The night after I sold most of my record collection a couple of years ago, I did not sleep well. A sense of relief at finally having unburdened myself did not come. I had trouble drifting off, then woke in the middle of the night with Billy Joel’s Allentown playing through my head. The record from which that song came, which I hadn’t played in years, was now on the other side of the city. I remembered buying the album—The Nylon Curtain—and how much I liked the song Pressure too. What was I thinking when I got rid of that album?
The fact that Allentown is about a city with a depressed economy and a closed-down mill was not lost on my midnight self, the fellow who in daylight had made the decision to sell off most of a collection he’d built up meticulously since he was in grade five. A collection of more than 2500 was now reduced to a rump of a few hundred. Pride I’d taken in owning the entire oeuvre of a band or artist would have to be replaced by a feeling of freedom to move.
And it didn’t end with Allentown. I thought of It’ll Shine When It Shines by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Desperado by the Eagles, Sunflower by the Beach Boys, and Rumours by Fleetwood Mac. All gone. For years, I worked as a concert and record reviewer for the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, I brought home armloads of records every week.
No matter how fast or diligently I reviewed, though, I couldn’t keep up with the number of records the companies sent and I took home. Sometimes on Saturday mornings, I would put one unplayed album after another on the turntable and give it a spin. If it didn’t survive the first three songs, off it went to the second-hand store. There, I’d trade in 50 to 80 albums on a dozen or so real gems. In this way, between review records I deemed good enough to keep, classic albums I traded for at the store, and records I still wanted badly enough to buy, I built up a large collection. There were people out there with much bigger collections than mine—radio station jocks, record company promo types, record store employees, and the just plain wealthy—but in my circle, my collection was king, and I think I secretly enjoyed that store-bought royalty.
Three things went into making me a record collector from an early age: one, my parents valued music and they had their own stereo. Two, my father was a wanderer and we moved back and forth across the Pacific Ocean and across Canada several times. Three, collections of various kinds were not only tolerated but encouraged. My parents got me started on my 10th birthday with a little record player and I took it from there.
My collection could only grow once we’d settled in Saskatchewan and we put the brakes on any further roving by my father. Prior to that, any collection too big and costly to move—my rocks, for example—was abandoned in the alley behind whatever house we left. I look around my Saskatoon home office now and except for the gaping hole where most of the record collection used to be, there are books, CDs, DVDs, stacks of magazines and papers, and posters covering the scant wall space. Some people, including my wife, are driven out by sheer claustrophobia—they feel the walls closing in. Others think of it, as one woman said, as a kind of heaven. She could stay there forever. Not me, anymore.
Over the last few years, I’ve examined my life and the weight I carry, and don’t like it. The fact I turned 65 last year has something to do with it, but there’s been a spiritual restlessness growing in me that’s come to centre on the fact that I have too much damn stuff. I don’t subscribe to the anti-clutter movement and don’t want to be part of some trendy curve, but I’m still wondering, why have I built all these walls?
Acquiring, as I’d long learned, was an inoculation against the next feeling of sadness, of apartness, as our family drove out of town.
An obvious answer is that they enclose me and keep me safe. In response to my father’s constant movements, my constant was my things. As a small child, it was stamps, then the bird cards from tea. When car wheels and then airplane wheels came in pudding and jelly boxes, I hungrily saved those like every boy I knew. Three moves later, I gave the entire collection, now in a paper bag, to a boy in my new grade eight class. His awkwardly muted but obvious gratitude gave me a feeling of well-being that I wish I’d been able to hold on to, recognizing how good it felt to give things away. But I wasn’t ready to be that person yet.
In the late ’60s, when I really got going on records, they came and went around me, like the songs on the radio, with alarming speed. What was played nearly to death on the Top 40 was gone in a month and never heard again, except maybe on the year-end wrap-up. In my small Saskatchewan town, records came into about four stores, a few at a time, and were gone. If you weren’t quick, you missed them. I got the only Their Satanic Majesties Request and Beggars Banquet and felt the slings and arrows of outrageous envy coming at me. A friend shoplifted both copies of The Beatles’ White Album that hit town, intending to sell one, and eventually paid a sad price for that bit of greed. In those days, we had no idea of the glut of music, songs, and information that would be everywhere once the internet was in full swing. If you didn’t see The Band on The Ed Sullivan Show, you missed them. If you didn’t buy those records when they came out, they were gone forever. Acquiring, as I’d long learned, was an inoculation against the next feeling of sadness, of apartness, as our family drove out of town. Buy now or be sorry later was my motto.
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Later came, and so did the internet. I’ve been very slow to realize its potential. Why Google when you have research skills and a library all around you? Sheer laziness, I thought. But I could feel what was going on. My students knew. Books were becoming irrelevant, CDs were next to useless, and vinyl, strangely, was making a comeback. They included me in a story in the newspaper on Record Store Day. I was a guy who’d kept the faith and his vinyl. Young people recognized me on the street and said hello. They loved the picture of me with my collection. I’d become a local celebrity just for being a consumer.
Before Trump told the American people they needed a wall for security, I’d come to know I had to take mine down. Through much work with many people, I was secure inside. My father and mother got very old and died and all the tensions between my dad and me were forgiven or became unimportant. He’d done what he had to do and I was along for the ride. I did what I had to do, and now, I was going to change things around a bit. I sold my coin collection and gave away the majority of the stamps. Most of my record collection has gone to a fellow who knows very little about the artists he’s bought, but he loves that I know everything about them. Somehow that’s important to him. I’ve started giving books to students, in handfuls and by the box. It gives me that feeling of well-being. Allentown is playing in my head right now, but it’s not a sad song about a place that people never found. It’s a jaunty tune with a great melody and I don’t need to own the record to know the song. I know where I am and I like it, bare wall and all.
William Robertson is a poet and retired university instructor. He lives in Saskatoon.
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