Three dusty, dilapidated cardboard boxes of record albums sit on our front porch, perhaps 50 LPs per box. A few weeks ago, there were twice as many. Soon there will be none.
Yes, I’m giving away my album collection. Friends and neighbors have been stopping by, taking an armload or a record or two apiece. A WORT-FM programmer took 100. I suspect Saint Vinny’s will get the last batch.
Once, years ago, I had 600 albums, but who has space for all that? Not me. Truth is, most of my records were in a friend’s attic for the past two decades, and I hardly missed them. Instead I collected CDs. Recently I got the albums back, but I rarely listen to them. They’re old and dusty and scratched-up and battered, and I’m old myself and ready to let go of the past. Why not just turn on YouTube or Spotify like everyone else?
Still, it hurts to let the albums go. Several times these past few weeks I’ve stood on the porch in the cold as a friend pawed through the boxes, then pulled out a record we both agreed was a classic, a beauty, maybe even a life-changer or life-saver at some point in the distant past.
In the Pittsburgh home where I grew up, records had always been precious. My father was an audiophile, with a large collection of Baroque, pre-Baroque, and other classical LPs, plus a few wild Russians thrown in for good measure — Mussorgsky‘s Pictures at an Exhibition being the first so-called classical album I loved. When we were small, my father enrolled us in a children’s record club, with green or red discs arriving monthly, including one that consisted of nothing but the sounds of an empty house — creaking door, dripping faucet, etc.
Other albums presented fables and folktales, often with original music and songs I can still sing. My siblings and I played them over and over in our living room on my father’s Heathkit stereo, which took him eight weeks to build and proved once and for all that Pop was indeed a man who swore out loud when our mother was not around.
My youth required records the way my lungs required oxygen. In my teens, I calculated the value of any sum of money based on how many albums it would buy. The problem was, I rarely had cash. Instead I’d linger in our little neighborhood record store, gazing longingly at albums like Bob Dylan‘s The Times They Are A-Changin’ and Another Side of Bob Dylan that I could not yet afford.
By the time I turned 17, I’d filled in my Dylan collection, and had the satisfaction one evening of rendering my opinionated Aunt Esther nearly speechless, simply by showing her the covers. With each successive photo of Dylan, her one-word assessments —“Horrible!” “Disgusting!” “Ghastly!”— grew more apoplectic, her facial expressions more deranged, until Dylan’s eighth and latest album, Blonde on Blonde, reduced her to wordless sputtering. A victory for rebels everywhere.
A few years earlier I’d used my allowance to buy my first album — the Kingston Trio, three white, college-age men singing folk songs. Eventually, by pooling my “clothing” allowance with babysitting money, I purchased some early Dylan, Joan Baez, Donovan and other so-called folkies, the Beatles and Stones, and psychedelic rock bands like Country Joe and the Fish and The Doors. In the spring of 1967, I fell in love with my first girlfriend gazing into her eyes as we listened to the Jefferson Airplane on my father’s stereo.
That fall, I left for Madison, bringing to my freshman dorm a few books and clothes, a cheap portable stereo, and my albums. State Street had two record stores, Discount Records and Victor Records, where I sometimes bought an album simply because I was drawn to its cover.
One morning I stopped into Discount Records early, and the long-haired dude behind the counter loudly informed me of his urgent need for the bathroom, asking me to watch the store for him. Later, when I brought the second Laura Nyro album up to the counter, he waved an arm and said, “Take it. They’re too expensive anyway.”
Sophomore year I was sick for months, often bedridden, with only my albums for company. My first girlfriend and I had broken up, and I listened to a lot of love songs, alternately imagining romantic encounters or despairing of ever meeting anyone again.
Eventually my health improved, and the 1970s arrived, followed by the ’80s, my white-boy collection expanding to include reggae, jazz, blues and soul. I did, in fact, have new girlfriends, including one whose record collection (The Doors and Springsteen alongside the “women’s music” of Cris Williamson and Holly Near) was practically enough in itself to make me fall in love with her. The two of us haunted the used record stores in town, especially Resale Records, the freezing metal building on Commercial Avenue with the barky little white dog. There my girlfriend would buy any album with a female rock-and-roller on the cover.
By the time the ’90s arrived, cassettes had long been more popular than records, and both would soon be supplanted by CDs. But I was still faithful to my albums.
At decade’s end, when I moved to Rhode Island to care for my mother who had Alzheimer’s, I stored most of my collection in wooden crates and cardboard boxes in the limbo of my friend’s attic.
Now my albums are back in the world, bringing joy, I hope, to folks with the storage space and patience to handle them. It was a beautiful collection, a musical history of a life. Stop by Saint Vinny’s in a month or so, and you just might stumble on a treasure.
Richard Ely is an artist, editor, and writing coach. His torn and cut paper artworks can be seen in Madison at Lakeside Street Coffee House through March 25.