Sunday, September 25, 2011

Farewell to record stores

From the first time I ever touched one, I loved holding a vinyl records in my hands. Loved 'em, loved 'em . . . absolutely loved 'em. I am not a good record-keeper, so I have no way of knowing whether my own unofficial estimate that I spent roughly 95% of what little disposable income I had as a kid on records is accurate. I still remember the first time I held a record in my hand. I was two or three months past my eighth birthday, hanging out at my neighbor Marcy Pitt's house on a rainy day. I saw a copy of "Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club" band leaning against the record player in her room. My father had just put a copy of "Sgt. Peppers" on his reel-to-reel tape deck and, like most kids in 1969, I was utterly transfixed by the Beatles. I asked Marcy if she could put it on. Because she had polio and often got tired from walking around in her braces and crutches, Marcy told me I could put it on myself. This was a privilege I did not yet have in my own house, where records were the equivalent of the nuclear codes and were guarded from my sister and I as if a child's hand touching one would set off a mushroom cloud over our house.

So I slid the record out of the sleeve and, just like I had watched my father handle his records, let the vinyl touch my thumb, careful to balance the middle on my other four fingers, my palm concave to ensure that my skin would not come into contact with the grooves. Balancing the record like a seasoned waiter balances multiple plates on his palm and forehand, I lifted the dust cover and, placing both palms on the outside of the record, placed the greatest record ever made on the turntable. Marcy had a Dual 1237 turntable, a model slightly below our own, so I knew how to work it from watching my parents play their records. I knelt down on one knee, careful to line up the tone arm so that the stylus would hit the outer groove at just the right point and begin its concentric journey to the opening song, "Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band." This was really my favorite part of playing records -- lining up the tone arm with the record with the precision of an Army ground-spotter calling in a precision air-strike to an F-15 fighter plane. Even into my twenties, the period when CDs started to replace records, I still went through the same ritual every time I put on a record.

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My mother played records constantly. Her concession to popular music was the Beatles, more the early "moptop" Beatles than the later "Revolver/Sgt. Peppers" Beatles. She was convinced that "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was a drug song and had serious reservations about whether I, much less my younger sister, should listen to it. Her own tastes ran to Broadway show tunes, album versions of such popular musicals as "Oklahoma," "The Sound of Music," and "Stop the World: I Want to Get Off," the dramatic, over-the-top renditions of popular songs by Judy Garland and occasional singles by such noted female vocalists as Nancy Sinatra, Bobby Gentry and Ella Fitzgerald, who, in my mother's terminology, could "really belt out a tune!" My mother frequently attempted to "belt out" these same tunes, usually in public places and without the slightest concern that anyone would turn around and stare at us. Of course, she was the same person who would STAND UP in the movie theater and yell "Bravo!" when especially moved by an actor's performance. My mother's strategy of avoiding embarrassment to herself and reserving it for my sister and I was to take us to movies in African-American neighborhoods, where the call and response culture of the black church suited her own preferences just fine. Rather than a "sit down and be quiet response" that she would have surely received in a theater closer to our house, my mother's antics were greeted with a "That's right!" or "Mm-hmm!" or "Tell that woman she can sing!"

Having no particular enthusiasm for my mother's record collection, I contemplated sabotaging her albums, particularly anything on which Judy Garland appeared -- through a subtle, gradual campaign of scratching them, infecting her vinyl with the dreaded "skip" that made records unlistenable. An occasional bump against the turntable, down with a brief but effective hip check against the base on which it sat, would do it. I also thought about jumping up and down to shake the stylus off the record, forcing it to "jump" across the vinyl, setting it on its path to destruction. But I never followed through on my well thought-out plans to get Judy Garland out of my house. After a day of my sister and I driving her crazy, those records were my mother's sole reminder that she had a life outside of her children. She could keep her records and play them as much as she wanted. Besides, I would have gotten caught and had to endure my mother's tears as she looked at me and asked, "Why did you do this to me?" Not worth it.

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My dad treated his records very differently. He held them, examined them, checked them for dust, fingerprints and other foreign substances before he put them on his Dual 1245 turntable. He owned a Discwasher record-cleaning system, a Sound Guard "miracle" spray concoction that claimed to provide a "protective coat" of some chemical on the record to preserve the vinyl's integrity. To the best of my memory, record-cleaning fluids and audio equipment were my father's only concession to "brand name" products, convinced then, as now, that all cars, cookware, plates, lawn fertilizer, bottled spaghetti sauce, canned vegetables -- really, everything -- were all "made by the same people." Later, in my teen years, when I suggested to him that just because General Motors made the Cadillac and the Nova didn't mean they were really the same car, my father looked at me incredulously, unsure whether to clock me (which he didn't do and never did) or feel sorry for me ("boy, I don't know how you're going to survive when you start paying your own bills!").

For every one record my mother owned, my father owned twenty. He had hundreds and hundreds of albums, his record collection spanning the history of American jazz music. The emphasis was on Louis Armstrong, 20s swing, New Orleans music, big band leaders like Benny Goodman, who my dad revered as a band leader more than a horn player ("never hired a bad musician -- ever."), Billie Holliday and, of course, Duke Ellington, whose music he collected and studied like a Biblical anthropologist alone with the tablets that Moses received on Mount Sinai. Entire weekends were devoted to making documentaries about an Ellington performance featuring a particular horn player or unusual arrangement of one his standards. He took great care of his records, always careful to return them to their paper sleeves after he finished playing them and insert them back into the cardboard cover, with the sleeve facing up so the record could never accidentally slip out and make contact with the ground.

My dad's record collection ended when the be-bop revolution started. He acknowledged that Monk, Dizzy, Miles, Lester Young, Max Roach and Bud Powell were "talented" musicians but he didn't find the break from swing the eye-opener that I later did. Popular music had little room in his collection. Aside from the occasional Tony Bennett record, my father's scholarly interest in male vocalists was limited to early Frank Sinatra. He loved female jazz singers much more, and used to lament how unfortunate it was that I never got to hear Billie Holliday sing on record the way she sang live. "The saddest life in the history of music, maybe ever," he would say about Billie, with whom he was on a first-name basis.

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The first two records I ever bought with my own money were "Let It Be," by the Beatles, and "American Woman," by the Guess Who. This was shortly after I touched Marcy Pitt's copy of "Sgt. Pepper." My parents understood that if my cool 17 year-old neighbor would let me touch her favorite album, I was ready to buy and take care of albums on my own. I did not buy them at a "real" record store. I bought them at a discount department store called Zayre's. My mother had taken my sister to another part of the store to buy pajamas, underwear, slippers or whatever essential items a 5 year-old girl needed. I announced I was going to "look at records." I picked up those two albums, contemplated whether I could afford both with the ten dollars I had in my pocket. At $3.99 a piece, with tax on $7.98 coming to 32 cents, I realized I could pull it off. Better yet, the albums folded out, and included pictures inside. This meant the spine of the records was a little bigger, and made it easier to see the album artist when you stored them sideways. So thrilled was I with my first albums that I peeled the plastic wrap off on the way home just so I could the inside of the cover and peer into the record sleeve itself. The first song I ever played from the first record album I ever owned was "I Got a Feeling" by the Beatles. Not a bad start.

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By the way, the first record label to introduce album covers that opened up was Impulse!, a jazz label begun in the early 1960s as a somewhat arty alternative to the jazz being issued by CBS and Atlantic Records. Impulse! wanted to compete with Blue Note and Riverside, the premier labels for jazz purists. Impulse! put a great deal of time and expense into designing album covers that would be distinctive, as much as Blue Note had developed a "look" through four-color covers that included the musicians names, usually in white block letters, on the front, and a "sound," courtesy of the legendary recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder. Impulse! records features orange and black colors, changed up on the front but consistent on the spine. It also signed John Coltrane, who put Impulse! on the map by releasing a record, at his insistence, with Duke Ellington. Serious record collectors always placed their albums in alphabetical order by the year they were released, separated by genre. The two exceptions were records on Blue Note and Impulse!, which received their own special section.

The folded record cover would, of course, serve a far more useful purpose later in the 1960s (and beyond) -- to sift the seeds out of marijuana and serve as a platter to roll joints. For music collectors who have grown up with CDs and never had to make the conversion from vinyl, they missed out on one of the great rituals of listening to records.

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The arrival of CDs in the mid-80s was initially touted as a storage medium that would augment vinyl records and cassette tapes, not replace them. I held on to all my records even while I started to replace them, more for romantic reasons than any useful purpose. How could you argue with a system that allowed you to hear 45 or 60 minutes of music without having to turn the record over? That permitted a listener to skip over bad songs like "Mother" on "Synchronicity" by the Police? That you could play over and over with no risk to the recording's fidelity -- no pops, clicks and scratches? At the beginning, I bought into vinyl snob's insistence that vinyl recordings were superior to the new digital storage medium and that imperfections in the playback process made the music "real." By the mid-1990s, I used my turntable maybe once or twice a year, having converted fully to CDs. I stopped buying records five years or so before, even giving up the time-honored practice of all record collectors of rummaging through used record stores for the occasional $3 gem.

For Father's Day this past June, my family gave me a new turntable and, separately, a turntable that transfers vinyl records into digital files. I hadn't played a record in my house in years, since my Dual 522 turntable stopped working and I didn't feel the need to repair it. But I also didn't feel the need to get rid of it, as it sits inside of a closet nestled between boxes of crayons we bought our children anywhere from 10 to 15 years ago and a desk lamp whose bulb I haven't gotten around to replacing. The first record I put on my new turntable was Bill Evans, "Live From Shelley Manne's Hole," because it contains my favorite version ever of "Isn't It Romantic?" the great Rodgers and Hart standard. I was nervous putting the album on, unsure of what it would sound like after years of sitting dormant inside the record sleeve, full of the sorts of jitters I remember getting when waiting for the door to open on a first date way back when. But as soon as the stylus hit the turntable and those first few seconds of static came through the speakers, I remembered immediately why I loved records so much in the first place: the care and selection of the album, of searching through your records to find the one you felt like playing and re-reading the liner notes to make sure that you hadn't missed anything the first 40 or 50 times you read them. Best of all, the album sounded great -- full, warm and completely absent of the harshness that sometimes accompanies digital production and recording.

I still have probably two or three hundred records in the built-in bookshelves in my home office, which are there simply to remind me of how much I loved buying and listening to records growing up (and now, record by record, are being moved to digital files so I can put these records on my iPod). Close to my house growing up was a small record store called Cheap Thrills, which was run by a guy whose main income, I later determined, came from dealing pot out of the back of his store. But he always had the best records, the "cool" ones that Zayre's, K-Mart and Woolworth's didn't carry. Coolest of all were the "bootlegs" of concerts he kept in the back. You had to ask for them, and once he decided that you weren't an undercover cop, or a kid recruited by an undercover cop to set him up, he would sell them to you. I still have three bootlegs he sold me -- a Pink Floyd concert recording from 1973, a Genesis show from 1976 and a 1977 Yes concert. One afternoon, when I was about 14, I remember sifting through album after album in Cheap Thrills, looking for something I didn't have or, as was more likely, records I did have that were cool enough to be sold in this coolest of all stores, and thinking to myself, "This is what I want to do when I grow up. Own a record store so I sit around all day listening to music, keep the bootlegs in the back, develop a reputation as the "go-to guy" when you needed a hard-to-find album or just wanted somewhere to hang out." For a kid like me, there was no better feeling than, upon being told by the Cheap Thrills guy that an album I was holding was one I "should buy," to say, "I've already got it." All kids, whatever their pretense to rebellion and independence, want approval. And approval from the Cheap Thrills guy was as good as it got.

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The first mega-record store to come to Atlanta was called Peaches. It was the size of a large supermarket, the kind now that would qualify as a "Gourmet Giant" or "Super Safeway." Peaches featured the hand prints of musicians and bands that had come to town on the sidewalk in front of the store, and stocked, so it seemed, every record ever made. You could also by "Peach Crates" to store your records, and naturally I owned many a "Peach Crate" over the years, not getting rid of my final one until I moved from Atlanta to Washington in 1989. As a "serious" teen-age record buyer I faced a serious dilemma once Peaches, and then later, a store called Turtles opened much closer to my house: do I save a dollar or so on records by buying them at the big stores or continue to buy records from the cool guy at Cheap Thrills?

I did the only logical thing I could do: I started buying them at all three stores. Anything else would have been unfair.

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Tower Records closed its doors three years ago, a victim of the Internet and a bad business model. The company's demise marked the end of records stores as I once knew them. Once Wal-Mart becomes the nation's leading music retailer it's time to throw in the towel. People like myself who once spent hours in record stores reading liner notes and looking for the occasional "lost" album that showed up in the Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull or Pink Floyd bins do not constitute the majority of recorded music buyers. CDs meant the end of vinyl records, and iTunes and the mp3 revolution are slowly bringing to an end the CD. Music buyers want the music they want, and care little about liner notes, album covers or displaying their music collection for their friends and guests to see when coming over. To this day, the first thing I do when I walk in someone's house I've never visited is to look for and then assess their music collection. I think this is a distinctly male trait, much like my wife will ask me if I think she -- I mean, we -- should redesign the kitchen in which I prepare her and my children's meals after seeing someone else's vastly superior layout, state-of-the-art appliances or genuine marble counter tops.

Me? I now hold on to my CDs the way I still cling to my vinyl records. In an effort to adapt to the on-line revolution, I bought a few "albums" through iTunes a few years ago, but felt empty that I didn't have a booklet to flip through or a plastic case to hold in my hand. So I now buy CDs, transfer them to my iPod the moment they arrive (I buy all my music on-line), and then put them in their appropriate alphabetical, chronological place -- by genre, of course -- in my CD cabinet.

No different than 20, 25 or 30 years ago, I do this because I labor under the illusion that someone will care about, much less be impressed by, my CD collection, which I am no longer permitted to keep upstairs in full public view, but rather downstairs in an obscure corner where we keep discarded sports equipment. Yes, I still hold onto that "reverse snobbery" prevalent among record people that says, "Okay, so you've got your BMW 535i, but do you have the Complete Village Vanguard Recordings of Bill Evans or the Complete Classic Quartet Recordings of John Coltrane on Impulse! Do you know who Rudy Van Gelder is? Do you have the 'lost' version of the Allman Brothers Live at Fillmore East album?"

Perhaps that is not the most mature way to weigh your station in life as I approach the half-century mark. But when you're sliding down the wrong side of the parabolic curve of middle age, it sure feels normal to me.

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