My eyes darted to what in fact was a working stereo and a turntable with an LP already on it. There was a teeny twinkle in my soul. I recognized the disk and not far from it, its cover told the whole story: R.E.M.Reckoning.
The first time I heard R.E.M., I was standing about fifteen feet from them at Nassau Coliseum. They were opening for The English Beat, who were opening for Squeeze. We had no idea there was another opening act, but we’d pushed our way to the front to dance and be as near as possible to Difford & Tillbrook as we could. Even though we were still fifteen or sixteen and judgy as hell when it came to music, the first few chords of the first song made us look at each other in recognition. Who were these guys? Where had they been all our lives? How could we both be in love with Peter Buck so fast and what in the world was the lead singer saying?
Chronic Town wasn’t out yet. We had to wait and go to the record store the next week to get the EP. Like all trips to the record store in town with my bestie, we each bought one or two records. We debated endlessly which ones these should be and who should buy which. Even then, we were buying Maxell XL-IIS’s by the box. Tape runs were a thing. Whoever was going into Manhattan or to Uncle Steve’s would take money and buy boxes and boxes of blank cassette tapes. After visits to the record store, once we were done with town, we’d go home to one of our houses, play the records and tape them for each other.
Maybe it was because R.E.M. was the first band we felt like we got to discover, apart from friends’ bands, Reckoning was important. By the time it came out, other people were noticing them. But for us, their music was already part of our language. Hearing new fans wondering aloud what Michael Stipe was singing made me laugh. We spoke Stipe.
Although there are later albums that have masterful tracks, this one always felt the most them to me. It held together as a document (yeah, I see what I did there) and the songs are each little gems.
It was just waiting on the turntable. How could I not?
I lifted the cover, the needle, moved it right to left and onto the vinyl. Let the needle down. And there it was: music in the room.
People say a lot of things about the transition from vinyl to CD to digital. They say that there’s static and the sound of dust coming off a record. That it can deteriorate and warp. They say digital has limiters and is cold. They say CDs are flawless, but we all know they aren’t. I have no CDs anymore. But I still have my vinyl. Even if I’ve been separated from it for much of my adult life, I know where it is, in alphabetical order, waiting for me to have more space. I refuse to give up my vinyl.
Still, I believe wholeheartedly in the reality that we can have any song anywhere, just when we think about it. I have a friend who has an infinite mental jukebox and who can “listen” to any song he’s ever heard whenever he wants. But for the rest of us, streaming and MP3s are a wonderful moment in evolution.
But now I am listening to those first melodic lines of “Harborcoat.” I am here in the room, and so is the band. The record brings a physical presence to the music the CD and the digital file never had. I feel a band. I feel a drummer, a singer. I feel a studio. I feel a time. The ‘when’ of this recording becomes alive. The context and perspective of this music make themselves known. Who was mixing Americana with new wave in 1982? Who was bringing gorgeously layered tracks to music that was supposed to feel unfinished and urgent?
I don’t hear needle fuzz or static. I hear more of the mix; I hear all the tracks they recorded. I hear all the times they went through the song to lay down those tracks. I see the food delivery containers on the soundboard where the engineer has probably told them never to put food. I wonder about the studio it was recorded in and who else made albums there. As I am listening, this isn’t just music – it is a story; it is taking on a life of its own.
I forgot how much I love vinyl. How my deepest connections to songs come through its frequencies. My digital archive of music is hundreds of gigs. But what do I know of their covers, their lyric sheets? They come and go, ephemeral and capricious. I forget sometimes I have them. Snippets of them haunt me without titles or track numbers. Yes, I will listen to Jim James’ Regions Of Light And Sound Of Godor Beck’s Morning Phasea million times and yes, iTunes will keep track of those million times. Yes, I will have them in my headphones and between my ears and right up inside my brain when I am writing. But they won’t ever feel like they’re there with me. In the room, holding it down. Like there’ll be a shot of whisky when the needle comes up or an after party.
It’s wonderful that we have all the content we could ever want or has ever been. But the flip side is this hemorrhaging of context. I feel Chelsea Wolfe’s angst as I listen to Abyss, but it’s simply not the same as feeling Chelsea Wolfe’s presence. This is a tiny distinction, it is splitting hairs, I know. I do. But there is a difference between an injection of sound between your ears, and a wrapping of sound around you. Records create atmosphere – something you are held inside of. Digital seems to facilitate separation.
Across the board, we are sacrificing our experience of touch; as we become more digitized, we seem to become less sensitized. Yes we still love analog – the turn of a page, the drop of a needle on a record – but we don’t seem to recognize how much we need it, relegating it to a throwback, kitsch, or curiosity. This while we envelop ourselves in adult onesies and fleece everything, become rigorous foodies in search of the latest taste.
There is something about vinyl, though. Sleek, elegant, and right there where you can see it, touch it, smell it. The magic is that you can hear it all from those scratches circling into spiral grooves.
“…unapologetic feminist, dulcet-toned poet, activist, film-maker, editor of Zestyverse” (LossLit) E. Amato is a published poet, award-winning screenwriter, and established performer. She has three poetry collections by Zesty Pubs: Swimming Through Amber, 5, & Will Travel, and is a content writer for The Body Is Not an Apology. She also has a special relationship with Marmite.