“The far wall is lined with crates of records. I bit down on my lower lip. It looked almost exactly like I hoped it would.”
Thus does author Amanda Petrusich describe her response to seeing, for the first time, a photograph of the interior of the Jazz Record Center in New York City, a record shop that once, long ago, lurked on Manhattan’s West 47th Street. It has always, in the annals of record collecting, been a legendary spot, and that’s what drew Petrusich to tell its story... or, rather, the story of one of its most regular clients, an hombre name of James McKune who stopped by most days to trawl through the crates, and who - without realizing it, without understanding it, and certainly without intending it - could well be described as the man who gave us the blues.
And if you want to know more, you need to read Petrusich’s book.
Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records (Scribner) is a tale which does what it says on the tin. But it’s not a tome that you take into the bathtub with you. Or to bed, or a bus ride, or a spot of sunny afternoon steeple-jacking. Not, that is, unless you want to be leaping up every three or four pages, diving to the Internet, record rack or book shelf, in search of another fabulous jewel that Petrusich has just made you think of, dream of, and need to heat this instant.
Yes, it’s that kind of book. The kind that won’t allow you a moment’s peace while you’re reading it, and begrudges your peace of mind when you lay it down as well.
Petrusich herself is a gripping tour guide. Young enough to be the great-grand daughter of almost every character in her story, she’s a child of the grunge-and-beyond years, a component within a demographic that has about as much in common with the blues as ... ah, and that’s where we come up against one of the most glorious contradictions in the whole story of the blues, that music made so long ago, by people so far away, about a lifestyle that was lost more than a lifetime back, should still strike a chord with listeners today.
Should still feel as real to an early-90s-Dinosaur-Jr fan, downloading Charley Patton from iTunes, as it did to James McKune, that day in 1944 when he paid a dollar for a beat-up copy of “Some These Days I’ll Be Gone,” and to Patton himself when he wrote and performed those songs in the first place. In other words, a straight line drawn to today from whichever reality you want to paint around the rural bluesmen of 1920s America is still straight.
So, you’re leaping up and out of your seat, one ear fixed on Youtube, one eye glued to your download folder, your mouse buzzing wildly across bluesimages.com, and the whole time there’s that little voice in the back of your mind... the same voice that Petrusich was hearing, the day she decided to scuba dive the Wisconsin river where the Paramount record plant used to stand... telling you to just close up the house, have the mailman hold your letters, gas up the truck and hit the road.
You don’t want to hear this music on mp3, with all the guts compressed out of it. You don’t want it on CD with all the air sucked out of the room. You don’t even want it on LP, neatly choreographed into someone else’s vision of how you hould be hearing these songs.
You want the original 78s, purchased from descendants of their original purchasers. You want the thrill of the hunt, the grace of the chase, the heart-stopping joy of catching up with your quarry, miles from nowhere in its native wild surroundings; or waiting in a splinter-ripped crate in a store a lot like the Jazz Record Center would have been, before progress and modernity came strolling up Broadway and decided the storefront, the building, the block... heck, the entire street, city, state and country... would look a lot nicer if it was replaced with something bright and shiny. And digital.
Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records is not bright and shiny. It is not digital. It is itself wild and obsessive; offering not a glimpse, but a full-bodied plunge into a universe that most of us who read Goldmine will recognize, but which still takes the breath away when you see it so clearly delineated on page after page. Because Petrusich captures the depth of its passion, its purity and its beauty, and she’s fascinated by the discovery.
But she holds it up not for analysis or scrutiny, or even for mockery or wonder. She holds it up like a comfortable coat, in the moments before you slip it on. Because she has one exactly the same, and she loves it just as much.