All Writing and Photography © Alex Livingstone/Owner's Closet

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A History with Turntables

(This happened Tuesday. Please support your local independent record store on Record Store Day.)

I'm sad to say that my interest in owning vinyl records hit an all time low today. For a moment I considered just selling all my records and moving on. Why have all those bulky, antiquated, fragile discs around when I can fit all of my music into one or two small devices? Hell, I can even hook my phone or laptop computer up to a wireless internet signal and listen to music that is stored on someone else's computer. It just seems like tethering myself to my home stereo that resides in the poorly lit living room of my house in order to enjoy a clumsy, inconvenient music library is limiting as hell. If technology is doing its job, it's facilitating convenience. Vinyl records and turntables as data storage and transducer are the horse and buggy of the entertainment industry. United Record Pressing should consider replacing their entire staff with Amish folk. Move the operation into a barn. I'm sure it would appeal to their back-to-basics beliefs.
My first consistent experience with a record player was in the early 1980s in the playroom in our second house in Spartanburg. I remember having to sit up on a stool to play with the trainset my dad built us. It was on a green painted sheet of 4x8 plywood and sat on saw horses. I assume it was up that high to prevent my three year old sister from reaching the fragile traincars and models that all created a lovely trainscape. Anyway, I had a Fisher Price record player and I'd listen mainly to Disney LPs, but I also had my KISS Alive II  2xLP,  Joan Jett's "I Love Rock N Roll" 45 and the AC/DC "Back in Black" 45. The AC/DC was given to me by an older neighborhood kid named Tony Smart and the KISS album was purchased for me by my grandmother at a rackjobber in Sears during a trip to the mall in 1979. The neighborhood kids and I used to listen to that album and jump around with tennis rackets as guitars. All true. Grandmom bought it no questions asked. I listened to those records over and over. The rub-on tattoos are gone, in case you were wondering.

In the interim between the Fisher Price and piecing together my own stereo system, I relied on the radio and cassettes via jambox. What a peaceful time that was, relying on tapes full of Zeppelin, Beatles, Fat Boys, RUN DMC, Police, Billy Joel, and Van Halen. It wasn't until I was 20 that I needed to get my own turntable. I was already buying a lot of records but I had been using my dad's Technics. When I decided to move to Tennessee with only my guitars and my records, I started compiling my own hi-fi and ever since then I have been plagued with malfunctioning turntables. Sometime before the move in the summer of 1995, I went down to Joe Little Hi-fi in the Elizabeth neighborhood of my hometown and bought my first vintage turntable. It was a BIC 960 from the mid-1970s and it could stack up to 5 records and play them all in a row with one simple setting. How cool!! How convenient!!  I bought a pristine yet cheap copy of Dark Side of the Moon at Ernie's and listened to it on headphones. I remember thinking to myself how good that album sounded! By the way, I can't seem to find my copy of Dark Side of the Moon so if anyone borrowed it could I get that back thanks.

A little ways down the road, after I moved to Austin five years later, the signal in the left channel started dropping out occasionally. Then it dropped out completely. The BIC was broken. Thankfully around that time, a friend of my parents wanted to get rid of his record collection and turntable. Knowing that by this point I had developed quite a vinyl habit, he offered me his collection and his sweet Onkyo CP 1055 turntable for free!!! How could I not accept? So aside from getting a bunch of LPs that were in immaculate condition, as well as a bunch of his wife's 45s from high school that seemed to have been soaking in a flooded basement for two decades, I got a new turntable to replace the BIC. The Onkyo looked cool and was perhaps an upper-mid level unit for it's time, which was probably twenty years prior.  Anyways, about halfway through my tenure living upstairs in the San Antonio St. house, the damn thing fell apart. The spring in one of the two dust cover hinges broke through its plastic casing and kept it from staying open. Also, the left channel started dropping out on this one too. ARGH!

So at this point I'm thinking my trusty Sansui receiver has a bad input or output. I mean, the same thing happens to both of turntables? So I get my father's Harmon Kardon receiver and hook it up to find the same symptom. I hook the BIC back up to check it out and more thoroughly troubleshoot the gear. No left channel on either turntable. It's at this point that I'm considering that my thinking is too uptight and that I need to change gears. I had just purchased my first laptop and I would love to be able to digitize some of my vinyl that hasn't made it onto CD like the assfactor4 records or the first five ZZ Top albums. So I start looking at these new USB turntables and I'm thinking, "The price is great and they're new and I can digitize and listen to the Hoover/Lincoln split 7" on my new ipod. Hell yeah!" I bought one of those, at Waterloo Records I think, and it has been my main turntable ever since.

In the five years after I bought the Ion USB turntable, I took the BIC and the Onkyo in to get fixed at a local stereo repair shop. The guy managed to get the Onkyo back on track except for the lid hinge problem. I was unsatisfied with how I had to prop open the lid with a pencil every time I had to flip sides or change discs so I sold it to a friend of mine for $50. The BIC was another story. The first time I got that back from the shop, he said he fixed it and it worked week for a week or three. Then the channel started cutting out again right around the time Birds of Avalon were staying at my house during SXSW. We were having a late night hang and we wanted to listen to records but the fucking thing hadn't been fixed!! So I embarrassingly pulled out the Ion and apologized for my shoddy electronics. Soon thereafter I took the BIC back to the same guy, telling him it was still not working properly and that I wanted him to fix it. When I picked it back up, he assured me that it worked and when after about a week it crapped out again, my heart sank. That repair man sucks and I have a crappy turntable.
Right around the same time, my Sansui officially started dying which left me in a horrible place. To rectify at least the amplifier situation, my wife and I bought a new Harmon Kardon receiver at Fry's and we love it! About a year after that, I blew my speakers watching the latest Die Hard film so I had to get new speakers. Thankfully the vintage speakers I got for $100 sound great and fit well into our living room.
As a surprise gift for Christmas this year, my wife bought me a vintage turntable from End of an Ear record store.  They knocked a hole in the wall and expanded into the southeast section of that building where they have a hi-fi and drum set showroom. The Technics table she got me looked great and I was so excited. So excited. I had recently bought about 20 45s from a vintage store on the drag so the first thing I did on Christmas Eve was throw one of them on (we both had to work on Christmas so we opened presents on the 24th). The strobing was off so I spent about 15 minutes trying to adjust it to no avail. Hmm. We threw on an 33 1/3rpm  LP to see if that pitch was set and it was. But when the needle got to the dead wax, the arm didn't automatically reject like my wife had been told it would. Oh shit. This thing won't auto return AND it won't play 45s...utter disappointment. I thought this was the one. We took it back and I was without again. Easy come easy go. I've been back in End of an Ear showroom to check out turntables but each time I'm there no one greets me, asks if I need any help or tells me to let them know if I have any questions. This isn't a situation in which I need no guidance like if I were buying a $30 180 gram reissue of Thin Lizzy Jailbreak. This is a $300 plus purchase of a "refurbished" piece of audio gear that I plan on using a lot for as long as I can. At least act like you want my hard earned money even if you don't. Amuse me and tell me which ones you think best suit my needs. I dare you.
Anyway, the last time I went in there is when I decided that was the last time I am considering buying a turntable there. Vinyl only from now on. And when I was driving to work today I remember that I saw online that a store had recently opened where they sell new and used turntables. So I googled it and found The Sound Gallery which is located very near my house in South Austin. Not 78704 where all the yuppies are but south of Ben White. I went by there and lo and behold! Turntables and receivers everywhere and very friendly employees ready to help me with what I'm looking for. They also had a lot of records for sale, an espresso bar, and an antique phone collection that would make Jeff Johnston shit himself.
After determining my price range the friendly fellow helped me narrow the choices down to two different units, a Kenwood and a Pioneer.
The Kenwood was our first choice because of its sturdy construction, stream-lined features and unique faux-marble base but when we test drove it the arm would not
auto-return at the end of the side. Dust cover and auto reject are minimum requirements so that was strike one. Next we hooked up the Pioneer and once theemployee recalibrated the tone arm, the needle hit the wax and skated right across the record. The needle was totally shot so they grabbed the headshell from a sharp looking Pioneer nearby and it sounded great. Though it played fine, the auto return mechanism inside the base was loud as hell through the stereo and out in the room. This Pioneer had the craziest shockmounting I'd ever seen so for there to be loud mechanics seemed to be a shot in its own foot. That other Pioneer nearby which was just over the top of our price range but given the shit  results of the other two, we thought we'd at least try it. The salesman said he had been using it and it was good but when we went to play it the left channel was out. SERIOUSLY? Is that my luck with turntables? The left channel isn't going to work? I try three of them in a row and they're all jacked up in one way or another? Can't I get a fucking clean, refurbished, sturdy, quiet, grounded, well-built vintage turntable for under $500? Can I? It's not seeming like I can.
It was at this point that I questioned the whole thing. Why do I need records? Isn't this just a hassle?  Was buying all this vinyl purely an investment for this very moment when I decide to sell it all and not have to lug it all back to NC. But what I realized immediately is that I am in love with vinyl, I am in love with turntables and I am in love with music. I love putting on records and I love looking at the big artwork while I'm listening. I don't mind getting up and flipping sides and I love searching through record stores for that "find." My vinyl collection is my music library and is my reference to all of the music that has shaped me or will shape me in the future. I can tell you a story about almost every one of my records and I love looking at them on the shelves from across the room and trying to pick out which ones they are based on the color of their spines. I cannot give it up and I hope they will be a part of my life for a long time. I have spent so much time and energy collecting these blasted things that I must get a turntable deserving of my collection. My collection deserves a really nice player. So I told the guys at The Sound Gallery to fix the third one and to call me when it's ready. I can't wait.

I highly recommend going to The Sound Gallery if you're in the market for some vintage hi-fi gear. They're very nice people and the selection is fantastic.


Thursday morning I checked the voicemail from Robert at Sound Gallery who had called the day before while I was working. I was happy to hear that they not only fixed the wiring on the nicer Pioneer but they had also fixed the Kenwood. Turns out the Kenwood had the wrong cartridge on it and when it hit dead wax it wasn't triggering the auto return mechanism. When I called him back to let him know that I'd be over in the afternoon, I could hear in his voice that he thought the Kenwood was the way to go. I stopped by the house and picked up a couple of records and when i got there he had both turntables hooked up so I could try them both out if I so desired. By that point though I had pretty much decided on the Kenwood due to its unique corian base and streamlined functionality. Polvo's latest album Siberia sounded great and Real Estate's new album Atlas sounded even better. Sold.
I am now the happiest kid on the block. The Sound Gallery rules.They have restored my faith in vinyl and turntables. The first records taken out for a spin were:

Pile Dripping LP
Ovlov Am LP
Bad Brains The Youth are Getting Restless LP [Jennie gets home during "Day Tripper/She's A Rainbow"]
Earth Wind And Fire Best of Earth Wind and Fire Vol. 1 LP
-------7" PARTY------
Culture Club "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?"
Paul McCartney & Michael Jackson "Say Say Say"
Chaka Khan "I Feel For You"
Nuisance "The Rut"
Simply Red "Holdin' Back The Years"
Superchunk "Ribbon" b/w "Who Needs Light?"
Wang Chung "Dance Hall Days"
Pablo Cruise "Love Will Find A Way"
Hoover "Two Down"
Jawbreaker "Busy"
Soul Asylum "Tied To The Tracks" b/w "Long Way Home"
Bananarama "Cruel Summer"
Joe Jackson "Stepping Out"
-------LP Finish------
Pretty Things Parachute

Monday, April 14, 2014

Let Me Be Clear

Now, let me be clear. Playing music with my good friends is more fun than anything I've ever done. It is when everything leaves my mind except what is happening that moment. Anyone who has played in bands would probably agree that playing high energy rock music with your friends can often be a cathartic, disencumbering experience. I believe this so much so that I have emotional withdrawals when I don't play gigs for while. I realize that I may be heading into a performance drought when I move in July, but it will hopefully allow me to concentrate on other things that are important to me while giving me a little distance from something that has been a huge priority in my life for nearly 20 years.
While I may have had a harder time relaxing than I may have wished at the D.C. Hoot Night, playing those songs with my bands brought me unparalleled happiness and satisfaction. I will miss that a ton. The music I've been making with Excited States has been extremely fulfilling. As evidenced by our healthy contribution to the hoot night, 90s indie rock is right in our wheelhouse and is my second language. It is the more underground dialect of rock music that helped form my musical vocabulary 20+ years ago. The songs and melodies that Beaty Wilson comes up with are spoken in that dialect and I often know exactly how to respond. Andy Thompson fits perfectly into that three-piece equation by providing a rhythmic stability for our dynamic discourse. No matter what the speed of the dialogue, Andy measures it out and keeps the intensity on a level we can hover around. He is the oxygen atom and to him we are  electrically bonded hydrogen atoms.
That we were able to play Shudder To Think's  "X-French T-Shirt" was huge for me. James Adair introduced me to Pony Express Record in 1994 and that album, and song speciafically, got under my dome in a big way.  On my way to class one rainy winter morning, I remember walking through one of N.C. State's tunnels with the song's outro stuck in my head. It was like that for at least a week. I'm sure songs had been stuck in my head before then, but that was the first time it became a mantra.
"Static" is off of my favorite Jawbox album Novelty. In high school, I learned all of those songs on guitar (to the best of my ability) and it's rhythmic idiosyncrasies and discordant melodies have stuck with me to this day. The song I wrote for my old band eddy entitled "Under The Influence" was directly influenced by Novelty's "Linkwork."
We played eight Fugazi songs which was as cathartic as it gets. At the Holden Beach with my friend Will and his family during the summer of 1990, I remember listening to that album over and over again. It was a true revelation. Having been turned on to heavy, dynamic, powerful rock by Led Zeppelin (and soon thereafter Metallica in my case), Fugazi quickly became a band we fully believed in. There were others we adored like Soul Asylum and Operation Ivy, but Repeater really blew everyone to pieces. The funny thing playing those songs for me was that until we started learning songs for the hoot night, I had never thought to learn any of Joe Lally's incredible basslines. Lally is one of my all time favorite bass players and I had never thought to explore his work. This wasn't weird to me until I learned them all and realized for the 231st time how incredible he and the whole band were. They were such an amazing BAND!! 
The songs Grand Champeen played from Red Medicine were equally as exciting to learn and cover. Grand Champeen has learned a ton of covers over the years but we had never ventured into Fugazi territory, perhaps because it was so daunting. Perhaps because their albums are such masterworks in songwriting, musicianship and performance that it seemed a bit outside our scope. How wrong we were! As Channing intimated the other night at practice, we should have done that years ago.  Of the four songs GC learned, we played two of my favortes from that album, "Target" and "Forensic Scene." I have such strong memories of Red Medicine being in my life in 1995 because I moved to Tennessee by myself three months after the album came out and I know it kept me company and gave me strength when I left friends and family in NC and settled down in the small town Murfreesboro. I rented a room from an ad I saw on a bulletin board near the housing office on MTSU campus and for 8 months I lived with three guys who couldn't have been more dissimilar to each other and myself. When I was home, I stayed in my room a lot and listened to records. For the record, the other album on constant rotation in that rented room was "Tomorrow the Green Grass" by the Jayhawks.
 I gotta go. Grand Champeen is playing with A Giant Dog  at Hotel Vegas April 30th. I'm moving to NC in July so if you want to see Grand Champeen you had better come out.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

D.C. Hoot Night a Success

That was fun. Last night's D.C. Hoot Night gave us great performances from six groups of bands or pick-up bands. Dave Norwood from The Gary put together a band with a violinist and played three songs that had a great eerie vibe. Randy Reynolds and Seth Gibbs formed Doctor Club and played a few Television-esque covers. Nick Pelliciotto and friends played a couple Lungfish songs and a great cover of the opening track to Trans Am's debut. Three-fourths of Rainbow Dragon played Shudder To Think and Bad Brains! My sets with Excited States and Grand Champeen included the following songs:

Bed For The Scraping
Forensic Scene
Do You Like Me?
What About Blighty?
Brendan #1
X-French T-Shirt
Make Out Club
Sweet & Low
Smallpox Champion

I have a hard time having "fun" when I play gigs where I work because I'm at work. I find myself being the common thread between everything happening at the bar. The business, employees, concertgoers, and performers require enough little bits of direction and attention to keep me from relaxing. It doesn't put me over in the sense that I'm miserable and wish I weren't there.  It's a unique position to be in and one that probably only happens to a bar manager who is in a band that plays at the bar they run.
An example of this is a night like last night. All six bands were planning on using my band's gear as backline and I ended up being the hub of info. I'm not pissed about it because I'm an organized person with answers so I'm perfect for the job. But it doesn't leave a lot of room for "fun" in the most commonly used sense of the word. 
Fun is a particularly strange notion because it is both treated as if it's a tangible commodity and revered like it's an actual feeling. But when people discuss their feelings, "fun" isn't included along with sadness, anger, happiness, fear, and regret. Perhaps my version of fun has changed over the years. Perhaps I care to much about my job. Perhaps the kinda of fun I'm looking for is sitting under an umbrella on a beach with a cold beer surrounded by loved ones, zoning out to the mesmerizing pulse of the waves rolling over on each other. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Gonna Get in a Better Habit of Writing

I'd like to start ruminating on my life in Austin as my final days here unfold. It's been a while since I've written in earnest and I'd like to write as often as I can, especially when particularly relevant or poignant feelings enter my head. If I want to actually get them posted, I'll have to sacrifice editing them for sake of time. I'm not getting paid for it so what does it matter? I'm not trying to get the James Beard award for blogging.

An easy thing to do would be to start a laundry list of things I'll miss. Perhaps an even easier thing to do would be to list all of the things I won't miss about Austin. The most difficult thing to do will be to write about how I feel about the future because it's so open. I think I'll do all of these things and it may end up being a jumbled mess but so is my mind, heart, and body right now.

It's gonna be difficult to capture my thoughts as they come because I'm usually driving to work, or at work, or at band practice, or trying to sleep. Unlike a lot of my peers, I'm not in front of a computer all day. It's difficult for me to write as much as I want because life doesn't let me sit still for that long. Nor do I have the luxury of working from home and picking up the guitar every time I feel a tinge of creativity. I'd love to have a little more free time with which to be creative. At this point in my life, I accept that I need to create things or else I'm unhappy.  Lately, I've found peace in learning how to make Texas style BBQ. I feel like each brisket or rack of ribs that goes on that smoker is a blank canvas upon which I try to paint the best picture I can. It's hardly writing a prose or a new song, but it"s satisfies something in there. 

I'd really like to cook BBQ for the rest of my life. Now, I realize that is completely possible and not too large of a goal. But if I want to cook BBQ for other people and have it be something that helps brings people in a community together, then it is. I also want to make music for the rest of my life. I hope that once I'm near Scott Nurkin again that we will be able to make music based on all that we've learned since we last played together (1999). So many ways to go, so much gonna happen.

Tonight I have a gig with both Excited States and Grand Champeen. We'll be playing songs by Washington D.C. bands from the 1990s and I think it'll be awesome. I'm gonna miss playing music regularly with the fellas in those bands. I'm gonna miss it more than words can express but I'm gonna attempt to express it anyway, from time to time. More on that later.  If you like either of my bands you should come to the show tonight because I'm moving to NC in July and these bands won't be performing but once or twice a year.