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Rediscovering the Joys of Playing Melodies Unheard

Rediscovering the Joys of Playing Melodies Unheard

January 6, 2009

in Musical Musings

Recently I received a great gift for my birthday — a turntable. This may not sound like much of a present, but after several years of staring at my dysfunctional stereo cabinet in frustration, and watching the dust collect on the row of records in my office, I can assure you that getting this outsized electronic device (even my laptop is smaller) has restored one of my greatest powers — the ability to play LPs at will.

You may wonder why, in the age of digital, mobile music and pocket-size players, would I want to own a clunky, stationary device that requires heavy plastic disks (aka, “platters”) measuring a foot in diameter to operate. You may be right — I would no sooner give up my iPhone in favor of an old-fashioned black celluloid telephone, or opt to travel in a horse and buggy. That would be absurd; the efficiency and performance quality that today’s technology provides more than mollifies the pangs of nostalgia we may feel about the toys and tools of yesteryear.

Of course, that’s precisely why I am overjoyed about my new gift. A vinyl record and its player are unique and irreplaceable, even in the hypertransformational 21st Century, and there is nothing quite like the experience of combining the two.

But why, if I am so enamored of record-playing, did I need to get one for my birthday? Well, the story goes like this: Soon after we moved to a new house in 2002, I decided to “upgrade” my stereo, which then consisted of a hodgepodge of components, accrued like charms on a bracelet (with their attendant memories), over the years. And although it was all still in pretty good working condition, some of the devices had been moved (and dropped and dinged and scratched) many times, some had been rigged, a few pieces had “baggage,” and one or two dated back to my first hi-fi purchases in the late 1970s. As I said, it all “worked” just fine, but it wasn’t pretty to look at, not at least in the middle of a freshly painted living room.

So I did some research, shopped at Circuit City (RIP) and a few other places, made some purchases, and created a more powerful, more contemporary, and more unified-looking stereo “system.” Oddly enough, I had a hard time finding everything I wanted, the way I wanted it, because I wasn’t including my TV in the sound mix (clearly, it was not contemporary enough). Odder still, when I got home I discovered that my newfangled tuner, though it had hook-ups for multiple audio and video devices, didn’t include a phono jack.

How could that be?, I thought. Yes, the store shelves were stocked with many types of CD and cassette players, and iPods and mp3 players were rapidly encroaching on the scene then. But surely, like me, most people buying new hi-fi equipment had records and record players at home that they still used, right? Surely the manufacturers were supporting our needs, right? Apparently not: Not one of the tuners I saw (or could afford, at least) was compatible with a phonograph. Stubbornly, I refused to give in and buy a new one. I liked my turntable just fine — it was a direct-drive, rather than belt-driven, machine and would likely last forever, or so they said when I bought it. So I searched for a silver bullet, in vain. The only solution I could find was a digital converter, which cost as much as or more than a replacement device.

The consequence, as I mentioned, was some silent frustration and a lot of dust collection.

Not surprising, I have a fairly large cache of vinyl, spanning back to my first days of encountering music independently. And although I have bought CDs or mp3s to replace some of my “essential” recordings, the ones I couldn’t live without and knew I would still want to play — for instance, much of the R.E.M. catalog, the soundtrack to the CBS TV show The Sound of Jazz, as well as specific songs by favorite bands, like 10,000 Maniacs, U2, The Cure, etc. — there are many, many, many more that either I couldn’t find or just decided not to duplicate, for whatever reason. So, as a result, there are a couple hundred records in my house that I haven’t heard in a half-dozen years or more.

Even more discouraging is the fact that, though I couldn’t play records, I continued to accrue them. For instance, I inherited several full boxes when my grandmother passed away, mostly classical and opera recordings, an area in which I was terribly deficient. There were also some records by Ray Conniff and Guy Lombardo (her favorite), which I always thought would be kitchy to play at a party. I also picked up records from relatives and friends who had downsized their stereo cabinets and wanted to get rid of the bulky records. In this way, I have acquired some rare gems, recordings by singers like Harry Belafonte and Petula Clark, as well as a grab-bag of great children’s records, that more than likely have not been reissued digitally (though I haven’t checked them all, to be sure I’m right).

Why do this? Well, I guess I hated to see these relics of the past, my past, go to waste, and I was hopeful that one day soon I would be able to play them again. (What was that about counteracting the “pangs of nostalgia”?)

Thankfully, through the generosity of my siblings-in-law, that day has come. I am now the proud owner of a new Audio-Technica Stereo Turntable (AT-LP2D), with a number of cool features, including a switch that allows me to play through the “aux” input on the stereo. It also includes a USB cable that will allow me, through a connection with my computer, to transfer the LPs to digital files. (I haven’t tried this yet, however, for fear of increasing the hypocrisy.) I set up everything over the holidays and have begun rediscovering the joys of playing LP records — such as the concept of the album “side,” which ran to about 20 minutes and always felt like just the right amount of music for any number of occasions, romantic or otherwise.

I started thumbing my way through the stack of my “missing” recordings, alphabetically, playing a side at a time, reminiscing about where I was when I first heard the songs, what I was doing, or who I was with. Here are the ABC’s of what I’ve listened to so far:

Eat a Peach, by The Allman Brothers, Side III. My favorite group of songs from this, my favorite of the Allman’s records. From the raucous bravado of “No Way Out” and the grooving, bluesy “Blue Sky,” to the playful acoustics of “Little Martha” and the far-out, Hogarth-like inside album art, this (literally) jam-packed double record is ripe with sweet treats.

Satch Plays Fats: A Tribute to Fats Waller, by Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars, Side B. This is an original release from the 1960s, in the Columbia Records “Great Jazz Composers Series,” that I got from my father a few years back (the Music House price tag of $3.95 is still affixed to the back). It contains some of my favorite Armstrong recordings, including his signature stomp, “All That Meat and No Potatoes,” the melodic “Black and Blue,” and “Ain’t Misbehavin'” with its dizzying concluding trumpet high-wire act.

Sidney Bechet and Mezz Mezzrow, Side B. This simply titled double record is a 1976 reissue of the legendary (and hard-to-find) King Jazz recordings made during the 19402 by these two formidable (and inimitable) jazz musicians. The sessions, with Bechet on soprano saxophone and Mezzrow on clarinet, featured some of the best sidemen of the era, including “Hot Lips” Page (trumpet), Sammy Price (piano), Pops Foster (bass), and Kaiser Marshall and “Big Sid” Catlett (drums). I prefer Side B, because it’s a bit bluesier and ends with the bittersweet “I’m Going Away From Here,” which I used to play before I went away on business trips.

Twang Bar King, by Adrian Belew, Side One. I first encountered Belew when he served as lead guitarist for King Crimson, and this was the first solo record of his I bought. Listening to it again, I’m once again blown away by his raucous, kamikaze playing style. I saw him on tour once, in support of this record, and remember how hard he yanked the strings, bending the twang bar and twisting the neck of his guitar, saying, “I’m going to break the head off this freakin’ thing tonight.” He didn’t of course, but he certainly deserves the crown he wears on this record.

Three Blind Mice, by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Side 1. I recently read Billy Collins’s poem, “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of ‘Three Blind Mice,'” and have been anxiously trying to listen to the title cut on this record ever since. Last time I checked it wasn’t available for individual purchase on iTunes, and I have been too cheap to buy the CD. So, thanks to my new turntable, I can now experience the pleasure of reading the poem while listening to Blakey’s version of the song.

Wired, by Jeff Beck, Side Two. The opening notes of “Blue Wind,” the first cut on Side Two, worked like a time machine on me the other night, when I played it for my family. I was immediately blown back to my bedroom, circa 1976, listening intently with my cousin, the lights off and our eyes shut, as guitarist Beck traded wild, weird, jazz-rock licks with Jan Hammer, on synthesizer (and drums). This was back in the days before videos were so widely available, and I remember wishing we could watch Beck work the frets, bobbing and weaving in and out of the pale white spotlight that shines on him in the succession of pictures on the back cover.

I Left My Heart in San Francisco, by Tony Bennett, Side II. Pure nostalgia for me. This record was released before I was born, and was a reissue of sorts, even then. But my parents listened to Tony a lot when I was young, and his “vocal artistry” (as the liner notes say) has a certain charm and sophistication that I think is sorely needed today. So, when I saw the record in a box of “junk” headed for the dump, I snatched it up. I especially like his swinging interpretation of the country hit “Candy Kisses,” as well as his “three-salvo salute” to collaborators Carolyn Leigh and Cy Coleman: “Rules of the Road,” “Marry Young,” and the rousing closer “The Best Is Yet to Come.” Let’s hope so, baby.

Wichita Lineman, by Glen Campbell, Side One. This is another lucky grab from the dustbin-bound, but not for the obvious reasons. For instance, I would argue with the back-cover claim that it is “Probably the best album he’s ever made” — that superlative belongs to Gentle on My Mind. (And I love the cautionary use of the word “probably,” as if the label promoter had doubts, too.) And the arrangements on “If You Go Away” (with English lyrics by poetaster Rod McKuen) and the Bee Gees’ “Words” are as goofy as the red silk polka dot shirt Campbell wears on the cover. But the title (and opening) track is my favorite of his recordings, and it’s what makes me want it for all time.

Key Lime Pie, by Camper Van Beethoven, Side One. I loved everything about this band — from the way they made records, with an odd yet intriguing mix of faux-Euro-folk and punk rock songs, to the way they wrote intriguing yet oddball messages all over their records — and I listened to them constantly in college. I was particularly fond of this 1989 effort, their second full LP on Virgin Records (which proved to be the last record they made with the original line-up), especially the run from the quirky “Opening Theme” to the menacing “Jack Ruby” into the sucker punch of “Sweethearts.” A sublime slice of ’80s rock.

Hats Off (Ten Gallon Mix), by The Connells, Both Sides. This is a 12-inch 45 (or EP) that I borrowed from, and apparently failed to return to, the stacks of my college radio station — sorry, guys. The comment card from the record label, Black Park, is still inside the sleeve (someone gave it a “heavy rotation” rating for weekly plays). It’s so short that I cheated and played all four songs, including the brooding and none-too-apropos “Darker Days,” which is the band’s biggest hit, though for some strange reason it’s a B Side here.

Poet John Keats once wrote that unheard melodies are sweeter than the ones we have known. But, after my recent experience, I say what’s sweetest is hearing those melodies again, after a long period of going unheard.

I will continue on this auditory sojourn, keeping track of my experience, and reporting my findings here, later in the year.

Let me know what you think. Are you a record lover, too? What are the treasures in your trove of vinyl?

{ 4 trackbacks }

Infidels, Excess, and Howe: More Recollections from the Record Collection « Scribbleskiff
February 17, 2009 at 10:10 pm
Laughin’ and Tumblin’, Dazed and Wicked: More Musings on Music and Record Collecting « Scribbleskiff
May 13, 2009 at 9:23 am
A Sackful of Ideas for Last-Minute Gift-Giving the Scribbleskiff Way « Scribbleskiff
December 15, 2009 at 10:40 pm
Glancing Backward, Musically Speaking, in Order to Look Ahead « Scribbleskiff
January 12, 2010 at 12:09 am

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Joe January 7, 2009 at 3:40 pm

My ear will always pine for the warm pops and scratches that only vinyl can give up. My favorites are The Electric Flag’s Long Time Comin’, a 4-record set of Atlantic blues sides, and a bunch of Coltrane records. All I know is my 30-odd year old turntable has never given me a day’s trouble, while my CD system starting breaking down after maybe five. Nice list, Henry– and it’s always nice to hear Mr Beck get his due.

Henry Mortimer January 7, 2009 at 3:51 pm

Thanks for the note, Joe. Glad to hear from a fellow Luddite. I don’t know The Electric Flag recording, and will seek it out. Of course, who sells used records anymore? Fodder for another post, perhaps. Hang onto that turntable!

Diane January 13, 2009 at 2:17 pm

The college-memory moaning of Darkness on the Edge of Town is coming your way for transfer into the new age, my friend. And Wednesday Morning, 3am–guess the artists–no doubt has never been, but must be, digitized. But when DT4 brings over the Billy Joel albums, could you burn them? Please?

dude January 13, 2010 at 12:13 am

Saw this for the first time from the link on your year-end post. My question is: do you need a home for your old turntable? If so, I could use a back-up/auxiliary record player, and I’m at your service. Let me know on FB. –Doug.

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