Friday, February 13, 2009

# 127 - Columbia House Rules

Columbia House Rules

2/13/09 (#127)

If you’re as old as I am, you can probably wax nostalgic about Columbia House Records. If not, you will probably raise an eyebrow in disbelief to hear about it: “Let me get this straight, you had to tape a penny to a thin-cardboard postcard you found in the Sunday newspaper, transcribe into the card’s dozen little white boxes various six-digit numbers that corresponded to tiny images of the album art, and in return you’d get a dozen vinyl albums in the mail?” It’s true. Though sometimes, the Sunday paper insert included a sheet of little stamps, one for each record, so you’d lick and affix rather than writing in the numbers.

I loved Columbia House. Their newspaper inserts featured an improbably diverse list of albums, from Kris Kristofferson to Quiet Riot to The Captain and Tennille to The Fiddler on the Roof. I remember sitting with the multi-fold flyer at the kitchen table, circling the sure-things and putting little questions marks next to others, fifteen choices pared down to eleven, or ten, because Kiss Alive II was a double album choice and used up two of my picks. I loved it so much that I often went through the selection process even if I had no intention of placing the order. It was window shopping, but instead of staring at clothes through a storefront and imagining how I’d look if I could wear them, I imagined my burgeoning vinyl collection would allow me to segue from Billy Squire to the Talking Heads.

Of course, you didn’t really get a dozen albums for a penny. That was step one; steps two through seven involved buying six more club selections at regular price. The danger was the regular club updates that arrived every four weeks, each including a selection-of-the-month album that you would receive automatically if you didn’t return the enclosed postcard and check the box, “No, I do not wish to receive Donna Summer’s Bad Girls.” My negligence in returning these cards had me carting many an unopened album to my local used record store during my membership periods, but because Columbia House sent cheaply-made knock offs of the albums purchased in stores---thinner vinyl, plain-paper inner sleeves instead of glossy sleeves with lyrics and photos, double albums without the deliciously large fold-open centerfold---I was often rebuffed, ruefully carrying home my duplicate Cars album.

When my meager finances allowed, the card went off in the mail. The requisite “allow four to six weeks for delivery” was always brutal at that age, when a week was a significant portion of time (these days, they go so fast that my wall calendar is perpetually a month or more behind.) Eventually, the glorious day would come: I’d get home from school to find an oversize cardboard box leaning against the front door; heavy in the hands, I’d double-step the stairs up to my bedroom where I’d tear up the glued flaps and fill the room with the scent of cellophane.

I’d spread the albums across the bed, sifting through the titles, intoxicated with anticipation of sounds that would soon emanate from the turntable with the cracked plastic dust cover. No albums open yet, just laying the LPs side by side, admiring the artwork: Jimi Hendrix Smash Hits (the most ubiquitous album among my circle of friends---thanks Columbia House!); Led Zeppelin IV (or man carrying sticks, or Zoso, or whatever you wanted to call it), Some Girls by the Stones, the Pretenders, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and on and on. A thumbnail splitting the plastic protection of the first selection, the arm settling onto the album, and the comforting sound of the needle tracking nothing for a few moments before the music began.

I love that vinyl has become such a boutique medium these days, an indie badge of honor, at once modern and retro. I no longer own a record player (when it comes to new music, I rely on the kindness of friends, who dupe to disc) but along with the sonic warmth and particular audio characteristics of this analog medium, I appreciate the resurgence of cover art, where the operative word is art---I grew up seeing album cover thumb-tacked to bedroom walls; no one hangs puny little CD covers on their wall.

I miss that tactile interaction with my music, those extra sensual dimensions---the expanse of the 12” x 12” cover art, the whiff of the newly opened record, the physical ritual that preceded and accompanied the sonic experience. These days, we can consume massive amounts of music without ever holding the product in our hands ---along with radio, we have Pandora streaming from the PC, iTunes loading up the portable player, music delivered straight to the ears without your hands and eyes being involved at all.

There's no explaining it to young people who only know music as piped in on the Internet. Immediate gratification. Any title available in an instant. But to steal a line from AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, “Although Eating Honey is a very good thing to do, there is a moment before you begin to eat it which is better than when you are.” The LP is an interactive experience, more than a mere soundtrack to our day.

I doubt I’ll ever dive back into the vinyl realm (I confess, I have succumbed to the advantages of digital efficiency) but I like to imagine my daughter coming home one day with an record tucked under her arm, slicing the cellophane with her thumb nail and gingerly laying the album on the turntable, laying back on her bed, losing herself in the lyric sheet and liner notes as the music fills the room. Even if she doesn’t have the pleasure of opening a cardboard box packed tight with new records from The Shins, Rapids, Pure Country Gold and nine other artists, I hope she understands that things haven’t always been the way they are today. Once upon a time, “convenient” meant taping a penny to a little card and patiently waiting for the prize.