And it’s only a dollar

I love records.

Of course, I love music in all formats. I’ll occasionally listen on my computer, but I don’t download much, mainly because I like to have a physical object to accompany the sound. CDs are great, due to their size, sound quality, extra tracks, etc., but I truly love records.

The physical experience of them has a great deal to do with this – the heft, the size, the feel, the smell, etc. I prefer the sound, too, though I’m no audiophile. I can’t describe my preference for analog sound very well, beyond the run-of-the-mill vocabulary of “warmth” and “richness.” There’s something about the crackle, too, the “thup-sss” of the needle dropping that puts me in the right frame of mind to listen – really listen – to music.

I find that I focus more intently on music when it’s on vinyl. Perhaps the knowledge that I will have to flip over the record when it’s finished makes me more attentive and intensifies my experience of the sound. Listening to 45’s intensifies this experience even more. Usually I don’t even have time to sit down before the record’s over and needs to be changed. I tend to hover over the turntable, staring at the cover, watching the record spin, hanging on every note.

This intensity follows me on my forays to record stores to sift through the dollar vinyl bins. Browsing dollar vinyl puts me in a different frame of mind than other sorts of shopping. While the covers flash by, my synapses fire wildly, not simply measuring whether I want to buy a particular record, but triggering hosts of memories. The thoughts are there and gone before I could ever possibly put words to them. Records I had and got rid of, records over which my friends and I obsessed as teenagers, records old girlfriends had, records my parents had, records I wanted when I was a kid and never got, records I’ve seen a million times in dollar bins over the years, records, records, records.

Rummaging through these bins is like going on an archaeological dig. Layers upon layers of cultural history sit side by side, waiting to be uncovered. Many probably haven’t seen light or been played in years, lying dormant in their sleeves for the day they may be brought back to life with the touch of a needle.

One of Edison’s primary marketing strategies for the phonograph was that it could provide a record of the voices of the dead. Families might gather round and feel the presence of their loved ones now passed on.

And sometimes when I listen to records I’m keenly aware of sound as a physical presence and LPs as the literal records of actions performed at a great distance of time and space. The voices and instruments of the musicians pushed air molecules that then rattled paper cones in microphones. Those movements got translated into electrical currents. Those currents stimulated molecules on magnetic tape. That tape was transferred to an etched plate that stamped grooves and bumps onto a vinyl disc, which when traced with a phonograph needle get translated back into electrical impulses that stimulate another set of paper cones that vibrate and push molecules of air in my living room that travel to my ear, putting me in the presence of those musicians as they play once again. One continuous motion.

When I bring home a record from the dollar bin, I often try to imagine its history – who owned it, how it ended up at the store where I found it, how far it’s traveled to arrive in my hands. Sometimes I think I can feel the presence of records’ previous owners clinging to them and lingering in the room when I put them on my turntable, as my presence may outlive me, like an invisible residue on the records I have owned.

I spent about an hour flipping through records at Amoeba today. This is what I brought home.

King Curtis

Ever since I first saw “Withnail and I,” I’ve loved King Curtis’s soulful saxophone. The opening sequence of that movie is haunted by his version of “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” This record intrigued me because it’s on a label I’d never heard of – Mount Vernon Music. Not his strongest work, but check out that cover design.

Ralph Sutton

I’d never heard of Ralph Sutton before picking up this record, but I could tell just by glancing at the look on his face here that he was a true musician. I’ve since found out that he was a key member of the second generation of stride pianists, from the early 40s on. As a teenager, Sutton played with the great trombonist Jack Teagarden. He made this record in the late 70s with Danish musicians, for a small British label. The 70s were lean times for stride pianists, and they took their gigs where they came.

Bridie Gallagher

Again, it was the cover image that led me to buy this one. Wow. There’s just too much to say here. Why would the singer pose with her sons? And the outfits. The younger kid is holding his teddy bear! Which is wearing plaid trousers! My hopes that the music would be in the vein of Richard Dyer-Bennett and other folk revival singers of the British Isles were dashed. Syrupy arrangements mar a good, strong voice.

Robert Johnson

I already own the complete Robert Johnson on CD, but got this record because it’s a veritable document of music history. The actual 78s of Johnson’s songs, released in the 20s and 30s, are worth thousands of dollars. In 1961, 23 years after Johnson had died and he was virtually unknown, John Hammond coaxed Columbia into releasing this collection. It influenced a whole generation of rock musicians, especially British blues rock guitarists. Brian Jones played it for Keith Richards, who was astounded to learn that there was only one guitarist playing.

Tom Dahill

I got this record because it’s on the Flying Fish label, released in 1988. Picking it up out of the bin tripped a switch that led to a string of memories. I had a college friend who worked at Flying Fish after we graduated. One hot summer afternoon, in search of work myself, I visited him at the label, in an old house on the north side of Chicago. There was no work to be had, of course, but Jim showed me around the offices, including the basement where they kept hundreds of boxes of records waiting to be shipped out. I gazed longingly and lovingly at the boxes . . . so many records, so much music.

Holding this record in my hands today in Los Angeles, it occurred to me that it was possible, if not even likely, that it was in a box in that basement in Chicago that day, that we had shared a space before. Where and how has it traveled to get here now? While I was spinning out my life, was it just waiting for the day when we would be reunited, thousands of miles and 18 years down the line? Or was it just as surprised to see me?

17 responses to “And it’s only a dollar”

  1. Rachel says:

    Great post, Tim. It reminded me how obsessively I studied my mom’s LPs, memorizing Beatles lyrics, puzzling out the surreal photography on the inner sleeves of “Tusk,” and staring longingly at Debbie Harry in her little white dress. And I loved the shoutout to Withnail and I.

    “We’ve gone on holiday by mistake!”

  2. Scott Godfrey says:

    Wow Tim what an awesome post. I was thinking of all the tings I could comment about as I read, but was finally taken over to just listen to your voice. I am left with nothing; except maybe, yeah, I like records too.

    Can’t wait till the next record club. That weight you feel on your shoulders is the pressure to pick some pretty darn good songs.

  3. bryan says:

    I loved this post. Of course I did. Damn, I wish I had thought of it. Damn, I wish I had a record collection. I haven’t owned a turntable since 1989 and what few records I had purchased before I went to college have wound up who knows where. (It’s a shame too, because I didn’t have many but the ones I had were good. I even found a copy of U2-3, the pre _Boy_ 12″ disc, in a used store once for only a couple dollars.)

    I have been asking for a turntable for Christmas for quite a while now. I knew it was finally time to get it when I heard Lisa and John playing Hall and Oates Rock and Soul Part I at their place over the summer. When I was in Amsterdam we hit a great store and a couple thrift shops and I picked up a copy of Roxy Music’s _Stranded_. I can’t wait to play it on my very own player on Dec. 25. (Hint, Hint, ssw.)

    One of the reasons I want a turntable again is that CDs have come to play an increasingly unimportant role in my music listening, and I, too, love the physical artifact. I also like to support artists where I can. But I do depend so much on file sharing and play so much music off my computers or iPods at home (who has time to load CDs when you have 8,000 songs in one tiny little metal box?) that I rarely even burn CDs anymore of things I download. I do try to buy the music I really want to support, but I’m thinking that from here on out, if someone releases something I really want to own (Joanna Newsom’s Ys, for instance) I’d rather buy it on vinyl if it’s available. Otherwise it hardly makes sense to have something taking up space when it’s already on my iPod. The pop and hiss makes the music new in a way a digital file can’t. So count me in. Next time you’re here let’s spend some serious time roaming around the Village’s many used vinyl shops.

  4. MarleyFan says:

    Records that make me smile. I recall as a young boy, every Saturday, my mom would put on The Carpenters record, which meant “time to clean the house”; later my wife would do the same thing, weird. Regularly my mom would spin the Johnny Cash, Live at Folsom Prison album. It was Ironic that I would mock Willie Nelson when mom would would play his records, but after I left home, I found that Willie Nelson reminded me so much of home that I would play his recordings (then on casette tape), until I too became a fan. And, although I’m a little embarassed to admit it, my first two records were Barry Manilow and The Captain and Tenille which I recieved for Christmas; I’ll save them for you Tim…

  5. Lisa Tremain says:

    How appropriate, since this Saturday is Westcoast Record Club. We’re having a free-for-all; you can bring CDs or LPs this time.

    Wish you could be there, all of you.

    John has a cd burner on our stereo that burns from vinyl! So you get the thumps and hisses on a little metal disc when you’re all through burning.

    I don’t know how many folks truly appreciated the Phoebe Snow that I dropped at our last WC Record Club, but if it weren’t for records, I wouldn’t like that song so much. mmmmm…analog.

  6. Tim Wager says:

    Lisa, I love that Phoebe Snow record and was specifically looking for it yesterday! I should have known better. The thing about dollar vinyl is, you take what you find; looking for certain records is fruitless.

    The main reason for my trip to Amoeba, though, was to get the new Joanna Newsom. I splurged and got it on both CD and vinyl. Both have gorgeous packaging!

    This morning I remembered, too, that there’s a great scene with Mixmaster Mike (of Beasties, etc.) in “Scratch,” a documentary about DJs and turntablism, where he scratches that Robert Johnson record and then flashes the cover (Youtube link below). That’s another thing about vinyl; it lends itself more readily to user interactions like this.

  7. bryan says:

    other reasons you made me aware of, tim: downloading is so deliberate. you look for things you’ve read about or heard on FMU or at record club, whatever. browsing through old vinyl yields hits and misses like the ones you chart above. i love the idea of buying something because it looks wacky or fun & not knowing what you have until you get it home.

    i also loved your bit about the record as a traveling object–whose hands has it passed through? i love used books for the same reason.

  8. Tim Wager says:

    Bryan, you’re totally on for some record shopping next time I’m in NYC and/or you’re out here.

    Christian Marclay, who’s a really interesting video and sound artist, works with records a lot. He put out a piece a while ago that was a blank vinyl disk. Buyers were instructed not to put the record in a sleeve or to protect it in any way, to leave it lying around and even let it get scratched haphazardly (use it as a coaster or a trivet). The idea is to register how time and travel get recorded on the disk. Even though it’s not playable, in that you can’t slap it on a turntable and listen to it, the record will carry the (cryptic and yet somehow legible) marks of its history.

  9. bryan says:

    i once performed on the same bill as Christian Marclay! he scratched records while a cellist made a lot of noise.

  10. Tim Wager says:

    Bryan, was it Tom Cora on cello? Holy crap. You’re a downtown noise legend!

    Also, just noticed your new photo. Are you rockin’ the beard again?

  11. bryan says:

    no — he had a female Japanese cellist playing with him.

    no — last year’s beard. my online persona is always bearded.

  12. Jeremy says:

    Wow, those are some fun record covers. I hardly notice CD covers anymore–it’s like looking at a thumbnail. But record covers–that’s a whole ‘nother story…

    Fabulous post, Tim. Can’t wait to see you all at Record Club (though, sadly, I’ll probably bring boring old CDs).

  13. Jeremy says:

    And I think that teddy bear’s wearing a kilt…?

  14. Scott Godfrey says:

    If you look at how the kid’s holding the teddy bear, it appears that the photographer pulled it out of his/her prop trunk and was all: “hey kid hold onto this will ya; it’ll make the picture more…I don’t know…homey.”

  15. obviously the kid with the bear got the better deal. look at the smug look on his face. compare kid with the truck. he’s thinking, “shit, i hope that girl i like doesn’t see this. i’m holding a freaking truck in my lap and i’m wearing short shorts and a tie.”

    i like him better. i’d whack the other kid if he looked at me like that when i was trying to take a picture.

  16. Stephanie Wells says:

    Reading this post felt like an articulation of everything I already feel about records. So many of my memories with you (and with most people I care about) revolve (at 33 or 45 rpm) around records, as I know is the case with you. And flipping through the bins always makes me aware of a human commonality somehow–that no matter what thrift store you’re in (of course, it’s different in a record store), you see so many of the same albums: Hall and Oates’ “H2O,” Journey’s “Escape,” Boz Scaggs’ “Silk Degrees,” the ubiquitous“Hotel California,” the Rolling Stones’ “Steel Wheels.” When I worked at a record store, in our used section we had one entire row underneath the stacks (where we stored overload) that was just for all the used copies of “Steel Wheels.” But of course while these seem comforting and familiar, they’re just the things you flip through almost without seeing until your eye is caught by a stunning cover that makes you buy it just for the art (Lisa T gifted us the most beautiful gamelan album at the last record club, called “Music for the Morning of the World.” It is, too.)

    My own albums often carry a bonus when you pull out the inner sleeve: a sheet of notebook paper on which my teen self dutifully was trying to transcribe the lyrics (picking up the needle and moving it back to hear that line over and over till I got it) or even drawings of the artists singing the lyrics, in some cases. It’s even better when it wasn’t me who did it–for example, the wistful, loopy writing, decorated with flowers, of this aching violet:

    “My name is Joseph Burgos. I live at 162 Texas St in San Francisco, California. I am 17 years old, and when I grow up I want to be an actor and singer. The day I make my mark I will know I have made my dream come true. Wish me luck and hard work. If you should ever hear or see my name, then you too can share my dream. Love, Joseph Burgos, Dec. 17, 1977. When you see a star you will see me.” This is lovingly etched along with inspirational quotes and practice autographs (in Bic Banana Ink Crayon, no doubt) on the inner sleeve of Donny Osmond’s “Too Young” album. Yep, CDs will never compete. This is why we need the dollar bin. To Joseph.

  17. Tim Wager says:

    Just saw a great movie last night, Desperate Man Blues, about Joe Bussard, a renowned collector of 78s. Wonderful stuff in there about the tactility of records. Bussard sits in front of the turntable in many of the scenes, explaining the importance of the records as he listens, mimicking the players as the records spin. You can see him feel himself in the presence of the musicians. I highly recommend it for you vinyl afficionados. Yes, Netflix has it.