider making a solo banjo record, on shellac or vinyl, for Discaholic Corner records?
I can’t do a solo act. I only play music as an accompanist. I used to sing in public but I wisely cut that out a long time ago. Good luck finding any place in the world that can still manufacture a shellac disc. More’s the pity. Shellac records will long outlive vinyl ones. Shellac-coated artifacts were found in the tombs of ancient Egypt, three to four thousand years old, still perfectly preserved. You just need to keep them in a cool, dry place, shelved, snuggly in the vertical position. I have many 78s from that 1920s that still look brand-new!
- What records do you wanna steal from the discaholic corners archive?
Hey, have you got a copy of Been On The Job Too Long by Wilmer Watts and the Lonely Eagles, Paramount 3210 or Broadway 8248? Do you have Stovepipe Blues / Tipple Blues by the Kentucky String Ticklers on Champion 16577? Do you have Miss Iola / Lime Rock by Smith’s Garage Fiddle Band on Vocalion 5336? How about Searching the Desert for the Blues by Blind Willie McTell on Victor 23353 or Blue Bird 5391? How about Wailin’ Blues / Good Feelin’ Blues by Zack Whyte’s Chocolate Beau Brummels on Gennett 7086 or Champion 15905 or Supertone 9685? I’d be tempted to steal any or all of these if you had them. Especially if they were sitting there on a shelf forgotten and neglected and nobody cared about them in a personal way and the back door was unlocked and nobody was watching and there was no surveillance camera. I actually had an opportunity exactly like this once in the late 1970s at a university archive in L.A. It would’ve been easy but I thought, nah, that’d be pathological behavior, that would mean that my lust for old records had truly turned into a sickness, and too, it would be bad karma.
- What records do I wanna steal from your collection?
I dunno, probably nothing, as your taste is so different from mine. I probably don’t have a single record you’d be interested in. Hmmm, maybe you’d like my copy of Saxophobia / Nola by French saxophone virtuoso René Dumont on Odeon 165588, circa 1929. His Saxophobia is the wackiest slap-tonguing trick saxophone solo I’ve ever heard. But now that I’ve told you about it, if you ever come to my house and this record is missing after you leave, I’ll know that you stole it.
- How many records per day keep the doctor away?
It’s true that acquiring a good record for the collection is like a fix, a shot of heroin. I’m not too bad — one every few days is enough for me. If I get, like, five or six good ones all at once, that will hold me for a couple of weeks until the craving returns. A really big find — like, say, twenty or thirty or more, is almost too much. Certainly it’s thrilling, but at the same time it’s overwhelming, it makes me feel a little queasy, a little dizzy and nauseated…. It’s too much, an overdose. It might take me weeks to get straight from acquiring too many good records all at once.
- What record will solve ALL problems?
There is no ultimate record. When I was younger, I remember thinking, if I can just get my hands on a copy of In Harlem’s Araby by the Dixie Devils on Van Dyke or Radiex, then my collection will be complete and i can cease with this madness. Well, I got that one, so then it was, if I could just get hold of a copy of Black Snake Moan by E.E. Hack’s String Band on Champion, then I’ll be satisfied. Well, I traded a pile of artwork for that one, was thrilled to get it. The guy later sold the artwork for $18,000, but, oh well. Then it was Beans by Beans Hambone on Victor, the ultimate record, the Holy Grail. That one took a long time to find — DECADES! But I finally got it, just a couple of years ago, and filed it into the collection, right between Vera Hall and Otis Harris, but guess what? Not even Beans could cure this craving for records! But I will say, my desire to possess yet more records is definitely not as strong as it once was. It has waned, just as my sexual drive has waned. I have so many good records, an embarrassment of musical riches! More that I can possibly listen to in the years I have left to live!
We humans with all our intelligence and cleverness are helpless creatures driven by forces over which we have very little control and which we barely understand. Who can fathom the collecting compulsion? It’s not something to be proud of, though it’s certainly not the worst human trait. Relative to some other human drives it’s harmless and innocuous. The unspoken unacknowledged thing that’s always in the background when collectors get together is the absurdity of it… We all know deep down that this is a ridiculous way to be spending our precious lives, and we all know that we can’t help it. We can’t stop collecting and put our energy and intelligence into something less selfish and more, shall we say, heroic. In all our ironic joking about collecting is the mutual acceptance of our common absurdity.
Some collectors will take offense and consider this view of collecting as too negative. C’mon fellas, own up! It’s true! You know it is! Don’t be a jerk! To not face up to your own absurdity makes you, in the eyes of non-collectors, a creep! Really! That is the hard, painful truth of it.
- Is this interview too long?
It certainly is. It’s your fault, Gustafsson. You shouldn’t have got me started. Finally, we’re at the end. I’m going to listen to some records now, all by myself, the way I like it!
- R. Crumb, February-March, 2013
all images used by kind permission from R.Crumb ©