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first person

Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

If you bought a collection of metal, glam rock and new wave records at a family garage sale in southern Alberta in the mid-1990s, I want to talk to you. You may have purchased my teenage collection in an unauthorized transaction organized by my mom. I want the albums back, please. I’m willing to pay.

I have been mourning my first record collection for more than two decades but recently, the sense of loss has hit new heights. My spouse bought a record player. It’s not a fancy model but it’s the real deal, plugging into the main stereo system and playing through the speakers. It sounds good, even when you turn the volume up, unlike the ladybug-shaped player that I had as a kid. For the first time as adults, my spouse and I are experiencing music accompanied by the hiss and crackle of vinyl. After several years of streaming music, which is a no-contact activity, we are holding music in our hands.

Yeah, I know, we are late to the party. We have been following the vinyl revival from the sidelines for years. Having just entered our 50s, we remember originally falling in love with music through records. Even with that element of nostalgia, however, we struggled until now to justify going back to vinyl. We are passionate about music but we are not audiophiles and we already have access to music through our CD collection and multiple streaming service subscriptions.

But you can never have too much music, right? The recent record player purchase was inspired in large part by the pandemic. We are at home most of the time. The cancellation of social activities (including live music events) has resulted in a surplus in our budget. Plus, we have records to play. We each have our parents’ record collection. Most importantly, we have time to listen.

We have always filled our home with music but the vinyl experience is unique. We would typically play tunes to function mostly as a backdrop to other activities, but putting on a record feels like an activity in itself. Remarkably, we find ourselves listening without the usual multitasking. Needing to flip the record keeps us on our toes. My spouse will ask if I want to listen to a record in the living room in much the same way that I invited friends over to listen in the rumpus room of my childhood (minus the black light, unfortunately).

So far, we have only scratched the surface of our inherited collections (don’t worry, Mom, we haven’t actually scratched any records). It will take some time to get through everything but we are determined. While my in-laws’ records are mostly jazz or classical in nature, my parents’ collection is an eclectic mix with lots of country and what I can only describe as easy-listening. Given the age gap between our folks and the fact that my spouse grew up in Toronto rather than southern Alberta like me, the differences are not surprising to us.

What is surprising, however, is the emotional experience that has come with exploring each collection. Sifting through the records has triggered childhood memories, provided insight into our parents and invoked a feeling of connection with extended family members. For me, the records seem like clues to self-reflection related riddles that have come with my recent arrival at midlife.

As I listen to the records with my mom’s maiden name written on them, I am reminded of how little I know about her life before marriage. My mom looks amused when I bring the topic up. She says she received the copy of Elvis’s GI Blues as a Christmas gift when she was 14 and that she treasured it. I get the sense she wants to tell me to take good care of it. My mom also says that Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass were all the rage in the late Sixties and that, yes, she danced to that music. I struggle to believe some of what my mom says. She insists that she was not an outlier for owning the soundtrack for the 1964 film Zorba The Greek but I am skeptical.

I have questions about selections in my in-laws’ collection as well. Was it really a thing to listen to Second World War songs in the early Sixties, as the reissue copy of Hits of the Blitz by Vera Lynn suggests? Did the cover image of a smiling Lynn in heels on a pile of rubble seem odd or did it symbolize resilience? I am fascinated by the I Can Hear It Now records. These are essentially narrated recordings of radio broadcasts about major historical events from the early 20th century. My heart is in my throat as I listen to news reports from key events such as the stock market crash in 1929 and the surrender of Japan in 1945. I wish I could speak to my late father-in-law, an esteemed historian, about these albums.

Listening to the collections has also been a source of connection between my spouse and me. We don’t always agree on what is worth listening to a second time but we agree on the fundamentals. We agree that the world needs more Irish Rovers and that a single listen is sufficient for the Zorba The Greek soundtrack. We share a soft spot for Moe Koffman’s Swingin’ Shepherd Blues after hearing that my in-laws saw him perform at George’s Spaghetti House in Toronto before they were married. The absence of the Beatles from the collections is something that we both feel the need to discuss.

The records on our new turntable are not limited to selections from our parents’ collections. It turns out that buying a record is still a treat, particularly if you can find a record store to flip through the stacks in. We have joined a record club (think Columbia House without the “eight records for a penny” offer). It was cause for celebration when our first club selection, a creamsicle-coloured John Prine album, arrived in the mailbox.

And yet I can’t stop thinking about what is missing. I daydream about how amazing the Bowie records in my teenage collection would sound on our system. New copies of these wouldn’t include the sound texture created by my previous repeat plays. I want to hold the albums that I treasured as a teen and to hear them again, scratches and all.

This is where you may be able to help, dear reader. I hope that I don’t sound like a broken record. If you bought a cool collection of metal, glam rock and new wave albums at a family garage sale in the mid-1990s, I want to talk to you.

Nicole Rhodes lives in Nelson, B.C.