Gary Lucas,
The TVD First Date

“I never fetishized vinyl. I mean I liked it fine, okay, when first introduced to those flat pancake discs—because, until the advent of the cassette and later its big brother the CD, what were the options? There weren’t none—so I just took it in stride as something utilitarian that just was, uh, there.”

“The first vinyl I can recall were 78s in my parents collection bound together in folio books with brown paper sleeves housing the black shellacked discs—sometimes audio documentaries like Show-Biz, narrated by Georgie Jessel and containing snippets of “great moments of “SB” like Sir Harry Lauder serenading a NYC theater at 2AM after his ship sailed in late from Glasgow, the Duke of Windsor’s abdicating his throne for the clutches of Walllis Simpson Warfield (a rather broad definition of show-biz, wouldn’t you say?)—or purported audio documentaries like Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater broadcast of The War of the Worlds—or actual spoken word drama with sound effects.

One good ‘un we had in our house in Syracuse growing up was Basil Rathbone essaying the role of Robin Hood (a reversal from his portrayal of the villainous Sir Guy of Gisbourne in the Michael Curtiz/Errol Flynn-filmed swash-buckler), a whole movie for your ears spread over six 78 rpm discs, acted out and replete with grisly torture sound effects in the dungeon. At one point when the Sheriff of Nottingham was extracting information out of one of Robin’s band of merry men by stretching him on the rack, ugh…but I digress.

On a lighter note, I especially remember those flimsy little yellow and red plastic see-through vinyl Golden Records for children (mostly without covers—my dog ate them or something) which were thrown around my Auburn, NY-based cousins’ rumpus room like so many frisbees when they weren’t playing them back for me and my siblings on weekend trips to their house. Stuff like “Mr. Bumbles” (“the funny Mr. Bumbles!”—sung in a minor key funereal dirge tempo by some guy with a mournful, lugubrious voice, melody and tempo reminiscent of the verse section of Henry Hill’s “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic”).

I still enjoy some of that kiddie-fodder to this day, it has its definite charms from an ironic vantage point, the prize being “By Rocket to the Moon” by the great composer/bandleader Raymond Scott on the Children’s Record Guild (CRG) label—a scratchy 78 that provided yeoman service cracking up me and my best buddy Tom Karp for hours on end during the time we’d morphed into teenage stoners in the late ’60s.

Still I was never that attached to the idea of the spiral scratch on an opaque plastic pizza tray as the ideal medium to capture everything down “to the last syllable of recorded time,” (as the Bard so aptly put it in Macbeth, Act V. Nope, that was not the perfect medium for this boy-o because vinyl records really seemed so damn transient/ subject to damage and scratched and worn-down obsolete-dom very quickly, unless you went the fetishist route with plush groove dusters and liquid record cleaners and stylus brushes…

Which I did to a degree during the first golden age of Albums qua Albums, buying up superior English vinyl import pressings of stuff like Pink Floyd’s first recording, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and The Move’s first, as they usually came replete with rare obscure tracks (14 usually to the US versions measly 12). I actually sent money to a shop in England to get picture sleeve singles (a complete run of UK Stones singles, for instance) especially because of the track count—an EP could contain at last 5 tracks, plus dig those shiny covers!

The best format for me on vinyl ultimately though were 12-inch records running at 45 rpm because of the better sonics (which really did the trick, bass response-wise—especially reggae 12-inch singles in this format). I used to hunt down titles on the Joe Gibbs label out of Jamaica that would come in as imports to a little shop in Brooklyn—in your face, swaggering, joyous fare like Dennis Brown’s “Money in My Pocket” which half way through morphed into a toast by Prince Mohammed over the dub rhythm track. The bass response was so heavy you just naturally wanted to play this sucker over and over again all day.

Glorious days indeed…it was a time when a real vinyl fetishist (I knew a few) with an issue of The Absolute Sound in hand would bend your ear for hours over the relative merits of the Linn-Sondek turntable, the Mark Levinson pre-amp, and the Kef speaker system and how they might affect your central nervous system pleasure centers when playing back an audiophile classical record of music of Percy Grainger or Vaughan Williams (I have a few of these, just sublime recordings, even on my less than leading-edge system). Some even invested in transparent polyethylene bags to protect the covers of one’s favorite albums from becoming marred and/or spattered with goo and other unnameable substances. Double vinyl albums in gatefold sleeves were especially welcome during my stoner years as pristine surfaces to roll joints on, and also separate seeds and stems from the good stuff by bouncing your stash on an open double gatefold cardboard cover—the seeds and shake invariably separating out and rolling down the cardboard groove that bound the front and back cover together. Now, you couldn’t do this on a cassette box or a CD jewel box, really.

For sure though there was a big degradation in faithful audio reproduction when the mass segue to CDs began the forced quick-march of the vinyl album into virtual oblivion for a few years to all but a handful of audiophiles clinging to the notion of their sonic superiority (which vinyl albums are, of course–sonically superior to CDs, when the album at hand being listened to is not scratched to shit). I, who possess a fairly astute set of ears and the pattern-recognition skills to play “spot the influence” up the wazoo, could really hear audio quality going out the window when the CD came in.

But gradually my ear shifted to accept, and then to seek out and embrace, the new Mp3 sonics—although something was obviously missing, some component of warmth one step closer to the simulacrum of the real than was afforded by the hiss-less fuck/homogenized/ “no static at all” CD universe of sound (analogous to the heyday of FM radio with its airy, spacious, superior sounding classical and jazz channels to the left of the dial, versus the noisy, compressed, manic sturm und drang of AM hit radio—the sound of insipid crass commercialism to my ears nowadays, as opposed to, in my youth, a gateway to an idealized America of yesteryear “where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day” (pace that other Bard, Chuck Berry).

Vinyl. Vinyl albums weigh a fucking ton compared to the equivalent amount of CDs when you take them on the road to sell as merch, so keep that in mind all you touring musicians! I have a couple thousand vintage vinyl albums on a dark-stained wooden wall of shelves, and 3 boxes of rare English singles from the ’60s, all a’mouldering away. I personally play vinyl albums hardly at all (even my own work which has been issued or re-issued on vinyl)—although, hey hey, I appreciate the resurgence of interest in them, maybe it will bring back listening to music as a foreground experience—maybe. Years ago though I switched over to burning CDs into my iTunes library and playing the music via my Macbook through my stereo, it’s so much easier!

If one has to fetishize some object, books now are another story…
Gary Lucas

Gary Lucas’ The World of Captain Beefheart, a collaboration with Nona Hendryx, arrives in stores November 10, 2017 via Knitting Factory Records.

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PHOTO: MICHEL DELSOL

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