The Singular Beauty of Just One Record
Every Saturday I make the rounds of my local record stores -- yes, stores. I live in a city large enough to support several of those once endangered species, their bins bulging with used and new vinyl, CDs, even cassettes. I make my rounds, and more often than not I come home with stacks of new-to-me music.
This weekend my checking account got off easy -- just a couple of used Solomon Burke CDs and a Captain Beefheart album -- but coming home with armloads of treasures, gap fillers, and "sure, I'll give it a shot" new releases isn't uncommon. On top of that, throughout the week my email inbox and social media streams fill up with new music from indie artists and their publicists. If all of that isn't enough new (and new-to-me) music for me, I can putter around the streaming services.
It's a great problem to have, one that I could only dream about as a kid.
Part of the problem was simply the realities of the childhood economy. When one's income is limited to a 50-cents-per-week allowance, birthday money and bottle deposits, coming home with an armload of music isn't in the cards. My small town had no used record stores, so I had to pay full retail for my new records. Even on sale, I was looking at $5.98 -- a fortune in kid dollars.
When I managed to scrape together enough for a trip to Record Bar, picking the one was like choosing a life partner. Sure, the packaging is pretty, but what about what's inside? Will this record make me happy? Will I love it forever?
Value was important, too. Sale prices, cutout bins and double albums for a single album price always took priority. Bonus content was next: lyric sheets, gatefold sleeves, posters inside. I remain convinced that a big factor in Kiss' '70s popularity was their packaging. A kid got a lot of stuff for his allowance dollar with a Kiss album. They were the kings of the inserts.
Once my purchase was complete, I had to contend with the logistics of getting my new record into the house. My parents weren't terribly strict, but their approval was important to me and "wasting" my money always earned a cutting comment from my father. My mother was more prone to a sad head shake that made manifest her worry that her only son was on a highway to Hell.
And so I'd smuggle my new album into the house like some sort of drug mule, the belly beneath my black t-shirt mysteriously 12x12 inches square. Bedroom door closed, I'd carefully slit the shrink wrap, ease my new record from its sleeve, and drop the needle.
Few greater joys exist than that first click and pop before the needle caught the groove and I heard my new record for the first time. My record -- the one I scraped and saved to purchase; the one I smuggled past the guards and into my inner sanctum. I'd lie on my bed and stare at the album cover, read the liner notes, memorize the lyrics and the names of the songwriters and guest performers, the producers, engineers and those deserving special thanks.
Sometimes the inner sleeves offered special deals on label compilations -- two records for one low, low price -- or fan club memberships. I dreamed of sending away for such things, but childhood logistics stood in the way. How was I supposed to get my hands on a check or money order, and how could I intercept the mail before my parents saw it?
Other inner sleeves showed photos of the band's back catalog, or similar albums produced by the same record label. Pre-Internet, these provided valuable insights into the music world beyond the one album that I could afford. Occasionally I'd hang the inner sleeves near my bed so that I could memorize the band's catalog.
My new album didn't leave my turntable for months, endlessly repeating until I knew every word, every rhythm, every guitar lick -- even every click and pop where the vinyl was scratched. At night I trusted my automatic turntable to shut itself off, its mechanical ka-chunk briefly awakening me.
Eventually I had enough money for the next record, and the process started all over again.
But now? There's just so damned much, and there's very little preventing me from consuming it all. I have no technical constraint: I can stream as much as I want whenever I want. Streaming aside, I'm fortunate to be able to afford the records I only dreamed of owning when I was a kid, and I no longer have to answer to anyone regarding either my tastes or whether I'm wasting my money.
The result is that rather than diving deeply into an album, often now I skip across its surface like a flat rock. I listen and enjoy, but I rarely develop the intimate relationship that turns an album into my album. I miss that.
Most of us have an elderly relative who trots out the "one orange" story every holiday season. Your version may vary, but the gist is always something like, "When I was a boy we were so poor that all I'd get for Christmas was one orange, but boy was that orange delicious." That's what buying a new record felt like back in the stone ages of my childhood.
I think I'm going to take my time with this week's batch of purchases. I'm going to suck all of the juice out of these Solomon Burke records and leave nothing behind but the empty rind of Captain Beefheart. It's time I slowed down and remembered how delicious music is when every bite is savored.