My last post, about selling off my rarest record, got me thinking about collector culture and in particular, the idea of holy grails vs. white whales.
The two are related – but not identical concepts. The Holy Grail is best known and understood: it’s like a mythical record everyone wants and searches for, but the odds of finding are next to nil. Without a doubt, in the circles I run with, the holiest of Holy Grails is the supposed 12″ version of Bob James’ “Mardi Gras” without the bells. It seems almost certain this actually is a myth (sorry Biz): even Bob James has zero recollection of this existing and not a single person has turned up credible evidence of the record’s actual existence (sorry, an MP3 of said recording isn’t very convincing). Nonetheless, for years, people have stared hard any CTI logo they’ve seen, in hopes of coming across this animal.
Now, this is where things can get a bit nit-picky (and in my opinion, more fun to argue over): there’s some debate about what a “holy grail” means in an age where eBay and the internet have made previously hard-to-find albums easy-to-get so long as you’re willing to throw down. At one point in time, something like the Skull Snaps LP was considered a holy grail to find “in the field” (i.e. come across at a record store or yard sale). And indeed, it is a hard LP to find in the field. But not on eBay. If you have flush enough pockets, you can find an original Skull Snaps for under $200, easily. Even the John Heartsman LP – which regularly commands prices in the thousands – has still shown up at least four times in the last year. Grail or not grail?
Likewise, take something like the Frank Wilson single. Supposedly, only two copies exist – both of which are in the hands of well-known collectors. Can something be considered a grail when its quantities are both finite and its ownership fixed? It’s not like you describe Rodan’s “The Thinker” “a holy grail of sculptures” – multiple copies exist and everyone knows where they are; you won’t “find” one randomly (as far as we know…maybe there’s a spare one in a warehouse somewhere).
To me, I think what would be a legitimate grail is something like this:
Salt: Hung Up
From 7″ (Choctaw, 196?)
Despite a curious trio of sales back in 2007, it hasn’t shown up again (on eBay at least) and is one of those singles that’d be hard to come by regardless of how much money you have to spend. However, there’s always the possibility of turning one up in the field, hence what also gives it a grail mystique.
In contrast, a white whale (big up Melville!) can be obscure too but it’s less about what a community deems worthy of searching out and instead, is a personal obsession. It’s a record that you dream (or have nightmares) about, the one that haunts you or at the very least, eludes you in the frustrating ways. At their most extreme, a white whale might just be identical to what you call a “personal grail” and in that respect, theres’s a lot of left-of-field records out there which aren’t well known to a general population but are still the objects of obsessive pursuit by others. For me, something like the Bobby Reed 7″ is white whale-ish since I do lust after it but with deep enough pockets, I could just buy one; therefore, it’s open to debate how white whale-ish it could be. In contrast, a less expensive, but more elusive white whale of mine was:
Jack Constanzo: Jive Samba
From Latin Soul With Percussion (Tico, 1968)
I’ve been after this album for literally years now but surprisingly, for a Tico title, it very rarely ends up for sale and I’ve been reticent to go all out to buy one since, to me, it’s kind of a one-tracker (but oh, what a great track). Thanks to a buddy down in San Diego, I finally was able to buy this at a more reasonable price this past weekend and it felt good to finally scratch this off my want-list. Is it the whale-iest of my white whales? Eh, probably not, but elusive and long sought-after? Most definitely.
So…what do you consider a holy grail? And what are your personal white whales?
Great post! Although I don’t have specific examples of each at the moment, I can definitely relate. I find that holy grails that are generally accepted as so by others end up disappointing me when they don’t live up to the hype. White whales however are almost always a source of private satisfaction and a personal secret of sorts.
Oh snap! Thanks for the Jack Constanzo track. I’ve been loving US3’s “You can’t hold me down” in a major way and finally I hear the original rhythm track it samples. Such a great groove.
I had a pretty hard time coming up with the 2 x 12″ 45 promo version of Elvis Costello’s Get Happy!! album. I finally found each of the two discs separately, which was pretty gratifying and certainly the least expensive way to do it. Supposedly there was a time (before I knew it existed) when this record wasn’t all that tough to come by, so I don’t know if it counts as a white whale or not.
for me its definitely george & glenn miller’s ‘touch your life’ 12” from west end. I read somewhere that it was a flop commercially and unsold stocks got melted down again.
The guy who found those Salt 45s, so the legend goes, left behind like 20 copies and then couldn’t find the guy he got them from.
Almost as bad as the guy who passed on a 100 count box of the first, private label neil young 45.
See, the tale I always heard was that the guy who found the Salt 45 actually BROKE the remaining copies so no one else could cop. Sounded like a fish tale to me but hey, crazier shit has happened.
My white whale was Smashing Pumpkins “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”. Its extremely easy to find bootleg vinyl copies on eBay, nearly impossible to find genuine copies. I had to do a lot of research to figure out how to spot the differences, and it is especially not easy to do so without the copy in-hand. After months of searching, I did locate and purchase one from a gentleman in Japan! Does it still count as a white whale if you’ve speared it?
Great post, monsieur. I have this penchant for Canadian and Finnish soul/funk/jazz/etc. rareties (long story). With relatively low pressings (especially Finnish vinyl) I sometimes feel like I’m chasing a pod of white whales, let alone one. Best ‘spearing’ (thanks, Josh) was strolling into Helsinki’s craziest record store and finding Finnish Big Band Jazz – No Comments (feat. the killer moog-y UFOLOGY track -reissued as a 12″ by Jazz Puu) on top of a pile by the cash register! Don’t know if this link works, but worth a listen if so. should be track 6)
This is a holy grail to me: Atomic Forest- Obsession ’77
This is my personal white whale, just because it is a local record that has eluded me for years:
“You will be mine. Oh yes, someday you will be mine!”
Holy Grail – Electric Ladyland with the naked ladies on the cover. Probably a pre-eBay grail, but definitely one of mine…
White Whale – Kiko by Los Lobos. Only printed once, in Holland, when vinyl was near-bottom in 1992. Occasionally pops up on eBay, and always goes for at least $125. In serious need of re-issue…
I’ve never been up on the super duper rare stuff, some I’m not sure what qualifies as a holy grail record these days. I remember when 24-carat black’s Ghetto Misfortune’s Wealth was considered a holy grail, perhaps the Numero 2nd lp changed that or ebay, I don’t know seems to be had for less than $100 now.
The 2nd Toni Tornado record is both a Holy Grail and White Whale for me, that seems to go for $300+, Phil Cohran Malcolm X Tribute is another that fits both. I wonder if there was ever a test pressing of the soundtrack for the Taking of Pelham 1,2,3…
White Whale’s all over the damn place, all kinds of 45s, mostly from New Orleans, of tracks that I’ve always loved but never had an original, Les Baxter’s Hell’s Belles soundtrack too, I’ve always wanted an original of that.
My record collection is controlled by one rule; I can’t spend anymore than $2 on a record. I have a more fun and thrift stores, flea markets, and garage sales because of this and my spending doesn’t sprawl out of control like some of you guys! The downside is that my white whale list keeps on growing.
#1 is Neil Young’s On the Beach, which I could own in 10 minutes on ebay. Can’t wait for the day I find it in a dollar bin!
My Holy Grail was: Prince Buster’s Record Shack, Golden Oldies Volume 3, presents the Maytals. Early gospel ska by the Maytals, and a much better collection in my opinion than any of the Studio One releases of that era of their material. I was searching ebay regularly, found a couple of the 45’s from the collection. Weird thing is I’m not a purist about original pressings or anything, so I would have picked it up had it been released like all the other Golden Oldies series that have been repressed on Prince Busters label and another re-issue label (can’t remember the name). I’m guessing the reason Vol. 3 wasn’t re-released is because it is the Maytals material, where as all the other collections were Prince Buster’s material (all very good too incidentaly). Anyhow, the best little record store in Portland new I was looking for it and it finally came in. He let someone check it out, but when I came in he called that someone to see if they would let me buy it, if they weren’t that into it. They came down and gave it up. He sold it to me for nothing, because he knew it was priceless and how much it meant to me. Thus the true Holy Grail!
Hi Oliver! For the Jack Constanzo track and that whole album, it had Gerrie/Gerry Woo on it. Do you by chance know what Asian ethnicity she is? I only see bios that say “Oriental Mexican”. Thanks!