One Man’s Quest For His Vinyl and His Past

Motivated by seller’s regret and nostalgia, a journalist goes in search of the vinyl of his youth. And not just copies of albums he loved—he wants the exact records he owned and sold.

Eric Spitznagel | Old Records Never Die: One Man’s Quest for His Vinyl and His Past | Plume | April 2016 | 8 minutes (2,029 words)

Motivated by a potent mix of seller’s regret and old-dude nostalgia, a journalist sets off in search of the vinyl of his youth. And not just copies of albums he loved—Eric Spitznagel wants the exact records he owned and sold. It’s a premise that musician Jeff Tweedy describes as “not… entirely insane” in his preface to the book.  Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter of Old Records Never Die. You decide. 

* * *

I’m going to back up.

I’m a journalist. An “entertainment” journalist, if you want to get all specific about it.

This wasn’t my choice.

When I was coming out of college, my first intention was to be a playwright. I would move to Chicago and write hilariously profane and poignant plays for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. I’d be like a modern-day Christopher Durang but without the religious hang­-ups, or an August Strindberg who watched too much porn and too many Woody Allen movies. I stumbled into journalism  by accident. The father of my writing partner was a columnist for Playboy, and after meeting several silver-fox editors at social functions, my friend and I were paid way too much money to write funny stories for the magazine about Baywatch and lesbians.

For lack of any other options, I stayed with the money, and within a few decades, I was writing regularly for publications like Vanity Fair, Esquire, and the New York Times Magazine, mostly interviewing celebrities like Tina Fey, Sir Ian McKellen, Willie Nelson, Stephen Colbert,  Sarah Silverman, and (as of this writing) approximately 213 other people you’ve probably heard of.

When you talk to famous people for a living, it all starts to blend together after a while. You remember meeting people like Buzz Al­drin and John Cusack and Isabella Rossellini, but you have only a vague recollection of what you discussed with them. But that wasn’t the case with Questlove, the coolest neo-soul drummer in the universe. I can remember everything about our phone conversation. It was an assignment for MTV Hive, a website offshoot of MTV. Quest had a new memoir out, and I was tasked with getting a few ridiculous yarns out of him. For the first twenty minutes or so of our conversation, it was more or less as expected. We talked about the time he roller-skated with Prince, and ran out of a Tracy Morgan toe­-licking party. But then the topic turned to the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rap­per’s Delight.”

We both laughed as we recounted the brilliantly weird lyrics. “I said a hip, hop, the hippy to the hippy To the hip hip hop, you don’t stop….” If you were alive in the early eighties and didn’t identify as a grown-up, you can probably remember  where you were when you first heard “Rapper’s Delight.”

For Quest, it was while washing dishes with his sister and listening to a local soul station in Philadelphia. He immediately went out and bought the song on a twelve-inch. It was the first record he ever purchased with his own money. He found  his copy at the Listening Booth on Chestnut Street in Philly, and it cost $2.99 plus tax. $3.17 total.

It was the first piece in what grew to be his seventy-thousand­ plus record collection.

“Seventy thousand?” I asked, dumbfounded. “You have seventy thousand records?”

“Something  like that,” he said. “I’m rounding down.”

Instead of buying a home with his new income as the Tonight Show bandleader,  he invested in a vinyl library “with a cherrywood floor and a sliding ladder. It was necessary, because it was getting to a point where the records were taking over. You had to have some sort of Indiana Jones skill level to navigate my house, just to jump over stuff without cracking a record.”

“Is there anything in your collection that’s indispensable?” I asked. “Anything you’d never sell?”

“Well, I’d never sell my ‘Rapper’s Delight,'” he said. “You still have it?”

“Oh yeah.”

“You have the original? The one you bought for $3.17?”

“The original.” He laughed. ”I’ve never given it up. Never even occurred  to me.”

He had held on to a tiny piece of plastic for more than three decades?

”I’ve always taken meticulous care of that stuff:’ he told me. ”I’ve always had some sort of library system for my records, so nothing just disappeared without me knowing about it. Not just ‘Rapper’s Delight,’ but all my records. They’ve never been in any danger. You’re probably the same way about your records.”

I was silent for a second.

“I don’t have records anymore,” I told him. “I sold them all long ago.”

Now there was silence on the other end of the phone.

“Oh, man, I’m sorry,” Quest finally said, his voice a whisper. He seemed sincerely shaken by my admission, like I’d just casually confessed that I’d put a pillow over my dad’s face while he slept and held it there until he stopped breathing.

“Well, you know, I could always get them back,” I said, backpedaling.

“Sure, yeah, absolutely,” Quest said. But he didn’t believe it, I could tell. It was like when a clearly crazy person says, “I’m not crazy,” and you’re like “Oh, yeah, totally, you’re not crazy at all,” but you absolutely think that motherfucker is crazy.

We moved on to another topic, but in my head, I was still think­ing about it. It’s not like I just threw out all my records one day, made a bonfire, and watched the vinyl burn. It happened over time, as these things usually do.

It started because of CDs. Right? That’s why we all gave up on vinyl. Because the technology changed. You don’t want to be the one who’s like, “Enjoy your jetpacks. I’ll stick with my Volvo.”

My first CD was the Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 album.  It was 1988. Late December. I’d gotten a CD boom box for Christmas from my parents, and I needed to christen it. I visited the mall and picked the Wilburys’ CD only because that goddamn video for “Handle with Care” had been hammered into my subconscious by MTV Listening to the compact disc was breathtaking. I’d never heard music with so much clarity. And so fucking loud. This was clearly the future.

Over the coming months, I began selling off my records. I was like the guy who gets kissed by a hot girl and decides he has to get rid of his porn collection immediately because “I won’t be needing this anymore.” I’d been that guyseveral times, in fact, back when getting rid of porn meant filling a pillowcase full of VHS tapes and taking them to the nearest inconspicuous Dumpsterbut my vinyl wasn’t as easy to cast off.

At first, I sold off just the nonessentials. Nothing that would be missed. A few dozen greatest-hits albums, and artists who seemed like a good idea at the time but had outgrown their usefulness (the Dream Academy, Blind Melon, Porno for Pyros, 4 Non Blondes). Entire chunks of certain artists’ canons were easy to let go­ earlyperiod Tom Waits, late-period Genesis, Christian-period Bob Dylan. If I were on a helicopter filled with all my records and it started going down and the pilot screamed, “We need to lose some weight,” those would have been the records I threw over­-board first.

I never had remorse or worries that I might never see this music again. Selling my copy of the Police’s Synchronicity or the Pixies Doolittle was just a means to an end, not an irrevocable act. If I ever had a change of heart, I could always buy another copyhell, I could go back to the same Discount  Record and Tapes at Lincoln Mall in the south suburbs of Chicago, the exact place where I’d bought both of those records, and find copies in the cutout bin for a fraction of what I sold them for. Selling records in the late twentieth century was a victimless crime.

And the money was good. My Clash records aloneI had all six studio  albums and the “Hitsville U.K:’ 7-inch-paid for an entire week of groceries from the liquor store down the block. Even when the profits were middlingI got ten cents for John Cougar Mellen­camp’s Scarecrow─it still felt like a victory. Being able to hear “Small Town” whenever I wanted was not inherently valuable, but you never knew when you might need an extra dime.

It never occurred to me that I might ever run out of records. The last time I counted, somewhere around 1987, I had in the ballpark of two thousand. The first purge of three hundred barely left a dent. And from there, it was just a few records here, a few dozen there, as I needed them. I never made the conscious decision to deep-six my vinyl. It was always just, “Shit, I need beer money for the weekend. Oh wait, I still have that copy of the Stooges’ Raw Power!” It was like a low-interest-bearing savings account with guilt-free withdrawals. I was never going to get rich on a bunch of old Elvis Costello records held together with Scotch tape, or a Purple Rain that was so warped it sounded  like the doves were crying because Prince was having a stroke. These weren’t investments, they were just antiques from my past that had small yet immediate monetary value.

Most of my records disappeared in a blur. But I remember the last one. It was the Replacements’ Let It Be. I sold it in 1999, the year I got married and my dad died. I was still embarrassingly poor, and needed  money fast. During a visit to my parents, I found it in my old bedroom closetthe one record I’d always managed to talk my­self out of selling. But at this point, it seemed silly to hold on to it. I already had the CD, which was vastly superior (or so I thought at the time). The ragged and well-worn vinyl had long outlasted its usefulness, even as its secondary purpose, as a brilliant hiding spot for my weed.

That was my one concern when I visited the Record Swap in suburban Homewoodironically, the very same record store where I bought my original copy of Let It Be back in 1986. Would they actually buy a record that smelled so pungently  of marijuana?  As it turned out, yes they would.

Driving back to Chicago from the Record Swap, I felt lighter, like I’d unburdened myself of some great worry. There was no value in these physical relics, which (I’d told myself) symbolized only lonely nights in my teenage bedroom. I was a snake shedding its skin; if somebody wanted  to give me cash for that discarded rind, well, my gas tank thanks you, sucker. I blasted “I Will Dare” from my car stereo as I sped down Lake Shore Drive, all the windows open, and believed I hadn’t actually lost anything.

And that’s what I kept telling myself, and kept believing. Until Questlove came along and fucked everything  up.

“Those skates looked like something out of Xanadu,” Questlove said, trying to describe Prince’s roller skates. “That’s the only way I could describe them. They glowed and sparkled. It was so magical, I had to pinch myself.”

I laughed at all the right spots, like I would do in any interview, but I was barely listening. I was still stuck on his records, and how he’d held on to the things I let slip away without a second thought.

“So listen, quick follow up about ‘Rapper’s Delight,'” I said.

“Um, yeah?” Quest said.

“Not saying that you would, but if you had sold it…”

“I’d never sell it.”

“No, of course not. But if you lost it. Or if you lent it to some­body and they never gave it back.”

“I’d just go ask them

“But they lent it to another friend, who took it on a backpacking trip to Europe, and he’s not a hundred percent sure where he left it, but maybe at a youth hostel in Amsterdam.”

Questlove said nothing, but I could hear him swallowing hard.

“Or your wife had a garage sale without telling you, not because you needed the money but just to get all this crap out of the house. ‘Rapper’s Delight’ is gone, and she doesn’t have a clue who bought it.” More silence.

“Okay,” he finally managed. “I guess anything’s possible.”

“Would you go looking for it?”

“The record?”

“Yes,” I said. “Would you try to find it, despite the ridiculous odds against you ever seeing it again?”

He didn’t hesitate. “I would, yeah.”

* * *

Reprinted from OLD RECORDS NEVER DIE Copyright © 2016 by Eric Spitznagel. Published by Plume, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.