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National Columnists

The Village Idiot: No-stalgia – a memory problem

Jim Mullen
Jim Mullen

They say most people younger than age 30 these days wouldn’t recognize the sound of a needle scratching across a record.

And why would they? I wonder how many of them even have seen a record player. Would they know how to use it? Would they know the difference between a 33 and a 45? Would they know how to change a needle, how to lift the arm to put it on the right track?

I haven’t owned a record player for 30 years, which is why it bothers me when I hear people say that vinyl records sound better than digital playbacks. I guess some people enjoy pops and clicks and skips in their music, but not me.

There always will be some people who think the “good old days” were better. I used to work with a guy who insisted on using a fountain pen long after computers were common at the workplace. Sometimes I think about him and wonder where he’s starving now.

Every album and every song I ever bought as a kid is now on my phone, instantly available.

I can access any music I want from the past, the present and from all over the world, instantly – all of it in pristine condition, in digital files that never will wear out, pop or skip. I do not want to go back to the good old days of going to a record store, flipping through albums for hours, coming home and stacking three or four albums on the record player at a time, then having to be careful not to touch or scratch the record while sliding it back into its cover.

And don’t leave it in the sun, because it will warp.

In August 1965, I saw the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl. It was the next-to-last show they would play in the U.S. that year. My ticket cost $5, or as Roger Miller put it, “three hours of pushin’ broom.”

From my seat, I caught a glimpse of an armored car driving to the rear of the bandshell during one of the opening acts. When they took the stage, you actually could hear them over the screaming, even though they used small amps, no monitor speakers, no earpieces and no mixing boards. The vocals came through the public-address system.

In my memory, it was a great, unforgettable concert. That probably had more to do with the energy of the audience than the sound. The reality was probably more like a great bar band playing in a stadium. During Paul McCartney’s last concert tour in 2017, the average ticket price was $145, or 20 hours of minimum-wage work. But he played for more than two hours, and he had the best equipment money could buy. I doubt he was nostalgic for the old days.

So when people long for the sound of vinyl, or anything else from their past, I have to wonder: Do they miss the thing itself, or the way they felt back then? Because it probably wasn’t nearly as good as they think it was.

It’s getting harder and harder to separate real memories from rose-tinted nostalgia. That might be part of the vinyl revival. I do miss the album covers and the liner notes, the credits of writer, producer and engineer.

But I don’t miss the sound.

• Jim Mullen is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at mullen.jim@gmail.com.

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