So I met this girl while I was in college. It was a different time, the late ’70s.
We were over at her house one night, and she pulled out an album. Rod Stewart, maybe. We’d been listening to tunes and, ahem, resting, so I really didn’t think anything of it.
Then she handed me the bag of pot.
Then she handed me the double album.
She asked me if I’d clean out the stems and seeds.
(If you aren’t from the ’70s, here’s how that worked. You’d open the double album and dump the pot into the centerfold, then fold the double album closed, then open it back up. Do that a couple of times, then tap out or pick out the stems and seeds from the good pot. Not perfect, but good enough.)
Try doing that with a jewel case.
Yes, we’re here today in praise of the vinyl record album.
Look elsewhere on this Vinyl Record Day blogswarm weekend, and you’ll find my colleagues writing knowledgeable, passionate essays about the music contained within those jackets and sleeves. For a complete guide, head over to JB’s place at The Hits Just Keep On Comin.’
Here, though, we’re going to go on a few adventures with a few albums.
I was over at my dad’s apartment not too long ago, going through his albums. They’ve long been put away on a shelf because he no longer has a turntable. At 82, he doesn’t get around so well anymore, so he really doesn’t want the hassle of getting up and down to put albums on a turntable. He likes the convenience of his CDs and cassettes.
As I went through the stacks, I came across all the albums I saw so often while growing up. It was quite a trip to come across “Remember How Great?” That was a 1940s- and 1950s-era greatest-hits record put out as a promo for Lucky Strike cigarettes. Dad loved the tunes and I loved its colorful design.
Then I came across “Tony Orlando & Dawn/Greatest Hits.” Hmmm. I don’t think this is Dad’s. I ask him about it. “Oh, that probably was Grandma’s. I have her albums.”
Then I came across Cheech and Chong’s “Los Cochinos.” No, I don’t think so. Not Dad’s. I doubt he’d play it so often that the car was starting to tear.
(The car? Starting to tear? What? OK, if I have to explain it … follow along. You see Cheech and Chong looking out the window? That was on the inner sleeve. It pulled out. You took the album out of the car. You really had to be there. And, no, there was no parental advisory sticker on the album.)
Then I came across Alice Cooper’s “Billion Dollar Babies.” Not Dad’s. Not mine, either. But whose?
As I neared the bottom of the last stack, having decided to take home albums by Dean Martin, Myron Floren, Frankie Yankovic and his Yanks, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, the Baja Marimba Band, the Dave Brubeck Quartet and Paul Mauriat and his Orchestra, I found the greatest mystery of all.
How did my 82-year-old father come to have AC/DC’s “Back in Black” in the collection in his closet?
I got my answer a couple of weeks later. My youngest brother, the park director in his community, mentioned that Dad had asked him to take the stack of albums and give them to the senior center he oversees.
“Hey,” I said, “do you know what Dad had in his collection? AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black.’”
“Jim!” my sister-in-law shouted at my brother. “I gave that to you when we were 16!”
Busted, my brother smiled weakly and confessed that he never had a turntable in college, so it stayed at home.
So now I have his almost pristine vinyl copy of “Back in Black” and the rest of his modest collection, with his blessing.
(Oh, but then I flip it over, and I see this at the bottom of the back of the jacket: “Manufactured by Columbia House under license.” Can I in good conscience keep this? I’ve long had a rule that I won’t buy any used album that came from a record club. Remember 10 albums for $1? Then buy eight more and you can get out? People used to do that all the time, flipping them to used record stores and making a modest profit. My small protest.)
But I digress. Enjoy anyway.
“Shake A Leg,” AC/DC, from the original vinyl of “Back In Black,” 1980.
Back in the day, buying albums was a sign you’d grown up. My dad didn’t buy 45s. He bought albums. 45s were for kids. I know. I bought 45s until I could afford albums. Then there was no turning back.
In 1970, I was 13, a teenager, just barely. Yet old enough that I should be buying albums.
So I bought my first, probably with birthday money. “The Best of Bill Cosby,” a comedy album released in 1969. Here’s a cut on which Cos almost gets edgy. Listen to this, and you can tell just how Cosby influenced Richard Pryor. All it needs is one “motherfucker,” and it’s Pryor, not Cos.
“The Lone Ranger,” Bill Cosby, from the original vinyl of “The Best of Bill Cosby,” 1969.
Then, in 1971, using the meager profits from my Milwaukee Journal paper route, I started buying music.
First, it was Isaac Hayes’ soundtrack to “Shaft,” from 1971. Then I bought “Tap Root Manuscript” by Neil Diamond, from 1970. That was followed by “Green River” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, from 1969, then “Wild Life” by Wings, from 1971. I think those were my first five. In any case, it’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
At the time, I was in junior high, and I had this odd notion in my head that whatever I brought home had to be acceptable to my parents. “Shaft” raised a few eyebrows until I explained it was mostly a jazz album, which is true. So, from that original vinyl, “Theme From Shaft” and “Walk From Regio’s,” Isaac Hayes, “Shaft” original soundtrack, 1971.
(Always having had the album, I didn’t know until earlier this year that these are the A and B sides of the same 45.)
But that odd notion also is why I never brought home Janis Joplin’s “Pearl.” I liked the music and I thought her pose on the cover was kind of hot, and I really didn’t want to explain that to my parents. It wasn’t long thereafter that we got to a more comfortable place. They didn’t ask much anymore, and I didn’t explain much anymore. Especially not the girl’s panties that came wrapped around Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” album. (Check them out over at Good Rockin’ Tonight.)
Yet to this day, I’ve never owned “Pearl.”
“Hey, man, can I borrow your Mothers album?”
Oh, I should have known better. But I badly wanted to be Star’s pal.
We were sophomores in high school, hanging and partying with the seniors and digging “Fillmore East – June 1971,” the hilarious (but rather sophomoric) live album by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.
Star was so named because he was the best athlete in our class. He remained the best athlete even after he discovered beer and pot and was more or less forced to give up sports. He always knew where the best parties were. The guys wanted to hang with him and the girls wanted to sleep with him.
So when Star asked whether he could borrow my Mothers album, I said sure. Then I didn’t see it for at least a year, maybe more.
Star was genial enough about it all. “Sure, I’ll get it back to you soon,” he’d say.
When we got down to the last couple of months of our senior year, I gradually but gently turned up the heat on Star, pressing him more often.
“Hey, man, when you gonna return my album?” “You got my album with you today?” “Want me to come over and pick it up?”
One day during our last month of high school, out of the blue, Star stopped me, dropped his backpack from his shoulder and pulled out my Mothers album.
“Here you go, man.”
It was my album, but he’d had it so long that it had his initials on it. The jacket also was coming apart, so when I taped it back together, I left those initials – “B.W.” and a simple drawing of a star – as a reminder of its long, strange journey.
The original vinyl contains one cut never released on CD, supposedly because the master tapes were too far gone. For all you Zappa completists, here it is, a guitar freakout.
“Willie the Pimp, Part Two,” Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, from the original vinyl of “Fillmore East — June 1971,” 1971.
Where I live, the hippies are almost gone now. They used to run the best record store. Likewise, the dog, the couch, the incense, the candles and the underground magazines and comics are almost gone. They used to be at that record store, too.
When I was younger, I bought my albums at fairly conventional places.
Prange’s was one of the big department stores in Wisconsin, and they had a pretty good record department, even if they shoved them into out-of-the-way places. When I lived in Sheboygan, the record department was in the basement. When I lived in Wausau, the record department was in an odd corner of the store that either was a half-flight up or a half-flight down from the main floor, depending on where they’d moved the records.
The other place to buy records in Wausau in the early ’70s was Bob’s Musical Isle. There was kind of an odd vibe to BMI. It was an old-line record store, probably the kind that had listening booths back in the day. I didn’t go in there all that often. I didn’t get the feeling Bob was on the same page as any of us.
Case in point: In 1974, I badly wanted, and could not find in Wausau, a somewhat obscure album from a Detroit band getting some regional airplay. Likewise, my pal who went to college in another town could not find a Babe Ruth album he wanted. So we looked for, and eventually found, each other’s albums.
The album I wanted? “Seven,” the seventh album from a still-young Bob Seger.
The song I had to have? “Get Out of Denver,” Bob Seger, from the original vinyl of “Seven,” 1974. It appears to be out of print.
In 1975, the summer I graduated from high school, my pal Jerome told me about a new record store in an old storefront across from the cemetery. Mike, a hippie then and now, had opened Inner Sleeve Records. He had everything, and what he didn’t have, you didn’t need.
When you bought an album, Mike gave you a nice plastic sleeve for your album, to replace the paper sleeve inside. I have hundreds of these inner sleeves. If you were like my pal Meat, you hung out on the couch at the Sleeve and shot the breeze with Mike and listened to tunes for hours.
After that, I sought out only record stores with the same vibe as the Sleeve. When I went away to college in Eau Claire, that store was Truckers Union. When I moved to Green Bay, that store was Freedom Records and Earthly Goods. When I moved to Madison, I hit the mother lode, getting new records from B Side Records and used records from Madcity Music Exchange and Sugar Shack Records.
Of all those cool record stores in all those places I lived, all but two are still in business. One that’s gone is Freedom Records and Earthly Goods. That figures. Gone from Green Bay, where I have lived for the last 17 years.
Gone is the soft whump of the albums falling together as you looked through them.
Gone is the subtle whiff of incense kicked up by the soft whump of those albums.
Give me that soft whump over the harsh clack of a jewel case any day.
Handed the pot and the double album, a million thoughts rushed through my head. None of them had anything to do with Rod Stewart or whoever was on the album.
“I’ve seen pot cleaned like this before, but I’ve never done it. Is she going to see that?”
“Is this some sort of test? Is it a good thing if I know how to do this? Or is she gonna think I’m a lowlife if I know how to do this?”
“Is this really pot? Are you sure it’s not oregano?”
“If it is pot, do we get to smoke any of it?”
I recall there were a lot of stems and seeds in that pot.
I must have done OK with that double album, though.
That girl and I have been together ever since, married for the last 20 years.