Sunday, 27 September 2009

The Realm of the Pendulous Beard

Obsessive behaviour has always permeated my life in some guise, whether it be obsessively reworking an evil sentence that refuses to make grammatical sense, obsessively following a woman until she looks me in the eye, or obsessively tidying every square inch of my flat so it remains cleaner than a nun’s bumhairs. Obsessive behaviour is my friend. A strange and comforting friend with warm, yet invasive, arms.

However, I never thought I would end up as one of those gin-huffing obsessives I used to spy in indie record shops – frog-chinned saps flicking idly through the dusty vinyl for pressings of an ancient Lionel Ritchie EP only released in Singapore and sold to three people during the bubonic plague. These men, with their pendulous beards and their searching blank eyes, were to me – at best – a curio. One of life’s many burps of comic tragedy.

Then, as I mused on these hairy sound-lurkers some more, their lives began to fascinate me. These men, it seemed, were hanging on to last vestige of a faded fantasy life, one soundtracked by the perma-tanned pop divas of yesteryear who have long since retired their ivory pipes for catheters and stair lifts. These men represented the need to cling on to a golden age, or an age romanticised as golden, merely since it resides in the surreal backwaters of their youth.

When I listen to the music of
Vashti Bunyan, I am transported to an era I have never encountered: a hazy dream of an idealistic 1960s – a romanticised country retreat where the simple pleasures of lapping streams, glittering icy mountain peaks, and quaint evenings spent reading by the fire, fill my days. I attribute this sickly pleasure to moments in my own youth: the splendour of an endless childhood winter, the longing to regress to a carefree life, and a general disdain for adulthood I have carried into… adulthood. Also, reading the sentimental fiction of Lewis Grassic Gibbon has scarred me.

Anyway, the point is… I’ve been on the Bunyan hunt now for almost a month. For those unfamiliar with Vashti, she released the timeless folk masterpiece Just Another Diamond Day in 1970, which stands alone in its impenetrable beauty and haunting transcendence. Since then, she has recorded another album, Lookaftering, plus a handful of miscellaneous tracks with other artists, and it is these songs I am trying to attain.

It’s not easy for the completist in this frugal climate. Especially the completist with a limited budget of £2.50. This obsession to find everything began when
FatCat Records released the splendid collection of 1960s Vashti material Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind in 2007. However, as a nasty marketing ruse, they released TWO versions – one with no bonus tracks and an expensive limited edition with four (not very impressive) bonus tracks.

Ordinarily, this wouldn't have bothered me, but one of these tracks, ‘I Won’t Say’ was an unreleased demo unavailable elsewhere. I began to wonder: What if this song was earth-shatteringly beautiful? What is this was the greatest Vashti performance ever and I was missing out? What if in the future I become obsessed and replace my old copy anyway? So I shelled out the £10 extra for these four tracks. When I got the CD, the tune was quietly beautiful, but the original source tape cut out towards the end, ruining the impact of the song. Bastards!

This burning need to find every Vashti performance eventually crept up on me after I went to see her in concert. This was, of course, the best gig I had ever been to (and the cheapest) – a moving set of her finest songs delivered with the most incredible humour and gentleness. So that was it. I had to find everything she had ever released.

I soon discovered the plight of the curio-finder. Tracks appear on obscure EPs, then are re-recorded on full-length albums, or are unavailable for some reason for large periods of time. And then there’s locating bootlegs of live performances which, as any collector will tell you, is harder than finding good quality heroin. Plus, there are one-off songs on compilations, or guest appearances on terrible albums. It all adds up to a hole in my wallet.

The good news is: all I need now are three tracks Vashti recorded with singer Anthony Reynolds, and my search is complete. These tracks, together with the dozen or so others, will comprise the ‘lost’ Vashti album I will spin until my ears die of pleasure.

I have also learned to respect the weary vinyl-hunters, who nowadays ply their trade online, and have found a home for their obsession through the accommodating world of internet forums. God bless the bearded freaks.


  1. Your endearing obsession with Vashti will drive me out there to buy her music--oh yes it will. You should be her biographer.

  2. Ah, the dream! Actually, there is a charming film about her life coming out soon: "From Here to Before." At last, I feel the world is ready to appreciate beauty.

  3. For a long period of my life I was an obsessive collector. The nature of what I collected had nothing to do with its intrinsic value, and the subject of my collecting changed frequently.
    Wow, I loved that Silver Surfer comic. Collect every Silver Surer comic ever produced.
    Ah, what a fabulous teapot, let's collect teapots.
    Those self assembly miniature toys in Kinder Eggs are great, I'll dedicate a shelf and start colleting.
    And yes, of course, this extended to recording artists. At one stage I had 5000 vinyl and 3000 CDs. At an average of 40 minutes per album, that's 5333.333(recurring) hours of playing time! 222 days if I played them 24 hours a day.

    I eventually realised it had nothing to with ‘what’, it had to do with numbers.
    I even, shamefully, collected women I had had sex with - fortunately for a very short period because the human in me objected.

    Minus the women/sex bit, this continued until I emigrated here. In a supreme cathartic moment, I disposed of everything I owned.

    I have found a more wholesome way of feeding my numeric compulsion now, and it doesn't involve possessions.

    Going back to music, one thing I also realized:
    There is more music out there than I could ever find or listen to. To explore that world, I no longer obsess over a single artist.

  4. Thanks for the sharing this, Mike. I found your mini-dote very illuminating.

    I agree entirely about the sheer proliferation of music making it hellish for the collector. I'm beginning to cut back on my CD collection to the BEST albums ONLY, eliminating the chaff I bought when I was curious/nuts.

    Albums like Lou Reed's "Sally Can't Dance" for example. Yugh. What was I thinking.