Normally, I’m happiest when surrounded by thousands of old records. But there are exceptions.
This weekend, I attended a record swap. I’d forgotten how antsy they make me. Shopping at a swap is different from digging in the crates at a store, even the most esoteric, collector-oriented brick and mortar. There is an element of competition permeating a swap that trumps the sense of community I find in record stores. Everyone seems rushed, harried, concerned that the person browsing right next to them will excavate the best treasure first.
Following this logic, the first few minutes of a swap are the most intense. Which is why I always roll in a little later, after the Day of the Locust-style frenzy has tapered off; I don’t like having someone else peering over my shoulder while I flip through a box, hopping up and down like a little kid waiting to use a Port-a-potty. You need it that bad? Go shop on eBay.
Another reason record swaps deter me is that most vendors don’t cater to my tastes. And who can blame them? Records weigh a ton. If you’re going to cart many, many boxes of them to a swap, the smart money says pack popular favorites like Elvis, the Beatles, and sought-after funk and soul, not Belgian new wave 12-inches and cabaret acts recorded live at the Purple Onion. But this sort of works in my favor, too. While most people are looking for an original “butcher baby” sleeve or whatever joint Kanye sampled last week, the oddities I find tempting linger in the bins longer.
So what did I buy? A two-dollar copy of Jackie DeShannon’s Laurel Canyon, more for the gatefold sleeve than anything else. Pop-Eyes by Danielle Dax, because the vinyl was pristine and it’s important to remember there were artists doing the whole post-punk-goes-Middle-Eastern thing long before Gang Gang Dance. The 1988 LP Squaw Bread by Glen Meadmore, arguably the only country record to ever feature backing vocals by gender illusionists RuPaul and Vaginal Crème Davis.
But my greatest score… well, I can’t tell you its title. Because I can’t decipher it. My Arabic (at least, I’m pretty sure those characters are Arabic) is non-existent. The sketch on the cover suggests it is a double-LP by the legendary Egyptian singer, Umm Kulthum — but it might also be Aristotle Onassis in drag — and the grooves inside bear that argument out. But hey, it could be an Umm Kulthum impersonator; at least one side has so much crowd noise it might have been cut at the Cairo equivalent of the Purple Onion.
At ten dollars, it wasn’t a cheap purchase. Especially since the wax is, as my friend Robert used to say, “bacon and eggs” (i.e. fried). But fair enough. This poor album probably had to make an ocean crossing via freighter at some point, and to millions of people, as the 1996 documentary Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt depicts, this dame is still “the Star of the East,” one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. Me? I just get off on her transcendent, emotive vocals. For all I know, she is warbling some maudlin love ballad, the “My Heart Will Go On” of its generation, but my inadequate language skills ensure I can enjoy her on a purely musical level.
God help me if Kanye ever finds out about her, or those record swaps will get just a little bit scarier.
DJ El Toro is the host of the overnight show In Between Sleep & Reason, Wednesday mornings from 1 AM to 6 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org. His column, Weird At My School, appears every Monday on the KEXP Blog.