What might possess a person to go looking for their old records? The very same copy of Slippery When Wet that Heather scrawled her phone number on in high school, that Replacements Let it Be from college that still smells like weed, the exact coveted KISS Alive II that your brother scrawled HANDS OFF across the front?
What would make a grown man return to the house he grew up in armed with an unopened box of 1978 Boo Berry cereal, the same crappy GE record player and a smattering of childhood friends?
We talk with the author of Old Records Never Die: One Man’s Quest for his Vinyl & His Past (Plume) to find out.
You didn’t just go looking for old records — you went looking for your old records. Wouldn’t that be impossible?
Everybody I explained the premise to told me I was out of my mind. Nobody was like, “Sounds like a fun project.” They were all, “You’re kidding, right?” The brother of the guy who owned the record store where I sold the majority of my record collection was especially adamant about telling me that I was on a fool’s journey. But eventually he came around, and by the end he was more obsessed about me finding my old records than I was. I wound up in his basement, looking through endless boxes, and every time I so much as looked at a record too wistfully, he’d be like, “Is that one of yours? Take it home, listen to it, see if it was your record. It’s gotta be yours. Take it!!” I don’t know why he changed his mind so completely. I think it all comes down to heart versus head. The head says, “This is bullshit. He’s wasting his damn time.” But the heart understands. The heart wants those old records. The heart isn’t reasonable. It wants to think you can be reunited with the things that once mattered that you threw away too hastily. Your head is an asshole, but your heart gets it.
When I read the part where you buy the box of unopened 1978 Boo Berry on eBay and take it to your childhood home I stood up and banged my fist on the table. I think that’s like, the guy version of Fifty Shades.
I’ve eaten Boo Berry once or twice as an adult, and with my kid—and there’s something fundamentally different about it. I don’t know if they changed the recipe, or they’re putting less fiberglass or rat feces in it now then they did in the 70s, but it’s so obviously not the same anymore. So opening that antique box of Boo Berry, which allegedly hadn’t seen oxygen since Jimmy Carter’s presidency, it was like . . . well, in the book, I compared it to the climactic final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the Nazis open up the Ark and all those angry ghosts come out and melt their faces. But that’s not really it. We weren’t cowering in terror, afraid to open our eyes. It was more like when you’re in a Catholic church, and the priests burn incense in that metal bowl, which kinda looks like a Parmesan shaker hanging from chains. I think it’s called a thurble? It’s religious theater, and I’m not Catholic, but it makes sense to me. That burning incense changes the alchemy of the room. That’s kind of what you need when you’re listening to records from almost half a century ago and trying to remember what it felt like to listen to those songs for the first time. You open a box of Boo Berry from 2016, and it’s like, “Oh yeah, that smells like a future of diabetes and congestive heart failure.” But you open up a box of cereal that’s been in some guys basement since people thought leisure suits were a good idea, and you’re like, “Oh, hi 1978. Nice to see you again.” It’s an emotional time machine.
Is it really about 1978 Boo Berry and old KISS albums? Or should we even strive for deeper meaning here?
I think the whole point of the book was trying to figure out if there was deeper meaning. I got rid of those old records, at least in part, because they were just objects. I didn’t want to be some miserable hoarder who clung on to junk he didn’t need because he was afraid of growing older. That’s how you become a middle-aged guy with a house filled with Star Wars toys. I had an amazing Evel Knievel lunch box as a kid, and I don’t need to see that again. My Six Million Dollar Man doll, with the skin flap that you could open and see his bionics, I used to sleep with that thing. I’d seriously spoon with it. But seeing it again, I don’t think it’d mean anything to me. But records? I see some of my abandoned, orphaned records in my dreams. I’m visited by them the way some people are visited by dead relatives. By trying to track them down again, and surrounding myself with people who feel the same ways about their records, it was a chance to ponder whether some “things” are not just “things.” Maybe they have real significance.
Explain why “scratches are an important part of the music.”
For me, the scratches are what makes a song uniquely yours. Without the scratches, a song is just a recording of notes and voices in a room. It’s not a real thing. It exists in the ether. But once you put a scratch in a record, you’ve branded it as your own. Have you ever had that moment when you’re listening to a song that you grew up loving on vinyl, and when it gets to the part where there was a scratch on your record, you instinctively reach out to nudge the needle, to save it before it gets caught in an endless skipping loop? But you don’t need to, because the scratch is only in your memory? That’s fucking beautiful. It’s like itching a phantom limb. Even when the scratches are gone, they’re always there.
Hard to mark a digital file as uniquely your own.
MP3s are meaningless. Anything that exists digitally can’t possibly ever be yours. But a record is something you own. It’s a thing you have to take care of. You have to clean it or if won’t play right, you have to store it on a shelf, you have to find the right device to play it. So yeah, that’s why I think the scratches matter. Because nothing good happens in life without leaving a mark. Scratches are like caveman drawings. They’re the crude reminders that “I was here! This meant something to me!”
I’ve got a VHS copy of Fast Times at Ridgemont High that I dubbed from my buddy Jules who taped it off TBS one night. It’s my favorite version. There’s a part during the carrot scene where Jules’s mom walked through the kitchen so she changed channels quick and there’s about six seconds of the Empire Carpet commercial where they sing 588-2300, Empiiiiire…. For me, it’s not Fast Times without a fuzzy Phobe Cates, white “tracking” bar and bad overdub of Spicoli saying “those guys are nerds!”
Okay, hold on. We’ve got to talk about that. A fuzzy Phoebe Cates, taking off her bikini top in randomly switching speeds is still one of the most erotic things ever recorded by human beings. It is literally the pinnacle. Everything we’ve done since has just been a bastardization of that perfect moment in cinema. I think old VHS tapes fall into the same category as vinyl. It’s not just about the movie, it’s about the fragile piece of plastic and magnetic tape. It’s gossamer, man. Every time I’ve ever played a VHS tape, it’s felt like a miracle. I literally can’t believe what I’m seeing, like I’ve somehow discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls.
I watched Escape From New York on Blu-Ray the other day and you can tell when they switch out Snake for a stuntman. On VHS and it’s all grainy and dangerous. It feels like something you aren’t supposed to see.
There’s this Stones documentary from the early 70s called Cocksucker Blues. Today you could go online and find it in about five minutes. But in the 90s, it was like finding booze during Prohibition. I remember the specific day I saw that movie for the first time. It was a friend of a friend who knew a guy who lived with a guy who owned a third generation copy he’d borrowed from some Russian mafioso. It’s really an awful movie but I vividly remember sitting in a stranger’s basement, which smelled like old milk and cologne, and we watched the whole thing on his little black and white TV, and I have literally never been so grateful. It was like witnessing the birth of my child. Every part of me was like, “This is something that will never happen again. Don’t you fucking dare even blink.” And now you watch it on YouTube and realize pretty quickly that it’s not all that interesting, and you move on to something else. But back when Cocksucker Blues was something you had to hunt for, it meant something. Even though it was awful, we were grateful for it, because it was rare, and it wasn’t something anybody with a coffee shop wifi signal could find.
Oh, man. Exactly. The hunt.
You’ll never sit in the basement apartment of some strange guy who smokes Kool cigarettes and has a lazy eye who makes you feel really uncomfortable just for the chance to see a movie you only knew about as a rumor. Doing something like that today would be insane. But I feel really sad that my son will never experience anything that awkward and weird. He’ll never have to try that hard to see or hear something so scarce or extraordinary. If he wants to hear Prince’s Black Album, he’ll just go to Pirate Bay. He won’t have to pretend to be friends with a guy with a neck tattoo who insists that they listen to the whole thing in his bedroom while smoking weed out of a Coke can. And Prince’s Black Album doesn’t sound as awesome if you don’t have to make those sacrifices.
Sometimes I have this fantasy that I could time-trip back to find my twelve-year old self in the Twin Bridge Mall Sound Shop, hand that kid a Spin magazine and say, “Someday you’ll have more music than this entire store. More music than if this entire mall was record stores. And if you stacked another mall on top full of bookstores, you’ve got more books than that. And if you stacked a third mall on top full of video stores? More videos than that too. And it’ll all be in a device smaller than that magazine you’re holding.” Then, while my twelve-year old self was totally bamboozled I’d add this, “But you know what? You won’t be able to appreciate any of it as much as you do right now.”
I know this sounds like such an obnoxiously old man thing to say, but I miss being grateful for music and movies. Even if it was just, “Oh my god, I can’t believe there was a copy of this new release at Blockbuster! I was sure I’d walk past the ‘New Release’ wall, and it’d just be empty boxes, with nothing underneath them.” That’s a sentence that only somebody of a certain age would understand. “Empty boxes with nothing underneath them.” Still chills my blood. The very idea of it says “Tonight will be less than you hoped.”
Blockbuster wasn’t even that long ago! Like 2010.
Can you imagine that now? If you want to watch something, and it’s not immediately available to you the moment you even think about it, you lose your shit. Everything is available to us literally all the time. Who feels grateful for a movie anymore? When you’re just scrolling through videos on an iPhone on the subway, who cares? It’s all disposable.
I think technically the first record I ever paid for with my own money was Elton John’s Greatest Hits, which I bought for maybe a buck at a Lion’s Club’s garage sale in a recently renovated building that used to be a cherry processing plant. I remember that record very specifically, not because I especially liked Elton John, but because the cover stank of old cherries. Over time, I even started to associate the smell of cherries with “Honky Cat.” So much that even long after I sold the record, I couldn’t listen to an Elton John without being reminded of cherries. All of them, really, but especially when he’d sing about quitting those days and his redneck ways, the malodorous assault of cherries would be right up in my nostrils again.
Actually, I think I got Conway at Goodwill for fifty cents so maybe that doesn’t count?
The first record I remember buying in a record store was Billy Joel’s The Stranger. I was maybe 13 at the time, and I bought The Stranger based entirely on my experiences listening to it in the room of an unreasonably attractive teenager girl. (It’s a long story. My grandmother was having gallbladder surgery in New York, and my parents flew out for the procedure, leaving me with family friends, who happened to have an unreasonably attractive teenager daughter.) Her name was Debbie, and she was, well, to say that she was out of my league was an understatement. If I can bring it back to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, I was the Judge Reinhold to her Phoebe Cates. I went immediately to her records, because I just had to know—what does a beautiful women listen to why sitting around her room in sexy underwear? That’s what all girls do, right?
My pre-teen self says yes.
So I bought my own Stranger. But the music sounded hollow, like a bad cassette dub. I eventually figured it out; my record didn’t have that hot girl sexy smell, which you can only get by leaving it in the possession of a teenage girl and letting her girl pheromones secrete into the vinyl’s pores. Actually, I found out later that what I was smelling was just Calvin Klein’s Obsession. Which I was far too naive and inexperienced to recognize at the time.
You mention Debbie in Old Records but this is like a bootleg extended mix. Something else you can’t appreciate anymore.
Several years past, and in Debbie’s senior year, when I was old enough to have the first faintest hints of real sexual confidence, I walked up to her, when she was surrounded by muscular dudes in football jerseys, with their imposing jawlines and veiny forearms, and said to her, “Hey, have you seen that new Billy Joel video?”
She stared at me, no idea what I was talking about. “I’m sorry?” she asked.
“‘You’re Only Human, parentheses Second Wind’?” I said, spelling out the parenthetical for some reason, which only made it worse. Her face refused to give any sign of recognition.
The beefy boys around her sneered, but Debbie, bless her heart, she just smiled tenderly, in the way you do when you’re saying no to a homeless man asking for change. “I’m sorry, sweetie,” she said. “I’m not much of a Billy Joel fan.”
My chest exploded. I felt… betrayed, sure. But mostly embarrassed and confused. How had I misread the signals so badly? She had a fucking Billy Joel record in her bedroom. I jumped to the only logical conclusion that any insecure teenager would: I am a stupid idiot who doesn’t understand women or music, and I am going to die alone listening to “You’re Only Human, parentheses Second Wind.”
“You’re Only Human” by Billy Joel might be the least sensual song ever recorded, including Christian rock. Your dad was a pastor. Did you ever run into pressure against the evils of rock?
Not really, my dad wasn’t one of those “Rock n’ roll is Satan’s messengers” kind of pastors. He was more of the “Let’s crank Cat Stevens to 11” kind of pastors. Which is to say, he loved music, and never saw any evil in it. James Taylor playing “Steamroller” was probably as punk rock as it ever got for him. Was he even aware that if you played Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” backwards, there were (allegedly) Satanic messages? I don’t think he was. I never mentioned it because I was worried he might try to take away my Led Zeppelin records. And then he died before I turned 30, and we never had a chance to talk about music like two adults who had complicated emotional histories with their favorite records.
I knew he listened to Willie Nelson songs when he was sad or depressed, and he thought Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” was hilarious, and he made his church congregation sing Cat Stevens’ songs like they were carols. But I didn’t know much beyond that when it came to his musical tastes or opinions. There are two things that make me sad about my dad. One, I wish he had lived long enough to meet his grandson. And two, I wish he’d lived long enough so that I could ask him the “Which five records would you take to a desert island” question, and I could have been old and emotionally mature enough to really listen to his answer.
ERIC SPITZNAGEL is an Executive Writer at Men’s Health Magazine, where he’s written about topics like Burt Reynolds, satanism, raw meat eating and sex robots. He’s also been a frequent contributor to magazines like Playboy, Esquire, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Maxim, Billboard, Details, The Believer, and the New York Times Magazine, among many others. He’s the author of six books, including Ron Jeremy’s bestselling autobiography The Hardest (Working) Man In Showbiz. He’s also edited several humor anthologies, most recently Care To Make Love In That Gross Little Space Between Cars?, which features questionable life advice from people like Louis C.K., Zach Galifianakis, and Amy Sedaris.