Peter Shelton

Vinyl: Soundtrack of a Life

Posted in Personal History, Watch columns by pshelton on November 10, 2011

A Facebook friend posted a couple of weeks ago that she was selling all of her vinyl.

She had several hundred LPs to divest, including some still in their wrappers – Beatles, Eric Clapton. She obviously knew their market value. And she admitted to no nostalgia: “I’m getting on with my life,” she wrote.

Ironically, this woman’s bold action spurred me to do something I’d put off for months: search the Web for a new needle to fit my 1970 Sony compact turntable. I’d worried that the old stylus, unreplaced for a decade and a half, might be damaging, or at least failing to pick up the subtleties in the delicate grooves of my albums. The sound had seemed to me increasingly distant. Employing the preventative inaction principle, I’d pulled the green plastic stylus out of its cartridge.

A trip to Radio Shack brought nothing but discouragement. I had hoped the recent resurgence of vinyl might translate into an easy local find. But the tobacco-stained counter guy just shrugged and offered to sell me a new turntable instead, one capable of digitizing my LPs, saving them onto CD. A reasonable, even a noble idea, perhaps, but not the cheap old-school solution I had in mind.

This little Sony has been with me since the summer of my divorce. I’d married, unwisely, in college, and in the break following my junior year at Berkeley, I’d moved back to my parents’ house, to clear my head and work a summer job. I bought the compact receiver/record player with my first paycheck. I think the package, with walnut speakers, cost $199. I bought a couple of albums that day, too (What were they then, about $3 each?), one Neil Young, one Jesse Colin Young.

The Sony delivered a complex full sound compared to the tinny high-school setup my erstwhile wife had brought to the marriage. (When we separated, she got all of the furniture, the kitchen stuff, half of the records and the record player. I got the VW bus and the other half of the record albums.)

I added to that initial collection until well into the 1980s, when CDs took over and everybody declared vinyl history. I have several hundred records. (I haven’t ever actually counted.) They stand on edge, like thick pages in a volume of history, in two large cupboards underneath our music and movies shelves in the living room. For the better part of 30 years, they lived in college-era apple crates. Good sturdy ones, but apple crates nonetheless, without cupboard doors. This allowed various family cats to use the cardboard spines for scratching posts. Most of the jackets are shredded, unreadable. If it weren’t for strict alphabetizing – from Allman Brothers to Warren Zevon – you’d never find what you were looking for.

But the vinyl inside remained pretty pristine. We took care of these awkward shiny things, their fragile magic pressed into microscopic grooves. We handled them with fingertips to the edges, lowered the needle arm just so, slid them carefully back into their sleeves.

CDs are louder, sharper and, as has been noted in the music press, somehow colder and more clinical. They’re great for the car, with its ambient roar. The LPs are warmer, honey-coated. You may be able to hear Mississippi John Hurt mumble more precisely on CD, but when he sings “Coffee Blues” on my record player, it’s as if he’s right there in the living room with us of a Sunday morning, feet up, cup in hand.

Our girls grew up listening to Gollum (“My preciousssss!”) on record, imagining the Ring. Ellen and I practically memorized “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger, Third Eye” late at night with Firesign Theatre. These albums are the soundtrack of my life. Could you even find some of them today on CD or iTunes? Trio Bulgarka? Terry Riley? Youssef Latif? Moby Grape? Am I not preserving them, again and again, in the vibrating air of my kitchen?

I missed them all during the overlong time the needle was out. Finally, I ordered a replacement, online, from a guy in Miami who must be a heck of a packrat to have saved diamond needles from 40 years ago.

When it came in the mail and I’d installed it with a click, I knew what record I would play first, knew what song and what chord would ring out. It was the first chord my Sony played that summer when I was so young and feeling betrayed by first love – the piano and harmonica wail of Neil Young’s “Oh, Lonesome Me.”

I played it not because I was feeling lonesome or nostalgic (though I certainly was feeling sorry for myself back then), but to honor the rich confusion of memory, the thrill to this day of that sound. On the floor of my sister’s old room, it surrounded my self-pity and lifted us both into a new place giddy with possibility.

One Response

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  1. Mary Ann Dismant said, on November 11, 2011 at 12:00 am

    Fine tuning, Peter.

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