August 28, 2008
Needled No Longer As the Tables Turn on Vinyl
By John Bogert
I swore that I'd have nothing to do with them. This was in 1988 and a friend had just purchased a one-disc CD player at great cost. Sure, I enjoyed playing with its Star Trekish slide-out disc drawer, but what was the point? I already owned a Saudi oil well's worth of vinyl LPs dating back to early Elvis, Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
I had wonderful stuff, including a recording by violinist Shony Alex Braun. A fantastic musician, he had performed on TV, radio and in the Reagan White House. And when I met him in the 1980 s, he was playing the main room at Perinos on Wilshire.
These were wife-client dinners, which meant that I was clinically bored, which is how I wound up talking to Braun, a man who had survived Auschwitz, Dachau and a parting SS gunshot wound on the day before liberation.
Braun gave me this collection of his solo works as a gift, a gift that I immediately missed when I stacked my vinyl in the garage for the last time.
By 1991 there was no point fighting a future wave that sounded crisp and clean as Monday morning wash. This wasn't, after all, audiotape, another medium with which I had carried on an unsatisfying affair.
Sure, tapes were useful. I could play them on airplanes and in cars when I wanted to ignore my children, but I couldn't love the cold, hissing things in the same way that I loved vinyl LPs or even the new CDs.
There had been a time years before when my Uncle Frank would come over with his suitcase-size, reel-to-reel recorder so we could take turns saying, "That's not what I sound like - is it?"
Which is not to say that I didn't treat tape decks with the same respect I showed all electronic sound equipment. Still, they weren't stackable party 45 s or the 331/3 rpm magic carpets that I came of age with.
Before succumbing to the CD offensive, I even wrote a column swearing I'd ignore them. Like so many things that I've preached against and accepted, I wasn't buying into a plan that would force me to purchase at even higher prices duplicates of the music I already owned.
Then it happened. The record companies stopped making LPs even after they said that they wouldn't. Sure, they didn't stop completely, but little by little the things were pushed into corners where only vinyl snobs could find them. Vinyl snobs being the people who welcomed the advent of CDs by buying even more expensive turntables and retro, vacuum-tube amps designed to coax out that legendary warm LP sound.
I remember the tipping point, the day I asked a kid at Tower Records where they kept the records and heard him reply, "What for, your Victrola?"
Did this bother me? Not at all. In fact, I had that coming for all the smart-mouthing I've done in life. No, what bothered me was the abject silence of a world population that already owned all the equipment needed to play already paid-for records. Still, millions said nothing even as their hard-won music collections were made redundant.
One by one, all my friends bought CD players and CDs. Then they came to my house, where they pointed and laughed at my suddenly Edison-like music collection.
Eventually this technological scorched-earth policy left me unable to hear new records, unable to maintain my existing equipment and unable to do anything but sign on, buying a five-disc, double- reversing, triple-clutching, megaphoning, light-up CD with remote control.
Suckered, I bought CDs to fuel the thing. Out of spite, I got three Sinatra collections knowing that they'd survive the analog/ digital transition with style simply because Sinatra was then still alive and dangerous.
Here's what I wrote back in 1991: "These CDs lack warm tones and depth. And I still resented this forced move until I heard the Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti concert album. It is a powerful, all-digital dream conducted by Zubin Mehta and recorded in July 1990 under a full moon at the ancient Baths of Caracalla in Rome. It's a tenor blitzkrieg, a vocal wonder: sharp, crisp and heavy on high-end, operatic Latin schmaltz. In short, it's my kind of record. There was something else I actually liked about the CD player. I could load five discs onto it, same as I could on my parents' living room record player."
Doesn't this sound quaint now that buying CDs and transferring them to computer and iPod morphed into buying no CDs at all and just downloading music from the Internet? The Mac I'm writing on has on its hard drive thousands of recordings, including 363 Beatle records, possibly everything they recorded.
"Did you ever think," an old high school friend recently asked, "we'd wind up sitting around listening to music on your computer?"
Once downloaded, CDs go immediately to pasture, gathering dust in stacks like the technologically endangered species they are.
Then came a present, a turntable that - hooked into my stereo amp - can play old vinyl and transfer them directly to my computer and iPod. Which is why a couple of hundred antiquated record albums have returned to my living room.
I'm right now listening to "Music From Big Pink," a classic with my freshman dorm room number scrawled on its cardboard front. It sounds like the voice of an old friend. It also required that I teach my son how to lift and place a tone arm and how to handle the things by their edges. In a way, it's like teaching a kid how to use a dial phone.
And someday I'm going to load all of these records into my hard drive. I swear, just as soon as I figure out how the thing works.
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