April 19, 2015

Record Store Day 2015: The human aspect of vinyl records

So how many of you all grew up in the days before cds, before cassette tapes, back when vinyl records (and sometimes those gigantically bulky 8-track tapes) were the way that all music was played?  It was a while ago, wasn't it? I grew up in that era and I remember not even thinking twice about switching to cassettes when those came along. They were portable! We could record our records and listen on our Walkman! We could record songs off the radio! And, best of all... we could make mix-tapes!  And then cds came along and who thought twice about switching to those? Well, I'll admit I did, but pretty much only because I was poor at the time and didn't have a lot of money to buy a cd player, either for home or for carrying around, much less a whole lot of cds. But I had to do it, because cassettes became obsolete pretty much immediately.  Through these changes, all those records that took up so much space didn't necessarily become obsolete, they just... went away.

Now that I'm older and make a semi-decent living, I have more liberty to spend hard-earned dollars on my tunes. But five years ago, I still thought twice about shelling out a bunch of bucks to make a big format switch again, this time going backwards, from listening to cds back to playing records again. Anyone who reads my babblings with any regularity knows why, of course. It's pretty much impossible to become a devotee of Jack White without learning his philosophy of musical formats by rote. Notwithstanding his latest venture of becoming involved in the Tidal digital streaming service, vinyl records have been and apparently always will be the way he prefers for music to be listened to. As recently as last month in Billboard magazine's vinyl revival issue, he broadened his usual focus to speak of an appreciation for cds, and went on to say "
...when you respect music, it doesn't matter how we're getting it. We still know what the real deal is." And that 'real deal' is still records-- "It's the movie theater compared to the iPhone....You're reverential to it. With vinyl, you're on your knees. You're at the mercy of the needle. You watch the record spin and it's like you're sitting around a campfire. It's hypnotic."

So when I discovered Jack's music five years ago, taking that seemingly backward step of investing in a turntable and buying records again was the only way I could participate in one of the most exciting things he's created, the Third Man Records Vault subscription service.  As soon as I began hearing about the sort of exclusive music the subscription provided, there wasn't much choice to make beyond "How much can I spend on a turntable (and a receiver, and speakers)?"  Once I had the thing, it became a source of nostalgic delight well beyond what I got from Third Man-- The very first records that I went out to shop for on my own were all the old Bill Cosby comedy albums I loved so much as a kid. I wanted to laugh til my gut split while listening to that fucking Chicken Heart that ate Chicago again, dammit!  And I wanted to do it the way I had as a kid, with a record on a record player.  Of course, I've got some mixed feelings about those Cosby records these days, but up until recently they were an unadulterated joy, as are all of the other records I've accumulated over the past five years as I've explored the wide genre of blues music, picked up all of Jack's previous and continuing releases, and dived into the many artists I've been exposed to via Third Man Records and connections I've made radiating out from TMR.

As I began buying records more and more and cds less and less, I realized that there really is something that I prefer about vinyl. I'm no audiophile, so it's not necessarily the lows and highs or warmth and depth that serious vinyl purists go on about, though those elements are often very noticeable. And, unlike Jack White, I don't sit and watch my records spin around. I do enjoy admiring the sleeve art and taking the effort to drop the needle in just the right spot, there is a lot to be said for those rituals. But once the music begins, I either lie back to soak it in or bounce around the room dancing to it. So my reason for preferring records isn't based purely in the sound quality or in the ritual of listening, it's something more elemental, something I was only recently able to put into coherent thought, thanks to an episode of Marc Maron's WTF podcast in which he toured the plant at United Record Pressing in Nashville (it's a bonus episode only available to subscribers but, seriously, go and subscribe and then search for "Marc's vinyl factory tour", it's worth the couple of bucks even if you only sign up for a month).

Marc's conversation with URP's PR rep Jay Millar begins with them discussing that return to vinyl that I talked about above, and why so many people are doing it these days. In their conversation, Jay used two words that turned on a lightbulb for me-- He spoke about the "human aspect" of vinyl. I realized that's it, that's what encompasses the sound quality, the ritual, the art that accompanies record albums, the tangibleness and moving parts that so mesmerize Jack White, it's that there is a very human aspect to creating, handling, and listening to vinyl records. Of course cds and even digital music files are also ultimately created by human beings, someone has to push the buttons and flip the switches on the machines that manufacture the cds or the computer that turns the music into the 1s and 0s of an mp3 (or flac, if you're an audiophile purist), but there's more machine than human in those creations. And while vinyl records are pressed by massive machines, there are humans involved around those machines at every step along the way, there's a symbiosis between man and machine that gives records an organic feel that digital music just does not have.

In comparison, to me at least, cds and mp3s have come to feel robotic and a bit sterile. I mean, hell, there's no way you could create a work like Dario Robleto's Melancholy Matters Because of You from digital music formats, in which the generations of a family are conveyed through the varying rpms of ground-up vinyl records.

Not my photo, snagged from the artist's website as linked above

And this past weekend's Record Store Day event at Third Man Records confirmed all of that, it confirmed Jack White's commitment to vinyl records, and it confirmed the human element that keeps drawing me in.  As described in the Billboard article linked above, Jack recently spent $300,000 to purchase the original acetate of Elvis Presley's very first record, My Happiness, which Elvis recorded at Sun Studios for $4. He then had it digitally transferred so that new copies could be pressed for a special Record Store Day 78rpm edition (and a less-limited 45rpm version to be released later this year).

Jack's motivation for spending all that money is surely based in the reverence he feels for music and its history.  And the tangibleness of records is tied up in that history. You can listen to a digital recording of an historic song, as I did at another Dario Robleto exhibit, Setlists for a Setting Sun, but there's so much more impact in seeing an historic item, seeing the age and the wear and realizing that that thing has been around and represents something that happened in time.  So seeing that original acetate of My Happiness that Jack bought displayed at Third Man like it was a shrine object gave me goosebumps.

Leaning around to glance at the back of the record,
I was able to see the still-loose Prisonaires label on the b-side

And then to see the Rek-O-Kut machine that that very single was cut on sitting right there next to it brought the magnitude of it all home. 

I've not been to Graceland yet, but I have visited the museum at Sun Records in Memphis and stood in the room where that Rek-O-Kut captured Elvis' first attempt to put on vinyl those urges that would before long change his life and musical history together.  And just that morning, I had watched TMR honcho Ben Blackwell carrying a bulky object covered by a white sheet across the street and into TMR and wondered if it was the Rek-O-Kut.  A representative from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (from whom TMR had the machine on loan for the day) confirmed that, sure enough, that'd been what Blackwell was hauling in.  If it'd been me, I'd have been scared to death of dropping it, would've wanted to put it on a cart or at least a dolly or something. The Hall of Fame rep also told me a fantastic story about how they just recently found out that theirs was the machine that cut My Happiness-- Scotty Moore, Elvis' guitar player in the early days, was walking through the museum and stopped in front of it and said "You know, that is the machine". The rep told me he replied something along the lines of yeah, we know it was used for a lot of records at Sun. Apparently Scotty said, "No, I worked with that machine a lot and I know it well. It's the machine that was used for Elvis' first record". When my jaw dropped and I took a step back, the rep said his reaction had been exactly the same. 

He then explained how they got the call from TMR early last week asking if it could be displayed for RSD. There were questions about things like insurance and such, but the biggest stumbling block was that the display case at the museum was built in, couldn't be moved with the machine. But then the very next day, the museum rep was out picking up a steel guitar that was to be added to the museum, and when he went to get it he found it was in a plexi case that was the perfect size for the Rek-O-Kut to be displayed in. He said it was as if it'd been meant to be for the machine to be displayed at TMR, because after that they worked everything out and all the pieces just fell into place within a day or so, just in time for Record Store Day.

Have to mention another little kick I got related to one of Elvis' predecessors-- A portion of an old, broken Robert Johnson Terraplane Blues 78 that was hanging on the wall in a frame with no glass and a little placard beneath it that read "Touch Me". Of course I did. 

So much history on those premises in one day. As if the vibe at Third Man doesn't buzz enough on its own, they had go and add these other thrills, these reminders of how the human aspect goes hand in hand with music and the records that contain it.  For the memories of that day that are attached to it, memories of time spent with friends, of stories told and history encountered, I'll always treasure my own My Happiness.

Few more photos from this trip (and previous ones) to Third Man, here.