Taking a somewhat circuitous route, Spitznagel’s book is more about the people who shape us and the music we share than the music itself.
Old Records Never Die: One Man’s Quest for His Vinyl and His PastPublisher: Plume
Length: 288 pages
Author: Eric Spitznagel
Publication date: 2016-04
In the wake of Chuck Klosterman’s successful format of semi-autobiographical, humorous pop cultural analysis, a host of writers have sprung up attempting to achieve the same. While many have tried to lay claim to Klosterman’s territory, few, if any, have truly exceeded. His is a voice wholly his own; both conversational and convivial enough not to feel contrived or forced.
Joining the ranks of those seeking to craft their own Fargo Rock City et. al. is magazine writer and confirmed music obsessive Eric Spitznagel, with the release of the appropriately titled Old Records Never Die: One Man’s Quest for His Vinyl and His Past.
A close inspection of the title’s sub-header is key to setting one’s expectations when coming at Old Records Never Die, as the narrative focus quickly moves away from that of his fool’s errand of attempting to reclaim the exact copies of the records he once owned. Through his own surprisingly well researched and amusing calculations, the improbability of accomplishing even a fraction of his purported task becomes something well beyond overwhelming and quickly falls off into that of the impossible.
But rather than continue to dwell on the absurdity of his self-assigned task, he begins looking into the motivation behind his desire to reclaim these physical items directly associated with his younger self. It’s not so much the sounds within the grooves as what those well-worn grooves represent. On one of the records he discusses in detail, The Replacements’ Let It Be, he writes of his personal copy’s inimitable skip at a specific moment during “Androgynous”, one which became so defining for him that any time he heard the song played on anything other than his own battered copy, it simply sounded wrong.
Elsewhere, he describes going to great lengths to acquire an original copy of the album online after his physical search proved futile. Paying more than he was willing to admit, he then takes it to the ‘Mats reunion show at Chicago’s Riot Fest, clutching it to his chest like some sort of talisman for the youth he’s seeking to recapture. While the album ends up getting ruined, its physical characteristics take on the significance of the moment and thus serve as a tangible reminder of this bridged experience between youth and adulthood.
While he eventually allows the search to trail off into the background of the narrative, Spitznagel does manage to acquire at least one bona fide copy that once belonged to him. This particular copy of Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet carried on its sleeve the scribbled digits of a high school crush. Once recovered, he begins grappling with whether or not to try the number (he ultimately does) and what it means to do so after all these years.
Given this pivotal event, it’s not surprising then that his quest leads him to reconnect with old friends and flames alike, sharing reminiscences of their formative years and the albums over which they bonded. In this, Old Records Never Die finds its true purpose. It’s a classic, High Fidelity-esque revelation that has Spitznagel in the midst of a “what does it all mean?” moment wherein he begins exploring what-if situations and finding that things often pan out just as they should.
In the case of an old girlfriend with whom he shares a few bottles of wine and a stack of records, the fear of old romantic feelings rekindling is quickly doused as it’s revealed she lives happily with her partner, having since embraced her homosexuality and become the person she long strove to be. The scenario is played somewhat for humor with Spitznagel’s wife adopting the role of suspicious, slightly jealous spouse. That she needn’t worry is something of a red herring and does little to further the story other than to add context to his personal self-evaluation and eventual realization.
But what’s simultaneously fascinating and saddening about his realization is that it’s tied to a generation and time that will soon be little more than a distant memory. Throughout, he recalls flipping through seemingly endless racks of records, some of which would come to define a very particular moment in his life, others that would simply prove little more than a passing fad. In this, he shows nostalgia for a vanishing age. While vinyl has certainly made a resurgence in recent years in terms of popularity, for a certain segment of the population it never truly went away.
These are the people to whom music has a visceral, physical impact that manages to burrow deep inside their emotions. Albums become talismans and direct links to a vanishing past, a sort of life raft of youth in the roiling sea of adulthood. For these people it often becomes less about the music and more about the feelings and emotions brought to the fore by encountering the music once more. Current and future generations will likely no longer feel nearly as passionate about a song or album to the point of needing to possess its physical existence. It’s hard to imagine whole segments of the population pining for digital files that remind them of younger days or better times with the same ravenous quality of those for whom music was and always will be a tangible relic.
But a battered copy of Kiss’ Alive II with the words “HANDS OFF!!!” scrawled across the front helps to momentarily bridge the gap between Spitznagel and his brother, the latter being described as having gone on to become a multi-millionaire. Despite the economic and lifestyle disparity between the two, the album serves as a reminder of their shared past. In these shared reminiscences, Spitznagel begins to find the clarity and meaning behind his need to reclaim his past. It’s not so much the records themselves as the connections to other, significant people in his life they represented.
By returning to these, he gets a better sense of who he is/was and begins the cycle again, forging a bond with his son over the records that once meant so much. It’s a relatively satisfying summation to the narrative after multiple pages spent in the weeds. From searching through stacks and stacks of defunct record stores to the typical pop cultural musings, Spitznagel tends to lose focus, these asides adding little more than tangential fragments of context to the overarching theme.
Yet despite the book’s tendency to lose focus, Spitznagel’s prose is breezy and self-deprecating enough to make Old Records Never Die an enjoyable, if not quite satisfying, look into why we do the things we do. In that, he manages to move beyond those writers who tackle their subjects solely for the potential for humors or reference-heavy asides. For anyone who’s ever sought to reclaim a part of their past and, in essence, a part of themselves, Old Records Never Die offers a knowing resonance that gets to the heart of what can only be described as the mid-life crisis of an avowed music nerd.