Amanda Petrusich has a stellar resume—she contributes to numerous publications, including Paste, The New York Times and Pitchfork; she writes books, including an entry in the 33 1/3 series on Nick Drake’s Pink Moon.
Her latest work may be her most inventive and compelling yet.
Do Not Sell At Any Price shows the ways a group of competitive record collectors have shaped pop’s history. It started as a story for Spin about, in her words, the “commercial resurgence of vinyl.” To be clear, she doesn’t write about just any vinyl. (Your garden-variety garage-sale LPs? Kid stuff.) She’s into 78s—older, stranger, more esoteric and in worse condition. Eventually Petrusich’s Spin story became a book about the people who lusted after those objects … and she joined their ranks.
The story began several years ago when, she writes, “the modern marketing cycle and the endless gifts of the Web had begun to feel toxic.” Petrusich “missed pining for things.” But importantly, Do Not Sell At Any Price never disavows the present—that usually results in boring books (and music). She quickly points out that she doesn’t believe “that the emotional circuitry that allows us to love and require a bit of music is dependent on what it feels like in our hands.”
That doesn’t stop her from loving 78s. “The grooves in a 78 can be two to five times wider than those in a modern LP, so a different kind of stylus is required in addition to a motor that spins at 78 revolutions per minute.” It means, she writes, “it’s not a medium that invites dabbling.” The “disconnect between 78 collectors and the folks who stockpile LPs or 45s … is acute, comparable to collecting pebbles versus collecting diamonds.”
The records have value, but they also represent a lost—or rapidly fading—history. “A good portion of the world’s remaining 78s—and it’s impossible to say how many are even left—were also singular representations.” According to one collector, John Heneghan, “so much of the music is one hundred percent undiscovered.” These people explore the past, digging through history’s garbage bins.
Of course, they also happen to be crazy. Compulsive. Ornery. Not known for social skills.
Heneghan has “a recurring dream,” like so many of us. Does he fall from a height in the dream, or fail a test? No. He tosses and turns over “finding a Skip James record, ‘Devil Got My Woman.’”
“The first time it happened,” he tells Petrusich, “I woke up in the middle of the night certain that I had the record. I was like, This is amazing. So I got up to check, and it wasn’t there, and I was like Fuck.”
Petrusich explains, “... there are only three or four known copies of ‘Devil Got My Woman’ remaining, two of which are so damaged as to be inconsequential.” So Heneghan has a recurring dream of owning one of the rarest objects in the world. His fuck comes from a different place than yours or mine when we, say, stub a toe. His pain comes from the despair of thinking for a moment that he happens to be one of the four most special people on the planet, then waking up to have that illusion shattered.
These boys—and collectors seem to be mostly boys—have a special mission. Some also claim special talents.
One man whom Petrusich (and the reader) befriends, Chris King, “… can hear stuff that’s on a different frequency than a lot of other people.” Like, he says, a dog’s heart beating—in another room.
This gift helps him figure out how to make old records sound as good as they possibly can. He plays Petrusich a 78 of Robert Johnson’s “Hell Hound On My Trail,” which she had “heard hundreds of times before.”
“Only it sounded different, clearer, more vigorous,” she writes. Why? King actually played it at 79.4 RPM, with “a popsicle stick on top of the stylus.”
Maybe this all sounds serious and insular and even childish, but reading it is hilarious and fascinating. Petrusich doesn’t get into the history of 78s until she hooks you with her various experiences with the records and the guys who fetishize them. Do Not Sell At Any Price never feels like a lesson on out-of-date equipment.
She never gets self-important either, like some kind of holier-than-thou crusader. After an adventure on the bottom of Wisconsin’s rivers, where she hopes to find records discarded by an old 78 pressing plant, she writes, “… this may make other listeners question their commitment, or give writers a good story to tell their parents—but mom, at least I don’t scuba dive!”
Discussing collectors’ obsessions with outsider figures, she observes, “… there’s a pervasive, romantic notion of the Outsider as Omniscient Longer: preoccupied, brooding, mumbly. He is human … but he doesn’t celebrate holidays or use the toilet. He is usually leaning against a wall.”
Petrusich isn’t the only funny one. Her subjects, crazy as loons, seem completely lovable. King, for instance, turns out to be eminently quotable: “… it seems like I only enter into an abysmal depression every year and a half or so, and it’s usually because of having to go to Whole Foods.” When he takes Petrusich record hunting at a state fair, he gives her a list of things to pack. His list includes: 1) “… comfortable shoes that you can burn afterwards (I’ve read that ladies in New York do this all the time…)” and 2) “… a disbelief in what humanity can bear.”
So much for fun and games. On the serious side, 78 collectors actually had a huge impact on the course of popular music, largely through the obscure recordings they champion. Petrusich writes that “The Blues Mafia—a coterie of frantic, competitive blues collectors” who “set up record labels” and “issued LP anthologies” basically “framed the blues as we now know it.’”
The blues mafia “seized upon outsider records, not the high-selling sides peddled by more palatable artists,” and presented these as the ultimate art. This may represent one of the earliest forms of rockism—the championing of the obscure over the popular. The artists championed had talent, for sure, but the fact that their recordings were rare gave their music extra heft in the minds of a group of highly committed men who turned out to be extremely influential.
An example? Plenty of famous songwriters—most notably Bob Dylan—worshipped the Anthology of American Folk Music, compiled by a 78 collector, Harry Smith. Yet despite its title, The Anthology does not contain a representative cross section of American music. It’s just the stuff Smith happened to dig.
So, ironically, outsider artists, leaning against walls and refusing to use toilets, actually became the ultimate insiders. Thanks to the work of 78 collectors, Robert Johnson and obscure comrades rose to hero status, worshipped ever after by generations of musical stars.
Petrusich reminds us to constantly reexamine our basic narratives. All history can be distorted … and it doesn’t even require a popsicle stick on top of the stylus.
Elias Leight’s writing about books and music has appeared in Paste, The Atlantic, Splice Today and Popmatters. He comes from Northampton, Massachusetts, and he can be found at signothetimesblog.