A Dirty, Dispensable Record

I never cared much for Santana. (The band, not Johan. Johan, I love.) You know, there was always "Evil Ways" and "Oye Como Va"—fine songs for a stretch of highway when there's nothing else on the radio, but, eh: So what? I shrug my shoulders.

When I saw the album, though, within the dusty bins at Hoboken's Tunes record shop, I had to have it. The black and white cover art, with its cheesy-ass bubble lettering and that fearsome lion roaring out from a jungle of mad crosshatching was like something out of my father's high school yearbook, and I just couldn't resist. I bought it—and about ten other similarly beautiful albums—before meeting up with Pete and the gang for dinner at Charritos, a charming Mexican joint way down towards the end of Washington Street, just across from Maxwell's.

Dinner was delicious. I had some crazy, overflowing bowl of grilled chicken, steak, and pork, with onions and peppers and cactus. It was far too much for one person, but, along with a couple of scrambled eggs, it made an excellent breakfast the following morning. During dinner, I got to meet (and sit directly across from) Andrea's new boyfriend. He seemed nice enough, but with the slightest hint of psycho, and when she hugged me later that night, it felt as though she was thanking me for understanding. On the way home, I ended up sharing a ride on the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail with Natalie, upon whom I once entertained a soft crush. It amounted to nothing much, a few short stories that I never shared with anyone. On our ride, we talked about vinyl and I showed her my records. They were all quite dusty. We arrived at Jersey Avenue and I walked her home. A laugh and a listen, a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

Don't ask me where I was or who I was with during the last time I purchased a CD. I don't recall. It probably had more to do with spending money and wasting time than anything more remarkable. When you purchase a CD, you are purchasing fine entertainment and convenience, yes. But when you purchase an LP, you are not only purchasing those things—remember, it's a whole hell of a lot more convenient to listen to music at home, on any format, than to attend a live performance—you are also purchasing art. When you purchase an LP, you are purchasing art. There is something very special about the size of it, the look and feel and smell of it. You hold it in your hands, and you're overcome by it.

Anyhow. That trip to Hoboken took place nearly two months ago. When I finally pulled the record out of its sleeve last weekend with the intention of making it the very first record to greet the VPI record-cleaning machine, those and other thoughts came to mind and crowded my living room like the heavy dust in the record's grooves. And I mean heavy. Upon cursory inspection, the vinyl looked fairly clean. Placing it beneath a lamp, however, revealed the truth. It was shockingly dusty. Though there were no evil, depressing scratches, the record's surface was simply filthy. What homes and horrors had this poor record been through? I have asthma, and I could feel my lungs tightening as I handled the old, neglected slab of vinyl. I figured I should give it a listen before giving it a bath. That way, I could determine whether a good cleaning on the VPI had any impact on the record's sound.

I dropped the needle on the record and was greeted by a consistent chorus of pops and clicks and chirps, like a Puerto Rican night filled with the lusty coquis. There was music in there somewhere, too. Actually, it didn't sound too bad. The surface noise persisted throughout, but there was nothing terribly offensive. It wasn't great—not even good—but certainly listenable. Considering the amount of filth that I had just noted, I was actually surprised that the record didn't sound worse. More than anything, I was impressed by the quality of the music and of the recording. Despite the surface noise, I got the idea that the sound beneath the dust was dynamic and rich. Clearly, the music was fiery and urgent. This Columbia 6-eye was one fine pressing, and I had never before heard the Yardbirds-esque "Shades of Time." Where had these songs been hiding? Why do the radio stations damn us with lifetimes drowned in "Evil Ways" when there are songs as badass as "You Just Don't Care"?

I sat back and enjoyed.

The VPI 16.5's excellent instruction manual recommends that your very first record-cleaning session be made with a "dirty, dispensable record." After listening to Santana from beginning to end—I couldn't help it—I no longer felt comfortable with running it through the machine. Though it was dirty, it certainly wasn't dispensable. I decided, instead, to go with Peter, Paul, & Mary's Album 1700.

I don't give a flying nun about Peter, Paul, & Mary.

tom collins's picture

Steven: you just made my job easier for when i get a vpi. i have a copy of a record called streetcorner symphony by someone i never heard of. it was 99cents at a local defunct record store. it wasn't worth 99cents, now i know it has a mission in life.thanks.

Lionel's picture

Abraxas is the really great Santana album. Some great guitar (Samba pa ti never fails to bring a tear to my eye) and really trippy arrangements. The recent MoFi reissue (I got the CD, I'm ashamed to say, since I already have a good 60's vinyl copy) sounds amazing.The "Santana" album that often comes cheap, but is well worth picking up is Love, Devotion, Surrender, which is a duet album of Carlos S. with John McLaughlin (ex-Miles Davis and the Mahavishnu Orchestra). Several Coltrane covers, all with wildly distorted guitar from both parties. (I've several times mentioned my near worship of McLaughlin. In that era he sounds like Coltrane would have sounded if he were Jimi Hendrix) Some of the best guitar playing recorded in the decade. I got my vinyl copy for 99c. Evidently Columbia thought that since Carlos was a rock god, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra had opened for some big prog-rock acts, that it might actually sell. Most jazz fans wouldn't go for a screaming metal cover

AlexO's picture

You got to change your vinyl ways, Stephen --Your record cleaner's a lot of dough --You sacrifice hi-fi --With Peter Paul and Mary too -- I see you searching and cleaning and chasing your tail --This vinyl's old and brittle, its place in a pail --This can't go on! --Oh no, this got to change...

Neil's picture

Steven if you need to get Santana - Abraxas on MoFi vinyl, its truly a religious experience. Lots of good songs on that record

Eric Hancock's picture

Though it looks kind of cheesy, Charritos makes some good food. Surprisingly good guacamole.Great post. it is strange how powerfully songs get associated with moments.

rvance's picture

My original 1970 Columbia issue of Abraxas still plays like magic. I wonder how many joints were rolled on the gatefold back in the day!

Douglas Bowker's picture

Great story as always. Yeah the VPI is expensive but it'll last forever and in the end you'll troves more used albums that otherwise couldn't be played. I wish I had bought (or made) one years ago...

CE's picture

Dropped the "needle"....is this a Stereophile contributor? But maybe that's cus' you are using a BSR changer? Needle?!!!!!!!!!!!! Did you flip over for 33 and not 78's?

James madore's picture

Styli might be the word, but most regular folks that arent complete and total internet trolls agree needle is fine. Lay off the guy, he's writing about something worth reading ffs.