Thursday, December 20, 2007

Sacred Art of the LP

Music is a religion. Some see the act of collecting it as a sickness, an all encompassing obsessive addiction like gambling that can cause friction or even bankruptcy. I don't choose to see it that way when I am feeling good. When I am feeling like I am too obsessed with material things, or have spent money I don't have just so I can get that one last record (an impossibility), then I start thinking about forming my own chapter of RCA (Record Collectors Anonymous)! Perhaps the collector who is too worried about preserving the object and not enjoying it in a holistic way is warped.

For music fans, musicians, and collectors the world over, the holistic approach to appreciating music can be a positive thing of beauty. The act of playing music (whether live or a recording), as well as listening and dancing to it, not to mention recording and collecting recordings of it, is a vital, integrated component to a healthy spirit. It is all part of the sacred art of the LP, as well as one of the cornerstones of modern cultural productivity and the civilizations that support these activities.

For those initiates who consider themselves the acolytes of vinyl collecting (the monks and nuns of music collecting if you will), the record jacket serves as a protective sanctuary that houses the spiritual medicine within, an illuminated manuscript singing praises to the spirit of rhythm and melody. It is a portable shrine, the empty vessel waiting for the blood of aural salvation, a chalice that holds the salve that cures the dripping sores of modern life. It is a dog-eared, water-stained dusty icon encased in a plastic shroud, the cover of this holy tome often bearing the image of a patron saint or sinner, sometimes depicting the act of the ritual of making/dancing to music or some metaphoric story of redemption/damnation.

The album sleeve acts as a talisman that stands in for the precious archive of sound vibrations inscribed in the grooves of the record within. The record is a seemingly mute opaque object that spends most of its existence sheathed like a holy sword in the dark of its cardboard scabbard, but springs like the Phoenix into fiery life at the flick of a switch. Collectors see the lacquered ebony disc as the communion wafer, the bread representing the host of the song. Some are greedy with this manna from the heavens, and others just want to spread the word. Sadly, eBay has made obtaining this commodity both easier for the armchair novice (so it is now less of an arcane hunter-gatherer skill), and it's made it much more expensive.

Though we can hold the LP in our hands easily enough, the sacred mystic in the music is not to be defined, catalogued, or annotated; the answer to the mystery of sound is left best unheard. Though a compact disc can be reproduced at home today, in olden times the vinyl record could not be copied exactly, only a mere shadow of itself in the form of the bastardized cassette tape was available to the novice. Each slab of plastic from Elvis to Stockhausen is a juju bundle stuffed inside an effigy; the album cover is like the painted face on the sarcophagus in the mummy’s tomb; the graphic artists and designers who crafted those LP jackets are really ancient Egyptian doctor/priests that prepare their divine rulers for the afterlife. Designers and illustrators that toiled in virtual anonymity for the record labels were like monks bent on illuminating the songs of the gods, embroidering events from the quotidian to the imaginary. Though the individual musical artist may perish (often too early), the gilded cover with the face and album title lingers on. That is the legacy of the graphic artists and designers who created these mass-produced works of art, from Alex Steinweis, father of the modern 12 inch LP cover, to Izzy Sanabria, innovator in the realm of Latin album art, to the team of Miles and Wolf and that brought the best of Blue Note out into the world.

Perhaps one could say that the LP jacket, record, and original master tape form a holy trinity where the latter is the altar, the record is the body, and the former is the spirit. Every time we play a disk it’s like a sacrificial offering to the muse.

For the record fanatic and graphics hound, seeing is believing: a good cover is like music to the eyes. The act of discovering a beautiful or outrageous design for the first time can be even more delicious than biting into the forbidden fruit of dropping the needle on a rare groove. The collector has learned to never ever judge a book by its cover or vice-versa. Some of the worst music has been sold as the stuff of the Gods due to its pretty packaging. The act of sharing that album and its aesthetic wonders is like converting the heathen, for seeing the details in a cover or hearing the nuances in a song can make a person feel reborn, if only for 3 and a half minutes.

For the music aficionado the vinyl record is an invocation of spirits, a revelation of crackling creative energy, holding the flash of inspiration. This life force is miraculously contained and preserved like a firefly in a bottle within the ark of 33, 45, or 78 revolutions per minute, and the DJ is therefore its high priest. Record collecting, selecting and playing is a ritual that awakens the divine. Some kind of miraculous energy transference occurs from hand to tone arm to disk to ear.

This is not an exclusive sect, however. We are all potential DJ/gurus, because the act of pulling an LP from the altar of one’s record crate and playing a song for someone is a simple pop ritual almost anyone can participate in because the tools and materials are mass-produced. In this aspect, this religion has an egalitarian mass appeal. Yes, some records are expensive or rare, some fans are audio-file freaks with outrageous sound systems, and of course some collectors are fanatical rogues who keep the best stuff to themselves, hardly seeming to enjoy their riches it is true. But the other religion is no unimpeachable edifice of righteous values, for there are some houses of worship that are ostentatious, deluxe and ornate, there are some conservative clerics with intolerant extremist views, and there are definitely some rituals that are closed to only the initiated. There is a certain exclusion in this that adds to the mystery. Faith can withstand anything. I will take a record listening party over a drumming circle any time!

If the record has been heard (perhaps many times) before, and is a revered, well-worn album, then the DJ is the priest officiating at a ceremony of musical memory. Thus the LP becomes the fetish that symbolizes the connection between the participant audience in the present and the original shaman/musician in the past. Records can thereby provide a sense of identity, of rootedness in an ever-changing world of ephemera and mutating realities. But vinyl LPs too are extremely susceptible to the ravages of time, and can be maimed and martyred by scratches, cracks, chips, dust, grease, and wine spills. So thankfully they are not too permanent, or else we would become complacent and some of their specialness might wear off.

In addition to providing relief at hearing something familiar, certain forms of beloved recorded music often serve to center people, give them faith in themselves and their community, especially for the marginalized, the discriminated against, or those immigrant groups living on the hyphen (i.e. African-American, Latino-American, Native American). Looking at old record covers, as well as listening to traditional tunes, can impart a reassuring sense of belonging, being moored to a solid cultural foundation, venerating the ancestors, feeling the bitter sweet nostalgia of days gone by in a land far away. The joy is that participating in this religion of memory is an infinitely renewable act with each play of the record or viewing of a favorite cover.

Similarly, the modern night club or radio DJ of today is re-enacting that special ancient bond born of the creative interplay between the original musicians and the participant dancers of their community back in the day. In other words, even in our own time there is no one-way interaction between priest and congregation, healer and patient, musician and dancer, DJ and audience, collector and collection. That's what's so special - it's not a dead end street. Indeed, contrary to popular belief, we don’t own the records, they own us. They are actually records of our own histories, albums where a song is like a snap shot from some part of our life or from the community as a whole, with each cut, every groove chock full of recollections that sit in those concentric rings like dust between the floorboards of memory. Playing records is an act of communion with the musician, with the divine muse that sparked the musician, and with the audience that experienced it in the past, as well as those experiencing it in the present. Memory, desire, time, place, the senses, feelings of belonging, rage, joy, anger, alienation, sensuality, abstract abandon, all can be invoked by the art of the LP. The record jacket in this instance serves as a nostalgic postcard from the paradisiacal past, a visual marker of imagined memories, a scratch-n-sniff site where perceived identities and experiences vicariously relived are located. Conversely, certain covers can conjure up a terrible past best left buried.

A DJ who can mix tunes together skillfully in a deft flow in order to manipulate and move a congregation to heights of ecstasy on the dance floor is really preaching a sermon. There is a certain alchemy involved in making a great mix of elements, be it the DJ juxtaposing songs of different origins on the radio/tape/dance floor, the musician recording and sequencing an album’s worth of songs, or the designer mixing and matching type and image on the album cover. As an old bluesman once said, music is a ‘mixtury,’ the mystery of which is not to be discovered by the mere mortal in this life.

©2007 Pablo E. Yglesias