It began with a simple question from my son. “Dude,” he said. “Do we have a turntable?”
Normally, my son calls me dad, but the fact that he was addressing me with an epithet ordinarily reserved for members of the Lebowski family was a sign we were about to talk about something important.
I said: “A turntable?”
He said: “Do we have one?”
I had to tell him no, though I wasn’t sure how this had happened. Once upon a time I did have a turntable—and a stereo to go with it. “What do you want a turntable for?” I asked my son.
“I’m getting into vinyl,” he said. “It’s vintage; it’s cool.”
“What’s so cool about vintage?
“Look at your Subaru,” he said. “No way is that as cool as the Blues Brothers’ car.”
I couldn’t argue with that. Somehow, I had turned into the sort of dude who owned a Subaru but no turntable. To rectify the situation, I resolved to get a turntable.
I started at the top, at the sort of home audio and electronics store I imagined someone with life insurance would patronize. It was like an airport lounge in Berlin: plush, thickly carpeted, staffed by a German in a turtleneck.
“Vow,” he said, when I explained what I was looking for. “You are not the only one!” He led me to the back of the store to five gleaming shelves of turntables. It was like being in one of those mad scientist movies from the ’50s where disembodied brains are lined up next to each other, each one different from the next in subtle but significant ways.
“So,” he asked me, “vat kind of music do you like?”
I didn’t know what to say. The truth is that I don’t like one kind of music. I like fleeting instants of music that blow the top off my head.
I tried to tell him this. I said, “I like at the end of ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light’ when the song is just fading out and Meatloaf yells, almost like he doesn’t want the song to end, that it was long ago, and far away, and so much better than it is today.”
The salesman blinked.
I said, “I like when the drums come out of nowhere at the start of The Roots’ ‘Here I Come.’”
I said, “I like in ‘Rikki Don’t Lose that Number’ when the singer’s voice is going up, like it’s a question trying not to be a question, and you could have a change of heart.”
“Vow,” he said. “Zis is a lot.”
He then gave me a short lecture—it lasted about an hour—on the finer parts of turntables. Here’s the short version. A turntable puts a needle on a groove in a record to produce music. As fancy as turntables get, they’re just that: a needle (aka a stylus), and a platter (which spins the record).
After that, things get complicated—or at least more complicated than they were in the early ’80s, the last time I bought a turntable. Do you want a turntable that crosses the digital divide? A USB connection so you can download onto your computer? Connect to your Bluetooth speakers?
It was confusing, but the good news was that my turtlenecked friend had exactly what I was looking for. For $5,000.
“Dude,” my son told me, “we need to head to the Leechpit.”
Located on West Colorado, the Leechpit—owned and operated by Adam Leech—is a cathedral of “vintage memorabilia.” It has literally everything. Platform shoes and leopard-skin pillbox hats exist alongside Sex Pistols T-shirts and Beatles albums and Darth Vader masks. It’s a cacophonous space of stuff you either owned a million years ago, or wanted to own, or never believed you would ever see for yourself.
I described my turntable dilemma to Adam.
“First off, forget about digital,” he said. “The whole point of vinyl is that it’s analog the whole way.”
I gave him a confused look.
“Anything that plays continually is analog,” he said. “Spotify, Apple Music, are not analog. You jump the digital divide, you lose the whole point of vinyl.”
He showed me a few used turntables he had in stock. There was nothing over $100. They sounded amazing. Then we looked at receivers. “You can tell a good one by how big and shiny the knobs are,” he said. “There’s more to it, but that’s the place to start.”
I asked him about the current vinyl craze—when did it start?
He thought about this for a moment. “In the mid-90s, vinyl was in attics,” he told me. “But then about 10 years ago, everyone started collecting it.”
While we were talking, a woman came up and bought The Pretender, a Jackson Browne record from 1975, and an Eric Clapton album.
“Twenty years ago, you could not give away a Jackson Browne record,” Adam said. “It was literally junk.”
What’s the best-selling album at the Leechpit? Rumors by Fleetwood Mac. “I cannot explain this,” said Adam. “But it’s true.”
We went to the back of the store to look at speakers. The most expensive pair was $200.
“People make themselves crazy with trying to get the perfect stereo,” he said. “They wonder what they might be missing. But it’s vinyl, and it’s not about being perfect. It’s about being there. That’s the important thing—the whole thing.”
Good advice. About turntables—and everything else.