Rocco invited me over to his dorm room to listen to some records–the first time I had ever listened to a record player. I layed back in his bed and he put on Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel, side B. “The Boxer,” which I have since regarded as the best folk rock song ever written, came out of the speakers in a way I had never experienced. “I am just a poor boy and my story’s seldom told/I have squandered my existence on a pocketful of mumbles: such are promises.” I’ll never forget that afternoon.
Humans are different. We reach into the heights of goodness, truth, and beauty; we pull down hope and love into our hearts along with fear and sadness. And our flesh, our faces, our dances, our tears, the work of our hands, invites the contents of our heart into our realm and gives them homes. The human person hungers to make the invisible visible.
Of all the uniquely human enterprises, few hold such a raw ability to embody the human tendency to enflesh beauty as music does. Music almost instantaneously stirs us up within us a longing for home, the desire for life-giving love, a sadness over what we’ve lost: in a word, everything that makes us human. It is the natural fruit of humanity – in some ways the essence of humanity – and therefore the most human forms of music possess a power that other forms do not. Vinyl records possess such a power.
When I listened to The Boxer on vinyl that afternoon, it sounded like that poor boy was in the room singing me a song. The music sounded so much more real, like the moment after six months of talking on the phone when you can finally laugh with a lover in person. Vinyl removes many layers of computerization and gets to, literally, the real vibe of the music, the voice and the face of the music. The emotions and the thoughts of the artist, then, become incarnate in our lives in a more pure and powerful way.
That sound initially charmed me into instant love of vinyl, but the culture surrounding records sealed it. In Birmingham we have two record stores on the south side of town, Charlemagne and Renaissance Records, and they rank easily as two of the coolest places in the city. Plastered from floor to ceiling with music, weird books, and classical art, both shops are the home to hipsters, jazz enthusiasts, flower children, wanderers, and college students all gathering together to share something they love; they gather to return to the primordial human experience of togetherness.
Vinyls also open up the potential of an album. Like a collection of short stories or a collection of chapters in a novel, many albums weave songs together to create a larger work greater than the sum of its parts. Modern methods of listening to music generally abandon this tendency: radio, music videos, and buying singles on iTunes tend to limit the experience of music to single bursts of 3 or 4 minutes at a time. Vinyl 33’s force us out of that instant satisfactory mindset and allow us to experience music as a more complex experience.
The sound, the culture, and the format of vinyl all add up to making it an extremely human and therefore powerful method of listening to music.
At this point it would be very easy for me to slip into a hipster rampage saying that vinyl is the only way to go, but I don’t believe that. Recently my wife and I had a Kenyan man named Edwin over to our apartment. During the course of the night I asked him, “Edwin, do people in Kenya often sing?” His eyes grew large, he leaned in and whispered as if his answer deserved reverence and awe:
“All the time.”
The true power of music is unleashed when it pervades every moment and space of our lives, every shade of sorrow and joy comes out in our own voice. The most human experience of music is when you and I sing it in our own concrete situations, when we reach into the expanses of goodness, truth and beauty and – good voice or bad, talented or not – let those longings and heartbreaks break out of us and mingle with the voices of others like Edwin does.
The commercial music industry has left us to lose sight of that fundamental incarnational quality of music. Music happens under earbuds or in dark rooms with many layers of touching up; out of touch with our own lives and out of touch with our communal lives with others. Vinyl’s true value lies in its ability to bridge that gap. It helps bring music out of the mangle of computerization and back into the realm of organic sound shared with others. But even that isn’t enough. It will never be enough until our throats and homes vibrate with the songs of our own voice bringing what’s inside of us outside. Vinyl, I’ve experienced, can inspire us on our way there.