Thursday, January 6, 2011

Tracks on Wax

Hi, my name is John and I am a music junkie. Ever since Christmas and the arrival of a new turntable, I have dragged my long suffering wife, Christy, to every outlet on the planet that still sells vinyl - new and used. She was even there when I drunk eBay (it's like drunk dialing but with a PayPal account) a couple of records the other night. I can't imagine the amount of patience it takes a non user to listen to my ear numbing diatribes, in a drunken slur, about why it is completely necessary that I hit "Buy It Now" for Squeeze's Cosi Fan Tutti Fruiti at that very moment. Then again, it is her fault, she bought me the turntable. But that is just the junkie in me laying blame on others. Seriously, I have been a junkie since I was but a wee boy. Really, I have no one to blame but myself. Still, every addiction starts somewhere so I will blame my dad for being my first pusher. I will confess now and tell you that I have some budding music junkies in my house and I, right now, claim all responsibility.

How can I tell that my kids are embarking on a life of arguing whether prog rock deserves a bad rap or not? They have already begun in pretty much the same way I did by being asked to think and listen. Even now, my girls make regular requests to listen to King Crimson or Joe Jackson. The boy keeps wanting to go deeper with Pink Floyd and Ben Folds. It warms and saddens my heart at the same moment. Why so sad? I can't help but to think about all the hours and money they will have wasted each time the music format changes.

Now here I am, back where I started, listening to vinyl and flipping through plywood racks at the local independent record store. "Ooh this one is on the Apple label! Wow! I have never seen this Prince 12 inch in my life!" In one word, it is intoxicating. Why did I ever leave you vinyl? You're like shiny black ear licorice with liner notes and lyrics. If I take care of you, you will sound just as good as the day I bought you and so much better than those circular prismatic pieces of crap called CDs and their prone to failure predecessors, audio tape. Oh and the cover art that I can hold in my hands and mull over and study, it is so much more substantial and meaningful and I don't have to suffer permanent eye damage trying to decipher it.

For years, I had set aside, abused and just plain lost most, if not all, the vinyl I had ever purchased or inherited. It just seemed silly to show them any veneration when such new and exciting technologies were making it easier to take my music everywhere I wanted to go. You can't exactly strap a record player to your hip and expect it not to skip as you are mowing the lawn. Believe me, I tried, I kept running over the extension cord and cutting it. A solution was available: enter hissy, fussy, easily eaten cassette tapes.

Yes, I could have them anywhere and everywhere. I just had to flip the tape, like I would a record, to hear the second side. Note: there was one exception; U2's War came with the entire album recorded on both sides, when it flipped automatically (advanced technology!), I could hear the whole thing again without ever touching a thing except the batteries. Batteries had a run life of about 15 minutes in the 80's.

Then came the CDs, they promised better fidelity (no hissing!) and you could listen to an album straight through in its entirety (no flipping!) and the companies said that they were nearly indestructible. Well, the first part and last part were complete crap. CDs will degrade over time if they aren't protected and if you have accidentally scratched the top side, let alone the bottom, it's done. Sure it "sounded" better but what no one said aloud is that you lost a good bit of sound because of er the bits. Those little digitized bits can only hold so much information and what can be processed efficiently by a consumer grade chip is relatively small. That's why you could buy very high end CD players that would nudge out as many bits from the disc as physically possible. That is, if you had $5k tucked somewhere in your parachute pants. Oh and companies loved the CD, it was cheaper to produce than a cassette or an LP and they could charge more for it because it was shinier. Oooooo shiny. As my collection of CDs grew, the box of forgotten cassettes in my closet did also.

The CDs reigned supreme until computers and larger amounts of computer storage became more accessible to the masses. I actually digitized and listened to music in the 80's. Once again, it was hard to strap an Atari ST to my hip and mow the lawn, the grass always got in the keyboard. Now, music can be ubiquitous. Your collection can digitally follow you wherever you go inside a device much smaller than the palm of your hand and the battery life is outrageous. All music, everywhere, all the time. As I converted my CDs over to digital and purchased more and more music online, my boxes of CDs grew (albeit cataloged and saved to computer for posterity in my large personal library of sound). Record companies loved the MP3 at first because it was cheaper and so much easier to produce and deliver and the profit margins were outrageous. Certainly they never reasoned that something that can be taken everywhere can also be copied everywhere with no loss of quality like those hissy cassettes passed endlessly through college dormitories and high school hallways. Ooops, argh, me smells pirates!

So why back to vinyl? Well, it all comes down to two reasons: tactile and auditory. First, we will deal with the tactile. Quite frankly, picking up something you own just feels better. Next time you hit Itunes tell me about the wonderful fleeting feeling you had while clicking to purchase Dark Side of the Moon in a lossy format. This brings me to the second point: the auditory experience. You see, once upon a time there was a recording engineer in the digital age who thought it would be really cool to fill the audio spectrum on a recording to the limit. It makes the listening experience louder and fills every square inch of audio real estate with sound. Well there is only so much wave form space and like the hedges in a suburban HOA community, those things can only be sooo big. The solution? Snip off the tops. What gets lost? Quite a bit. This process is done in so many ways that it is amazing that people can recognize what they are supposed to be listening to at the moment (I guess that is what those MP3 tags are for). Believe it or not, this is done on almost every recording you buy now, even recordings of older stuff. The remaster of Derek and the Dominoes' Layla should be a offense punishable by castration or an hour of listening to Debby Gibson music; the thing is just plain awful and half the guitars are gone in the noise. Even so called loss-less digital formats like FLAC suffer from this disease.

Now when I listen to certain albums again on vinyl, I catch myself thinking, "Was that bass line there before? Oh man I never heard that whispering in the background until now!" It's an amazing experience and brings back a lot of memories, so many good memories of when an album of music was actually worth your hard earned money. One memory that comes to mind: 1985 when I was actually in shape, ha!. Since then I have realized, much like the music I was listening to, that I too have grown to fill the wave spectrum so to speak. Oh sure, I have gone back and forth and way forth and way back a few times. But this will not do any longer and in the next few months I am going to change that and this is really what this whole blog is about. If my old/new way of listening to music can take my mind back in time, my body can too.

To be completely truthful, my body was no great shakes towards the end of 1985; high school was over and the mashed potatoes and gravy from the Kmart cafeteria did me no favors. Seriously why did I think potatoes were a great diet food? Oh yeah, now I remember, screw you Susan Powter and your extolling of those underground starch monsters. But by the summer of 1986, thanks to the military and being reacquainted with my love of running, I was actually skinnier than at any point in my life since. I think perhaps I was floating in the sub 150lb range, a little too thin honestly. Somewhere in the middle 1990's I was a very big boy (the thought of a scale made me shake in fear) and by the late 1990's I was really fit again. It's been like a see-saw but I learned a lot; I just never apply it. Now is the time to apply all of that knowledge and maybe some new stuff as well. I am not doing this because of any silly New Year's resolution (most New Year's resolutions are inevitably broken, statistically speaking).

Really, why am I doing this? Mindset and middle age fear. I noticed when I listened to all the old vinyl there was a whole different mindset involved. They say your sense of smell is the one closest linked to memory but I would like to think mine is a bit off, mine is sound. So while the vinyl caressed my ears, I was suddenly 18 years old once again. I looked down at my paunch and thought, "AAGH! Why am I inside this fat bastard? What the hell happened? Did he eat me?" Oh no, cannibalism would have been the easiest excuse. It always has been. "Why aren't you finishing that book you were almost done writing?" Hmmm. "Uh Cannibals?"

Well no more excuses, I have some goals and a plan. A man, a plan, a canal, Panama! That reminds me, I need to go buy more Van Halen vinyl, pre Hagar stuff.

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