I read somewhere that French writer Jean Cocteau, upon setting foot in his childhood home as an adult, could recall nothing of his past. But when he knelt on the floor, down to the height of his younger self, all memory came flooding back.
All it took for me was to walk through the heavy glass doors of the Oakland Museum of California, make a left turn and catch a first glimpse of a turntable and vertical amplifiers, topped by a milk crate stacked with records, pea-green beanbag chairs and headphones within reach.
Whoa, dude. I was transported back to my teen years in the 1970s, holed up in my room upstairs playing Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” album, ad nauseam, until my mother came close to screaming bloody murder. That’s when I, snot-nosed brat that I was, lifted the needle and played the angry anthem “Idiot Wind” with the speakers shaking the very window sills. Good times, those.
You, my fellow baby boomers, may experience a similar reverie at the museum’s current exhibit, “Vinyl: The Sound and Culture of Records.” And for you whippersnappers who think CDs represent ancient audio technology, you’ll be schooled in a previous generation’s stereophonic cool. Who knows, you might even be mistaken for a hipster, since LPs (“vinyl” is the preferred phrase these days) have ridden the retro wave among discriminating millennials – and certain pretentious rock stars – who wax poetic about the fuller, richer sound of songs pressed in wax.
An entire wing of the museum has been fashioned to resemble my old room – or yours, or the room you never had but badly wanted. In one corner sit sleek black-and-white turntables with the headphone jack in for private grooving to the records curated by children ages 4 to 12. I flipped through the milk crate, and these youngsters went for some old-school choices: Eric Clapton, James Taylor, Whitney Houston, Green Day (yes, Green Day now qualifies as classic rock) and newer artists such as Bruno Mars and LaRoux, the British synth-pop group.
No Dylan, but you can’t have everything. I moved aside a beanbag chair and unsleeved Clapton. The exhibit’s curator, perhaps aware that many might not know how to correctly play the record, offered visual and written directions (e.g., “Lift the arm from the cradle and gently swivel it over the record to where you want to begin playing.”) Again, more memories came gushing forth: how I never could master the technique of getting the needle to fall right at the beginning of, say, the third song.
Across the room was a wall dedicated to “Sleeve Face,” a photographic display of people holding up album sleeves embossed with the head shot of a singer to give the illusion that, say, David Bowie’s head is on your body.
“Isn’t that fun?” said Ana Arriola, a 20-something museum gallery guide. “I didn’t know anything about sleeves or sleeve faces before this.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell Arriola that sleeveface, one of those ephemeral Internet memes, was never a part of a ’70s youth culture. Most sleeves, young lady, were plain white and we liked it that way. And besides, if we took a selfie with our Polaroid, we could only share it with real-life friends, a few at a time, not the mass of “friends” humanity on the Interwebs.
As visitors make their way around the room, sort of like a spinning platter, they get into more “modern” times. That would be the ’80s and the full advent of hip-hop and DJs scratching away on turntables. The dual interactive turntables with a screen for the popular video game “DJ Hero,” a spinoff of “Guitar Hero,” was popular with the fourth-graders from Cragmont Elementary School in Berkeley, on a field trip. They elbowed each other out of the way to try their hands at turntablism like DJs of their parents’ generation, say, Grandmaster Flash.
“The kids know turntables from the video game,” parent Nick Gomez said. “It’s great they actually get to physically touch the turntables.”
Off in a distant corner, almost an afterthought, is a video screen showing 1950s-era educational film strips of geeky, horned-rimmed-glasses guys explaining the science and engineering behind this “cutting-edge technology.” It’s fun to watch for a goof, to see how earnest these audio pioneers – that era’s equivalent of Google-glass designers, perhaps – were in espousing their innovation.
But a graying, balding set of twins, Michael and Patrick Plott, 58, of Oakland, kept their eyes riveted to the screen. To call these two mere audiophiles is to call Einstein a math geek. Rather, they are sonic sommeliers who dissect every aspect of the recording and listening experience. I drifted over just as Michael, a freelance audio engineer who will whip out his Society of Broadcast Engineers and Audio Engineering Society cards without prompting, was giving a dissertation on the relative merits of vacuum-tube vs. solid-state amplifier technology.
“The vacuum tube has more dynamics,” Michael said. “When they pressed the records in the earlier days, they tried to stay on the same level with it. But with solid-state you don’t get the faithful reproduction. You just get a mediocre playback rendition. You’re not getting the bass and all that, the low levels and stuff. When they cut the records, they cut them with vacuum-tube amplifiers, but (played on) solid-state, it’s like hearing department store Muzak from your speakers. I know the Beatles, who recorded with vacuum tubes, were very disappointed with solid-state’s sound.”
When he started in on “input signals” and “ips” numbers and how vacuum tubes using a six-watt amp blew away 100-watt solid-state amps in terms of “audio frequency response and reduction of wow and flutter (measurements),” he lost me. My eyes glazed over.
I asked the twins if they really could hear the difference in richness from vinyl to CDs and compressed MP3 digital recordings, and they looked at me with incredulity, as if I’d asked something as obvious as “What is that fiery orange ball in the sky?”
“For CDs, they can’t exceed past 20,000 hertz,” Michael explained. “They have what’s called a brick wall limiter, which limits the recording quality of vinyl from a 35,000-hertz frequency response to a 20,000-hertz because of the quality and the standards of the compact disk. They’re going to cut any dynamics that they can. That’s why vinyl records are superb.”
Got all that? My brain was starting to hertz, uh, hurt. Clearly, the twins were way into vinyl. But beyond all the techie talk, I wanted to know if the old-school means of listening to music touched them viscerally.
“Definitely,” Patrick said. “I did buy Percy Faith’s ‘Themes for Young Lovers’ on CD – I’ve got the original album that came out in 1963, too – and the album is much, much higher quality.”
The twins frequent used-record stores, like Rasputin Music in Berkeley, but they also comb the Salvation Army and antiques shops.
“Oh, Reader’s Digest boxed record sets! Holy cow! They are so good,” Patrick said. “Sometimes on eBay, you’ll find boxed record sets. Look for the first 10,000th pressing, so it’s better quality of pressing. If you buy later ones, they press them so many times there’s hardly a groove. Hey, remember RCA’s Dyno-Groove?”
Uh, no. But Michael did.
“Yes, we used to call them Dyno-Warp,” he answered, guffawing at the private joke.
I left the twins to their reminiscing, mostly Michael schooling Patrick.
“We’re retired, but I’m trying to get my knowledge to him so we won’t get dementia,” Michael said. “You know what they say – learn new things.”
Vinyl: So old it’s new again.