Blood, Sweat & Vinyl is a music column by Joel Gunz sharing records that are the soundtrack to his life, examining each album critically, and providing their historical context—exploring why they mattered when they were created, and why they continue to matter now.
Her text: A pipe broke. The basement is flooded. 🙁
April 20, 2009. The day before my 43rd birthday. A couple of months before the conclusion of a slow-motion breakup. Half underwater: eight or nine dozen blistered, contorting album covers. The Beatles were bent. Jimmy Smith, swollen. Donald Fagen was disfigured (but let’s be honest, that studio rat was never that good-looking to begin with). I guess I could have tried to save the records themselves, but they were doomed, misshapen moiré patterns already erupting across their deformed surfaces. As the water receded, so went my life story till then, insofar as it was expressed in vinyl. When I moved out that June, I said I’d return for the records, but never did. Add it to the list of broken promises. A season for cutting bait.
Then came the crashing in spare rooms, the couch surfing, the paying rent by the week. More purging: boxes of Jehovah’s Witness literature dating back to the 1870s; an old laptop whose hard drive I’d meant to copy. Thirty-some years of cult life—twelve of them spent in a stillborn marriage—had nearly killed me. The only way through it was to start over. Somewhere along the way, I let the turntable go.
I’d grown up on vinyl. Then, as a young man, I commenced collecting compact digital discs. CDs turned out to be an interim format: as the internet advanced, recorded music shed its hybrid physical/digitized body altogether for the incorporeal convenience of web streaming. Bottom line: music—what it means to us and how we use it—changed more in the last century than it did in the 10,000 years previous. Measuring from the advent of Edison’s phonograph cylinder in 1877, I’ve been eyewitness to one third of the history of recorded music. A blip in the breadth of human history. You probably know a waning Don Juan whose signature moves once included winding up a Gramophone. In the face of such rapid changes, how can our search for meaning possibly keep up?
Music, Music Everywhere
Thanks to iTunes, I carry the world’s biggest jukebox and an endless roll of quarters everywhere I go. Access is almost too easy—and that’s the problem. Like any other utility, I pay a monthly fee for this streaming service—roughly the cost of about one new CD per month. The music itself is essentially free—as the artists themselves know too well. Isolated and abstracted in the Cloud—the term itself a metaphor for a technological realm that only a trained IT geek can understand—digital music resides everywhere and nowhere. Grinding to iTunes is like shadow dancing; you’re listening to nothing, because there’s no thing. If all the world’s music is always available, everywhere you go, is there any music at all?
Time in a Bottle
“I wish there could be an invention that bottled up a memory like perfume and it never faded, never got stale. Then, whenever I wanted to, I could uncork the bottle and live the memory all over again.” —Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940)
Recorded music is that invention. Moments embalmed: when the drummer hit the right groove, or the singer belted the lyrics with her heart in her hand. (Sort of. Multitracking and digital tools have dumped that activity on a mythical, historical junkpile. Today, musicians usually record their parts separately—the drummer in Baltimore, the singer in L.A., the engineer holed up in a spare bedroom at his ranch outside Missoula. The only time they’ll ever come together is when they upload their MP3 files to a shared virtual Dropbox.)
However, for me, the real time-in-a-bottle aspect of a recording is that it can be an aural reliquary for listeners. Records are not where we store music, but where we store our own memories. In fact, that may be their greatest value, for what is the role of art but to serve its audience and abet our search for meaning? For me, Sting’s Nothing Like the Sun album on cassette will always contain the memory of one July weekend at the Oregon coast with my soon-to-be (then)wife and her friends piled into the car, speeding along Highway 101 with all the windows down; billowing tangles of curly late-80s hair blowing in my face. “Forget the weather, we should always be together.” Just about every piece of music I’ve ever owned is a container for just such vivid memories; to live them again, all I need to do is pop the cork.
But there’s a catch. Maybe it’s just me, but the capacity of recorded music to serve as a memory bottle diminishes the farther it heads into the virtual realm:
In this diagram, I placed vinyl at the top of the list because it’s the most tactile of all of these objects—you can literally leave your fingerprints on the music. The media descend in order of physicality until we reach a point when it’s no longer experienced as an object, but as an abstraction (streaming services).
As I see it, recorded music is a two-way interface, delivering up an artist’s thoughts and feelings and, conversely, serving as a sort of fetish object to help preserve the listener’s own experience. The further we get from that physical interface, the more its two-way capacity fades out. And the less we’re able to imbue the medium with these meanings, well, the less meaningful the music becomes. And therein lies a rejoinder to cultural critic Walter Benjamin who bemoaned the loss of the aura of originality in mechanically reproduced artworks: pop cultural artifacts, whose existence and meaning are literally manufactured, nonetheless bear an aura endowed, not by their creators, but by their fans, along with society’s conscious collective.
Artists and writers have long lamented the transition from analog to digital. Lossless though digital replication may be, something important and human has been lost. I wanted to suss out what that was, what we’d lost as a culture. (The gains are manifest—I still love my iTunes!) Over the last fifty years, I’ve lost a lot too. Some of it was stolen, other parts I happily forfeited. I almost lost myself. It’s now a season of reclamation, starting with a flyover of the first half of my life to determine what was lost, what remains, and what I can build from there.
I resolved to rebuild my vinyl collection.
The first order of business was to buy a turntable. In order to keep the experience as tactile and analog as possible, I naturally avoided online shopping, instead haunting Portland’s caves and cathedrals of retail audiophilia staffed by a priestly class of socially awkward ex-hippies, where I kicked tires, haggled, and debated the merits of belt-drive versus direct-drive systems. Just kidding! I Googled for reviews like anyone else and then made the purchase on Amazon Prime. It took less than an hour. Marketers call this process “the buyer’s journey.” But my journey entailed sitting on my ass, surfing the web, and occasionally taking a gander at the latest developments on Twitter.
Feel Free to Skip This Paragraph
For those of you who are interested, here’s my stereo setup. Receiver: Denon DRA-275R Precision Audio Component circa 1997; 40 watts; purchased through a rewards points catalogue while I was employed unjustly by Qwest Communications (now CenturyLink, for now). Turntable: Denon DP-300F Fully Automatic Turntable System purchased new; belt drive; chosen for its excellent quality-to-price ratio and because it matches my receiver. Speakers: Miller & Kreisel 2B satellites with matching M&K 2B Volkswoofer circa 1984, purchased from my friend Steve, whose hobby it is to buy vintage stereo equipment off of Craigslist, mess around with it for a while, and then resell it.
My sound system is a far cry from the setup of my dreams when I was a 14-year-old kid with a Stereo Review subscription lusting after its exotic flat electrostatic speakers from MartinLogan, vertical turntables from Technics, and futurist everything from Bang and Olufsen. Then again, I’m probably better off. As Steve likes to point out, audiophiles are the most dissatisfied music lovers in the world, chasing a dragon of sonic perfection that, in the end, only serves to point up the flaws in the original recordings themselves, thus making the music unlistenable. As with parenting, a “good enough” stereo is usually better than “best.” Aspiring to anything more can make people neurotic.
Thus, Blood, Sweat & Vinyl is a music review column. Join me as I rebuild my vinyl collection. With each installment, I’ll listen to one record with you—sometimes for the first time in decades—reconsidering what it means to the world and to me, and how it’s held up over the years. Some of the music will be familiar to you if you live in the English-speaking world. Other stuff may be new. I hope to turn you on to some good jams along the way as we talk about music, history, and whatever else comes up. Mostly, I think, this column will be about context. How we create it, how it shapes us, and how it never stays in one place. I hope you’ll join me. Let the needle drop.