Apart from some import punk compilations, nearly all of my early 1990s vinyl purchases were secondhand copies of older albums. New releases were purchased on tape and (later) compact disc, which had the advantages of greater portability and ease of use. Records were an easy way to build up a library on the cheap, thanks to the massive influx of inventory caused by folks dumping their collections after upgrading to newer, sexier formats.
The CD reissue thing was only starting to pick up stream at the time and individual CDs were still pretty expensive. When it came to scoring out of print essentials or broadening one’s horizons on the cheap, records were the only game in town. The full-to-bursting crates were the only places to find a copy of Wall of Voodoo’s Dark Continent or pick up a full LP to obtain a certain favorite track for a quarter of what the CD release would set you back. The most recent non-import in my collection was a copy of The Breeders Pod, which I bought because it was five bucks (and slightly warped) when cassette version was going for ten.
The triage of formats made sense when I was a college student on a fixed income and had easy access to the corresponding technology. It didn’t really become an issue until last autumn, when I purchased a budget turntable and dusted off my old records. My renewed interest in vinyl isn’t about mythologizing the artifacts or audio fidelity. I enjoy it because the act of listening to a record fixes me in place. The digital revolution and flood of material widened my musical interests but at the cost of their depth. I got into a habit of picking at or scarfing down material, skipping around or binge listening without really savoring the experience.
Throwing a record on the turntable is a commitment to cruise those grooves until the side ends. That’s why my every-growing pile of front room favorites consists of full LP favorites or K-Tel comps that channel the ghosts of Top 40 playlists past. My subsequent purchases have followed that pattern, vinyl versions of cherished albums that I owned on some other format. Most have been pretty easy to locate with a minimum of sticker shock — Tubeway Army’s Replicas, Gang of Four’s Entertainment, Lene Lovich’s Flex — but there are quite a few that have proven extremely elusive or too rich for my blood.
These tend to be albums released during the period of my initial record collecting days, back when vinyl was first (and prematurely) declared “dead.” It makes sense, as the pressing runs reflected the diminishing demand of the day. They are legitimately scarce, and thus subject to sellers’ market pricing boosted by the present fad bubble. Rather than play that speculative game, I’ve contented myself with occasionally scanning marketplace listings for Spooky or House Tornado or 101 Damnations in hopes of finding an affordable outlier.
Every now and then, I freshly remember some auditory fragment of those years and add it to the wish list. On rare occasions, I discover a vinyl version of something I’d assumed to be a CD-only offering.
The was the case with the 1992 Gothic Rock compilation, a musical companion piece to Mick Mercer’s print omnibus of the same name.
I purchased the CD from Tower Records’ import section because it featured an unknown-to-me track by UK Decay. The band’s “For My Country” was an ambitiously theatrical aberration on the three-chord street-level crunchiness of the first Punk and Disorderly comp.
That haunting cut was a strong enough incentive to drop a twenty for the comp, despite my (no pun intended) grave reservations about straying outside my subcultural bounds.
“Goths,” you see, were one of the many groups held in sneering disdain by right thinking punk purists such as myself. We were aggro and anarcho. They were artsy, an unforgivable sin for reasons which make no fucking sense to any non-shithead past their mid-twenties. It was stupid but it was real, as was the moment of vacillation I had whether to buy the compilation.
I gave it a spin upon bringing it home, and absolutely loved it. From the graveyard chants of Bauhaus to the post-apocalyptic Spaghetti Western absurdities of Fields of the Nephilim to the buzzing electronic spookshow of Alien Sex Fiend, the album’s atmosphere seeped into my psyche. It reminded me of every New England autumn and every spooky story I’d read as a kid. It was the soundtrack I never knew I needed for the stuff I’d forgotten how much I loved.
It hit me at just the right moment, too. My punk puritanism had already taken a hit from the anarcho scene’s repudiation of caricature, and my affected spikiness had started to slough off under Maura’s steadying influence. I didn’t embrace the goth scene, but it did put a gleefully morbid spin on the changes already in progress. I hung up my leather jacket and replaced it with a black overcoat lined with red satin, let my bangs grow long, and started wearing white dress shirts with a vest and bolo tie (for a couple of years before my default proto-grunge aesthetic reasserted itself).
I got a job at the library, working the reserve desk during the weekend graveyard shift. To pass the time, I devoured every book on horror films I could find in the stacks. I then moved on to film history in general, eventually looping back to the social and cultural history material I’d also begun to study in earnest. I took out memberships at every indie video rental place on the Mass Ave axis to be able to watch every film referenced in my reading material.
It became an obsession that veered into insufferable pretentiousness, but my fandom laid the foundations for a critical toolkit and methodology that would remain after its intensity subsided. There are far worse test labs, I suppose.
It’s weird that an import goth music comp could play such a significant role in shaping one’s personal development and worldview, but life is full of little twists like that. Something else probably would’ve filled it place if I’d chickened out and put it back on the shelf, though I would’ve missed the the languid dread of Tones on Tail’s “Burning Skies.”
I didn’t realize that there had been a double LP release of Gothic Rock until I last weekend, when I found an eBay listing for it from a seller in Germany. The asking price was steep, more than double what I’d ever paid for any record ever. I did what I usually do during these bouts of equivocation, and mentioned it to Maura.
“Remember that gothic rock comp I had in college? Some German dude is selling a copy on vinyl for fifty bucks.”
“The album meant a lot to you, and there are worse things to spend money on.”
Sometimes true love is indistinguishable from enabling behavior.
So I bit the bullet and rejuggled my finances for near future and began to daydream about being able to chill out on the couch to the sounds of an old familiar friend.
Then, as I was writing this tribute to the album, I got a refund notice from the seller saying he’d somehow “lost” the item.