Living in the Analog World

The great rock critic Lester Bangs once dreamed about having a basement with every album ever recorded in it. The thing is, Bangs’ basement now exists on the Internet. Nothing is rare and nothing is unknown. The digital world grows by the nanoseconds and milliseconds are obsolete. When I was a kid I used to try to think of the biggest number ever, but always puckered out somewhere after one hundred gajillion-billion-zillion-million. And one.

Bangs probably would have been freaked out if he knew his dream basement would become reality. The guy wrote an Elvis obituary wondering if the world could ever agree on love or Elvis or anything ever again. He spoke to an increasingly fragmenting culture back in 1977 when he wrote, “we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.”

Bangs couldn’t have foreseen that there’s something worse than no Elvis. There’s no John Lennon. There’s no Michael Jackson. There’s no record stores. And there’s nobody sitting around listening to records. We don’t sit down on the couch, have a drink with a friend, listen to side one of a record, flip it over, and listen to side two. We don’t remember the rules—that you can talk before the record and in between sides and during the crappy songs, but Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands requires full reverence.

There’s no reverence anymore. Instead, there’s earbuds and playlists and leave-me-the-hell-alone looks—which face it—you need on subways and buses.

Don’t mind me. I’m just being old and obsolete and living in the analog world. Digital music is codes. Ones and ohs. Numbers. One hundred gajillion-billion-zillion-million. It hurts my head. Analog means to use signals or information represented by a continuously variable physical quantity. See also, In a manner analogous to the variations in air pressure of the original sound. See also, Random variation.

On monoaural records, the fine print somewhere on the back cover always assures the buyer that “this is a high-fidelity recording, designed for the phonograph of today or tomorrow. Played on your present machine, it gives you the finest quality of reproduction. You can buy today, without fear of obsolescence in the future.”

I wish I came with that kind of disclaimer.

See also, A thing seen as comparable to another. Recently I found a secondhand bookstore tucked into the corner of an unsuspecting strip mall, next to a sushi place and a paint store. It was the kind of strip mall where it looks like it might be mobbed, but then you realize there’s actually tons of parking spots, and it’s just the lazy suburbanites hunting and scrapping over the first few rows. Being a competitive animal, or maybe just an asshole, I like to scan the closer spots to see if I can snipe one off. I’m not lazy, I just want to win. I have medals in getting good parking spaces, people. MEDALS.

Before even walking in, you can tell this is the perfect kind of bookstore, the kind roughly the size of a closet. At least a master bedroom closet. Old light bulbs with metal filaments give off an apricot glow. Musty wooden shelves press to the ceiling and loom over—or perhaps more accurately, hunch over, like old giants. And if you are quiet, and if you listen carefully, you’ll swear you hear those shelves breathing, the sounds of giants harrumphing over us mere mortals below.

This is the kind of place without hip kids in wool hats and lattes—but rather the kind with an inch of dust collecting on the shelves and maybe some cat hair, too. The kind of place with a girl behind the counter who could be anything between twenty-seven and forty-seven years old, reading a book, and that’s all she minds to do. If you have a question that’s not idiotic, she will be happy to answer it. But if you’re interrupting to ask where the Dean Koontz books are, you really shouldn’t be in this holy place.

And no, she also doesn’t know the name of that book by the name of that author you can’t remember.

And no, e-books. Just no.

She’s wearing a dowdy but comfy sweater and a no-fuss ponytail. I decide she’s definitely twenty-seven because the slouch neck of the sweater reveals the spaghetti strap of a tank top—and I decide she’s probably fun. A good time. Wild, in fact. You just know with those ones.

Then in the back, there’s a possible treasure hunt—the everything else section, where there are CDs, DVDs, VHS tapes, and best of all, vinyl records. I try to tip toe past the giants, skipping over their books, but I hear them sigh in disdain. I want to explain myself. You see, I just bought all these books last month that I already have no time to read. I swear, honestly, my bedside table has like six piles plus a few more on the floor. I’ve got to sleep in the same room as the books I’m currently reading, and right now, it’s an orgy. Look, honestly, I got them at a real bookstore, at the Borders before it went out of business. Thirty of ’em, all glossy and virginal and smelling of ink and fresh pulp, sweeter than the smell of citrus.

I know, I should have gone more often. I should have bought more books before it closed. We all should have. It’s a shame, and it’s our fault, and we know it. Well, some of us do.

But it’s no use to plead with the giants. The won’t hear my case. They’re old and they’re grumpy, and they have wiser things to talk about. Theirs are conversations we cannot hear or understand, like a child playing on the floor under the table, while the adults smoke cigarettes and sip beers above, speaking in hushed and solemn tones. We long to be a part of it, to know what of it, but then we grow up and wish we could go back to not knowing. Wish we could go back to underneath the table, our secret fort, where the dog also watched guard, our trusty sidekick.

I miss my sidekick. Us mortals are too sensitive. Wound too easily. Take it all too personal. Man up now, suck it in and stand up straight. Rah rah, and all of that. Onward march then.

I make my way to the back, past the giants, past the girl, and also past an owlish man studying the rows of books in the military history section, which is labeled in handwritten scrawl on a piece of masking tape. The records sit in crates on the floor, in crates behind those crates, and in haphazardly stacked piles on top of the crates and the crates behind those. Hoo boy.

Right away I could see it wasn’t the usual thrift store fare in the crates, the stuff grandma doesn’t even listen to—the Herb Alberts, the Sing Alongs with Mitch, the banged up Christmas records. This was actual, honest-to-god rock and roll in here.

So I’m crouching and flipping through the crates, my knees starting to tingle and the lactic acid racking up in my calves. Suddenly the next LP I flip to is Sgt Pepper. As in Lonely Hearts Club Band. As in the Beatles. A nice clean, beauty of a copy, too. Usually that shit is snapped up and put eBay for a million dollars plus an additional billion dollars shipping. Or it’s placed behind some glass counter and marked up to fifty bucks, even if looks like it was ran over twice and wouldn’t be worth that much if Ringo sneezed on it.

Instead, here it was among the common and mortal records, in the $4 crate, although admittedly it was meekly marked as $10. This is the Beatles, after all. The book store owners weren’t fools. I bought it because I always buy multiple copies of Beatles records. I’m forever chasing after that one good clean copy without a speck of dust gunking the inner grooves. Gunk is reality in the analog world. But this one was pretty. There was no ringwear and the colors were vivid. The corners were sharp.

It wasn’t until I got home that I noticed the inside sleeve. Early Pepper copies came with a pink-swirl on the sleeve. It intrigued me enough to do some Googling. And make some phone calls. And have my friend pull out his “Field Guide to Beatles Records,” a book he swears he’s never “used in the field, whatever that means.” (LIES.)

I became sucked into a massive wormhole of arcane Beatles knowledge, a circle of hell in esotericism. There are differences in the copyright information printed in microprint on the back covers, which is the difference between common copies and rarer ones. If it has a MACLEN and NEMS copyright on the back, it’s a common copy.

But my copy only had the NEMS copyright.

To my horror, three hours of research passed. I began sweating at the thought of my wife walking in the door from work, and me having nothing ready for dinner because I became obsessed with the subtleties of copyright information on the back cover.

“But it doesn’t say MACLEN, honey!” is not a valid excuse.

SWEET CIRCLE OF HELL.

As it turns out my copy is one of the rarer first pressings, a copy in its condition worth $100-$200. That gives me hope, in a digital world where everyone has a computer in their pocket—that you can still stumble into a little closet of a bookstore and unsuspectingly find a rare Beatles record that someone else didn’t know about, not even yourself. Perhaps it’s something fated in the analog world: a bit of random variation, a speck of dust among the ones and ohs.

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21 responses to “Living in the Analog World

  1. That’s pretty damn awesome. I have daydreams of finding something like that, but alas, my collectibles are only valuable to me.

  2. Congrats, man. There’s no better feeling than finding a true diamond in the dirt.

  3. Nice find, even if it’s my least favorite Beatles record. I’d have picked it up too, ‘cuz you really can’t pass up cheap Beatles records.

    There’s a book store in PA called “the Book Barn” which is literally a barn housing tons of books. I loved visiting that place when I lived up there. That or any used book store really.

    It’s funny, I talk with my friend about listening to vinyl all the time. I’m much too modern to buy into the “it sounds better” argument, mainly because of, as you mention, dirt and dust detracting from the experience. But the thing is, putting on a record is still an actual experience. No “skip” buttons, no iTunes “shuffle,” you literally have to listen to the entire album. And not even in one sitting! As you have to get up and turn the damn thing over.

    Making music something you have to pay attention to; rather than just background noise.

  4. Priceless find and one of the best albums of all time. Congrats and great read! Now you have me chomping at the bit to treasure hunt my own local, dusty old bookstores.

  5. The covers are often worth more than the record. I used to pick them up at thrift shops for $1 and cheap frame for friend’s flea market stall. Old Sinatra and such are popular for den and bar walls. Hawked a few to restaurants Italian singers 50’s, 60’s. $10-$15

  6. Sounds exactly like my local hole in the wall used bookstore. Its in a dingy tiny strip, between a tattoo palor and a Thai place. My favorite section, “the classics”, is on the very top shelf right in front of the door. I have to haul this huge ladder over there and climb way up to rummage, while anyone coming in has to pass underneath. No chance of any hipsters here. My favorite way to spend a Saturday afternoon!

  7. Thats the beauty of old bookstores-My dad got me a record player and a Sgt. Pepper LP when I was 14, don’t know how much he paid for it though!

  8. I always comb old bookstores and whatnot for those super special finds. I went to a yard sale a few months back and managed to score a variety of amazing selections for $2 each. As I was searching through the records, I realized it was a holy grail of yard sale records experience. I live for those moments. I also had a similar experience at a head shop. Who knew?

  9. Nice post. The digitisation of our world brings with it a lot of benefits but it takes a lot of the fun out of things as well. Nothing has any sense of uniqueness or charm anymore. I’m sure my generation will grow up with a completely different understanding of the world because of how immediate and homogenous everything is. I’m only 24, but I wish the world were still analogue.

    • you give me hope for the younger generation. nah, actually, your generation was always hip. I’m married to one of yall. It’s the ones after you that I’m afraid of.

  10. I loved your description of that book store. I felt like I was there – like I wanted to be there and I wished I was there and maybe someday I’ll be cool enough to be the girl working behind the counter reading.

    I used to lay on the floor in my mom’s old room as a kid and listen to her records. The record player had lights on the side and you had to be right next to the speaker to hear it. That was the best.

  11. Great post.

    If I walk past a stack of records anywhere–be it in a bookstore, yard sale, or out at the curb–without stopping to flip, I get an uneasy feeling. It’s because of experiences like the time I stopped to check a pile out near someone’s garbage and found a mono copy of Jimi Hendrix’s “Axis: Bold As Love” album, 1st Canadian pressing. Original mono copies of this record go for between $400–$1000.

  12. I have a love hate relationship with these kinds of stories. I love hearing about everyone else’s awesome finds, but I hate the fact that I never really seem to score one. Congratulations though, that is a nice find.

    I mentioned before that I have never really understood albums much, I prefer cds and mp3. For some reason the lyrics are much more important to me than the music, I will completely tune out long instrumental sections of songs and only clue in when my favorite lyrics come back. It wasn’t until I started playing Guitar Hero that I even began to notice this.

  13. Pingback: Monday’s Top 5 (Better Late than Never) | The Happy Logophile

  14. Just wanted to say this was one hell of a well written article. You put me right in that bookstore alongside you, the sights, the sounds, the smells. And I’ve heard those “giants” on the bookshelves many times as well my friend so I know exactly what you’re talking about when it comes to that description. Those kinds of “untouched by time” quiet dimly-lit places are my favorite places to be. Where it’s less like shopping and more like an adventure. And luckily there’s a place like that around here complete with cat and old lady reading books, sadly no classic vinyl or vhs though. i depend on Goodwill stores and Garage Sales for that.

  15. I’m young – but I mourn the lack of appreciation for a record from start to finish just as you do. with the flip inbetween.

  16. …thank you, seriously…after reading this i am feeling a slight glimmer of hope for human-creatures of my ilk, and that i certainly should NOT kill myself…because then the ipods would win..(.also, i don’t want all my records and pez dispensers going to some trust fund hipster who was born the year i graduated high school!!! fuck that!!!)

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