By pure coincidence (or at least I think it was), not long before I started editing the article that Ken Micallef wrote for our April 2020 issue about the resurrection of the vinyl record, I got a call from one of my two half-sisters in Massachusetts. She was about to do something that she’d long been putting off: sorting through the record collection that had belonged to our late father and her late mother, to decide what and what not to keep. Would I like to assist her in doing this?
Would I? That collection had taken on a mythical cast over the years. When my dad split from his first wife, he left many of his records behind in a house that I’d rarely set foot in during my youth. But although I had never seen those LPs, Dad always spoke about them in reverent tones. Once, and only once, he briefly borrowed a disc from the archives for my edification: Dave Brubeck and Jay & Kai at Newport, from 1956, featuring the debut recordings of the former’s “In Your Own Sweet Way” and his Bach-jazz epic “Two-Part Contention.” It knocked my socks off. Based on that gem, what else might be lurking in there?
Plenty, as it turned out. Along with a pile of vintage classical albums, there was more Brubeck, including a 1952 Fantasy 10-inch on blue vinyl (I didn’t even know they made blue vinyl in 1952!), and some prime Sarah Vaughan and Erroll Garner. Most surprising to me was the large number of 78s: Billie Holiday, Artie Shaw, Gene Krupa, and the original 1946 two-disc edition of Gordon Jenkins’ Manhattan Tower, among many others. None of it was in the greatest shape, though. To be brutally honest, this wasn’t the treasure trove I expected; arguably, nothing in real life could have measured up to the splendid image I’d long been carrying in my mind. Even so, the simple act of spending a couple of hours flipping through the stacks, looking at covers, checking for signs of wear and warping, put me in a happy place indeed.
Unlike some of the people quoted and mentioned in Micallef’s article, I’m not a true believer in the superiority of vinyl as an audio medium. Yes, it can sound much better than digital—with the right equipment and in optimal circumstances. But given the choice between hearing a recording as a hi-res stream or as the last track before an LP’s runout groove, I’ll pick the stream nine times out of 10. And yet … the vinyl experience, the handling of it, the looking at it, the playing of it, is an aesthetic pleasure unlike anything else, a direct link to cultural history and (as in my case) personal memory. With Record Store Day coming up on this month’s calendar,* I encourage everyone reading to take part in that very special pleasure.
*Since this column was written, Record Store Day 2020 has moved from April 18 to June 20 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.