Thursday, April 1, 2010

If You Love the USA, Listen to Vinyl

Do you remember the magic of summers as a kid? Every single day was filled with unlimited possibility. You would wake up and see the bright light from early morning sun sneaking its way through the slots in the blinds of your bedroom and it was impossible not to smile because that day held so much boundless opportunity. Each day was another compressed spring just waiting to be released of its potential energy. Looking back now, it's funny just how liberating imagined freedom can be, because, let's face it, none of us were actually free (at least not the well-cared for ones, sorry if that hits a sore spot for anyone). At the time though, nothing seemed imagined about that freedom, because if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck, isn't it a duck?

During those times in between the early waking hours and dinner time (possibly a brief lunch interlude), we were our own person; no one to answer to, no one to regulate our movements, no one to question our behavior or motives. We did what we wanted to do, said what we wanted to say, were what we wanted to be. Summer does something to the hearts and souls of children that no other time of the year can ever hope to compete with. The freedom may have been "imagined" in reality, because there were still always rules to adhere to even if it seemed like total lawlessness, but it was nonetheless a form of freedom. We had stretches of time that were ours. No expectations to fulfill, no social or parental mores to live up to, we were anything and everything we had ever wanted to be and it was absolute, mother-fucking brilliance.

So on the second day of summer in 1994, I found myself with nearly an hour and a half left before dinner, and no one to hang out with or a place to go. I couldn't go home, that was a non-option. Early arrival was tantamount to blasphemy; it would be like spitting in the face of liberty. I wouldn't have that on my conscience, but I didn't want to wander around aimlessly because that was just as fruitless as going home. I needed something to do. The walk home took a half an hour, so I had an hour to play with and needed to find a way to fill it, and then it hit me...Records and Tapes Galore. It was a mere 5 minute walk from my friend's house and it didn't fuck up my walk home all that much. It might have taken me slightly longer (by like a minute), but it was more direct and I had only been inside Records and Tapes twice in my whole life, and, both trips were nearly non-existent. The first time, I walked in through the door to order and pay for an Anthrax import e.p., and the second time, I walked in to pick up Penikufesin (Nise Fukin ep) and then bolted as quickly as I came in. Both experiences lasted less than 10 minutes combined.

I had passed by this store who knows how many times, probably two or three times a week for nearly my entire life but never browsed, never spent a significant amount of time in there. For a normal, well-adjusted person, this isn't all that strange. All of us pass by businesses everyday and never step through the door once, but for me, this was equivalent to a crackhead walking by a dealer a few times a week and never stopping to pick up a rock. That shit just doesn't happen. (As a side note, how fucked up is it that the word "crackhead" doesn't trigger a spelling error?) I didn't really have a choice, I had to go, it was an act of Patriotism. Going was a display of love for freedom, and what's more American than freedom? The way I saw it, I not only had an obligation to my own "personal" freedom, but to the notion of freedom itself. I had an obligation to my country. I had to go to Records and Tapes Galore.

It took about 2 seconds to notice that this was not like any other record store I'd been in. They had C.D.'s, tapes, and a decent selection of music-oriented VHS lining the walls just like all other record stores, but on an island in the middle, they had stacks and stacks of records. I was blown away, records in a record store? How fucking novel. I'd thought I had seen it all, but here I was, browsing through racks of this dinosauric medium, this "ancient" nod to the music of the past, but as I dug, I discovered something remarkable...there were new albums shoved into those bins, albums I owned, albums I wanted to own, on fucking vinyl. And one of those new records, amongst the multiple used copies of Journey's Greatest Hits and the sun-faded covers of Linda Ronstadt LP's was the album, my favorite album in the history of music at that point in time, Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral on glorious 12" black vinyl with larger-than-life album art.

It's hard to explain my exact feelings after finding this, but I can tell you they were revelatory. I have to imagine it was akin to the first time a baby discovers it has a nose. It's literally in their face the whole time, they just never knew it existed, but once they do, their life is unalterably different, there's no turning off that switch, there's no going back. Records had been there my entire life, I just never knew I wanted to listen to them, but once I did, music was inherently different.

It didn't matter that I already owned this album on C.D., or that I didn't own a record player; the only thing that mattered was that I needed this record. I had to get it. So I did. How I had the money I can't exactly remember, because generally speaking, the second I put a dollar bill into my jeans, it tends to fall out of the hole it burned in my pocket, but how I had the cash doesn't really matter now I guess. I had money and had to get this record, so I did. After that one, I got more...and more...and more. Within less than 2 months, if they pressed it on vinyl, I bought it on vinyl. (I still didn't have a record player at this point, and wouldn't have one for nearly 8 more months, when I used the money I received for my 16th birthday to pony up and buy a Sony turntable of very underwhelming quality.) I saved every penny I earned or found. I did extra chores, collected bottles to return for the deposit, dug through couch cushions and never hesitated to pick up a loose dime or nickle on the ground. I needed more records. I didn't care that I couldn't listen to them, I just wanted to own them. And for me, that was OK, I would just make a copy of the tape or C.D. from a friend who bought it. Then I could look at my record while I listened to my dubbed copy. It worked for me, worked for two years. It worked just fine...until I got a car with a C.D. player.

I now found myself in a serious dilemma. By that point I had my player and a sizable vinyl collection. I loved laying around my bedroom spinning my records. I loved talking on the phone to my girlfriend and spinning my records. I loved cleaning my room and even doing my homework while spinning my records. I just plain loved spinning my records...but I absoluetly hated FM radio. For a kid whose favorites were The Cure, The Ramones, Jeff Buckley, Sebadoh, and The Misfits, there wasn't really much of an option for me on the radio dial. I couldn't deal with shitty rock bands, and could handle vapid pop bullshit even less. I needed my tunes, but I didn't have money for a new tape deck for the car, couldn't afford to by a C.D. and vinyl copy of something, and I obviously couldn't play my records in the new ride. I was royally fucked.

Of course, it never occurred to me that there was a happy medium; continue buying the stuff I could on vinyl and listen to the stuff I had to buy on C.D. for lack of a vinyl pressing in the car, but my mind doesn't work logically. It's probably a result of the addictive personality, but I've always thought in "all or nothing" terms. I realize now that I was wrong, but the way I saw it then, I either had to suffer with fucked rock radio and continue buying records, or I had to give up the ghost and submit to the C.D. It was choice between sanity and love. In the end, I chose to remain (semi-)sane and go with those tiny, sterile discs, and it did crush me a bit, but luckily, the beast didn't die, it simply lay dormant, waiting for the day that it could awake from its long, forced slumber and return to its rightful place at the throne of my heart and musical existence.

For more than a decade I bought C.D.'s but I never forgot about records. I never forgot about those "large and in charge" 12" masterworks of human invention and engineering. And then, after far too long of dreaming about records and being broke because of irresponsibility and spending the little money I did have in nickle and dime fashion, an opportunity presented itself.

I was turning 30. My wife and I had spent our youth showering each other with lavish and irresponsible gifts for special occasions: birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas, etc., and then we got married and discovered we were broke and wallowing a decent-sized pool of debt due, at least in part, to the lavish and irresponsible gift-giving. So we made the decision that gifts were suspended. No more $200 birthday presents, no more $300 anniversary nights, no Christmas gifts, done, over, fin. Oh, we cheated a little here and there, but comparatively speaking, we were pretty well-behaved. But in 2009, we were both turning 30 and the 30th birthday is a milestone. She thought we should get each other something bigger that year. Nothing insane, no Lexus with a big red bow or anything, but something that was ultimately otherwise unobtainable. And I knew what I wanted, I wanted a record player and some records. She thought it was a good and reasonably-priced idea...and thus the beast awoke.

When people asked me how my birthday was and what I got, my reply was met with looks of confusion and thinly veiled ridicule. No one go it. The question everyone asked was "Why?", but I could tell from the way the one-word inquiry fell from their slack jaws or snickering lips that the real question was "Why are you an idiot?" I wanted to explain myself, but how do you put into logical words something that was never really thought about, just instinctively and viscerally felt?

So I fell back on science. It was easy to point to the science of vinyl recordings. Wider and fuller dynamic range of analog recording and playback, the sterility of hearing actual sound transcribed into 1's and 0's in digital, the warmer, more complex tones records reproduce, the bastardizing compression music is forced to go through in order to be heard in a digital medium, but as compelling as those arguments can be, none of them really mattered.

See, when it comes to advancements in technology, I'm actually kind of terrified. Maybe there's some sort of new-age social politico or neo-hippie living inside me that I am unaware of, but it seems like with each technological advance we embrace, we are forced to choose between our humanity and the ever-alluring pull of convenience. We no longer have to actually speak to people in person, shit, we no longer have to hear the person's voice we're speaking to at all, shoot an email, send a text. When I get an incoming call on my cell phone, there's an option to text back a response without ever having to hear the person who is actually calling me at that moment. How disgusting is that? My phone gives me the option to communicate without ever hearing a human voice.

Then there's audiobooks. Apparently we don't have the time to set aside a half an hour or 45 minutes a night to read 1984. No, we'd prefer, I don't know, Patrick Stuart or Ian McKellen to interpret Orwell for us. Fuck internalizing the words as we read them, making every paragraph, every sentence, every syllable our own, hearing it in our own voice, in our own head, with our own ideas about its meaning. We have more important things to do. We can't be bothered to read some of the most thought provoking and important works in modern history, that is beneath us. And e-books aren't any better. Throw a novel on your iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, or Kindle. The smell of the paper, the feel of the page as you turn it, that's meaningless. We don't need it.

We can skip human interaction and possibility of the character-building humiliation that just might come with that. Why bother when we can imitate sex with only a few keystrokes and a credit card number? We can skip commercials with our DVR's, ultimately forcing product placement and gratuitous advertising down our throats and into into our favorite TV shows and movies. We can even take out the responsibility that comes with learning to drive a car; just buy a nice enough ride that turns on the lights itself when it gets dark and parallel parks for you with the push of a button. That way, you don't have to remember the skills we learned that once seemed so important. And of course, there's the iTunes/iPod/mp3 player.

We no longer need to go to the record store, it's in our computer. We no longer need to take a chance on discovering a new band, just listen to the 30 second clips, they'll tell you whether you'll like it or not. Don't like a song or two, don't feel like listening to an entire album regardless if skipping songs fucks up the context and continuity of an album, a single work, a single piece of art...delete that shit, save space on the "Pod". Fuck it, if I don't care, why should you? And if you don't care, why the fuck should I?

The only problem is, I do care. There used to be pride in making a discovery, stumbling upon some album no one else you know has heard and buying it just because it looked like it might be something you'd like. No doubt, you would buy a stinker or two, but you'd also find things that two months later you couldn't imagine your life without. There was a thrill in that, a rush from taking a chance and having that chance pay off. But the days of that thrill, that rush are gone.

And hey, I won't pretend or lie, I use "new" technology. I even like "new" technology. I'm not trying to say "new" technology is evil. I haven't watched a live TV show in about 2 years, I send at least a handful of texts a day (generally only when my friends won't answer their fucking phone, but still...), when my wife is too tired, busy, or pissed to get a little naked with me, I have been known to employ the (free) services of an occasional busty, virtual lady to appease my most base of needs, and I use the shit out of my iPod. It's possibly the life-blood of my working existence. But to forget the past, to forget what it means to be a human for the sake of convenience is nothing short of taking part in actively destroying the human race.

Think about it. At a time in the not-too-distant past, if you wanted to have a conversation with your friend on the phone, you were tethered to the kitchen by a curly-Q chord and had to say what you wanted to in front of God and everybody. If you wanted to watch your favorite TV show, you had to suffer through commercials hawking products you had no intention of buying. If you wanted to get laid, you had to put yourself out there and try to actually talk to a human being. Even if you were just planning on whacking it, you had to go through the embarrassment of bringing a Playboy (or Playgirl for the ladies) up to the counter and not only shell out the hard-earned bucks but endure the awkward stares of the clerk. You had to suffer for the things you loved. And there was strength and character in that suffering. Nowadays, suffering is a thing of the past because new technology has given us a way out. With new technology, life isn't easier, it's just easy.

And the people who have embraced this new technological age have either 1., Forgotten history altogether, or, even worse, 2., Decided to disregard the importance of the past. One way or the other, this is very dangerous ground, because to automatically equate technology with advancement means that what has happened before, which is the foundation of today's existence, is meaningless. And when you remove the foundation, the building collapses.

As much as I enjoy the use of today's technology, it is always used as a last resort (with the exception of DVR. Commercials today aren't anywhere near as entertaining as the "Coco Wheats" talking bowl of breakfast "poo" or the "Dunkaroos" sweet-ass jingle, so the less of them I have to see, the more happy I am). I would never choose to read a conversation with a friend over having a conversation with a friend, I would never pick to hear a book or read it on a sterile, pixelized screen if I can hold the book in my hand, turn the pages, feel the paper. I would never choose to sit in front of a computer screen to achieve carnal satisfaction if my wife was willing and available, and I would never choose, not in a million years, to listen to an album in a digital format when an analog one is available.

Let's leave behind the fact that we don't hear in 1's and 0's. Let's not talk about the fact that computers are at best a bastardization of the human condition. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love my iMac and when I'm watching Short Circuit, I'm going to do my best to believe Johnny 5 is in fact alive. I mean, shit, I love that little fucking robot, he's super kick-ass, but when all is said and done, a motherboard is not a brain, a CPU will never be a body, a fan isn't sweat glands, and machines can't feel. To expect a human to hear the same way a computer (robot) translates sound is absolute bullshit. We're not the same and, God willing, never will be.

But honestly, fuck the science of it. The science is meaningless. Because whether or not there is a wider dynamic range of sound in analog playback or not, throwing in a C.D. or pressing a button on an mp3 player can never replace the feeling I get from putting a record onto the turntable. Records are the exact opposite of new technology. Obviously, that's a ridiculous statement, because Thomas Edison invented the phonograph nearly 150 years ago. Clearly, this is not "new" technology. But when I say it's the opposite, what I mean is the point of new technology is to make everything simpler, easier, removing the human responsibility and even interaction to at least some extent. Vinyl records force you to be involved in nearly every action. From the way you remove the sleeve from jacket and record from sleeve, to incessantly cleaning the records before and after you listen to them, dropping the needle onto the surface of the record, flipping the LP, putting the record back into its sleeve and sleeve back into its jacket just as carefully as you removed it, these are all important parts of the experience.

Then there's that initial pop when the needle hits the surface of the record. It last only a split second, but that little click let's you know the tunes are coming, so you better get ready. There's the painstaking task of adjusting the stylus and the tonearm's counterweight to coax out the best possible sound from your table. And then there's the simple fact of not only hearing the music but getting to see the it pour out of the speakers.

Last summer, I was babysitting for my brother and sister-in-law, and the second the kids saw the record player, they were entranced. They wanted to listen to records, so I played them Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman's Bat Out of Hell. I figured it was innocent enough and it gave me the chance to tell them the story of how their dad had played this for me when I was their age and I laughed at him, only to discover a decade later that it was one of the greatest rock records I had ever heard (Any opportunity to bolster an already mythic image of my brother to his kids is a good thing). I'm not sure what they thought about Bat..., but the youngest, who was 5 at the time, my nephew Jack, stood in front of that player and watched both sides play. He was amazed; he loved watching the tonearm slowly creep from the outside of the record towards the center. He was so interested in how it worked that he made me draw him a picture to explain the process. And since then, nearly every time I've spoken to him, he's asked me about the record player. That, as much as anything else, is part of the magic. Getting the opportunity to actually watch your music play is a wondrous and beautiful thing.

It's all of this and more that makes vinyl the king medium for music. It forces you to try, to work, to suffer and care about what you're listening to. They're not just good songs, good albums, they are things that require your attention and pampering. Listening to vinyl pressures you into a deeper connection with your music. Vinyl forces you into a greater intimate relationship with your tunes, and that's what truly matters. That's why vinyl's better, that's why it's brilliant.

I recognize that vinyl isn't for everyone. Some people simply "like" music, some "really like" it, some people "love" it, and vinyl is for the people who "really love" their music, the people who are unyielding in their passion for the music they listen to. I'm not saying you can't love music if you don't listen to it on vinyl, I'm just saying you can't love music as much as I do. Maybe that's a "My Dad can beat up your Dad" kind of statement, but it doesn't make it any less true because in this case, my shit does in fact trump yours. You can say that hearing is the only really important of the 5 senses when it comes to music, and you'd be right, but if it's possible to integrate other senses into the mix, why wouldn't you? Why wouldn't you want to touch, feel, smell the music if you could. Why wouldn't you want more out of the listening experience? Why wouldn't you want it to hit you at every possible angle? You wouldn't, period? You can have the most important part with C.D.'s or mp3's, or you can have everything with vinyl, end of story.

When you scrape away all of the muck and bullshit, vinyl forces you to love your music not only mentally and emotionally but physically. It forces you to care about your tunes in a way you never have or never could otherwise, and it furthers the idea and art-form of "the album" and degrades the importance of "the song". It's tangible, it's emotional, it's cosmic. And Goddammit, in the end, vinyl is just fucking cooler. 'Nuff said.


  1. YOU are a phenomenal writer, Brandon. I'm ashamed though that I am guilty of embracing new technology so readily. I have gravitated toward audiobooks (for work's sake let's call it multi-tasking!), just got a Kindle (eek!) but I do still enjoy and appreciate the past and I do still really read books. Keep up your great writing..I enjoy reading it :)

  2. I never thought about how easy kids have it now with their cell phones and their cordless home phones with unlimited range. They don't have to run to the nearest vacant room, pick up the phone and wait for the 'click' on the other end just to ensure privacy for their adolescent conversations. There's no more need for the "boyfriend voice" when you can just walk away with your cell phone in hand.

  3. It's cool that you're teaching your nephew about vinyl records. I just hope that when he's hitting puberty, you're not giving him the "when I was your age, I had to walk 5 miles uphill through the snow just to find good material for wacking it" speech. Also, be careful with those "occasionally busty, virtual ladies". They may not be able to give you viruses, but they can give them to your computer.

  4. Dear Brandy,

    I love you dearly. And I love what you're writing. But I can't help but twitch a little bit with the desire to edit and shape your work into something mind-blowingly good when I read it. Clearly we all have our quirky issues.

    I'm looking forward to Record Day shopping with you this weekend. And you can bet that on my list of "Upgrade Elizabeth's Life Now That She's Making Money" items is to replace the Fisher Price and Crosely with something umm...Nice.

    Also, it's the middle of April. Where's the next installment?