In a post I made here over a year ago, I lamented the advent of the digital revolution, that is, the rise of digitally downloaded music and even digital books. But I'm not sure my dismay at the lost tactile pleasure of holding a CD and perusing its liner notes really got to the root of my pain, to the sense of loss I feel.
In a recent special collectors issue, the British music magazine Mojo addressed "The Greatest Album Covers of All Time." For me, turning the glossy full-color pages of this oversize issue was a trip through time as well as a visual delight. I had almost forgotten how much has been lost, first with the advent of the CD, and now with the trend toward digital music downloads. You see, I can never can never quite get over the fact that when albums were really albums, you really had something. When I download a song, I do not feel that I have anything, really. It doesn't seem real or significant.
Let's say you're in my eighth grade class. You've just finished lunch at my junior high school and you make your way to the courtyard where groups of kids cluster. There's girls over there along with a few defectors, guys who have gone over to the dark side, actually talking with girls. There's two or three losers and loners, by themselves, like unfortunate untouchables in the sometimes cruel world of high school. There's freaks -- well, let's call them emerging freaks, as they are not old enough to be real freaks with long hair and weird clothes and mannerisms (it's the early Seventies, people), even though that one, Davis Zeigler, did tell me he was trying to expand the cosmic consciousness of his deskchair. (I'm not sure what that was about.) Wait. Who are those guys lugging 10 to 15 albums around under arm, huddled together poring over the album art and liner notes? That'd be me and my fellow audiophiles. I had something. I really had something, back in the days when albums were albums, when you had at least 576 square inches of visual imagery to closely examine when you bought a record. You see what we've lost? Looking at a CD is like looking at a thumbprint of a person. I want the whole thing, something big and grand.
Carrying around those albums I knew I had the real thing. I not only had music, I had concept, a visual statement, a band bio (albeit abstact), identity, community and more -- much more than a song on an Ipod. I had something. When I looked at Peter Blake's surreal cover for The Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, I knew I was getting more than just music. I was buying into a statement about life and music. I knew more than just a song. I remember so many of them: Jefferson Airplane's Bark, which came in a grocery bag for Pete's sake, or Jethro Tull's Thick As A Brick, which looked like a very unusual newspaper, Grand Funk Railroad's E Pluribus Funk which was round -- something we'd never seen before! Then came the psychedelic covers, like The Beatles Revolver, designed by Klaus Voorman, or the red velvet feel of the Bee Gees (pre-disco) Odessa album,The Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request, with the three-dimensional photo on the front. My, they were great days, with so much to look at, a hey-day of artistic control of product we have not seen since.
But back to my point: when you had an album then, you really had something. You could touch it, feel it, look at it, and finally listen to it. The album was like an icon of the band, a window into who they were. The band had a full pallette of color and sound from which to make a statement. As I huddled there with my buddies, deciphering what in the world the artwork on Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy album (home of "Stairway to Heaven") meant, I was a part of something bigger than me, something transcendant, something spiritual, something you could touch. We've lost that now.
When God gave us His revelation, it was incarnational and multidimensional. The Ten Commandments came on tablets of stone, the words etched by God Himself. The Law and the Prophets came on parchments, scrolls, things that you could touch and see and even smell. And God's final revelation came in a three-dimensional living breathing man, that you could see, hear, touch, and (I assume) smell. The Gospel is so deeply inacarnational, taking shape in the stuff of the physical world, in particular things and particular people that you can see and hear and touch.
And that's why I like albums, the real things. They're little incarnations, something you can interact with in a multi-sensory way. They're some artist's gospel incarnate, the real thing.
Now maybe you're under thirty and don't know what in the world the big deal is. Well, I think you really do know the sense that something fully incarnate is better than just the idea of something or the single sense of something, sort of like a Starbucks coffee -- the taste, the smell, the warmth, and the experience is far better than just the taste of the drink. Do you understand? It's the way we're wired.
And finally --- Sam, if you're reading this, will you mail me back Traffic's Shoot Out At the Fantasy Factory? I mean, come on, it's been 33 years since you borrowed it. Please. I need the real thing.