Tales from the bargain bin

Ever since I was a kid, I haven’t been able to pass a remainder table, used record store, cut-out bin, yard sale or Goodwill without  stopping to dig through the books and music for buried treasure. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an extreme coupon cutter or Dollar Tree fan, and Costco was so depressing I let the membership lapse years ago. I’m particular, too. Five bucks is my absolute limit, under $2 is the sweet spot. And we have to be talking about the good stuff,  like out-of-print gems, releases that fill gaps in my collection, or unfamiliar stuff that I’m willing to take a flyer on if the price is right. Five-for-a-dollar romance paperbacks:  Junk. Autographed first edition of Neil Gaiman’s exquisite fairytale The Graveyard Book for $2.49 in the local Goodwill:  Jackpot!  (One of my best finds ever.)

I learned the art of treasure hunting from my friend Mark Moses, who couldn’t pass a bargain bin without inventorying the goods. He would buy records that he already owned, just to spare them the ignominy of the scrapheap. Of course, Mark had a music critic’s discerning eye and a wide scope of musical interest and curiosity. He knew the worth of each of his finds, and I’m not talking about money, although finding a pristine vinyl copy of Dusty in Memphis for $1 would be an awesome day’s work in itself. In turn, I passed on the record-scavenging jones to my son, who keeps the tradition alive with a fever , and cheapness, that surpasses even my own.

So, I’m going to try something here. This is what (I hope) will be the first installment of an occasional series, depending on what my scavenging turns up. For the first “Tales from the Bargain Bin,” we have two stellar scores.

Amazing Grace by Aretha Franklin. $1.99, San Mateo (CA) Goodwill.  Granted this is the original CD reissue of Aretha’s landmark Grammy-winning 1972 gospel album, not the more recent expanded version. But, when I saw this in the Goodwill CD rack alongside the usual piles of Chumbawumba and Boyz II Men castoffs,  I shouted, “Hallelujah!,” fell to my knees and started speaking in tongues.

Well, not really, but I wanted to. Who gives away Amazing Grace by Aretha Franklin?  Who prices it for $1.99?  But, I’m not complaining. Franklin recorded this live set in L.A. at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church with a full choir directed by her mentor, Rev. James Cleveland. I have it on vinyl, but I wasn’t passing up this chance to own a version I could put on an iPod. This is Aretha in her prime, pouring her soul into the gospel music of her youth as well as into contemporary songs like Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and Marvin Gaye’s “Wholly Holy.”  This is the greatest singing you will ever hear. Period. Aretha’s rich, glimmering melisma on “Precious Memories”, her spine-tingling screams of ecstasy on “Amazing Grace”, her roof-rattling testifying on “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” will  take your breath away. Amazing Grace is the holiest record I own. And I say this as a secular Jew and an atheist. I don’t believe, but I am moved beyond words by the joy, the spiritual transcendence, of Sister Aretha’s voice lifted in praise. And that’s religion enough for me.

Love Is a Strange Hotel by Clive Gregson and Christine Collister. $1.99, Burlingame (CA) Goodwill. I would say that this 1990 rarity by two former Richard Thompson associates was my most bizarre, random and unlikely Goodwill find ever, if I hadn’t already stumbled upon a CD of  Thompson’s obscure 1972 solo debut album, Henry the Human Fly, in the San Mateo outpost. And here I thought I was the only British folk nerd on the San Francisco Peninsula.

Clive Gregson and Christine Collister were a folk-rock duo who orbited Planet Thompson in the ’80s;  if you caught his full-band shows during this period, you saw the burly Clive strumming and the pixie-like Christine taking Linda Thompson’s place on duet and backing vocals. Gregson and Collister recorded a handful of albums before going their separate ways, and Love Is a Strange Hotel, which I’d never heard before, is one of their last efforts. It’s a mixed bag (more a demo, really) of covers, including 10 cc’s “The Things We Do for Love,”  Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again” and Bruce Springsteen’s “One Step Up.”  The spare acoustic guitar and keyboard production is crystalline and their harmonies are as lovely as ever. But it’s Christine’s rich, husky, intimate wonder of a voice that should send you on a quest for Gregson and Collister (or Collister solo) finds of your own. Like Linda Thompson and Sandy Denny before her,  Collister draws you in quietly and then devastates you with emotional directness. On the CD’s best track, she shrinks Aztec Camera’s “How Men Are”  from the universal to the personal, with demure vulnerability and plaintive soulfulness. And I always thought Jackson Browne’s “For a Dancer” was pure sap, but Collister’s soaring version over a simple piano accompaniment is, in its plain, Church of England way, as prayerful as Aretha’s revival meeting.

Here are Christine and Clive singing a track from an earlier album, “I Specialise.”

What were your best bargain bin scores?

© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape. 2012

3 thoughts on “Tales from the bargain bin

  1. Not. Milo. Miles. April 10, 2012 / 5:17 pm

    Another bin-flippin’ addict here, who has spent time doing same with both Joyce and Mark Moses (whos incisive and hilarious comments on items he ran across are precious memories).

    Let me preface my latest thrift-store music acquisition by noting that the Goodwill in Sacramento, CA was the classiest, cleanest, most-well-organized and highest-quality-merchandize used store I have ever been in. We might have dropped a bundle if we hadn’t discovered it five minutes before closing time our last day in town. A must-visit if you are there.

    The LP I picked up in Sacramento was not from there, but my ever-smoothing, aged brain cannot recall the exact name of the story. Easy to find — biggest used-record-and-pinball-machine shop in Old Town.

    Such stores are always fun to muck around in — I have so many LPs I’m not quite sure what would prompt me to pick up a new one to play (unless it was a Francis Davis jazz recommendation), but I do snag the occasional vinyl for the pictures on the sleeves. In Sacramento I got a chuckle that ol’ crank-’em-out RCA released two Jim Reeves albums with almost identical covers, obviously from the same photo shoot, where he’s sitting in his snuggly sweater next to a roaring firplace. (Reeves was one of the very few C&W stars who projected a comfy-suburban image. He was my mom’s favorite singer and odd as it may seem is by far the biggest-selling country star is sub-Saharan Africa. He was in such demand he toured South Africa in the ’60s. I am reading right now that Celine Dion really gets around, too.)

    Anyway, the $1 LP that I snagged (along with a couple of scientifically-incorrect dionsaur postcards) was “Glenn Miller’s SHINDIG” (1965), for the very odd Jack Lonshein cover art (look him up) and the repulsive musical concept — yes, a hack studio band doin’ rockin’ versions of Miller’s big-band swingers. I can hear his ghost moan: “They had to do this over my dead body.”

    No, I have no intention of ever playing it to find out just how wretched it is.

    • joycemillman April 10, 2012 / 7:21 pm

      I looked up Jack Lonshein. Whoa. A lot of amazing covers, and as you say, odd ones too. I saw a few albums that my parents must have had when I was a kid. “Judy Garland in Song” looks familiar.

      Glenn Miller’s Shindig — hahaha! Great story!

      And you should have called when you were in Sacramento. We might have been able to meet up with you there.

      • Not. Milo. Miles. April 11, 2012 / 7:16 pm

        It was a very short and very busy business trip with an uncertain schedule. We couldn’t plan to do any social stuff. I found a perfect Redwood pinecone, though!

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