Scars on wax: Making sense of trauma and crisis with vinyl records
When the pandemic started, Peter Holslin became a record collector. Here’s how it helps him cope as the world burns.
I’m stoked and honored to present this guest post by Peter Holslin. I worked with Peter for a few years when he was music editor at San Diego CityBeat, and he’s since gone on to have a lot of impressive bylines in places like Rolling Stone, Vice and LA Review of Books (not to mention this excellent essay on fingerboarding, which he wrote for The Outline). I hope you enjoy.
Sometimes I want to embrace my unhappiness, to lean into it and let it course through my system until the bleakness has had its fill. That’s how I was feeling when I celebrated my birthday in April. I didn’t have a Zoom party. I didn’t schedule a socially-distanced park hang. I was depressed and numb from shock, loneliness and what might be some kind of undiagnosed trauma. I didn’t want to cheer up. So I sat at my desk in my bedroom, working remotely, keeping a brooding tally of the birthday wishes I was getting and from whom. Then I went out and bought a greasy order of McDonald’s and a bottle of mezcal and got drunk by myself.
In the darkest of times, people often turn to the familiar as a source of healing and support. Some of us dive into the comforts of drink and drugs. Others reach for the structure provided by religion, cultural tradition, or vague notions of patriotism and “freedom.” I’ve been a music journalist for 15 years — or maybe I should say I was a music journalist, until my career fell apart amid the media industry’s implosion in 2018 and 2019. So it makes sense that in my own darkest moment, the way out was to become a record collector.
A few days after celebrating my saddest birthday ever, I drove to the only record store in town that was still open and bought the cheapest record player on the shelves — the Audio-Technica AT-LP60X. Naturally, I got some LPs to go with it (including Pet Shop Boys’ 1986 debut, Please). I’ve always been a collector of music; when I was at my career peak, amassing absurd quantities of media was simply part of the job. This time, however, was different. As I stood amid the aisles at Randy’s Records, my brain started pumping a fresh dose of dopamine into my system. In an instant, I felt a latent urge to collect. As the days went on, I was ravenous for records, wanting them like never before, more and more of them, right this instant.
There’s a rush and an excitement that comes to hunting for records. For me it’s partly a nostalgic thing. It reminds me of my high school days when I had to scour actual brick-and-mortar shops in San Diego and take a risk spending my hard-earned cash on punk, noise, and indie-rock CDs. It also gives me an adrenaline boost similar to what I felt during my most inspired years when I was a reporter chasing a story.
Yet in addition, there’s something calming and adult-like about collecting vinyl. For a decade I moved from place to place, habitually uprooting my life as soon as I was on the cusp of settling down. Obviously this wasn’t a lifestyle conducive to amassing a cumbersome collection of delicate, oversized plastic discs. These days, thanks to the pandemic, I’ve had nothing but time on my hands. I’ve been building up and admiring the things I have. Hopefully at some point, probably many months from now, a friend or lover might feel safe enough from covid to come over and admire them too.
And so, in the weeks after my birthday, I dove into my new hobby. I scoured Discogs for records to buy. I donned a mask and slathered my hands in sanitizer for trips to Randy’s and local thrift shops. I’d take my booty home, back to the AT-LP60X, sit on my lumpy couch and pass the hours musing on the merciless tactility of listening to a record on a turntable. Records are way more high-stakes than Spotify, digital downloads, or even CDs. It involves absurd levels of mechanical precision and countless chances for failure. If I scratch a record, it’s scratched for life. The damage I’ve caused will be etched forever into the sound coming off the grooves — a skipping, popping testament to that one fateful moment when I accidentally bumped the tonearm or let the record slip out of my hands.
And then there’s records that are just assholes. They’ll sound like shit or not play well on my turntable for no apparent reason whatsoever. They could look perfectly fine on the surface, but somewhere along the line they were damaged or warped. Pressed without enough care at the pressing plant. Neglected for too long under a hot sun. Left at the bottom of a pile of better-handled wax. Bumped, dinged, passed off over and over to another set of hands. I spent most of my adult life trying to make a freelance career work in a dying industry, so I can relate.
Several months into my record-buying experience, I set out on my most exhaustive record-hunting excursion yet. It was a Saturday morning in July and the sun beat down with merciless fury as I began to traverse Salt Lake County. I was looking for some good deals, but I also was thinking of getting a new turntable. Yes, I’m terrible: It only took me a few months to get sick of the AT-LP60X, which proved deficient for too many reasons to list here, and look for an upgrade.
My first stop was a Starbucks parking lot in the far-off suburb of West Jordan, where I rendezvoused with a record-collecting mom from Orem. She’d posted a bunch of records for sale on KSL (the local version of Craigslist) and she brought along a stack of primo stuff — including an early pressing of Madonna’s 1983 self-titled debut and lovingly-worn copies of ’80s synth odysseys by Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis, and Tangerine Dream.
She pulled on a cloth mask as she stepped out of her sedan. She seemed eager to offload the records, dropping the price on the Madonna LP from $15 to $10 the moment I hesitated about buying it. After we chatted for a few minutes, she sighed and gave her records a final, loving once-over before packing them into a brown Smith’s grocery bag. She handed me the whole lot for a mere $35. “Keep in touch!” she said, offering an elbow bump as a covid-safe goodbye.
For a moment I wondered if this might be some kind of meet-cute situation; here we were, two pandemic quarantines bonding over a shared love of music! Then I realized this was not the case at all. I didn’t get the full story of why she was selling off her collection; she mentioned economic needs and kids. But when I texted her a couple of days later —"These records are amazing, thanks so much” — of course she didn’t write back. She was on a different trajectory, letting go of something, something big — the very thing I was now clinging onto for dear life.
In James Baldwin’s 1972 book No Name In the Street — a kind of fragmented memoir about his experiences during the civil rights movement — he describes being interrupted by a catastrophic event every time he takes a break to relax. He’ll be just sitting down to a nice dinner when he gets a call that Martin Luther King, Jr., has been assassinated. Lately, amid the Black Lives Matter protests nationwide, I would think of these scenes and feel self-conscious about my new record-collecting habit. I’ve done what I can during this time, and during previous periods of crisis and uprising too. The main reason I pursued music journalism as a career in the first place was to use the lens of music as a way to challenge racist and misguided narratives and discuss issues of social justice. I wanted to open myself up to ideas, perspectives and languages different from my own, in hopes of making sense of catastrophes and injustices like the ones we’re seeing today.
But in the face of total crisis, taking in the all-consuming trajectory of American racism, what I’m doing still feels so trivial and counterproductive. The pandemic has left me feeling helpless, but as Baldwin writes, I do possess power, inherent in my white male privilege. And unlike countless Black people in America (as well as other BIPOC folks, trans folks, and immigrants), I can go to a record shop and buy some records without worrying that my very right to exist could come under attack, that a task as simple as buying some records could end with me getting insulted, attacked, detained by ICE or murdered by a racist cop.
Reading news accounts of protesters being attacked and indiscriminately picked up off the street by masked federal agents in Portland, I wonder if it’s only a matter of time before my record collecting gets sidelined as well by this country’s violent shift towards authoritarianism. And yet, I love music. I truly could not survive this awful world without it. So, fuck it. A couple weeks ago, I ditched the AT-LP60X in exchange for a 1980s Yamaha P-450 that I got for cheap from a veteran record hunter in my neighborhood.
The Yamaha has a metal body, a robotic tonearm, and thick rubber slipmat. It looks like a boxy, silver spaceship. When I set it up, it played perfectly — warm and clear, coaxing sweet sounds from even my most asshole-ish records, ones that used to skip and pop all the time. I sat and listened, trying again to make sense of this weird urge to buy music that has overtaken me lately. Records aren’t drugs; they aren’t the Bible or the Quran (although they’re known to incorporate all three). For me they’re something in between. A fun distraction, a huge investment of money and time. But also one of the few things I have right now to keep me centered and sharp during an unspeakably grim time.
By Kelly Davis
I didn’t have the greatest week last week (but, really, did anyone?). To cheer me up, some friends sent me a bottle of Gin Mare. (Because, alcohol.) I’d been wanting a bottle after trying it at a bar back when people went to bars. It’s made in Spain and distilled with olives, rosemary, thyme and basil, giving it a savory edge. I like it best shaken with ice and served straight up. It’s what I imagine a gin martini tasting like at some cool New York hotel bar in the 1920s frequented by, say, Dorothy Parker, a prolific drinker and civil rights champion. The bar at the Algonquin Hotel in New York, where Parker spent a good amount of time, serves a cocktail named after her. When I looked it up, I found this page, which says to take 5 or 6 ounces of gin and add 1/2 ounce of St. Germain — proportions that are totally wrong. Or perhaps totally right.
THE WEEKLY GOODS
Speaking of Peter Holslin, I think now’s a good time to revisit this minidoc on corpse paint that Peter and I produced a few years ago. I can watch Peter eating Cinnabon while decked out in black metal makeup all day.
I love this Atlantic essay about what it’s like to go to Disney World right now. As you can imagine, it’s pretty depressing. However, rather than just falling into “isn’t this crazy?” narrative, the author manages to find some inspiration and joy in the experience. It’s also a thoughtful analysis on the conditions in which Americans are willing to follow safety guidelines.
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