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Vinyl ‹ber Alles

OK, OK, alright, down boy, etc. Iíve taken a little bit of heat for my last column in which I referred to people my own age as geezers, and who maybe are a little slow to embrace the inevitable conversion of music from CDs to MP3s and other digital-file media.

Sorry, but we are geezers. Even AARP thinks so. Really, though, it could be so much worse. You could be 20 and stupid, right?

The whole MP3 thing has changed how I listen to music, and for the better. Iíve got something like 15 days worth of recordings here on my laptop, and I stick my music player on shuffle play, and voilŗ, Iíve got a radio station of my own creation. (Iíve got the death of radio, actually, but thatís a story for another day.) While the songs go by, I grab the ones I really like and stick them in playlists, burn íem up into CDs, and Iíve got custom, personalized listening.

Thereís only one drawback, one that goes back a ways, and one that might make us geezers, in a weird sort of way, feel a little better about ourselves.

While MP3s might sound almost as good as CDs (especially if you crank the bit-rate up north of 192 bps), they donít sound as good as vinyl records. Nothing, short of watching a performance live (and maybe not even that), sounds as good as vinyl records.

Many of you probably know this already, and still have your turntable set up, and your records lined up on some shelves (or in crates) and alphabetized. Maybe youíve got an old tube amplifier, and those big-ass speakers they donít make anymore. You know what Iím talking about. Weirdo.

Simply, digital technology, based on zeroes and ones, mere instructions, will never duplicate the smooth and continuous flow of sound that comes from an analog reproduction on a vinyl record. I remember hearing my first CD, probably in 1984 or so. It was crisp, clean, precise, and almost completely devoid of life. I was a-scared of the damn thing. I recall Neil Young saying at the time that listening to digital recordings was like looking outside through a screen door, except the screen would only allow one primary color at a time through each little screen-hole. He got that right.

Yeah, things have gotten a little better since then, thereís no doubt about that. But still today, when I buy a CD (or an MP3) of one of the great recordings of my youth, it just fails me every time. The warmth, the spaciousness, and the humanity of the recordings that I remember just arenít there. These things are suggested, but absent.

Of course, I suck it up and move on. I pruned my vinyl collection a few years ago, reduced it from thousands to a hundred or so, which I realized almost immediately was a mistake. But it has made moving easier. My turntable collects dust in the basement, as do my remaining albums. The stuff just takes up too much room, and despite how beautiful I think my collection of vintage albums may be, theyíre all pretty damn ratty. I have to admit, in moments of weakness and reflection, that the observation that they ďdonít goĒ in the living room (or anywhere else in the house except the basement) is probably dead-nuts right. And my hearing is probably shot so bad at this point that it really doesnít matter anyway.

But at least Iíve got my memories.

And thatís not the only reason vinylís better. Thereís also the graphics. Remember Jethro Tullís great pop-up package, Stand Up? King Biscuit Boyís Gooduns in a burlap bag? No? The 12-by-12 format lent itself to works of art, something the dinky little books in the crappy plastic boxes can never approximate. And those flimsy cardboard ďenviro-pacsĒ arenít any better. Think anybodyís ever gonna publish a book about great album cover art 1995-2005? It doesnít really matter anymore.

And in buying an MP3 off the Web, well, you donít get anything except some tiny little invisible electric numbers delivered to your computer. I suppose you can go the bandís Web site and bask in the glow of their Web-designerís brilliance. How touching and real.

And then thereís the whole tactile thing. Itís never been described better than by Lester Bangs in Creem magazine, in 1971:

ďThe real story is rushing home to hear the apocalyptic event, falling through the front door and slashing open the plastic sealing Ďfor your protection,í taking the black record outóah, lookit them grooves, all jet black without a smudge yet, shiny and new and so fucking pristine, then the color of the label, does it glow with auras thatíll make some subtle comment on the sounds coming out . . . ? And finally you get to put the record on the turntable, it spins in limbo a perfect second, followed by the moment of truth, needle into groove, and finally sound.Ē

Tell this to kids today and they wonít believe ya. They hardly have time to think about it, anyway. Too busy pointing and clicking and staring deeply into the screen.

óPaul Rapp

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