Thursday, March 16, 2023


Crate digging, 45s, and the random ways that records are passed down
"The world is governed by chance," novelist Paul Auster once observed. "Randomness stalks us every day of our lives." This is true, and there's no more delicious proof of that than in a used record store when I'm elbow-deep in a box of records. where artists, bands, labels, genres, and decades collide in capricious ways. As pleasurable and sanity-saving as it is to peruse an alphabetized or otherwise well-organized bin of records, I most dig being able to hunker down on the floor with a flimsy box of records grouped, if via any principle at all, by chance, the bizarro equivalent of peripheral browsing in a brick-and-mortar library, only the Dewey Decimal's been replaced by the Chaotic Haphazard as I shuffle through and among scattered surprises, both of the upgrade and the never-seen-that-one-in-the-wild variety. This can certainly happen as I'm streaming online, alert to the revelations popping up in someone's playlist, but it doesn't compare to finding an obscure seven-inch treasure, forking over a buck or three, bringing it home, cleaning it, and spinning....

A couple of days ago I was hanging out at Record Wonderland in Roselle, Illinois, a regular stop for me. The owner Steve usually hauls out his latest 45s when I'm there. This time I noticed a through line among the stacks of records he'd boxed up: the name "Herm" scrawled across each label.

Herm it turns out, used to DJ high school dances in the Pittsburgh area in the 1960s and 1970s, and he recently moved to the Chicago area. Steve got wind of Herm's large and diverse collection, visited Herm, who's now in his seventies, at his home, and bought his entire collection outright. "He didn’t have a player when I visited him," Steve told me, "but when I asked him about the titles I didn’t recognize, he seemed to remember them pretty well and accurately tell me what genre they were." He added that Herm only wanted to sell the whole collection, not piece by piece. "I almost didn’t make an offer, but there were some rare garage stuff like The Sonics that I couldn’t resist." 

For a DJ, Herm kept his records in remarkable shape, the only "blemish" among the collection being his large, black-ink tags often inexplicably penned over the name of the record label, all assertively bearing the weight of his ownership. I generally don't mind writing on labels, unless they obscure more than they evoke—they're  catnip to my imagination, a scrawled first name or a random number that opens up all possibilities and narratives as to previous owners and the arbitrary lives of the records themselves. As for Herm, I'd just as soon know only a little. He "signed" his records in an attempt to ward off thieves who might want to walk home with a slab of vinyl or two: if you were a stranger, friend, or sibling, Herm could prove that you'd five-fingered a record from his collection. Stealer beware!

As for the happenstance—or the "Hermenstance," if you will—of my recent finds, to my delight 'ol Herm and I shared taste in a wide variety of music. I came away from the store with a handful of cool singles—a tiny percentage of what Steve's selling. It's fun to imagine that these were among the very 45s Herm brought with him to some Pittsburgh-area high school's all purpose room. Sounds that were alive in a teen club or an auditorium or a house party decades ago hundreds of miles away now reverberating in my house, echos across generations just above our heads. Soul to R&B to garage to pysch and back again—believe me, these random tunes provided enough of an energy boost to get and to keep a teen party going. And they will tonight, too (minus the teenagers).

So time travel back with me back to the late '60s, to a Friday or Saturday night in Pittsburgh or West View or Wilkinsburg PA. The night's getting started, Herm's hunched over his turntable. Get out on that dance floor!

Hang on, Herm's gotta flip this one over:

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