by Erik Espe
That unmistakable scratching and hissing sound emanates from the front yard of 4260 Ruthelma Ave. The music is old--very old--jazz from the 1940s to be exact. Glenn Howard, a long-haired man with sideburns and a mustache reminiscent of David Crosby, is packing LPs--that's long-playing records for those of the CD generation--into boxes in the front yard of the home in which he grew up. There are hundreds of LPs in the yard, and in the garage and home there are thousands more.
At Howard's cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains there are even more LPs. And more are stored in the homes of friends.
All in all, Howard estimates, he has more than 250,000 vinyl records, and only a few compact discs.
Why the disparity, and why would anyone want to own so many records that it would take more than a decade to hear them all?
For Howard, who has been collecting records since his days at Cubberley High School in the 1960s, the answer is spiritual.
"Records are the first instrument for capturing people's souls," he says. "When you put the needle on the groove, the spirit comes out at you."
The answer is also based on a theory Howard has about compact discs. He believes that CDs--contrary to myth--aren't as durable as records. Chemical erosion will inevitably destroy their digital data, he maintains.
"CD stands for 'seedy,'" he says. "The aluminum on compact discs oxidizes. A compact disc won't last more than 15 years."
Take care of a record, however, and it never dies. If you doubt that hypothesis, get an earful of some of Howard's century-old records. They may sound scratchy, but you can hear a lone singer performing music at around the time the Battle of Wounded Knee was taking place.
Asked what his oldest record is, Howard sighs. "I don't know," he says. "I've got several Berliners. They're one-sided records from the 1890s. There are always people who want those, no matter what's on them."
Howard has 78s from the '20s. He has politically incorrect records like "Little Black Sambo," a children's offering from the 1940s that was long out of print by the time the civil rights era swept America.
There's Ken Kesey's "The Acid Test," monophonic Beach Boys records, Chipmunks albums, the Beatles, and 10-inch discs from the '50s.
"Hillbilly" 78s from the 1920s feature hits like "The Bum Song" and "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum!" while the album "Howl" has Allen Ginsberg reading the legendary poem of the same name.
"The Allen Ginsberg 'Howl' record is better than the book, because it's him, Allen Ginsberg, on record," Howard says as he surveys the boxes on the driveway.
He's preparing the yard for a record sale that takes place this weekend. Some Palo Alto record collectors may remember the sales Howard held at this same address in the 1980s.
His collection has ballooned to such mammoth proportions that Howard--who makes a living tracking down out-of-print LPs for major music artists--sells his "duplicates," albums he has collected that he already owns.
"I have people who plan their vacations around these record sales," he says. "When you go to a used record store, you see what people didn't buy. Not here."
It's been six years since Howard's last sale. It starts this Saturday at 8 a.m. at the same address he always used to hold them at--4260 Ruthelma Ave.--and continues through the weekend. The ultimate garage sale for record collectors, the event may even draw a few celebrities, according to Howard.
Jello Biafra, former lead singer of the Dead Kennedys, has been calling Howard about the sale. Biafra collects Christian rock albums.
Biafra isn't Howard's only friend in the music business.
He sometimes lunches with Branford Marsalis. When the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake destroyed his album shelves, the Grateful Dead paid for the installation of new ones.
When Los Lobos came to Palo Alto recently, band members met with Howard to check out his collection of Los Lobos records.
"There are some people in the business I don't know," Howard says. "I don't know Bon Jovi, but I don't want to know him."
Why the enthusiasm among major label recording artists? Howard says it's because they--even more than the average record collector--have very specific musical tastes that can't be satisfied by an ordinary music store.
"What enables people to get on stage and play the same songs for the rest of their lives is other people's music," Howard says. "That's where I come in."
Howard makes his living conducting record searches for both collectors and stars. He's also started the American Musical Heritage Foundation to bring together LP collections from estates. Often when a collector dies, the family sells off the collection, destroying a library that may have taken a lifetime to create. When Howard passes away, he plans to will his collection to the foundation, which will be funded by members of the Grateful Dead, he says. Although the Library of Congress keeps records from the '60s onward, it doesn't have albums that date back before then, he says.
The Foundation's board of advisors includes the Grateful Dead, Bonnie Raitt, Marsalis, Los Lobos, Talking Heads, Michael Hedges, Biafra, Michelle Shocked, Sonic Youth and X.
"We now have more than 100 years of recorded history," Howard says. "When I listen to 1920s stuff that I haven't heard before, it's not nostalgia. I wasn't alive then. It's new music."
The Greatest Record Sale of All Time
What: Glenn Howard's Musician's Reference Library
When: 8 a.m.-dusk, Saturday, Sept. 23; 9 a.m.-dusk, Sunday, Sept. 24 to Monday, Oct. 2
Where: 4260 Ruthelma Ave., Palo Alto
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