I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve moved them in the last fifty-plus years, lugging them from New York to Florida to a dozen places in Washington State. Once numbering well over one hundred, they’re pruned to a select few, elevated over the years to cherished possessions.
I’m speaking of 33 1/3 rpm vinyl record albums. So why keep them, you might ask? After all, in 2023, I can stream any song or album on demand.
“Alexa: play Four Way Street.”
I don’t even own a turntable anymore. It’s simple really: the albums are touchstones. First editions, 12.5-inch square pressed paper and vinyl that hold a power over me. I can’t let them go. I suppose it’s my little version of hoarding. Everything about them, from the album cover art to the music, influenced and transformed my generation, popular culture, and ME.
My first record album was “Introducing the Beatles,” issued by Vee-Jay Records in 1964. Wikipedia says ten days later, Capital Records released the same album with a new title: “Meet the Beatles.” As you can imagine, legal wrangling ensued. Unfortunately, my Vee-Jay album didn’t survive my youth.
In our house, music played on my parent’s HIFI (short for high-fidelity), a hulking piece of real furniture with one speaker. Records in those days were monophonic, on a single track.
My first personal music device was a tiny crystal radio. Next, I had a small AM transistor radio. It was revolutionary. Music in your hand. Music on the go. Sometimes at night, you could hear distance radio stations as the AM radio waves bounced off the ionosphere.
Our hometown station: 1430 WENE, played Top 40. Now, it’s Sports radio. FM didn’t widely exist, appearing locally in the mid-1970s. WAAL 95.3.
I was curious about how it all worked, but like many teenage boys was better at destruction than construction. You probably know that cutting a capacitor cable with uninsulated pliers of a 1940s-era Philco console radio complete with a 78 rpm record player and short wave radio is not a good idea even when it’s unplugged. Not me. It cured me instantly of my electronics repair fascination.
Realizing low voltage was more my style. I refocused my efforts, promptly running a wire, scavenged from the dumpster of our local electronics store (they fixed things back then), from the HIFI in the family room up the laundry shoot into my second-floor bedroom. I hooked the wire to a single bare speaker—also scavenged from the dumpster. The installation was not my best work. As my wife will attest, I’ve not improved much over the years.
I also failed to take into account that everyone in earshot had to listen to what I was playing. The only solution: cut the HIFI’s speaker cable and install a switch. Not hard. Fortunately, a few more months of maturity allowed me to nix that project. Clearly, I needed something of my own.
My parents had learned from experience that it was sometimes better to get me what I wanted rather than encourage my often freewheeling ambitions. For instance, I didn’t dare tell them we experimented with making rocket fuel in the neighborhood. Nobody got burned, lost an eye, or burned their house down. Neither did we succeed.
Eventually, for my birthday, I got an all-in-one stereo system. A record player of any type, if you were lucky enough to own one, was your most valuable possession in those days. The sound wasn’t great, but it was mine. I was my own DJ.
So what’s left in my collection? Every Beatles album, of course. The “Sgt. Peppers” album I bought in 1967 at Sam’s Deli at the end of our street. I brought it home, played on the HIFI, and was stunned. My 13-year-old self didn’t understand what I was hearing. Then, there’s the Doors “Strange Days” album. The first album I heard in stereo. I’d taken it to my grandparent’s house and listened to it on a real stereo using headphones. Stereo separation! I couldn’t believe my ears. “Close to the Edge” by YES played countless times while lying on a waterbed with friends tripping on LSD. I have two of those albums. A backup strategy was important even then.
Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” an album that demonstrates the power of a lyric and simple melody to tear your heart out. Jackson Browne’s “Late For The Sky” that always skipped in the same spot, a two-note guitar riff played over and over until I’d gently nudge the tonearm. To this day, when I hear it on CD or streamed I anticipate that skip. I can hear it in my head now.
There are a few odd ones too. “Todd Rundgren Live in Central Park” with my wife Sue appearing on the album’s back cover, sitting a few rows from the stage. I recognize that look on her face. She’s a bit irked at something. “Stop talking, Todd and just play already!”
Of course, there are two of the greatest live recordings from the 1970s, both double albums: YES’s “Yessongs” and “The Allman Brothers Live at the Filmore.” Both, no doubt, contributed to my current need for hearing aids.
Don’t forget the Moody Blues. My first concert riding to Syracuse with my pal Gary in his overpowered ’67 black Camaro. I have an Amazon music playlist with the opening songs of every early album. Always dramatic and sonically stunning. Four Emerson Lake and Palmer albums. “Pictures At An Exhibition” introduced the rock and roll me to the classical music me. About ten years ago, I learned that my uncle Arthur worked as a cabinet maker for MOOG synthesizers. He undoubtedly made the cabinets for Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman’s instruments.
And there’s Jethro Tull too. Somebody slipped LSD into the wineskin at the 1972 concert at Cornell University. I’m still not sure how we made it home that foggy night. Or perhaps I only imagined the fog.
So, as you can tell, they’re not just old record albums to me. Instead, to loosely paraphrase the Moody Blues, they’re the cord connecting me to a time and a place I just don’t want to forget.