Blair’s Golden Road Blog—Vinyl Memories
By Blair Jackson
The recent release of Audio Fidelity limited edition vinyl versions of two more Grateful Dead albums—Blues for Allah and Shakedown Street—in beautiful gatefold editions (both were in conventional single-album sleeves when they came out in 1975 and 1978 respectively), got my mind wandering to memories of how much I loved buying, playing and sitting around staring endlessly at what we quaintly called “records.”
A few weeks ago, my Golden Road Blog headlined “Hello-o-o E-Bay” was “hijacked” (as one reader put it) by vinyl record junkies expounding on their love of the format with the fervor of true believers. I was, frankly, somewhat dismissive, noting that I didn’t miss the skips and pops, and that in general CDs sounded fine to me. However, CDs evidently don’t sound fine to a growing minority of music lovers. Vinyl is one of the few segments of the record industry that actually has been on the rise the past few years (even if it still represents a relatively infinitesimal portion of the biz), and the number of places devoted to manufacturing this ancient medium has increased tremendously.
Why? Well, vinyl devotees believe that tape or digital masters cut to lacquer and then pressed on high quality vinyl (180 gram “virgin” is now the minimum audiophile standard for new pressings) sound warmer, deeper and “truer” than CDs, because there is no conversion to binary digital code, where some of the mysterious audio “glue” that analog recording advocates say adds an indefinable je ne sais quoi can be lost. And there is that whole aesthetic matter of the larger packaging—the album cover as art form, which has been mostly lost in the CD age.
This past weekend, visiting my son in his apartment right off the UCLA campus, I was struck again by how cool it is to slap a disc on the turntable and sit there with a record cover in my lap, gazing at pictures or reading lyrics, having a tactile accompaniment to listening to vinyl, which is my son’s favorite format, by far. A lot of the records he has sitting around in bins and piles on his living room floor are ones that had been gathering dust in my garage in Oakland, and the turntable had been mine, too, before we refurbished it for him. But he’s picked up all sorts of cool old albums on his own, too—he loves record stores, just like his old man—and also managed to find the money to buy the more expensive modern vinyl pressings of some of his favorite current bands, such as Animal Collective.
Of course, in the era before I started collecting and trading concert tapes—which for me began in earnest in early 1977, after I befriended David Gans, who was already well-connected in that world—I was limited to listening to the Dead’s official vinyl releases and a few live bootleg records I’d bought through the years. And you know what? I loved them all (until Steal Your Face, which, to this day I dislike). I remember buying Live Dead at Korvette’s in the Bronx (right over the border from my hometown, Pelham, NY) for about $4 on sale, taking it home, plopping it onto what I later learned was a patently mediocre stereo setup (no separate amp; speakers were not fully detachable from the main unit) in my basement lair and being instantly transported by this band whose previous album, Aoxomoxoa, hadn’t earned much more than a “meh” from me, and as a result sat on a shelf largely ignored.
When night would fall, I’d switch on my crude self-made “light show,” consisting of a cardboard box full of independently flashing Christmas lights that projected onto a big white sheet on one wall, and imagine myself digging the Dead or Quicksilver or the Airplane or Cream or Jimi in some San Francisco ballroom. And when the light show wasn’t being used, chances are I was sitting around examining the covers of my albums — checking out the collage on Disreali Gears or the studio pics from Electric Ladyland, the crazy-stoned “newspaper” on the back of Volunteers, the beautiful calligraphy on the partial lyric insert of Live Dead : “Eight-sided whispering hallelujah hatrack”?!
The “Skull & Roses” album came out right around the time I arrived at Northwestern for my freshman year in college. I loved the cover so much I put it on the wall next to my desk in my dorm room and kept the discs themselves in just the paper sleeves they came in. I was a (perhaps annoyingly) proud Dead Head, and everyone in Elder Hall was gonna know it. That album got so many LOUD spins on my turntable that fall, just as Europe ’72 did the following autumn in a different dorm. I loved poring over the photos in the booklet that accompanied that album, wondering who the people were — “Ooh, look, that’s Robert Hunter! He’s almost never been photographed!”
A year after that, in the fall of 1973, I moved from New York to the Bay Area to go to UC Berkeley and I stopped at Northwestern on the way, to say hi to some of my friends there. There was a wild party in somebody’s apartment that night, partly in my honor, but my only memory from it is someone handing me a copy of Anthem of the Sun and my jaw hitting the floor when I saw that it had a white background instead of the purple one I had spent untold hours examining the past few years. I was even more amazed when I heard what was clearly a remix of the original album, so the next morning I went to downtown Evanston and bought a copy of this strange “new” version of the album. Alas, I lost it many moves ago. But it was great while it lasted!
Reckoning and Dead Set must have been the last vinyl Dead records I bought, because with In the Dark in 1987, we were already a few years into the CD age for new releases, and I wholeheartedly embraced that format. Needless to say, I purchased the entire Dead catalog on CD as it became available. What a thrill it was finally getting all four sides of Live Dead and “Skull & Roses” on single discs! Did the CDs sound better? Worse? Frankly, I couldn’t tell (unlike with some CD transfers, like Born to Run, the first version of which was clearly inferior to the vinyl version). But I dug the convenience, and when the first wave of amazing-sounding new CDs came out—remember hearing Brothers in Arms or Aja for the first time on a great system?—I was hooked, and there was no turning back for me.
But it also didn’t take long for me to start missing things about vinyl records, such as the larger artwork (and readable lyric sheets), and the sense that the artists and producers had put some thought into choosing the best 35 to 39 minutes of material they had, and then carefully selecting what was going to open and close each side of the album. Though I was at first thrilled by the larger capacity of a single CD, I quickly learned that many (most!) bands didn’t actually have enough good songs to warrant the longer available playing time, so I was often listening to more weak music, or tiring of an album much quicker than I did when there were sides that I loved (or didn’t care for).
I don’t currently own a turntable, but my 17-year-old daughter does, and like her brother, she listens more to vinyl at home than CDs. I suspect she might cart it off to college with her in the fall of 2012, carrying much of the rest of my old vinyl with her. Sniff, sniff. I’ll miss seeing those records lying around her room.
It might be too late for me to fully embrace vinyl again — I’d want to re-buy everything for a third or fourth or fifth time (a lot of CD remasterings keep coming down the pike; gotta save for the expanded Pink Floyds this fall!), but I’m happy to know that Vinyl Love is still a big part of the Jackson family.
Are you a vinyl record fan? What about it gets you off? Or is it all hype?
That was totally not called for, Blair. Please don't go dark on us again!
I usually went with my Polydor import copy of Electric Ladyland. Maybe it was just that transcendent shot of Jimi in the wafting swirls of smoke as a harbinger of what was in the offing. Just pulled it out and took a whiff, and there's still the slightest hint of that fine Colombian gold we used to see so much of in the 70's. Those were the days my friends... (see, I can play the annoying earworm game, too)
Conversation is always more interesting than recitation, so speak your mind and not someone else's.
Great story, Badger.
For some reason my wife brought a few of these into our marriage back at the dawn of time. ALBANIAN records. And a Hopalong Cassidy thing. My Beatles and Stones 45s and a host of others have long bitten the dust -- my Mom was storing them for me when I went to college and parked them near something very hot..."warped" only mildly describes what happened to them. It's possible that this was unconscious payback on her part for years of "TURN DOWN THE MUSIC!!!"
My classic 45s are gone, but the Albanian platters, those we still have.
One of my few surviving 45s, by the way, was the previously-mentioned and rightly- maligned "MacArthur's Park." That this one survived rather than the ones I loved only serves to, in my mind, reinforce my payback theory...
My late grandfather was a real audiophile. In the 1950’s he converted his the coal cellar under our house into a music room. The whole cellar acted was designed to act as a sound chamber. He built his own amp, built bass units into the walls and had tweeters hanging from the ceiling. He would put an old 78rpm platter on the turntable and dash up the cellar stairs and sit himself in a scientifically placed armchair at the top of the stairs to listen. He had a huge collection of 78’s, each with all of the perfect settings for his system written in pencil on the sleeve. They were mostly classical and showtunes, but included some doowop sides (Inkspots) and old country tunes too. I can still remember a fantastic old song called ‘Life gets tee-jus don’t it?’ . My parents threw them all out years ago…a shame really.
Dang, I loved "Jack of Roses". That was probably one of my last vinyl purchases about 30 years ago. I've no clue whatever became of it :( I also loved "Tiger Rose" with the original vocals, which sounded just fine to me. Hope they are both made available again someday....
I once new a guy who bought the single of "The Elusive Butterfly Of Love" just so he could take it to the parking lot and stomp on it! Inspirational. On the flip side, I'm reading Keith Richards book "Life" and he credits Bobby Goldsboro for teaching him some licks.Go figure. I wish I had a copy of The Goodtime Washboard Three's "There's An Old Tule Fog Hanging Around The Golden Gate Bridge Of My Heart".
record collecting in 1972 when I was 13 years old, i.e. that year I only purchased 8 LP's - the seven CCR studio albums and a now classic Swedish rock album. I have neither of them on vinyl today but sometimes I wish I had not gotten rid of them. Mainly because of the covers and occasionally inserts.
The most far out insert to this day must've been the one I got with the 3 LP set Santana - "Lotus", an album I only have on CD today. I miss the cover and the gigantic insert but not being forced to turn side five times. And also not being mad over surface noises, something that made me go back to the record stores and ask for another copy of an actual record purchased.
These days I sort and put prices on records (and books) in a local second hand store, and the younger staff ask me for advice on with one special demand - they want scratches and other surface noises because it should sound like REAL VINYL RECORDS ... ^_ ^
And yesterday I saw on Facebook that the biggest (and probably oldest?) record mail order company in Sweden have seen an increased sale of vinyl records (and SACD) for the last years or so. Therefore they now have several high class turntables for sale.
Myself, I seldom buy vinyls these days but it happens. My last purchase of a GD related album was Robert Hunter - "Jack O'Roses" on Dark Star Records. I bought it from a fellow Deadhead in the Netherlands for about $65.00 + postage. It was worth every penny. :-D
My record collection:
You're a cruel man, Mr. Jackson :-)
"Someone left the cake out in the rain,
I don't think that I can take it,
'cause it took so long to bake it,
And I'll never have that recipe again...."
(Everybody join in!) "Oh, Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!"
But I'm sure glad that he didn't.
Dianna Krall covered a Bee Gees song that will not be named here on her last (I think) album. No slouch herself, it did sound great. But...as a result of listening to Krall's rendition, the Bee Gees version got stuck in my head for about a week after. I just could NOT make it go away.
Better just not to go there, I think. MacArthur's Park...that one's just scary. I'm having a hard time wrapping Jerry's voice around that one.