Vinyl fantasy

For weeks I’ve been posting here about my newfound love for vinyl records, now that me explain the reasons behind it … (See the one that started it all from 3/11, this one from 3/14 and this one from 3/30 ...)

In a nutshell, I guess it’s an attempt to recapture some of the innocence of my childhood, an attempt to hold on to something that’s dying …

Some of my most cherished and enduring childhood memories revolve around me squatting next to my orange and brown Fischer-Price record player and playing 45 after 45 after 45, pulled from the brown paper sleeves of my dad’s old record collection. In fact one of my first-ever memories of anything having to do with music is the evening when my dad introduced me to his collection of 45s. It must’ve been a birthday, perhaps it was the night they gave me that Fischer-Price record player. I was all of 4 or 5 years old, but I remember it so clearly. I even remember the first record we put onto the turntable -- The Buckinghams, “Kind Of A Drag.” The record hangs in a frame on my wall now (for nostalgia), but even without it, I’d still remember that red, white and blue -colored USA Records label as clearly as though it were yesterday.

For years afterward, I played those records endlessly and they laid the foundation for my vast music knowledge (even though my mother has long contended my musical interests probably started even while I was in the womb and she worked at J.C. Penny while the songs of the era played on the store’s stereo all day long). Virtually every weekend I gave concerts to parents, baby-sitters, whoever would listen. The featured songs almost always included “I’m Into Something Good,” “Downtown” “Sweet Pea” “Help Me Rhonda” “Pleasant Valley Sunday” “Bus Stop” “I Feel Fine” “It’s Good News Week” and “I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight.”

Then there was my uncle Doug who never said no to my cousins and I when we asked him to take us to his bedroom and play some records for us. He was the one who introduced me to Bon Jovi, Chicago and Michael Jackson. And because of him my affection for The Beatles and The Monkees was cemented.

And once I was old enough to have my own boombox, the cassette tapes started piling up -- dubbings of my favorite records from my parents collection. I was 9 or 10 now, and like “the day the music died” that old stereo system that stood in our living room rarely played anymore (it wasn‘t as convenient as popping in a cassette tape). So the albums -- “Beach Boys: Endless Summer,”Godspell,” “The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees,” “The Carpenters Now & Then” -- got transferred onto cassette tapes so I could play them on my own …

And finally in my mid-teens, CDs invaded our home. The old turntable sat on a shelf in our living room, no longer played. And Dad’s collection of 45s sat high on a shelf in my bedroom closet, no longer heard.

In the next decade, I would go to college, move out of the house, get a job and settle down with my wife. I held on to those 45s for awhile, but somewhere in all the transitioning they landed back at my parents' house …

So when I asked my mother one afternoon a couple years ago about getting some of those old records back in my hands, I was nearly crushed to the point of tears when she told me my father had sold all of them to a record dealer just a few weeks earlier. You know those stories about our grandmothers throwing away our fathers' old baseball cards -- it was like that. I can’t blame them for getting rid of the records, they hadn’t realized how much they meant to me, and I guess I didn’t express my interest in them enough. But it stung that a huge part of my childhood was given away within the blink of an eye …

So I all but demanded to have my parents’ old stereo system -- knowing they'd never use it again -- not long afterward. I became interested in building a record collection of my own.

* * *

It started last month when I discovered a newly-opened record store a few blocks from our house. Inside it, a Rolling Stones tune blares on a stereo system and a musty air perforates the long, narrow space where John Hardin is sifting through stacks upon racks of vinyl records.

It sounds like a scene from 1967, but it played out a few days ago at the store, one place where audiophiles like Hardin are going to search for music in a form that takes them back to an almost-forgotten era.

“I think people just have an appreciation for the nostalgia,” said Hardin, 20, who inherited his father’s turntable and record collection. “Hopefully they have an appreciation for the way that records were made. Back then you didn’t have all the digital production.”

Even in this digital age of iPods, Internet downloading and hi-definition sound, the crackle, pop and hiss of a spinning vinyl record is part of the reason young adults like Hardin, as well as the older generations who made them so popular, are still attracted to vinyl record 20 years after compact discs knocked them off the music racks.

For vinyl fanatics like Natalie Kingsfield, a vivacious local college student, owning a vinyl record is like holding history.

“It feels pure,” Kingsfield, 19, said, thumbing through her vinyl collection with her cousin and fellow vinyl collector Sean McMullen, 18. “When you listen to a CD, it is so clean that it doesn’t seem real. When you listen to (vinyl), it’s almost like listening to a live album. It feels like you have a better connection with the artists. And literally it’s the vibration of sound.”

Kingsfield has acquired copies of classics from The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and The Who, in addition to popular ’80s albums like the “Top Gun” soundtrack and Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical.”

“When I’ve had a bad day, I’ll play that one,” she says. “And the Led Zeppelin is amazing; there’s no scratches on it.”

Kingsfield was immediately attracted to vinyl after finding a turntable in her attic. Now, she uses it almost daily.

“There’s a sound quality and it goes into a connection you have with the generation that made it,” she said. “You kind of gain a little bit of respect for people that originally listened to records. Like my parents, for instance, we can connect on Three Dog Night and stuff … I bring up Fallout Boy or something, they’ll have no idea what that is.”

Part of the fun, Kingsfield says, is the search. She purchased the Stones’ “Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass)” for $4 at a thrift shop after seeing it for $24 at a different store. And she uncovered a near-mint copy of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” the top-selling album of all-time, at a book sale for 10 cents. She looks for anything she can find, from cha-cha music to classic rock.

McMullen, meanwhile, couldn’t care less about Zeppelin and other classic artists. But an appreciation of current singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens, who’s launched a plan to release albums commemorating all 50 states, has made McMullen a vinyl collector, too.

McMullen’s small collection includes Stevens’ colorful, postcard-like Michigan and Illinois albums, in addition to The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Time Out,” a jazz album released way back in 1959.

“I’m not buying like every album I see,” McMullen says. “But I really like Sufjan Stevens, he’s one of my favorite artists, just like Elliot Smith, so I’m going to buy this stuff as like a collector’s item almost.”

Both Kingsfield and McMullen own large CD collections as well, but even some newer vinyls from current bands are including bonus tracks and features unavailable on CD versions of the same albums, McMullen noted. Few people know current bands like The Shins and Radiohead are still producing vinyl in limited batches.

“I look at it just like my CDs, I want to keep them nice,” McMullen says. “You open them up and they have more stories and a lot more writing. Especially when they’re double editions, there’s a lot more artwork.”

Collectors who are attracted to vinyl records often insist they possess a warmer, richer sound than their CD counterparts — as if the listener is in the studio with the band, or listening to a live performance.

Although Hardin says he still listens to his fair share of CDs, he prefers listening to records and ranks Bob Dylan’s “Blonde On Blonde” and James Taylor among the favorites in his vinyl collection.

“The crackle’s nice, the nostalgia’s nice, but the sound is just really good. I like the analog,” he said.

* * *

Len Valeo, who owns a novelty store with his brother Ron, also points out artists like Jimi Hendrix, who recorded during the heyday of vinyl, used the inherent noise in an analog recording.

“Most of the ’60s bands made use of it,” he said. “So when those recordings were digitally transposed, they seemed a bit hollow and empty because they were missing some of the static, crackle that we remember those songs having.”

While a vinyl recording’s analog sound pours from an amplifier and speakers, an album cover’s elaborate artwork and interior can make the experience even more enriching. Records came with fold-out posters, band photos and song lyrics — all features lost when plastic gem cases downsized albums in the ’80s.

“The package was sort of folk art,” Valeo said. “The ease of storage, because they didn’t take up much physical space, the reasonable price tag and the continuous flow of new albums made it simple for lower and middle class people to collect them like bubble gum cards … The artwork on the physical album covers was sometimes done by some of the greatest artists of the generation and certainly had an allure to the consumer.”

Valeo, who remembers receiving a notice warning about the demise of 8-track tapes, quit selling vinyl records about 15 years ago, seeing the inevitable avalanche of digital music over analog systems.

Although Valeo cheaply sold a lot of his best stuff, like collectible Hendrix albums and rare picture discs, he does have a few tucked away in a closet. Somewhere he has a Japanese Pink Floyd import with different artwork than its American counterpart and Yes albums pressed in Germany.

“I personally dumped some very valuable vinyl LPs because I thought they would seem silly and quirky 10 years later,” he says. “I really thought there’d be a generation that didn’t know what a record player was. But I think every kid, especially thanks to hip-hop DJs, knows what a vinyl record is and what you can do with it, and how you play it. It hasn’t been forgotten.”

* * *

Jamie Galgano, along with his father, John, purchased a local music store, a couple months ago and reopened the space as Galgano Music. It’s a third-generation store; Jamie Galgano’s grandfather was an original employee of Columbia Records and founded the family business in downtown Chicago during the 1940s.

“People come in and they can’t believe their eyes,” John Galgano said of his store. “There’s almost 40,000 LPs in here. Everybody’s happy when they come in. They can’t believe all the records. One guy came in for a Kendalls record. He went over to the Ks and he found it. He says, ‘Holy Cow!’ Another woman bought a couple Al Martino records.”

One man recently stopped at the store in search of a Humble Pie “Thunderbox” album, but left with copies of Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “II” and The James Gang’s debut “Yer’ Album.”

Posters of the Beatles and Stones and Yardbirds clutter the walls, creating the feel of a vintage record store, while a guitar signed by female rocker Sheryl Crow and framed pictures of more recent stars also appeal to a younger generation.

“Half the wall was blue, and I’m like, ‘you don’t have to paint it,’” Jamie Galgano said. “Our racks are orange, blue, red, wood color. The ceiling’s green. The carpet’s green. You want the old record store feel.”

With turntables still in production, Club DJs using vinyl for scratching and mixing, and a young subculture gravitating toward vinyl, Jamie Galgano says there’s an absolute market for the old-fashioned recordings.

“People are willing to pay the price,” he said. “I think it’s amazing that somebody will buy a used record that’s $19.99, but they complain about buying a brand new CD that’s $12.99.”

Still, most records filling the racks at Galgano’s sell for a few bucks. The rarities and collector items go for much more, however. A copy of The Beatles’ “White Album” is tagged for about $75, while a copy of the Stones’ “England’s Newest Hitmakers” is marked at $199.99. The rarities inside the store include a Hitler record colored with the red and black Nazi symbol, and a 10-record set from Japan featuring Kiss.

But if you’re reading this and thinking your record collection might be a gold mine for record collectors, don’t expect to get hundreds of dollars in return. No matter how old that jazz record is, unless it’s extremely rare or sealed, it’s worth just a few bucks to dealers and most collectors.

“Just because you have an Elvis album that’s 20 years old, doesn’t mean it’s worth hundreds of dollars,” Valeo said. “Now eBay roots out the less savvy. If somebody’s willing to give you $300 on a record that’s worth $4, hey, that’s their decision. The truth of the matter is, that even albums you think might be rare are not rare at all.”

The Galganos agreed, saying people often dump entire collections at their shop.

“There’s probably more Beatles records going around than people realize because everybody had the same idea,” Jamie Galgano said. “Original John Lennons, that would be a different story.”

Few vinyl collectors are purchasing albums as an investment, Valeo said. Rather, the albums are a lost piece of history.

“They are mementos of a different generation’s youth,” Valeo said. “Other than DJs that still use the vinyl medium for their craft, folks that are buying vinyl albums on eBay, are doing it because it’s a chunk of history, their own history.”

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