8.17.2006: Vinyl Uber Alles
[This originally appeared in the 8.17.06 issue of METROLAND MAGAZINE.]
OK, OK, allright, down boy, etc. I’ve taken a little bit of heat for my last column in which I referred people my own age as geezers, and who maybe are a little slow to embrace the inevitable conversion of music from CDs to MP3s and other digital-file media.
Sorry, but we are geezers. Even AARP thinks so. Really, though, it could be so much worse. You could be 20 and stupid, right?
The whole MP3 thing has changed how I listen to music, and for the better. I’ve got something like 15 days worth of recordings here on my laptop, and I stick my music player on shuffle play, and viola, I’ve got a radio station of my own creation. (I’ve got the death of radio, actually, but that’s a story for another day.) While the songs go by, I grab the ones I really like and stick them in playlists, burn ‘em up into CDs, and I’ve got custom, personalized listening.
There’s only one drawback, one that goes back a ways, and one that might make us geezers, in a weird sort of way, feel a little better about ourselves.
While MP3s might sound almost as good as CDs (especially if you crank the bit-rate up north of 192 bps), they don’t sound as good as vinyl records. Nothing, short of being there watching a performance live (and maybe not even that) sounds as good as vinyl records.
Many of you probably know this already, and still have your turntable set up, and your records lined up on some shelves (or in crates) and alphabetized. Maybe you’ve got an old tube amplifier, and those big-ass speakers they don’t make anymore. You know what I’m talking about. Weirdo.
Simply, digital technology, based on 0’s and 1’s, mere instructions, will never duplicate the smooth and continuous flow of sound that comes from an analog reproduction on a vinyl record. I remember hearing my first CD, probably in 1984 or so. It was crisp, clean, precise, and almost completely devoid of life. I was a-scared of the damn thing. I recall Neil Young saying at the time that listening to digital recordings was like looking outside through a screen door, except the screen would only allow one primary color at a time through each little screen-hole. He got that right.
Yeah, things have gotten a little better since then, there’s no doubt about that. But still today, when I buy a CD (or an MP3) of one of the great recordings of my youth, it just fails me every time. The warmth, the spaciousness, the humanity of the recordings that I remember just aren’t there. These things are suggested, but absent.
Of course, I suck it up and move on. I pruned my vinyl collection a few years ago, reduced it from thousands to a hundred or so, which I realized almost immediately was a mistake. But it has made moving easier. My turntable collects dust in the basement, as do my remaining albums. The stuff just takes up too much room, and despite how beautiful I think my collection of vintage albums may be, they’re all pretty damn ratty. I have to admit, in moments of weakness and reflection, that the observation that they “don’t go” in the living room (or anywhere else in the house except the basement) is probably dead-nuts right. And my hearing is probably shot so bad at this point that it really doesn’t matter anyway.
But at least I’ve got my memories.
And that’s not the only reason vinyl’s better. There’s also the graphics. Remember Jethro Tull’s great pop-up package, Stand Up? King Biscuit Boy’s Gooduns in a burlap bag? No? The 12x12 format lent itself to works of art, something the dinky little books in the crappy plastic boxes can never approximate. And those flimsy cardboard “enviro-pacs” aren’t any better. Think anybody’s ever gonna publish a book about great album cover art 1995-2005? It doesn’t really matter anymore.
And in buying an MP3 off the web, well, you don’t get anything except some tiny little invisible electric numbers delivered to your computer. I suppose you can go the band’s website and bask in the glow of their web designer’s brilliance. How touching and real.
And then there’s the whole tactile thing. It’s never been described better than by Lester Bangs in Creem magazine, in 1971:
The real story is rushing home to hear the apocalyptic event, falling through the front door and slashing open the plastic sealing “for your protection,” taking the black record out – ah, lookit them grooves, all jet black without a smudge yet, shiny and new and so fucking pristine, then the color of the label, does it glow with auras that’ll make some subtle comment on the sounds coming out....? And finally you get to put the record on the turntable, it spins in limbo a perfect second, followed by the moment of truth, needle into groove, and finally sound.
Tell this to kids today and they won’t believe ya. They hardly have time to think about it, anyway. Too busy pointing and clicking and staring deeply into the screen.