The Record Store of the Mind

The Record Store of the Mind
By Josh Rosenthal
[Tompkins Square]

There’s something curiously male about record collecting. Basically, record collecting is about conquest and acquisition, a conquest to possess every song Robert Pollard ever recorded on vinyl, every edition of every release of the Beatles’ catalogue in every format, or every 78 rpm recorded for some obscure blues label in the 1920s, for example.

Record collecting is also about proving. For record collecting obsessives, merely possessing their objects of unquenchable desire is not enough. They want to tell you about it. They want to show you the physical evidence of their conquests – to prove their infinite, ever-expanding musical knowledge through what they physically own.

This leads us to the burning question: can one truly own music? Of course not. And what’s the point of physically owning a hard copy of anything in an age where everything is immediately accessible at a keystroke?

Record collectors are a weird, aging, disappearing bunch. And baby, I’m one too. Me, I’ve gotta have a hard copy to feel like I have the music. My home is basically a monolithic altar of The Rock – my rock.

Josh Rosenthal, founder of the fabled Tompkins Square label, is another member of that weird, record collecting bunch. But Rosenthal takes it a step further than the usual geek. Rosenthal has seen fit to chronicle his record collecting in book form. By writing and then financing the printing of hard copies of a book about record collecting (whew!), Rosenthal has produced a record, if you will, of his own pursuit(s). In this way, he has made a tangible, tactile representation of an infinite, intangible conquest.

 The Record Store of the Mind is more than just a book about record collecting, however. Really, it’s more of a biography. For record obsessives, the music that one owns functions as a master signifier of one’s own being and beingness. So, by writing about record collecting, Rosenthal is really writing about himself.

 Record Store isn’t exactly a linear narrative, though. It’s more an interwoven collection of vignettes about record collecting – or about particular artists – or about Rosenthal’s record collection in particular. And this leads us to what works for the book – and what is also its Achilles heel.

 Record Store is about the music Rosenthal likes, of course. And Rosenthal’s tastes are, shall we say, refined. This is to say that Rosenthal’s interests and my own do not coincide. Much of the subject matter of Record Store is unknown and/or uninteresting to me. Rosenthal’s realm, more or less, is that of foundational Americana: blues, folk and “hillbilly” music. If Rosenthal was more about the rock ’n’ roll (as opposed to being about the building blocks of rock ’n’ roll) I would be more on board.

Nonetheless, Rosenthal’s enthusiasm about his subject matter (Tia Blake, Smoke Dawson and “Obscure Giants of Acoustic Guitar,” for example) can be infectious at times. It’s as if Rosenthal, through his musical obsessions, is sharing secret knowledge with the reader. Thus, Rosenthal’s chosen musics function as lenses through which the reader can find intimate glimpses of the author himself.

If you’re expecting rip-roaring tales of excess and excessive volume, seek elsewhere. But more patient readers may find themselves drawn into Rosenthal’s web. As Rosenthal writes of his records, “…it [the collection] seemed like some totem, a shrine I had built in honor of my good taste.” Likewise, Record Store is an intimate, textural shrine – a subtle and engaging treatise that honors a diverse array of music and a life that has orbited music. Rosenthal’s taste isn’t especially flashy – but it’s good taste, a refined taste, an acquired taste.