How Vinyl Came Back to Me

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I finally understood what happened the other morning. The epiphany revealed itself during a Sunday walk when I noticed a garage sale down the block. The host was a lovely lady, probably in her late 70s. Everything was meticulously organized and displayed.

I looked around for a few moments, then asked, “do you have any vinyl records?”

“Why yes I do,” she replied. “Not as many as I used to, but you’ll find what’s left there in the corner.”

I thumbed through the albums and cherry-picked “Tony Bennett’s All-Time Greatest Hits” (two-record set!) I also found Dionne Warwick and Carly Simon selections. The covers were in decent shape, and the vinyl itself looked pristine.

“How much for these three?” I asked.

“$2.50,” she replied.

I handed her $3 and continued my walk.

At this point you may be thinking that I listen to vinyl because I’m cheap. Three fantastic albums for $3 is beyond a great bargain. But that’s only part of it.

If I were surfing for music on iTunes, I never would have considered looking up Tony Bennett. Yet, when I gently lowered the needle on that first record, I no longer cared that I had a sink full of dishes and laundry to fold. By the time I had finished listening to the second disc, all of my chores were done and I was humming, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

There’s a visceral anticipation that overcomes me when the stylus softly lands on the spinning platter. What’s going to happen next? How will it sound? Should I have cleaned the record first? (Probably yes, but I was too anxious to hear what shape it’s in.)

When I choose a song on my iPhone, I never ask any questions, nor experience any of these feelings. I know what’s going to happen and how it’s going to sound.

In 2020, my life has become very predictable. I make coffee, feed the cat, start my work. Between the pandemic and the fires, I’m rarely outdoors and seldom see people outside of my social bubble. The antiseptic digital world somehow magnifies this isolation.

It’s like that damn music playing in the background during “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” A few days of that and anyone would lose it. Poor Jack was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Vinyl music has brought the right kind of unpredictability to my life. I’m now enjoying melodies that I had long forgotten. Every time I watch the needle descend upon the spinning platter I’m curiously waiting to hear what happens next.

I read a headline the other day that said vinyl is now outselling CDs. On one hand, it’s humorous in the way that everyone gets a trophy, because we all know that digital streaming dominates all formats. But there’s more to it than that.

The headline reflects official record sales that happen in stores and via online distributors. What would the numbers be if you accounted for guys like me? The ones who have a friendly chat with a nice lady on a Sunday morning in her open garage? The ones who can’t wait to get home to find out what shape a well-worn Tony Bennett album is in?

We don’t show up on any stat sheet. But believe me, there are a lot of us. And chances are good that we’re the ones you hear humming a tune you haven’t heard in years, even though we’re 6 feet away and wearing a mask.

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