I’m just going to admit this, straightaway: I love progressive rock. Give me a weird-ass time signature, lyrics about lesser-known Hobbits and a 14-minute track that has less rhythm than the pots-and-pans cycle on a dishwasher and I’m a happy girl.
I’m also a rarity, it seems. A couple of years ago, I flew to Gettysburg, Pa. for Rosfest, an annual prog festival that attracts literally tens of fans who will stand in the lobby of a historic theater, having lengthy debates about their favorite King Crimson lineups. I was there to see Caravan, an underappreciated group of now-elderly English proggers who were once unenthusiastically described on national television as one of Britain’s “most consistent bands.”
The concert was excellent despite the recent death of foundi — you’ve stopped reading, haven’t you? Fine. After the show (they closed with “Memory Lain, Hugh,” which is exciting to exactly no one else) I walked into the ladies’ room and didn’t encounter anything except the echo of my own footsteps on the tile. It was completely empty, even though the line for the men’s room stretched all the way to the merch table, where lead singer Pye Hastings’ wife was politely listening to a man in a velvet top hat.
The same thing happened when I saw Rush at the Greensboro Coliseum two Mays ago: with the exception of my friend’s wife, the only other woman I saw turned out to be a shapely mop propped against a glass display case. As weird as it feels to provide half of the pairs of XX chromosomes inside a full coliseum, I get it. Prog music is far from universally loved, appreciated or even tolerated. Its themes are often as dense and complicated as its musical notation and there’s absolutely nothing sexy about it. (Not even when Rick Wakeman — a man who looks like a hay bale with a face — once added figure skaters to three consecutive shows.)
What sometimes strikes me as weird, though, is something I realized this weekend. I rarely run into other women at record shows. I’ve been in that sad demographic sliver at WFMU’s massive three-day fair in Brooklyn, at last Sunday’s small show in a hotel conference room in Greensboro and at countless shows in between. On Sunday, I saw more dudes wearing the same faded Ramones shirt tucked into dad jeans (three) than total women (two) and I don’t understand why. The dealers don’t either.
“Ninety percent of the time, I’m selling to a graybeard,” Jack B. Lightfoot told me. “It’s usually guys, and they’re usually my age. Records seem to be an overwhelmingly male phenomenon.”
He would know. The telecom worker-turned-record dealer was on the road for 45 weekends last year, driving from his home in Ringgold, Ga. to shows scattered across the southeastern United States.
“I’m 54 and that wore my ass out,” he said.
Lightfoot, who sells under the name Jax Wax, still makes an exhausting number of appearances, transporting thousands of albums from state to state. He says he sells primarily to collectors (“Not the casual kind,” he adds) but they range from people who want cheap Ratt albums to those who’d lick the labels off the ultra-rare lavender vinyl pressing of Led Zeppelin IV. That said, they’re still mostly dudes.
“I don’t know what it is, because I know women collect [other things], but they don’t seem to collect music that much,” he said as I thumbed through Japanese pressings of Beatles records.
“Women are more casual, like, ‘Oh yeah, I kind of like that record,’ whereas guys are like, ‘I have everything organized by catalog number.’ They get real OCD about it. You’re unusual.”
“Yeah, I’m a total weirdo,” I said, longingly staring at a live record by Premiata Forneria Marconi, an Italian prog band. (No, I’m never having sex again, thank you for asking.)
“No, it’s just unusual for a woman to be a completist,” he said.
Brett Milano came to the same conclusion in Vinyl Junkies, his book about record fanatics.
“If there are any female collectors out there, we have some bad news to report: Sorry but you don’t exist,” he wrote. “At least that’s what a lot of male collectors are convinced.”
He eventually found a few women to interview, but it was tough. “The idea isn’t that women are inferior, but they’ve got better things to do,” he concluded. Maybe that’s it. In my experience, it’s certainly not because there’s anything overtly misogynistic, sexist or even hyper-masculine about record collecting — and I’m not trying to stereotype or generalize about any collector, of any gender.
I’ve just never had anything but positive experiences at record shows. I’ve never been catcalled or hit on (although that’s true for any occasion when I actually leave my house) but I have been asked about alternate track listings or told that Adrian Belew was part of the best Crimson lineup (and that person is so, so wrong). Maybe most women do have better — or just other — things to do.
Or maybe some people were just totally turned off by Rob Gordon, the borderline pathological collector that John Cusack played in High Fidelity — and he may be the only vinyl obsessive they’ve encountered. “Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable?” he asks in the opening scene. “Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” But anyone who’s seen the flick (and it’s admittedly one of my faves) might find themselves asking, “Was he an obsessive collector because he was a dick? Or was he a dick because he was an obsessive collector?” He doesn’t make it look easy — or enjoyable — and he certainly shouldn’t have become the standard-bearer for an entire genre of nerds.
So yeah, collecting (and collectors) can be a hard sell, but I promise it’s worth it.
I spent about two hours at the show, overhearing conversations about the benefits of Japanese vinyl, about what categorizes an “exceptionally clean” pressing and listened to a couple debate whether to buy the Kinks or Korn. (Good Lord, why is this even a question?) Before I started the 30-minute drive home, I walked into the ladies’ room just a few steps past the last box of $1 records.
It was completely empty.
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