My Ode to Vinyl
In 1978, I owned over 500 albums. No one used the word vinyl back them. We figured the black plastic material was made of ground up tar pieces found in a driveway or some transmogrified version of black Lego blocks melted down at a factory by evil corporate overlords and reanimated as a Captain and Tennille record. Ahhhhhh!!!!! We also didn’t know anything about recycling. All products in the known universe either existed in their current form or were transported out to the city landfill to rot in a state of perpetual doom. Recycling was something you did with a cassette tape when you recorded Deep Purple over The Who.
I hate to admit this in public, but the first record I ever purchased was by Barry Manilow. I’ve been racked with guilt ever since. The album cover showed a picture of a gold statue of a guy wearing tailcoats while playing the piano. It didn’t really make any sense back then, either. Did barry Manilow win a Barry Manilow award?
You might remember this album as the one that made Barry a star with the hit “I Write the Songs” which, in a fit of irony that could only happen in the 70s, was written by a guy named Bruce Johnston. I guess that’s a bit like Kanye doing a rap album where he sings about busting up a nightclub and getting shot by gangsters when every song is composed by 50 Cent.
My great badge of honor back then, on par with having kids and writing that one article about Buzz Aldrin, is this: The second album I ever purchased was After the Gold Rush by Neil Young. See, all of my credibility restored in one heroic act. It’s like Katy Perry writing a book about neuroscience. You kick yourself for listening to her music and then pat yourself on the back for learning about genetic dispositions at a cellular level. Rebound!
Somehow, it worked. The shag carpet. The lava lamps. Songs about being in a depressive state due to conflicts with Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Wearing Keds sneakers and suede pants and not realizing how ridiculous you look. Eating a Hostess Twinkie with no condemnation. I’d sit in my room, shielding my eyes from the sparkles inside the lava lamp and the barf-brown carpet, and take in the abject candor of Southern Man with a deep sense of personal identification over the trials of racial disparity. (Actually, I’m from Minnesota so I had no idea what he was talking about.)
Music, the organized collection of repeated audio patterns, formed me into the man I am today. Owning the entire Steely Dan catalog helped me get a first date. Listening to Boston helped me learn about geography and domestic travel. I’m not sure I’d know as much about chemical alternatives if it wasn’t for bands like The Doors and King Crimson.
In high school, the first question I asked potential acquaintances didn’t have anything to do with sports or studying. It was about The Beatles. “Name your favorite song on Rubber Soul,” I’d say, and wait patiently for the correct response. (It’s Michelle, natch. Mostly due to the segments in French.) We didn’t collect albums. We didn’t put them in a hermetically sealed glass case and use a dust rag. We bought them like candy or milk at the grocery store. We loved the flaws. Skips were all part of the fun. They added character. If your double-album of Tommy by The Who had a few scratches, you didn’t cry about it or sulk. You celebrated the fact that you could even own a rock opera about post-traumatic stress disorder and the challenges of not being able to hear, see, or speak. If the print was fading a bit on the cover of your Rolling Stones Let It Bleed album because you let it sit in the back of your 1976 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme for too long on a hot summer day, you didn’t whine. You just lived with the setback.
I have no fondness for the medium at all. It was essentially a means to an end. I recently heard about people who buy the vinyl for an album so they can look at it while they listen to an iPod. Isn’t that quaint? There are turntables that can record the album and put it into a digital format you can share with friends. Isn’t that a sure way to usher in the Apocalypse? I can imagine Jon Lord, the famous and now deceased keyboard player from Deep Purple, turning over in his grave at the idea of someone recording Smoke on the Water from vinyl so they can listen to it on their Android smartphone as a low-bandwidth stream while stand-up paddling. It’s a little heretical. And probably a little dangerous.
I won’t go back to records. Ever. I’m no audiophile. You can have the lava lamps, the shag carpet, the Keds sneakers, and the vinyl. It was a phase best left to a previous decade. Do records sound better? Sure. There’s something a bit more authentic about hearing a song by Fleetwood Mac generated by the pits of an actual piece of plastic instead of just by a few ones and zeroes. The truth is, I’m still a sucker for the song Rhiannon in any format, digital or otherwise. What appeals to me is the story behind the song, the people making the music, and the creativity of the artist. I’m more interested in the music than the transport medium. I understand collecting. I don’t really understand the thing about dust clothes and glass cases.
Really, Deep Purple doesn’t care, either. They just don’t! Their most famous song is about a hotel burning down to the ground and people living to see another day. They don’t have time for dust clothes.