Recently I rediscovered my old turntable. Covered in dust, neglected and relegated to an unused corner of the den, tucked into it’s “imitation woodgrain cabinet’ along with the dual cassette deck, AM/FM receiver and 5 disc CD tray, MASSIVE remote included, my JVC component stereo system was pretty awesome stuff when Buff and I bought it some 22 years ago, at Circuit City in Nashville. In the ensuing years, it had become just a piece of furniture and thanks to the CD/iTunes revolution, it’s absence wasn’t noticed at all for a looooong time! It was a good place to stack books when the bookshelf was too full (or far away). I had even thought of selling it from time to time.
A vinyl record shop re-opening in my hometown (https://www.facebook.com/VarietyRecordLounge) probably had something to do with me “remembering” my stereo, but for whatever reason, sitting down with my record collection made me realize just how much I’d missed it. Buff bet me that it wouldn’t even work anymore but as I dropped the needle that warm, boomy tone jumped out of our speakers that still bear the tattered remnants of our long passed cat General Sterling Price’s passion for well sharpened claws.
First, a disclaimer, I like technology. I am a fan of all things new and shiny and, when it comes to recorded music, iTunes and MP3’s have their place and play a huge part in my personal enjoyment of music as well as in my professional relationship with the art form. I have about 60 vinyl albums at the moment but I have about 4,000 CD’s and according to my iTunes library 7,536 “albums”, so obviously iTunes wins in quanity! As much as I travel, being able to take my entire iTunes collection on the road, via en external hard drive is awesome. Being able to pull up any song on YouTube or Rhapsody, Spotify, Pandora or any other streaming service (I’ll have to write another blog about how artists are getting screwed by the unfair streaming laws) is really a sign of the times for our culture. My iPhone and iPad are instant jukeboxes for me and my car stereo is actually just a flash-drive socket that plays stuff from my iTunes. It was 6 months or so before I discovered that the radio portion of my car stereo wasn’t even hooked up in my car. We are the “RIGHT NOW” generation. We don’t wait well for anything. In fact, I see examples all the time of how little patience many of us have for, well, ‘patience’.
As I sit in the floor (yes it’s best to sit in the floor while listening to records, try it.) and pull out some of my albums I remember how strong of an impact the music has when I can look at the artwork (in a size that you can actually see), read the liner notes, absorb the entire artistic effort and then of course you have to get up and turn the record over to hear side 2 (or 3 or 4 for that matter). The smell of the cardboard and vinyl, the occasional crackle and pop from the speakers as the needle jumps a tiny scratch. The sound of the needle automatically lifting, signaling the time to change sides.
Listening to records is a physical commitment that you can’t have with iTunes. In one of the great ironies of technology, listening to vinyl albums is an interactive experience while iTunes is really a static experience. Records require something of the owner and the listener. There’s the aforementioned physical “turning over” of records, not to mention taking them out of the sleeve and placing the needle on the groove (no accident that they’re called ‘grooves’)They get scratched and warped if they’re not taken care of so you have to be responsible. You tend to listen to songs on albums in order and I at least, tend to listen to an entire side of a record before I change to another. Records make it more likely that you’ll listen to the tracks “in order”, in other words, in the sequence that the artist intended for them to be played. When I started making records, it was still standard practice to put thought into the sequencing of a record. They told a story or at least had some kind of thread. Those days are mostly gone and songs drive the popular conscience these days. In some ways I agree, I don’t want to hear an entire album of The Fox (What Does The Fox Say?). Maybe they would do all animals with different senses like; “What Does The Goat Hear” or “What Does The Unicorn Smell” or “Why The Komodo Dragon Cries”. And I could go off on a tangent about how disposable music seems to be to our culture today but I won’t.
I pulled out my copy of Prince’s 1999 and remembered listening to it over and over, when I first discovered it back in the late ‘80‘s, studying the cover for clues, reading the liner notes and trying to hear Dez Dickerson’s parts as opposed to Prince’s guitar licks. I remembered the fact that for a double album, I thought it was strange/cool that it came in a single album cover with two inner sleeves. Pictures of Prince and the band on each side. The label on the record was simply a picture of Prince’s eye. Lyrics printed out for the songs! The imagery tying in with the music making it somehow more powerful and stronger. Sure I went on to buy that record on cassette and later on CD and even later on iTunes (I really like that album) but no other format ever had the impact of hearing it on vinyl. Before you think that I’m about to go off on how much “better” vinyl sounds than CD, let me just say that I’ve spent the last 24 years standing in front of LOUD guitar amps and crashing cymbals. I don’t testify to be able to hear any sonic superiority for anybody but me (I know what sounds good to me:)).
My stack of Jimi Hendrix bootlegs brought back many memories of being in Japan or Italy or the UK and searching through record stores and flea markets for basically any albums with Jimi’s name or face on the cover. Imagine a 6 week tour of Europe and carrying a stack of albums along with your luggage and guitar! That my friend is commitment! My copy of Santana’s Abraxas album, even in it’s worn and faded state seems to explode with color and imagery. Coming from the same vibe as Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, it just draws you in and says, “Play me!”. I listened to it yesterday and was instantly inspired. I can’t say the same for the 1,000+ times I’ve listened to that record on iTunes.
While I would claim to have a fairly cool and extensive CD collection (easier to carry throughout Europe...) and an insane iTunes collection that will require a team of psychologists many years to explain, my record collection is small and more of a combination of cool stuff (Hendrix, SRV, Sinatra, BB KIng, Muddy Waters, George Jones, an insane amount of Earl Hooker records...) quirky stuff; The Carpenters Greatest Hits, and various mysteries that have been lost to time; Why do we have an album of “The Worlds Greatest Sound Effects”, 3 copies of Hank Williams Jr.’s Greatest Hits, 2 copies of the soundtrack to The Blues Brothers Movie, The Best of Tony Bennett Vol. 2 (where the heck is Volume 1?!?!?).
One of my best friends and I argue all the time about the merits of being able to hold an album in your hands while you listen as opposed to the immediacy and convenience of an MP3, I’m sure we’ll argue some more after he reads this:) but I didn’t really write this blog to spark any arguments or debates, it’s more of an epiphany for me that, through my “re-discovery” of my record collection, I can easily and immediately revisit specific times and memories in my life and that, to me, is one of music’s greatest strengths and magical powers. Music transcends language, culture, time and even technology!