"Rock'n'roll's a loser's game/It mesmerizes and I can't explain." - Ballad of Mott the Hoople (26th March 1972, Zurich)
The sheer con artistry of the music biz is never more present than at a record fair. Bands promoted as the next big thing fill the dollar bins while great music that never got its due is lovingly traded for big bucks. The former represents the bad investments of record labels, the latter the missed opportunities. One can't help becoming a bit of a skeptic after living a life in music, whether you're onstage, like Ian Hunter singing the words quoted above, or in the crowd, searching for greatness.
Of course, if you're going to talk about music industry charlatans, one would have to touch on used record dealers themselves. Sure there are books that try to rationalize pricing, but dealers know they can charge almost anything they want to the right customer - the one who just has to have whatever it is they've got. Everyone who has ever sold a record to a shop for a dollar and seen it hanging in the window for $20 knows what I mean. Most of them, though, are music lovers and crucial stewards of our recorded legacy.
These are the kind of thoughts I had early on at the WFMU record fair, but it has such a nice vibe and benefits a great local radio station so they were fleeting. They only returned when I was flipping through a bin and realized it was completely unchanged since the last WFMU event. Those Lee Dorsey CD's are still overpriced, thank you very much. Re-price, rearrange - do something to respect the long memories of music fans! Granted, I'm not a vinyl fetishist and I'm always on the hunt for the new so it's easy for me to be selective at an event like this. But I'm also so unreasonable about music that I could spend a few hours flipping through crates and listening to people rhapsodize about their finds without even buying anything and call it a day well spent.
The first vendor I hit, however, made me long for a sugar daddy. I could've dropped a $1,000 on box sets in a few minutes: Harry Nilsson, Bill Nelson, Leonard Cohen, Wilson Pickett, Miles Davis - all in perfect condition or sealed. Most of them were only minimally marked down, it's true, but the magnetism of such a haul was undeniable. He also had practically every issue of Ace records, the excellent British reissue label. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time immersing myself in his stock. I didn't buy anything at first as I wanted to make the full circuit, but I returned later for Miles Davis Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings - a six CD set for $30 and one of the few Miles boxes I don't already have.
My first trek around the enormous interior of the 69th Regiment Armory on 26th and Lexington was entirely focused on CD's in fact, but I only came up with one other object of desire: George Harrison's posthumous final album, Brainwashed. The reviews were always good for this one and you can't listen on Spotify (although a couple of people have put the full album on YouTube), so I thought $4 was well worth it for the full experience. George had his off moments but he's been my second-favorite Beatle since hearing the dark tones of Don't Bother Me and the brilliantly bitter Taxman as a child.
Going on the last day of the fair can be wise - sure things may be picked over, but people are also willing to deal. On my last go round at the armory, I got sucked by C.J. & Co.'s Devil's Gun album sticking out of a crate accompanied by the words, "Everything's $5 - and if you buy a few, I'll lower the price." The C.J. & Co. Record, featuring the classic title cut, was in good shape and is an out of print Dennis Coffey production so that stayed in my hot hands as I flipped through rest of the stock. Swathes of fantastic Philly soul, early disco and 70's funk kept me going. I struck gold with a sealed copy of Disco Connection by The Isaac Hayes Movement and, in a limited crate of soundtracks, an admittedly ratty copy of Curtis Mayfield's hard to find Claudine, featuring Gladys Knight & The Pips.
The final bin I looked at was 50's rock & roll. I pretty much have most of what I want in that area but I could not resist the album of "Fox Trots with Vocal Chorus by Bill Haley" simply called Rock Around The Clock. I was sold by the beautiful cover and the fact that I recently learned that my son has yet to hear that song. Also re-reading the quixotic tale of Haley in both Bob Stanley's Yeah Yeah Yeah and Mark Lewisohn's Tune In made me think this would be the perfect Haley record to have, instead of a slavishly complete clinically mastered CD reissue. Some music still needs a little smoke and mirrors to get across - or noisy grooves - and for all my sometimes cynical views, I'm always willing to fall in love all over again. Especially for the right price, which turned out to be $15 for all four records. See you at the next fair!