Understanding Vinyl

I need to warn you: I’m from the 70s.

Being from the 70s means I was born in the heyday of the vinyl era, saw its decline along with the rise and decline of 8-tracks and cassettes, the rise and decline of CDs and internet-based music, and have lived to see vinyl rise again. From my point of view, the history of music media has moved from analog (wax and vinyl) to digital (CDs, mp3s, streaming), with magnetic tape (reel to reel, 8-tracks, and cassettes) being a kind of intermediary between the two.

Vinyl has made a serious comeback that began around 2010 and doesn’t seem to be slowing down. As a sign of the strength of this comeback, Sony Music, for the first time since the late 1980s, will begin production of vinyl records again. The return of vinyl is usually explained in terms of sound quality (vinyl captures more than .mp3s) and in terms of album artwork. I’m not sure I completely buy the first reason: even if it is technically true, I suspect most people listen to their records on something like this:

If you’re not spending at least $1000 on components and speakers, you’re not really getting better sound out of your vinyl.

By the way, I own the one on the right. Yeah, I’m a sucker.

Now album artwork is another matter. It can be substantial, and the experience of it in a CD package or online just isn’t quite the same. But album artwork is essentially packaging. It doesn’t have anything to do with the music. That’s fine, but this second reason is also complicated by the fact that music aficionados tend to look down on colored vinyl as being a gimmick. It’s not just a matter of the best packaging winning here.

I seriously can’t wait for a new release of Dark Side of the Moon that’s advertised as the “black vinyl” edition. The gimmicks will have won the day.

I would like to suggest that part of what’s really going on is a kind of cult or aura of authenticity associated with vinyl. One component is surely nostalgic: the two low-end record players pictured above are clearly retro in design and intended to be. This aura of authenticity also privileges original pressings over new albums, much like first editions and first printings of books might be worth more than later editions or reprints.

Following first edition market logic, that’s fine, but you need to understand that none of this has anything to do with the music either. Original pressings were on thinner vinyl that’s more susceptible to warping. That 180g vinyl thing isn’t just a gimmick. They’re more durable. 70’s albums weren’t recorded on equipment that was nearly as good as today’s, and oftentimes there would be a hiss in the background: the medium was so faithful it even captured the sound of the recording equipment. A remastered, recent pressing of Dark Side of the Moon is a much better product, at least in terms of music, than a first pressing of that album from the 70s. It would combine the best of both digital and analog.

But I’d like to take this argument a step further. It’s tedious to listen to vinyl, at least compared to listening to music on your streaming service, on an iPod, or on your phone. You have to stop every half hour at the most and flip the record over. Now — and again, this is because I’m from the 70s — my parents had a great, wooden stereo console that took up about six feet of one wall in our living room. It could stack maybe six to eight records. When one finished, the next one would drop down, and the needle would queue up on the next one automatically. The turntable was on springs, so it’d just lower a bit every time the next record dropped. At one point vinyl manufacturers started manufacturing double albums so that sides 1 and 3 were on one disc and 2 and 4 on another. That way you could stack them on players like this and listen to two sides before flipping the album over.

Back in the 70s, we didn’t want to have to flip our albums over every twenty to thirty minutes. We wanted good music in our cars. We wanted to listen to music while we were running or at work without disturbing anyone. And we wanted our music without background hiss. We wanted customized playlists (hence, the mixtape, originally on cassette). We really wanted to be our own and each other’s DJs.

So this 70s’ generation, out of a real concern for music, gave the world cassette tapes, Walkmans, iPods, digital music, and then downloadable and streaming music. It gave us $100 earbuds that have a better sound than any $100 speakers ever sold since the 1960s. The limitations of vinyl were the reason for digital music to begin with. It’s not a coincidence that I grew up in Southern California and the company that gave us everything that we wanted in a digital package, the iPod, originated in Los Altos, California in the 70s, about six hours north of where I grew up. It’s not that no one thought of any of this until Apple, Inc. came along. Apple was just replicating in digital form what was already hardwired into California culture in the 70s.

All of this by itself would make the cult of vinyl authenticity look a bit dumb except for two things:

First, the album artwork really is a lot cooler on a vinyl album. But I’m saying this as someone from the 70s. My friend Tony and I had this conversation about album artwork back in the 80s. He’s a great bass player and professional sound mixer, so he’s all about the music. He asked me back then what we lost by switching to CDs. I said, “The album artwork.” I’m a visual guy in part. He got what I was saying, but he just shrugged his shoulders. It really was all about the music for him, so he wanted it all on CDs.

Next, vinyl gives us our privacy back. No one is tracking your listening preferences to better serve you. No one needs to know what you even purchased, much less what you’re listening to between the hours of 1:00 and 5:00 p.m.

This close tracking of our listening preferences has changed the face of top 40 music. Digital, downloadable, and streaming music have so narrowly defined and targeted specific markets that top 40 music is for the most part nothing but the generic listening preferences of the largest cross-section of US consumers: a banal carousel of 90s’ style R&B, rap, and hip-hop, plus “country” that now sounds like 90s’ pop (except for Dolly Parton — I love you, never die — and “Americana”). New and interesting music is for the most part relegated to indie labels or niche markets, and rock and roll seems to be dying so badly that guitar sales are dropping. A lot of the most interesting music out there is, interestingly, varieties of heavy metal.

But I think vinyl sales tell us that this isn’t the whole story, and used records are coming back along with the increase in new vinyl sales. I think our listening preferences are more complex than the Billboard Top 100 would lead us to believe.

At least I hope so. So I’m taking some hope in the resurgence in vinyl. I don’t think Justin Bieber is the top target market for new vinyl sales.

Poetry at Millsaps Today

Earlier today, Millsaps College had scheduled the Jamaican poet Claudia Rankine to visit campus and read her poetry. She’s the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University, and unfortunately her flight was snowed in, so she couldn’t make it. In her place, three local poets and authors — and one undergraduate sociology student — read from her poetry and discussed it. The topic of race came up quite a bit, of course, as it is a central concern of Rankine’s poetry, but one point that came out about Rankine’s poetry is that it didn’t offer any solutions to the problems of race. One of the worst of these problems is how we tend to be intractably identified with a series of racial characteristics that seem to define our behaviors for others even before we act. Her poetry seems to hope that if these problems with race are presented clearly enough that others could eventually discover solutions.

Her Jamaican origins got me thinking about Caribbean history and, by extension, postcolonial theory. One of the central problems with Caribbean identity is that it is hard to define: for the most part, any original islanders have long since been gone, so that island populations tend to be a mix of Africans, Indians (from India), Native Americans, and a variety of Europeans. Compounding the problem is the fact that few, if any, islands have a single European identity. Islands tended to change hands among the British, French, Spanish, and other European nations throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century as treaty concessions.

So the question left with Caribbean nations — once they cut loose of the last European country to have colonized them — is, “Who are we?” They are too distanced from their African heritage to claim that as their own, and they are not just African anyhow. They seldom have a single European language or background, and if they did, it would be oppressive, so why keep that?

One solution that has come up, however, is the idea of hybridity. History has left most Caribbean nations a diverse mix of a variety of European, African, and Indian influences. They have been left by history a hybrid of many cultures and languages, and once they realized that, they realized they could form a new cultural and national identity out of that hybridity.

And then I realized the United States is a hybrid nation as well. And more personally, that I am a hybrid person. I grew up in a brand new Southern Californian subdivision alongside Scottish, Irish, Chinese, Mexican, Korean, Vietnamese, African-American, Puerto Rican, and mixed-race families. One couple was a Chinese man married to an African-American woman. Now when I say these families were Scottish, etc., I don’t mean really American with some Scottish background in the distant past. As Puerto Ricans we were all citizens of the United States from the start, but my mother grew up in Puerto Rico, as did my father’s mother, and Puerto Rico is very different culturally from the rest of the United States. Everyone else my age was first generation: first generation Scottish, Chinese, Irish, Mexican, etc. Their parents had moved to the US from those countries. My Chinese friend’s father didn’t even speak English yet.

So what is my culture? So Cal suburban? Yes, but a pretty diverse one, with many different languages, habits, and foods. But there’s more to it than that. I started thinking about Black culture and how much it made up my environment, and I realized that Black culture was a part of me. Among the hybridity that I experienced personally was a Black cultural identity. That was part of it too.

And while I realize this notion of hybridity is not an all-encompassing solution, I think it does present one possibility: every Black person in the United States can look at every white person in the United States and say, “My culture helped form who you are. It formed your history, your literature, your music, your art, your drama, your film, your sports, your science, your engineering. That means, like it or not, you’re part black. It’s not just that, as an American, I am part of your society. It’s that, as an American, you are part of mine.”

How might that change the terms of the discussion?

Twenty Things I Learned on My Trip to Florida…

1. Pickle flavored sunflower seeds are very good.

2. BBQ flavored sunflower seeds are eh. Not bad.

3. My wife is like the recalcitrant whatever it is in Green Eggs and Ham. She would not try a single, pickle-flavored sunflower seed despite high praise for them from everyone else in the car.

4. I’m watching Fox News in the hotel breakfast area. In the exact same breath that they say we need to put aside our differences and unite behind Trump, they condemn President’s Obama’s actions toward Israel as being completely and uniformly wrong — when at most he’s issuing a long overdue, mild rebuke for some of Israel’s worst actions. You must think like a trained monkey if you can’t see through this.

5. My daughter Grace observes her environment, thinks ahead, and does her best to be helpful. She’s amazing.

6. I have been in the habit of buying everyone the same kind of gift every Christmas. One year it was watches. Another year it was pocket knives. This year it was fountain pens. My daughter Beka got everyone in the Mississippi contingent bobbleheads. Grace got Bernie Sanders. Penn got a Pokémon. Etc.

7. I got Cthulhu.

8. I-10 should be renamed “The Franz Kafka Memorial Highway.” I will start a White House petition for this when I get back.

9. Except that the Suawnee River sign has a little bar of music along the bottom edge of it, which is great for a state road sign.

10. It was hilarious watching my wife and youngest daughter do Yoga in bed together. I wish I had video.

11. But listening to the voice of the breathy, female yoga instructor without seeing the video was disturbingly like listening to a director’s voice-over for a porn video: “Now shake your head back and forth. It won’t hurt.” Or for a space-horror film like Alien: “Now breathe your legs into your chest.”

12. The Saga graphic novel is really very good, thank you, Steven.

13. To the exact extent that Extended Stay America’s “Continental Breakfast” is lame, Holiday Inn’s is very good.

14. If you’re traveling with five people, you may still save money by paying a bit more daily for a place with a good breakfast. We stayed at an Extended Stay so that we could make at least breakfast in the morning, but that didn’t work out too often, and you still need to buy groceries. I think we would have saved money or broke even staying at a better hotel that actually had a good breakfast.

15. Best of all, there is now a 3-D printer for pancakes at the breakfast bar. A Facebook friend of mine also called it a “Pancake Keurig.” That works too.

16. ALABAMA!

17. My friend Julian told me about this great record shop in Mobile in which the guy tells stories about the rock stars he knew. I shall have to visit when I’m not driving through.

18. It’s amazing how big a mess three kids can make in a car with sunflower seeds. Buy the kind without shells.

19. I have never looked forward to getting my car detailed until now.

20. When I told my wife that I was writing a list of everything I learned on my trip, she said, quietly and rapidly, “Oh God.”

Gratitude while they’re still alive…

The last couple of years have been really big on celebrity deaths. What’s been odd for me is that I realized I don’t really understand what emotional profile an artist has for me until he or she is gone. This is all the worse with rock stars, who project an image of eternal youth and vitality that is of course far from the truth.

The three recent deaths that affected me the most were the deaths of Robin Williams, Bowie, and Prince. Lemmy’s death was sad for me, but it was more like losing a weird uncle: your family just got a lot more boring and you wish you’d appreciated him more when you had him. The death of the last remaining original member of the Ramones hit a little harder.

I think that Prince, Robin Williams, and Bowie affected me so much because they’ve been a part of my life since my early teen years. I remember watching Williams on Happy Days and then Mork and Mindy:

I remember listening to Bowie on the radio since about the mid-70s and then seeing him on Saturday Night Live in 1979. I watched him up there in that purple skirt as the episode was being aired and thought… dude, you’re so weird:

And I hate to say it, but my earliest memories of Prince weren’t of Purple Rain. They were of the campy Batman stuff he did in the late 1980s:

This is a long time to have people form a part of your cultural background, and regardless of taste or preference, they possessed a rare level of genius and creativity. I think I took them for granted at the time, but after seeing many actors and musicians cycle through pop culture, these three stand out as genius.

What affected me the most after the fact of Prince’s death was the universal outpouring of love and grief afterwards. Could he have possibly known how people felt? I don’t know. Of his last twelve albums, one was platinum and two were gold (but six were top 10). I haven’t picked up a Prince album since Musicology, his last platinum album released in 2004. But still, I felt his death. I felt like something significant was lost — a certain level of genius that isn’t easily replaced, exactly what I felt about Bowie, who I had at least followed more consistently over the last twenty years. I was excited about Blackstar and loved that the video generated almost a million hits its first twenty-four hours on YouTube.

So I’m mostly wishing I’d appreciated Prince more. Paid more attention, watched what he was doing, listened to what he had to say, because he had (and still has, really) things to say. I hope he had people around him who let him feel that love and appreciation.

So now, in the most morbid possible tribute, I’m going to express appreciation for a few aging geniuses here.

Chrissie Hynde (b. 1951, turning 65 this year). Her latest album is Stockholm, and I’ve heard her next project will be a joint project with the lead guitarist for the Black Keys. That’s the best news I’ve heard in some time. She exemplifies paying your dues, taking risks, and saying exactly how you feel.

Patti Smith (b. 1946, turning 70 this year). She’s a poet, author, painter, photographer, songwriter, and rock star, and she released what is arguably the best album of her life in 2012, Banga:

Jeff Beck (b. 1944, turning 72 this year). He’s been amazing since the 60s. If you can catch his performances for the Rock Hall anniversary concert, do it. They’re on Apple Music:

Keith Richards (b. 1943, turning 73 this year). Just released a great blues/blues rock solo album (Crosseyed Heart) accompanied by a documentary. He knows he’s getting old, and he just wanted to tell everyone how grateful he was for the blues artists who inspired him:

Bob Dylan (b. 1941, turned 74 this year). His late career albums have been focused upon what his career has been always focused upon: Americana. He’s always paid tribute to great American music, either by performing it or reinventing it. He is our true poet laureate:

Buddy Guy (b. 1936, turning 80 this year): With the death of B.B. King — who if you’ve ever seen him live was the model of a gentleman — may be the last of our old great blues guitarists. I saw him at his club in Chicago in 2012. He mocked pyrotechnics in guitar playing, wiping his arse with his guitar while he was performing Hendrix licks (all the while praising Hendrix’s talent), this man can still play. Check out his latest album, Born to Play Guitar, which won a deserved grammy for Best Blues Guitar Album:

I could go on — Jagger and all of the rest of the Stones are getting old. So are the remaining members of Pink Floyd and the Doors. Springsteen will be turning 67 this year, Chuck Berry is 89, while Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey are 70 and 72, respectively, while McCartney and Ringo Starr are 73 and 75. And I haven’t mentioned the Ramones, whose last original member recently passed away.

These musicians all came into their careers during a time when the music industry — though just as sold out as it always was — was looking for a new sound. Now it’s harder. Music companies are only looking to sell to a defined demographic and probably know just how many downloads (or streams) any given artist is expected to get. Remember: anyone in it for the money will always play it safe. Genius has less room to flourish now, and all members of the first three groundbreaking generations of rock and roll may well be completely gone in the next ten to fifteen years. Even the 80s stars are getting old: Debbie Harry is 70 while the Mothersbaugh brothers of Devo are in their 60s.

So what are we going to do with this vacuum? What will take its place? What will we do to nurture future genius? Rock and roll has encapsulated all human energies for decades now: our rages, fears, loves, hates, and passions. It screams about God and sex and politics. It’s been sold out and whored for every dime it could squeeze out of every kid who ever bought a record since the 1950s, but it has still maintained a purity and intensity of expression: no matter what happens, strictures could never contain it. Whenever it has become predictable it rebelled against itself, reinventing music over and over again. It’s been our vehicle for the uncontainable, the inexpressible, and that which can’t be bought. If it ever is finally tamed, we may well be lost.