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Essay: For the record, vinyl is still great

Posted 9:00am on Wednesday, Apr. 18, 2012

I've worked in newspaper-related jobs ever since I was 19 years old, whether it was as a circulation-department route manager or as a reporter covering contentious city hall meetings in a growing New Mexico city. The only exceptions were a brief, barely worth mentioning stint as a weekend country-radio DJ and a slightly less brief but much more fondly remembered gig working at a Sound Warehouse in my hometown of El Paso. It's on my mind as Record Store Day, April 21, approaches.

I worked at Sound Warehouse from December 1983 to September 1984. The earliest compact discs hit our shelves shortly before I left, but it was still the vinyl era. I'd considered myself pretty well-informed about mainstream music, but I had colleagues introduce me to early work by R.E.M and the Cure, who weren't getting a lot of airplay on El Paso radio. It was great to work around music, even if it was only to admire album-cover artwork for artists I otherwise ignored.

And it was a great time for mainstream pop music. The summer brought the twin towers of Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A and Prince's Purple Rain. But there were also Van Halen's 1984, the Cars' Heartbeat City, the Pretenders' Learning To Crawl (a manager who didn't like the Pretenders gave me his promo copy -- his loss), Stevie Ray Vaughan's Couldn't Stand the Weather, Tina Turner's Private Dancer and others hits and personal faves. I became a convert to the Police's Synchronicity and John Mellencamp's Uh-Huh after hearing them repeatedly on the store's sound system, and I probably wouldn't own copies of Huey Lewis and the News' Sports or Night Ranger's Midnight Madness if store airplay hadn't worn down my resistance.

Our store wasn't as cool as the one in High Fidelity, but we did have a rock dude who had the music-geek snottiness of Jack Black's character. He usually reserved his condescension for colleagues who were uninformed or didn't share his tastes. Our classical-music guy, who went on to sing in opera companies, once said he didn't like Jimi Hendrix because Hendrix used amplification in his guitar-playing. "If you don't like Jimi Hendrix," sneered the rocker, who looked a little like Billy Idol, "you must not know anything about music."

We did get questions of the "I'm looking for a song, but I don't know the title" variety. "I'm looking for a song called Carry Me a Tree," one customer said. When I suggested that the song might be Billy Ocean's Caribbean Queen, the customer argued with me till I played the single and showed him the title.

It was a great job, but the pay was lousy (we did get a 15 percent discount on records).

After I started my first newspaper job, I kept going back to Sound Warehouse, like the guy who keeps returning to his high school long after he graduates. But then again, I spent a lot of the '80s in record stores, including the used stores where you could walk in with 20 bucks and leave with more than 10 LPs if you didn't mind a few scratches.

Eventually, I made the CD transition, and so did a lot of "used" stores. CDs took some of the fun out of record collecting because they were harder to damage than vinyl and more expensive to buy used.

I hung onto my vinyl for a long time, though, finally boxing it up for a move in 1998. Two moves later, it was still in boxes, and I sold it all.

Vinyl has been making a comeback during the past few years. It's time for it to make a comeback in my house. I've found that CDs and digital downloads both serve a big purpose for me, but I need to make that reconnection with warmer sound and larger album art, even if I don't have anything to play it on yet. I'll be picky; it'll be the records that meant a lot to me. Record Store Day is coming up, but by the time you read this, I may have already started.

For more on Record Store Day, check out our Music Minute from Preston Jones.

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