Turn, Turn, Turntable

by Steven Utley


Seneca (ca. 4 B.C.-A.D. 65) astutely noted that the Fates lead the willing and drag the unwilling. That celebrated Roman philosopher, statesman, and dramatist undoubtedly was thinking of people who have embraced the compact disk and those who still cling pathetically to their vinyl records.

I confess that I clung pathetically to my own vinyl as long as I rationally could, in large part because I had been investing in it since the mid-1960s. Of course, I had also been investing in record players and needles, too. Thus, while I am as future-minded and forward-looking as the next person, when it came to recorded music, I could only empathize with Robert Benchley’s dismay:

All the time I am reading of new discoveries of science: emanations from tinfoil which are going to show up subconscious thoughts, invisible smoke from silver nitrate which is going to revolutionize crime detection, rays from rotting apples which are going to make it possible to make anyone invisible except for his belt buckle, and all kinds of awful disruptions of what I like to think of as my daily life.

Nevertheless, after physically transporting my records from place to place for the twentieth or two-dozenth-and-a-half time, I began to appreciate the most obvious advantage of the CD, which is its self-proclaimed compactness. Not that I was ever so desperate for something to do that I actually weighed them, but I calculate that all my vinyl records together, constituting a collection of respectable but in no way extraordinary dimension, probably were about as heavy as your average juvenile specimen of hadrosaur. By themselves, the thick, brittle 78-rpm platters must have weighed as much as a Harley-Davidson.

And finally I just gave up and gave in. It happened after the hole-in-the-wall electronics wizard who had tended my late-model record player for fifteen years told me that the time had passed even for heroic measures. There was nothing for it but to start hunting in pawnshops for a replacement. I needed a turntable with 33⅓-, 45-, and 78-rpm settings, because I routinely transferred music from records to tapes so that I could listen as often as I liked to (say) Yank Lawson and His V-Disc All Stars’ exquisite rendition of “Davenport Blues” without further degrading the original, WW2-vintage shellac disk. Pawnshop clerks listened sympathetically as I explained what I was after an d why, and told me, some more regretfully than others, “We just don’t get turntables with all three settings any more.”

My quest at last brought me directly into contact with one of the Fates (probably the Disposer of Lots), who was cunningly disguised as the smooth-cheeked twentyish second-assistant clerk in the last pawnshop listed in the yellow pages. Within (if memory or imagination serves) a day or two of this encounter, I would sell off my vinyl to a Luddite crazy enough to think he was getting a great deal, and then I would go spend some of the money on my very first CD — in token of my willingness to be led rather than dragged. I knew those to be my choices and my only choices when, once I had explained my need of a turntable capable of spinning 78 times per minute, the young clerk looked at me in frank astonishment and said, “Records used to go seventy-eight?”

And once having embraced the new technology, I must, of course, keep opening my arms to ever newer technology. Obsolescence, having fulfilled its designs on my music, has turned its attention to my collection of movies on videotape — so cutting-edge, so New and Now and Not Five Minutes Ago back around the time people in my neighborhood tamed fire and invented the wheel; the Digital Video Disk (descended, like my extinct turntables, from that very wheel) is the coming thing! Where will it end, Mister Seneca? I ask you, sir, where?


Copyright © 2005 by Steven Utley

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