Stacked Wax: The Vinyl Comeback

Zach Schonfeld

As music formats push inexorably towards convenience, compactness, digitization, who could have anticipated the resurgence of the clunky, fossilized LP?

“Tuesday night I reorganize my record collection; I often do this at periods of emotional stress....I try to remember the order I bought them in: that way I hope to write my own autobiography, without having to do anything like pick up a pen. I pull the records off the shelves, put them in piles all over the sitting room floor, look for Revolver, and go on from there; and when I’ve finished, I’m flushed with a sense of self, because this, after all, is who I am.”

-- Nick Hornby, High Fidelity

Dusty and dense, my father’s vinyl collection lines the walls of my family’s basement storeroom.

The collection is sizable, of value both monetary and personal, but there’s no readymade autobiography lurking within the boxed stacks -- no story, no coherence, certainly no concrete organizational mechanism by which to provide one. There are only fragments, half-formed and fleeting, glimpses and descriptors of the man my father was and is and perhaps maybe could have been. And, of course, dust.

From the ‘60s come classics -- Abbey Road and Tommy, Forever Changes and The Band -- everything you would expect, maybe require, of a baby boomer with just the right countercultural instincts intact. But there are also the shadier, more esoteric treasures, the early Zappas and Beefhearts, the Jefferson Airplane LPs that I imagine soundtracked a troubled adolescence among uptight immigrant parents. Which disc did he turn to when my grandfather pulled out the wooden spanking spoon after a long day at the tuna factory he worked? Was Uncle Meat the potent antidote to a dismal suburban Jersey landscape? Was Ummagumma there when my grandfather threatened -- and ultimately followed through -- with a one-year boarding school sentence?

More importantly, perhaps: was it allowed to come, too?

The ‘70s hit. College, too. The collection explodes, all psychedelic colors and acid-drenched prog fancies and Grateful Dead live releases befitting a 1974 graduate of the University of Vermont. Lots of Stones, too: there is the faded Sticky Fingers with the zipper broken off, the Flowers compilation whose tracklist I could never comprehend, the Exile on Main Street double LP with the letters ALOI scrawled across the grooves. His college girlfriend’s name, he explains when I ask. This I regard as some bitter victory for my father, if not the whole male sex: she probably broke his heart, but he kept her mint-condition first-pressing Exile (it would even, some 30 years later, grace his eldest son’s turntable), and there, in that bitter exchange, a failed relationship holds its own cruel equilibrium three decades later. Better luck next time, Aloi.

I sense his life-long completist instinct: there are more Moody Blues and Emerson, Lake & Palmer LPs in one place than should ever be spotted outside an East Village record shop; there is every Neil Young release from the self-titled (‘68) to Re-ac-tor (‘81); there is a section of a crate devoted entirely to Chicago, another for Steely Dan. This is the father who once saved $270 worth of pennies in a massive jar in our basement: he has always loved collecting things for the sake of collecting things -- in the age of Internet shopping, this spells danger. I see the endless Zappas and Nilssons and even one Devo, the lewd song titles and bizarre cover art, and sense his oddball humor streak. I remember hearing these as a child and laughing along, baffled but charmed.

The discerning cratedigger will here notice the white, multi-disc radio compilations and concert specials (the deluxe Woodstock compilation set is a definite gem) that mark my father’s beloved tenure at WRUV, the University of Vermont college radio station. These are his clearest and most treasured college memories (make no mistake, they are far from clear); this is the experience that shaped him more than any class, this is the extracurricular involvement that directly and decisively launched a career path in radio. I wonder which discs he spun on air, which he saved for the dorm room, which ones tormented the dreaded freshman year roommate with the military haircut. And which are missing because that disgruntled roommate stomped them into oblivion.

And then, more tellingly, the FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY: NOT FOR SALE engravings. He had entered the radio industry, working for Westwood One in the early ‘80s. If the pay was good, the free records were better -- and they came home with him every night.

I see singer-songwriters galore -- Joni Mitchell’s Blue, James Taylor’s Greatest Hits, Carole King’s Tapestry, a near-complete Simon & Garfunkel collection -- and know that he has met my mom, that music tastes have merged into one comprehensive if messy synthesis, because isn’t that what marriage really is? Soon come instrumental excursions into George Winston and Keith Jarrett, a few minimalist nods to Glass and Reich. I favor the massive Einstein on the Beach set with the corner apparently devoured by a mouse, but it was Music for 18 Musicians that kept me up at night in high school.

And soon, too, come glaring holes where I appear: the empty spaces for records that I commandeered for my own collection, the missing sleeve posters that I snagged for my dorm room wall in college -- and, maybe someday, the lazily labeled burned CDRs that I hand him each night when he asks what it is that I’m listening to these days. This basement exhibit need not sit as a museum piece, frozen in time, amassing more dust. Let my interventions haunt its holes and gaps. But let them also bring to the collection recommendations and gifts, new releases that swim to my father in thinly veiled waves of nostalgia (Black Keys, Fleet Foxes) and also convey something unalterably new (James Blake, Panda Bear), intergenerational capital from a demographic that seems to have discovered vinyl not merely as an artifact to be looked upon, but a living, breathing medium to be revived and reclaimed.

* * *

Revival, indeed, seems the best term for the fate of the record. When I first thumbed through these crates, vinyl was dead, its industry relevance long since eulogized by the compact disc generation of 1988. But when I began scavenging through the heaps and seizing titles for my own collection a few years later, Generation iPod had begun buying vinyl in droves. Vinyl sales nearly doubled between 2007 and 2008 alone, a resurgence that has pleasantly baffled industry execs and pop culture theorists alike. It’s not just nostalgia, either: much of the market centers on college-aged consumers, new releases, indie labels, the like. As music formats push inexorably towards convenience, compactness, digitization, who could have anticipated the resurgence of the clunky, fossilized LP?

It’s not just about sound quality (though analog’s richer, fuller tone certainly plays a role), nor a fleeting fetishization of the past. Vinyl’s resurgence is inextricably tied to its most basic, unflappable tangibility -- the quality that mp3s, in their boundless convenience, most glaringly lack. If the Dropbox generation was supposed to drive the final nail in vinyl’s coffin, it has also, paradoxically, rendered the album format strangely refreshing for younger music consumers today. Many find themselves drawn to the sheer physicality of spinning an LP -- simply pulling out the sleeve, hearing the crackles, flipping over the sides. By listening to one record, you can forge a more visceral, tangible connection to the music. By amassing hundreds, you might begin to construct a rawer, messier sense of self.

It’s that essential, frenzied tangibility (Walter Benjamin might call it the aura) that fills the stacked wax in my father’s basement with something closely approaching identity. It’s the records themselves as much as the music -- it’s the ripped corners, the engravings, the pieces missing, all dusty and strewn. There is, I realize, an autobiography within his record collection, a chronology waiting to be consumed. You just have to know how to read it.

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