My parents had an old 1950s wooden, standalone record player in our family room on which I would play vinyl for hours at a time. Not everyone in the family enjoyed the music; my father referred to anything modern simply as “that noise.”
Back then, the generation gap increased weekly as my musical tastes evolved. When the neighbors gave away all their old 45s, I quickly devoured the collection, falling in love with “Telstar” by The Tornadoes and hundreds of other late ’50s and early ’60s hits. My friends would come over and we would pretend to be a band as we played the discs over and over again. The records we didn’t like served as lethal Frisbees thrown high in the air into a field next to my house.
Then I discovered boxes of my parents’ old 78-rpm records. When I played “Eddie My Love,” my mother looked up, stopped what she was doing in the kitchen and walked in to listen. “That’s our song,” she said softly about the tune with my dad’s name in the title. She hadn’t heard it in at least 15 years.
She smiled as I placed the needle at the beginning of the record again. I never forgot that song and how it put a smile on my mother’s face.
As a teenager I upgraded to an MCS sound system from J.C. Penney’s. It had a turntable, tape deck and receiver. It was such a thrill to set it up and listen to my own tunes in the privacy of my tiny bedroom. By this time the walls were covered with rock photos and posters, mostly of the Stones. Over the years the system was upgraded with new components as needed.
One day, though, everything changed.
In the early 1980s, an audiophile friend announced he wasn’t ever buying records again. All his new music would be on compact discs. A passing fad, I thought, just like quadrophonic stereos or mood rings.
With CDs touted as being indestructible and offering flawless, digital sound, it wasn’t long until vinyl began to die.
Most of my albums were replaced with CDs. Sometime in the ’90s, the turntable became a dust-covered relic, sitting unused in an entertainment center. I had often threatened to move the entire system upstairs to my man cave, as I still had all my records, but the thought of removing and then installing hundreds of cables kept the stereo downstairs. My digital music was easy to listen to on the computer and other devices, but something was missing.
A few years ago I received what might be the best gift my wife ever gave me, a Crosley retro turntable. It looks similar to that old record player my parents had, just smaller. It fit nicely in the man cave and was easy to use.
It had been at least a decade since I listened to one of my albums and, when I dropped the needle, the warmth and depth of the music stunned me. This was the sound I remembered as a kid; I instantly fell in love with vinyl all over again.
Records sound different from CDs, though it’s debatable as to which is “better.” But I’ve been telling everyone I know how wonderful these old records sound in comparison to digital. There have been many arguments with friends about the difference, but only one’s own ears can reveal which sounds better.
When Rosemary and Fulton Miklos heard of my resurrected vinyl obsession, they gave me a box of 78 records. The records had belonged to Rosemary’s late father, Paul Nakonezny. He ran the now-defunct Steel City Cafe on Preble Avenue.
Some of the records were from the juke box and others came from his personal collection. He passed away two years ago, and Rosemary and Fulton were looking to give the records a new home, where they would be appreciated.
I eagerly unpacked the box and started listening to the treasures inside. The songs and artists ran the gambit and, even though this was a far cry from the rock songs I love, they were magical in their own way.
Classics from Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Dinah Shore and Spike Jones were eye-opening. There were big-band records and amazing musicians I’d never heard of who filled the room with their unique sounds. What I used to consider “that noise,” I could now appreciate.
Things had come full circle. Records offer a different way of listening to music. Yes, they sound different, but there’s also something special about choosing and physically changing them.
As I went through the box, I found between two records a folded piece of decorative cardboard. Inside was a photo of Paul in his WWII uniform with a handwritten inscription to his wife. “To my one and only — Always. Love, Paul.”
I immediately called Rosemary to tell her about the photo, to get it back to her, but also to tell her how thrilled I was to explore the music they’d given me.
A couple days later, while sorting the records, I stumbled upon a copy of “Eddie My Love.” I carefully held it in my hands, making sure not to touch the grooves, and stared dumbfounded at the label.
As I listened to the sweet harmonies of The Chordettes for the first time in more than 30 years, the thoughts of that old wooden record player and my mother standing over it in her apron, smiling, filled my head.
I called her at the assisted-living facility where she lives now, telling her the amazing story and how I was making a copy of the music to play for her the next time we visited. She was surprised and happy to hear about the record, but my dad had passed away in 2005 and I could tell from her voice that it was bittersweet to think about old times.
She called me back 15 minutes later.
“Douglass, don’t bring the record,” she said, “it would be too painful to hear.”
For me, the memory of the song fills my heart, but for my mother, it evokes other emotions.
Music can touch our souls in many ways. It can help us remember the good times, but it also can remind us that those good times are gone forever. As the records spin hypnotically on the turntable, for me, they evoke memories of both.
Doug Oster is a staff writer and garden columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-779-5861). Visit his blog at www.post-gazette.com/gardeningwithdoug.