Front Porch

You Can’t Clean Your Weed Off an MP3: Sowing the seeds of the vinyl revolution with “Records Collecting Dust”

Oh, the joy of browsing through tons of vinyl records!

Oh, the joy of browsing through tons of vinyl records!


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Here I am a record on a jukebox,
A little piece of plastic with a hole – ooh!
Play me. Buy me then you play me then my plastic turns to gold.
— “The Worst Band in the World” by 10cc (1974)

Information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, wisdom is not truth, truth is not beauty, beauty is not love, love is not music. Music is the best.
— Frank Zappa, Joe’s Garage (1979)

Music shows us how to maintain pleasure and ecstasy. Naturally we tend to think of a moment of euphoric realization as unbearable and impossible to continue. It slips away and then we pursue it again. It does so because we are unwilling to let it go, we are unwilling to conceive of being away from it. But if we take the example of music, letting go of one note to hear the next, then our pleasure can be constant though the vibrations change.
The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment by Thaddeus Golas (1972)

In case you hadn’t heard, vinyl records have experienced a resurgence in popularity over the past several years. Of course, for some folks, vinyl never went away. These “audio rebels” are the same people who: never stopped owning a working turntable, never took their albums to Goodwill, stored them in their garage, or made some extra cash by selling them at a yard sale. But with the advent of the compact disc in 1982, most major label recording artists began releasing their music exclusively in the digital domain, and unless you were willing to pay exorbitant prices for special import releases, by the 1990s it became increasingly impossible to find most of your favorite music on vinyl.

So, the passionate music lover was left with a choice: stick with analog, go digital, or branch out into some sort of hybrid that mixes formats. It’s an issue that’s been up for debate for over three decades now, and like most consumers, I initially interpreted this “technological progression” to be a major step forward in the enjoyment of my favorite music. No longer would I have to spool through various tape formats (cassette, 8-track, reel-to-reel) to find my favorite song. No more nasty skips, pops, or surface noise to compromise the listening experience. The music industry dictated its mandate and you either went digital or you stopped listening to new music. Sure, loads of independent artists still remained true to the vinyl format (in extremely limited press runs) but you either bought a personal computer, a portable listening device such as an iPod and/or a CD player, or you stuck with your old vinyl and stopped following new music. Or you stopped consuming music altogether.

But after two decades of digital downloads, legal and illegal file sharing, Napster, iTunes, Pandora, YouTube, and an infinite array of content providers on the web, the brick and mortar mom and pop record shop started to look like a thing of the past, a distressing trend that is beautifully illustrated in Gary Calamar and Phil Gallo’s book Record Store Days: From Vinyl to Digital and Back Again. This trend also inspired a consortium of industrious players in the music biz to dream up Record Store Day in 2007, with the intention of making a new generation of fans aware of the joys and rewards of hanging out in your local record store and falling in love with a piece of plastic. It’s a mythology supported by this year’s Record Store Day Ambassador, Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters): “Growing up in Springfield, Virginia in the ’70s and ’80s, my local independent record stores were magical, mysterious places that I spent all of my spare time (and money) in, finding what was to eventually become the soundtrack of my life. Every weekend I couldn’t wait to take my hard-earned, lawn-mowing cash down for an afternoon full of discovery. And, the chase was always as good as the catch! I spent hours flipping through every stack, examining the artwork on every cover, the titles and credits, searching for music that would inspire me, or understand me, or just to help me escape. These places became my churches, my libraries, my schools. They felt like home. And, I don’t know where I would be today without them.

“More recently, I’ve been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to rediscover this sense of excitement, that magical feeling of finding something all one’s own, by watching my kids go through it. Nothing makes me prouder than watching my daughters spin that first Roky Erickson LP or to watch the reverence they have as they handle their Beatles vinyl. How carefully they replace the albums into their sleeves, making sure they’re placed back onto the shelf in the proper sequence. Watching them realize how crucial and intertwined every part of this experience is, I relive the magic of my earliest experiences with vinyl singles and albums, their artwork, liners notes, etc. all over again.

“I believe that the power of the record store to inspire is still alive and well, and that their importance to our next generation of musicians is crucial. Take an afternoon (and some hard-earned lawn-mowing money) and please support them. You never know, it might change your life forever, too.”

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These days Mr. Grohl isn’t the only one going to the top of the misty mountain to shout it out loud about what their favorite records mean to them. The recently produced documentary, Records Collecting Dust, by San Diego musician-turned-film-director Jason Blackmore (of the band Death Eyes), demonstrates without a doubt that vinyl practitioners are not only surviving, they are thriving in this excitingly superb film, with testimonies from scores of such musical notables as: Keith Morris (Black Flag, Circle Jerks); Mike Watt (Minutemen, Firehose, the Stooges); John Reis (Drive Like Jehu, Rocket From the Crypt); and Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys, Alternative Tentacles).

Biafra: “I didn’t set out to possess piles and piles of records. I just wanted access to a whole fallout shelter of good songs that I liked to protect me from crappy radio.”

“I wanted to do a film for years but I didn’t really have what I thought was The Idea,” says Blackmore. “But in October 2012, I woke up and told my wife, Abby, “I got it!” Initially, the idea was talking to people about their record collections, but a couple of days into it my brain starting snowballing and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to talk to people who inspired me, and talk to them about the first record they owned?’ ‘What was the band or the song that set you on fire? That made you want to do something?’

“I wanted to travel coast to coast, but living in San Diego I immediately realized how strategically placed I am. There are so many awesome people here in California. San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco – you name it, but those are the three main cities represented in the film. So, subsequently, the costs were pretty low. It was just a lot of focus to make it happen.”

Blackmore thinks that Records Collecting Dust will eventually be part of a series. “That’s the emerging idea. Now it’s a matter of getting someone to financially back it, because I would do it in a heartbeat. I already have people on the East Coast saying, ‘I want to do an interview with you, this film is awesome!’” It truly is a joyful labor of love and Blackmore and his production team have done a tremendous job, particularly editor Brian Desjean. With screenings occurring all over the country at present, a DVD of Records Collecting Dust is scheduled for release this July, through producer Brian Jenkins’ Riot House Pictures. It’s a thrilling ride through the lives and collections of those who can’t live without their vinyl. And I can attest that their passion is infectious.

***************

The epiphanies that I’ve experienced as a listener of vinyl over the last several years have been profound. As convenient as digital consumption may be, analog sound feels like you’re being “bathed in a cool mist,” whereas, “digital feels like a bunch of ice cubes are being thrown at you.” As a keynote speaker at 2014’s South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas, veteran maverick and recording artist Neil Young made some exceptional observations regarding the differences between analog and digital sound reproduction. Ostensibly there to pitch his Pono digital music delivery system, Young talked about his attempt to “rescue an art form,” suggesting in a variety of ways how the MP3 had killed the music industry, had in fact changed the very nature of the music that is made in a post-analog world. “This vibrant, creative, old culture started to go away and it was because of the MP3 and the cheapening of the quality to a point where [the music] was practically unrecognizable,” says Young. “And what it was is we were selling shit. People were still buying it because they like music. But they were buying wallpaper. They were buying Xeroxes of the Mona Lisa. They were buying a musical history that’s supposed to be preserved for everybody to hear, now preserved as a tiny little piece of crap with less than five percent of the data of the highest resolution in digital that can be recorded today.”

91X programming director and DJ Michael Halloran has this to say about vinyl: “My thing has always been, had the record labels just said, ‘Okay, we get it. You want something to be able to throw on in your car, that’s smaller.’ But they should have kept them inside of the original 12-inch packaging, so they didn’t have to go to the long boxes to fill up those racks. It wouldn’t have died out as fast as it did. Because it’s kind of like saying if you go to a museum and you see this amazing painting and it’s the size of a house and somebody goes, “Do you want to buy a print of that?” If it’s not the same size, what’s the fucking point? Because the whole thing is supposed to be as grand as it is. Yes, you can’t actually buy the original art, but if the print is the size of a post card, you’re missing all the nuances, you’re missing the eyelashes, you’re missing the shit that needs to be there. I’ve always said that the art of it, when we used to buy them when we were kids, was you put a piece of vinyl on – you didn’t care if, after 450 plays, it was degraded, you still had this piece of artwork that somebody put their heart and soul into to figure out what it was that matched the record. Sure, you cleaned your weed on it, as we all did, but the point being that the art of it wasn’t just necessarily the vinyl, it was ALL of it. All of it together.”

As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what it says on the spine of the classic 1976 Bob Marley and the Wailers Rastaman Vibration LP: “This album jacket is excellent for cleaning herb.”

*******************

In the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, San Diego had a plethora of fabulous independent record stores: Arcade, Hall of Records, Monte Rockers, Off the Record, Blue Meanies, Lou’s, Music Trader, Nickelodeon, and Folk Arts, all sharing space with retail outlets like Tower, Licorice Pizza, the Wherehouse, and Sam Goody.

Of course, many enthusiasts are more than happy to go on the Internet and sift through the global village of eBay or Amazon to procure their music. But I much prefer the hands-on experience of the San Diego Record Show (currently on hiatus), or its superior cousin, the Vinyl Junkies Record Swap (created by M-Theory originator and mastermind, Eric Howarth), which goes down at the Casbah every other month.

A veritable gold mine for vinyl collectors opened up in January at the Iowa Street location of Thrift Trader, when a quarter of a million pieces of used vinyl were put out on the floor, with most items going for a dollar apiece. Owner Jeff Clark says the liquidation sale will continue at his new location in Hillcrest at 1644 University Ave. in mid-March. Clark is being forced to relocate; the 27,000 square foot building is slated for demolition in March so that a senior assisted living facility can take its place later in the year.

However, in terms of selection, quality, and value for dollar these days, you just can’t beat Record City on Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest. Since its inception in September 1997, manager Graham McNamara and his knowledgeable staff have done an exemplary job creating an environment where it’s F-U-N to spend time there. And you get to talk to real live human beings, who love to share their passion with others.

“I love selling people records that I hope they’re going to enjoy, and I tell them, come back and tell me all about your experience with it,” says McNamara. “I love to hear that people enjoyed the record. That’s the thing that gives me the most joy. That’s what you’re there for. You want that person to go home happy and come back with a good experience, so they want to keep coming back. I’ve had countless times where they say ‘what else?’ What else are you going to recommend? And you think, my gosh, I’ve already recommended Genesis and these classic titles and now they trust me. I can actually go under the radar now and come up with records that I really like, but maybe people are less familiar with – because we don’t all want to have the same records. I can remember when my favorite band in high school was the Police and maybe two or three people at school knew who they were because they weren’t very popular. By the time I graduated, everybody in the school loved the Police. It wasn’t the same anymore.”

I ask: Do you feel like they’re your own private secret?

“I think we do like it when not everybody likes exactly the same thing. There’s no spice of life at that point. If all we ever talked about were the Beatles, it would be too much. But you’ve got to have these other bands that you’re passionate about that not everybody knows. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this: ‘I don’t want to tell my friends about Record City. I love you guys, but I’m not telling my friends.’ I’ve heard that many times. They don’t want their friends to find out where they’re getting their records because there’s less for them.

“I just laugh about it.”

The next Vinyl Junkies event at the Casbah is Saturday, April 4. Two weeks later is Record Store Day on April 18.   

Note: An expanded version of this article is available online at the Troubadour website.

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