Some of my earliest recollections are of my dad selecting a classical album, as if it were a bottle of rare wine from his cellar. He would get me to lie on the carpet, close my eyes, and then say, “Tell me what you see.” The needle would hit. Crackling into life, wasn’t just an orchestra or a symphony, it was portal. There were landscapes, dimensions of worlds that opened in my imagination.
By the time I was a teenager, sitting with your eyes closed, listening to a carefully selected album was a social event. It was something that allowed us to gather together as friends. It opened us up and increased the bond between us. We loved holding the covers, especially the double albums. We obsessed over the history and details of the music. We prided ourselves on knowing the band members, the year an album was released and the studios where they were recorded. It led to the discovery of new groups and the ability to recognize every signature riff. We analyzed, memorized and held discourse on the lyrics. Getting absorbed in the artwork, in the interludes, was our version of meditation. Singing and dancing to the latest and greatest records was the foundation of our community. Those experiences serve me to this day.
In considering if my group’s next musical recording should be pressed into vinyl, I read that people “over fifty” do not buy records. The new demographic concentrates on teens through thirty. Surely, hipsters in Brooklyn are buying them, but I had to ask myself why I had yet to pull out my old turntable. Did I get a pang when I saw a milk crate filled with records at a garage sale? Sure. Have I experienced a secret longing to buy the Guardians of the Galaxy album on display at a roadside restaurant? Absolutely. So, what was my hesitation? Time and space.
In our fast-paced reality, I have a hard time justifying spending time to pull the turntable out if its storage space. It would also take time to clear a space for it, as well as unearth the lone crate of records that remains from my vast collection of vinyl that dwindled as I moved from place to place.
I allow myself time to occasionally binge watch something with my wife, so why not take time to engage in an ancient ceremony of sound? TV is a conventional, accepted mode of relaxing, so I could justify that, but taking time to enjoy vinyl seemed to be like climbing a tree for some reason. It is something I used to love to do, but seemed like it would take too much effort to enjoy.
Recently, while visiting a high school friend, her son couldn’t wait to show me his vinyl collection. He had hooked up his turntable to a guitar amplifier and other speakers around their basement. My friend was delighted because her son was not only listening to his music, but he was becoming enthusiastic about bands she had tried to get him to listen to for years. We sat down and listened to his makeshift surround sound, while he turned me onto a group that I wouldn’t have heard on my own. We sat and listened, not needing to talk. When we did, the bond between us deepened. It felt like a mystical rite of passage that I feared lost in this generation.
After visiting another friend whose turntable definitely augmented our evening together, I finally decided to jump over the invisible barrier and dig mine out again.
Something amazing happened. I created the time and space to set it up. The exhalation of determination parted the red sea of my schedule. I even took the time to make sure all the speakers around my living room where hooked up properly. I became aware of the moment as the needle engaged the groove. Was it different then playing CDs, or listening to my favorite music on my iPhone with headphones?
There is a tangible warmth and immediacy that fills the space with vinyl. I chose an old record, which felt like taking up where I left off with a close friend. The cracks and pops were endearing. I never have enjoyed when the record skips, but now it reminds me that life isn’t a polished exactitude but something that is happening right now.
When my iPhone is on shuffle, or I am streaming music, I love it. It is like having my own radio station. Still, the turntable stands as an opportunity to savor life in a different way. It can be similar to the Japanese tea ceremony, which is an elaborate ritual designed to enhance the harmony and beauty inherent in everyday things. A turntable isn’t automatic.
There is first, the selection of the album, the removing of the vinyl from its sleeve, then you get to choose a side, place it onto the spindle. The dust can be lovingly brushed off. The power is turned on and you get to practice the care of placing the needle where you want it to land. All of this, provides the opportunity to become present enough to really listen.
Vinyl offers the chance to reconsider the connection that individual songs have to the whole. Why did the artist choose these songs in this order on this album? The art of creating an album, of listening to an album from beginning to end, has also been relegated to shuffle. Records can again become like books, speaking to us of other points of view, widening our perspective.
I grew up in an era when there were 45 records on the back of cereal boxes. There were brightly colored Close and Play toy phonographs. We had a stereo console in our living room, that sat opposite our family piano. My father had a walk-in closet filled with records. I knew the words to nearly every Broadway show because my mom played those records all day long.
In college, I used to eat ramen pride noodles, so I could afford to go to Vinyl Fever, where the owner would make recommendations that would expand my horizons. Today, I will spend twenty dollars on a bowl of ramen noodles in NYC, and I could get a new blue tooth turntable for thirty-five bucks.
Perhaps, vinyl’s comeback is a sign that our society is yearning to slow down enough to reconnect to something tangible. Something that we can savor; that we can share to unite generations. A way to bring harmony and beauty back into our daily lives.
I have been enjoying selecting albums in the mornings to play. They fill the house with a soundtrack again. Regardless of how old you are, allow yourself the luxury of a turntable, if you can. It will do more than connect you to your past, it will bring unexpected breadth back into the present.