It began innocently. These things often do. A Zenith turntable/8-track/cassette combo player rescued from my grandmother’s house in Wisconsin as we sorted through valuables and priceless non-valuables before the estate auction. I took a few of those records (leaving the crate of worn Roger Whitakers), a box full of 8-tracks and her guitar, a guitar that had always just been a piece of furniture. It wasn’t until after she died that I considered the significance of that guitar. Though other tchotchkes collected dust the guitar never did. Unfortunately these things often wait too long. Now that guitar sits, propped up against my own bookshelves and I still can’t help but wonder: What was her connection to music? And then, inevitably: What is my connection to music?
Vinyl records had belonged exclusively to my youth – Abba records spun on repeat, ad infinitum. Soundtracks from the movies of the 80s. Rocky IV. Footloose. Beverly Hills Cop. My father sitting at the dining room table, reading, working, his knee bobbing in a perpetual jack-hammer motion to the music. Most of the time he listened on headphones, but that didn’t render the room silent. An unamplified record player still emits a barely audible, tinny, rat-a-tat, like a miniature snare drum with whispered lyrics. Even after the tonearm returned to the cradle and the turntable slowed on the platter, the sound lingered, fading in half-life increments, but never disappearing. At the time I had little interest in record albums. They were cumbersome and didn’t travel well. That Thriller record wasn’t going to fit in my Walkman or, later, my portable CD player.
Compare the record to the methods of audio reproduction that followed. The cassette tape, the CD, the iPod shuffle. The dwindling stature inspired by our need to downsize the clutter in our lives (or take them with us on vacation). Contemporary design strives for stripped down and sanitary.This urge to purge results in us owning nothing, owning but not owning. We hold nothing, but want everything. Albums take up space on our hard drives rather than filling wooden milk crates. Our homes may be uncluttered but our iTunes libraries spill over onto portable hard drives, media servers and cloud storage. As our playlists grow longer, our connection to the music decreases. What’s another song in a playlist of five million? I’ve paid to download entire albums to which I’ve never even listened. If you want to download that entire Britney Spears CD just because it’s $3 and you couldn’t get “Toxic” out of your head, there needs to be some kind of real world evidence. If you had to store that record album on the shelf right next to your original copy of The Cure’s Disintegration or even The Cars’ Candy-O, in plain view of every dinner guest you’d think twice about that purchase.
Records, on the other hand, exist. They are a presence in our lives. They have a smell, an entity. Cardboard sleeves stored in rough, splintered pine. I challenge anyone to find similar enjoyment in organizing a folder of .mp3s. Matching artist name variations, editing specific tracks containing a “featuring” or “w/” a guest artist so an album remains intact beneath the artist name. Streamlining genres. Alternative. Alt-Rock. Rap. Hip-hop. Rap/hip-hop. R+B. Collectors have OCD. OCD will not let these variations lie. Reorganizing a crate of records is heavy lifting rather than clerical torture, a tactile experience that allows record sleeves to pass through your fingers. Soon you’ve created a queue of records not heard for years, forgotten, and suddenly necessary once again. Surf an iPod, scanning names, simple text – these things are completely devoid of the nostalgia. There’s no artwork. There’s no subtle scars and identifiable creases. Each record album has a history, an anthropomorphic personality.
As a child I collected. I collected baseball cards, Michael Keaton movies on VHS, Star Wars toys. I paused The Return of the Jedi during the scene in which the Emperor arrives on the Death Star so I could count the number of storm troopers for my Christmas list. Was it coincidence that I returned to vinyl? Or was it necessity? A desire to return to a medium – the vinyl album – that I strongly associated with my childhood, the trappings of which I found returning with increasing regularity after the birth of my own daughter. It was the need to find errands and activities to break up my daddy-day Thursdays that led me to frequent used book and record stores in search of gems and “gems” I’d not thought about in decades. Something my father played in my youth. Some forgotten with good reason, some just pushed aside, lost in the waves of the future and the tastes of the next generation. I wanted her to know both. I wanted her to know what these records had meant to me so that someday she could answer the question I never could about my grandmother and her guitar.
Along the way to my own adulthood, I’d forgotten the appeal of the turntable. It had become too complicated, required too much effort. I’d wanted to set up a turntable because of what I thought it said about me. Instead I found something else; it wasn’t just about satisfying my inner hipster. Music again became a participatory activity. Going to the record store with my daughter, watching her discover and learn to love music. These activities required the act of being present in the moment, whereas an iPod on autopilot can go on without participation indefinitely.