I was at a vinyl standoff. When I last moved three years ago I sorted through all my albums and culled them more strenuously than I ever had before. I was moving to a smaller place and let’s face it — they’re heavy and take up space and the movers always cringe when they see a big box marked “albums.” Plus, I didn’t actually have anything to play them on. My ex got the turntable in the divorce, and I didn’t have the money to replace it. But I wasn’t ready to toss out all the albums either. For one thing, I’m a cheap bastard, and even my culled collection represents a serious monetary investment, much of accumulated through the Columbia House Record Club. Remember that thing? You’d get 10 albums for a penny and then be obligated to buy a boatload more at the regular price. Oh, sure they said you could cancel anytime… if you can find a phone number to call or the address to write to. And guess what, you snickering millennials, when I Googled Columbia House to make sure I had the name right (I do have some journalistic integrity), their website said the club was coming back. So now I look like a prescient genius for holding onto albums when I don’t have anything to play them on. And not, as you may have been thinking, like an old fart who refuses to keep up with musical times.
While I vigorously defend musicians’ rights to royalties from their songs, I also vigorously defend my right to access music once I have purchased it legally. It’s not my fault that CDs replaced vinyl, and then iTunes flattened CDs. If I’m going to buy new music, or old music that never got featured in the Columbia House Record Club, sure, I’ll plunk down my hard-earned $1.29 for it. But if I’m an old fart from the 80s with my Flock of Seagulls vinyl album, I’m sure as hell not going to pay another $9.99 to download it from iTunes. I should have free access to it, because I already own it.
That kind of intellectual superiority doesn’t get you very far with two large plastic tubs of albums. Sitting in a closet. Mostly likely getting warped from improper storage. And no turntable. But at least I have my superiority.
About six months ago, I broke my rule of not downloading music I already owned when I heard Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” and it brought me right back to my college years worshiping Prince, his movie and singing at the top of my lungs with my musical partner in crime, Sonia. I downloaded the Purple Rain soundtrack and was transported. Not just though time, but also by the music itself — it was even better than I remembered and I was newly awed by his musical talent. When he died, I pulled out all the albums of his that I owned, and there was one song in particular I needed to hear, “Sometimes It Snows in April,” a beautifully sad song about the death of a friend. Downloading it was not going to cut it, so I jumped online and found a new, portable turntable for under $100. It wasn’t all that different from the one I had as a kid that played 45s and I brought to my friend’s house. Although apparently the blue and white case color has given way to black. And I was amused by the instructions of how to work the arm. It reminded me of the video I saw on Facebook recently of kids being mystified by how to play video games on retro gaming systems.
I gently pulled the sleeve out of the album cover, and then slid the album out of the sleeve. I held the record by its edges and was transported by the sheer ritual of it. I gently blew the dust from the surface, and then remembered that all this visceral listening requires more stuff, like a dust brush. I turned on the turntable, placed the vinyl onto it, and lowered needle gently down. And I was conveyed to my bedroom, my college dorm room, my first apartment, my second apartment, just sitting and listening for 1,000s of hours in 20 to 25 minute increments. I listened to a whole side of Prince’s Parade album, amazed that I knew the words to each song. It was like catching up with an old friend, and the last song, on the second side, I heard the April snow song. And despite the fact that I was crying like teenaged drama queen, I was also filled with joy from the sheer visceral ritual of it.
I remembered visiting my grandparents’ house. They had an old Victrola they had bought at a flea market and restored. They played those thick 78 albums that seemed sturdy enough to use like a Frisbee. We kids enjoyed it as a novelty — the scratchy sound and the silly songs “Shaving Cream,” and “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” But now I understand they were going back in time too, and that these songs were the soundtrack of their youth.
My new mission is to listen to every single album my own to see if they still make the cut. Will I sing all the lyrics learned from hours of listening? Or is it a one-song vinyl that I got for a penny, or I was too cool to buy just the 45 (which was for little kids). So far these are keepers: Flock of Seagulls, Pete Townsend’s “All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes,” Thompson Twins “Into the Gap,” and Haircut 100 “Pelican West.” It’s going to be a great summer.