Eric Spitznagel and I have a lot in common.
We’re both roughly the same age, having been raised in the ‘70s and ‘80s on a steady diet of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Dukes of Hazzard. We’re both freelance writers (him for a living, us for shits and giggles) with punk rock hearts (and a soft spot for Billy Joel, Hall & Oates, and bad moustaches). And we’re both former college volunteer disc jockeys now nursing unhealthy obsessions with vinyl records.
Vinyl wasn’t my main medium growing up. Sure, I’d fetish over my parents Jim Croce, Elton John, and Commodores albums—and I bought a few 7” singles (the 45 rpms) at G.C. Murphy Co. with my first paper route money. But then I switched to the format of the day: Cassettes were my thing, at least for fifteen years, when I finally anted up for a CD player.
Spitznagel prefers his wax, thank you very much. Like most music-lovers, he owns an iPod and loves its portability. He won’t argue that the quality of digital files beat analog tapes, hands-down (at least where science is concerned). But Spitznagel still identifies with the haptic nature of vinyl—the texture and visual imagery of cardboard LP jackets and paper sleeves and the synthetic platters therein. More importantly, he relishes the visceral memories jarred loose by handling and spinning his vintage albums. The process reconnects him with his past, and the music—hisses and all—realigns him for the present and future.
We get it. Having dumped K-Mart and Camelot Records cassettes for CDs in the ‘90s and discs for downloads in the ‘00s, we’re much the same as the next guy in our desire to catalog and keep every song we ever loved at our fingertips. But around the same time we began offloading superfluous CDs at neighborhood second-hand shops, we also started snatching up used albums by our favorite artists and filing them away in the basement.
Oh, and we inherited a turntable to spin ‘em on.
We just wanted to reach out and physically bond with the past through music. To connect emotionally vis-à-vis physical media. We can listen to Van Halen’s 1984 on CD or iTunes anytime; but we can fully re-experience the magic of being a 12-year old listening to Van Halen’s 1984 by dropping needle to wax and contemplating the jacket’s cartoon baby-cum-cigarette (and the badass band pix on the reverse).
Somehow, scooping up castaway records from cutout bins makes me feel like I’m giving the music I love its due again. That I’m showing the songs more respect, and paying homage to the artists (and myself) by curating their aggregate output in its largest, least-convenient available format. You can’t help but connect more closely with Yes’ Fragile or Rush’s Moving Pictures when you have to manually cue the records—and get up to flip them over twenty-two minutes later. You can’t just wander off if you want to keep the sounds coming.
You and I can pay for the new Iggy Pop album (it’s great, incidentally) on iTunes and download the ALAC files. But let’s not kid ourselves: We don’t really own anything about the “music.” They’re just electronic files stored with myriad other data on a hard drive. If the drive crashes, you’re literally left with nothing (unless you cloud it, but the “cloud” is really just somebody else’s hard drive). No so with a vinyl. Short of melting the wax and burning the paperboard, you can’t make an LP vanish. As Spitznagel observes, none of your LPs will disappear should you happen to break the arm on that Crosley turntable you bought at Target.
Because Old Records Never Die.
Spitznagel knows this. More specifically, the Esquire / Playboy / Men’s Health columnist and author wrote a similarly-titled book (available April 12 from Plume / Penguin Random House) wherein he chronicles his quest to test that very hypothesis. What happened to all the records he grew up with? Where’d they go? Who had ‘em now?
Could he get them back?
Call it mid-life crisis or just plain crazy, but Spitznagel—motivated by a phone interview with The Roots’ resident audiophile drummer Questlove—determined to track down all his favorite LPs from the ‘70s and ‘80s, including The Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed, Billy Joel’s The Stranger, Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs, and Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville at record shops, thrift stores, and yard sales in and around his former Chicago hood.
Not mere copies of said records, mind you, but the exact records he owned—like the Bon Jovi Slippery When Wet album with his former girlfriend’s phone number scrawled on the sleeve, or the KISS Alive II whereon his older brother Mark had scribbled “Hands off!”
“Vinyl is like skin that changes, in good and bad ways, over a lifetime. Skin gets damaged, intentionally or by accident—but it always retains some of its original character.”
It’s that character that spurs Spitznagel to thumb through hundreds of boxes at Reckless Records and countless bins at Record Swap, and encourages him to brave long journeys through snowstorms to scour private collections and crawlspaces, or drives him—like some insane archaeologist—to discern where old record shops had relocated, only to find that said stores now house a karate school. He suffers hipster clerks with pink hair, bad tatts, and Guns ‘n’ Roses tees, haggles with an old couple over a prized album, awkwardly befriends a store proprietor to gain access to a hidden library, and dodges Record Store Day crowds in search of scratched, skip-laden platters by Blondie, The Cars, and New York Dolls.
“John Cusack’s character in Say Anything may not remember the girl…but he remembers that night in the rainstorm, listening to Peter Gabriel in the backseat of a car, holding on to a girl and shivering because he was so overcome with feeling that Peter Gabriel helped him feel a little more beautifully. That’s everything I’ve ever wanted from any song.”
Our protagonist knew the odds were against him. He lays out his math for his search, calculating how many copies of certain albums were originally pressed, how many were distributed to his geographical area, how many were stocked by specific retailers. He recounts situations and circumstances (moving, money) that led to his dumping the vinyl in the first place, and reasons out where a particular bounty might’ve logically ended up. Still, the chances of Spitznagel ever finding his old Misfits and Elvis Costello releases are remote enough to dissuade lesser mortals from pursuit.
“Some of these records have a distinct smell. They might smell like the beach. Or your dad’s cologne. Or when you bought Elton John’s Greatest Hits for two dollards in 1977 at a Lion’s Club garage sale in a recently renovated building that used to be a cherry processing plant, the record smells like cherries.”
We empathize with Spitznagel’s emotional attachment to the records and appreciate the delightful dopamine surges unleashed by handling and hearing vinyl. But we couldn’t help get curious over whether Spitznagel ever favored cassette tapes during those interim years between the heyday of vinyl (1970s) and ubiquity of the compact disc (late 1980s-1990s). He recounts purchasing The Replacements’ Let It Be in 1986, but we can’t recall a single friend in our own high school circle who still favored turntables over tapes come Reagan’s second term. Spitznagel’s recollections leap from fawning over K-Tel record compilations as a kid to buying up CDs as a college undergrad, with no mention of tape love in between (save one funny reference to the Sony Walkman).
Wife Kelly is torn between supporting her husband’s vain campaign and berating him for hoarding items they don’t need (like the Stone’s Cocksucker Blues concert film on VHS) and crowding their already cramped quarters with technologically obsolete bric-a-brac. She questions Spitznagel’s reasons for hunting his seemingly unreachable treasures and becomes concerned he might be hopelessly stuck in the past, or at the very least unable to move into the future. With bills looming and a toddler roaming the apartment, Eric’s preoccupation weighs on his family like a stack of 180g reissues.
The journey for Bon Jovi et al causes further marital tension when Spitznagel insists on meeting an old flame, ostensibly so she can confirm whether it’s her writing on his Slipperly sleeve. The author assures Kelly (and his reading audience) that his intentions with Heather G. are noble and platonic, and he faithfully acquits himself at the rendezvous—partly because of a comedic twist we won’t spoil here.
The vinyl odyssey also reunites Eric with his old high school and college chums, some of whom have (like Eric) since married and had kids…and others who (unlike Eric) got divorced and established criminal records. He attempts to bond anew with brother Mark, now an aloof billionaire who can’t decide whether to continue accruing frequent flier miles on private jets or just buy his own freaking plane (Eric can barely scrape together enough change for a single ticket on Southwest). Most movingly, Spitznagel’s research creates a bridge to his now-deceased father (who turns out to have an even cooler dude than he surmised) and to his Talking Heads-loving son, Charlie. Each new clue or dusty back room find becomes an emotional stepping stone to another time in Spitznagel’s life (past and future), and one can’t help but cheer him on through the follies and fortunes.
Is he able to reassemble his personal musical library? We’re not telling! Besides, it’s Spitznagel’s efforts (and witty journal entries) that provide the book’s true narrative heft. In his madness to reconstruct his halcyon years, the author has new adventures—thereby adding to the treasure trove of sense memories. He brings a Replacements record to a reunion concert by the band and gets it splattered with blood and rain. Later, he “steals” an LP from the archives at his alma mater’s radio station. The book concludes with a scene straight out of a Judd Apatow film: Spitznagel and friends have a listening party in the house he grew up in and feast upon 1978 Boo-Berry cereal ‘round his mother’s kitchen table.
Old Records Never Die on Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/jj8fofp