Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
On the first Saturday in December, I rang the buzzer at Own Guru Records in Fells Point hoping to find some Beat vinyl. Alan, the owner, directed me to a copy of Listening to Richard Brautigan issued on the Harvest label in 1970. Normally, a purchase like this with its considerable back story, linking Barry Miles, the Beatles, Zapple Records, Bukowski, Charles Olson, and other leading lights of the counterculture, would make it onto the pages of the Bunker. Instead, Alan told me about an auction on eBay that was going to challenge all the records for the most expensive recording of all time. The write up on Brautigan went out the window. Rock historian Richie Unterberger recounts the major facts in his liner notes to the Brautigan LP.
The LP on eBay and in the news is an acetate of the landmark Velvet Underground and Nico. (Ebay auction | PDF) This is big news, not just to Velvet Underground fans but to collectors of all types as well as the general public. Burroughs fans should be interested as well. Burroughs was undoubtedly an influence on Lou Reed if not all of the Velvet Underground. In late 1964, Burroughs returned to the United States and briefly lived in New York before leaving for London. In the Spring of 1965, Burroughs attended Lester Persky’s Fifty Most Beautiful People Party at the Factory along with Warhol and Edie Sedgwick. So Burroughs was in the shadows of the Factory scene during the formative period of the Velvet Underground. Reed and Andy Warhol visited the Bunker when Burroughs was living in New York in the 1970s. Hopefully you would like to hear more about the LP, if you haven’t already. Several magazines and newspapers have reported on this story and the eBay page links to them.
Briefly stated in 2002, Warren Hill found the acetate while flipping through some fire damaged LPs in Chelsea, New York. Hill paid roughly 75 cents for the record and showed it to his friend Eric Issacson of Mississippi Records in Portland Oregon. What they heard absolutely floored them. This was not a promo or a test pressing of the album released with the banana sticker in 1967. The songs were in a different order and were in fact different versions altogether. These were previously unheard versions of the album recorded in April 1966 at Scepter Studios (the “lost” Scepter recordings) under the direction of Norman Dolph. The LP was pressed on brittle, cheap aluminum, covered with acetone. More than 10-30 plays of the LP would destroy it. This acetate remained playable through the ages and an apparent fire.
The bidding climbed by the tens of thousands until the record sold to the 253rd bidder for $155,401. Now the $155,401 question: Is it worth it? The Velvet Underground acetate completely shatters the previous high on eBay. According to Popsike, a Sex Pistols God Save the Queen sold in March of 2006 for almost $13,000. It was one of nine copies given to A&M record executives. Popsike lists the top twenty five most expensive LPs sold on eBay. Other high selling LPs on eBay include Elvis, the Beatles, garage psych, etc. Like the Velvet Underground, the Sex Pistols and the Beatles are beyond legendary bands with a rabid fan and collector base. Their work transcends rock and roll and enters the realm of high culture and art collectibles like a Picasso or Warhol.
By the way, Popsike is an indispensable website for vinyl collectors. The site tracks all sales over $50 relating to vinyl along with the eBay information concerning the sale. For record dealers, this functions like Abebooks allowing them to price records outside of their expertise. As I mentioned before, this adds to the decline of know-how in the collectible business as people can get lazy with their prices. These sites also hurt a collector’s chances of finding an underpriced item in the racks. Yet the upside for gathering information as a collector is sizable as well.
The Beatles provide an interesting benchmark for the Velvet acetate. The eBay sale was marketed as the ultimate LP collectible. The holy grail of record collectors is widely considered to be the Butcher Cover LP of Yesterday and Today. A still sealed Butcher cover sold for more than $38,000 at Good Rocking Tonight auctions. That was a record for an LP at auction. The value of this record lies in the cover art. A nice comparison would be the Digit Junkie by Burroughs. The controversial cover art forced the pulping of the book thus creating a legendary rarity. Like the Butcher Cover, the Digit Junkie fetches top dollar due to the rarity and iconic nature of its wrapper, not the uniqueness of its contents.
Another contender for the holy grail moniker is the first pressing mono of Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. This version of the LP features four tracks left off later issues. Prices range from $25,000-35,000. By the way, Christie’s just auctioned a bunch of high grade memorabilia on December 4th including the personal archives of Suze Rotolo. Who is she? She was Dylan’s girlfriend in 1963. She walks with Dylan on the cover of Freewheelin’. A demo copy of the album with track listings amended by Dylan’s hand was up for grabs at Christie’s. Here are the prices realized.
Technically, the most ever paid for an LP was $525,000 for a copy of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy. Lennon signed the LP five hours before his assassination in 1980. The man requesting the signature was Mark David Chapman. Chapman carried the album as he committed the murder. Chapman’s fingerprints are still on the album. Clearly, the value of the LP is based on the events surrounding the signature and not the scarcity or content of the LP itself.
Other high-priced acetates provide an interesting comparison. A Sgt. Pepper acetate sold for more than $8000 on eBay, but it was, I gather, a test pressing of the released version of the mass produced album. This is much like an advanced reading copy or review copy in book publishing. Such copies are earlier but identical versions of a mass-produced work. The limited number of copies as well as the different, more disposable format provides the value. Generally, the closer you get back to the original source material the greater the collectible nature of the item. Over the years, tons of acetates of major songs or albums have surfaced on the collector’s market in many cases fetching high prices. Hill and Issacson based their opening estimate on eBay on an acetate for Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde that sold for $32,000. I cannot get much information on this LP, but I would suspect that it contains tracks or versions not available elsewhere. See Google answers for another discussion on the highest price paid for a record or Wikipedia on record collecting.
The Velvet acetate and possibly the Blonde on Blonde acetate are different from most of these other LPs. The Velvet LP supposedly has material that has never been heard before by the public (more on this later). Plus it is also marketed as a one-of-a-kind object. The Sex Pistol LP and the Beatles Butcher cover are “merely” incredible rarities (of still several copies) that do not provide new content. The mono Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan provides unique content but several copies do exist.
The most accurate measuring stick of the Velvet acetate will probably never come up for sale. Paul McCartney owned the only known copy of the Quarrymen’s 1958 studio recording of Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day” and an original McCartney-Harrison recording “In Spite of All the Danger.” The 10″ 78rpm acetate would surely be the most expensive LP of all time if it ever reached the open market. McCartney digitized the recording and pressed it into 50 copies for friends and the recording appeared on the Beatles Anthology. The commemorative editions of the original LP are collector items in themselves fetching over five figures, thus making just the reissue one of the most expensive LPs of all time.
The most comparable gauge based on auction results of the Velvet acetate’s value is another Beatles item, or should I say, Quarrymen item. In 1994, Bob Molyneux, a retired policeman, rediscovered the recordings that he had made of a Quarrymen concert in 1957. Sotheby’s auctioned the recording featuring one Elvis Presley and one Lonnie Donigen song for 78,500 pounds (close to $160,000 today). EMI bought the tapes. This was the highest price ever paid for a recording. (For the details of the recording see beatlesource.com. For more on The Quarrymen see Wikipedia.) A comparable item to the Velvet acetate would be studio outtakes, live recordings, demos, even finished tracks, but of a one of a kind nature. The key to an accurate comparison lies in the recording more than the physical record or tape. Molyneux’s recording and McCartney’s acetate have history and uniqueness behind them: true one-of-a-kind recordings of the proto-Beatles. Unfortunately, the Molyneux’s recording is of poor quality and sits unused in the EMI vaults.
Supposedly, this is not true of the Velvet acetate. There are two scratches / skips on the LP, but the sound quality appears to be of a mainstream commercial nature given the market for anything by the Velvet Underground, such as the Quine Bootleg, the 1969 Live Vol. 1-2 and the Max’s of Kansas City recordings. Without a doubt whoever bought this acetate plans to commercially release it on a major label; that is what makes it worth the money, like the thinking behind the EMI purchase of the Quarrymen’s recording. It would be interesting to see how the other major label “bootlegs” sold and how much money they generated. I could see all types of special packaging, CDs, DVDs, VH-1 specials etc.
A parallel can be made to holograph manuscripts, draft versions of literary material, and the like. This is the raw material of the final mass produced version. One comparable in the literary world would be the On the Road scroll manuscript that sold for over $2 million making it the highest price for a literary manuscript. The difference being that the On the Road scroll is quite interesting as an object serving as the holy grail and physical symbol of the Beat Generation. Yet the content of the scroll is decidedly different from the Viking printing of On the Road in 1957. The general public will hopefully be able to see this for themselves in 2007 when the scroll version of Kerouac’s most popular novel hits the shelves. The Quarrymen tape also reminds me of the many taped conversations and readings offered for sale from the Allen De Loach estate on eBay. The common ground between the Quarrymen recording and the Velvet acetate is the uniqueness of the content more than the collectible nature of the object although acetates, holograph manuscripts, typed scrolls, and reel to reel tapes all have their own fetishistic qualities and people who covet them as objects and technologies.
And there lies a potential problem or two. The 800 pound gorilla in the room is that to die-hard Velvet Underground fans the content on this acetate might be old news. The bootleg market for Lou Reed and crew is incredible and comprehensive. (See bootleg CDs, bootleg CD sets, and Velvet Underground Bootleg Reference.) Velvet acetates are nothing new even if they are unusual. Some acetates of Sterling Morrison have been released on bootleg for example. In addition, Mo Tucker’s acetates of the Velvet Underground and Nico album were found in a basement box that were then issued in a Japanese bootleg called Ultimate Mono and Acetate album in 2005. (See Ritchie Unterberger’s review of the bootleg.) As the eBay entry suggests and much chat room banter has pointed out, this is all probably the same material. Therefore, the newly found acetate is not one of a kind as an object and quite possibly the content was and is available to those in the know. This is all murky territory and under debate as nobody seems to really know where the Japanese bootleg came from originally. The author of The Velvet Underground Handbook claims to have seen the Mo Tucker acetate and confirms its existence. The Tucker acetates are of poor quality compared to Warren Hill’s discovery, but still it seems to be the same songs. Nobody seems to agree if this acetate still exists, did exist; let alone where it is now and who owns it or the right to it.
Arguably the die-hard fans of the Velvet Underground already have this bootleg and have heard it. Given the high tolerance for sketchy recording by Velvet fans (case in point are many sub-par recordings on the bootleg market as well as the mass released bootlegs like the Max’s recording by Brigid Polk that is quite poor), I wonder how much superior the new acetate really is and if it matters. This is up for debate as record collectors, like book collectors, prize condition above all else. I have talked to and read comments from people who express great alarm at the fact that the acetate has skips and scratches. Condition and sound quality aside, the fact remains that this recording on eBay may not be one of a kind as object (although extremely rare) and even more importantly as content (although of better quality).
The second 800 pound gorilla lurking outside the door is the legal problems surrounding the new acetate. Like the second volume of Burroughs’s letters, the legal holdups around old Velvet material are as legendary as the band itself. Why is there such a bootleg market and why are the Mo Tucker acetates not available at your local Best Buy? It is not just sound quality. I would bet it is because of all the legal wrangling among all interested parties eager to get a piece of the pie and to protect the legacy of the band. Who controls these recordings anyway: the surviving members of the band and their representatives (not to mention Sterling Morrison’s and Nico’s interests), the record company, the engineer, Warren Hill, insert interested party here? I cannot imagine that anybody will see this material in their local music store anytime soon. The stakes are too high, the publicity is too great and the interested parties very uncooperative and protective. As comments to the eBay sale state, copyright will be an issue.
To my mind, the acetate is without a doubt a cool find and a cool story that goes beyond the merely collectible as object, but the potential headaches getting this material released are enormous. The legal questions more than the repetitive nature of the material seem the real issue. Velvet Underground fans, like Burroughs collectors, are rabid. The flourishing bootleg market proves this point. I am far from a Velvet collector, but I would buy this CD in a heartbeat, all the more so if there were all types of extras. Did the Quine Bootleg make the record company a considerable profit? I would guess that it did, as do all the Velvet Underground reissues and rarities. But will it outweigh the legal bills or even see its way out of the legal red tape? That is the real $155,401 question. I think many bidders and potential bidders realized all these issues by the end of the sale. Bidding slowed considerably the last couple of days and there was no final frenzy of bidding on the record. The real winners of the eBay auction are Warren Hill, an inspiration to collectors of all types everywhere searching for their version of the winning Powerball ticket, and, unfortunately, the lawyers.