Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
I am currently obsessed with those poor saps seemingly most touched by OCD: 78 collectors. See the work of R. Crumb, Daniel Clowes, or Terry Zwigoff for some of the more well-known specimens. I just read Amanda Petrusich’s Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records. Just before that Brett Milano’s Vinyl Junkies, Greil Marcus’ Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, and Peter Guralnick’s Searching for Robert Johnson accompanied me on the long train to the nation’s capital on my morning commute. Grafton, Wisconsin, home of Paramount Records, might be ground zero for 78 collecting, but the DC/MD/VA area is where 78 collectors roam like dinosaurs searching for the kill. Joe Bussard, the T-Rex of prehistoric collecting, lurks in a basement in Frederick. In her book, Petrusich spends a ton of time in rural Virginia; in fact, Bussard calls Virginia and West Virginia the most fertile hunting ground for rare 78s in the world. He should know.
I am not unfamiliar with this terrain. On my first date with my future wife, we stopped in at Kevin Johnson’s Royal Books. Why I felt compelled to drag her on a tour of rare book and vinyl shops, I do not know. Maybe I wanted to scare her off; maybe I wanted her to know right off what she was getting into. I probably thought it was sexy. What could be more appealing than rare books and records and a guy, such as myself, who knows them intimately? While talking to Kevin, I started in on spoken word albums, which I was pursuing with some degree of seriousness at the time. Kevin suggested I head up to Hampden and talk to a former employee of his named Ian Nagoski. Kevin raved about Ian, particularly the breadth and depth of his knowledge about all things art, literature and music. Popular, experimental, or just plain weird, Ian knew it all. I headed up to The True Vine, future wife in tow, and proceeded to have a great conversation with Ian about Beat Generation LPs.
Over the years I bumped into him occasionally when he was working at OwnGuru down in Fells Point. Petrusich catches up with Ian in Frostburg and portrays him as one of a younger generation of collectors, who provide an alternative to the prejudices of the Blues Mafia, which over several decades, starting in the late 40s, established the 78 collecting canon as well as that music’s history and as it turns out its myths. Ian expanded and challenged that canon with a Tompkins Square release entitled To What Strange Place: The Music of the Ottoman-American Diaspora, 1916-1929. If I remember correctly, Ian was working on this project while working at OwnGuru; there was definitely a release party down in Fells Point. I, of course, did not explore this opportunity to learn and experience something directly or firsthand because I prefer to dig through libraries and hole myself up with my books. That is why I feel I know more about Ian after reading Petrusich’s book instead of actually talking to him when I had the chance. Some of the best stuff by Ian in Do Not Sell At Any Price explores the inability of a collector guy to connect and communicate on a meaningful level. Why do I do that? I just picked up Werner Muensterberger’s Collecting: An Unruly Passion Psychological Perspectives. Maybe that will tell me what is up, or I could just talk to someone. Whatever.
Point being I find myself currently enamored with 78 and vinyl collectors in general. I am spending a lot of time looking at the Dust and Grooves website as well as listening to record collectors go on and on about their hoards on YouTube. Comic book and science fiction collectors seem pretty vocal as well. Little magazine and modern literature collectors, i.e. people like me, not so much. This may be because there is not much to say. Indiana Jones it ain’t. In Petrusich’s book, there seems to be a lot of fog and extreme heat, even elements of danger. Collectors always make wrong turns down deserted country roads and bump into weird people. These chance encounters end in treasure troves of previously lost, only surviving copy type of shit. This has not been my experience. How exciting is it sitting in an air conditioned room surfing the internet looking for books or for that matter talking and trading with the same 5 dorks you have dealt with repeatedly for the past twenty years because they are the only people who remotely care about the minutiae you obsess over? Collecting is no doubt obsessive, but wild?
In any case, it is the obsessiveness of 78 collectors, not their wildness that fascinates me. Yes, these guys, always guys, are driven by the hunt and the trill of the kill. And sometimes it is a long, strange trip. Bloodhounds on the trail for sure, but what really holds my attention is what these guys do after they have captured their individual grails. The journey just begins for the most obsessive of them, a process of discovery involving extensive research, pioneering publication, independent distribution. In the 78 culture, the collectors completely dominate the entire industry. They generate the interest; they keep that flame alive. They find the records; they write the canon and history; they reissue the music; they hold the archives. It is not run by institutions or corporations. (In fact, established institutions like the NYPL often drop the ball. Beware the fate of Harry Smith. Keep tabs on that Burroughs collection.)
78s, vinyl, comics, science fiction, zines, and pulps have not been dominated by institutional and academic control. This is why the collectors of such material appear so frequently on YouTube, in zines and on websites. Do not get me wrong, things appear to be moving in a more scholarly direction, but the academic industry is so fucking backwards and conservative that the establishment generally does not seriously recognize such work as a means of occupational advancement. For modern literature and little magazines such is not the case. That discourse has been institutionalized and professionalized and most importantly even for the publications of the Mimeo Revolution becoming recognized as CV fodder. There is a proper manner in which to discuss this stuff, which is modeled on how Modernist magazines have been studied, which does not involve outward and unguarded expressions of joy, passion, ecstasy, humor, irreverence, frustration, hatred, sadness, in fact any of the qualities abundantly present in the actual material. Expressions which draw me to the interviews and photographs on the Dust and Grooves website. Modernist magazine scholarship on the other hand involves monographs published by academic presses that sell for over $100 to professors and librarians that have a stipend from their institutions to purchase such overpriced bullshit. No thank you. I much prefer listening to somebody rap about their vinyl collection on YouTube.
Modern literature and little magazines also lack the level of scarcity which makes the culture of 78s, particularly early blues, so alluring. There are exceptions, like Fuck You and C Press limited editions, but the possibility of a collector possessing the only existing copy a publication, which but for the collector’s doggedness would have disappeared, just does not happen. Mimeo limiteds were designed for the collector’s market and, in many cases, were institutionalized on production. The trick with them is getting them out in the wild. It is the same story with 78s, although Petrusich does not dwell on that. The rare 78 world is well-documented. Those deeply obsessed know where the truly rare 78s are, just as everybody knows were the Gutenberg Bibles and First Folios are.
Likewise, Burroughs’ bibliography is well-charted, but even now, so late in the age of Burroughs exploration, there remains the occasional Atlantis. Not in Maynard & Miles!! Not in Shoaf!! Not in Schottlaender!!! Now that snaps, crackles, and pops!! There is the joy in finding the unrecorded item. No, I agree, not as glamorous as uncovering a copy of Black Patti 8030, but it is all the excitement a lonely, obsessive Burroughs collector has in this cruel world oversaturated with Evergreen Reviews and Grove hardcovers.
And what do you know, recently while blissfully immersing myself in the world of Black Patti’s and Paramounts, I experienced the joy of obtaining (of course I did not find it myself, that would be a tad bit too, well, wild) what I think is an unrecorded Burroughs item: John Ka’s Bloom, published by John Sinclair’s Detroit Artists Workshop. If you are not looking for it, you might miss it; in fact I flipped through Bloom two or three times before I could locate the Burroughs appearance. Non-obsessives might shrug their shoulders at such a seemingly inconsequential text, but this is actually quite an interesting item. Most obviously Bloom places Burroughs in an underground comix context, much like that of Jeff Nuttall’s My Own Mag and the later, more complex and interesting collaborations with Malcolm Mc Neill in Cyclops and Ah Pook. But of more interest to one obsessed with the Mimeo Revolution, is that Bloom links Burroughs to John Sinclair’s Detroit Artist Workshop directly. As Marcus Niski’s interview with Sinclair (forthcoming on RealityStudio.org) demonstrates that connection was always there philosophically, but strangely Burroughs did not appear in the publications themselves. Bloom proves that absence was not actually a complete one. Given Burroughs’ importance to Sinclair and Burroughs’ willingness to submit to any magazine and press out there, I have always wondered why Burroughs was not published more frequently by the Workshop. For that matter, the same holds true for d a levy. It is a question to pose to Sinclair.
The other question is: Who is John Ka and how did Burroughs come to be in the pages of Bloom? There does not seem to be much information out there. The rediscovery of Bloom has been made, but the search is not over. Now the research begins. Enjoy the reissue. Keep your eyes on RealityStudio.org for further developments. Or maybe somebody out there can open my eyes and provide some further information. Why let the 78 guys have all the fun?
- John Ka, Bloom (Complete Issue)