Sunday, October 18, 2015

Vinyl records

Nostalgia is something that cuts both ways across the generation divide. On the one hand we have Boomers, those born post World War 2  who grew up with vinyl records, 45s and 33 and 1/3 RPM, who will insist that the original 12  inch releases of the Abbey Road or Safe as Milk  had a clarity, depth and warmth that later  digital versions, marketed on the much loathed compact disc format, ruined by making it flat and sterile. The cry was thus: CDs may not scratch and stand to last forever, but we sacrifice the genuine texture and sensuality of the music therein. The new versions are merely heard not felt. If by that they mean that the full force of Beethoven symphonies or the corrosive caterwaul of Ornette Coleman's extensions of Western jazz improvisational strategies are abrasive only to the degree to which they assault merely the nervous system and not the soul as  well, then I am with the naysayers . Sadly, though, there is more to the "felt" description, which is surface noise, pops , hisses, clicks , clacks, the corrosive percussion of the damage and ware that attends the ownership of a vinyl record collection.

 Because I had no interest i the hi-fi freak's compulsion to keep his albums pristine with a ritualized way of putting his albums on the turn table--holding the disk only on the edges with lightly pressed finger tips, wiping the disc with a clean dust cloth in a particular circular motion, no variation, setting the expensive needle on the disc gently, gently, gently, GENTLY GODDAMNIT! , repeating the process in reverse when the record was done playing--I just put my records on and just played them, whatever happened on the record surface. I took heed from my best friend, a bigger slob than I was, who shared  "I don't let my possessions possess me". It was an easy matter to accept the scratches, pops and skips as part of the listening experience; I joked that the imperfections were bonus rhythm tracks, free of charge. Still, as used as I had become to vinyl albums, it was a matter of time before i had to acquiesce and purchase a CD player because, it turned out, the record companies had stopped releasing albums in vinyl formats, save for some independent hold outs hither and yon. I  was amazed how fast I became a CD convert; the music sounded fine, it sounded clean, it sounded exciting. The digital age claimed another convert. It became the case that saying that we should listen to vinyl only so we may "feel" the music better is like remarking that we should not have paved roads or modern cars because travel means nothing artistically unless we feel every pot hole, puddle, rock and uneven patch of cracked earth on our long journey to some goddamned family holiday dinner. It was a dead argument made by grumpy white men who wanted it to be 1968 forever, without end.

  The only thing I miss about the vinyl experience was the "thingness" of an album--something to open, to read, stare at, take pride in as you put back in the sleeve and add it your large and varied record collection. I admit vinyl was an inferior medium given the crystal clarity digital offered , but there was a value-added quality, where the music on the disc was something I paid attention to, fell in love with or hated and argued passionately with other music fanatics and would be pop pundits about why such things were more important than sex. 

The vinyl album was something that contained music the way a book contained words that told a story and you had to figuratively live with for a period so the glorious transformation of literature can have on our world view could take effect. That is less the case these days, much less, as everything is digitized, stored in figurative clouds, seemingly every song ever recorded stripped of context, liner notes, album art, credits and private jokes and turned into bits of code that one can turn on our off like a light switch , absent mindedly appreciative of the ruthless efficiency in the retrieval of the music, but not moved to linger on lyric, to pause during a hooked up chorus, to move, shake. That's my experience.