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Passing not the torch but the turntable



It's nice to blow your kids' minds with a gift, especially when they're only 7. Apple's polite "On" buttons served as direct links to the twin sons' pleasure centers, and watching them freak out with joy upon receiving a pair of Craigslisted iPads was its own reward. My own dad got a similar reaction from me (minus bouncing off the walls) with a much older piece of technology, when he bestowed upon me his cherished Denon turntable.

What it lacks in a capacitive touch screen (and a million other bells and whistles) it makes up for with the height of a technology that has more in common with actual bells and whistles, in that it precisely moves a piece of grooved plastic around and pulls the sounds etched on its surface with a diamond needle. Oh yeah, and it sounds ridiculously awesome.

Dad came to own this ne plus ultra turntable in 1984, the same year that the Denon company introduced that particular model, the DP-72L. It was a parting gift from his staff and colleagues when he signed on with a new firm. This was not the kind of thing he would have ever done for himself. Dad would never just up and buy himself a present. But because it was a gift, he was absolved of any charges of conspicuous consumption, a phrase he often used during that era to deride the owners of Cadillac Eldorados and the wearers of pinky rings. Once I said to him, "But Dad, someone has to buy a Mercedes," but he has always contended that there is a showboating element to the ownership of luxury items.

He sure did love his gift, though, and he maintained it with a seriousness and a sense of purpose. Those who had turntable privileges were expected to maintain those high standards. Woe betide those who didn't. One night Dad returned home to discover one half of Little Feat's Waiting For Columbus (Sides 3-4) resting on the unit's well-balanced central platter, and he went totally Oddjob with it. When I found the record the next morning, it was missing a plectrum-size chunk, and even in those pre-CSI days, I knew it had suffered blunt-force trauma from contact with a solid unmovable object, like a wall. It was the only time I ever knew him to hurl an object not meant for hurling.

For the rest of the '80s, the Denon remained the crown jewel in the system, but when the CD revolution began in earnest, Dad began neglecting his vinyl like everyone else. He was never that interested in sound for its own sake; he just liked good, full reproduction and knew you needed to buy high-end stuff to achieve that. And once you'd invested in the high-end stuff, you held on to it. You didn't trade up or obsess about state-of-the-art. Nevertheless, once he experienced the CD's at-that-time awe-inspiring demonstration of silent efficiency and his beloved Billie Holiday without any snaps, crackles or pops, not to mention the convenience of the compact disc's extended playing time, he took to the new medium with the zeal of the convert.

Despite all the care he'd put into maintaining the wall of vinyl records in his den, dutifully kept to mirror-like sheen via assiduous Discwasher treatments, he had no sort of sentimental attachment to them. After that, Dad literally went about replacing his records. Many of the LPs he would eventually give to me have written notations indicating which of the songs listed on the album jacket he now owned in digital form. Sometimes they were check marks; sometimes Dad would write "CD," "CD," "CD."

The final kibosh came from iTunes, with its gapless flood of handpicked songs. Once he had a good chunk of his music at his fingertips, Dad realized that he wasn't going to play his records anymore. Not with malice aforethought but somehow, it seemed to me, hardheartedly, he banished the Denon to a position of more or less permanent ignominy beneath the basement stairs, alongside a stack of jigsaw puzzles, an Army bugle, a 15-pound barbell weight and others of the still-functional, no-longer-used ilk.

Seeing it there, I felt a sense of poignancy—not for this once prized object, for it was only an object, but for the passing of the joy the thing once gave and for what it once signified. To be sure, the twinge of sadness was also accompanied by strong feelings of covetousness. I sought him out immediately. He was in the den, at his Mac. Django was playing.

"So Dad—I guess you finally just decided your record playing days were behind you? I see the Denon's in the basement now."

"I just never play them anymore," he said. "And it was taking up a lot of room."

"It used to be the king," I said with a touch of regret.

"It used to be the king," he affirmed. "It was the top of the line."

We stood there a moment, me looking wistful, and I was sure he was going to say, "Hey, why don't you take it?" but he didn't. So I said, "Hey, why don't I take it?" He thought about it for a second and then said, "Sure."

But you can't just shove a great vintage turntable in an overhead bin and hope the contents don't shift too much in flight. Nor would I entrust it to the embattled postal service. So it stayed in purgatorial storage until a year ago, when we drove up north to the suburbs of Jersey, chasing the Christmas blizzard that had recently passed over the Triangle. My boys were looking forward to the Big Apple Circus, my wife just wanted to get the hell out of Dodge, and I was happy to finally get my chance to grab the turntable and usher it safely home in the wayback of our Subaru, where dreams are stowed.

The Denon's three-language set of instructions describes the act of putting on a record in almost incantatory terms: "Move the tonearm to the playing position and press the start button. The turntable will start to rotate, the arm lifter will be lowered, the stylus tip will come in contact with the record and play will begin."

And I passionately concur that records possess a magic that other formats do not. Records are corporeal; they have a weight, a smell, perhaps even a story in the form of a previous owner's name or handwritten notations. To me, something rather miraculous takes place when that same piece of plastic, still gleaming black from the way Dad took care of it, fills the air with the sound of Fats Waller, animating the room just as it did when Dad still had muttonchops and I still played in Little League.

While others may lament the lack of great music released this past year, around these parts it's been a year of "Rhapsody in Blue" and "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" and crackly old Beatles records that still sound brilliant and vibrant, thanks in no small part to the DP-72L's outstanding stereo imaging characteristics and minimum of noise or vibration, but no doubt also owing to a certain Dad-fostered provenance. He may not play his vinyl anymore, but the tradition lives on. And though I try to be diligent, I still slip up sometimes. When I do, my superego always kicks in and gives me a solid thrashing for leaving it on all night.

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