Great ideas sometimes come after smoking a fat blunt, but follow-through? Not so much. Then there's the kind of revelation that creeps up on you slowly, at first just nipping at your periphery like a gnat, not really noticeable, until the universe hurls so many subliminal messages at you that the thought takes center stage.
Journalist Eric Spitznagel's life was rocking along quite nicely. The author of six books (and frequent contributor to magazines such as Playboy, Esquire, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Men's Health and the New York Times Magazine) should have been resting on his laurels, but something was missing – a sort of je ne sais quoi – until a series of incidents compelled him to try to find the actual old vinyl records he used to own, and not just copies.
Like any good snowball, it started slowly at first. One day, during a telephone interview with Questlove, the neo-soul drummer mentioned he had more than 70,000 records in his collection. Spitznagel sheepishly admitted that he no longer owned any records; they had all been sold long ago. Even Spitznagel's wife sensed that something was wrong and, several coincidences later, it became clear that what was missing was the thrill of hunting for music in a record store, that adrenaline rush of touching something tangible rather than downloading a file from iTunes.
“With records, there's the intensity of focus, gathered around the record player with a friend, focused on this black orb, you feel more present, you feel more in the moment, than I do with listening to music now,” says Spitznagel. “Sometimes [iTunes songs] get relegated to the background noise; they're not really a part of my actual experience.”
The more he thought about his old records, the more he correlated each with a specific memory from his youth. Buying a copy of Slippery When Wet to impress the hopelessly-out-of-his-league Heather G, uniquely branded for eternity with her phone number scrawled on the cover. Or his Let It Be album, which had doubled as a way to hide stash from the mid '80s to the mid '90s.
It all came to a head one day after he heard “Livin' on a Prayer” – twice in one day – that he had to find that record again. “Not just any record. The record.” He changed course, intending to visit the Record Swap after a 15-year hiatus, only to find the store gone. So he sat down in a booth at a nearby Chinese restaurant and began furiously scribbling notes on a cocktail napkin. He had a purpose, he had a battle plan and he was going to write down everything he could remember about his collection and begin the search. Exile in Guyville had a store sticker on the front sleeve (priced in UK pounds), Let It Bleed had a muddy boot print (Doc Martens), Alive II had his younger brother's handwritten warning (“HANDS OFF!!!”) and a sleeve for New York Dolls concealed the more preferable Sign o' the Times by Prince.
Spitznagel soon fell down a rabbit hole in his chase to find those records. Through Amazon and eBay and musty basement boxes, he chronicled his journey in real time, writing his book Old Records Never Die: One Man's Quest for his Vinyl and His Past as the story unfolded.
“There's so many ways this book could have been a dead end. It's the first time I wrote a book that I was writing while I was experiencing it. I went through everything with a mini tape recorder, almost an out-of-body experience,” says Spitznagel.
“I did feel like [the universe] was pushing me in that direction. I didn't feel like it was even the goal that mattered,” says Spitznagel who knew, rationally, that there was no way he could find all of his old vinyl. Miraculously, through “one lucky occurrence after another,” he was able to find quite a few of his old records. The highest price he had to pay? “Financially, clearly it was KISS Alive II, because I paid $300. I was terrible at trying to put on my poker face, so desperate, I was a sucker. I wasn't even sure it was the exact one.”
He says that the one that took the highest toll emotionally was The Replacements' Let It Be. “That's the one record, I think everybody has the one record, the one album, that hits the emotional core for me. It had been so important to me as a teenager, gave me self-esteem and security,” says Spitznagel. “At the beginning, I thought it would be the easiest to find, but it was the hardest.”
Is Spitznagel happy that he went down this road? “It was exhausting, and I don't know what I would have done differently. There's always, when you look back on the journey, should I have done more, are there other high school friends I should have tracked down, or are there other avenues I could have gone down,” says Spitznagel.
He says everything happened the way it was supposed to and he's happy he went on the journey, plus his wife, Kelly, has been very supportive. In fact, they're going to be getting together soon with his ex-girlfriend Heather (she wasn't so elusive after all) and her wife to listen to the record, jam it out.
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“One thing that I want to make sure people know about: It doesn't really matter if you specifically love records. If you specifically love any form of music that was an object — cassette tapes, CDs — if you remember what music felt like as a tangible thing that you could hold onto and carry with you,” says Spitznagel. “I love digital music, but it's in the ether, it exists in the air, nobody's ever cried over an iPod.
“In looking for these records, I ended up reconnecting with friends, old college roommates, ex-girlfriends, family, forged a connection again. It's what I had been missing more than the actual vinyl. I wanted what the music used to mean.”
It's actually a fascinating read, and we purposely have withheld some of the riotous events that took place on his quest, including a spiraling-out-of-control plan to gain access to his childhood home to listen to records again (and eat an ancient box of Boo Berry cereal).
Old Records Never Die: One Man's Quest for His Vinyl and His Past began selling this month (April 2016). For information, inquire at your local bookseller or visit ericspitznagel.com.