I played music I can’t remember now on a portable record player when I was little. Rather than the traditional black vinyl, these ten-inch records came in colors like Play-Doh magenta and yellow — neither shades you’d ever actually select for any purpose. They may have even played at 78 RPMs.
The children’s recordings got pushed aside for a stack of 45s, culled by an older cousin from her collection to make room for new additions (Vicki, for her kids and other family who read my blog). The fifty or so cast-offs included my favorite from the bunch, Big Girls Don’t Cry. To tell you the truth, I can’t remember even one of the other songs.
My first album was Carole King’s Tapestry, a Christmas gift from my wonderful Aunt Toodles. I still love all twelve songs. Joining Carole before long, to name a few, were Judy Collins, the Mamas and the Papas, the Fifth Dimension, and Peter, Paul & Mary. The folkish twist stemmed from a short period when I called myself playing guitar. Bad as my guitar playing may have been, my singing was worse, and I abandoned my dream to be the next Woody Guthrie.
When eight-track tapes came along, I bought a few — most notably, John Denver’s Greatest Hits, my favorite Judy Collins album so I could listen to it in the car, and an early Pointer Sisters recording. Portability was the only thing eight-tracks had going for them. Thanks to the annoying click when tracks changed, the inability to find the song or sometimes even the track you wanted, and a tendency now and then for tape to spill out into the floorboard of the car, eight-tracks became obsolete in near record-breaking time.
Listening to a cassette tape was a lot more like listening to an album than had been the case with eight-tracks. But I never really bought into them as a format. Yeah, I had a few from specific artists– most given to me for birthday and Christmas gifts. But having seen my small investment in eight-tracks rendered worthless, I decided to stick to vinyl for my music purchases.
The great thing about cassette tapes was the ability to create a mixed tape — what we now call a playlist. Folks who didn’t have reel-to-reel (a highbrow option that never caught on with the masses and maybe was never supposed to) could now listen to nothing but their favorite songs on self-recorded 30, 60, 90, or 120-minute cassettes. Mixed tapes outnumbered store-bought tapes in my collection by at least three to one.
Some came from girls I dated during the cassette years. I made most myself. Guys put together two-hour tapes to play in the background when making love, whether they were getting any or not. Sorta like that one condom every boy carried around from sixth grade on … just in case.
My favorite mixed tape is a compilation of dance hits from around the time I came out. Thom Robinette, the DJ from Johnny Angels, made it for me on professional equipment in the attic of a mansion on South Ashland Avenue in Lexington, KY. I still have the tape, but nothing to play it on. I lost touch with Thom years ago and include his name here in the off-chance he’s still around. I’d love to hear from him.
My vinyl collection is the soundtrack of my life. Every song takes me to a time in my past, evoking an era, a phase, or a season. With a few, the memory is more specific, recalling to mind a sometimes long-forgotten moment. The value to me? Priceless.
When I moved from Lexington to Washington DC in July of 1996, fearing how they’d survive the long trip in a hot rented truck, I left several hundred albums — my entire collection — with a cousin. She had plenty of room to store them until I figured out whether I would stay in DC or return to Lexington. I ended up moving to Athens, my cousin died an early death, and for various and sundry reasons, I never saw my albums again.
Though compact discs were popular, I resisted buying many before my move to DC. My next (and worst of the bunch) partner, who I acquired in DC, moved in with thousands of them — an overwhelmingly quantity to manage, organize, or otherwise get any real use from that I ended up with after we split up. Eventually, I gave them to a struggling college student to sell online for half the proceeds. I didn’t care if he stole them (he didn’t). At least they were out of my house.
I did another big CD purge a few years later after I burned everything onto my desktop computer. Ooops. I lost most of that music when I switched to Apple.
Every now and then, I run across a forgotten song or album from my old collections and download it to my iPhone. A few weeks ago I added John Denver’s Greatest Hits, which I haven’t heard in its entirety since my eight-track copy spewed its guts all over the dash of the Pontiac I drove in the seventies. I cried almost all the way through my first listen to a very old and dear friend from my high school days.
Finest Man on Earth tells me Spotify is the way to go now. Pay the monthly fee and listen to whatever you want, and even create and download playlists to listen to on a smartphone. I might have to give it a try. But I don’t see it replacing my long-lost vinyl collection.