Adam Mansbach 2008

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by Adam Mansbach

To capture sound is to isolate a moment, canonize it, enter it into the historical record. The genius of vinyl is that it allows – commands! – us to put our fingerprints all over that history: to blend and chop and reconfigure it, mock and muse upon it, backspin and skip through it. Vinyl spins like the earth on its axis, the planets around the sun, the hands of a clock. Unspools like time itself. Our ability to control it symbolizes a power greater than any we have over our own lives.

Look closely, and you can see where the grooves of a record widen, indicating a sparseness that can only be a bass solo, or grow denser to accommodate a cresting density of sound. The studious observer can read a record as one reads a book, or the face of a lover: seeing everything and nothing at once. He can drop the needle on the drum break with the precision of a surgeon making an incision. If he has two copies of the record, and two turntables, and sufficient manual dexterity, he can alchemize the incidental into the infinite, extend the groove for as long as anybody cares to dance. In Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, humans (though they don’t know it) can reproduce only if five aliens participate, unseen, in the sex act. So it is with vinyl. We broker the couplings, manipulate the genetics of the offspring. But we are merely ghosts, seeking a way back into an act of creation that has already been closed to us.

Vinyl is democratic, as surely as the Ipod is facist. Vinyl is representational: it has a face. Two faces, in fact, to represent the dualism of human nature. Vinyl occupies physical space honestly, proud as a fat woman dancing. Shelves bow beneath its weight; digitized music marches in single file to disguise its numbers. Vinyl accepts the ravages of nature, embraces its own frailty, as we all must. Sun warps it. Turbulence disturbs it. Ill treatment scars it, for life.

Vinyl does not accept the verb “buy.” “Buy” is for pedestrian transactions; for goods and services that are readily available: tomatoes, handjobs, movie tickets, treasury bonds. Vinyl is dug for, quested after, discovered. It is never new, always used; how and by whom and to what end, we will never know. It is from a time when mankind respected music enough to insist that it be ornamented with art. It makes archaeologists of us, historians, mystics; we attempt to date it, divine its worth, anticipate its content. To spend extravagantly on a rare treasure is honorable. To drop so much as a dollar on an unworthy platter is to wreath oneself in shame.

What are we looking for, as we ransack our uncles’ attics and squat uncomfortably over thrift store bins? The record god Afrika Bambaataa claimed it was “the perfect beat,” but really it is what we’re always seeking: ourselves. Our heritage and our inheritance. Artifacts of better times and distant lands and the stupefying diversity of mankind’s sonic output. Photographs of girls in bikinis. No matter what we find, we continue to look.

Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  videos  music  interviews  other writing