It is assumed by people who meet me that I collect records. It’s probably the beard or the untucked button ups or any of the many stereotypical lumbersexual hipster jackass signals I give off in a given day. A work friend once came over before going out for drinks, saw my nearly filled Expedit and said, “Called it, you got too much beard to not own a record player.” Most don’t even acknowledge that I might not have records, instead going straight to awe at the sheer size of my collection. Full disclosure, it’s a fair size for someone casually acquiring favorite albums in his late 20’s, but hardly impressive for a serious collector. 200 total. Maybe 300. Every time something gives me the feels—real, genuine feels—even once, I need to make sure it’s preserved. What drives this impulse is a mixture of personal tradition, hipster snobbery, and genuine apocalyptic paranoia, in a tangling of personality traits that are too deep to change now.
I don’t know when I first started collecting them, I think I just always had them. LPs were still the go-to medium for music when I was born, and my sister and I used to play them as loud as we could through our parents’ speakers that were taller than I was. Everything from Ziggy Stardust to the Chipmunks Christmas was heard from our parents’ extensive library—black turtleneck wearing graduate school beatniks that they were before we popped out—until they divorced and the collection was scattered. After a flood in the early nineties that destroyed my mom’s basement, we found soaked to death boxes of original pressings of Beatles and Stones records among others that my dad had either forgotten or not needed. We didn’t fret it at the time. Vinyl was dead, and these ruined relics were more valuable as recycled materials than as engines of playback.
A couple years later, my girlfriend at the time gave me my first LPs. She had been collecting records for years as the queen of the Smiths-worshiping scene at her high school. I was a social ghost recently introduced to Brand New, obsessed with American Beauty and in particular “Baba O’Reilly.” She bought me a deluxe Who’s Next and Attention! Blah Blah Blah by Atom and His Package. Mom’s turntable was long dead by then, so we listened to my new records in her bedroom. It felt like what being in church is supposed to feel like. The simple ritualistic actions of handling an object with care, flipping the disc, or placing the needle held so much more weight than taking communion because real magic happened after the ritual. Out of a speaker flowed mellifluous sounds, delicately torn from a piece of plastic by a needle. I still don’t understand how it works.
Photo by Krystian Olszanski
I left my records at home until I noticed that both the girls I liked and the guys who got them all had their own mounted LP of The Velvet Underground & Nico and a crate full of Talking Heads and David Bowie. I granted myself $20 from my meager paychecks for my student job to buy a new record every month, buying every record by anyone admired by the hipsters I envied. In Junior year of college, I had an outrageously hip girlfriend whose parents were pretty integral in Boston’s hardcore scene. Our outings into town inevitably ended with a record purchase and listening party, and every occasion for gift exchange saw something from her father’s collection moved to mine. I needed a dolly to carry my box of records to my mom’s car after commencement. By the time I moved in with my would-be wife, I was well into the triple-digits, seamlessly absorbing her half-crateful.
I am still somewhat surprised by how many people are willing to drop to their knees to look through my record collection from beginning to end. Back in the era of iPods, we would all click through our friends’ libraries, shaming and commending their taste as we turned the wheel. There is no shaming when perusing a vinyl collection because there is no such thing as a bad vinyl, not an unlistenably scratched Frank Sinatra, not a mint condition Bat Out of Hell, not a Goodwill crate find of Bavarian folk tunes; it just doesn’t exist. In this age when money and media are just collections of electrons, simply holding a physical copy of an otherwise subjective creation is profound. One of the lesser-known but extremely likely global catastrophes awaiting earth is the Digital Dark Age, caused by a nuclear war or a solar flare that wipes out all electronics and all the information that had been transferred entirely from paper. The difficulty of rebuilding the plumbing and tap water and other various infrastructure notwithstanding, I don’t think I’d be able to motivate myself to rebuild civilization without LCD Soundsystem or Fleet Foxes or the Beatles to listen to and pass on. And with my records, all I’d need is a needle and something to make a cone out of.
I’ve noticed when looking through others’ libraries that no two are organized exactly the same. One of my favorite scenes from High Fidelity is when Rob is explaining to Dick his autobiographical organization. I never had the attention span to put album art on my iTunes library, never mind the narcissism necessary to organize a collection based on how it affected me, specifically. Part of that is self-preservation—I’d rather not have to come up with a believable lie about a particularly sentimental gift from an ex—but it’s mostly laziness that stops me. Take my Joanna Newsom collection, for example. The first Joanna Newsom record I got was Ys—her second—in 2006 when a friend introduced me to her first album, The Sprout and the Bean, but it was unavailable at Newbs. I didn’t end up buying S&B until a girlfriend became particularly fond of the title track in 2008. Does it go in 2006 or 2008? It’s just too much thought to put into a superficial symbol or your personality.
Thus, my own collection has no special order—alphabetical, basically, with a few arbitrary changes. Abbey Road comes after Let It Be—I shouldn’t have to tell you why. Brian Wilson’s SMiLE goes between Pet Sounds and Wild Honey—again, asking why would give you away. Solo Beatles follow the miscellaneous Beatles (Such as the Red and Blue albums, BBC Recordings, and a 1976 12” orange/white tie-dye of the German takes) in order to reduce searching time. Because he played at Newport when Dylan went electric, Howlin’ Wolf gets to hang with the rock kids. Caribou is with the M’s with the first pressing of Up In Flames under his original moniker Manitoba. Jazz and classical have been separated into their own separate block with the full assortment of 45’s and the ruins of my CD collection as the unofficial section from yesteryear. I have an original Jandek, one of three hundred, and mono second pressings of Highway 61 Revisited and The Times They Are A-Changin’. None of my Beatles wax is younger than I am.
At the end of the day, I just like looking at them all grouped together. It’s aesthetically pleasing: exceedingly geometric and chaotically colored. The straight lines of almost equally tall colors remind me of “The Temptation of St. Anthony” from Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. We’re all solid beams of light and, considering that at any given point we are a different combination of cells with a new take on our surroundings, even albums by the same artist are, appropriately, uniquely colored beams of light standing next to their old selves and contemporaries and influences and influenced. Like a book collection, you can tell a lot about someone from their music taste. It is a physical manifestation of a part of you that is otherwise only accessible through conversation and quality time. I imagine the same parts of the brain light up when scouring someone’s Facebook profile as when scanning their various libraries.
I will probably keep collecting until I simply can’t maintain the habit any longer, if not for the aesthetics then for the fringe benefits. When a guest removes an album without asking and then looks at me and asks with wide eyes if we can play it; when rotating flipping duty during a smoking circle generates conversation instead of glassy-eyed Netflix binging; When I’m reading a book with a record on a weekend afternoon and realizing my parents did this exact thing forty years ago. These are the quiet religious experiences of doing something simple for longer than you can remember. My God is music. Idol worship is encouraged, proselytizing is unnecessary. And if after the world ends and our databases are fried and our books turn to dust, we can all rest assured that these non-biodegradable relics of the beauty we once observed will be all that’s left for future archaeologists to judge us on. Here’s hoping they find Illinois, first.