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The Scythian
An excerpt from Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting
BY BRETT MILANO


GIVE HIM THE Scythian!" shouts Monoman from across the room. Pat waves his hand with a proper flourish: nope, Iím not ready for the Scythian yet. Weíll just have to build up to it.

Iím sitting in a record-crowded apartment in the Boston suburbs, staring directly at a few hundred thousand dollarsí worth of stereo equipment. Patís stereo is nearly as eclectic as his record collection, which includes ó just taking in the ones within eyesight ó the Who, Doris Day, Tammy Wynette, Motorhead, Tom Jones, and Henry Mancini; this is a sensibility well beyond any standard notions of whatís hip. The stereo is evidence of one manís quest for the perfect sound. The turntable is Patís pick of the three dozen heís got in his house: suspended on air and perfectly calibrated to be vibration-free, itís designed to make sure that no small disturbances ó like say, an earthquake or a nuclear detonation ó interfere with the listening experience. The turntable was made by a stereo buff in New Hampshire; the tone arm came from Germany and cost another few grand. There are pillowcases stuffed into the corners of the ceilings to keep those precious sound waves inside. Then thereís the piece of wood.

"Donít forget that piece of wood," his assistant Jeff, a/k/a Monoman, points out. Sure enough, itís a piece of wood: cut in the shape of a beehive with a hole in the middle, it screws on top of the center hole to make sure those dreaded vibrations donít get through ó according to Jeff, "The only good vibrations come from the Beach Boys." The piece of wood cost a grand on its own, but as Pat assures us, "Itís a really good piece of wood."

Iíd already had some of my best record-listening experiences on the crummiest stereos ever made. Stereo isnít even quite the right term ó that thing I owned as a kid was more accurately a record player, a phonograph, maybe even a Victrola, but I believe the technical term weíre looking for is "piece of crap": there was exactly one speaker, approximately the size of that little "O" youíd make if you closed your thumb and forefinger; the needle tracked at something like two pounds, enough to cause instant damage to every record it touched. But it did go impossibly loud, and for ears trained on í60s AM radio, that was enough. The first record I remember playing on it was "She Loves You" by the Beatles, and it came out with that AM-radio sound: those harmonies at the start of the song sounded like a jet taking off. Which, culturally speaking, is exactly what they were. And when I later heard the same song under more desirable circumstances ó on vinyl on a proper system, then on the CD reissue ó it never had that compressed, unnatural sound that I always took for part of the recording.

By the time I was 13, I owned what I thought was a luxury stereo. It was made by Magnavox, just like my parentsí TV set. The speakers folded out, and the little turntable could be closed up into the player; it was a "portable" stereo that weighed something like 50 pounds. Unlike my childhood monstrosity, this one didnít ruin your records until the second or third play. You also had the option of ruining your records instantly by stacking them on the changer, where theyíd be scraped by the changer-holder on top and by other records on the bottom. By now my musical tastes had become more refined, or so I thought at the time ó I was deeply into Yes, Genesis, and their progressive-rock brethren. Iím still willing to argue till closing time about those bandsí musical merits, but one thing is for certain: their albums were incredibly detailed, full of sonic textures and mellotron overdubs ó exactly what my introverted teenage ears were looking for. At this point, records werenít something I played over dinner or with company: I wanted to experience all those deep, layered sounds. Armed with my Magnavox power station and a pair of weighty headphones that made your ears throb after the first album side, I listened intently enough to catch them all.

But now Iím hoping to get my mind blown in Brookline, to get the high-velocity sound I dreamed of back in my old bedroom. My guides for this trip are well known in the loose-knit community of Northeast collectors. Pat runs Looney Tunes, a used-record store that sits within the high-rent vicinity of the Berklee College of Music. The placeís very existence looks like a slap at the Starbucks, Barnes & Noble, and the other upscale, uniform chains that fill up the same block. But there are enough Berklee-ites who are glad to snap up the vintage jazz and soul vinyl that clutters up the place ó though theyíd probably be a little spooked if they knew that their recordís previous owner is likely as not to be six feet under. More than once has the widow of a collector made a call to Pat and his pick-up truck; his unofficial motto is "You die, we buy." Sometimes the collectors survive, but the marriage dies. Patís been there when disgruntled wives have hit their husbands with the dreaded line, "Itís me or the records." Thatís the cue for the husband to make his stand in front of the turntable, the wife to storm out, and Pat to go home empty-handed.

Big and gregarious, with a Southern accent that heís maintained through decades in the Northeast, Pat was drinking martinis and name-dropping the Rat Pack before it became a trend. "This is obviously the house of somebody with a problem," he notes, surveying the unfiled discs that take up every bit of floor and shelf space. But unlike the stereotypical record collector ó the hyper-geeky type most recently seen in a dark attic in the film Ghost World ó Pat doesnít shut himself away with his vinyl. He has girlfriends, eats barbecue, and has used record-collecting as an excuse to travel. For him, collecting is an intrinsic part of the good life. Heís fond of quoting a line: "Music frees your mind from the tyranny of conscious thought."

Monoman is unkempt, eccentric, and the leader of the best rock íní roll band Iíve ever seen. The long-standing nickname refers both to his love of monaural sound and to his relentless single-mindedness. The name has changed spellings over the years: on a 1978 album with his first band, DMZ, he was Mono Mann. More recently, he fell in love with Japanese cartoons and briefly rechristened himself Pokemonoman. His band, the Lyres, has been together 22 years and shows no signs of either slowing down or changing in the slightest degree. They take their cue from í60s garage punk, the three-chord stomp that was invented by countless teens who took "Louie Louie" as their gospel. In fact Jeff learned many of the Lyresí songs by scouring the globe for obscure í60s singles, paying up to a grand for an original 45. But Iíd doubt that a lot of those teenage í60s bands, hormone-driven though they were, could ever match the Lyres on an especially hot or especially drunken night. He has destroyed instruments and friendships on stage: once he fired the drummer in the middle of the show (the drummer then got pissed off enough to play the set of his life). But heís just as likely to hit you with something truly soulful; the Lyresí signature song, "Donít Give It Up Now," has gotten me through more than one crisis of faith. I once saw him earnestly explain to an audience that he wasnít in it for the money: "Thatís why weíre playing this crappy club for all of you cheap assholes!" Thereíve been times when youíd swear that heís bypassed the tyranny of conscious thought altogether.

Today Patís commandeered the turntable while Monoman is sinking into a couch, welcoming the chance to blow off his part-time gig cataloguing records for Patís shop. The first thing he has in store is a Doris Day record. "Why that one?" I ask. "Because it was on top of the pile, and I like it," Pat explains. First he makes sure Iím positioned in the "sweet spot," where all eight of the speakers are facing me in equal proportions. Then he advises me to lean back and keep my eyes closed. Finally he sets the needle down, making sure not to turn the volume up until itís landed. And I sit back waiting to hear the heavens open.

Instead, all I hear is Doris Day. On this particular record ó a 1962 set with André Previn and his jazz trio ó she does sound more sultry than her wholesome legend would have it. Between her alleged sexuality and the suggestive winks in a few of her hits, she could have been the Madonna of her time ó go on, give "Teacherís Pet" and "Pillow Talk" another listen. Still, Iím getting no great revelations from this disc, other than that 40 years of scratches add up to a whole lot of surface noise. When the drummer kicks in, it does sound as if the drum set was right there in the room. But as someone who sees live music a few times a week, Iíve been in enough real rooms with real drum sets that itís no big deal. And sorry, but neither is Doris Day. She may be close to sultry and modern on this record, but not quite close enough. So far Iím not impressed.

Neither is Monoman, who only looks up from his magazine long enough to note that "itís good to listen to things that arenít rock. That just makes the rock sound so much better." Like many rock-eared collectors, the three of us grew up at the mercy of our parentsí musical tastes. Fortunately, mine were savvy enough to slip on the occasional gem like Ravelís "Bolero," whose primal rhythms would be the first that spoke to me ó even now Iím impressed that I was able to sit through 15 minutes of it at such a young age. For Monoman, it was show tunes: he first got the beat in "76 Trombones." From there it was í60s AM radio. "I loved the Dave Clark Five because they had the organ," he recalls. "I had a fit when I was five because I didnít get an organ for Christmas. So I ruined Christmas for everybody, and I damn well got a piano next year."

So if Doris Day canít open my ears, maybe some of that í60s music can. Pat first pulls out a cult classic, The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands, and picks out the track called "Iím Chief Kamawanalea." Yep, that one sure brings back memories of how much fun it was to shout the title at high school parties. (You can get the joke by saying "Kamanawanalea" out loud, but itís truly not worth it). Not quite the stuff of audio nirvana, however. Okay, Pat goes for the heavy artillery: a pristine copy of the mono edition of the Beatlesí Sgt. Pepperís Lonely Hearts Club Band. He carefully slides the disc ó with the original, sleek black UK Parlophone label ó out of the jacket and cues up, of all things, "Sheís Leaving Home."

Not that one, I plead, I hate that song. "Wait till you hear it in mono," he promises. "Just check out the Lennon harmonies." Nope, still hate it. But at least Iíve just learned why some vinyl die-hards are sticklers for mono sound: with a good mono mix, the music sounds complete, as if itís all being pumped from the same heart. And Johnís chorus counterpoints are indeed louder in this version, always a plus. None of which is enough to keep this tearjerker of Paulís from being one of the small handful of Beatles songs that I just canít deal with.

Mono Beatles albums have a cachet in the collectorís market, in part because theyíre so scarce ó stereo was no longer just a luxury item by the time the Beatles split up ó and, because at this point, any newly mined variation on a Beatles record is to be treasured. In the case of Sgt. Pepper, there are certain vocal bits ó like a spoken rant by Paul right before "A Day in the Life" ó that got mixed into oblivion on the stereo version. Beyond the collectorís value, vinyl junkies detect a richness and warmth in mono records of this era, something to bring you closer to the sound of the period, to hearing the record in its original context. For a time Monoman refused to listen to anything else, and he still spends an inordinate amount of time and money questing for original editions of í60s singles, and he wonít allow the Lyres to perform a í60s song unless an original copy is sitting in his collection. Most recently a European dealer sent him a tape of a little-known single and he fired back $300 for the single ó even though the music itself was already there on the tape. But itís about something more than just hearing a song: "Those original pressings are what you need to bring you closer to the original event."

So collectors are just looking for a great musical experience like everyone else, though maybe with more fervor? Not quite. Because thereís an element of fetishism in this as well, and it gets unleashed when Pat pulls out that vintage Pepper. Ninety percent of the people in the world would register an album cover theyíve seen a million times and move on. Not the case here: the picture may be the same, but the plastic lamination is different. "Whoa!" Monoman leaps from his chair. "Iíve never seen that one before." "Pretty unusual, isnít it?" Pat says. "The cover doesnít feel as heavily embossed as usual." Hereís where we get into the deep details. Old Bob Dylan records, for example, have distinguishing marks on the labels. You can spot a first pressing by an indent around the edge of the label itself (and collectors swear youíll be rewarded with a better-sounding copy). This date of this Pepper is more elusive: maybe in the í70s, when some new cardboard stock came into the pressing plants? But doesnít the record itself sound closer to that desirable first pressing? The mystery isnít about to get solved, and the original owner isnít around to clear it up. When you start wondering about the personal history of a disc youíve just acquired, youíre getting close to the point of no return.

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Issue Date: October 31 - November 6, 2003
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