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