Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Getting the Vinyl Out
Even in the full 1990s glory days of CDs, I clung to the old habits, keeping a good stack of vinyl LPs nearby, tucked away a little discreetly as one who was married had to do, though still in walking distance to the stereo. On a weekend evening, while my wife was preparing dinner, a bottle of wine open, no kids yet, or perhaps just the one, just a baby, I would periodically have the inspiration and the energy to delve in as a DJ and start spinning the tunes from my old records.
But babies become toddlers. More kids come. Records are fun things for them to destroy. Kids also start taking up time, record-playing time, time spent sitting down and reading liner notes, moving a turntable arm to the desired track. I know I’m not alone in the trend of those who found the dusty, scratchy old records migrating up to the attic or other “out of sight” (by one’s wife) locales. CDs were just too damn convenient for a guy like me to get nit-picky over the sound quality differences. Sure, there were (are?) some discernible positives that argued for the “warmer” vinyl, but man, the clarity on a well-mastered CDs, the small footprint taken up by a collection of them, as well as the portability… well, the poor old record didn’t stand much of a chance in households like mine.
Not that I ever thought of getting rid of any of my records, mind you. Why bother? If one had some space to store them, well, for me they are at very least like old photos, notebooks, memorabilia, etc. Too many memories wrapped up in the medium itself, both LPs in general and my collection specifically. I remember where and when I got almost every single record in my collection. And, here goes my requisite old-guy swipe at newer “forms of delivery”: I don’t recall with fuzzy warmth the time I downloaded the Kings of Leon “record.” But I remember the day I bought Sticky Fingers. I remember the whole day, the taste and temperature of the October air on the north shore of Long Island, walking downtown to buy the record at the off at “Off the Record” shop, walking again near the high school football field at dusk, clutching a square plastic bag made to hold albums, and finally getting home to my room to open up the Warhol-designed cover, peeling off the cellophane, my mother cooking dinner downstairs, taking out the disc, held by the edges in my palms, gently placing it on the turntable, and lowering the needle to hear the opening chords of “Sway.”
Along with the disappearing of records came the downsizing of the average stereo “system.” I, like many people, found myself playing music more often via the laptop, the iPod, etc. I don’t even play CDs in the car much anymore. That format seemed to just be a transitional one as well. But I am not complaining; I’m one who loves his music portable. I am filled with glee when I can take out my iPhone and, using an app called Remote, wirelessly dial up any music on my hard drive and stream it through my wifi network to any set of speakers I have hooked up to one of those Airport Express babies. I know this is not an audiophile’s dream, but not much is lost from the pretty basic analog systems I had all my life. I could never afford really expensive stereo equipment so it is a net plus for me. And if you had told me as a kid that I would be able to do that, well damn! I remember hearing a rumor that legendary local Boston D.J. Charles Laquidera had a system in his house that would mechanically dig out an album from his library of thousands in his basement and play it on a turntable/stereo wired throughout the house, sort of a whole-house jukebox. Not sure if there was any truth to it, but it was a fantastic image.
Still, I am not the first to point out that with all these conveniences, I feel like I have lost that whole tactile and cultural-relic aspect and relationship to my music. Sure, with that loss comes some gains. For example, with the appearance of the CD, we lost that big album art and rarely was there some novel invention or worthy artistic idea to offset or compensate for what was lost with the larger format. But as the Internet grew, so did music databases, artist web sites, blogs, fanzines, great ‘net radio like KCRW, Pandora, etc. So I find myself often discovering new music far more quickly than ever before and then digging deep and seeing videos by and of the artists, interviews, artwork, message boards, reviews – in short, far more than could ever have been imagined even in the days of 3-LP sets with booklets, postcards, and posters.
And yet…and yet, here I was pulling out a copy of Magical Mystery Tour from up in my attic to demonstrate exactly what I was talking about to my 4th grade daughter as she peered at the MMT “cover” on her iPod Nano. “Here,” I said. “You think that’s a cool picture, wait ‘til you see how it originally came out.” And she was either duly impressed with the old LP cover and booklet that I retrieved or faking it to not make me feel so bad and, uh, old. And she started asking me, as if out of central casting, exactly how were these things played. “Well,” I said. “Let me show you.” And I proceeded to go get the old turntable off the top of the basement refrigerator and hooked it up to my receiver. Now, this is a receiver I bought to have surround sound in the basement after, in the typical mode of leapfrogging technology, I got a big HD screen for down there. All my older stuff, Technics, Onkyo tape deck, etc. had either long ago died or left somewhere. Upstairs we have some ‘90s receiver to play the DVD and TV through, channeled into some lame 3:1 computer speakers hooked up through the headphone jack. But it sounds perfectly fine. The receiver downstairs, though, does not have an input for a turntable, which needs a preamp, blah blah blah. I could not play the records!
But weeks later, not sure what gave me the buzz again aside from another glass of wine and a fall Saturday afternoon, but I remembered I had gotten some sort of preamp to allow me to hook up the turntable to my computer. And I delved back into the attic and after a good hour, managed to find it in literally the last box in the farthest-most corner of the eaves. I grabbed the first record I could put my fingers on in one of the attic crates, Sgt. Pepper’s of all things, and went to the basement. It worked! The first song? “Lucy in the Sky,” of course, for the 4th grader, Lucy.
For the next hour I brought almost 1000 records, arms-full, crates-full of 12 and 10-inchers, dusty, heavy, down two floors to the basement, playing Blackmarket Clash, Bitches Brew, Daydream Nation, Truth, Feed Me with Your Kiss, Dark Side of the Moon, Time Fades Away and on and on, while I made my trips, sweating, I had all the records I could find. I know the indie kids are again (still?) collecting and bands releasing projects this way again. And, man, some of my records are worth a lot of money! A picture disc of Who Are You for $80?! 40 bucks here, another 50 there. The Pavement 10’’ is going for how much?!
I have replaced a great many of these old records with CDs, but so many more have not been. And they sounded great. But come on, I don’t buy the lament that the old stuff sounded “better,” unless your vinyl is pristine, in great quality pressings, with a high-end turntable. I know audiophiles are into the format. For me, all that crackling other deficiencies…the music just sounds smaller, murkier for the most part; sure, warmer here and there, but just kind of limited.
But here they were, my old friends! All stacked up and ready to be played again, thumbed through, re-stacked, opened, read, remembered. More wine!