I recently visited an exhibit about “the sound and culture” of vinyl, as in record albums. It was mounted by the Oakland Museum of California, a wonderful and feisty museum that I adore and that really needs your support, so please go see its eclectic wonders sometime. The vinyl exhibit was set up in one large room with a half dozen turntable-and-headphone listening stations and numerous milk crates of albums “curated” by notable Bay Areans like author Michael Chabon and music journalist Sylvie Simmons. Each crate featured a written blurb explaining the story the curator intended to tell through the records. Some were personal lists of albums that meant something to the curator at various milestone moments of his or her life. Others attempted to track genres of music from a California angle, from folk-rock to L.A. punk to Oakland hip-hop. The idea was that the visitor could flip through those albums, listen on the turntable and maybe hand the second pair of headphones to someone else so they could share an old fave or new discovery.
The problem was, to get the full story of any curated crate, you would have to hog a listening station for the duration of 20 albums. Because in the heyday of vinyl, artists created and people listened to and talked about rock albums as a whole, as a thematic work. It’s certainly the way people still listen to jazz and classical records. Yes, there were singles released from albums, but they were teasers for the greater story the album told. To stand at a listening station and only play “Hot Burrito #1” from The Flying Burrito Brothers’ The Gilded Palace of Sin, or “Idiot Wind” from Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, or “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene” from X’s Los Angeles, is to hear only a frustrating fragment of the story. Ironically, the listening stations simply enabled, in analog form, people to consume music the way they do in digital form: one song at a time, often at random, downloaded with no album context.
I visited the exhibit on a Sunday, but it seems like Friday nights and Saturday afternoons are the better way to go, when DJ’s and guest speakers play records to the room and talk about the music and about collecting. That’s a great idea, to bring people together as a community to share and think about recorded music. I wish that communal aspect had been better represented in the standing exhibit.
I also wish that, instead of having the albums in crates and record-store bins, there had been an installation of what, say, 1,000 record albums looks like on shelving. Without that, visitors who don’t collect records or are of an age where they missed the vinyl era entirely, have no sense of the physical, palpable challenges that come from storing and displaying a large collection of 12″X12″ albums. It’s no joke; my friend Milo Miles had to move because the floors of his rented apartment were bowing under the weight of shelf upon shelf of albums. The visceral impact of what it was/is like to live with this unwieldy art form could have been more strikingly communicated.
The exhibit’s overall effect on the Sunday I visited — the beanbag chairs in the middle of the room, the “sleeve face” selfie station, the detailed operating instructions on the turntables, the “pick 5 albums that tell a story and write them down on a postcard” station — reminded me of an interactive exhibit in a children’s museum. Except that most of the visitors were middle-aged folks who seemed pretty happy amid the nostalgic jolt of coming across albums they once owned, before they gave them all away to Goodwill and bought a CD player.
Am I being a crab? Probably. My family and I did have fun digging through the crates. And I have no doubt that, because of this exhibit, someone will visit their local record store in search of an old album they heard at one of the listening stations, or to buy the new St. Vincent on vinyl rather than download it. There’s nothing bad about that.
I guess I just expected more from the exhibit, when, in reality, I should be doing a better job of appreciating my own vinyl collection. I have a closet full of albums, hundreds of them, winnowed down from the 1,000+ that moved to California with me in the ’80s. Once upon a time, I had the furniture in which to store and display these albums, purpose-built record cabinets and shelving that lined the walls of the living room and my office. But when we moved to our current house, we gave away the cabinets and stacked the albums in alphabetically labeled boxes, in the big closet in the den. There they remain, among the extra blankets, old jackets and scrapbooks.
My millennial son made off with stacks of my records, which he listens to on a suitcase phonograph; his interest in vinyl and in album cover art seems in line with the vinyl renaissance among his peers. But while I still have my old turntable in working order, I don’t play my albums as much as I should. I’ll admit it: I do most of my listening on CD or iPod while I’m driving, cooking or working out. But whenever I do play a record album or old 45, that warm, flawed, scratched and popped quality of sound (I’m not an audiophile, far from it) takes my breath away. There is nothing more immediate and intimate than that sound; it makes you stop whatever else you’re doing and LISTEN. There is no multi-tasking while a record is playing. It’s all about the music.
A while ago, I got the urge to hear Joni Mitchell’s Hejira. I don’t own a digital copy, and when I dug out and played the album, all the tactile and cerebral pleasures of listening to records came back to me. I opened up the gatefold sleeve and got lost in the lyrics (deciphering the teensy lyrics on CD’s, if they’re even included, requires getting up to find my reading glasses), and in Norman Seeff’s icily beautiful black and white photos of Joni in black, skating on a snowy pond, the embodiment of the album’s themes of female independence, artistic isolation and solo flight. Inspired, I went looking through the other boxes and found albums I forgot I owned, and albums that were constant companions in my youth, and albums whose covers were held together by now-brittle Scotch tape. It was like unwrapping a mountain of Christmas presents inside a time machine.
In part two of this post, I’ll open up the closet and put together my own (virtual) exhibit of records that mean something to me. For now, take a look at a Pinterest board of my favorite album covers. (Click “See on Pinterest”.)
©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014