My college friend, Andy Devos, recently published a lovely Facebook post on LPs and it got me thinking about my record collection and how I lost it.
When I was a boy, we lived across the street from the Gray family. The Grays had two boys, Richard and Jim. By the time we moved to the neighborhood, Rich, the eldest, was out of college so I never really got to know him. The younger boy, Jim, was about 10 years older than me. I was around eight when we moved into that house on Lilac Street and Jim was a junior or senior at a boarding school in the upper northeast. Jim was tall and lanky, and he played on his school’s basketball team so when he came home on the weekends he’d often be outside shooting hoops in his driveway. I had a basketball hoop in our driveway as well and I spent an inordinate amount of my time out there so when Jim was home he’d often wave me over to his house and we’d shoot hoops together.
I was in awe of Jim Gray. He was a good basketball player, he got to go to high school away from home and he treated me like his kid brother. Jim nicknamed me “Star” and even now forty years later, I recall how proud I was when he’d saunter over to our driveway and casually say, “Hey Star, take some shots and I’ll rebound for you.”
Jim was also into rock and roll, big time, and when we weren’t talking about the 76ers and their chances of winning the NBA championship, Jim was introducing me to the depth and breadth of rock and roll music.
Jim had a pair of three-foot tall Altec Lansing stereo speakers that he nicknamed “Allison.” He’d haul the speakers into the garage from his bedroom, plug them into his parent’s hi-fi in the living room, place the speakers in the middle of the garage and then crank up the volume! With the garage doors open the sound shot outside so that it almost blew your hair back. Some of my fondest memories growing up took place out there on Jim’s basketball court shooting layups and jump shots to “My Generation,” “Born to Run” and “After the Goldrush.”
Jim’s tastes were slightly off the mainstream of 1970s FM rock and roll. His favorite band was Santana so, naturally, Santana was my favorite band as well. For my ninth birthday, Jim gave me the first rock and roll record I ever owned, Santana III, and that record, then, became a touchstone for my future musical tastes. The deeply percussive polyrhythms, the Latin claves, the singing and chanting in another language (!), the long, ecstatic guitar solos–I had never heard anything like that before. I spent hours sitting cross-legged in front of my record player watching the record spin, reading the lyrics and the liner notes over and over again and studying every inch of the album cover.
From Santana III I steadily began to build up a collection of 1960s and 1970s rock and roll LPs. When my mom would go to the mall, I’d sidle over to the record store and look for the albums I was hearing on the radio. The Kinks’ Celluloid Heroes, The Beatles’ The White Album, Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty and Graham Parsons’ Grievous Angel. If I had a bit of money in my pocket, I’d stand there in the middle of Sam Goody’s, a record in each hand, trying to decide which one I wanted to buy.
By the time I graduated from college, I had a sizable collection of LPs that included a first press of REM’s Gardening at Night, the UK pressing of The Clash’s first album, a special edition (purple vinyl!) of The Pogues’ Red Roses for Me, just about every Van Morrison, Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan album, a collection of English folk rock bands like Fairport Convention and The Strawbs and a small collection of Philadelphia new wave bands like The A’s, Robert Hazzard and the Heroes and the Hooters.
I lived at home for two years after college so I kept my LP collection on a shelf in my bedroom. When it was time to pack up my things and move to Michigan for graduate school, I needed something to transport my albums so I made a large wooden box from white pine board. I neatly arranged the albums according to genre and artist, lifted the box into the car and drove off to Michigan.
At Michigan State I became a regular customer at the local used record store, Flat Black and Circular. This was the early 1990s so cds were a relatively new technology and everyone wanted them so they were expensive (at least relative to my graduate school stipend). Records were cheap so my LP collection grew significantly over the course of my graduate school years. My musical tastes, happily, evolved during this period as well. My jazz collection expanded to include Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and Coltrane’s Blue Trane and I spent many a late night reading nineteenth-century literature and history with Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies and Maurice Ravel’s piano concertos spinning on my turntable.
I left Michigan State in 1995 to take my first teaching position at a college in Iowa, and the wood box full of my LPs was the last thing I put in car before I optimistically slammed the trunk and drove west. CD prices fell significantly in the late 1990s and the town I lived in in Iowa was without a record store so my record collection stagnated and my turntable became a place to pile the new plastic jewel boxes. Five years later, I was packing up again. After a series of failed relationships and what seemed at the time like a failed career, I was heading back to Michigan State to pick up the pieces. The LP box came along, but as I lifted it into the trunk of the car, I felt like I was picking up a succession of losses.
I rented a crappy apartment in a crappy apartment complex and quickly realized that I was broke. I sold a couple of pieces of furniture and then one day I looked at the box LPs, loaded it into the back of the car, drove Flat, Black and Circular and sold the whole box for $150.
So it goes.
I sometimes wonder what became of all those records. I like to think that they went out into an LP diaspora, scattered and dispersed across the country and tucked up alongside other people’s records. Some of them, I’m sure, gave people the same kind of wonder and joy that they brought me. Others, like the LPs from the obscure Philadelphia bands, probably ended up in trash bins. It’s hard to make it through half a century and not have any regrets. You could shrug your shoulders and say, “Well, they were just records and what were you going to do, carry them around with you the rest of your life?” I mostly wish I had them so I could share them with the children, but, what’s to say that they’d be interested?
In his FB post, Andy writes eloquently about some of the albums that had an influence on his life. He mentions Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin On? and Springsteen’s The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle (LPs all I had in my collection) and he writes movingly about listening to these records as a young man and what they have come to mean to him over time. One of his friends asked Andy if he still had the albums and if he still listened to them. Turns out he does and that his son and his friends listen to them on their turntable.
What goes around . . .