A little over six months ago, I moved to New York City with a one-eyed cat, $2,000 and 300 vinyl records. This represents some of the most important things in my life. My cat, because without him, I’d have been utterly alone and depressed while job hunting those first 4 months. The money, because well…New York City ain’t free. And the records? Well. That takes a little more explanation.
The reason I listen to vinyl – or why I believe anyone should – is purely emotional. There are all sorts of concrete, empirical reasons that I could tell you for why you should choose vinyl. But just as you can try and find empirical reasons to believe in God or to be in love, those reasons won’t deepen on enrich your experience with a religion or a relationship. So it is with vinyl.
My first record player and my first 50 records came from my uncle Jim – to whom I am forever indebted. Every record he gave me was a record bought in the period in which it was released for the first time. So, when I drop the needle on my copy of Led Zeppelin, I like to imagine it’s 1969 and I’m in some college dorm room and my friend Craig has just brought a record in for us all to listen to.
“You’ve got to check these guys out,” Craig explains “they’re unlike anything I’ve heard before.” And as the first chords of Led Zeppelin crash into the room – two quick stabs that end as abruptly as they begin, followed by the eager tsk of John Bohnam’s foot tapping on the hi-hat – we’d look at each other with slightly raised eyebrows. Then, Robert Plant comes in with his raspy, airy, tortured “Heyyyyyyyyy, girl. Say, whatcha doin’?” Our ears stay fastened. Finally, halfway through the track, Jimmy Page steps up and delivers one of the most searing debut solos in almost all rock history. This is good. This is new. This is…what was their name? Craig hands me the album sleeve and I flip it over to see the grainy still taken from the footage of the Hindenburg disaster –a huge zeppelin in flames – and see LED ZEPPELIN emblazoned in red type in the top left corner.
Although I wasn’t alive in ’69, my actual copy of Led Zeppelin was. And the grooves that emit the notes to “Good Times, Bad Times” are the same ones that held the attention of thousands of kids who listened to this new band from England for the very first time. I have similar experiences with my mom’s taped-up copy of Meet the Beatles, the first album she ever got when she was 6 years old.
There are all types of people who collect records – some because of rarity, some just to collect, some for pretense. For me, it’s always been about collecting or creating memories. Like how my copy of Meddle by Pink Floyd will always be synonymous with my roommates in Southgate Apt. 411 in Rexburg, ID since I’d always make them all sit down and turn the lights off and listen to “Echoes” in its 17-minute entirety. Or how the girl I dated my Junior year of college and I ended most nights holding hands, laying on our backs on the floor listening to side four of The Resistance by Muse – the “Exogenesis Symphony” before I’d drive her home. Or how before I even had a bed to sleep on in my 100 ft2 apartment in New York City, I had to make sure my amp and turntable were set up so I could listen to my 45” of “New York, New York” by Frank Sinatra. That’s how I knew I had made it there (and, subsequently, could make it anywhere).
I’m not a freak, people. I still have – and pay for – Spotify. I’m not declaring a war on digital music or being able to tap repeat or take your music with you. I’m just submitting that vinyl records can change the way you look at albums. The way you look at artists. Even the way you look at music.
Point is, vinyl is an experience. You can’t just tune out when you listen to a record. You have to drop the needle. You have to flip the record. You have to take the needle off when you’re done. You listen to an album all the way through because there’s no track skip, no shuffle, no playlists. You find songs you never knew you loved by artists you’ve always known. You get to physically hold history in your hands. And long after your sky blue iPod Mini is dead, the grooves in your copy of Time Out by the Dave Brubeck Quartet will still echo “Take Five” in perfect 5/4 time.
So, next time you’re home, ask your folks about what records they have. Or, if you’ve got some you haven’t looked at in a while, dust them off and take them for a spin. I can’t promise you’ll love every track, but I can promise you’ll love every relived memory. And if you’ve never held/seen/played a record before, find someone who has some. Ask if you can listen with them sometime. I’m sure they’d love it. The communal record-listening experience is one of my personal favorites. With your phones off and your eyes closed, you’ll find a certain kind of reverence we rarely experience anymore.
And I hope that in those moments, you find out something about yourself. Something that can only be told through the strings of an instrument, the notes of a voice…the grooves of a record.