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Inside one man's quest to track down his lost record collection

Erik Spitznagel goes digging for his long-lost records, a journey he chronicles in his new book,
Erik Spitznagel goes digging for his long-lost records, a journey he chronicles in his new book, "Old Records Never Die: One Man's Quest for His Vinyl and His Past."
Courtesy of Plume Books and Penguin Group

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If you sold something that meant a lot to you, what would you do to get it back?

It sounds like the pitch for an indie comedy, but for author Erik Spitznagel, it was a very real quest to track down his record collection — not just buying new copies of the albums he once owned, but actually finding and reacquiring the exact copies that had once belonged to him.

Spitznagel chronicles his adventures in the new book, "Old Records Never Die: One Man’s Quest For His Vinyl and His Past." When Spitznagel spoke with The Frame's Senior Producer, Oscar Garza, he talked about digging through record crates until his fingers bled, befriending strangers to get access to their basements full of records, and the memories of his friends and family that drove his fantastic quest.

Interview Highlights:

What set you off on this quest, not just to replace your vinyl collection but to find the actual copies you'd disposed of?

[laughs] It's funny you should say quest, because it's almost entirely the fault of Questlove, the drummer of The Roots and the bandleader on "The Tonight Show." I was interviewing Questlove and we got to talking about records. He's a passionate collector and he has something in the ballpark of 70,000 records.

He was telling me that he still has the first record he bought with his own money — The Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." He even remembered how much he paid for it, $3.16, in a record store in Philly, and he still held onto that document. I was amazed by that! That's so many years! How did he not lose it or get rid of it? He said, "Well, I'm sure there are records that have meant a lot to you that you didn't get rid of?"

I said, "Oh, no, I don't have any records, I got rid of all of mine." And he reacted to me like I'd just [said], And then I put the pillow over my dad's face and I left it there until he died. [laughs] He was horrified! It was the most horrifying thing he'd ever heard, and that stayed in my head. And over time I started thinking about those records. What's my "Rapper's Delight?" What's that record I'm missing?

Then I decided, Well, I have to get my records back. Which quickly evolved into, I need my exact records — I need the Bon Jovi record with my first girlfriend's phone number written on it. I need the Kiss "Alive" record that my brother and I used to argue over until he scrawled "HANDS OFF" on it. I need The Replacements' "Let It Be" that — I'm sure to this day — still smells like weed.

(Erik Spitznagel, right, and his brother with their feuded-over Kiss record)

You had sold many of your albums to a store in Homewood, Illinois called The Record Swap. You go back there, and what do you find?

It's now a martial arts academy. [laughs] Which was really disconcerting — they took walls out and added new walls, and there was a fountain, and I pretended to be a father looking to get his kid into martial arts training so I could get a tour through the building.

I was trying to remember where things were, asking questions like, "Do you know what happened to the owner? Did he go someplace in particular, with all his records?" That's where the journey should have ended, because I'd sold maybe 75 or 80 percent of my records to this store that had ceased to be.

But then, as it turned out, the owner of that store had a brother who also owned a store?

It feels like a murder mystery! It's really odd, the way it all came together. [laughs]

And he'd ended up with a lot of his brother's records.

Which I didn't find out right away. I go to visit him, I'm trying to get information about his brother and trying to be friendly with him, and off-handedly mention that I'm looking for my old records. And he's like, "Oh, that's insane." [laughs]

But the more I talked to him and befriended him, he finally told me that his brother had given him most of the records and they were all in his basement. So I was like, Oh, wow, how am I going to do this? I have to somehow trick him into letting me come to his home and dig through his basement!

No person with any sense of survival would do that, that's the worst thing. [laughs] I just met you, why don't you come to my house and dig through my belongings? But eventually, from talking music with him and coming to visit down in Southern Illinois, he invited me downstairs. That became its own bizarre experience. [laughs]

Of course, this turns out to be bigger than just replacing your records — it's about holding on to your memories, your family and your friends. At one point, you even arranged to spend some time in your childhood home in Northern Michigan with your younger brother and some friends from your childhood. What was the significance of "Alive II" by Kiss to your childhood and family memories?

My brother and I had this feud about who actually owned it. His bedroom was right across from mine and he'd have it in his room, then I'd wait until he left and run in there and get it. It went back and forth and we were both very possessive, as if we owned this record.

So one day, in big, block letters, my brother wrote, "HANDS OFF" on it. He was seven at the time, and that was the most vicious threat he could think of. [laughs] I'm not a huge Kiss fan these days, but if I'm going to listen to Kiss, it has to be the one my brother wanted. 

If your wife didn't know this at the time, now that the book has been published she must know that you paid $300 for that Kiss album ... when you weren't absolutely certain it was the one that belonged to you, right?

No. [laughs] It kind of looked like there was smudging up where he'd written "HANDS OFF," but I wasn't entirely certain. It's not that the record was selling for $300 — I was at a store in Chicago and there was another guy holding on to it. I was like, "Hey, do you mind if I...?"

He could tell that I was interested, and there was this tense back-and-forth and the price kept rising and I kept saying yes, and it finally got to $300. [laughs] I don't know what that works out to per song, but that's pretty pricey.

Did you find any of the actual albums you once owned?

For certain, I know I found one. I want the Kiss one to be the real one, even though I rapidly think I'm just being an idiot. The one I'm certain about was Bon Jovi's "Slippery When Wet." I tried to impress Heather, my first girlfriend, by leaving it in my open trombone case at band practice.

It's such a dumb scam, like, Oh, let me just casually leave a Bon Jovi record here. But we got to talking and I was like, "Hey, do you want to get together later and listen to some music?" She said yes, and she gave me her phone number and I wrote it on the record.

Then, all these years later, I was digging through crates at this record fair in Chicago. I'd been there for six hours and my fingernails were bleeding, and then I found this Bon Jovi record with a phone number on it. I was like, 708...wait, that's...holy sweet Moses! I think this is the one! It was for sale for 25 cents.

My hands were shaking as I brought it to the counter, but I was trying to be cool because, if the same thing happened that happened with Kiss, they'd be like, Oh, we put the period in the wrong place, that's $2,500. And then I'd have to pay for it, even though I find Bon Jovi unlistenable. [laughs]

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