by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

I find them in the basement, right were I left them, on a dusty shelf, squeezed together, like cold cuts in a sandwich. Janis Joplin. The Beach Boys. The King and I. Did I always have this many?

“Long time, no see,” I say.

My albums say nothing.

Are they mad? It has been a while. Ever since that birthday, seven years ago, when the CD player arrived. It was black and shiny, with cool new gadgets and a little drawer that opened and closed.

“Wow, let’s get some CDs!” I had said, and we rushed out shopping. We came home with a bagful. So it began. My CD life. I bought more. And more after that. Soon I stopped listening to albums — “Too much scratchiness” — and CDs took over. They multiplied. They ruled.

One night, when things got crowded, I moved my albums down from the living room to this dusty shelf in the basement. And here they remained. A lifetime’s worth of music. The Kingston Trio. The Fifth Dimension. Blondie. In the basement.

“How have you been?” I ask.

The albums say nothing.

Perhaps they see through me. Perhaps they know. I am only here because my CD player broke. Something technical. The laser. Or the loader. The repair shop said “three weeks.” Something technical.

And there I was, with no music. Suddenly, I remembered. The record player. The record player still works . . .

“Come on, say something,” I ask Fabian, and Led Zeppelin, and the soundtrack to Fiddler on the Roof.

My albums say nothing. Handle with care

I reach up and pull out a Temptations LP. The jacket is faded, its edges frayed. When I shake out the vinyl, a hundred voices fall out with it. My father warning, “Hold it by the edges!” My mother warning, “Don’t do that, you’ll scratch it!”

So careful, you had to be with albums, so respectful of the music in the grooves. A CD, you can throw against the wall. But an LP? Gentle, gentle. Once, my kid brother and I held a Frank Sinatra record over a light bulb just to watch it melt. It oozed. It bubbled. When it cooled, we tried to slip it back inside the jacket and pretend nothing happened. The jacket bulged.

“Who melted my album?” my father yelled.

I laugh at the memory. I run my fingers along the edge of my collection. So many? How so many? In junior high, I used to save my lunch money Monday to Thursday, bumming sandwiches, skipping meals. By Friday, I had enough for one album in the Korvette’s record department. Steppenwolf. Carole King. The Persuasions. One a week. I would race home and rip off the shrink wrap. I was richer by yet another unit.

“How many albums you got?” the kids in high school would ask.

“Almost a hundred,” I would say.

“How many albums you got?” the kids in college would ask.

“Almost 300,” I would say.

How they grew! I took such pride in their organization, never mixing jazz with classical, or hard rock with soft rock. I look at them now, a growth chart of my life: Alvin and the Chipmunks. The Beatles. Elton John. Spyro Gyra.

“I need you,” I tell my albums.

My albums say nothing. It’s a mystery now

I find a Peter, Paul and Mary record. I put it on the turntable. The arm lifts slowly, like an old man crossing a bridge.

I watch with fascination. You can see it all work. You can see that needle drop. You can kneel alongside and tell if the vinyl is warped.

With a CD it is all such a mystery. The disc disappears. The drawer closes. Heaven knows what’s going on in there. Something with a laser. It sounds dangerous.

Puff, the Magic Dragon,

lived by the sea . . .

The record has static, it pops, it crackles. That’s the thing about albums. They sound their age. Not CDs. A CD is the same today as it will be in five years. It is music dipped in the Fountain of Youth.

I listen to my albums. The days pass. I listen to Sly and the Family Stone. And John Coltrane. And James Taylor. I think of high school and college and the fun we used to have. I get used to the crackle. I get used to actually having to stand up and turn the record over. I read the covers. I listen more carefully. I get sentimental and philosophical. I wonder why we always go to the newer, better thing in America. We ditch horses for cars, and ovens for microwaves. And albums for CDs.

And then the phone rings. My machine is fixed. I speed it home, hook up the wires, and slip the CD into the drawer. The music explodes, crisp and scratchless! I am amazed. I am hypnotized. I turn up the volume, and drown out all sound, including a sigh that comes from the basement.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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