There was a conversation with an adorable ginger Monday night. I was at the Mondrian hotel on Sunset strip and watching Empire Records after a short Q&A with director Allan Moyle. It was an amazing event all around, hosted by GenArt. This very attractive (if shorter than I like) redhead was telling me all about his experience with vinyl and my experience made me come off as so much older than I am. Part of it is being the baby for nearly two decades with older parents. My whole household was older than my generation. Then Mom started adopting and we don’t fit much of any family’s identity anymore. We call it the zoo and it’s who we are.
I’m a native from L.A. and this man with freckle kissed cheeks was from the east coast. From what I remember of my short trip to New York in 1997, everything was about the latest in everything. The latest music and style was what mattered. Status revolved around replacing the old with the new, as quickly as possible. The wedding we crashed showed me that hairstyles were more of a decades heavy throw back, but everything else was about finding the new things that were the commodification of a generation and nailing down that zeitgeist in any way possible. It was insane and overwhelming to me and I was there only about a week. Vinyl records died and then came back on that side of the country.
In Los Angeles, vinyl never died. Growing up I played my Dad’s Diana Ross records. He had a small collection of R&B records. I loved smaller 45’s because they were mini-records and cute. Most of them were black, but sometimes they came in yellow or red. As I got older I went to house parties. My best friend and the man I named my firstborn after would learn how to DJ, and keep everyone dancing at every single house party I threw until I got married and the parties stopped. He still DJ’s although I’m not sure where and when, but I know he “spins” his records at a Barcade in Koreatown.
I remember hitting record stores with my friends and I would wander for hours while they would go row after row, digging in the crates. Of course Tower Records was everywhere. I remember running to the Wherehouse for singles on cassette tapes or the latest Mariah Carey or Madonna albums on CD. We’d go to Amoeba, Rockaway Records, or Aron’s Records and just look for music. It was about hanging out to avoid going home but it was about holding onto a heritage passed down from parents and older siblings.
There’s something in the sounds that carry our emotions either through lyrics or melodies. There’s magic in the flow that wraps around us and wrings us dry. There are still record stores in Los Angeles because they never went away. They evolved. They re-emerged, but they never went away.
There are kids and adults that geek out on vinyl. There’s something about an automatic arm that moves with precision. Or sometimes I would hold and guide the arm with the needle onto the dark and smooth outer edge of the record, and watch the needle move towards the center as the songs played through the crackle of imperfections laid into a record. You can’t get that in digital media. Even modern songs that incorporate the sound that tries to imitate a record can’t get it right. It’s too precise.
I’m not a fan of live music usually. The first time I heard Mariah Carey singing, “I’ll Be There,” over the sounds of applause, I was bothered. She didn’t sing it the way I wanted it to sound. I wanted it to be perfect and I wanted to be her only audience and I couldn’t feel that way with the sounds of the crowds she was actually singing to.
As I get older, I miss the nostalgia of records. I miss the sound of melodies woven through white noise and the soft hum of a muted speaker, waiting for it’s duty to be lived out in song. There’s a heaviness on a record when vocals dip into sotte voce. It begs for a physical reaction. I can’t remember the artist I used to listen to, but I remember the feeling of her lower ranges gravelling through a record, and that sound memory is a gift.
My kids have never known the sound of vinyl imperfection. With digital media, computer programs modify voices and instruments into perfection so we can take it for granted that if it’s on the radio, it will be perfect. My sons don’t know the way Ethel Merman could cut through a room with the way her voice rung out, unassisted. You are offered that taste on a vinyl record. That was true perfection.
For me, vinyl records mean the sound of the needle first hitting the spinning record with the crackle and groan of the grooves speaking before the melody flows and is met with the power of human ability. That first sound fills you with anticipation. I don’t plan to get into records again because I only had the by product of my Dad’s love of music before. Really, he had 8-tracks and I’m not going there either. There are some things I am willing to part with.
My contribution to the legacy I was given is the willingness to sing powerfully. I’m not a singer, but I sing. It is strong and loud and in my voice are the emotions that won’t be held back. I sing to my sons, looking into their eyes, unashamed and unafraid. I give them all that I have and maybe one day they’ll hear a vinyl recording that speaks to a memory they can’t place. Maybe one day they’ll feel the power that I did as a child and it might be one day when they move out or when I’m gone. It will feel like the memory of their mother singing her heart out to them like it matters, because they do.