Music Movies & Moods
Matt Melis explores the cracks between art and daily life

How Vinyl Made Me Fall in Love with Music Again

on August 19, 2016, 9:30am

Music, Movies & Moods is a regular free-form column in which Matt Melis explores the cracks between where art and daily life meet. 

COS_Music_Movies_Moods (2)I turned 33 late last month. My cousin got married that same day at a nature preserve five minutes away from my childhood home just north of Pittsburgh. After dinner, I sat alone on a bench outside the wedding pavilion — one eye on the empty table I had jokingly designated for my birthday presents next to the bride and groom’s gift table. No takers. The cruel afternoon heat had begun to wane, crickets soundchecked, and fireflies dotted the nearby pasture as I half-listened to the DJ’s set — each of the familiar songs already on permanent file in my mind. Some I loved. Others I tolerated. But not a note, not a lyric, not a beat caught me by surprise. Ask the so-called experts and they will tell you this is more or less how music and I will grow old together. A year ago, I would’ve believed them, too.

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I also remember where I was on that birthday: treading water in a rooftop pool five stories above Chicago as the sun rose. Planes, like giant, peaceful birds, glided across the sky above me in 20-second intervals. In the lane adjacent, a freakishly endowed older man strained against a suspiciously skimpy speedo. This had become my morning routine — including the battle of the bulge one lane over — my calm before each day’s looming tempest. But at a fresh 32 years of age, I distinctly recall not wanting to leave that pool, that comfortable liquid cocoon. I was dreading returning home to my office, to my computer, to a folder labeled “New Music” where a slush pile of band names, streams, and MP3s had been accumulating for months. There I was, an editor for a music publication, and I had lost all desire to discover new music. As my pool mate smiled at me and waded towards an exit ladder, I let myself sink to the bottom. I remember wondering, Am I burning out, fading away, or something else entirely? And hadn’t it come a year early?

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A report released two Aprils ago predicted my growing disinterest. The study, which analyzed Spotify streaming habits, suggested that peoples’ musical taste buds tend to mature around age 33. At that point, listeners are far less likely to keep current with popular music trends or seek out new artists. In other words, we finally settle on what tastes good and stockpile our musical pantries accordingly. It doesn’t seem like a groundbreaking hypothesis, and we all have similar anecdotal evidence that supports it. For instance, this theory explains why my father commuted to the same classic rock radio station for a quarter century and perhaps why my mother has purchased, worn out, and rebought the same Cat Stevens and Simon & Garfunkel greatest hits collections a dozen times apiece. It also gives me an excuse when album reviews editor Adam Kivel asks for an opinion on a new record, and I opt to flip on Let It Be, Doolittle, or Ziggy Stardust for the thousandth time instead. I’m not lazy or uncooperative; apparently, I just have fully matured tastes.

Before my love affair with vinyl began — and even before the above study made internet waves — I had already grown oddly comfortable with this idea of living out my days dancing to, drinking to, and decompressing with the same music that had accompanied me this far. I’d often quote a George Carlin bit on songs in which he gripes, “Don’t we have enough fucking songs for you people? Are you telling me you’re standing in the shower with 15 million songs floating around out there and you can’t think of something to sing?” And while Carlin’s criticisms of songcraft may just be an excuse for him to pitch a pestilent album of ditties about deadly diseases, he makes a point. If all the musicians across the world agreed to never compose another song, we’d have more than enough music to endure. Christ, I have go-to songs and dozens of backups for every occasion: Please don’t leave me… (“God Only Knows”); She left me… (“If You See Her, Say Hello”); and What the hell did we ever see in each other? (Ryan Adams’ “Come Pick Me Up”).

I’ve written about this sort of thing over the past few years and received comments. One reader told me, “I’m sorry you don’t love music anymore.” I returned her email assuring her that that wasn’t the case. But you know something? She was right. I didn’t love music anymore — at least not in the way I used to. Not in the way I do right now. Not in the way I want to continue loving it from here on out. Some spark was definitely lacking over the last couple years.

This theory of “33” doesn’t suggest that we stop loving music, only that we stop seeking out new music to love. But having sunk to the bottom of that deep end to avoid a river of streams, I can tell you not all love is equal. Being fixed in one’s listening habits is a familiar, comfortable, dependable kind of love — those loyal artists and albums will never let you down. But they also aren’t likely to surprise you or take you someplace different. That love is a far cry from the initial, ravenous affair with music that begins as young teenagers, where our inchoate taste buds can’t yet discern the sublime from schlock, so we devour everything that happens upon our plates. We’re open, eager, and always expecting that next song on the radio, mixtape, or playlist to be the one that changes our lives forever. It’s an unrefined, reckless, passionate optimism that, at least in my case, dissipated by the time I hit my early thirties. So, how does one rekindle that?

That’s where vinyl entered the picture for me.

At no point in 32 years had I ever had any interest in starting a vinyl collection. I tagged along with friends at record stores and browsed, but like Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, I had invested so much time and money in my current collection (CDs and later MP3s, in my case) that I figured it was too late to start over. Then a turntable and a copy of Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation… (one of my faithful standbys) surprisingly turned up under the tree last Christmas. I YouTubed videos on how to work the tonearm, terrified that I’d shred my lone record and see the black heap of ribbons crawl to life and consume me like when Eddie Brock became Venom. I hovered over the spinning disc like a student nurse trying to tap into his first vein. And once that needle dropped, that was it. I was hooked on vinyl. A certifiable junkie.

Part of that attraction has to be how tactile spinning a record remains: removing the sleeve, eyeballing the groove, lowering the arm, repeating to relisten or fast-forward, flipping sides, and actually having to put something else on when the album ends. There’s no push of a button to cue an infinite mixed, chopped, and sequenced playlist. It removes the passive quotient from listening to music, turning back to when discovering bands and songs was an active pursuit. As a teenager, I remember never riding in a car or going to bed without a cassette tape recording the local alternative radio station. Each morning I’d wake up and sift through hours of rotation staples and local advertisements to find those one or two songs I had never heard before. I’d work my fingertips raw capturing brief snippets of my favorite songs from radio and CDs to create the most amateurish mashups imaginable on cassettes. It’s all a bit silly now — and mostly obsolete thanks to the internet — but those were the lengths I once went to to discover and hear the music I loved. Vinyl feels like a callback to that time — when music felt worth getting off my ass for.

As much as we love music, we often treat it rather cheaply. We reduce it to soundtracking our daily errands, filling the white space in our lives, and measuring reps at the gym or stops on a bus ride. Even when reviewing a new record via stream, I can’t help but be distracted by a barrage of open browser windows, which inevitably leads to me restarting the song dozens of times. But my turntable has once again made music the main event. I sit in my wicker chair, milk crates of records acting as end tables, and do nothing but listen. That was huge for me. Until I got a turntable and set up my little listening area in a corner of my apartment, I can’t tell you the last time I actually sat down and did nothing but listen to music. And that rekindled the love — like two estranged partners who just needed some time alone together to rediscover a passion buried deep down. Now, I don’t let more than a day pass without hearing at least a Side A or B in that chair, and that’s also brought me back around to that daunting “New Music” folder. Because when you’re truly in love with music, you can never have enough songs.

In the past seven months, my collection has grown substantially. What started as a mini autobiographical project to collect two records from each calendar year since I was born has long been abandoned in favor of impulse buys of anything I might remotely be in the mood for on an odd occasion: really, Chipmunk punk? Multiple milk crates of albums now threaten to outgrow my listening corner, and my landlord has to worry that my rent checks might bounce. But there are far worse habits, far worse mindsets. By no means is 33 old, but it’s old enough to become complacent or unknowingly excavate a really comfortable rut for oneself — where each day becomes that habitual classic rock commute or that playlist you put on only because it’s easy to ignore. Whether it be my work, my relationship, or my music, life has become largely about refueling. Taking the time each day to see the same people, things, and places in new ways and reminding myself not to take a single revolution of that turntable or this planet for granted. That’s what spinning the black circle has taught me, one needle drop at a time.

***

Near the close of the night, the wedding DJ stopped to make an announcement: “Special birthday wishes to Matt who turned 33 today.” Family and friends clapped and turned to find me on my bench outside the pavilion, my legs caught in a semicircle of light and my upper body in quiet darkness. I leaned forward to raise my diet Coke and smile. “You’re starting to get up there, Matt,” someone shouted. And I sunk back into the night, sipped my drink, and imagined myself in my listening chair back in Chicago, surrounded by milk crates, my turntable spinning tirelessly at the end of a record, as if curious and anxious to see what comes next.

I’m not getting old, I thought. I’m turning vintage.

 

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