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Photograph by Melissa Mosely

Love at 33 RPM: In 'High Fidelity,' John Cusack uses his relationship with Iben Hjejle and others as a way to organize his record collection.

Vinyl World

Writer Brett Milano delves into the troubled minds of obsessive record album hoarders

By Greg Cahill

THERE'S A poignant scene in the dark 2001 comedy The Royal Tenenbaums in which Richie (Luke Wilson) and Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) swear their love for one another while lying on Richie's sleeping bag inside a pup tent pitched in a bedroom. They're listening to the Rolling Stones' Between the Buttons. On the portable hi-fi, "She Smiles Sweetly" plays quietly. "Why do my thoughts loom so large on you?" Mick croons as the couple cuddle. Richie uses this intimate moment—in which these shattered characters enjoy a brief respite from the film's onslaught of depression, suicide and deception—to point out that the monaural vintage-vinyl version (on the red London label, of course) sounds best. Margot nods dreamily in agreement.

In recent years, Hollywood has embraced a nerdish romance with vinyl, especially in Ghost World and American Splendor. And then there was Stephen Frears' adaptation of Nick Hornsby's High Fidelity, in which record-store owner and vinyl buff Rob Gordon (John Cusack) uses his failed love affairs as an organizing tool to catalog his vast record collection. That film probably came closest to capturing the obsessive mind-set underpinning this pastime. Now music writer Brett Milano drops the needle on those lost souls who sport an insatiable thirst for the musical variant of products made from a univalent chemical radical derived from ethylene—vinyl.

Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martin's Griffin, $13.95) isn't half as entertaining as High Fidelity, but it does delve thoughtfully into a dusty world where folks sacrifice every inch of wall space just for the sake of owning a scratchy 78 rpm copy of the obscure "Outside Woman Blues," or every available version of the Beatles' Abbey Road, from the Japanese virgin-vinyl variety to the rare audiophile Mobile Fidelity original master edition.

Milano has included interviews with such celebrity vinyl junkies as Peter Buck from R.E.M., Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and underground cartoonist and vintage-jazz musician Robert Crumb.

Yet the book really belongs to that cult of unknown hypergeeks who spend hours trawling eBay for bargains but who have no qualms about spending thousands on a state-of-the-art custom-made turntable. "Music is all about the groove," notes Clark Johnson, a record collector interviewed in the book, "and you don't find grooves on a CD."

Johnson, Milano notes, is just the kind of anal, middle-aged guy with too much time on his hands—"and darn proud of it"—that people think of when they generalize about record collectors. What makes them do it? "There's a thin line between serious music fans and collectors," Milano explains, "but the two worlds will always intersect," whether the subject is the merit of Antal Dorati and the London Symphony Orchestra's 1957 Mercury label recording of Prokofiev's Scythian Suite or the late gutter-punk GG Allin's highly collectable 1980s singles.

Allin, who used to chug a quart of Ex-Lax before his concerts so he'd be up to the scatological task of flinging body fluids at the crowd, is a good example that the anal connection to collecting has a basis in fact, Milano tells us. In a somewhat loftier analysis, he quotes psychologist Werner Muensterberger from his book Collecting: An Unruly Passion: "Provoked by early, possibly unfavorable conditions or the lack of affection on the part of not-so-good-enough mothering, the child's attempt toward self-preservation quickly turns to some substitute to cling to. ... To put it another way, such a person requires symbolic substitutes to cope with a world he or she regards as basically unfriendly, even hazardous."

That spin on record collecting gives you a deeper appreciation for Richie Tenenbaum bringing up the simple joys of that red label Rolling Stones album in the midst of swearing his devotion for Margot, his lover and adopted sibling. You can serenade your sweetie with the recently reissued, digitally remastered 180-gram version of Between the Buttons—if you can find one. Just remember, most of the fun is in the chase.

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From the June 16-22, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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