On Tangibility

Vinyl record player
Photo by Anton H

I drop the needle on a reissue of Abbey Road in the den, a small room with a brick fireplace, the phonograph, four crates of vinyl, three bookshelves, two armchairs, and no screens. The record skips and warps after it crackles. I tell the boys, three and five, to take their hands off. In effort to model another experience not centralized by my phone, I sit on the Ikea mid-mod chair with a small thick book: The Beatles (in Pictures). Before digital cameras on smartphones and quantified interaction on social media, the best measurement for fame would be to count the number of a subject’s published photographs, and The Beatles were considered the most photographed people of all time. I pull the boys onto my lap and flip through the book pages like a montage, the hair and clothes growing and receding and brightening, then backtrack to the common black-and-white of the foursome’s first night on Ed Sullivan’s stage.

Now it’s story time. This was on Gram’s eleventh birthday, I tell the boys. Their great-grandfather called her downstairs to check out their haircuts. Later, she wore out their records and tacked up a John poster. It’s cool, I say. All these years later, same songs, same albums, I love The Beatles too. And so do they, right? (Nodding.) I don’t tell them, in truth, that it’s not the same. I experience the photos in the book as relics. I’ve seen their movies, but not in the way my mother saw their movies, and I doubt the boys will ever be that interested. But watching the band through time, at that age and in that now, she must have felt like she got to know them better—beyond their recorded songs, TV appearances, and photographs—through these scripted versions of their characters in comic scenarios. I flip pages to the tween girls in the front rows of early concerts, screaming so loud the band couldn’t hear each other. Their arms often reach toward the stage. “That could have been her,” I say. Like my kids every time we spin a record or open a book, I trick myself into believing something’s real by putting my hands all over it.

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Here’s a story I won’t tell my kids any time soon: at 21, I started a local bar band that lasted a few years and set me back a few more. Before that, I’d been obsessed with improving on guitar so I could create a similar commercial musical product as a band from fifty years ago, hopefully one that would also be pressed on vinyl. I bought my first record sometime before then. I did not own a record player yet. I liked that vinyls were shaped like CDs, but bigger. I’d recently gotten an iPod and felt strange about it. I had only heard Magical Mystery Tour ripped from a torrent site until I listened to it on headphones at the public-use turntable. It did sound better uncompressed—odd little tracks I’d never heard underneath. It could have been the Bose, or the weed I’d smoked in the car, but I was certain it was the object.

Soon, months would pass where I did not listen to any music except The Beatles, but sometimes I listened to their albums on the iPod instead of the turntable. Their songs were the only ways I wanted to feel (other than stoned), and I felt them either way. I learned to approximate George Harrison on the guitar. I would hear in my head his licks and, trying to play them but not knowing how, would hit the same spirit but different—his but mine but his. This is maybe one step above a kid with Cheeto-stained fingers playing Guitar Hero in his bedroom.

When starting the band, we promoted ourselves through a MySpace page. We did this even before we had music uploaded. We posted photos. We friend-requested random people on other band pages, hoping to boost the appearance of our popularity and get more people to our shows, which would further boost the appearance of our popularity when we photographed them. We thought we might be able to get people into our music on appearance alone.

Two years later, after settling for mp3s of our songs because we couldn’t afford vinyl, I moved three states north with my band and signed a year lease in my name only for a four-bedroom split-level up a mountain in the woods. I am not very smart. I went $7,000 in debt laying out money I didn't have on a credit card for roommates who spent their portion of rent at bars (and for my own bar tabs). Before we moved, I knew I was making a bad decision, but I was hopeful we could become The Beatles. Or if not The Beatles, at least someone worth looking at on Facebook posts. Being watched when you want to be watched is in some ways just as good as being touched when you want to be touched. Sometimes it’s better.

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That part of my life didn’t all end bad. I remember, as “Oh Darling!” launches from the album, the time I fell in love with Amy watching her perform an acoustic cover of it at a dingy open mic in a strip mall by the college. Drunk and stoned, I slid down my seat onto the sticky floor. My friend said, Get up, Wheaton. You’re embarrassing yourself. I didn’t care.

Months later, Amy fell in love with me, stoned and drunk on my bedroom floor, lights out, candle lit, listening to the Abbey Road medley on side B. We were bound by media. Throughout our early relationship, we watched countless movies on a small laptop screen in bed. We favored rom-coms in black-and-white and screened double features naked under the covers, falling in and out of dreamy love-making, threesomes with blithe tit-for-tat scenes of well-arranged moving images and sounds. A go-to night: A Hard Day’s Night and Help! Would it have mattered at all if the music we listened to was streaming from an iPhone rather than an old vinyl disc? Would it have mattered if the movies we watched had been streaming on a web browser instead of a disc taken out of a case? I don’t believe in a world (or marriage) where the answer might be yes, but I’m in this room with my kids suggesting that images and sounds are better contained into a physical object that is not a computer containing an expanding number of images and sounds. I’d like to believe removing sound or image from a material object might make it more spiritual, maybe transcend the commercialism. I’d like to suggest removing sound from image might do the same. But it doesn’t.

Before I got any good at guitar, after slipping out of a year-long depression, I credited the music I loved as a crucial reason I did not kill myself. A life without "The Abbey Road Medley" would have been tragic. In one sense, my particular depression might not have existed outside an intensely mediated capitalist society. I could have lived without The Beatles. Music would still exist, and I’d probably be unaware that their songs could too. But they did exist, they reached me, and they helped. Whether I heard their music from a turntable or my computer, it didn’t matter. As a parent, I want my kids to have meaningful experiences with music throughout their lives too, and I want to teach them to play, but I fear that I will raise another round of aspiring rock stars who live in piling debt and regret. Turning the pages of The Beatles (in Pictures), my boys touching each photograph, I begin to worry about it more.

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The record clicked off, and even before then, the boys grew bored of the book. They asked instead to look at the pictures on my phone—ones of them. I saw an estimate online that now more photos are taken in one day than the first hundred years of photography—400 billion photos taken a year in the world. The photos Amy and I have taken of the boys this year account for thousands. By the time my youngest son is what?—18?—he and his brother will have had more photos taken than all four Beatles combined. They learned to smile for the camera before they could crawl, and they love looking at themselves appear happy at ages they don’t remember. They don’t care that they can’t touch prints of them. There are smudges all over my screen. I find, despite what I want to believe, there is nothing spiritual about an object. Nothing more real about it either. Anything sparked from touching an object can probably be sparked by looking at it, or listening to the sound it makes, even if the media is trapped in a device.

Here’s another story I won’t tell my kids: once, at a party, on a large field where I took mushrooms and played a set with my band under the night sky, our electric instruments plugged into a house via extension cords, I had the closest I’ve ever had to a religious experience. There were moments I could take a solo for way too long and have no idea where I was or who I was with. I felt like I didn't exist. Later that night, I started to form the belief that the best thing I could do in the world was use myself to lose my self and become one with something cosmic, unphysical. I had a hard time articulating it and repeated the word “absence” a lot. It felt beautiful, but in the morning, while I saw a photo on Facebook of me playing the guitar the night before and didn’t need to hold a physical photo to see I did indeed exist, I remember worrying that if someone took that ideology to its furthest point, they would kill themselves.

Hold on, I’m getting off my ass and flipping the record to side B.

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