A few weeks ago, a young couple came to my apartment to buy a piece of furniture I’d hardly used. (Now there’s more space for dancing.) The young woman earnestly asked me about turntables — thinking of being able to play her mother’s beloved 1970 record collection. I showed her both a modern one (and played her a track from a Marty Grosz Stomp Off record, which absolutely floored her with its bounce and warm sound).
Then I decided to become a true eccentric, a genuine suburban antiquarian and descended even deeper into history by playing her a 78 (Keynote, J.C. Heard, ALL MY LIFE) on another turntable.
I don’t think this was a transformational experience for her (and her boyfriend was pleasantly impassive through the whole thing) but it was clear she had never seen anything like it.
“How do you know where to put that thing [the stylus]?” “What happens when it comes to the end?” “Is that sound [the surface noise] part of the thing, the record?” “Does that have only one song?” And so on.
I don’t want to rehearse the discussion of iPod and MP3 downloads / compact discs / vinyl records / 78s / live performance — too many acres to plow! — but I did revert to my childhood in two sweetly nostalgic acts this morning.
One, I played a 78 record — LOW DOWN DIRTY SHAME / SOLITUDE (Vocalion 5531, rim chip, V) by Joe Sullivan and his Cafe Society Orchestra. Lovely. Two, I stared at the revolving disc and the diminishing circles described by the needle as the music came out of the speaker.
And I thought, not for the first time, of the beautiful paradoxes.
When the needle is lowered into the first groove, listeners enter into that musical world — new or familiar. All experience lies before us, all possibility! (Jack Purvis might explode in the last chorus.) But we are always conscious of the finite limits of that world. Listening to a live performance, we can tell when the band is near the end — although there always might be two more choruses! A record, a disc lying on the platter, is visually bounded — its beginning and end marked out for us to see.
So as the needle follows its path, I feel the joy of hearing what’s there, perhaps the anticipatory sensation of “I can’t wait for the good part that I know is coming,” yet there’s the sad awareness of knowing the end is near. Another sixteen bars, another thirty seconds, perhaps another two inches of black grooves. “Oh, no, it’s going to be over!”
Everything comes to an end, we know.
But with records we have the wonderful opportunity to pick up the needle from its mindless elliptical orbits in the run-off groove and have the experience again. Imagine being able to eat another meal in the same restaurant without monotony, without satiety. It’s not the first kiss repeated, of course. But second and third kisses are seriously pleasurable, too.
For those who cannot play a record today, I offer a video simulacrum — I think of it as a natural antidepressant, with no side effects: