A track record with. . .records

The other day when I was checking in with the cluster flies in the attic — just saying hello and spending some quality time with my family’s 17 million little pets up there — I came across a box with old record albums.
For those of you who are not quite sure what a record album is, just imagine taking all of the songs off a palm-sized iPod and putting them on flattened black Frisbees. Lots of flattened black Frisbees. Maybe even a flatbed worth of flattened black Frisbees. If you had 4,000 songs on your iPod, you would need about 400 record albums. And to put that in perspective, 400 record albums weigh — and here I am guessing — a few more pounds than Mount Mansfield. I actually did weigh that box I found in the attic. It had 51 albums wedged inside it, and came in at 32 pounds. You could put a lot of music on 32 pounds worth of iPods.
It has been more than a generation since most of us listened to record albums. Between the album and the iPod, there have been 8-track tapes, audio cassettes and compact discs. I certainly don’t miss record albums. Good heavens, I was only dimly aware that we even had a box of them in the attic. I’m not even sure the cluster flies have been listening to them, and they don’t have a whole lot of other entertainment options up there.
But as I pawed through the box, I felt a surge of sentimentality. Just as we often associate the dust jacket of a novel with a specific place in our lives when we first read it, those album covers instantly brought back me to very particular moments in my youth. Blondie’s “Parallel Lines?” My first dates with the beautiful 18-year-old I would marry.
The best of Graham Parker and the Rumour? Finishing my undergraduate dissertation in college, and — forgive me for admitting this in public — playing a lot of sleep-deprived air guitar on a beaten-up couch in my dorm room.
Elton John’s “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road?” Moving to Florida in middle school and meeting my new orthodontist (a sadist, it would turn out, if ever there was one).
Someone much wiser than I once observed that the music of our youth is the music we will listen to into old age. There might be something to that. The vast majority of what I listen to are the songs that meant something to me 20 and 25 years ago.
Now, I have an iPod. I appreciate its convenience and sound quality and the reality that it will probably increase the odds that I am deaf as a post by the time I am an old man, and will thus be able ignore everything anyone says to me. I also value my family’s iPod stereo system that allows us to share the music on my daughter’s or my iPod as if we were playing compact discs or (yes) record albums.
But we are losing something as we go digital, and this will soon affect books as it has already impacted music. When we download music (and, more and more, as we download books), we are less conscious of the artwork that envelops the package. Recall for a moment the latticework, the hands and the gulls with which the Who introduced us to “Tommy.” Or the power and the poignancy of the small hungry child with the desperate eyes that marks the cover of George Harrison’s “Concert for Bangladesh.”
Disappearing as well is the physical connection to an object, the idea that you could touch the cover and read the liner notes and savor the artwork. Those albums we really cared for had totemic value. When my wife was in high school, another student stole a few dozen of her albums. Eventually they were returned, but to this day my wife remembers the sense of violation and outrage. Why? Because these were her record albums. Her music.
I certainly don’t want to go back in history. But it seems a little ironic that these days it is only my cluster flies that spend any time with the objects and images that once meant so much to me.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on April 23, 2006.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

One thought on “A track record with. . .records

  1. Nicole says:

    I can identify with this even though I’ve never owned my own record…my father plays The Mamas & The Papas and Boston on his record player whenever he grills in our garage over the summer.
    It’s a very Vermont thing, and it’s one of my favorite things about the summer…and about my dad. I love the feel of a big record disc in my hands, and the way it shines in the summer sunlight. I love the way my dad turns the volume up so loud, the dishes on the kitchen table rattle.
    We should all take some time every once in a while to get “unwired” from the world. iPods, laptops, PDA’s, cell phones, pedometers…we have so much stuff strapped onto our beltloops and stuffed in our coat pockets. It’s not just physical baggage…it’s weighing us down mentally as well.
    I enjoy all of your writings, Mr. Bohjalian, but this week’s column falls into my “favorites” category!

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