I almost sold my albums. The vinyl collection I’ve been cultivating for a half-century. The whole lot of them. It was my wife’s idea.
“You never even look at them,” she said. “You can’t even play them. They’re taking up the space you could use for those piles of books.”
She had some strong points. My home office is small. Besides a desk, there are, indeed, piles of books on the floor, CDs and reference books on shelves, a few guitars in the corners. And my albums, which have provided me with joy, solace, excitement. Six shelves of them, in alphabetical order within separate genres.
Rock runs from ABBA’s “Voulez-Vous” to Warren Zevon’s self-titled second record. Jazz starts with the Cannonball Adderley Quintet’s “Music, You All” and ends with Lester Young’s “Pres Is Blue.” Folk/Blues kicks off with Roy Acuff’s “Greatest Hits, Volume One” and concludes with Mason Williams’s “Hand Made.” I also have sections for Soundtracks (“Altered States” to “Zabriskie Point”), Comedy (“Woody Allen: The Nightclub Years, 1964-1968” to “The Primitive Sounds of Henny Youngman”), and the unalphabetized Miscellaneous, which includes “Burgess Meredith Reads Ray Bradbury” and Charles Manson’s “Lie.”
It’s not a huge collection, probably around 2,500 LPs. But my wife was right; they take up space, and I can’t play them. My Thorens turntable died almost 15 years ago, and I never replaced it. Some records were re-bought in CD format, but CDs are not the same as albums. Never mind purists blathering on about vinyl having a “warmer sound,” whatever that means. I’m talking about rituals: bringing a new album home, turning it on its side, slowly slicing the shrink wrap with your thumbnail, gingerly laying it on the turntable, playing it through, then flipping it over. I’m talking about the covers, the big 12-by-12 jackets that were the first pieces of art most of us owned, that you could stare at, even gawk at while listening. What did I stare at? Blood, Sweat & Tears’ “Child Is Father to the Man,” with the band posing behind their creepy mini-doppelgangers; Robert Crumb’s crazed drawings on Big Brother & the Holding Company’s “Cheap Thrills”; the first Mott the Hoople album, which was my introduction to the work of M.C. Escher. CDs? The splendor of the album covers is lost on those tiny 5-by-5½-inch boxes.
I’ve been buying albums since 1964. The first, after hearing it on my transistor radio, was “Walk, Don’t Run — Vol. 2” by the Ventures. My first five were rounded out by the Rolling Stones’ “Out of Our Heads,” the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul,” the Mothers of Invention’s “Freak Out!,” and, confession time, “Mrs. Miller’s Greatest Hits.” I recall being awed by the garish, psychedelic cover of the Mothers album on the wall at Krey’s Disc Shop in Braintree, wanting it without even hearing it, and being lectured by the clerk, in a stern tone: “You won’t like this.” But I did, and still do.
More Beatles and more Stones albums were added to what was now becoming a collection. My musical sources were the Top-40 radio stations WBZ and WMEX, and I soon owned Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” and “Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful.” Then, in 1968, WBCN came roaring into existence with free-form, album-oriented programming, and I got “Ars Longa Vita Brevis” by the Nice and “The Eyes of the Beacon Street Union.” When ’BCN played new bands like the Jeff Beck Group, Led Zeppelin, and Jethro Tull, I would snap up their records, then make my way to the Boston Tea Party to catch the band onstage.
College opened up the floodgates. At Emerson, I landed a deejay slot on the closed-circuit radio station WECB, and instead of sticking to a mandatory playlist, I perused their music library, sneaked in my own records, and mastered the aural art of segueing songs.
That was only the beginning of my education. By junior year I was working the night shift at the record store New England Music City. Staff members had different areas of expertise. I was the rock/folk guy, but I traded knowledge with the classical guy, the jazz guy, and the blues guy. I was turned on to Miles Davis (“Kind of Blue”), became a fan of Los Indios Tabajaras (“Casually Classic”), got into Magic Sam (“Electric Blues”). I discovered the beautiful eclecticism of the Paul Winter Consort and the brilliant eccentricity of Lord Buckley. As a bonus, the store was two blocks away from the venerated Jazz Workshop and Paul’s Mall, so musicians playing there would stop by to shop or chat. I spoke with and bought records by Dan Hicks (“Where’s the Money?”) and Rahsaan Roland Kirk (“Blacknuss”).
In my high school years, listening to records was mostly a solo experience, though I recall afternoon visits to friends’ houses to hear their recent purchases. In college there were late-night get-togethers where music lovers would gather to talk about who to see and what to hear, and marijuana-fueled listening parties for favorite unusual records like Pink Floyd’s “Ummagumma” or Firesign Theatre’s “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers.”
Later there was a job at the used record shop Beggars Banquet, where I filled in what I didn’t comprehend at the time were blank spots in my collection (Mink DeVille’s “Le Chat Bleu,” John Simon’s “Journey”). I found the “Blow-Up” soundtrack at a yard sale, bought it because the Yardbirds were on it, dug the accompanying Herbie Hancock music, and soon picked up his earlier “Maiden Voyage.” I saw Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories,” was bowled over by the Django Reinhardt music, and started buying his albums.
The collection grew. But it was never a competition. I didn’t care if someone had more records than me. This was personal. This was having what I wanted to hear when I wanted to hear it. Moving to new apartments proved to be a bit unwieldy, but I kept collecting.
Then I settled down, got married, bought a house, put the records on those shelves, and played them, but less often. Then the turntable broke. Then I stopped buying them (the most recent, about seven years ago, was a used “Jane Fonda’s Workout Record,” because I liked the cover).
So, what to do now? If I want to hear any song, it’s a keyboard click away. If I feel like visiting a favorite old cover, I can pull it from a shelf, or I can call it up on Google; I have a pretty large screen. I thought it through. Do I really need to keep all of that vinyl? I bet I could get some good money for the collection.
Yeah, I almost sold my albums. Then my wife bought me a turntable.Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.