This is one man’s brain on offensive stereotypes, patriarchal entitlement, and reflexive ignorance. Time to make amends, and a pledge. Any questions?
By Fred Mills
Ed. note: The graphic I selected, above, is not intended to be humorous or ironic, so please don’t regard it that way. It was a bit difficult to arrive at an illustration that I felt was appropriate to the dialogue that follows, so I hope it will at least be viewed as relevant. If you agree, pass it along.
No excuses: I fucked up supremely a week and a half ago, and I deeply regret it. I made an off-hand “joke” on Twitter that relied on a misogynist trope. The comment I made – since deleted; I announced I had done so in the interest of transparency – equated women with prizes to be won by men instead of full human beings in their own right. I know better. At least I thought I did. What I said was deeply offensive in any context, and for that I want to apologize to every woman, not simply to those I know (who rightfully asked WTF I was I thinking). I also want to apologize to men for perpetrating this stereotype amongst ourselves, because we have clearly reached a point where trying to pass off comments like that as “just” guy talk or locker room talk is not only ignorant, it is offensive in and of itself. And I want to apologize to LGBTQ and non-binary people because I see you and you matter; my joke erased your humanity too.
There’s no way to rationalize it or excuse my way out of it. I can see now, as some have pointed out, that my initial apologies were made from a place of defensiveness and woefully inadequate. (There’s an earlier post of mine, from the other weekend on the BLURT Facebook page, where you can read those comments and the subsequent responses.) I’m going to own my mistake.
This lengthy post is my attempt at a proper, more complete apology and my promise to be (and to do) better moving forward. I’m not here to make the conversation about me. But since women don’t have the option of avoiding misogyny, I can’t either. Especially when I’m guilty of perpetrating it.
That’s the truly frightening thing: how blithely I made the original Twitter post and in the process invoked a sexist idea and used misogynist term — in short: I didn’t even think about it. It was so reflexive, such a common shorthand, the fact that it is offensive didn’t even occur to me. And in that moment I confirmed my membership in this giant sprawling frathouse. Guys, think about how often you “don’t even think about it.” It might prove scary to you as well.
With that single, decidedly unfunny joke, I placed myself in league with a pervasive mindset I have previously claimed to hate, and I did so at a moment in time (post-November 8th) when sexists have been given a renewed license to roam and offend, and when women are marginalized and rightly enraged at this inequity of power. I didn’t think before I tweeted. But since then, I’ve discussed this with a lot of people, and it’s given me an opportunity to think and to get some genuine insight into how others – on both sides of the equation – think, and what goes into that thinking.
There have been some tough realizations, not the least of which involves confronting the fact that I didn’t know better. It never occurred to me that I might be part of this systemic patriarchy problem. I’ve always considered myself an egalitarian, one of the good guys who could be depended upon to know and to do the right thing – “doing the right thing,” even if swims against the tide I’m in, is how I was raised and how I’m trying to raise my own son. But in this instance I instead became “one of the good ol’ boys”.
I realize that talk is cheap, and apologies are just words, meaningless unless backed up by action. My challenge is not just to pledge to never let something like this happen again and to set a good example — for my son, my male peers, the readers, and more. It’s also to teach myself to recognize this toxic patriarchal mindset when I see it; to actively challenge it and call folks out on it rather than just coast along and accept it as “the way things are”; and to provide my unconditional support for everyone who find themselves being… I’m not quite sure what word I’m reaching for here… hurt, offended, repressed, patronized, abused, maybe? Those all work, somewhat, but I need to find a term more holistic and all-encompassing. My inability to express it properly here tells me that there’s a lot of growing up that’s gotta happen first. It’s the duty of those of us who are privileged to remove our own blinders.
I’ve spent a lot of time this week listening to the criticism I received for my poorly chosen words, and as I said, talking to friends about what lessons I can learn, and contemplating how to do better, and I want to share two observations in particular that struck a nerve.
The other day, after a lengthy exchange with a friend about all this, I was in my car while listening to a weekend repeat of “Fresh Air” on NPR. Terry Gross’ guest this episode was female lexicographer Kory Stamper and she was talking about the immense power of words, both positive and negative. What timing. This hit home, and hard. I’m a writer, I’m supposed to know that. I thought I did know that. But my actions had just proven otherwise. That’s a personal standard that I let fall by the wayside. In the future I will keep reminding myself of the importance of choosing my words carefully, and appropriately for the context — not to mention knowing when not to say anything in the first place.
Secondly, this past week I have also reflected a great deal on the recent Women’s March and the feelings of pride and inspiration the resistance it launched has evoked in me. The Women’s March stirred up the same passions that I felt decades ago as a young man attending Vietnam War protests. I was empowered and righteous fighting for change, fighting to make my voice heard, fighting to stand up for what’s right. I’m still committed to standing up for what’s right and I want to be the change, as they say.
There is a new intersectional resistance movement taking place in our culture right now, led by women, POC, and those less privileged than me. They insist on being heard and they are righteous. Once again, I’m reminded of what it felt like, during the Vietnam era, to be part of a resistance movement. Moving forward, I want to do my part amplify their voices rather than echo the sexist tropes of times past. I’m going to think before I speak. Sometimes I’m just going to listen instead of speaking.
I am on the side of equality and progress, but the devil is in the details. It’s one thing to believe these things; it’s altogether another thing to execute them in my daily interactions, to monitor what I say and do and not perpetuate or feed the mindset discussed above.
I might not always get it right, but systemic change starts with individual change – that’s a notion that my parents also instilled in me that I intend to pass on to the next generation. I intend to pull my weight, do my part to make things improve, and not just sit on the sidelines silently cheering the resistance on (another trap that, having blinders on, is very easy to fall into). To any of the men who read this, I’m sharing all the foregoing not simply to apologize, but to encourage you to do the same – I invite them to join me.
Fred Mills is the editor of BLURT magazine and Blurtonline.com.
Saying farewell to the Bard via a collection of our Cohen coverage from over the years.
By Fred Mills
With the passing of Leonard Cohen this week (Nov. 7, at the age of 82), the inevitable deluge of tributes followed. Which is as it should be, of course. Intriguingly, it was a story on Cohen published shortly before his death that has taken on a remarkable resonance: While promoting his recent album You Want It Darker (you can find a link listen to it here or on Spotify), Cohen did an interview with David Remnick of The New Yorker in which he commented, regarding how he was viewing life at the time, “The big change is the proximity to death. I’ve got some work to do… take care of business. I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable.”
Whether uncannily prescient or simply making an semi-oblique reference to some personal details he was already aware of, it’s a quote that I suspect will linger whenever people talk about the man, his life, his work, and of course his death.
As with most music magazines, BLURT has covered Leonard Cohen many times over the years (we’ve been around since mid-2008). So I thought it would be appropriate to compile some of the more relevant pieces here; included are reviews and meditations, plus a very special interview with Cohen that originally appeared in the pages of our predecessor, Harp. Check them out, and I hope you’ll honor the memory of Cohen as well.
HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN, by A.D. Amorosi (Photo from the Beacon concert by Scott Weiner.)
Ed. note: In 2005 Cohen sued his former manager for having misappropriated more than $5 million from him, and this eventually led the singer to start touring again in order to generate income. He did so fairly extensively between 2008 and 2010, and I was fortunate enough to see Cohen live in Asheville, NC, in 2009; it remains one of my brightest memories of my recent musical life. Cohen also performed on that tour in Manhattan for the first time since 1993, at the storied Beacon Theater. Contributing Editor A.D. Amorosi was fortunate enough to attend, and he penned a deeply insightful review of the concert for us.
“It was profound and religious, plain and simple,” wrote Amorosi. “We were watching him cradle his microphone while occasionally kneeling before a grand flamenco-folk-smooth-jazz ensemble and oddly-sunny background vocalists, all who played elegantly precise waves of wonder so that Cohen could croon-chat in a mummy-lizard-like voice his stories of sensually tempered interludes, un-flowered romance and crushed-ice apocalypses…”
Ed. note: With the newfound touring regimen also came a number of new and archival releases for Cohen, among them a trifecta of DVDs: Bird on the Wire (a 1972 world tour; released by MVD Visual), Songs From the Road (the 2008-2009 world tour; Columbia/Legacy), and Leonard Cohen’s Lonesome Heroes (a documentary-style examination of the songwriter’s influences featuring selected performances and interviews; Chrome Dreams). Contributing Editor Steven Rosen stepped up to the plate and concluded that, while each DVD took a different approach in its appreciation of Cohen, they all worked quite nicely together whether you’re a longtime fan or a novice to his oeuvre.
Wrote Rosen, “Taken altogether (but not quite as a de facto trilogy), these DVDs further establish Leonard Cohen as one of the preeminent bards of his generation. Not that anyone needed to be reminded of that fact, of course, but it’s reassuring to know that successive generations will also have these aural and visual documents available for consultation, edification and inspiration.”
THE COMPLETE STUDIO ALBUMS COLLECTION, by Ron Hart
Ed. note: In 2011, Columbia/Legacy released a limited edition 11-CD box set of remastered editions of Cohen’s 1968-2004 output: Songs of (1968), Songs from a Room (1969), Songs of Love & Hate (1971), New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974), Death of a Ladies Man (1977), Recent Songs (1979), Various Positions (1984), I’m Your Man (1988), the Future (1992), Ten New Songs (2001) and Dear Heather (2004). Pretty irresistible, and the CDs were nicely packaged in mini-LP sleeves housed in a smartly-designed box. Contributor Ron Hart was impressed, to say the least:
“This exhaustive overhaul of his historic body of work, warts and all, is without question well worth the dive into the expansive artistic sprawl of North America’s premier ‘Chief Apocalyptist’ as he enjoys his 77th year on this planet.”
HOLY (WHOLLY) EXISTENTIAL SENSUALIST, by A.D. Amorosi
Ed. note: In January of 2012 Cohen, clearly energized from all the activity of the past few years, released his 12th studio album to huge acclaim; it even landed in the Billboard top 10 albums. A.D. Amorosi, our resident Cohen acolyte (well, technically, we all are), once again did the deed, tackling the record with his trademark passion, concluding that it was Cohen’s best album, period.
“Old Ideas,” he observed, “has a sort-of devilishness about it, in that it’s an exaltation and an assault on Cohen’s sacred/profane intellectualism. There is forgiveness. And then some… Vision – his old ideas, the best ideas – is what guides Cohen in matters of sexuality, decay and renewal, always has in what’s become a philosophical decretum. If a holy existential sensualist is required, Leonard Cohen alone fills that niche… Song for song, sound for sound, lyrical point for point, [it is also] most certainly the best album of 2012.”
It’s fascinating to note that prior to Cohen’s latterday “comeback” there hadn’t been too many books published about him. That has certainly changed, with notable additions to any self-respecting Cohen fan’s bookshelf being Sylvie Simmons’ definitive 2013 bioI’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, Alan Light’s more narrow-focused book, also from 2013,The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” , Liel Leibovitz’ 2015 musical analysisA Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen, and a 2015 anthology, edited by Jeff Burger, called Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters (Musicians in Their Own Words)—not to mention several collections of Cohen’s poetry. Then there was Everybody Knows, published in late 2014 by esteemed music book publisher Backbeat and written by the equally esteemed journalist and author Harvey Kubernik. Rich in photos, many of them rare or previously unseen, and arranged as an oral history along an annotated time-line plus the author’s connective narrative, the coffeetable book is not only quite handsome, it’s a solid reference work. As I put it, “one could easily use this as a primary source when researching specific details and events of Cohen’s life.”
Of additional note: “Kubernik skillfully avoids the key pitfalls that plague most oral histories; his aforementioned connecting text includes notes on his respondents so the reader understands their significance and relevance, while the aforementioned time-line structure proves to be the book’s greatest strength in terms of providing a real sense of the arc of Cohen’s career.”
Ed. note: I have semi-saved the best for last, and technically, this isn’t even a Cohen piece published by BLURT. It did, however, appear in Harp magazine, in 2007, and I was responsible for assigning, coordinating, and editing it. (Harp essentially morphed into BLURT following the former’s abrupt demise and bankruptcy in 2008, with the main members of the Harp editorial staff resuming operations again within a few months. I retained copies of all editorial content I had overseen, as well as PDFs of pre-publication pages.) Since most of the magazine’s content has basically disappeared into the ether—the archives were lost after the Harp website was shut down—and there are not even any copyright owners, I just hope that all the individual writers have taken the initiative and archived their own material for posterity, because there was a lot a great writing in the publication.
Such as the one at hand, by Harp contributor (and occasional BLURT contributor) Gillian G. Gaar, a Seattle-based journalist and author of numerous books. “He’s Your Man” originally appeared in the June 2007 issue of Harp, and at the time it was one of only a handful of interviews Cohen was doing; we were pretty proud that he had approved our request, and I knew instinctively that Gaar would be perfect to do the interview. It was enthusiastically received, and we even had a number of inquiries from overseas about obtaining copies of the magazine—definitely one of the projects from my Harp tenure that I’m deeply proud to be associated with.
Gaar was able to subsequently republish the piece in the aforementioned Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen anthology of writings, and it’s one of the book’s standouts. Introducing her story for the book, Gaar recalled being contacted by yours truly and being offered the chance to be flown to L.A., squired around by the record label, and spending a good amount of time with Cohen and then-paramour Anjani Thomas to talk about his upcoming reissues and her Cohen-produced album.
There’s a telling passage in the article, one which essentially forecast the flurry of Cohen activity that would unexpectedly unfold starting the next year. Wrote Gaar, “Those anxious for Cohen to record his own work again should be pleased to learn that the film’s concert sequences have inspired him to consider touring in support of his next album, tentatively set for release later this year. ‘Yes, yes,’ he confirms. ‘I haven’t been out since ’93. The years went by and I thought ‘I’ll never go out again.’ But every so often you do have that itch. You’ve heard that saying in rock ‘n’ roll, they don’t pay you to sing, they pay you to travel. But you forget about that stuff. The actual concerts are always compelling. If you’ve got good musicians, and you’re playing, and people know the songs, and they want to hear them live, it is a wonderful thing. And so I’m drawn to that.’”
Indeed he was. And we, his public, have been all the richer for it.
Go HERE to read the entire original Harp interview.
“What can I say? You can hear it.” (—Howe Gelb) Late Tucson guitarist was the heart, the soul and the soundtrack of the lower Sonoran desert.
BY FRED MILLS
The article below combines stories I originally wrote a number of years ago for the Phoenix New Times and Harp magazine (Blurt’s predecessor). When I posted in a year ago on the anniversary of his death, Nov. 12, 1997, I wanted to archive the piece on the BLURT site in the hopes that whoever reads it might be intrigued enough to check out the music of the late Rainer Ptacek, who died far too young, at the age of 46. I was honored to call him my friend, and his records continue to inspire me to this day. More to the point, it’s important that we occasionally take time out to pay tribute to those who have passed on but whose artistry continues to resonate. His death affected me deeply, and each year around this time I pause, listen to his music – which remains timeless – and reflect on my 10-year stint in Tucson, a period during which I got to know scores of Old Pueblo musicians and gain an appreciation for their collective unique spin on what I always refer to as “desert rock.” Among them, Rainer was and remains my favorite. So enjoy my (admittedly fan-powered) memorial for the guitar virtuoso once more, below. Here is a link to Wikipedia entry , to the Weekly Wire’s compendium of articles, to the Tucson Weekly’s collection of musicians’ testimonials and to his official website (which, full disclosure, includes in his bio section a piece I wrote. Some additional links follow the story. And as a kind of postscript to this intro: When the aforementioned Tucson Weekly story was published on Dec. 1, 1997, shortly after his death it featured rather striking art on the cover of the issue that was designed to resemble a colorful, if still somber, Mexican memorial decorated with candles; such memorials you can come across at numerous points in Tucson. What was unusual, however, was how similar the art design and color motif was to Neil Young’s classic early ’90s album Sleeps With Angels, itself a very somber image as befitting its death-fixated themes. The fact that Nov. 12 is also the date of Neil Young’s birthday perhaps has no actual significance, but for me, personally, as a lifelong fan who has often felt Young frequently taps into the same artistic vein a Rainer did, it carried an uncanny resonance. I can’t find the Tucson Weekly cover image anywhere on the web, so if anyone reading this does have it in digital form I’d love to receive a copy of the artwork. -FM
November 12 brings the anniversary of the passing of Rainer Ptacek (1951 – 1997), a Tucson-based singer-songwriter who was a bluesman by genre but also a roots innovator and rocker by any measure — and one serious motherfucker of a slide guitar player. Maybe the best I’ve ever seen. With his soulful vocals and unerring instinct on when to rock it out and when to let his muse dance delicately in the ether, unquestionably the most instinctual, pure musician I’ve ever encountered, too.
Born on June 7, 1951, in East Germany, Rainer Jaromir Ptacek grew up in Chicago after his family fled the Communist country in 1953 and moved to the Windy City in ’56. Musically inclined from childhood, in the mid ’60s Rainer swapped violin for guitar, as a teenager forming the usual British Invasion-influenced combos of the day and smitten like most other ’60s teens by the Beatles. (He’d later quip, drily, “None of the Beatles, it seemed, were interested in violin.”) The first record he bought was “Hello Mary Lou” by Ricky Nelson and the first concert he attended was Iron Butterfly; combined with a firsthand exposure to the blues giants that played regularly around Chicago, Rainer’s musical apprenticeship was nothing if not diverse.
In the ‘70s he landed in Tucson and quickly became a fixture on the local music scene, ultimately garnering a reputation as a song stylist and slide virtuoso that one day would have critics speaking of him in the same breath as Ry Cooder, John Fahey and Chris Whitley—no doubt due, in part, to the intricacies of a tape loop/delay pedal strategy he’d developed during his later years that allowed him to sound like several people playing at once. Among Tucson audiences in particular, Rainer was admired for his emotionally vivid lyrics, his high, keening vocals and that near-otherworldly style of guitar. His national and international profile commenced rising around the time he co-founded Giant Sandworms with Howe Gelb; despite the fact that the group’s physical legacy includes but a pair of seven-inch records, to this day critics and collectors in far away places still speak of those singles in reverent tones, citing them as early examples of the area’s vaunted desert rock sound. When Gelb temporarily moved the band to New York, Rainer chose to stay behind in the Old Pueblo. Before too long, in addition to his regular solo gigging, he formed Das Combo, a kind of mutant roots/power blues trio.
The impact that the group’s debut Barefoot Rock With… Rainer and Das Combo wielded was not negligible, despite it originally being released only in Britain. Vacationing in London in 1985, before I’d even heard of the guitarist, I was hanging out one afternoon with some record label people and the publisher of Bucketful Of Brains magazine when someone pulled out a copy of the album and asked me if I was familiar with the band, me being from the U.S. and all that. No, I wasn’t, I told them. “This Tucson guy is incredible,” they advised me, with utmost severity. “One of the best guitarists in your entire country.”
Below: Rainer live on Jools Holland’s “Later” BBC program 7/16/93
In addition to the five albums he released between 1986 and 1994, over the years Rainer collaborated with everyone from Giant Sand, whose Gelb was one of his closest friends, The Grid and Germany’s F.S.K.; to Emmylou Harris (pictured below, w/Rainer), ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Led Zep’s Robert Plant, not to mention scores of Arizona musicians. It’s interesting, though, that Rainer, like his pal Gelb, was always more appreciated in England and Europe than in the States. With the exception of one album, all Rainer’s music was issued, initially at least, on overseas labels. What might potentially have been a significant ticket to fame — a series of tunes he recorded with Plant, who was a big fan of his — came out as UK-only Plant B-sides in 1993. (One of them, an update of Led Zep’s “Whole Lotta Love,” can be checked out at the bottom of this page via a stylized fan-generated video.) A timely mid ‘90s collaboration with British ambient techno outfit The Grid, a mesmerizing instrumental album titled Nocturnes, appeared on a German label.
Just the same, Rainer didn’t exactly lack for fans in the U.S. The ZZ Top connection makes for an interesting story. Sometime in the late ‘80s guitarist Gibbons happened to drop by Tucson venue Nino’s after a concert; Das Combo was performing at the club and, taken by Rainer’s unique guitar style, Gibbons sent a note up via one of his bodyguards that he’d like to meet the musician. A few years later Gibbons invited Rainer to his studio in Texas to record with him, and the results eventually appeared in ’93 on Rainer’s The Texas Tapes — minus any Gibbons accreditation. Apparently something in Gibbons’ contract prevented his name being listed on any outside credits, and Rainer always honored that. It was a source of great amusement around Tucson that Rainer would never let himself be pinned down by the Gibbons question, at least not on record, and he consistently danced around the matter. As he told me once during an interview when I asked him could I finally put in print what everyone already knew, “You can write, ‘It has been said that Rainer recorded with members of ZZ Top…’ and that will not be untrue. Because that has been said!”
I can still see the mischievous smile on his face as he said that.
A measure of the love and respect Rainer commanded can be found in the tribute album The Inner Flame, released in ’97 and reissued in expanded form in 2012, which featured covers of Rainer songs performed by Harris, Plant & Jimmy Page, Evan Dando, Victoria Williams & Mark Olson, PJ Harvey, Madeleine Peyroux, Bill Janovitz, Jonathan Richman, Chuck Prophet and others. Rainer himself appears on several of the tracks, including the haunting title track featuring Giant Sand backing him up (and Howe Gelb dueting on vocals):
Muscle memories: I met Rainer not long after moving to Arizona in 1992, and I was fortunate enough to see him play in various formats, from solo acoustic to electric power trio to gigs with Giant Sand. A story I’ve often enjoyed telling is about the time I saw Rainer and that group at Tucson’s Club Congress one night: midway into a long, gale force jam, as Rainer and Gelb spewed out riff after riff in a magnificent duel, I swear I saw neon green sparks and trails popping and spiraling in the air above their heads. It wasn’t from the weed and alcohol, either.
Another time, watching Rainer perform a solo set in a tiny coffee shop down on Tucson’s Fourth Avenue, I was mesmerized by the way his hands floated over the strings and fretboard of his beloved old National Steel. Slide guitar is not an easy technique to master, but Rainer was a master’s master, and he’d also designed his ingenious tape loop system years before other slide guitarists thought to try similar things to enhance their solo sound. This was well before the advent of affordable/portable digital samplers. With the resonator on his guitar adding additional tones and harmonics, at times he could sound like four (or more) guitarists.
I got to know Rainer in bits and pieces—chatting casually at a show; visiting him at his day job to conduct an interview (he repaired guitars down in the basement of a Tucson music gear shop, the aptly-named Chicago Store); swapping tales at my day job, a local store called Zia Record Exchange where he’d frequently drop by to get his music fix. I recall him coming by to see me one day some time after he’d fallen ill for the first time: in 1996 while riding his bicycle to work he experienced a seizure and was subsequently diagnosed with a brain tumor, the ensuing chemo/radiation therapy making for a long and no doubt frustrating recovery. I asked him if he was playing again and writing songs, and he gave me a funny look. “You know, these” — Rainer held up his hands and nodded at them — “know where they want to go. They remember the chords, the notes. The problem is that I still can’t remember all of those chords and notes.”
When the cancer returned, it came after about a year of remission, although thankfully Rainer’s musical skills had returned so thoroughly that during that year his creativity reached new peaks. It was early October 1997; I had temporarily left Tucson to take care of family business when I heard the news; I understood it was bad this time. I called him up in Tucson one Saturday afternoon, and there was a note of pleasure in his voice when he learned it was me calling. He talked about his plans to record a slew of new material he’d been writing, told me about all the classical music he’d been enjoying lately and asked me what I’d been listening to. He never once mentioned the illness, and in my awkwardness I didn’t know how to bring it up myself. I don’t think I had ever talked to someone who knew he was dying. Yet there was nothing in what he said or how he said it to suggest that he had any plans other than to keep making music.
“Before Rainer got sick, he’d recorded a lot of songs. He wanted to get these out in Europe; he was already hooked up with Germany’s Glitterhouse Records. And then he got sick, and it was just pushed under the rug.” Patti Keating, Rainer’s widow, talking to me in 2000, explained how she and Howe Gelb were planning a series of posthumous archival releases intended to document Rainer’s final recordings as well as restore some of his earlier albums to print. The initial fruits of their efforts arrived via Glitterhouse later that year in the form of Alpaca Lips, an astonishingly pure, intensely soulful collection of acoustic folk and blues that actually resides somewhere in a rarefied between-genres space.
Keating recalled going through a handful of Rainer’s tapes some time after his death and coming across a DAT labeled “alpaca lips.” (“Just his funny little sense of humor, a play on words — I think he actually wanted a picture of an alpaca on the cover,” she said, laughing at the memory.) Knowing her husband’s intentions, she revived the project precisely as he’d conceived it.
While it may be folly to second-guess the dearly departed, Keating suggested that Rainer may have subconsciously left clues to make such an endeavor possible. Not only did he secure a completed, sequenced and labeled DAT, he also tucked away scores of handwritten notes and hours of tapes chronicling long practice sessions; radiation treatment and chemotherapy had affected his memory, forcing him to relearn his own music. “It’s almost as if he left us road maps to where he was going, because he wrote down everything. The tapes, too—I think that was also his memory.”
One of Alpaca Lips‘ most riveting numbers is a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise.” With minimalist backing from Calexico’s Joey Burns (standup bass) and John Convertino (vibraphone), Rainer hangs shimmering, spider’s-silk notes in the air; a fragile, world-weary vocal pushes Wonder’s cautionary rumination into the realm of existentialism when he sings, “We’re spending too much of our lives/Living in a pastime paradise/Yeah, we’re wasting most of our time/Glorifying days done gone behind/Tell me who of them/Have come to be?/How many of them/Are you and me?”
“You know, that one was recorded right before he got sick, which is why it seems so profound to me,” mused Keating. “It’s real eerie to me. Almost like, not an omen, but… [voice trailing off momentarily] almost like he knew it was coming on. A premonition.”
Having worked with Rainer previously on a CD reissue of Barefoot Rock and the 1995 Nocturnes collection of ambient-tinged solo pieces, Glitterhouse owner Reinhard Holstein was eager to release Alpaca Lips. Talking to me about the musician, Holstein recalled his first exposure to Rainer’s music: “I bought [1992 album] Worried Spirits and loved it. Then came Texas Tapes , and the fact that it was unmistakably ZZ Top backing him blew me away. My initial impressions then were the same as they are now: I like the way he constructs his songs, I love his electric guitar work and I’m totally into his Dobro virtuosity. But what I like most is his voice, or the combination of his guitar style and the vocals. That howl is maximum intensity for me.
“We did Nocturnes, got a lot of great press and did reasonably well. And I knew that Rainer had something coming; he’d sent me some of the stuff that finally made it onto Alpaca Lips. But at the time, the record was not put together yet and he wanted to send me something that was finished. So [after he died we wanted] to do it right, and give it a fair chance to make an impact.”
Complex and riveting yet accessible on multiple levels, the album locates Rainer at an artistic peak—songwriting, singing and playing, and all the more improbable, given his situation at the time of the initial recordings. Howe Gelb, talking to me about Rainer’s initial recovery period, explained, “It took some time to relearn everything he’d known before the seizure. The most amazing part of his trek—which was unbearably frustrating, given how his brain wouldn’t work with him for the longest time to remember so many things, let alone the coordination it takes for his hands to carry out his brain’s ideas—was that he not only was able to teach himself all over again. His stunning achievement was then to surpass his ability before he got sick! I remember coming over to where he was practicing what would become ‘The Inner Flame’ [recorded by Giant Sand and Rainer as the title track for the Inner Flame project]. The moment I heard it, I could hear the progression of his writing ability. And it was as if he were never sick at all! It was astonishing to me since I’d watched him struggle with relearning to even hold a guitar again.”
Below: Live recording (no video) of Rainer doing “The Farm” at Tucson’s Performance Center in ’97.
Another triumph occurred at a Tucson concert on June 6, 1997, prior to Rainer’s relapse. Recorded professionally and the second installment in what turned out to be a Glitterhouse trilogy, Live at the Performance Center was, by Gelb’s description, “the best live recording I have ever heard from anyone, anywhere, from any time. And if you listen with a critical ear — which is hard to do, given the emotional status—he keeps getting better and better as the set goes on. He’s on a plain I have never heard anyone ever get to.”
The third release was The Farm, comprising songs culled from the more than 15 hours of material recorded in the weeks immediately prior to Rainer’s passing. “That came about after his final seizure [in ’97],” explained Gelb, his voice choking with emotion at the memory. “I raced home from a European tour to find him talking in numbers. Again, he slowly began to relearn his guitar, but this time the end was imminent. We all knew it. And we had to tell him, as well. Anyway, I mentioned to him that he was coming up with all kinds of ideas on the guitar; would he like to record again? To focus on that for the healing it can do, and the relief of the art he gave himself to his whole life. A day or so later, he was up for it. We headed up to Harvey’s place [Harvey Moltz, Tucson studio owner], and three sessions later we had a slew of material.”
Glitterhouse went on to additionally reissue Worried Spirits and The Texas Tapes, both originally released by Demon Records. In 2007 Keating and Gelb assembled The Westwood Sessions for Gelb’s Ow Om label, material recorded in 1987 with Das Combo. In 2011 Roll Back the Years was released featuring Rainer backed up by Burns and Convertino of Calexico. There have also been two compilations to come out in the last few years, 17 Miracles: The Best of Rainer, and the two-CD The Rainer Collection, both of which make excellent introductions to his music. Meanwhile, UK label Fire, long a home to Giant Sand and Howe Gelb, commenced a comprehensive reissue campaign for Rainer’s back catalog starting in 2012 with an expanded version of the Inner Flame tribute and then in 2013 with Barefoot Rock; more are en route. Finally, Rainer’s estate has made available a number of digital-only albums, which can be purchased at the Rainer Bandcamp page.
A desert symphony: Humans seem to have a genetic predisposition towards the marking of anniversaries, either on formal, outward terms (celebrations, vigils, family gatherings, etc.) or on subtler, more subliminal — but no less meaningful — levels. Each year around this time I find myself going through the latter process as I mark once again the death of a gifted, visionary artist who was also a friend and an inspiration to me. I had even played the Nocturnes CD in the delivery room when my son was born in 2001. And in the music he created and in the life examples that, as a citizen and a family man, he set, I continue to draw that inspiration from him more than a decade and a half since his passing.
I recall how in ’97, a few days after Rainer’s death, a memorial service was held at Tucson’s ancient San Pedro Chapel, a holy place with marvelous acoustics where Rainer had recorded on numerous occasions. An overflow crowd spilled out the Chapel doors and into the yard as Howe Gelb and local deejay Kidd Squidd offered moving testimonials. Austin singer-songwriter Kris McKay got up and sang a song while backed by Giant Sand, followed by a number from Giant Sand themselves. Wandering around the yard afterwards, I saw a lot of moist eyes. A couple of mounted displays featuring snapshots of Rainer from over the years had been set up in the yard and small knots of people would cluster around them, some gesturing and smiling, others gazing silently. There was Rainer’s widow Patti, and I spoke to her and hugged her. Up walked Gelb, and I greeted him too, and as we talked I swear it was the first time I’d ever heard his voice tremble. When someone pointed out Rainer’s mom to me, I wondered what it must be like for a mother to lose a son. Unable, for some self-conscious reason, to make myself go over to her, I stood there and silently hoped she understood how much we had loved him. (Below: Rainer’s obituary as published in the Arizona Daily Star)
I also recall the arrival of the annual monsoon season in Arizona. While the rain storms can be frightfully intense, often prompting dangerous flash floods, they still mark a time for rejoicing among natives of this hot, dry, parched place. The rains signal rebirth and life, and there’s a certain vibrant, physical quality to the air and to the light after a late afternoon monsoon that you never forget. At times, when I reflect on my 10 years living in the desert, I think about those monsoons, and I think about Rainer also. To me, the two will always be linked. When Rainer left us, the desert shuddered for a moment, took a long deep breath, then began to sing. And what an unbelievable symphony it was.
Someone once said that we rarely know what in life we’re looking for, but when we find it, we instinctively sense its rightness. For me, my arrival in the desert in the summer of ’92, was a coming home to a place I’d only known from books. Over time, I grew to understand that Rainer’s music was the heart and soul, the musical essence, and spiritual soundtrack to this sun-kissed place.
As it always shall be. God bless you Rainer, for that gift. You gave us the most unbelievable symphonies.
Longtime friend Gelb, who observed that there’s perhaps a deeper significance to what Rainer accomplished, gets the last word:
“What a great struggle for him at times to even read and make sense of the notes he’d made. The spine tingle is the delivery from a man who is perched on the precipice and able to look over into the void and deliver still, in this world, what he sees on both sides.
“What can I say? You can hear it.”
There are a number of resources on the Web for people looking to delve more deeply in Rainer and his music. The first places to start would be his official website, RainerMusic.org, plus of course the memorial Facebook page,. There’s also a musical oasis of Rainer downloads organized by Rainer/Giant Sand/Calexico archivist Jim Blackwood located at the live Rainer Archive.
Thanks to ill-informed dialogue from Kim Komando and other consumer tech gurus, any monkey with a typewriter, er, box of moldy old LPs thinks he/she is on the eBay road to riches. Guess what? You’ve been duped. BLURT’s helpful hint: check “completed listings.”
BY FRED MILLS
It’s a familiar scenario these days: some mainstream media outlet publishes yet another article about the current resurgence—“explosion” is the occasional term, and not without total merit; see below—of vinyl, and suddenly the hinterlands are alive with the sound of (vinyl-borne) music, wherein every Johnny, Judy and Aunt Marge within earshot gets the proverbial dollar signs in their peepers because they just remembered that somewhere in their basement, attic, tool shed or rent-in-arrears storage unit they’ve got a dusty, beat-up, poorly-packed, climate-challenged box of Johnny Mathis, Mitch Miller and Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass LPs they’d totally forgotten about.
Here’s a preemptive tip, folks: run, don’t walk, to the nearest trash bin with that load. (Emphasis load.) I’ve done it plenty of times, particularly over the course of the past 3 years while I toiled at a small but successful North Carolina independent record store. I mean, seriously: who are you gonna believe, someone who’s actually in the business of buying and selling a commercial product who willingly dumpstered hundreds of pieces of that product, or some self-styled personal tech maven with a radio show who claims she’s got the inside track on how to turn those dust-gathering antiques into cold hard cash?
Sigh. I should have guessed which one you’d pick. But hopefully you are at a stop light, reading this on your smartphone, and will see the light before THE light changes, then turn around, go back home, and put that box of LPs out by the curb. Or drop by the Goodwill store if it’s on your route.
Now, I have nothing against radio personality Kim Komando (not a made up name, although that bleached ‘do is remarkably Real Housewives-esque), who is billed as “host of an American talk radio program based on the popularity of smartphones, televisions, tablets, personal computers, the use of the Internet, and the complexities of buying and using all forms of consumer electronics.” Fair enough. We probably need more tutorials in the media, not less, given how dense the average consumer tends to be. Still, that old saying stick with what you know does come to mind from time to time when listening to her or reading her editorials in the print and online media. Because when she doesn’t stick with what she knows and ventures into foreign territory, the fact that she has a pretty significant audience that’s earnest but naïve means that she can create a monster in the space of a single missive. Which means, in turn, that she can also create a ton of problems for those of us out here in analog land.
Such is the case with a recent, and borderline klueless, Komando kolumn, “Old items collecting dust could net eBay cash,” published in USA Today this past week. In it, she returns to a topic beloved by all, the value of your old crap at eBay. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, although with eBay now 20 years old and counting one supposes that anybody who is just now discovering the online marketplace has been living in a cave with a dial-up modem and a clock-flashing Betamax for company. Those old Beanie Babies your granddaughter forgot about and left at your house some time ago? Dang, Marge, they just might be worth their weight in plastic pellets nowadays, so get off that telephone so’s we can plug our computer in and get online to check them out!
In the USA Today column (recycled from her online posting earlier in the month, by the way; the daily newspaper is rarely ahead of the curve when it comes to popular culture), Komando proposes you peruse your old stash of videotapes, iPods and vinyl records because there just might be gold in them there boxes. Of the first, well, that’s probably a judgment call. True, a lot of out-of-print material still has yet to be released on DVD or Blu-ray, but one supposes that the first line of attack might be to scare up an old VHS deck that’s in good working condition in order to determine whether or not that Black Diamond Edition of The Little Mermaid you hung onto will still actually play. There’s a pretty good chance it won’t, given the finite lifespan of videotapes, a little factoid that Komando konveniently forgot to mention in her column. “Prices… vary wildly based on condition, version and how many you’re offering,” she adds, almost as an afterthought. Now I’m not saying that a “rare” VHS tape can’t have glitches repaired, but the bottom line is that if the magnetic tape is stretched, flaking and otherwise just worn out, it’s worthless. (Nobody “bakes” VHS tapes to restore them. The Little Mermaid is not a Jimi Hendrix outtakes reel.)
Regarding iPods, well, there are so many for sale on eBay right now, of every possible generation/iteration and of varying conditions (some have original boxes, earbuds, USB connectors, etc.; some are loose and scratched), that it’s impossible to get a reading on precise values. This is a common experience on eBay, of course, and speaking as someone who has bought and sold on eBay for about 15 years now, all I can tell you is that (1) do your research before buying OR selling on eBay; (2) always check the “completed listings” function rather than what people are trying to get for their swag, because if one guy wants 50 bucks for an item but the same one has routinely been selling for 20, then that item is only worth 20 bucks, capice?; and (3) check thesellers’ ratings to get a sense of whether or not they actually know what they are doing and will treat you, the customer, with respect.
(Aside: after reading Komando’s iPod screed I did momentarily see dollar signs in my eyes over my kid’s old iPod Shuffle (silver; 2009 3rd gen; 4gb capacity; original box, earbuds and USB connector). Then I saw that it is currently changing hands for between $17 and $22, which in all honesty just ain’t worth the hassle of listing, selling and shipping. I’ll keep it instead, fully charged, in case the apocalypse hits and I want to spend my last 18 hours listening to a bunch of Clash and Springsteen live bootlegs on “random.”)
But Komando’s “informed” tutorial on vinyl records is what simultaneously angered and alarmed me. Go HERE to read her original column at her Komando.com website. In it she pretty much tells Grandma Marge, Uncle Lester and Feebleminded Cousin Ralph that they are on the verge of hitting the lottery if they’ll only drag that box out of the attic and brush a little of the dust off:
“Depending on the record or collection, you can make some serious money. User “albertjukebox” is selling his collection of 13,000 high-quality records for $278,000. Of course, you probably don’t have a collection quite that large, and he’s probably not going to get that price.
“Still, if you have a rare early record, say from the ’30s or ’40s, you can list it for $10,000 or more. An original or otherwise noteworthy record of a famous artist like Nirvana, Pink Floyd, or the Beatles, can list for several thousand. You might have a set of albums from Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones or someone other artist that together could be worth a bundle. Even if you don’t think an album or collection is worth anything, it’s still not a bad idea to post them.
“Just glancing down the list of high-priced albums for sale, there are plenty from obscure artists and genres you wouldn’t expect would sell. You never know what some collector or fan might be dying to get their hands on.”
Oh sweet jeezus. Hey Kim, guess what? You had them at “list it for $10,000.” And that’s ALL they heard. After that, it was just white noise buzzing in their ears as they mentally tallied their future bank balances.
While I am no longer at the record store due to having recently moved across the state, I am still active on eBay and buying private record collections on occasion. In addition, I am in regular contact with fellow dealers and a number of record store owners and employees, and the near-unanimous consensus is that articles like Komando’s do NOT help at all—in fact, they undermine our collective business by reducing it to a simple old = valuable formula, which as any dealer of antiques or vintage cars will tell you is a recipe for disaster if that’s your only guideline.
Don’t worry, this isn’t a tutorial on how to buy and sell used vinyl. Smarter and more experienced guys than me have written entire books on the subject. And in all fairness to Komando, she did include one caveat at the end of her vinyl screed, my point #(1): “Just be sure you do a little research first.” Indeed, that should be your mantra if you decide to get into the used wax business. Wait, I didn’t copy her entire sentence: she also wrote “so you don’t charge too little.” Oh gawd. Too little. “Okay, Marge, let’s see if we can get $10,999 for that Blind Melon Chitlin’ rekkird from 1932 over there in that box… did you ever find the cover for it?”
Here’s what happens when well-meaning-but-clueless consumer gurus put a bunch of poorly-phrased information out to the public: that public in turn responds with a bunch of clueless, poorly-executed actions. I absolutely, positively, 100% guarantee you that the very morning the September 16 issue of USA Today hit newsstands and mailboxes, within an hour independent record stores across America started getting phonecalls from Marge, Lester and Ralph—or, perhaps, their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters and caretakers—inquiring about their desire to turn those boxes of battered LPs into cold hard cash. Here’s the phonecall that every record retailer dreads:
Them: “I’ve got a box of old records that I found after cleaning out my late Grandma Marge’s attic…”
Us: “What kind of records do you have?”
Them [eagerly]:“Well, they are REALLY old!”
Us [hesitantly]: “Uhh, um… what are some of the records you have?”
Them [triumphantly]: “Well, it’s a LOT of records. They are really old. I read in USA Today that old records are really selling well again. Your store buys old records, right?”
Us [trapped]: “Ahhhhh… yes. It depends. Could you tell me just a few of the records you have?”
Them [bothered]: “I’ll have to go get the box. Hold on a minute, this phone cord won’t stretch that far… [long pause, sound of a box being pushed across the floor] Okay, umm, here is a Johnny Mathis, love that young man! Also Perry Como, Barbra Streisand… and, oh yes, Herb Albert and his Tee-ju-wanna Brass…”
Us [hopefully]: “For Herb Al-PERT, do you have “Whipped Cream and Other Delights?”
Them [confused]: “What was that?”
Us: “Never mind.Do you have any first generation iPods you want to get rid of?”
I rest my case. Honestly, Kim, while I know you are populist to a fault, every time a vinyl-related article like yours is published, it simultaneously distorts the realities of the record market (which in turn, sets unduly high expectations among the public) and makes the jobs of the folks who actually have a stake in keeping the market stable and prosperous more difficult.
Put another way, in language you might understand: yes, there is a vinyl explosion currently going on, but with pie-in-the-sky reports and loaded lingo such as yours, there is also a bubble being created. Everyone knows what happens with bubbles: they pop. (If you need to, refer to “tech” and “housing” from years gone by, just to refresh yourself.) But it’s unnecessary. We collectors, fans, dealers and just plain maniacs have been doing great all along, and everyone has been pretty happy, whether we traffic on eBay, Discogs, GEMM or the so-called “dark web” (that’s where you can find Prince and Jeff Buckley bootlegs, FYI).
To summarize: Please. Stop. Now.
Admittedly, once in awhile a retailer or dealer does indeed unearth a genuine nugget, so the general rule of thumb is to at least take a quick look at the person’s box of junk. Coming a copy of the Beatles’ Yesterday and Today with the butcher cover is the exception rather than the rule, however. The screening process on the phone outlined above—if during the conversation they don’t can’t a single artist that has value, you gently inform them that the collection is probably not going to net them anything—has proven to be pretty effective, saving the retailer time and saving the customer the hassle of hauling the box down to the store. It’s worth noting that if they come away thinking they’ve wasted their time and energy, they blame the retailer and figure that he really doesn’t know jack about records after all. You don’t want to insult a customer, even unintentionally, because they will go home, get on Yelp, and complain about how rude and ignorant you are.
Of course, some folks simply refuse to believe you when you tell them that every pre-‘70s collection is going to have Johnny Mathis and Herb Alpert in it, or (if you’re feeling kinda sadistic that day) that anybody who might have wanted a Perry Como album is probably dead by now. Sometimes you also have to tell them that while they have a few nice pieces in the collection they are just too beat up to sell, which generates a response bordering in incredulity: “But it’s a BEATLES record! Beatles records are VALUABLE!” “Um, sorry ma’am, but that Sgt. Pepper’s you have there is missing the inserts, the spine has been shredded by cats, and the actual record looks like it was used as practice for a pumpkin carving contest.” Translation: they still don’t believe you, they still decide you’re a dummy, and they still get on Yelp. You can’t win.
Now let’s be clear: we are in the middle of what most folks will agree is an unprecedented vinyl revival. Some speculate that the same thing has happened or will happen with cassettes, but that’s confusing a retro/hipster fad with an actual trend. Cassettes are an inferior audio format—more so than even VHS tapes. (Don’t even get me started on the so-called 8-Track Revival.) Whereas vinyl was never truly supplanted by each new format iteration, and it never actually lost its audience. The reason no one was buying new LPs was because they weren’t being manufactured, so of course they weren’t shopping in record stores any more. Dealers in used vinyl continued to do decent business because there were still tons of collectors out there. Granted, it wasn’t always enough to justify staying in business, which in addition to the disappearance of new wax is why a lot of retailers closed up shop in the ‘90s and ‘00s.
But vinyl never went away, and in fact it did continue to be made by specialty labels and never-say-die indies. It’s just that now all the labels, including the mega-monoliths like Universal, Sony and WEA, have realized that for some bizarre reason, people want new vinyl again, both as new releases and as reissues. So naturally they are going to jump back into the game, hoping to recoup at least partially in the face of the dip in revenue wrought by digital streaming, in the process jacking up prices, which has had the ancillary effect of causing the prices of used records to rise, and… can you spell B-U-B-B-L-E?
Aw hell, vinyl also never lost its charm—it’s a lotta fun to collect, to sell, to trade, to covet. The current explosion may have been kickstarted (term used metaphorically) by hipsters, but it was bolstered by longtime fans who’d previously been frustrated they couldn’t find anything except at inflated eBay prices and who now are thrilled they can make that weekly trek down to the record store and resume their hunting. Things will crest and plateau off, and there will be an inevitable “correction” in the market (to use an Economics term) and a decline of some sort, but as vinyl has endured all these years, so too will it continue to endure. Viva le wax!
But please, Kim Komando & Co., no more stories about $10,000 records being discovered in the attic. You’re just fucking things up.
Would YOU pay $12 a pop for crap albums from Toto, Pablo Cruise and Leon & Mary Russell? Ye olde editor engages a hip new subscription service that promises “hand-curated vinyl records” to its eager—and apparently young/newbie—clientele. (Additional reading: Stereogum’s “Why The ‘Netflix For Vinyl’ Service Is Such A Mess”)
BY FRED MILLS, Blurt Editor
Like many of you, the BLURT braintrust was excited—or, after reading the fine print, at least optimistically enthused—by the January news that a new record subscription service was preparing to launch in a couple of months, following a successful Kickstarter campaign, which would adopt some of the (wildly successful) Netflix model features —but utilizing used vinyl LPs instead of DVDs, and instead of subscribers making their own choices, have their albums picked (“curated,” in today’s misnomer-strewn parlance) by employees of the service. The classic Sub Pop Singles Club and the Vinyl Me, Please services were also cited as inspirations.
Dubbed, somewhat minus-a-vowel cutesily/trendily VNYL (motto: “hand-curated vinyl records delivered to your door”), the service, founded by software/app developer Nick Alt, promised early backers that they would receive their initial shipments in February and the general public in March. As Rolling Stonereported at the time,
“For a monthly fee, members of the just-launched venture VNYL can choose from a list of categories, called “#Vibes,” and receive records in the mail much in the same way they used to receive Twin Peaks Season 1 DVDs at home before streaming services. Although it is not set up like Netflix, in the sense that members select the records they want, VNYL still caters to subscribers. Once a member has selected a hash tag classification (#lazysunday or #danceparty, for instance) the company will send three albums curated to fit the “vibe” by the VNYL staff. The service costs $15 a month and allows members to spend as much time with the records as they would like, keeping the ones they love and sending the duds back using pre-paid shipping. The cost of keeping an album will run between $8 to $12.”
Founder Alt added, “The real magic that I can bring to this is the community aspect. People who listen to vinyl are not connected [the way online users are] unless they go to a record store, so why can’t we bridge that for people who are really into listening to vinyl.”
Fair enough. Yours truly — who has passionately collected vinyl records since the late ‘60s, from LPs to 45s to 78s to even the stray 5” single or flexidisc (ask me sometime about the 10” flexi of Australian indie bands I curated, er, compiled in the ‘80s for rock mag The Bob) — quickly became a backer of the Kickstarter campaign for VNYL, not only feeling seduced by the possibilities but also sensing a great story about what it means to be a collector and lover of records. I pledged, put in my credit card info, then sat back and waited, having been guaranteed three free months’ worth of records (translation: nine LPs), after which I could maintain my official subscription or cancel any time.
As an aside, there’s a good discussion about the numerous online record sub services currently operating over at The Record Collectors Guild. Titled, succinctly, “Review of Vinyl Subscription Services,” it’s mostly positive in tone, basically describing VNYL, Prescribed Vinyl, Feedbands, Vinyl Me Please and Turntable Kitchen in terms of what you get for your dough. It also hands out praise for the brick and mortar record stores that still exist, enthusing, “Enter a museum of 12″ square canvases displaying amazing artworks, each unique to the album they represent. Have a funny conversation with the cynical hipster latte sipping record store employee. Learn something, share something, find new music, re-discover old goodies, buy a brand new record, or buy 5 obscure used ones, it’s all part of the experience.”
Part of that experience: Alt mentioned magic. Ask any practicing magician, and he’ll tell you that “magic” comprises a series of illusions that feed off observers’ need or willingness to believe what they are seeing or being told, irrespective of the objective facts.
It was May 13 of this year and my first box from VNYL arrived, postmarked April 29 and shipped via Media Mail from Venice, Calif. (The full address: 1136 Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice CA 90291-3314.) If you are doing the math, you have probably noticed that there’s been a slight delay from the original estimation of when backers and charter subscribers would receive their initial shipments. Intriguingly, in looking at my account profile at VNYL now, it says that I joined on April 5, but it was in early January that I made my Kickstarter pledge. But that’s no problem: the VNYL folks have kept all of us regularly updated, including at least one notification of a slight delay. So far, so good.
Worth noting: backers received an email indicating they needed to officially register and fill out a brief online questionnaire about our musical tastes in order that the VNYL staff might better “curate” our selections—for example, what categories of music we did and did not like, or the URL of our Spotify account/playlist or similar streaming services we utilize. The former was easy enough, and I faithfully documented my likes, which include indie and alternative rock, punk, classic rock, blues, singer-songwriter and more, but not classical, opera, rap and several others. The streaming-service question, however, was pointless: I don’t have a Spotify account for myself, only one that I maintain for BLURT. For that matter I don’t even need a streaming service: I have 10,000 friggin’ records in my collection and another 5,000 CDs. (Full disclosure: I’m in the process of dumping the CDs because their value is rapidly declining; nowadays you can barely get 50 cents a pop for ‘em. Meanwhile, the LPs and 45s are appreciating at roughly the same rate. Hey, Bob Lefsetz, maybe you have a blog post about this soon, hmmm?) And each time I tried to ignore that section of the questionnaire I was blocked from proceeding farther, so finally I just plugged in the URL for BLURT’s Spotify list so I could be done with it.
I remained optimistic, and I had checked a box that suggested my initial VNYL three-LP shipment could fall under the general category of #work—I think other categories were #lazysaturday, #danceparty, #betweenthesheets and, uh, #cooking. The latter momentarily made me think of that album Canned Heat Cookbook that I used to own, and how cool it might be to have it again, but because I do most of my listening here at work—oh, did I mention that BLURT shares offices with Raleigh, NC, record store Schoolkids Records, and that I am spinning platters all day long?—it made sense to select that “work” hashtag for my category of preferred LPs for my first shipment.
“Magic” is clearly a relative term. I suppose you could charitably say that my first VNYL batch of goodies made me feel like being on the receiving end of a slick Three-card Monte operation.
Allow me to detail what I just tugged from my pink-interior VNYL box (displayed at the top and below), which also included a nice note from my personal hand-curator, Teal, who had affixed a photo of her smiling for the camera and clutching my records: “Hey Fred, Hope you like the records I chose for you. Love this Pablo Cruise album. Enjoy! – Teal”
Leon & Mary Russell –Make Love to the Music (1977, Paradise) ditto
Did you get that? Toto, Leon/Mary Russell, and Pablo Fucking Cruise. Gee, thanks, Teal.
If there is a single record store owner out there reading this right now who has any of the above listed albums in stock and they are NOT in the 99-cent bins, please tell me. Recall that I myself work in a record store, and I have worked in record stores on and off for, cumulatively speaking, nearly 20 years, for extended stints during the ‘70s, the ‘90s and, of course, the past three years during the contemporary vinyl explosion. So I know a little about vinyl. But—Lefsetz mode on here—VNYL values them at $12 apiece, at least that’s what a sticker on each plastic sleeve indicates. Jesus. There’s not a person on the planet who would pay that much for ‘em. They are titles we can barely give away at our store, sitting there in the junk bins alongside the Dan Fogelberg, Loggins & Messina, Poco, George Benson and Eddie Money albums. For $12, we have Dylan, Stones, Neil Young, Reprise-era Kinks, DEVO and the stray early Elvis Costello albums.
Now let’s be fair: back in the day there were undoubtedly folks who cherished those LPs. The Pablo Cruise album even featured the mega-hit “Love Will Find A Way”; although the Toto album, the band’s second, was a relative flop, commercially speaking (chart monster Toto IV was still three years away), and by the time Leon Russell’s record was released, the songwriter’s hitmaking days were long behind him.
(Caveat emptor: that bassline in the Pablo Cruise song will stick in your head and keep you awake at 4:30 a.m. unless you immediately play some Twisted Sister after it finishes.)
But while each artist had its share of devoted fans, they’ve all since moved on, and it’s unfortunate but true that none of those albums have stood the proverbial test of time. Records from the same general era by, I dunno, Led Zep, Pink Floyd, Van Morrison, KISS, Paul McCartney and Joni Mitchell have, however, and proof resides right here in my record store: when I get in used records by those artists, they don’t stay in the bins for long (Zep and Floyd are typically gone within 24 hours, in fact). See my above comments about our 99-cent bin….
As a side note, I will mention that the records were in outstanding condition, both the sleeves and the actual vinyl. That’s a plus, although it should be a given that VNYL won’t send out platters that look like they’ve been trashed, or that are excessively noisy or even skip.
Bottom line: while I am still interested to see what my next two VNYL shipments will yield, this initial installment in the series is not all that encouraging. In fact, it reminds me of that old Monty Python skit about Australian table wines: this is a shipment with a message, and the message is “beware.” In 2015, nobody is going to their local record store and looking for records by Pablo Cruise, Toto and Leon & Mary Russell, much less willing to pay twelve freakin’ dollars for a copy. I posted a shortened account of my experience to the popular Steve Hoffman forums; below is typical of the numerous comments made.
Ha, well….I thought the idea was odd anyway.
Well, it’s not like first impressions count, or anything.
My guess is VNYL owns a record store a found a new way to get rid of that old, dusty stock.
I can only imagine weeks of dollar bin raids but who knows.
Indeed, if VNYL expects to make its subscription business a success, it’s going to have to do a lot better than trawl bargain bins and hit thrift stores in search of “product” for the subscribers. (Intriguingly, on the VNYL Twitter page the following info has been added: “New record store at 1136 Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice CA.”) It will also have to conduct some serious seminars in “hand curation” for its employees in charge of making selections for customers. Otherwise the negative word-of-mouth is gonna kill ‘em.
Strike one, VNYL. Three strikes, and yer out. To be… continued?
POSTSCRIPT: Literally as we were preparing this article to post, the good folks over at Stereogum published their own piece entitled “VNYL Sliding: Why The ‘Netflix For Vinyl’ Service Is Such A Mess”. In it, writer Michael Nelson made some observations similar to ours, particularly along the lines of my 99-cent-bin complaints:
“VNYL subscriber Rob Baird talked to Stereogum for this story. For his #vibe, Baird told us, he chose the hashtag #lazysaturday, ‘based on [VNYL’s] Spotify playlist, which contained artists like Iron & Wine, Jack Johnson, Sufjan Stevens, Father John Misty, and Norah Jones, who I listen to regularly and are part of my record collection.’ Baird also shared with us a link to his Discogs profile. This not only helps to give you, the reader, an idea what he listens to; it was ostensibly consulted by VNYL personnel in order to help hand-curate musical selections based on his #vibe…. His first VNYL shipment included old releases from Jefferson Airplane, Dan Fogelberg, and England Dan & John Ford Coley.”
A number of the reader comments following the story took a similar tack, like this one:
“Damn! I thought this sounded like a cool idea and almost signed up. I ultimately decided to cheap out – and now I am so glad I did. I make enough questionable vintage record purchases without needing to pay $24 a month to get Pablo Cruise, Neil Diamond, and Kenny Loggins delivered to my door.”
Most of the Stereogum story, however, concerned an entirely different matter, that of whether or not VNYL would be violating the Record Rental Amendment Of 1984. It appears that VNYL became aware of this at some point and had to make some small changes in its operating model in order not to run afoul of the law. Writer Nelson delves pretty handily into this and it’s well-worth reading carefully.
He also talked with founder Nick Alt directly, who discussed that as well as some of the complaints that were starting to come in from subscribers. Among his quotes:
“VNYL was Kickstarted as a ‘Hand Curated Music Discovery’ project. I wanted to prove you could build the best human-curated music platform there is. After the campaign, I reached out to all our Kickstarter backers and asked them to fill out a questionnaire about VNYL and their own music experiences. I was really curious — what were they listening to? What genres do they like? What don’t they like? We’re all being sold these digital streaming services, but VNYL is about doing something anti-algorithm and focused on how people experience and actually listen to music.
“I also asked members why they backed VNYL. The vast majority (over 80%) chose to back us because they wanted to grow their vinyl collection, try a human curated service, and because they wanted to support vinyl as a medium. For a majority of our backers, the Netflix rental model just wasn’t the draw and actually created the most apprehension. Since we’re constantly making decisions around what the best user experience is for VNYL, it made sense to us to allow our backers and future members keep records they receive from us and pay us no additional costs…
“It fucking sucks when we disappoint our members. We honestly feel incredibly sad when a member doesn’t like what we sent. That sucks for them and also for us. It’s like you just spent all this time planning out what you think is an awesome surprise gift idea for someone and then they can’t mask the look of disappointment when they open it up right in front of you. It’s completely deflating. Unfortunately, this comes with the territory of being a human curated service.
“With time, VNYL will only improve. As shitty as it feels when someone doesn’t like our choices, when we do get it right, it’s a total rush. There’s nothing more rewarding for me or our curators when we see someone tweet or Instagram their open box of vinyl and are debating which one to spin first.”
Well, only “time” will tell, Nick. But judging from the growing snowball that is the court of public opinion, there’s not a whole lot of time to improve and “get it right.” Remember what I said about “negative word of mouth” at the end of my original article? It’s already started, and in a big way.
UPDATE, 5/16: Watch this video that Stereogum found by a, shall we say, less than pleased VNYL subscriber posted about his #danceparty selections:
UPDATE, 5/20: Another unhappy backer has posted a story about his experience at The Faculty of Thinking Blog. The writer’s conclusion: “VNYL charges $24 a month for 3 records via mail currently valued at less than $3 a record. Most of what you receive is not great and will feel more like a yard sale or goodwill or dollar bin find. If you’re into it, cool. You cannot return these records if you don’t like them. Very little about what you include in your profile, musical taste or “vibe” will influence what records you get. The records chosen are “hand curated” and possibly even with care, but from an extremely limited and low quality pool. There is nowhere to see the list of records that your selections are being curated from. Absolutely not worth the subscription unless you are trying to build a novelty library of quality over quantity. You are losing money in this current build.”
UPDATE, 5/20: Here is the first (to my knowledge) complaint about VNYL filed with California’s Better Business Bureau. It reads, in part: “When VNYL initiated a Kickstarter campaign (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/nickalt/vnyl-hand-curated-vinyl-records/video_share) in December 2014, it billed itself as the “Netflix of LPs.” As described by magazine Rolling Stone (http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/new-record-service-vnyl-distributes-lps-like-netflix-20150109), VNYL offered a subscription service that: allows member to select a hash tag classification (#lazysunday or #danceparty, for instance). Once completed, “the company will send three albums curated to fit the ‘vibe’ by the VNYL staff. The service costs $15 a month and allows members to spend as much time with the records as they would like, keeping the ones they love and sending the duds back using pre-paid shipping. The cost of keeping an album will run between $8 to $12.” I participated in the Kickstarter campaign and chose 3 months of service in late December 2015.On or about March 25, I tried to select vibes that had been promised on the Kickstarter campaign. I found that at least two vibes, #gamenight and #rainyday, were not being offered as promised. Nick Alt, creator and owner, noted that those vibes might be added at a later date. On April 25, I contacted Nick Alt again after receiving three albums that were not to my taste. They arrived with no prepaid return envelope, and I asked him how I could best return them. I also asked him to cancel my membership. He did not respond to repeated emails and Facebook queries until May 9th. His response, in part: “Those records yours to keep for no cost…but you dont have to do anything to get them back to us.”At this stage, I feel like the Kickstarter campaign was a bait and switch, an opportunity for VNYL to collect money and use it to open a brick and mortar record store as opposed to service members properly.Mine is not the only complaint.”
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