It all started with Black Friday. My mom picked up a dirt-cheap turntable at Walmart as a Christmas present for a family member. It was a key purchase: inexpensive, useful and cool-looking. I did not accompany her on her Black Friday excursion this year, but when I heard about the record players I was intrigued. I have not owned a record player in many a year, but for some reason I became very curious.
Saturday we found ourselves back at Walmart, buying cat food.
"Do you want to see the turntables?" my mom asked.
"Sure," I replied.
We located the two remaining portable turntables in a special section. These were interesting, more like the plastic portable record players I had as a child than the massive stereo units that were popular when I was in college. They were no longer Black Friday cheap, but they were still inexpensive. They also had cool retro-styling, so I could see these little units being popular for their look alone.
The turntables were on low shelves. Above them were shelves of records. I glanced past the records, thinking "Oh, the record section." Then suddenly it hit me. I was looking at new vinyl records, on sale in 2019. This is something I had not seen for a long, long time.
Suddenly, I was fascinated. This had all the symbolic importance of an important archeological discovery. Vinyl on sale now. Obviously, the records were meant to be played on the turntables below. Which meant they were being marketed to young people who didn't have their 1980s collections of LPs gathering dust in their laundry room like I do. These were records for people who had never bought a record before, as well as people who had off-loaded their collections years ago.
I looked through the stacks. I assumed the records on sale reflected someone's version of the classics. There were albums by Elvis, Frank Sinatra, several by the Beatles. Also Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Eagles, Miles Davis and Patsy Kline along with Metallica's "And Justice for All," Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and Nirvana Unplugged. In the mix were also the soundtracks to Frozen and Rocketman as well as one by Taylor Swift -- so I am guessing some younger minds also had an input into the selection.
It was then I saw it. There are no words on the cover, but the image is legendary to people my age -- Led Zeppelin IV. I picked it up and sighed dramatically.
This was when my mother surprised me. "We do have a record player, you know," she said. It was an older one she ordered from a catalog, buried beneath a bunch of pictures on one of her shelves.
I placed the Led Zeppelin album carefully in the cart. Later when we were checking out of the store, the guy checking the receipt commented approvingly.
"Classic album, right there," he said.
A half hour later, Dorothy and I were crouched in front of her turntable. With all the ceremony of a religious ritual, I carefully removed the vinyl from its sleeve, put it on the turntable and placed the needle on the beginning to "Stairway to Heaven."
And here is where words fail. I listen to this song once in awhile in its live YouTube version, but hearing it on vinyl was something else again. I suddenly remembered why this song was the top pick on every music poll during my entire high school attendance. There is something otherworldly about it.
All the cliches applied. As soon as we hear the plaintive opening music, my mom and I were transfixed. The vinyl playback had a richness and depth that digital recordings lack. It was epic. It was magical.
Crap, I thought. I am going to have to buy a record player.
"We have to go back and buy more records right now," my mom said.
So we returned to Walmart and bought Creedence Clearwater Revival's Greatest Hits and one by the Eagles.
Back at the record player, she put Creedence on, but now there was a problem. Her mail-order turntable was suddenly not working correctly and nothing we could do seemed to fix it. It must need tuning up or something. But every record we played was suddenly way too slow, and yes it was set to the correct rpm. After experimenting with a dozen LPs we gave up. Reluctantly we closed the top and put the records away.
She will get it fixed or we will get another turntable. But our magical excursion into vinyl was over almost as soon as it began. I noted that the only song to be played in its entirety prior to the record malfunction was Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," but then that song was always reputed to have mystical properties so it made a certain sense.
So I will hang onto all my old records awhile longer, while we hunt for a suitable turntable setup that will work consistently. But I won't be deleting my YouTube bookmarks just yet.
Jessica Weston is an award-winning columnist and the city editor for The Daily Independent. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the official stance of the Daily Independent.