Mountains Beyond Mountains

To look at me, a 40-something Gen X-er with more salt in his beard than pepper, you would expect my musical tastes to have ended sometime around the year 2000. Sometimes I worry that’s been the case. Looking at my favorite albums and songs and bands, it’s easy to see why; my music choices have largely remained drawn from the 1970s through the 1990s, with some deep dives into the music of the sixties.

Despite being a 70s kid, the music of my early childhood was the music of the 60s. That was the music of my early years, those long drives with my family, the radio tuned to some oldies station (though back then these “oldies” were barely 20 years old), or an album on our station wagon’s 8-track cassette player.

It was the 70s, okay? Don’t laugh.

This was the pre-teenage, pre-music discovery years of my life. The music I listened to was the music my parents listened to. For most people I’m certain their childhoods were the same. The emotional connection I have to songs like ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Bring It On Home’, ‘Ruby Tuesday’ and ‘Sunny Afternoon’ are largely drawn from those younger years.

I didn’t really start discovering “my” own music until the mid-80s. I’d moved to a new city and state and as such did not integrate very well. After schools and weeknights and weekends were spent listening to the radio in my bedroom. This being the mid-1980s though, it was a fine time to be a music fan or to become one.

Live Aid was the first eye-opener. Queen, U2, and a new-wave band from Boston left the biggest impressions. In fact the first proper album I bought with my own dollars would have been this one:

And it’s still one of my favorites

The Cars were my gateway to modern music. They led to the discovery of bands like Depeche Mode, The Smiths, The Cure, The Jam, Billy Idol, Duran Duran, David Bowie, The Pixies, New Order and on and on and on. This was a golden era for music, as any Gen X-er will tell you, though we probably didn’t appreciate it at the time. 60s music still seemed cooler, and ‘classic’ and was still everywhere, thanks to the first baby Boomers hitting the big 4-0 and entering their midlife crisis years. We 80s kids didn’t yet realize that by the time we reached our parents’ age we’d be nostalgic for the music of our youth the way they were for theirs and would stop looking at new music in the same way we once looked at our older sounds.

[Part of this is actually science. The teenage brain reaches its peak development around the age of 16 and continues on that path until the early 20s. That’s why the music you loved at that age and the five or so year span following remains with you your entire life. While you certainly can and should continue discovering new music, it will never be the same. ]

I, of course, dove deep into music over the next fifteen years or so. I was there for the birth of “Alternative Rock” and Grunge and Hip-Hop and the rise of Generation X. I bought the albums, I went to the shows. I lived the life.

And then … it sort of ended. By 1995 I was parting ways with music. It wasn’t as important to me. The bands I kept up with dropped off, broke up, committed suicide (literal and career). Life got more complicated, the workload more intense. I was in this weird, nebulous place where I wasn’t quite old enough to be nostalgic for my still too-recent childhood and teenage years, but hadn’t yet ‘arrived” in my adult ones. Life felt like it was on pause while I sorted my shit out. Music was paused as well.

So what does all the above have to do with Arcade Fire’s 2010 album “The Suburbs”?

EVERYTHING.

Hypnotic, melodic, complex – The Suburbs was and remains everything a great album should be and does what any great album should do; transport you. Because of the music, obviously, and because of that mood and tone, but mostly because of the subject and title; it’s exactly the album I would have loved when I was a teenager. I can easily picture throwing the cassette into the deck of my Toyota and cruising the streets of my town, and being utterly surrounded by it.

The Suburbs remains my “New York Soundtrack” – the album I’ll put on anytime I want to remember what those Big Apple years were like. Me, essentially starting my career and life over again after some pretty disastrous decisions in the mid-2000s nearly killed my career. It, along with The Dead Weather’s Horehound, Metric’s Fantasies, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ It’s Blitz! and Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, take me back to a time that seriously does feel like yesterday and a million years ago at the same time. But I’m not here to talk about those great albums (yes, even the Coldplay one). I’m here to talk about The Suburbs.

But not the album. Not exactly.

The Suburbs. The ‘Burbs. The Sprawl. Maligned and scorned by the hip, the self-conscious, the self-absorbed, and the “hip urban elite” who (until Covid-19 anyway) lived comfortably in their lofts and apartments and townhomes of whatever metropolis they call home. The ‘burbs are where you go where the dream dies. When marriage and children enter the picture you feel its pull; abandoning the excitement, the energy, the vibe of the city for the house, the fence, the cul-de-sacs and crescents and tree-lined streets, the strip-malls and shopping centers, bisected by roads and freeways, survivable only by automobile.

Call them “sub-urban.” Beneath contempt.

Well, I’ve come to praise the suburbs, not bury them. The suburbs made me who I am. And in this COVID-era, the suburbs seem to be drawing more people into their orbit. The appeal of the big bad city becomes somewhat limited when you can’t go anywhere or do anything.

Unless you’re wearing a mask, that is.

My first true memory of the suburbs involved me chasing a blimp. I was four years old, happily being four years old in the subdivision I lived in with my parents and sister. One summer evening (childhood memories of these suburbs seem always to be summer) I’m in the backyard of our bungalow and what do I see in the sky but a blimp, much like the Goodyear Blimp, only with red and white colors. I run and tell my dad and tell him we have to follow it. Why he agreed I’ll never know but what resulted was a family outing with me and my mom and my sister in her stroller wandering the tangled network of streets looking for wherever this damn blimp is, just hanging there in the sky. We eventually found it at the edge of our subdivision, among the skeletal structures of the coming expansion of houses yet to be built, yet to be occupied. The “blimp” was really just an oversized helium balloon, with the logo for the construction company on it. I was disappointed that it wasn’t real (and that rides weren’t in the offering), but as we walked back home, I realized that the world existed beyond the limits of my own realm; the front yard and backyard of our house, and wherever my parents would take me. That there was more out there than just my home and street. That there were mountains beyond mountains.

Looking at a map of that neighborhood now I am amazed at how much of my memory of that period is confined to a tiny grid of streets among many. Really my world extended from my street to a block south to my school, and maybe a block or two east and west. My world was comprised of wherever my bike or feet could take me. Venturing a block south of my school was considered a Big Journey, and if we wanted to go to one of the shopping malls in the vicinity we had to ask a parent to drive us and save a quarter to call when we wanted to be picked up. Our experience of the city at large was made in increments and always entailed some sort of voyage.

As we grew older and gained the freedom that comes with age, trips into the city itself involved a lengthy bus to subway ride and consumed the better part of the day. Downtown represented freedom, record stores, comic shops, the best burger joints, and girls (especially girls). On those trips your world expanded to areas accessible by public transit.  Of course when we got our licenses and access to a car, that world grew exponentially.  There was literally no place we couldn’t go and as we explored, as our sphere of influence expanded, the world we grew up in seemed all the more tiny and insignificant. Cruising through neighborhoods only a mile or two west of ours presented homes and schools and kids our age who lived in worlds that were as foreign and unknown to us as ours were to theirs.  We would never experience their lives, the halls of their schools, and maybe we’d pass each other at a mall, we were ships in the night. Maybe we’d learn later, at college, that a new friend lived in a neighborhood that was a stone’s throw away geographically, but a lifetime down the road.

Not to mention that to the creative mind, monsters could be lurking ANYWHERE, even the burbs.

But to understand the allure of the suburbs is to understand their relationship to the city they orbit. To glimpse the glittering skyscrapers of New York or Los Angeles as you pass them on the freeway to your home enclave, is to see a light seductively drawing you in. You want to escape, you want to find your place in that light; you want to find home. I’ve come to realize that dream, that search for your place in the world is a recurring theme in a lot of my work.

When I first experienced The Suburbs I was living in NYC. Prior to that I lived in another large city. All told “Urban” living has occupied 25 years of my life. Big cities, sprawling megalopolis. Places I thought would be my forever home but ended up being just a blip of memory. Places where I thought I’d find a path through life, a career, a happiness that eluded me for much of my life. There’s something to be said for a reinvention. I reinvented myself when I moved off to go to college; again when I threw it all away and made my way to another part of the world. Chasing that dream only to realize it wasn’t the one I really wanted.

And now it’s all over.

In 2018 my family and I decamped to the suburbs; actually to a town founded in 1630 that’s part of a greater metropolitan area (this is no tract house subdivision; it’s older than the danged country). But we’re close enough to the big city that we don’t feel quite so isolated. Our lives are back on those quiet suburban streets, where our child has learned to ride his scooter and now his bike. Where the playgrounds ruing out with the sounds pf playtime and laughter. Where the local baseball diamond hosts little league games all summer long and the ice cream trucks prowl.

It’s certainly a different place from the one I pictured when I began my professional career. Ending up as a work-from-home/stay-at-home dad in a suburb is now where I expected to wind up. It’s a different life than the one I envisioned for myself. In many ways it’s much, much better.

In this pandemic year of 2021 the suburbs are experiencing a rebirth of sorts. They have a much greater draw then they did a decade before. The cities still draw the hopeful in, and I will proselytize that at least a few years of urban life is good for the soul. The cities are where you make your name, where you forge the person you hope to become some day. But stand atop the Empire State Building, Mulholland Drive, the CN Tower or the Prudential Tower, and you’ll see the lines radiating out like spokes on a bicycle wheel, connecting villages to towns and cities and the suburbs in between. At night, the streets and roads and highways gleam, headlights and taillights rushing through like red blood cells through veins and arteries.

The suburbs are about longing. They’re about being on the outside and looking in and dreaming about what was or what could be someday. Not many urban kids rebel against their parents to move to the ‘burbs; it’s always the reverse. The promise of that excitement, that constant search for a place in the world is forged in a suburban setting, not an urban one. In a city like New York you look for an escape from it; the heat, the noise, the people and can find it within a relatively short drive but you always feel the city’s pull on you whether you live there or glimpse it from a hilltop or a highway.

But that longing is part of the romance of the suburbs. You always feel that pull that a better life could lie around the next corner, or the next subdivision over. You can waste your life looking for that place, only to realize that what you’re looking for is right beside you all along.

Forgotten Years

[This is the latest in a periodic series in which I write about some of my all-time favorite albums and the memories that shall forever be attached to them]

Album: Blue Sky Mining
Artist: Midnight Oil
Year: 1990

March 1990. I’m on an airplane flying south, and very frustrated that it’s not a flight winging its way east. I’m on a family vacation, you see; my family, and my aunt, uncle, and cousins, all winging their way south of the border, down Mexico way for a week-long vacation at an all-inclusive resort.

Where I want to be going is several hundred miles east, across the Atlantic, across Europe, to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. A.k.a. The U.S.S.R. A.k.a. Soviet Russia

[AK-47. An Eastern block assault rifle which saw great use in Afghanistan. Vietnam and countless Golan-Globus schlock of the 1980s, usually involving Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren, and in the case of The Delta Force, a shirtless Robert Forster playing a middle-eastern terrorist.]

Bob, you’re only about thirteen years from Jackie brown. Hold tight.

The reason I wanted to be on that trip and not this one, is because my best friend (then and now) is going. His school, three hours drive away from mine, was planning this trip to the Soviet Union since September the previous year. A lack of overall interest led to an offer to me to accompany. I asked my parents and expected them to say yes as I was, as I am now, a student of history, and to see the Soviet Union, to trod Red Square and see Lenin’s corpse was a dream of mine.

I was a weird kid. But in my defense, he was the walrus.

Goo goo ga joob

So I was hopeful. Being a teenager with little sense of just how much things like this cost, it seemed a no-brainer. Of course those hopes were dashed on the rocks when my parents told me no, I couldn’t go, that it was too much money, and anyways they’d decided to surprise my sister and I with a vacation in Mexico with them and my aunt and uncle and cousins. “Surprise!”

I was not happy. But I was also possessed of some sense of appreciation. I couldn’t just sniff at a week in Mexico, drinking Pina coladas, eating tacos, and sunning on a private beach. Then I learned my friend’s school was partnered with an all-girl Catholic school’s history class, so it ended up being my friend, two other guys, and about thirty gorgeous girls in catholic school girl uniforms my age.

So there I was; the most miserable teen ever to be found on a plane to Mexico.

But fortunately I had my walkman. I had my tapes. I had AA batteries in reserve.

And I had Midnight Oil’s Blue Sky Mining to keep me company.

I think my love – my Animotion-esque obsession – with music began in the mid-80s. I was still a kid then, but entering an age where G.I. Joe and Transformers and Star Wars were on their way out, and MTV, Friday Night Videos, and Top 40 rock radio were in. A traumatic move to the US south found me more often then not sequestered in my bedroom, reading quietly and listening to the local radio station. Mostly Top 40 nonsense, but on evenings I had more success pulling in radio-waves from the smaller campus radio stations further east. That was how I first heard R.E.M. and Talking Heads and Love & Rockets – tiny pinprick sparks of light amidst the endless spin of Whitney Houston, Loverboy, Dire Straights, Billy Joel and other mainstream music. This was the era of the resurgent Boomer – legacy acts like Paul Simon, the aforementioned Mr. Joel, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Chicago – who was taking the radio back from the post-punk new wave, new romantics era of the early to mid-80s – Soft Cell, Duran Duran, Thompson Twins and The Human league. Sure, there was great new stuff out there – 1986 saw the debut of Come on Pilgrim, from The Pixies after all. But you had to hunt for that stuff.

But starting around 1987-1988 music began to change. More socially conscious. Bands like UR, singer-songwriters like Bruce Cockburn and Tracy Chapman and Cowboy Junkies. Amidst all of this “Conscious Rock” was a little band from Down Under that scored their first big North American hit with a little song called “Beds are Burning” which notched heavy airplay on MTV and on the radio.

And still rocks hard, 34 years later …

Australia was cool in the 80s. Don’t ask me why. Well, obviously, it’s a fantastic, fascinating country, albeit one I’ve never visited. But I feel like I at least know Australia. This is the land down under! The land of Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli, of Razorback and The Cars That Ate Paris. Of INXS, Crocodile Dundee, and Jacko … and a little trilogy of car-crash post-apocalyptic movies that pretty much launched a sub-genre from a former doctor turned filmmaker named George Miller

Ride eternal, shiny and chrome little pig …

So there I was, heading into my deep teens, becoming interested in the world around me and its problems. Artists against Apartheid weren’t gonna play Sun City, and neither would bands like Midnight Oil. They’d been kicking around since the 1970s, releasing a string of commercially middling (for North America that is – they were huge down under), but really solid albums. They’d flirted with mainstream US success on albums like Red Sails In The Sunset and 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 (scoring the minor hits “U.S. Forces” and “The Power And the Passion”). The Oils weren’t interested in getting drunk, Scoring chicks, and driving their cars; they were interested in stopping nuclear proliferation, curbing the world’s petrochemical addiction, and educating dumb suburban kids like me about colonial treatment of aboriginal people the world over. They were anti-capitalist, anti-corruption, and anti-greed. They toured the outback; they spoke out against their government and businesses. They walked the walk, talked the talk, and put their money where their mouths were particularly in erudite, shaven-pated singer Peter garret, who eventually became a sitting member of the Australian parliament, and named minister of the environment.

They also rocked hard. And that was just why this kid needed to hear.

Where it all began …

Naturally I scooped up 1987’s Diesel and Dust. I rocked out to Beds Are Burning and The Dead Heart, but he found that top-to-bottom Diesel and Dust was a tight rock album with barely a weak link in the chain. I was a fan, and I was hooked on the Oils, on U2, on all those bands and those issues facing the world I was going to become an adult in.

The tricky thing with finding a new band (or in my case discovering one that had been around for a while) was waiting for their next one. This was still the 80s. Music wasn’t cheap. Finding obscure albums from Australian bands while stuck in N. America was a challenge. The Oils’ early albums wouldn’t be re-released stateside until 1990. Waiting for a new Midnight Oil album, like waiting for a new U2 or Depeche Mode one, was interminable.

There were rumblings in ’89 that a new album was on the way. I was a regular consumer of Rolling Stone magazine. In fact it was Rolling Stone that published an early review of Blue Sky Mining, giving it 5 stars out of 5 and calling it the band’s Joshua Tree.

Needless to say, I was excited. I just needed to get my hands on it. Blue Sky Mine, the first single and video, was getting heavy airplay on MTV, like they were tempting me to madness.

Wikipedia will tell you Blue Sky Mining was released on February 9th, but owing to where I was living and the odd quirks of record distribution, the album didn’t make it to me until early march. Three days, in fact, prior to the family’s departure to Mexico. I needed this album in my sweaty little hands, and I needed it before a week-long vacation. What was I supposed to do? Converse with my family?

And so, on a cold Wednesday in March, the call came, and I made haste to the local record store – the only record store, in point of fact – and was handed my cassette copy (because I did not own a CD player) of Blue Sky Mining (MSRP $10.99, or roughly $22.00 in 2021 dollars – thanks inflation!). Into the walkman it went, and after the audio level test (remember those?) it began.

Now, being familiar with Blue Sky Mine, the lead single, The Stars of Warburton was the first “new track” I got to hear. Stars is a propulsive, melodic song that starts slow and just builds and builds and builds to something transcendent, which is typical of the Oils. Despite being in a frigid northern cline it felt like the outback must have; hot, dry, desolate.

Bedlam Bridge was next. A slower, more mournful track with one of my all time favorite bridges of any rock song;

So how stands the city on this winters night
The city on the hill or so they said
The snow is falling down around the armoury
The city’s closing in around my head

Forgotten Years. This song bangs, to use the modern nomenclature. Here’s the video. Watch it and we’ll get back to things.

Pretty good stuff, huh? A great album closer, if it were one. Definitely a high point of any Oils show. This is the fourth song on the album.

Mountains of Burma. Another slow burn, and one with lyrics seemingly more tornfrom the year 2021 than the year 1990.

Pack your bags full of guns and ammunition
Bills fall due for the industrial revolution
Scorch the earth till the earth surrenders

Were the Oils prophets? No, they were singing about present day issues. It just took us thirty damn years to finally notice.

King of the Mountain. Another banger in the FY mold. Not a complaint, and a great way to kick off side B, same as they kicked off my first time seeing them in concert later that year.

[As a side note: does anyone else miss album sides? If the cassette had one small advantage over the CD it was that it replicated that switch of sides. Eject the tape, flip it over, pop it in, press play. You don’t get that with CDs. You don’t get that with streaming. Maybe that’s why vinyl made a comeback in recent years; for that pause in the action.]

On a whole Side B of Blue Sky Mining is a much slower, much more mournful mirror to the harder rock of Side A. River Runs Red is practically a ballad, only one of the good ones 1990 gave us, at a time where seemingly ever hard-to-mid-rock outfit was whipping out the acoustic guitar like that sensitive ponytail type you saw at every suburban house party.

But Midnight Oil’s ballads are as propulsive as their all-out rock tunes. Shakers and Movers, and One Country following next are practically operatic as they build and build. Have I used “propulsive” enough times in this entry yet to convince you otherwise?

Antarctica rounds out Side B, and it feels like the comedown after a really strong workout. you’ve pushed yourself and pushed hard and now you just need to sit and breathe.

Some albums take time to hook you. Call them slow burns, call them whatever. Blue Sky Mining, for me, was not one of those albums. It dug its hooks in and pulled almost immediately. By the time Antarctica was finished I was flipping the tape over to hear it all again. I knew then, that this was going to be one of those musical experiences I would never forget. that in years to come I might not like the band as much, but that album would always be a part of me.

And I was right.

By the time our plane to Mexico lifted off I was getting familiar with Blue Sky Mining. Over the week that followed, I listened to it over and over again. When I got sunburnt on the second day there – they take afternoon Siesta for a reason, amigos – I spent a lot of time in my hotel listening to it. The vacation was certainly a fun time, and probably preferable to Leningrad in March, and part of that enjoyment was that music swirling through my brain.

Though to be fair, the view was pretty nice too …

Funny thing is I think that vacation actually deepened my appreciation for the album more than it would have otherwise. Because there wasn’t much else to do but listen, when I returned home I found to my surprise that my friends weren’t as into it as I was. Maybe because I spent so many hours recovering in my hotel room from that wicked bad sunburn I had nothing to do but listen to it over and over and over again.

I saw the Oils later that month. My first “real” rock concert. Memorable for all the right reasons and the wrong ones too, I suppose. Blue Sky Mining marked the apex of my fandom of all things Oil. By the time 1993’s Earth and Sun and Moon arrived, I was on my way out with Midnight Oil. The music didn’t have quite the same snap. Of course this being the era or grunge, of Nirvana and Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and the RHCP and hosts of other alternative rock bands crashing the mainstream, a band like the Oils was only going to have a limited shelf life but in a way I think the Oils success in 1987-1990 paved the way for bands like Nirvana; underground artists given a chance in the mainstream and reaching millions of angry, disaffected teens in the process.

Though for my money, Earth and Sun and Moon has aged MUCH better than a lot of early 90s rock

That diminished interest in the Oils was also an ending of sorts to the world I knew, even though I didn’t know it at the time. My parents’ marriage, already rocky, was showing its first real fissures. By Christmas 1992 they’d separated. By late 1993 they were divorced, the relationship crumbling like the Soviet Union had. The divorce cast a long shadow over that decade and over my life, that extends to this very day.

There’s something special, something unique, about finding the right album at the right moment in your life. It’s a rare thing to discover something in the moment that speaks to you in a way it wouldn’t if you’d discovered it ten, twenty, thirty-one years later. Midnight Oil’s Blue Sky Mining is my 1990 album; the one I’ll pull out and listen to when I want to remember what I was going through at that time.

Listening to Blue Sky Mining now – even as I make final edits to this entry – it still brings me back to that year and vacation 31 years ago. It makes me think of hot Mexican weather, bookended by the arctic chill of our northern airport and the long drive to and from there. I remember my friends; most of whom moved on with their lives and left me behind. I remember the Russia trip I never got to go on but became the stuff of legend. I remember the world that was, and was changing all around me without my realizing it. The decade that lay ahead would be one of the most memorable of my life; possibly the most memorable. Everything changed in the 1990s, for me. They may be long ago years, they may be long gone years …

But have not, and will never be forgotten years.

[Have an album in your life with as much meaning as Blue Sky Mining has for me? Let me know in the comments below.]

You Spin Me Round

Growing up, our family were generally late-adopters of new technologies. While I remember having a color television throughout the 1970s and beyond, we also had a small B&W set in the kitchen that pre-dated it. We didn’t have to get up and tune the dial to get our 13 channels on the main set; we had a converter box, but that was hard wired to the TV set. For a time, my parents had an 8-track player in the station wagon, but for the most part long car rides were accompanied by Light FM/AM stations that to this day gives me a reflexive dislike for the music of John Denver, The Carpenters, and Jim Croce.

Though I will confess I’ve been coming around a little on ABBA.

We got our first VCR in, I believe, 1983. It was a Betamax. Recommended to as the superior format (which it was), but made finding movies to rent a little difficult as the decade progressed. We didn’t get our first VHS player until 1988 or 1989. Though to be fair, the Beta player lasted well into the 90s, and ended up being used, for the most part, for recording TV shows (because, yes, the picture and sound quality of a Betamax tape was noticeably superior). The Beta resided in the rec room downstairs, hooked up to a 19 inch Sony Trinitron. It sat in an entertainment unit built by my uncle, along with our stereo and record player. There were more than a few jokes around my home in the early 90s, mostly from friends who said descending into the Abraham rec room was like taking a trip back in time to 1981.  

So what does all of the above have to do with Vinyl? Keep reading.

Pictured: $42 in music

Our music collection was, for the most part and for a very long time, strictly Vinyl. It was my parents’ record collection from their formative years. My dad’s Beach Boys and Chicago and Billy Joel albums; my mom’s Beatles and Ray Charles ones (and my then and still-favorite, the American Graffiti soundtrack album). Our home stereo had a tape deck, and both our family cars – Volvos, natch – had cassette players, so most of those vinyl records were recorded to tape to be played in the car. If there was an album we wanted to listen to in the car and at home, we bought the vinyl and made a copy to listen to. This was how I experienced Purple Rain and Seven And The Ragged Tiger, and the Miami Vice soundtrack. This always meant the sound quality was lesser than what you got on the radio tuner, so by and large pre-recorded music was saved for when you traveled outside the range of any decent radio stations, and had to choose between static and crazy-fire-and-brimstone religious radio (we preferred static).

We never made the transition to CD though, and through my high school years and into college, I was still buying cassettes. This was for a number of reasons. Portability for one, cost for another. In the early 90s a CD would run you close to 20 bucks. A cassette could be had for half that. You could score two cassettes for the price of one CD. Were I to buy a CD I’d have to take it home, copy it to cassette, then listen to it on my Walkman. A cassette I could pop into my Walkman outside the store or in my car tape deck, and be listening to new music before I was out of sight of the store.

I didn’t transition to CDs formally until 1995, when I got my first Laserdisc player, which could play CDs as well as LDs. Once hooking it up and running the audio through a roommate’s stereo system was I able to start buying/borrowing CDs and making my own copies on cassette.

I still buy CDs, though my new music purchases have dropped off in the last five or so years, picking up one, maybe two new-release albums a year. Yes, there’s MP3s and streaming audio, but I prefer to have a solid, non-digital backup of my albums of choice. Yet coinciding, roughly, with the beginnings of a global pandemic of which, right now, there is no end in sight,  I began to take a deeper dive into Vinyl records and Vinyl collecting.

If your music collection doesn’t include Cheap Trick at Budokan what are you even doing with your life?

Why Vinyl? There are arguments for and against. Most audiophiles will tell you it’s superior sound-wise to CD. It’s warmer, you can pick up nuances with vinyl you can’t with digital downloads. For me though it’s a little more complex, and gets to the heart of my long preamble to this post.

Example: I own Jack White’s Lazaretto on both CD and Vinyl. And I will concede that side-by-size, I can’t quite hear much of a difference. But with the Vinyl, if I want to listen to Lazaretto the album, I have to commit myself to spending the next 40 minutes or so doing just that. I can’t skip tracks, I can’t pause, I can’t do dishes or make dinner, or do work while spinning the vinyl. I have to L I S T E N to it and nothing else. I make a tea, I sit in my comfy chair, I drop the needle, notch the groove, and just sit there and listen to it. Side A. Side B.

Usually I won’t stop at just one either. As one album is nearing the conclusion I’m already flipping through my collection and deciding what comes next. Do I keep with the Third Man Records theme and put on The White Stripes: The Peel Sessions next, or do I backtrack to one of the White Stripes (and Jack White’s) bigger influences – the garage rock pre-punk sounds of The Kinks?

A band whose work I only own on vinyl.

Another band whose work I only own on vinyl (outside their Greatest Hits collection from 1985 and one of the first albums I bought for myself with my own money – cassette, natch), is The Cars. If I want to spin their self-titled debut it’s pretty much a given I’m going to be at it for a while. I’ve more than once killed a weekend afternoon spinning The Cars, followed by Candy-O, Panorama, Shake-It-Up, and Moving In Stereo (I don’t yet own Door to Door; I’m working on it). If I want to listen to the Cars or The Kinks, I need to listen to the Vinyl. As a result they’re both in my top pantheon of favorite bands, despite only really “discovering” their back catalog in the last couple of years. To listen to either requires a commitment of time. I can’t do anything else but listen.

Shake it up …

It’s quite easy to collect vinyl these days too. I’ve scored some great finds at yard sales, at Church fundraisers, and at used bookstores. And eBay has also been a great source for affordable copies of some classic (and not-so-classic) albums. While you will pay through the nose for The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, I scored Preservation Act I and II together for eight bucks with shipping. Big bands and big albums will command big dollars wherever you look, but there’s always going to be some more interesting stuff lurking in the margins if you know where to look.

The other thing about Vinyl that draws me to it, is because it’s not a perfect format. There’s always going to be a hiss, a crackle, a pop, maybe even a skip. I’ve been able to restore some 50 + year old records with a cleaning kit, but they’re never going to sound pristine, which I kind of like. Those little imperfections are what makes vinyl such a better listen, particularly used records. Used albums have a life to them. Those little crackles are signs of a long life. They may be well into middle-age, but they have lived their lives. How many times were they spun on some bedroom briefcase turntable in the 60s and 70s? Did they have a long life of use, or did they spend the intervening decades sitting on a shelf, waiting to be played again? Old vinyl can be magic; the simple act of playing one releasing its music to fill your room and your heart. The little flaws in them are just that bit of grit or sand in the gears of a machine; the imperceptible flaws that give its engine a unique thrum that can be recorded but never duplicated.

Though a little cleaning care goes a LONG way …

That’s why I limit myself to used vinyl. Records with a history. They may hiss and pop and skip, but they have a life to themselves. I also won’t spend more than $8.00 on a single record album. I haven’t splurged on those deluxe vinyl reissues with bonus tracks and booklets and the like. If I may use a cooking metaphor, a good used vinyl record is like a good cast-iron skillet you’ve been using for ten plus years. It will retain the flavor of everything ever cooked in it, and and if you take care of it, it’ll last forever.

Collecting vinyl, also, gets to the heart of Why We Collect Things. Why? Why do we keep old books, old albums? Why do we still buy DVDs and Blu-rays? Why do we collect old toys? Why do we (okay, just myself) create a comic book about mixtapes? I think it’s because these things, these objects, possess a meaning beyond their physical form. Toys are just wood and plastic and metal. Mixtapes are just recordings on tape. Records are just grooves carved into vinyl disks. Books are words on wood-pulp wrapped in a slightly sturdier cover.

But a box of old paperbacks isn’t just words printed on slowly moldering paper. It’s the aged creases in the spine of that Stephen King you bought brand new. It’s every time you read that book and re-read it. It’s the smell. My copy of Different Seasons pictured below isn’t just a paperback; it’s the Caribbean vacation I took it on and read cover-to-cover. It’s the ocean breeze, it’s the sandy beach, and it’s the sea-salt from the waves crashing to shore. 

Yes, I collect these too …

Same thing with old comics. It would be easy to sell off my old collection and just repurchase them digitally or in trade paperback form. Yet I have seven or eight long-boxes full of comics taking up space in our storage unit. As a semi-regular contributor to the G.I. Joe: A Real American Headcast comics podcast, once a month or so I get to pull another issue out of the long-box, slide it out of its Mylar bag and hold, in my hands, the very same comic I bought at the corner store spinner rack 35, 36 years ago. I still own it, but “it” isn’t just the story. It’s the slowly fading pages of artwork, it’s the creases in the spine and it’s the old ads I used to gloss over but now instill a nostalgia for things I never appreciated at the time.

Ten bucks from a local thrift store. They gave me the Conan comic for free.

We collect things from our past, from our childhood, for many reasons. But I think it’s during times like the ones we’re living through at present that make collecting, that make nostalgia and its pain of remembering all the more essential. There’s a tangible quality to those things that made us happy a long time ago. The 60s had Vietnam and civil unrest. The 70s had the oil crisis and national malaise. The 80s had the cold war and nuclear saber rattling and exploding space shuttles. The 90s had the Spice Girls (sorry). Every era has its ups, it has its downs. It has its struggles. We’re currently in the middle of the next one. And I think if you look around you’ll find people are pining very strongly for a time when things felt simpler.

You can dig through your memories for those seemingly happy moments, but that dig is a lot easier having something tangible tying you to that point in your life. It’s why when I sold off my collections of old Transformers and Star Wars and G.I. Joe toys, I made sure to keep a select handful of items from each line. I wanted to retain something of that old era; something I could pick up in my own hands, and feel beneath my fingertips.

Vinyl is the same thing. It’s not sequences of 1s and 0s on a CD. It’s not music recorded onto ever-deteriorating magnetic tape. It’s not an internet-connected audio stream. Vinyl is a tangible thing. It’s grooves carved into vinyl plastic creating vibrations that are translated into music, and from music into feeling and memory.

So as we enter month three of this uncertainty I think we’re all trying to find things to distract us, to keep our minds off the current predicament by submerging them in the memories of a time and place when we felt safer. Where the world felt like it still made some sense. So I can be expected to keep spinning my vinyls until this current crisis ends and probably beyond it too. To the day when, years from now, I’ll give my by then VERY old records a listen and remember a time when they became a life-raft and kept us all going while we waited for the tide to wash us back to shore.

No word of a lie these JUST arrived as I was proofing this post.

How about you? What was/is your favorite album, Vinyl or otherwise and why? Sound off in the comments below!