Front Porch

VINYL! VINYL! VINYL! You Can’t Clean Your Weed Off an MP3

Here I am a record on a jukebox,
A little piece of plastic with a hole—oooh!
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)

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.

— Jello Biafra, Records Collecting Dust (2015)

In case you hadn’t heard, vinyl records have experienced a tremendous resurgence in popularity over the past decade—for some folks, vinyl never went away. These “audio rebels” are the type of people who have maintained a working turntable and amplifier since the 1980s and who never donated their albums to Goodwill, stored them in the garage, or sold them at a yard sale. Furthermore, with the advent of the compact disc in 1982, most major-label recording artists released their music exclusively in the digital domain. Unless you were willing to pay exorbitant prices for special import releases, by the 1990s it became increasingly impossible to find any contemporary music on vinyl.

So, the passionate music lover was left with a series of choices: stick with analog, go digital, or branch out into some sort of hybrid that mixes formats. It’s an issue that’s been debated for over three decades. Like most consumers, I initially interpreted this “technological progression” to be a major step forward in the access of my favorite tunes. No longer would I have to spool through various tape formats (cassette, 8-track, reel-to-reel) to find whatever song I happened to be looking for. 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 devoted 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 stopped consuming music altogether.

I hate to admit it, but in the 1980s I allowed myself to be swayed by the immense commercial hype surrounding CDs, and the convenience and clarity of digital, believing it to be a technological leap forward in sound reproduction. I slowly came to understand that analog and digital sound waves are two distinctly different forms of science. It took a couple of decades of stepping away from analog to discern that surface noise anomalies were not worth sacrificing the warm ambiance that a well-crafted piece of vinyl creates. Because nothing can replace the experience of sitting in front of a high-end stereo system and really listening to an entire LP—it’s a spiritual experience that in today’s world most people don’t seem to value, or possess the necessary attention span to invest the time in.

It’s simply a matter of Art: A-R-T. That’s what it all boils down to for me, like a masterfully seasoned roux for the Sunday joint, and I can’t think of a more universally joyful canvas than the coupling of cardboard and circular plastic. And should you REALLY have something to say that transcends the three-minute idiom, the parameters of the twelve-inch LP allow for even bolder statements. When sight and sound join together in perfect compliment, you have a marriage in rock ‘n’ roll heaven: the prism of Dark Side of the Moon matching the pulsations of its heartbeat monitor; the merry-go-round motion implied in the graphics by the punning title of Revolver; the over-the-top, three-panel sprawling majesty that matches the epic grandeur within Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The broad palate of vinyl packaging permits a multitude of artistic indulgences, including die-cut windows, 3D glasses, pop-up graphics, gatefold pockets containing postcards, stickers, scrapbooks, lyric sheets, fan club solicitations, and the occasional poster. Not to mention the visceral issues of timbre and sound: that unique quality of the wiggling air molecules that come sailing out of your hi-fi with vinyl.

After more than two decades of digital downloads, legal and illegal file sharing, Napster, iTunes, Pandora, Spotify, YouTube, and an infinite array of content providers on the web, the brick and mortar mom and pop record shop was starting to look like a thing of the past, a distressing downturn that is beautifully illustrated in Gary Calamar and Phil Gallo’s book Record Store Days: From Vinyl to Digital and Back Again. This trend 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 music fans aware of the joys and rewards of socializing at your local record store, and how falling in love with a piece of plastic can yield intense pleasure over the years. It’s a mythology supported by previous Record Store Day Ambassador Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters), who claims he found his calling “in the back bin of a dark, dusty record store” by purchasing a copy of the 1975 K-Tel compilation Blockbuster. “This record changed my life,” writes Grohl, “and made me want to become a musician. The second I heard Edgar Winter’s ‘Frankenstein’ kick in, I was hooked.

“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, liner 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.”

***

If there is a tome that captures the romance while simultaneously paying tribute to the cultural peculiarities of record collectors, it is Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel High Fidelity. A true pop culture masterpiece, High Fidelity is one of those rare instances where a piece of literature is actually improved upon in its translation to the silver screen. Stephen Frears’ adaptation starring John Cusack and Iben Hjejle, plus a superb supporting cast featuring a scene-stealing Jack Black, take Hornby’s original premise and re-locate it from London to Chicago, and in the process make Rob Gordon’s myopic obsessions even more universal in the cultural transformation.

In March of 2015, Hornby offered up these observations in the pages of Billboard about the increasing popularity of vinyl and what it used to mean to be a record collector: “If you were born sometime between 1940 and 1990, here is how you started a music collection: you bought an album, and for the time being, that album was all you had. You liked some tracks more than others at first, but as you only owned eight or ten or twelve of them (maybe a few more, if it was a recently released CD), you couldn’t afford to play favorites, so you listened to your one album over and over again until you liked all the songs equally. A couple of weeks later, you bought another album. After a year, you owned 15 or 20, and after five years, a couple of hundred.

“Here is how you started a music collection in the early years of the 21st century: you gave an iPod to a friend or an elder sibling or an uncle, and you said, ‘Fill this up for me.’ And suddenly you would have a couple of thousand tracks, most of which you wouldn’t ever listen to. If you’re a teenager now, you wouldn’t even bother going to all that trouble, because all the music ever recorded in the history of the world is in your pocket, on your phone. We know, because that’s the way the world always works, that teenagers in 10 or 20 years time will be laughing and shaking their heads at the primitivism and inconvenience of Spotify—‘You had to wait a few seconds to download?’ ‘Not everywhere had the Internet?’ ‘You had to touch a screen?’ So at this point, it’s hard to imagine how music consumption of the future will be much easier or cheaper than it is now.

“My first novel, High Fidelity, is about the lost but fiercely snobby people who used to sell us our music, back in the day when music was something you could touch and see and probably smell, as well as hear. The book is now [24] years old, and the technological innovations of the last 15 years should by rights have made it look like a story about blacksmiths, or milkmen, or some other profession that has been murdered in cold blood by the modern world.

“And yet readers, some of them young enough never to have owned one lonely album, still seem to find the book, and a way of relating to it. This might in part be because some of the old ways have proved remarkably, bafflingly durable — there are even a few signs that ownership and physical manifestations of music are making a comeback.

“So maybe we need those record-store guys; maybe the reason so many of them are still around is that, without them, the whole system grinds to a halt. If you own all the music ever recorded in the entire history of the world, then who are you? Those people queuing outside their local independent on Record Store Day want to be known.”

***

The epiphanies that I’ve experienced as a listener of vinyl over the years have been profound. As convenient as digital consumption may be, analog 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, that is one of several analogies made by veteran maverick and recording artist Neil Young regarding the differences in analog and digital sound reproduction. Ostensibly there to pitch his Pono digital music delivery system, Young spoke at length 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 being 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 the vinyl format: “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 compact discs 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 necessarily just the vinyl, it was ALL of it. All of it together.”

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

***

Since the 1960s, San Diego has played host to a plethora of fabulous independent record stores: Arcade, Blue Meanie, Chameleon, Duffy’s, Encore, Folk Arts, Groovy Treasures, Hall of Records, Monty Rockers, Off the Record, Lou’s, Music Trader, Ratner, Record Heaven, Nickelodeon, Taang!, and the Turntable, all sharing space with retail outlets like Tower, Licorice Pizza, the Wherehouse, On Target, and Sam Goody. Up until the 1980s, vinyl records were so ubiquitous that they could also be found in nearly every department store, 7-Eleven, or drug store.

Most collectors these days are content to go on the Internet and sift through the global village of Discogs, eBay, or Amazon to procure their music. But I love the bi-monthly record fairs that go down at the Vinyl Junkies Record Swap at the Casbah, and I much prefer the tactile experience of getting my fingertips dirty and digging directly into the racks at Record City in Hillcrest.

Since its inception in September 1997, manager Graham McNamara and his knowledgeable staff have done an exemplary job at creating an environment where it’s F-U-N to spend time there, and you get to share your passion with other likeminded souls.

“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 to have a good experience. I’ve had countless times where they say ‘What else? What else are you going to recommend?’ And I 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 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 and get excited about that not everybody knows about. 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.”

***

Speaking of the Beatles, it was on the evening of December 8, 1980, when I first stepped foot into a San Diego record store, having arrived on these shores a couple of days earlier from my native Northern Virginia. I thumbed through the Yellow Pages and was drawn to an ad for Off the Record in the San Diego State area. Shortly before leaving Virginia, I wrote a feature article for publication in my high school newspaper, reviewing the Jim Morrison biography No One Here Gets Out Alive. I deliberately choose the month of December because it coincided with the singer’s birthday, a synchronicity that completely blew my mind when it became forever linked with the tragic murder of John Lennon.

I had precious little money that evening, and was mostly performing research for the upcoming holiday season (where I hoped to score copies of the new Steely Dan album Gaucho, the latest Cheap Trick record All Shook Up, and, of course, Lennon and Ono’s recent return to public life with Double Fantasy), when I came across a nice, used copy of John Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll album. It was priced at a reasonable $5.95, but after a long covetous stare at the artwork on the front and back cover, my current poverty forced me to slide it back into the rack, with a silent prayer that I would be able procure it on my next visit. However, upon leaving OTR and tuning into the car radio, a disc jockey on KGB-FM broke into the programming to announce that Lennon had been shot. I shuddered at the news, and managed to push the information out of my head. In fact, I completely forget all about it until ten minutes later after arriving home and I turned on ABC’s Monday Night Football to hear Howard Cosell announce: “John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City, the most famous perhaps of all of the Beatles, shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, dead on arrival.”

Like millions of people at that exact moment, I was in a state of shock. And crazy as it may seem, although I was only visiting San Diego for a month, I brought along 50 LPs in my suitcase, in order to stay musically stimulated and maintain my sanity. Predictably, I brought a handful of Beatles and John Lennon records, including Plastic Ono Band, Walls and Bridges, and Shaved Fish. Upon hearing the ghastly news, I pulled Shaved Fish off the shelf, dropped the needle on the wax, laid down with a pair of headphones, and ended up spending the rest of the night crying, listening to records. I don’t know what I would’ve done at that moment without my vinyl as companion and comforter. With immediate hindsight I clearly should have picked up that copy of Rock ‘n’ Roll, because by Tuesday morning you couldn’t keep a Beatles or John Lennon record stocked in the racks for months. The hysterical collective grief was devastating; driving a commercial feeding frenzy that continues to prove how much of a stimulating career move death can be. 40 years later, I’m still wresting with its implications.

The next feature article I wrote in January of ’81 when I got back to Virginia was titled The Ballad of John and Yoko.

***

Growing up in Northern Virginia in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, I had access to the same bevy of independent record stores that inspired Dave Grohl to become a musician: Giant Music, Penguin Feather, Rainbow Tree, Yesterday and Today, Kemp Mill, Record and Tape Exchange, Peaches, Harmony Hut, and Waxie Maxie’s. When I relocated to San Diego permanently on Valentine’s Day of ’83, Off the Record became my home away from home. It was all the things that Hornby and Grohl speak of: that special place of discovery, where you formed new social alliances while simultaneously being on the receiving end of a bunch of sneering commentary if one of the clerks didn’t agree with your aesthetics. Off the Record housed an wild assortment of opinionated characters who wouldn’t have been out of place working alongside Jack Black at Championship Vinyl: Gerry Masters, Dennis Borlek, Steve Foth, Cliff Cunningham, Keith Larson, Ron Jennings, Galen Wong, Patti Cates, and Julie Bartlett. I loved bantering with them all and spending as much time there as I could afford.

I also got to know the store’s owners over the years: the fiercely opinionated Larry Farkas and his softer-spoken partner Rich Horowitz. I was perpetually seeking out new sounds, and Larry and Rich were always turning me on to cool records, which included a bootleg or three, kept in the back office (for obvious reasons) for the customers they could trust with such delicate information.

Horowitz is in his 30th year of working with Yoko Ono and representing the artwork of the John Lennon Estate, as well as continuing his Midas touch with the Morrison Hotel Gallery, a bi-coastal business he formed with iconic photographer Henry Diltz and entrepreneur Peter Blachley, representing the foremost entertainment photographers of the 20th century. And it’s nice to know that it all began with the humble origins of Off the Record…

Horowitz: “We opened the first store at 6136 El Cajon Blvd. in September, 1978. We rented the building on the right and housed everything—new and used records. Then, we wanted to take over the building next door to the left and make that our used section. We went to our landlord and said ‘Hey, will you connect the two buildings for us?’ And he said, ‘Hell no, why don’t you just buy them from me?’ [laughs] So, we bought both buildings, 30 years ago. Scrambled for money and then we used our credit cards to do all the build outs inside.

“Larry originally was from Forest Hills, New York. And I met him while working at the Wherehouse. Larry was managing a store and I was an assistant manager after coming to San Diego from Detroit in 1976.

“Growing up in Detroit had a profound effect on why vinyl became so important—buying records as a kid, and having older brothers and sisters who turned me on to music. My oldest brother, who was 19 years older than me, worked for Coral and Decca in the ‘50s. So he was picking up the Kalin Twins from the airport when they played Detroit. And then I just became infatuated with electric guitars as a young kid, playing in bands, and it just seemed like the right path.

“Previously, I had worked for a one stop,” he says, explaining that “if you had a small store, and you were an independent anywhere in the U.S., but you really didn’t have enough volume to buy directly from the labels, you went to a one stop, and a one stop had every label. And you would pay a little bit more for the records, but you could become a big client at a one stop, whereas with a label they didn’t give a shit. When my wife Wendy and I came out here I needed a job, so I applied at the Wherehouse. I told them about my experience and they put me in a management trainee program. So I became an assistant manager and ended up managing a few stores for them.

“When I first took the job at the Wherehouse, I knew that I didn’t want to stay there long. After meeting Larry at the Mission Valley store we became friends and I said to him: if we could each come up with 6,000 bucks, which was a ton of money back then, we could open our own store, man. I really think we can do it for about 12 grand. So while we working at the Wherehouse we started putting ads in the Reader to buy records and we started looking for locations. We borrowed the money and found the location on El Cajon Blvd.”

“I remember before we opened, for a very, very brief time Dan McLain [aka Country Dick Montana] had Monty Rockers. He was right there at 5704 El Cajon Blvd., west of College Avenue. I remember going to Dan’s store before we opened Off the Record. But he was only there for a short time,” most likely because of the touring demands of his increasingly successful group the Beat Farmers.

Horowitz’s instincts were spot on and OTR was so successful that he and Farkas eventually opened two more locations in Encinitas and in the heart of Hillcrest, which subsequently took in a third partner, Phil Galloway. Farkas cashed out his interests in the early ‘90s and relocated to the Bay Area, before Horowitz and Galloway called it day in 2004. After relocating to North Park with a new owner for a dozen years, OTR completely lost its charm in the process with a surly and apathetic staff, and ceased to exist by April 2016. Thankfully a new crop of passionate and user-friendly venues continue to provide a safe haven for music fans in town, with a revitalized Folk Arts Rare Records, M-Theory Music, and Red Brontosaurus Records complimenting the experience that Record City provides for vinyl lovers all over San Diego.

***

It all started with three-minute commercials on the radio and infrequent trips to the singles rack at Drug Fair, and then the next thing you know you’re a denizen of High Fidelity. But I must say that I’m having a grand time observing life through the eye of a phonograph needle, as an unrepentant vinyl junkie.

The record industry has always been teeming with insatiable greed and payola schemes by label bosses, independent promo men, radio programmers, and retailers. And if you’re interested in how the business of selling and promoting records has gone down since the 1930s, all of the gory details are beautifully laid out in the masterfully written and meticulously researched 1990 expose Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business by Fredic Dannen.

Conversely, the history of how mixing records together became an art form is beautifully chronicled in the 1999 book Last Night a DJ Saved My Life by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton. The history of vinyl and the role of DJ as social shaman is a worldwide, cultural force, which lead to the invention of the discothèque, the process of remixing songs, and the genres of hip hop and rap as revolutionary new art forms, all because of the creative possibilities of what you can do with a piece of wax on your turntable. You can scratch it, superimpose it, drop it in and drop it out, and play your faders like a percussion instrument. Try scratching with an MP3—it’s impossible.

In the ongoing discussion of analog and digital, musician Jack White had this to say in Billboard magazine: “This is where vinyl comes in: It’s the movie theater compared to the iPhone. It’s less about sound quality than aura—vinyl provides a focus, a ritual. You’re reverential to it. With vinyl, you’re on your knees. You’re at the mercy of the needle. You watch the record spin and it’s like you’re sitting around a campfire. It’s hypnotic.

“Digital in the car, vinyl in the bedroom. But when you respect music, it doesn’t matter how we’re getting it. We still know what the real deal is. But you start wondering about people who don’t.”

Horowitz says that he “loves the fact that people are releasing records on vinyl again and I love the fact that people are interested in records for their historic value as well as for the audio value. I think when you see a lot of younger people…I don’t know if they personalize the music as much because it’s on a player and there’s nothing to hold or read about. It just seems a little more impersonal when it’s on your phone or your MP3 player. Sure, I love the convenience, it’s fabulous. But it seems a little less personal.

“And I think music, for you and I and our contemporaries—for us that stuff’s really, really personal.” And, yet at the same time, it turns out to be quite universal. Perhaps it’s comparable to a cult, but it’s an unequivocal joy to listen to music on vinyl. Loud. It never fails to bring a smile to my lips.

And, remember kids: the plural of vinyl is vinyl.

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