Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Why I Miss Records

Those who know me are aware of my somewhat Luddite obsession with vinyl, which I still purchase, when available, and, yes, play. A couple of years ago I picked up one of the few remaining copies of Black Vinyl Shoes, the classic record-made-in-a-living-room (and a bedroom and a kitchen, but I gather it was a pretty small apartment). I had a copy from the 70's, but on PVC, so it wasn't Shoes' own release, and I had it on CD, but I have to confess: from the moment I heard there were still a couple of these kicking around northern Illinois, I coveted it. Eventually, I steeled myself and paid a ridiculous amount of money for the thing, a bargain, considering it came with a sticker and a t-shirt transfer. (and yes I did, but I scanned it and printed it onto modern t-shirt transfer paper, thank you very much. What do you think I am, a geek?)

When it arrived, my teen was fascinated as I slit the plastic and unpacked the sleeve. "Why don't CD's come with all this cool stuff?" She watched in awe as I put it on the turntable, she and the 70's-era stereo components being the best things I brought out of that relationship. "How can you tell where the next song starts?" she asked, and I felt like I was teaching her how to churn butter as I showed her the vinyl in the light, like I was sharing some arcane, medieval ritual. Once I put it on, she shrugged and left, but I heard the beauty of nondigitized sound. What can I tell you? It's a fetish.

I was remembering this encounter today as I was reading a series of essays from the PopMatters crowd about shopping for music in the current climate. They reflect on the importance of the internet, the boorishness of record store clerks, the thrill of the hunt, sneaking music in on one's spouse, shifting generic boundaries.... all in all, a cool collection of essays. My favorite, though was Zeth Lundy's "The Plasticine Aroma of History," in which he discusses the Benjaminian aura of the record store.
[I]f music is my religion, then record stores are my places of worship. Shopping for music is as absorbing an exercise as listening to music, one that requires more than sitting in a chair and staring at a computer screen. Record-searching and record-buying is a visceral, obsessive thing, an activity that demands physical contact. There's a calming comfort in being surrounded by row upon row of discs and vinyl, a sense of solidarity imbibed by standing among decades of recorded music. You can't help but feel a part of it all. Moving from "A" to "B" to "C", the hunt for specific albums begets the surprise of unexpected bargains begets the discovery of releases you didn't even know existed. Shopping in record stores means bumping into fellow obsessives pawing through the row adjacent to you, "Street Fighting Man" scissor-kicking its way through the overhead stereo, fingers flirting meticulously through the myriad of possibilities.

I can't remember the last time I was in a record store. Well, that's not quite true. I was in one last week, looked for something very specific (Half Smiles of the Decomposed), didn't find it, and was out again inside 90 seconds. I cursed myself for not picking it up a week ago online, Lundy's great boogeyman. I get most of my music online or from my friends, though I have not yet made the great iPod leap (Christmas is coming, Thersites!). My addiction to CDBaby, where you get to hear two minutes of every song, borders on the comic.

Lundy's is essentially an urban complaint: any kid who grew up in a small town knew that the chances of finding what you wanted in your local record store were slim. My brother and I used to frequent a used record store whose owner resembled a pederast and whose collection leaned heavily toward the Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods side of things, but he had the benefit of being willing to trade three of yours for one of his. I learned to shop for records there, perfected the flip, the cursory study of the sleeve, the close inspection of the condition of the disc. Lundy is right about that: it was a tactile, visceral process. Personally, I think the death of the record store mirrored the rise of the CD, since CD's don't, in my daughter's phrase, come with "all this cool stuff." How do others buy music, I wonder? Are we Lundy-style purists? Or mp3-tossing fools?


refinnej said...

I miss records too, Mary. What really sucks is that I no longer have a turntable on which to play my records.. sigh.

BUT, on iTunes, there is a thing called Radio Paradise, which makes me less lonesome for the good old days: if I can't have the vinyl, I can have the radio. :)

See you at Dads!!

Anonymous said...


Know what I miss about records? Album art. These CD cases are like getting a postcard version of Van Gogh sunflowers.

My son, bless him, is fascinated with records. He wants a turntable for his birthday next year, and real LPs, after I've told him some of the "joys" of LPs. I told him the ritual involved, the digging through bins for unexpected treasures...slitting that plastic cover...pulling out the disc and making sure it didn't have scratches or was warped...putting it on the turntable and running the disc cleaner over it (god, what was that stuff called again...), cleaning the stylus, gently lowering it to the album... Lowering that plastic cover to keep dust off your disc...never stacking disks on a turntable... And then the beautiful, warm music. Is it me or is there something about digital music that sounds cold and similar to nails down a chalkboard? Funny how the "equalization" on analog was consistently better, too. Oftentimes, the transfer from analog to CD was a real bitch.

After a while, too, your albums had pops and clicks that were distinctly yours, no matter how well you took care of them. They were as unique as you were.

Of course, if you were a real purist, you played an LP very rarely. You recorded it and listened to it on tape until the tape wore out. I had tons of albums that were like new, years after buying them, because I did this. Until the wretched day that Mr. LJ #2 thought it wouldn't be a big deal to put my 1000+ record collection outside. In the sun. During the summer. In California. For a few days.

There's a reason he's ex-Mr LJ now. This was one of the things that made it so. I was heartbroken. Nearly 20 years of music and love and care and memories...destroyed. There's a special place in hell for people like that.

Anonymous said...

As you may have guessed the previous poster was I. Keep forgetting I'm anon here.


Phila said...

I miss records, but I have to confess I've pretty much switched to CDs. The combination of a messy breakup and a difficult move (about 7 years ago) was what really did it...I went from having about 7500 LPs and God knows how many 45s, to having about 300 LPs and 50 45s (and a few hundred 78s, which is a whole different form of commodity fetishism!). I'm glad not to have them weighing me down anymore, but I know I'll never be in love with CDs the way I was with vinyl. And they definitely don't sound as good!

I still sell hundreds of records every year on eBay, so I'm always digging through stacks and stacks of them in record stores, thrift stores, etc. Unfortunately, it's different now in that I'm not really looking for music I like, just for things that'll sell....which makes it feel more like a chore than it used to. I was so goddamn fetishistic about vinyl for years...I'm really grateful I started releasing music at a time when vinyl was still de rigeur. Getting CDs back from the pressing plant was never quite as exciting...vinyl felt like an actual accomplishment...