Words and photos by Rafe Arnott, except where noted.
Record Weasels is a savvy, hardboiled noir-thriller piled high with double-crossing 45 collectors, violent RICO-era mobsters, and failing relationships wrapped in greasy wax paper with a side of sexual tension, drug addiction and death all served cold to an early ‘60s Rockabilly soundtrack. This pre-millennium New England crime romp is replete with flawed characters, a loose moral compass, and enough plot twists, articulate banter, and relatable melancholy to make cracking a cold one while reading it a foregone conclusion.
The book’s exposition comes at the reader in legato, propelling characters along from incident-to-incident at a brisk pace, all the while managing to include a plethora of detail-oriented narrative without coming across as indulgent. This is most noticeable in the comprehensive manner in which author Richard Blackburn catalogs the minutiae of the interaction between characters. Whether it’s a casual exchange, conflict or outright coercion, Blackburn’s constant presentation and juxtaposition of semiotics between criminals and record collectors is fascinating, and his unambiguous translations serve the reader well in processing the underlying character motivations.
Cinephiles might recognize Blackburn’s name as one of the men behind the 1982 black comedy Eating Raoul, which he co-wrote and acted in, or the 1973 cult horror film Lemora: A Child's Tale Of The Supernatural, which he co-wrote, acted in and directed. Blackburn’s involvement with vintage records goes back more than four decades, and he’s been a longtime chronicler of American pop culture with two associate-editor titles under his belt for The Catalog of Cool and Too Cool. Blackburn also co-authored two editions of the Rare Rockabilly & Rock n’ Roll 45 RPM Price Guide. Weasels was his first book, published in 2017, followed in 2019 with Vent: A Novel, which recounts the life of a ventriloquist lensed through pivotal moments of the 20th century.
Blackburn, who earned a BA in Film from UCLA in 1966 and a Masters in Library Science from USC in 1975, splits his time hunting for rare grooves online, writing and running the 45 rpm online record shop Bopalacious with his partner Naomi Robbins, who is an artist, designer and fellow record junkie. I caught up with Blackburn recently from his home in Southern California.
Interview with Richard Blackburn
Resistor Mag: What’s your relationship to music like? Would you describe it as complicated?
Richard Blackburn: “Having no discernible talent for making music – yet loving it – has led me into the roles of critic, compiler, dealer and, with Record Weasels, novelist.”
RM: What’s your usual writing routine?
RB: “When I am working on fiction I'm initially like those climbers who will study for hours the outer face of a mountain picking out foot and handholds before attempting the ascent which takes a fraction of the time. Once the way is clear to me (and I never know how long all my pre-planning and scribbled outlining may take) I'm off and running. Yet when a first draft is completed that analogy ends because the rewriting begins.”
RM: Record Weasels is not your average noir thriller. Where did you get the idea for it?
RB: “The essential ripoff idea came from an actual incident that happened to a record dealer/collector. I used a variation of it in writing the screenplay for the movie Eating Raoul.”
RM: The idea of combining crime and record collecting seems like an inspired fit, yet, surprisingly you encountered pushback when looking for a publisher. Surely, any object where provenance is key, like paintings or books – even cheese has mafia ties – shouldn’t be a difficult cocktail to mix with corruption as a selling point?
RB: “Publishers thought the record collecting would not appeal to those who wanted a straight crime story and vice versa. Even now the idea to make it a movie meets with the same objection. I like to mix genres in fiction just as I often like to hear mixtures of genres in music.”
RM: The book’s story arc criss-crosses New England, features many authentic geographic, cultural and epicurean references, and a deep knowledge of specific genres of music and rare record pressings. How much research did you have to do in order make the novel wholly believable in your mind? Or was all the required information gleaned from your own experiences?
RB: “I basically lived the record related background of the novel so characters, places and incidents are all largely a blend of the actual. The criminal elements are much more researched.”
RM: The book is set in the late ’90s. You do an excellent job of creating an immersive, detail-oriented, pre-millennium lifestyle patina, especially with references to several real-life record robberies. Did you start writing the novel then, or did this time period hold a particular attraction for the plot?
RB: “I chose the late ’90s because that was when the RICO act had really begun to vitiate the Mafia's power.”
Many would say the Kevin character and I are one and the same. However, in my defence I would argue that the former is a bit more obsessive.”
Photo above: Blackburn in a graphic for a radio show he participated in. Image courtesy Richard Blackburn.
RM: One scene in the book involves the protagonist stumbling across Hasidic Jews sitting in a hallway, eyes closed, mesmerized while listening to 'Lonesome Train ' by the Johnny Burnett trio. Flash of brilliance, or pulled from reality?
RB: “The Hasidim listening to Johnny Burnette happened just as I described it.”
RM: The story’s lead is intelligent, self-deprecating, fixated on obscure film noir, acutely nostalgic and obsessed with rare record collecting – almost to the exclusion of all else – how much of yourself is in Kevin Dougherty?
RB: “Many would say the Kevin character and I are one and the same. However, in my defence I would argue that the former is a bit more obsessive.”
RM: Are you able to pinpoint when your love of collecting records turned into an obsession for you?
RB: “I don’t know about being full-on obsessed, but I definitely used to be more intense about beating others to records on a list or at shows. It happened gradually. Now I can still be disappointed at missing a keenly wanted 45, but I’ve mellowed a bit with the knowledge that I never will have every great record and that I’m only really a caretaker for the ones I do have.”
RM: Do protagonists need a steady moral compass to be likeable, or is it enough that they attempt to do the right thing without ever really achieving it?
RB: “Both protagonists and antagonists can be sympathetic to readers regardless if they try or do not try to do the right thing. It's subjective depending on the reader. A female friend of mine had no sympathy for Kevin's wife, feeling she should have known what she was letting herself in for when she married the guy.”
RM: People tend to identify with flawed characters. They often root for people who, by definition, are bad. Did you dial back Kevin’s worst or best tendencies as you developed him?
RB: “No dialling either way. I just let the character fly.”
RM: Whats the edit process like? You mentioned previously the hardest part is knowing what to leave out?
RB: “There are so many great anecdotes and characters I've encountered in a lifetime of vinyl collecting and dealing that the temptation was to cram it all in. I constantly had to practice self-restraint in order to better serve the story.”
Photo above: Blackburn and Robbins run Bopalacious.com, a rare 45rpm online record shop.
RM: What’s the attraction for writing crime fiction? What informs the criminal element to your writing?
RB: “As it has been pointed out many times – criminals and artists share many similarities. They have periods of inactivity (whether seemingly or not), contrasted with periods of very intense activity. They tend to feel only understood by those who are in the same line of work. They both work on projects that demand a great deal of planning, etc.”
RM: You run Bopalacious – an online store specializing in difficult-to-find 45rpm records spanning beatnik, country boppers, hot rod, jazz, punk, rockabilly, surf, Tex-Mex and zydeco (to name but a few). When and why did you start it, and was it initially stocked from your personal collection?
RB: “I had been collecting/dealing for many years and that coupled with (partner) Naomi’s e-commerce experience led in 2015 to the creation of Bopalacious to unload doubles and help us afford new acquisitions.
RM: Bopalacious is a co-curated endeavour with your partner, Naomi Robbins, whom I understand shares your interest in 45s. How did you two meet, and is the shop a labour of love for you both?
RB: “Naomi and I were introduced by a mutual record-collector friend who was one of her former teachers at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. At the time we met she was doing her Lost in Paradise podcast and we bonded over that.”
RM: I imagine that traditionally, travel played a central role in accessing collections and acquiring 45s for the shop. How have you been sourcing new stock since the pandemic hit?
RB: “Without traveling to shows to find records, many still get to us over the Internet and mailed lists.”
RM: Do you and Naomi keep your 45 collections separate? And if so, is there a competitive edge between one another when it comes to scoring rare grooves?
RB: “There was a slight rivalry when we first knew each other and had our separate collections. Eventually we combined them. Even married couples who are record collectors advised us against it but I guess we’re just a pair of starry-eyed romantics. Now I do most of the buying and enjoy finding 45’s I know she’ll dig. We also have listening sessions to decide what to keep and what to sell.”
RM: What's your home hi-fi like?
RB: I very much need to overhaul my ancient sound system. I have a 1229Q Dual turntable, unnecessarily huge speakers, etc. As of right now I just test recently acquired 45’s on my 1950’s RCA 45 player or both 45’s and LP’s on a Mr. Disc Audio-Technics portable player. We have a twin turntable set up should we ever decide to get back to doing a podcast.
RM: What’s next for Richard Blackburn? Could we see more Record Weasels? Have you thought of serializing it?
RB: “Besides a second novel (Vent available through bopalacious.com) several projects are now in the works, including a radio play and portraying a record dealer in a soon-to-be-made independent movie. Also my third novel will be out soon.”
Record Weasels can be purchased HERE.