Sunday, September 25, 2016
Work is sending me to L.A. for a conference which means I will finally get the chance to visit Amoeba Music. Amoeba Hollywood is not the first location of this Californian chain, but it is the largest outlet and has become known as the Taj Mahal of record stores. It's not just big, but deep and well-curated. I've known people who have been there, worked there, and I've followed their excellent web series, "What's In My Bag." It's reputation is well-established.
As someone who's spent 12 years of their adult life working in music retail, visiting this store will be a little like making a pilgrimage. I figure I should go at least once in my life. And yet, I'm not looking forward to going there just to venerate the place like some temple which stands as a testament to an era long since past. I'm on a mission. It's been forever since I've bought records and I'm ready to pop. I'm treating this like a challenge. Come on, Amoeba. Let's see what you got. Let's see how good of a record store you really are.
I recently asked someone I know about their experience going to Amoeba a year ago. They told me they were overwhelmed and left after five or ten minutes without buying anything. This is someone who works at a record store. I'm worried that I will suffer the same fate. Nothing will depress me more than wasting the trip by being quelled under the pressure. This is a chance for me to find some of my holy grails, in person.
I've never been much of an online music shopper. There's something about buying something sight unseen (no matter how good the pictures are) that makes me nervous. It also feels like cheating. I realize I'm in the minority, but for me, there's no substitute to flipping through the stacks and coming across that record you've been looking for over the past 25 years. People also wrongly assume that if you want it badly enough you can just buy it or stream it online. While recent years have made thousands of rarities available online, there are plenty of records that are still inaccessible that way. These are the records I'm going to be looking for. And I'm bringing a list.
When I explain this to people they naturally ask me, "Well, what's on your list?" Lots of things, some things are truly obscure, some are just unpopular titles by popular artists that no one else cares about. I'm a little cagey about revealing the full list, partly because I'm superstitious that sharing it will somehow mean somebody else will check it out and find it before me. I'm also shy about exposing just how nerdy I am. To give you a taste of the specificity of my hunt, I'm looking for a particular version of Francoise Hardy's "Et Meme." One version was issued as a 45 with string arrangements that are a little syrup-y. The one I'm looking for has more of a rock & roll, Wrecking Crew vibe. I think it's on her album, Mon amie la rose, from '64, but I'm not sure if that's the right one. I first heard it on a one-off compilation released 15 years ago on a fly-by-night import label. I didn't buy it quickly enough and the store I worked at was never able to get it back in. I'd be happy finding it on any format. With my luck though it will only be found on a $70 box set. Even then, I'm not sure if the packaging will tell me what I need to know to differentiate between the two versions.
My list spans genres and formats which means I'll be running around the store like a chicken with my head cut off, panicked that I won't have enough time. I could probably spend three hours just shopping the 7" section alone. I'll have to be focused and efficient if I am to prevail. Ultimately, I'd love to find a handful of my holy grail records, discover some things I never knew existed, and pass on some of the more common titles out of satisfaction for the ones I did find. That would be the perfect scenario. As I mentioned, I don't want to get overwhelmed and walk out of there empty-handed. I also don't want to get distracted by cool new records, and not have enough time to look for the older things on my list.
The worst scenario might be for me to "win," for me to beat Amoeba by having a list they couldn't fill. What if the greatest record store in the world still isn't good enough for me? I'll be depressed if they don't have any of my holy grails or if the more common records I'm looking for are grossly overpriced (over $30). I don't want to buy a record in L.A. for $50 that I could probably find at a VFW record show for half the price. If I can't find the real goodies on the list, there are still a half-dozen new records I want to get. I just don't want to resign myself to the realization that my tastes might be so specific and arcane for me to ever satisfyingly collect records anymore.
There's one record on my list that will make the trip worth it even if it's the only thing I find. It's a song that I've been looking for since I first heard it on an obscure late-80s skate video. I only discovered who did it three months ago. Amoeba is my best shot at getting it. Is the song really that good? At this point the question is moot. The hope inherent in the hunt is what it's really about.
Stay tuned for my post-Amoeba report.