One of the most important things my father taught me was how to handle a record. With a delicacy borne of the devastated legacy of a hundred scratched LP’s, he imparted the lesson with a certain eloquent zeal.
“Put your finger in the middle,” he said. “Hold it by the edge,” he added. “And whatever you do, don’t put your fingers on the tracks.”
I think about that moment as I sit in my room, unpacking my record collection. It takes a while to unpack my records; it takes even longer to set up the archaic audio system that plays them. It’s a far cry from plug-and-play, and the speakers have a tendency to short. After a summer of listening to my IPod on planes and trains and hurried streets, after a summer of distracted musical adventures, of turning on and off songs on a whim, of listening to very few whole albums, I’m excited for the enforced discipline my record player will provide. Playing a record requires far more involvement than playing digital music. You have to stop and commit to an album; you have to be willing to get up and flip it over. Records force you to explore new music – you can’t only listen to the tracks you already know and like.
The first record I put on, mostly by coincidence, is John Lennon’s Shaved Fish. I read the lyrics on the back and glance over the cover art – flattering sketches of John and Yoko. I’m blasting “Cold Turkey,” and reading the for “Whatever Gets You Through the Night.” I’m feeling pretty damn cool.
I look through some other LP’s:
Ray Charles “The Genius Hits the Road,” looking preternaturally wizened on the cover; Chad and Jeremy, recent favorites of a Wes Andersen soundtrack; Pete Seeger, before he faded away, when the folk movement was strong, when everyone still believed in folk’s power to change the world; Carole King and her cat by a window Tapestry; The Beach Boys’ Endless Summer, bearded hippie cartoon faces peaking out behind jungle vegetation; Rock ‘N’ Roll Solid Gold Volume II, a black and white photo of a fifties greaser, his girl, and his car; Mr. Sam Cooke, Twistin’ the Night Away; Traffic’s Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, a super-group that consisted mainly of super-high-seated pants; Dinah Washington’s Drinking Again, a gray-haired black lady singing the blues; Joe Jackson’s white shoes; the bright tropical colors of Sergio Mendes and the Brasil ’66; an old Pretenders album; George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, a solitary woodsman surrounded by a desolate landscape; AC Jobim and Maurice Chevalier; lesser Bob Dylans, Planet Waves and New Morning
I look closer at some of the cover art. On Music from Big Pink, I see Bob Dylan’s watercolor of The Band, the piano player lurching violently over his piano, an elephant grazing in the background, and I think (or I hope) I understand the spirit behind “I Shall be Released.”
Glancing over an old copy of Moondance, it only occurs to me now that Van Morrison looks pleasantly and surprisingly like Van Gogh, that the face of this great Irish bard is plastered all over the record in a four astonishing and revealing self-portraits.
I see The Allman Brothers Band’s Brothers and Sisters with a photograph of a towheaded blonde boy amongst the autumn leaves and feel that my recent hatred of “Jessica” and “Ramblin’ Man” is remarkably unfounded.
For me records are home, permanent yet strangely secondhand. They fuel my obsession with the secondhand; I buy books and t-shirts in some sort of belief that the old is better than the new. After years buying more and more records at flea markets and record stores, I’ve assembled a collection of hundreds of records, and my record collection finally outstrips my CD collection. Apart from the inherent romance of vinyl – the old touch and smell of my parents’ basement – records are an affordable way to explore and experience new music. I’ve discovered albums I would have never heard, such as the South African jazzman Hugh Masekela’s brilliant 1968 album “Masekela,” a soul-jazz fusion album unlike anything that’s been created before or since.
Records take me back to a time when maybe music and certainly albums meant more to the people who listened to them, when groups of friends of similar tastes would actually meet to experience a new album together. When I listen to an LP with friends – particularly, say, an old Beatles LP – I feel transported, and it almost seems as though it’s my first time listening to it. I am suddenly stoned in my father’s 1968 dorm room.
I say: “This new Beatles is fantastic.”
Friends say: “Groovy.”
I say: “Groovy.”
For once, I’m not downloading alone on the suggestion of a friend. I’m feeling groovy with friends. We’re feeling groovy together.
Music was never meant to be listened to through the privacy of a walkman or a discman or an Ipod. It was meant to be heard within a group, through a medium in which the music is just another element within the larger experience. We’ve become, I think, disconnected from the meaning of our music, from the experience of sitting in a room with our best friends and putting on our favorite albums. When music is packaged in CD’s and MP3’s, it becomes a tool of our collective melancholy, suiting the soundtrack of our individual lives but accomplishing nothing for the soundtrack of the whole, for the appreciation of the music in and of itself and for the inescapable bond music creates between people.
Earlier this summer I was in a record store in Columbus, Ohio, hoping to find something more valuable than a Jefferson Starship to add to my collection. The store was playing some better-than-average New-Wave Muzak and I convinced myself that I was satisfied with the Joy Division I heard in the background. Then the New Wave stopped; I heard Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ doo-wop intro to “The Tracks of My Tears.” For a moment, I lost control (and not in the Joy Division sense): Smokey Robinson was exactly what I needed to hear. I was in a record store, in a city I had never visited before, driving back across country, finally and truly seeing all of America for the first time (why does everything I write somehow connect to a beautiful and mystical America?). I suddenly understood the joy of vinyl and the beauty at the heart of old music: the discovery and constant rediscovery of music, along with the ability to relate to songs I had all but forgotten. I walked out of the store with a dollar copy of Smokey Robinson’s Greatest Hits, Volume II.
I’m thinking about having some record-listening parties this year, of losing the IPod for a night and sharing the music with friends. I’d like to throw on some old soul records and jitterbug to an old-fashioned beat. So play that rock and roll music, but please, play it on a turntable. If you wanna dance with me.