A Crisis Dressed in Feathers and Vinyl

So, I’m hitting that age. You know: THAT AGE? I gave my husband a beer-making kit for Christmas this year and I currently subscribe to nine (I counted) different blogs about chicken ownership–including two that almost make chicken husbandry sound manageable (*The Chicken Whisperer*and The Frugal Kiwi) and one about suburban homesteading gone afoul. No, we do not actually own any chickens, but each time the New York Times runs an article on how cruel Big Farm is to our food supply, I assuage my meat-guilt by subscribing to yet another blog. **The point I’m trying to make is: even for a geek, I am aware that I am flirting dangerously with mid-life caricature. **

Which might sound as if it has nothing to do with my actual topic: ie, the fact that I have dearly missed the physical act of shopping for and listening to LP records–missed walking intentionally into a store that only sells music and music-related items, missed rifling purposefully through its’ bins, missed intuiting through scrupulous analysis of an album’s artwork and song titles whether or not it is a worthwhile investment. Don’t worry, though, I’ll come back to the chickens before I’m done…

So, the first LP I ever bought myself (with hard-earned paper-route money) was Journey’s Escape–which for the uninitiated, opens with “Don’t Stop Believin,'” and ends with “Open Arms.” When you’re eleven, unpopular, and a tween poet growing up in the badlands of Long Island circa 1980, take my word for it: it does not get any more fierce than Journey’s Escape. I spent hours listening to that album, staring at the cover, tracing the outline of the raised scarab spacecraft bursting spectacularly from the glass planet’s underbelly, envisioning my own exploding exodus from anomie.

The second album I ever owned was Billy Joel’s The Stranger. At the time, that whole* mask-on-the-bedpillow *metaphor on the cover went right over my head, but I remember thinking that the boxing gloves on the wall next to the bed made for a whimsical conversation piece. The third was John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy and the fourth was Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The following Christmas my parents gave me The Best of Bread and a collection of Barbara Streisand-Donna Summers duets. 30 years later, I still know every word, every drumbeat, every dramatic tremelo (yeah, I’m looking at you “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”) on all of those albums. Sadly for my more recent partners though, at some point I turned away from serial-monogamy as a music-lover lifestyle–maybe it was because I’d ditched the paper route for the richer economic waters of an A&P cashier position or maybe it just felt safer to commit a little less to each new album.

More than the loss of vanilla intimacy, however, I realize I have missed the experience of listening fully to music and then…not listening to music. As a kid, the way that most afficionados listened to music was through a turntable, which made for a distinct beginning and end to the listening experience: made the actual listening more noteworthy. Like a healthy interpersonal relationship, you and your music were allowed to spend time apart, and doing so, returned to each other richer for the separation.

I thought I was perhaps over-dramatizing this “healthy relationship” idea (no one has been FORCING me, gun to my head, to listen to endless Spotify playlists, after all) but I was subsequently validated by the clip at the top of this post. It is from the soon-to-be released documentary Last Shop Standing (The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of the Independent Record Shop) and features guitarist Johnny Marr, most famously of The Smiths, proclaiming:

There’s a new reason to love records and it’s as the alternative to the experience of listening to an mp3–not just from a [sonic point of view]( “ars technica: Does “Mastered for iTunes” Matter?”) but from the actual experience…the idea of sitting in front of an infinite universe of possibilities–you might think, “What could be better?” But there’s no bookend, so it becomes this vague, sort of random experience that doesn’t engage you properly because it’s never complete.

That’s it! I’ve realized: I need to create my own bookends–musical bookends. I need to get rid of the playlists and the portable devices and the endless chatter. I need to buy albums again.

This April 21 just past was the fifth National Record Store day (and the second one I’ve “celebrated”). Last year I went to a very serviceable but fusty shop. It’s narrow space was lined with floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves filled with perfectly-alphabetized LPs all muttering contentedly, “This is where vinyl comes to die.” The proprietor couldn’t believe that a 40-year-old woman with prematurely-white hair was happy to browse his store alone, uninterrupted, and kept stopping me to ask if I needed help finding anything. “Thank God for the 20-something hipsters,” he told me at the cash register as I paid for Kate Bush’s The Dreaming and ELO’s Greatest Hits, “they’re my real audience.”

The search for a musical home continued and for Record Store Day 2012, I decided to hit a different store. This one sold records and CDs, had a listening station and couch up front, a small performance space towards the back, and cross-merchandised in candy, posters, rolling papers, incense, body jewelry, KISS wall clocks, Led Zeppelin beer steins, Beatles place mats, and packs of blank CDs. As it turned out, the owners also manage a small recording studio and heavily promote local bands (hence the performance space). I wandered the bustling space for more than an hour, then bought Low’s [I Could Live in Hope]( “Website: Sputnikmusic review of Low’s “I Could Live in Hope””), The Miles Davis Quartet’s Prestige LP 161, and Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker and Yim Yames’ Woody-Guthrie-inspired New Multitudes. Not once was I asked if I needed help (which I consider a tremendous social coup). The amount of delighted exploring and deep touching taking place as my new albums and I get to know each other has been amazing. I’ve barely given a thought to Spotify since.

So, back to the chickens. Like Billy Joel’s boxing gloves over The Stranger’s bed, the chickens are most likely a metaphor: a post-digital talisman for simplicity, autonomy, and free-range mental spaces. Through no one’s fault but my own, I currently subscribe to 397 pages and 380 people on Facebook and follow almost 600 people on Twitter, 200 on Pinterest, 125 on Flickr, and 1,000 on Google+. I work three part-time jobs and parent two children with a dozen discrete diagnoses between them. When I want to relax, Cablevision and Sirius XM provide my family with over 200 television and 300 radio options. Everything around me seems fractured by an over-abundance of choice or responsibility. The albums and the dream of chickens (I have decided) are just my way of gluing some of the edges of my life back together to make a more manageable whole.

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