In the grooves, part one


©Joyce Millman
©Joyce Millman

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

8 thoughts on “In the grooves, part one

  1. Jonathan Perry May 28, 2014 / 3:37 pm

    Thanks for this terrific post, Joyce. Such a wonderfully intimate, trenchant reflection and recollection about the meaning of music — but not just music, because it is through the LP delivery system that those of us who grew up with, and still love, the LP format gained and fashioned our perspective, our vantage point, and relationship to the music. Needless to say, the poring over the gatefold covers and liners part resonates deeply with me. And I count myself fortunate. Usually I feel a bit self-conscious, apologetic even, about my non-forward looking, technology-embracing mind (especially as I attempt to function in a late 20th century/early 21st century world as a “media” person). When I find something I like, I tend to stick with it. And although I do have thousands of CDs, and am listening to Spotify right now (Peter Green if you must, heheheh), I’ve always stuck with vinyl, through thick and thin, as the thing that connects me most with the music. And yes, absolutely, bring those boxes out and crack ’em open. You will NOT be sorry.

    • Joyce Millman May 28, 2014 / 5:08 pm

      Thank you for the lovely comment, Jonathan. Platters matter – still.

  2. milomiles May 28, 2014 / 6:35 pm

    A bit of a modification to the story of my eviction-through-vinyl. My landlord bought the place a couple years earlier (from a Cambridge cop, who was one of the best landlords I ever had) and simply asserted the floors were sagging under the weight. I could have been a hardass and formally demanded proof (he came unglued and spluttered so much when I informally demanded proof that it softened my stance — any time a landlord becomes a clown is to be savored), but I did not and simply moved to more space.

    Our late friend Jeep Holland actually was threatened with eviction unless he got rid of his music collection. But he was what I call a totalist — collected not only recordings but lunchboxes, cardboard stand-ups, promo ephemera, everything. His place had become a hoarder hell where you had to walk in the channels between the piles of crap. Change your collector life to see such a place, lemme tell ya.

    • Joyce Millman May 28, 2014 / 7:23 pm

      Milo, YOU shoulda been interviewed for this exhibit.

      I was never in Jeep’s house, but whenever I needed anything for a piece, he always came through. I remember when I was assigned a piece on Nick Lowe and Carlene Carter, and had to get my hands on her “Blue Nun” album at the last minute, which was only available as an import, we did a dark of night exchange where I drove up to his driveway, he ran out with it, I went home and listened to it and got what I needed for the piece. He made me promise to have the record back to him the next day, plus I couldn’t take the cover out of the protective plastic sleeve. I don’t know if this was his collector-ism talking, or if he had a thing for Carlene.

      • milomiles May 28, 2014 / 7:46 pm

        And of course these aren’t one and the same?

  3. 45spin June 8, 2014 / 5:56 am

    Excellent post, Love how you saw the digital irony in presenting what should be an analog experience. The romance of vinyl has always been to me about the personal connection we get when we drop a needle into the groove. Somehow in the magic of vinyl the world stops and we connect with an artists moment in time. Never have been able to listen to Dylan in a digital multitasking world.

    • Joyce Millman June 8, 2014 / 1:32 pm

      Thanks! Dylan has a voice made for vinyl, amiright?

      • 45spin June 8, 2014 / 8:02 pm

        You are totally right! Life’s greatest stories always have a little background noise.

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