I’ve been accused of being a hipster for as long as I can remember. A “hipster,” for those of you who don’t know, is someone who is on the cutting edge of, and has a particular interest in, that which is trendy. It is also a pejorative for those who are pretentious and seem to be into retro, kitschy, or “low-class” things as a signifier of just how high-class they are, or think they are. Fashion is also a big part of it.
In my case, I was definitely not a fashionista. But being a musician in the Boston scene in the 2000s made hipsterdom inevitable. I never had an ironic mustache—in fact, I never did anything ironically, not even wear the t-shirt I found in Cambridge with John Stamos’s face on it as he looked playing Uncle Jesse Katsopolis from popular 90s sitcom Full House. I bought that t-shirt because, as a Greek man, John Stamos is a cultural icon. I swear.
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(Okay, I also did it for the laughs).
In any event, the fact is that most of my tastes happened to overlap with hipsterdom and I couldn’t help it. I may have a red-state core, having grown up a devout Christian in the middle-of-nowhere New Hampshire with traditional values that’d would have been at home in my great-grandfather’s day, but I have a blue-state exterior. I like IPAs and craft beer, vintage pop cultural ephemera, flannel shirts (New Hampshire, baby!), the 1980s (I grew up in them!) and obscure bands. See, I find this stuff interesting. Yet one of the hipster trends I never hopped on was vinyl.
Not that I had anything against vinyl. In fact, I’m a big fan of physical media in general. I don’t like the idea of the fanatics in charge of things being able to zap out the “problematic” parts of past works they don’t like, I prefer physical books, and when it comes to music I had my misgivings about the move to digital, first onto mp3 players and then to pure streaming platforms like Spotify.
It wasn’t just the principle of not actually owning the thing I paid money for (leaving aside the fact that the money itself is digital), but the fact that physical music does sound better. I did enjoy listening to my father’s old record collection with my brother when we were kids, but I was a tape and then CD fan. I even thought about listening to only CDs a few years ago, but I still found myself importing new music onto my iPod after I bought the CD, and putting the CD into storage.
However, I recently made the plunge into the world of vinyl. My very observant mother overheard me say I’d like to get a turntable and records of some of my favorite bands someday and the next thing I knew her and my father got me a Sony PS-LX310BT record player for my birthday, as well as some speakers. I didn’t have a receiver, which my wife got me for Christmas, a Sony STR-DH190. I have no idea what any of those alphanumeric designations mean, or if those are “good” pieces of equipment or whatever—what I do know is that they make the music sound fantastic.
I don’t have many records. My collection includes Rush’s 2112, the 40th anniversary Moving Pictures boxed set with the live show from 1981, Power Windows and Hold Your Fire; the Beatles’ Abbey Road; and Van Halen’s debut album, Women and Children First, and 1984.
When I was a kid, I had a CD-player—a five-disc one!—with my dad’s old stereo receiver that had an actual needle dial and no digital display and his old speakers. I used to listen to music all the time in my room, just lying on my bed, lyric sheet in front of me or with my eyes closed, absorbing every nuance of every song. And it sounded good. But when I did the same thing with this vinyl set up, enjoying songs I’ve been listening to for twenty years or more in the same manner, lying on the floor of my basement where I have the thing set up, I heard new things in these old songs.
Like it or not, the hipsters were right: vinyl sounds amazing.
Here’s another thing I like about albums made during the vinyl era—they generally had 8 or 10 songs. Due to space limitations, you got the band’s best 40 or 45 minutes of music and that was it. No three bangers and an hour of filler. Given that, as friend and author JD Cowan puts it, rock music is about energy and excitement, albums that drag can be exhausting.
Do you know what I enjoy the most about listening to records? It’s the thing that people who grew up with vinyl were eager to replace their records with CDs to not have to do: make listening to music a thing. I like that you have a delicate object containing the sounds on it, that you have to handle it with care, putting it on a device you also have to be careful with. I like the wait for the needle to drop, the sound when it does, the fact that you can’t fast-forward or instantaneously replay parts you like, or songs you want to hear. No, you actually have to get up and move the needle. And when Side 1 is over, you have to walk over and flip the disc to Side 2. You have to be gentle with your equipment—the tone arm, the stylus . . . and be careful not to stomp or whatever while listening, or else the record will skip!
All of this turns listening to music into something active, a ritual. It makes music and the listening thereof feel special and not just another commodity, background noise to be the “soundtrack to your life” when you’re walking on the street or driving or working. I felt like a teenager again, settling in to let the music wash over me while I focused on nothing else.
It’s strange. When you read a book, you’re reading. When you watch a movie, you’re watching. When you play a video game, you’re playing. Heck, when you’re writing, you’re writing. Only music, of all the arts, seems relegated to background noise, something to move the air molecules so you don’t have to be alone with your own thoughts. What the music is doesn’t matter, just put something on to fill the void. How depressing.
Time doesn’t go as far as it should for me anymore. I am getting older, and 24-hours isn’t the same as it used to be. The days, man, the days . . . the cliché that time flies the older you get is 100 percent true, a cliché for a reason. If I’m going to do something with my ever-dwindling reservoir of hours and minutes and seconds, I want it to be high quality. This is why I appreciate records. If that makes me a hipster, then so be it.
It’s good to have reverence for things. Whether it’s listening to music, preparing or eating a meal, or going to church, the more important we make things feel, the more weighty, the more real they seem. Hitting a few keys to bring up what you want in less than an eye-blink just isn’t as satisfying as it was when I was 17 or 23. I want tangibility. I want substance. It’s also why I love my church:
Religions fundamentally understand this. I am a Greek Orthodox Christian. At church, the priest cannot simply read from the Gospel. He, along with the altar boys and deacons, must carry the Holy Bible in a procession around the church, incense censor fuming and bells chiming, with chanting and singing and a great deal of reverence.
The bread and wine are not transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ with a snap of a finger. The entire second half of the Divine Liturgy is devoted to asking for the Lord’s blessing to perform this mystery. And it takes a long time.
But you know what? When you approach the holy altar with fear and awe, and the priest dips his spoon into the chalice and doles you out a portion of the Lord’s body and blood, it tastes like more than bread and wine. It feels more than just a little dab of sweetness on the tongue to sate you until your after-church breakfast. What you experience is the sense that something really important just happened, and that you were a part of it.
This is another reason I’m personally not a fan of the AI art revolution, or whatever you want to call it. Give me something created by a talented artist—like my friend Manuel Guzman, perhaps—who put in the time and effort to get good and then produce something timeless.
Rituals are a chance to participate in the story. Deny people this, and they turn to puerile imitations of third-hand imaginary glory in order to find meaning. Don’t laugh too hard at that guy who’s all bent out of shape when some comic book character dies on the big screen. For far too many, that’s all he’s got. Purchasing the ticket and sitting in the theater is the ritual.
We are a transactional generation. We are a people so used to impersonal communication, efficiency and utility, pre-digested entertainment, and everything being done right away that a text-message breakup isn’t even a social faux pas anymore.
Everything has been demystified, rituals dismissed as superstitious woo that doesn’t matter to the rational materialist. But a funny thing happened on the way to the future: demystifying things stripped them of their meaning.
Not only will physical media give you the security of knowing that the people in charge of what is supposed to be correct thinking can’t change it on the fly, it will make you an active participant in the thing in which you are partaking. It, dare I say it, re-mystifies things.
It’s why I enjoy smoking cigars, especially while writing. The hour or so it takes me to smoke, maybe have a sip of whiskey, forces me to sit down and focus. This is a thing that our ancestors understood because they didn’t have the same distractions we did. No cell phone calling to you for quick dopamine hits as you put feathered pen into inkpot and then to paper.
No, I’m not going back to handwriting manuscripts. I tried that once, and my wrist still hates me.
In all things, I appreciate the physical aspect of doing it. Except movies. I worked at a movie theater. Old-school movie projectors are a colossal pain in the ass. Yes, I had incidents with those Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions that totally ruined the moviegoers’ nights, having to give out free passes to another show because the film snapped or some doohickey broke down. But I learned how to splice film and fix those machines, which was pretty magical now that I think about it. At the time, I hated the experience, but looking back I appreciate the fact that I was doing more than just pressing a button.
Just a few things to think about as you think about the days slipping away into the unrecoverable past. Tangibility, friends. Tangibility is healthy. What’s old is new again for a reason.
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