Friday, December 12, 2014

'Do Not Sell at Any Price': A masterful exploration of an arcane musical world

Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records
Amanda Petrusich
New York

Balance is the key here, in the best non-fiction I’ve read this year.

“Do Not Sell at Any Price” is an exemplary work that demonstrates that a non-fiction narrative can be just as compelling as any fictional one. By virtue of solid research and investigation, coupled with good writing, author Amanda Petrusich creates, rather than glib feature writing, authentic insights into far more than the specific topic at hand.

“Do Not Sell” delves into the cloistered and idiosyncratic world of music collectors – seekers of vintage music on 78 rpm records. Between 1925 and 1948, these brittle shellac discs were the way music was recorded, vended, and preserved, produced by a profusion of companies large and small. In those days of cultural and communication isolation, vast amounts of marginal, eccentric, and original performers were captured. The savants that collect these sonic rarities are obsessed figures, some possessed with a quasi-messianic sense of mission to rescue these lost voices from oblivion.

Petrusich brings the scene to life with an impeccably balanced approach equal parts research, interviews, profiles, and critical analysis, ensconced in a first-person framework as she goes along on the quest with some of her subjects, sometimes hilariously. She goes so far as to learn how to scuba-dive so that she can search the muddy bottom of the Milwaukee River for some of the fabled lost Paramount recordings. (Save the receipts; I believe those lessons ae tax-deductible.)

Most important of all, Petrusich is wise to herself. She states early on, “I wanted collectors to reveal their desires and methodologies so I could dissect their work and devise grand statements about our cultural moment. In response, collectors sneered, chortled, or told me to fuck off.” From the get-go, Petrusich simultaneously acknowledges and lets go of her preconceptions – then gets on the ground and saturates herself in the details.

Petrusich’s voice is here, but it’s not cloying or cute, pompous or sententious. As one should, she asks good questions, listens well, and pulls her conclusions from the evidence and her experience. She brings to life the characters that inhabit this alternate universe and gives them space to express themselves – and they are quite eloquent.

Remember, these fanatics aren’t academics but hobbyists – living outside the mainstream of cultural dialogue, creating their own canons and alternative histories, sometimes sharing their thoughts with others, sometimes remaining clapt in near-complete isolation, inhabiting what seems to be a self-constructed dream world, addicted to control over their basement-level kingdoms. “. . . collecting had clearly become . . . a functional way of rebelling against mainstream culture. . . . rejecting a society that felt homogenized and unforgiving,” Petrusich writes.

Says collector Ian Nagoski of his ilk, “’ ‘Zwigoff and Crumb and innumerable others, these guys are definitely discontents in a Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents kind of way. They’re looking at the world and seeing it as untenable. The world is sick. And yet here is this thing that affirms that there’s something about it that’s beautiful. But it’s forgotten, or lost, or separate from day-to-day reality. But if you could just put it back together, then you could reconstruct this gone world, this kind of life that was once worth living, and make that into your own life, and then it would be okay or tolerable for you.’”

One of the most interesting considerations Petrusich brings out is the concept that the historical narrative is always in flux, subjective, squishy – determined by accidents, destruction, bias, prejudice, and the sheer inability to deal. Cultural worth fluctuates like stock prices. The vital expression of the culture lies first here, and then there, and over there where you never expected it to manifest (that my childhood comic-book heroes are now seen as the foundation of a world-beloved secular mythology seems to me ridiculous and awesome, simultaneously).

She quotes another collector, Nathan Salsburg, “’Another danger of the canon being having been engineered – accidentally or on purpose – by collectors is that scads of things were excluded, either because they didn’t conform to a collector’s taste of because there just wasn’t enough time or space for anyone to properly process them.’”

The paradigm of the curator-as-impositioner-of-significance-meaning-and-context is, of course, Harry Everett Smith, the legendary compiler of The Anthology of American Folk Music, quite accurately described by Greil Marcus as “an occult document disguised as an academic treatise on stylistic shifts within an archaic musicology.” This 1952 creation helped spark the folk revival and blues renaissance, both of which folded into rock – and still surfaces in genres as diverse as grunge and Americana. Smith’s achievement was to select and assemble an intuitive masterpiece – a narrative of outcast voices summoning raw feeling and captivating sounds. Since then, supplemental and alternative compilations have emerged. Companies such as Revenant, Dust-to-Disc, and Yazoo and individual efforts such as Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard: Good Time, and End Time Music and People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs make the case that there is much material to be processed yet.

Petrusich is not an ironic observer. She can hear what the enthusiasts share with her, describing the raw, unmediated sound of the turn of last century, before media surrounded us. “And I understood, for a moment, what collectors meant when they moaned about what was lacking in contemporary music: that pure communion, that unself-consciousness, that sense that art could still save us, absolve us of our sins. We know better than to expect that now.”

There is something to be said about the parallel I pick up here between collecting and the act of creating itself – another lonely occupation populated by shall-we-say-unique-types who dredge for signs of significance, and reveal their insights . . . or don’t. The nature of obsession drives most creative types inward, and the shelter of eccentricity often protects the fragile. What is an artist but one who, unsatisfied with things as they are, crafts their own worlds? What do you call someone who discovers a new set of meanings – a visionary or a nutjob?

But I digress. “Do Not Sell” does more – it makes the reader come to terms with his or her own acquisitive tendencies (confession: I have stacks of 78s, and 45s, and LPs, and cassettes . . . it was difficult for me to throw out my 8-track tapes). Most importantly, it inspires us to seek out the sounds that are the basis of all this fuss. Few of us have the wherewithal to match Petrusich’s subjects, but the digital revolution means that nearly all the musics of the world can be enjoyed, absorbed, passed on. This book ties it all together.

Friday, December 5, 2014

A salute to Dennis

Dennis Oviatt on his last day at the helm of Cafe Food. (All photos by/courtesy of Bonnie Chaim)

Here’s the thing. I don’t think that Dennis Oviatt’s CafĂ© Food ever got any press until the day it closed.

He spent 21 years running the eatery in the Aspen Place shopette at 2095 30th St. in Boulder. For a full 40 years it occupied the space, under three owners before Dennis as well. (The site is being bulldozed to create new Google office space.) When he closed on November 21, most of his many faithful customers came by to get one more magnificent lunch from him.

 His menu was simple – soups and sandwiches. Yet I and other regulars could go day after day, gulping down his signature borscht, or his vegetarian chili, or his clam chowder. His sandwiches had the same ingredients as those at any chain sandwich place. Yet they were a thousand times more delicious than the usual fare, more filling, more satisfying somehow. And I would crawl over broken glass to get one of his famous German crusty rolls – sometimes we’d just buy a bag of them to munch on. How did he do it?

I think it was a function of Dennis’ unique character. He was completely honest, for one thing. If he thought you looked terrible, he said so. If he disagreed with your order, he’d try to get you to change it. He made you bus your table. And, if he was feeling lighthearted, you could joke and laugh with him, get into a delightful conversation that made you wish you didn’t have to sit down and eat.

Dennis was for real. He cared about what he was doing. He never took a day off. He came in, he set up, he served along with an ever-changing roster of assistants, he cleaned up, he went home. Day after day, in serene consistency, he fulfilled himself by making good food for people in his own modest establishment.

The reason why he never got any press? He didn’t advertise. This drove every single ad rep in town crazy, and they all eventually stopped coming by and trying to sell him and became regulars as well. Dennis had all the business he needed, and didn’t see any reason to bring in more. He was immune to every sales pitch, technique, contract, and offer. He wouldn’t even try some advertising for free, on spec, something a media company just doesn’t do until it has tried everything else.

Well, the system does not know what to do with people who won’t advertise. This is the life blood of any media enterprise, so inextricably bound up with the business of news that the mechanism hardly recognizes a story that doesn’t have some kind of profit motive behind it.

What motivation is there to cover the activities of any business save to promote it? What leverage does any story’s subject have if he or she is not, in the end, selling something? Given the state of things here in the post-journalistic age, reporters are mostly just content creators for the bar down the street, the favored cause, the politician in sync with the publishers’ agendas, the institutions they’re indebted to for information.

The late Bill Vielehr was little-known, too. He sculpted for decades in his little rattrap studio at the end of Pearl Street in Boulder, getting a commission here and there, gradually increasing his popularity He kept his head down, scraped along, kept making work. He kept all his rejection letters in a drawer in his office. It contained more than 1,400 separate expressions of disinterest. 1,400. He was still going strong when he died suddenly on October 11.

What Dennis and Bill had in common was the knowledge of what they were good at, a dedication to doing the best work they could, day and day out; and a sense of proportion – being content with working to the limits of their capabilities, but no further. Who can say what worth it is to craft huge, shiny, serrated sculptures? What’s the value of a quiet little lunch spot? Who’s to tell these guys that they didn’t dream big enough, or were on the wrong track? And who cares if neither of them got a write-up until their work was done? They fed us.

Bill Vielehr at the Boulder International Film Festival, 2014.
At our best we measure ourselves against the template of our ambitions on a daily basis. Motivated properly, we work as hard as we can to fulfill our lives, to fill them with meaning. Hacking away at stories here at my desk, dropping them into the media stream, hoping they reach those who need them, I feel like I have some sense of what these guys went through. Dennis and Bill toiled away in obscurity, and affected far more people than you might think. I still love to watch the kids playing among Bill’s sculptures in the park here. I will always be able to taste that crusty roll.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

5 Early Poems


Baking bread honestly
Shatters the light
By strength of grace
So that it must creep
Tenderly along the walls
Of the morning kitchen
Brown and gold caressing
All reflecting the oh brave
Scent of fullness.
Pregnant, eternal moment
Grants quick to firm
Makes even stone
Slip like water
Under the throb and breath
Of light discordant, glorious.



There is nothing at the top
but light out cold screaming
and wind torrential, the rock
that suffers nothing and avoids nothing.
We cling, conquerors!
Only the snow moves, weaving
into an abyss.
What challenge is this?


The city uncorks its pigeons
Tattooing silhouette,
Impertinent and soaring
The blazing, glittering banners
Weaving improvisation
Above bones of steel.


decay and criticize
the phantoms who flicker
and return to wombs of ash.
laugh and lop
at unhurried warm life
chastise the flesh
threaten the sky
make death from baby's breath
shake disaster out of ingenuity
Daily mortify. innocence
with blind whips
is handled cruelly. it's suicide
and screams look like laughs


Dream #4

The moon probes with fierce light
the childlesss woman, bare and lost
who speaks with lucid hatred,
donates chrysanthemums, and sense-
les, grins more frightfully.

NRR Project: Egmont Overture, Modesto High School Band (1930)

NRR Project: Egmont Overture, Op. 84 Modesto High School Band 1930 This is one I don’t have a lot of information on, and only a small ...