Under the cool fluorescent hum bathing the legal department at Dell’s Round Rock campus, Dean Blackwood speaks to me in hushed tones. The room is library quiet, as muted as the dark rat-maze of endless cubicles. Blackwood’s space is untouched by clutter, not a stray pen or Post-it note in sight. As one of 45 attorneys at the computer giant, his credentials are exemplary: a bachelor’s degree from Cornell, a law degree from Harvard. He seems the consummate white-collar professional, but outside these windowless walls, Blackwood leads a secret life.You know the stereotype. They are obsessive and quixotic, and nothing stands in the way of their goal. The weight of their acquisitions is directly disproportionate to their vaporous shell of a life. They’re collectors, and God help you if you get between them and whatever they want.
For many collectors, it’s music. Unlike Italian Renaissance art or, I don’t know, thimbles, music is easy to appreciate. There’s the moment that hooks you, the way a string bends or a trumpet glides. First you need to hear it over and over, then you seek more, and soon you have to have … everything. This fanaticism comes in two forms: rare-record collectors and those who just want the tunes. Blackwood says he’s the latter, though he does have a shelf of 78’s he handles as if they were pages of the original Declaration of Independence. The distinction is an important one, if only to this peculiar subset of humanity. Since marriage forced me to, uh, reevaluate my vinyl habit, I’ve graduated from the plague to pneumonia. I don’t show up at your garage sale at six in the morning looking for Paramount 78’s, but make no mistake: The want is still there. And I’m not alone. We walk among you.
Music exists only in real time, and owning a lot of it entails a compulsive need to share it with others. Anyone who has music-afflicted friends has suffered as they hauled out the albums like so many vacation slides. Blackwood’s “unhealthy” obsession, as he calls it, has taken this to extremes. Maybe you’ve never heard of his label, Revenant Records, or any of the music it distributes. It’s a label designed primarily for people like him. The label finds and in some cases records musical treasures, and for those on the hunt, Revenant is a dream come true.
Blackwood, now 31, got the music bug early. As a kid in Arlington, he’d sit stone-faced by the radio until “My Cherie Amour” played one more time. His tastes quickly expanded beyond Stevie Wonder. Soon there was Sub Pop’s alternative rock and, somewhere along the way, a fetish for 78’s, the dense slabs of vinyl that Blackwood would find at his great-grandparents’ home. In 1994, while tending to the pragmatic at Harvard Law School, Blackwood’s perverse side had him spending a “ridiculous” amount of money launching a 78 label, Perfect, in a CD age. And that, after a chance reading of a magazine article, would lead him to John Fahey’s door.
Fahey. That cranky, record-collecting guitar genius who had all but dropped off the map. Having refused to be typecast as some sort of folkie, he appeared to have fallen on hard times, living in an Oregon weekly-rate hotel with little to show for his accomplishments. It was a ruse. “Fahey loved to appear to be down and out,” says Bill Belmont, who brought Fahey’s Takoma label (which the guitarist founded and recorded for) to its current owners, Fantasy Records. Mitchell Greenhill collected Fahey’s publishing income and kept the musician