05 July 2021

Archival footage: Curriculum vitae

Some things in life are bad.
They can really make you mad.
Other things just make you swear and curse.
When you're chewing on life's gristle,
Don't grumble, give a whistle.
And this'll help things turn out for the best...
Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life
Monty Python - The Life Of Brian

I was never crazy about my job as a school principal.  It feels a bit silly now to admit that I only took it on because our out-going principal and the then-district superintendent asked me to, but that's the god's-honest truth about how I ended up doing it.  I never aspired to be a school leader and I struggled every day, for seven long years, to try as best as I could to graciously manage, keep safe, and empower our staff and students.  Despite my best intentions, each of my many missteps were all too glaringly public, and any meager successes I may have wrought from the endless stream of contention that always seemed to be waiting at my office door, were far too few.  

In the final months of what was to become my last year in the role, when a midcareer faculty member on one of our hiring committees responded to the question asked of her by an earnest young interviewee, "Why do you love working here?" with the shoulder-shrugging reply, "I'm sorry, you should skip me. I've got nothing," I knew my time as a school leader had to be done. My heart now fully broken, I sent a 3:00 AM email to our new superintendent that night asking to be relieved of my administrative duties, and to be allowed to return to the classroom for the remainder of my career. 

During my time as a principal, whenever I found myself "chewing on life's gristle," rather than grumble (or whistle), I instead worked secretly on a couple of personal projects that helped salve my broken spirit: the first, a letter of resignation that I was never able to honestly give to our faculty (though I did send it to them via email as "a gag" one April Fools Day morning); and, second, what follows below: my professional curriculum vitae, or "the course of my life" for the seven interminable years I spent in the principal's office, styled intentionally as study guide, such as one might purchase and pore over to prepare for an important test like the SAT or GRE. It's not much to show, at the end of the day (or moreover a career), but it really is all that I've got as proof of my time spent leading one smallish, too-often dyspeptic elementary school, as best as I could for as many years as I could do it and only until I just couldn't do it anymore.

Needless to say, after happily accepting a 40% reduction in pay, it was with nothing but  great relief and almost giddy anticipation that I returned to the classroom to teach again, for what would be the final two years of my career (COVID actually foreshortened my last term (with the best class ever) by about two months).  I ultimately concluded my time in public ed as a fifth grade teacher in July 2020 after something like 28 years (1 as a sub, 7 as a principal, and 20 as a teacher).  For whatever it's worth, I never actually considered applying for another school administrator job, but I did find encouragement working on my CV whenever I was feeling melancholy.  So it's reproduced here for the first, last, and only time, merely as an historical record of what was and, perhaps, I suppose, had it not been for the shoulder-shrugging and constant stream of contention, what might have been.

Select pages to enlarge.








27 May 2021

Just about a bike: Matt Chester MuTinyman singlespeed

Select images to enlarge
Near as I can figure, Matt Chester, a resident of Leadville, Colorado, began fabricating and selling bicycles made from titanium tubing out of his home workshop sometime early in 1999. Per his now-mothballed website, he only built bikes from Ti, focused his work exclusively on singlespeed bicycles, and tried very hard (though not always successfully) to convince all of his customers to get their bikes built with 29" (700c) wheels.  He refused to install disc-brake tabs, entirely shunned eccentric bottom bracket shells, yet nonetheless eagerly charged people for repairs to other manufacturer's broken or damaged titanium frames.  

Also, near as I can figure, sometime around 2003, Matt Chester, now a resident of Salida, Colorado, had moved his operation down-valley to the south and was building his bikes in a friend's garage.  It would seem that, around this time, Chester began to carry-out a kind of haphazard, perhaps even initially unintentional, deceptive scheme amongst his customer base, apparently taking new orders along with hefty deposits, purchasing tubing and supplies for older as-yet undelivered orders with the new-customer money, and hoping everyone, including his friend (a mutual friend of both of ours, as a matter of fact) who was leasing him shop space in his garage, would remain none the wiser (he did not; he got wise).  As with most such schemes, Chester's seems to have eventually come apart, as he most likely fell further and further behind in fulfilling his orders. It appears he was at times years behind, failing to deliver to those who had put down $1000, $2000 or more, anything but empty promises of "Soon," proffered only after persistent pestering and almost always via email.

Finally, near as I can figure, by 2006, Chester's operation was likely failing in earnest, possibly due to the recurrent concussive traumatic brain injuries he occasionally complained of which rendered him unfit or unable to work, or possibly because he met a girl who lived in Canada and he chose to refocus his life-goals around being with her instead of making bikes, or possibly because he became fixated on the fact that, as a Canadian, she offered him a way out, beyond the reach of his increasingly disappointed and often angry customers and creditors.  Regardless of his motivations, and with little forewarning, he announced mid-2006, on his now defunct Livejournal blog, that he was officially going to stop framebuilding, presumably with a number of orders still unfulfilled and deposits unreturned.

In the end, near as I can figure, at some point prior to 2010, it seems he and his wife/girlfriend had moved to a small town near Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  A handful of customers, some of whom had ordered their bikes as far back as 2002, report that a few of their bikes were finally delivered via international shipment through Canada/USA customs in early 2011.

No one knows how much real cash money Chester absconded with, if any.  No one really knows how many of his frames went undelivered. Other than Chester himself, no one knows much about the actual whys and wherefores of his apparent inability to honor his commitments to his customers.

All anyone really knows is that, while he was productively making bikes, Chester made some (comparatively) very affordable, very fun-to-ride bikes out of a difficult to conjoin, quite highly sought after, genuinely exotic material.



And now, a decade or two later...

We also know that, of the bikes that were delivered to customers by Chester between 1999 and 2011, many of the frames eventually failed.

Thus it has gone with mine, a 2003 Matt Chester MuTinyman 29" singlespeed, serial number #whothehellknows 1.

It busted. A lot.

I bought my Chester some five years ago from the person who was its original owner. In fact, he's another mutual friend of mine and the guy in Salida who was renting Matt Chester shop space in his garage.

Small world, huh.

Chester now
My friend, the guy who originally arranged with Chester to have the bike built for himself is, to put it mildly (and especially in comparison to myself), something of, shall we say, a man of means. So, once the frame-build was finished, he had the bike shipped down the road a few short miles to where it could be assembled by the good folks at Absolute Bikes in Salida, Colorado, with what, in my world, I can only describe as "quite a bit of (classic 2003-era) bling," silver Chris King hubs and a black King headset, Stans ZTR hoops, Fox F29 80mm fork, Hayes Oro hydraulic front disc brake, black/silver Pauls rear v-brake lever, Avid Black Ops Research rear v-brake, XT M760 175mm cranks, 36t Blackspire ring... it's a sweet now-vintage build and I've done little over the years to alter its stance.

Chester then
I did replace the Thudbuster post with a lovely Ti unit that I had in my parts bin, and the too-narrow Answer Monkeylite carbon bars and too-short 50mm Salsa stem with a much wider (725mm) sexy blue anno SpankSpoon unit (matches the top caps on the Fox fork), along with a gorgeous 80mm silver Thomson stem.  And I also took off the fugly  carbon Shimano brake booster and replaced it with a one-of-a-kind brushed tubular steel Vulture Cycles brake booster (handmade for me in Oregon by Wade in the 1990s on IRD Rod Moses' jig, I'll have you know).  It looks a hell of a lot better on the Chester than that ol' Shimano horseshoe ever did. Works just as well, too. Possibly better.




After owning the bike for more than a dozen years, my friend listed it quite unexpectely on Facebook one evening several years ago now (at a time when I was still a part of that compromised clusterfuck of a website) for a very fair price, along with a couple other bikes that he said he wasn't riding very often any more.  I  contacted him as soon as I saw the ad, and gave him every penny he was asking for it without any negotiation. I think we both felt we were getting a good honest deal. That's always nice.

Anyway, after about four years of pretty legit riding by me all over our local shield volcano, the bike's seatpost seemed to get super creaky as I was headed out for a shred one morning.  I stopped to apply a tiny bit of lube to the post and noticed, as I was preparing to slicken things up, that there was a tiny crack visible in the weld on at the top-tube/seat-tube junction.  On further inspection, I noticed there were also cracks on both the seat-stay welds... and beneath the top-tube/seat-tube joint... and at the head-tube/top-tube... and who knows where else. I made myself stop looking and gingerly rode home, back the way I'd come. I've broken bikes before, but never so catastrophically. There was no question, the frame was cooked. End of story. I was sad to see her go.

She had been a real hoot to ride.



Then, one afternoon not long after that, I flipped the story of my broken titanium Chester past Kyle, the general manager of Absolute Bikes in Flagstaff and, as I would soon come to learn, a skilled fabricator of various alloys of metal looking to try his otherwise experienced hand for the first time at the intricate art of welding titanium.

"I'm set up and ready to work with titanium," he told me after listening sympathetically to my tale of woe. "Haven't actually done it yet. All I need is a guinea pig. You pay for the materials and I'll do the labor for free if you'll let me practice my techinque on your Chester."



Deal.  I mean, the bike was going to be wall art otherwise, so what was there to lose?  Thus, a few hundred dollars in Ti tubes and rods, a number of months of patiently waiting, and voila! 

The bitch is back!

She's got a brand new carefully mitered and affixed top-tube 2, and a super sexy collar-gusset at the top of her seat-tube now. And a whole bunch of damn good looking, albeit raw and unpolished, Ti welds 3 in all the places where she needed them, which, as noted above, was several.

Do I think it's going to break again?  Oh, yeah.  Based on what I saw, how the frame failed in so many places simultaneously, it seems inevitable.  If you look carefully, Kyle also ran a tracer bead down another short crack he found in the downtube near the headtube. And then there's the bottom bracket shell joints, where so many of the stresses riding are concentrated in one area, those welds are key to a bike's survival. And I'm pretty certain Chester probably didn't spend any more time building-in frame integrity there than he did anywhere else.  So yeah, I think it's going to break again.  When?  Who knows.  How?  Hopefully slowly and with a lot of warning and not in a way that kills me. 

I'm thinking we're gonna stick to mostly XC-style riding from now on.

Won't bother me a bit, because regardless of where I'm riding, or how, it's great that I get to shred my resurrected zombie-Chester singlespeed again!

'Cause she is still a hoot to ride!



Footnotes

1. Oddly, Chester never put serial numbers on his bikes.

2.
 Based on what little I know of frame building, and the way this frame cracked so catastrophically in so many places, seemingly all at once, I've come to suspect that Chester could probably have been a lot more precise about how he cut and mitered his frame tubes prior to assembly.

3.
Chester's tube-joinery has always looked a little too smooth to me, like it was finish-filed, akin to what a frame-builder often does to complete a fillet-brazed frame.


References

24 May 2021

Archival footage: Leyland's Bones

A work in progress...



Leyland Tweed Engleman was named after his father’s favorite jacket.


And his mother always said he had his grandfather’s nose.



As it was with his father and grandfather before him, Leyland Engleman was a saver.  A keeper.  A boxer-upper.  And a legendary collector of rare and unusual things.  Beneath his bed, in nearly a dozen large black plastic hide-away boxes, Leyland kept his things.

Things like 

thirty-eight differently shaped pinecones, some open, some still sticky and closed-up tight

and the front headlight and chrome retainer ring assembly from an old Volkswagen

and a heavy cloth bag nearly bursting with exactly 1143 antique pennies with wheat sheaves on the back where the Lincoln Memorial was now

and an old Ant Farm which still contained the remains of Leyland’s last great ant colony: probably 300 dead red worker ants.  Leyland had tried to make an accurate post-mortem count of them many times; he still felt badly for the role he had played in their demise.  He knew better now: ants need only so much water and no more.  Guilt, and an unspeakable attachment to his colony of the dead, kept him from establishing a new, much dryer colony between the Ant Farm’s clear walls and green plastic frame

and nine yo-yos, including a special free-spinning silver one that came with a 55-page How to do Yo-yo Tricks instruction book.  It was supposed to be excellent for "impress[ing] your friends and family."  Busy, however, with his many other collections, Leyland had never taken the time to learn anything more difficult than Rock-the-Cradle

and an assortment of rusty bolts and nails which he had found in various vacant lots and in-between places around his neighborhood and while on summertime adventures with his family

and an intact old bottle with an unusual Pepsi logo on it

a couple of old license plates

several broken, dirt-stained shards of old dishes and cups along with some bottle-glass that had long ago turned purple sitting out in the sun

a few pieces of authentic old Indian pottery, light brown with painted black lines still visible on one surface and even, on a few of the rim pieces, the faint, ancient impressions of the maker's fingerprints

a heavy box of rocks of different sizes and varieties labeled with their geologic names like “basalt” and “granite” and “schist” in black marker on aging masking tape

and, in one small box, which he kept always near the center-most point of his under-the-bed cache, labeled in loud red pen to warn pokers and prodders and various little brothers to “Beware! Private!” Leyland kept his bones.



Magic bones.

Leyland’s rocks… they were just rocks.  And his yo-yos were just yo-yos.  Likewise, his Ant Farm, a failure, could never be returned to the store in its current deathly condition.  His bolts would never fasten again and his nails were all rusted and brittle, well beyond straightening.  His headlight and retainer assembly, worthless without a car to go behind it.  And as for his pennies, he had been told by a collector at a coin show that his grandfather had taken him to that they were worth little more than face-value: exactly eleven dollars and forty-three cents, with only a few possible and rare exceptions.

But Leyland’s bones, they were magic.

Or they were almost magic.

Or they could be magic. Someday.

Of their magical potential at least, Leyland was nearly certain.  Just as certain as he was of the worldly worthlessness of all the other treasures in his collections.



Few knew of Leyland’s bones; fewer still believed in their magic.



To be continued...

15 May 2021

Cosmic Ray [UPDATED]

It is no small thing to say that the course of my life was, quite literally changed forever, when, shortly after moving to Flagstaff, on one of my first visits to our town's original mountain bike shop, Cosmic Cycles, I spent a few of my then very-limited funds ($5.95 plus tax to be exact) on an early edition of a little day-glo green self-published guidebook entitled Fat Tire Tales and Trails written by some dude who called himself Cosmic Ray.

I moved to Flagstaff, into a dank charmless little studio apartment, located conveniently right next door to the Greyhound bus station, in the middle of the summer of 1991, admittedly quite broke and, also, more than a little bit broken of heart/spirit/mind/body as well. 

During my first weeks in Flagstaff I had absolutely no idea (and no friends to show me) where to ride my bike. To learn the lay of the land, I regularly bumped around my neighborhood, rambled around downtown, and cruised through north campus on my bike. A couple times I rode down the two-track dirt service road that ran beside the railroad tracks as far as a big red-sandstone bridge. Nevertheless, despite my best efforts, I struggled in my first days in town to find a good way into the woods. All I found on my first forays along the railroad tracks were a few abandoned transient camps, the shell of a wrecked car or two, and several piles of surreptitiously dumped trash.

Cosmic Ray's little green book changed all that. I was hooked on page 4. 
"The world is a serious place... [but] someone somewhere got an inspiration to put a few skinny tire bike parts on a fat tire clunker just to see.  Why? Fun! That's why this little trail guide... so that we here in Flagstaff and the rest of Arizona can share our fun.  This is a guide to that elusive trail disappearing into the woods. That trail leads to the very heart of imagination... of our childhood dream of wander. Mind you, there are always secret rides... red hot pokers couldn't make me talk! Or there are trails not meant to be biked for the good of Mama Earth. But there are also rides so fine all over our great state that they just yell out to be shared. This is them!
The day after I purchased his book at Cosmic Cycles I followed his Observatory Mesa map out my door and into the woods. It was this one:


I did the ride backwards. I made the dumb decision to do the ride in a clockwise direction because the end of the loop, per Ray's written directions, was not far from my apartment, on the other side of the train tracks, right where the pavement ended, not too far from the big sandstone bridge, at a place Ray described as Tunnel Spring. I figured I could piece together the rest of the ride, working the route out turn-by-turn, by reading Ray's directions in reverse. 

Of course, I got quite lost.  Very little of what I encountered on the ground that afternoon matched with what I had read in Ray's book. "...an unmarked road takes off to the left heading south. There are two huge twin pines which mark this intersection..." Seriously?

Good lord. 

I learned that day what all of his readers would come to know about Ray over the course of the ensuing years and multiple editions of his book. That is, despite the fact that he was destined to become a kind of regional celebrity in mountain-bike circles, it would not be for his cartographical skills or his ability to provide detailed textual descriptions of critical waypoints. Instead Ray's notariety would endure for decades because of the way his elevated level of stoke for riding bikes came through on every page, and because of the way his witty prose so naturally projected his unique patterns of speech and dialect, and because of the way his compelling sense of humor cut through the typically sterile and carefully succinct diction more common in other glossier guidebooks, and most especially because of his genuine love of mountain biking which he was so obviously eager to share with anyone (for a small fee, naturally) so that they, too, could find and enjoy a few of the places and adventures he loved.  

As an author, and an increasingly talented artist, Ray will always be known for writing guidebooks that changed people's lives for the better because they were more than a bit short on accuracy, and sometimes quite confusingly rendered, where north is more a state of mind than a cardinal direction, and distances are measured more by one's feelings than with a carefully calibrated odometer. These were intentional conditions to which Ray readily copped, upholding in each edition of his book the famous Tolkien addage, "Not all those who wander are lost." In the epilogue of a later edition of his guidebook Ray similarly noted, 
"Sorry my semi-accurate treasure maps still look like the primative doggerel of a demented adolescent.  I'm a bike mechanic by trade.  Be thankful.  They used to look like the scribble of some tweaked out rat on glue. My maps are rough like mountain biking, not an exact science.  It's hard dirty fun and it frequently hurts."
It rained a lot while I was getting lost on Observatory Mesa trying to follow Ray's perplexing directions backwards, hailed a bit too, none of which I was adequately prepared for, leaving dozens of large welts on my bare arms. It was hard. And maybe even a little scary. But I persevered, undaunted and undeterred, through it all, to return back to my dank-but-dry studio apartment near the bus station, eventually, nearly hypothermic in the end.

And it was awesome, life-changing, transcendent, healing! I'd been on many mountain bike rides before that one. But I am convinced it was on that ride that day that I became a mountain biker. I remain a dedicated mountain biker to this day. 

I owe it all to Cosmic Ray, who showed me the way.  

Kinda.

As my years in Flagstaff and my time on our trails accrued, I got to know Ray personally, to go on a few wide-ranging exploratory rides with him, and eventually to consider him a good friend. I met him the first time because, as the sole distributor for his always self-published books, he often came into the bike shop where I worked in the summertime to personally check on our inventory and, he hoped aloud, to sell us more books. On the first occasion when I met him I was so pleased to be able to tell him how much his book had meant to me. And then, a little later on, I had the chance to publish a few reviews of newer editions of both his bike and hike books for Flagstaff Live when I was briefly the interim outdoors editor there. In each of those articles, I did my level best to convey in the most earnest words I could muster the special role Ray's books had played in helping me reshape and redirect my life.

Ray died quite unexpectedly not too long ago, during our COVID year, but not, fortunately I suppose, of that awful virus.  I heard he crashed on his bike, got badly banged up, and later succumbed to a serious septic infection that resulted from his injuries. I haven't spoken with his wife or daughter since I read his obituary in the newspaper, so I'm not absolutely certain this is the way he went out.  But I think this story's probably pretty close to accurate.  We live in a very small town.

The honorees for this year's Viola Awards were announced last week. The arts commission in our small town gives them out each year as "Flagstaff's Oscars" to artists and organizations in our local community who have been duly nominated by other grateful beneficiaries and admirers of their talent. Having lost Ray this year, I'll admit, I was a little disappointed to find that his name wasn't on any of the organization's lists of nominees.  I think Cosmic Ray is well deserving of such posthumous recognition, for a lifetime spent using his unique artistry to inspire and inform thousands of people to seek solace and well-being astride a bike.

Next year, when the Viola noms open up again, I'm determined to adapt this post as need-be and submit it for the commission's consideration and in hopes that the Viola's will commemorate Ray's abiding, life-changing, clever and challenging contributions to our greater good.

If you ask me, he more than deserves it.



Update: 29 May 2021

Ray's widow, Marcia, has put a few of his bicycles up for sale with all proceeds generously going to Flagstaff Biking Organization.



Portions of the preceeding text have been adapted from a previously published post.




26 April 2021

Just about a bike: Specialized Fuse 6Fattie

The archives here at rockychrysler.com never lie.  A quick glance at them and you'll see: I haven't written a Just about a bike blog post about any of my bikes since July 2016.  That's kind of a shame.  Honestly, it is.  I still have a few fun bikes that I haven't told you about yet.

I'll admit, there was a period of time there, beginning around fall of 2016, where I had very little to say about anything here on the old blog-space.  For lots of reasons.  So I mostly didn't.  I put up a scant 20 posts from 2016 through 2020.  Truth is, it has been quite a while since I really felt inspired to sit down and write... So I am quite pleased to report that the mood to write has resurfaced somewhat, and that a few ideas have popped into my head of late.
We'll start with something simple: my "new" bike, a first-generation 2017 Specialized Fuse Expert 6Fattie hardtail.  Really, it's called a 6Fattie?  Yep. An unfortunate marketing misstep, calling a bike, even a mid-fat (or anything other than an ample blunt), a 6Fattie, isn't it? I think so (and I'm pretty sure Specialized came to think so eventually, too.  They dropped the word "fattie" for the second generation bikes).  I've always assumed it's intended as a riff, a kind of portmanteau in fact, on the bike's stock wheel/tire size: 650b hoops, 40mm rims, and 3.0" tubeless mid-fat tires, which is, for sure, a bit on the portly side of things... right where I always like my wheels and tires to be!  And it's really for the best not to hold its somewhat unfortunate moniker against it, 'cause, in a nutshell, I'm here to tell ya, the Specialized Fuse 6Fattie rocks!

For the record: I like the Reba fork that came on the bike and haven't ever felt the need to upgrade it. It's maybe not as supple and active as my Fox forks, but it does the job just fine. Many riders scorned the stock press-fit bottom bracket, said it was of poor quality and made lots of noise, but it's performed well for me, and never did make too much noise. On occasion it would tick like metronome a bit, but a drop of Triflow at the top of the shell/cup interface always stopped it from recurring. In the end, however, it did require replacement with another OEM unit... at about 3000 miles (the nylon cups were fully played out), which I think is a decent duration for any nonserviceable bottom bracket.  I put a new chain, cassette, and a chainring on at about 3500 miles (bit of a challenge finding a new ring for the obscure Sram/Specialized cranks that were original spec).  Buncha worn-out tire changes over the years, Specialized Butchers and Purgagorys mostly (I'm sold on the handling their proprietary Grid sidewalls provide), always tubeless 3.0s and I've had zero, that's right, zero flats (running at 15/18 psi front/rear) with this setup. And the Avid DB3 brakes have worked consistently and reliably for me, too, with only periodic bleeding, just to keep things fresh. Pretty standard stuff for a bike that gets ridden. Overall, the 2017 Fuse has been a very problem-free bike.

My Strava says I've put almost 4000 miles on this bike since I bought it new (for full-pop retail, by the way) from Absolute Bikes it in 2017.  It's not the only bike I ride these days, but I do ride it a lot, especially if I want to go on a big mileage ride, or, better yet, keep up with my younger, fitter, faster friends on any kind of ride.  The Fuse isn't a weight weenie, it tips the scale at just over 28 pounds, but it spins up singletrack and rips down gnarly trails in a very nimble, capable, and thoroughly confidence-inspiring way. It hops good, manuals well, and rails corners tipped onto its ample sidewalls like a beast. It's by far the longest, lowest, slackest bike I've ever owned.  And (likely because of that) it's also one of the most fun to ride! The stock dropper-post, my first, has been seriously life-changing, too.

I hear lots of manufacturers are growing disenchanted with the whole mid-fat bike thing.  I think that's too bad.  There's something kinda Goldilock's porridge about bikes like the Fuse, ya know... I think they're "just right" for a whole lot of riding. I've ridden this bike all over the Colorado Plateau region, on a wide variety of terrain types, rides of all distances, long climbing rides, fast descending rides, ledgy slickrock, loamy singletrack, moondust, chunk. fire road, goopy mud, and even a fair amount of snow and ice.  And I can safely say, with the exception of super-steep rubbly ascents, which are always a sufferfest no matter what bike you're riding, but are even moreso on the long-low-slack geo of the Fuse, there's really nothing in the whole wide world (in my experience) that this bike doesn't excel at.  It really is that good.  And not just for a hardtail.  It's a truly great all-around mountain bike, regardless.




13 April 2021

Snowbiking: good shit

Winter feels over. Skiing this season was just okay. Have to say, COVID rules made waiting in the maze to ride the chair at Snowhole kinda lame.



But, I did get to ride some seriously good shit on the Pugsley this winter. So there's that. Check it.



Select images to embiggen

 





Fat biking in the snow is rad.  You should try it sometime.



29 March 2021

Let's play some records!

System specs:
Fluance RT80, Ortofon 2M Red
iFi Zen Phono (balanced), Denon AVR-1804
Paradigm Mini Monitors (v.3)
Discogs/rockychrysler
I listened to a ton of FM radio growing up, you probably did, too. I also had a small record collection in my bedroom, and a stack of tapes in a big tattered case in my car.  As a result, I was slow to adopt digital music, CDs, MP3s and streaming content, not because I was an analog purist, mostly just because of the cost of conversion. 

I have always enjoyed listening to music, not so much for the sake of the lyrics, but quite simply as a background soundtrack that permeates nearly every moment of my life. As I see it, life flows better, most things are a little easier, food and conversation are more enjoyable, and I am more productive when there's music playing.

I'm not ashamed to admit that I listened to a whole lot of mainstream music during the early period of my life, Journey, Elton John, U2, Scorpions, Def Leppard, Prince, ELO, Pink Floyd, R.E.M., Van Halen and the like. These bands and artists, and this sort of easily accessible music-for-the-masses, was the gateway through which my musical tastes have since expanded and become enriched throughout the couse of my lifetime. In fact, many of these same groups still have a well-deserved place in my music collection to this day (in truth: all of the aforementioned do, except the Scorpions and Def Leppard, whose former appeal has faded with time). The music of my youth is still on regular rotation in my life, not for the sake of nostalgia but because, at least to me, a lot of it is still quite diggable and good.  Still very diggable and very good, in many cases.

It's a bit strange to think that there was a time when analog sound, AM/FM radio, cassette tapes and vinyl records, was the only sort of music, other than live music (which is also analog, naturally, and presently ruined by COVID) one could listen to.

Likewise, it's hard to express how much I missed listening to analog music during all the years, from the early 1990s to the late 20-teens, when I didn't, because digital music, even for this reluctant adopter, became ubiquitous and tapes, and moreso records, were increasingly hard to come by.

And I think it's that "missing piece" which has played a such a large part in what has compelled me, in the past two or three years, to rebuild a vinyl record collection, literally from the ground up. And, honestly, I have been so content, so sincerely satisfied, in doing so. I really do love listening to vinyl records now, much more than I did back when I was a kid.  And I guess it is that simple reality that begs the important question: why.  Why do I prefer to listen to analog music, and, more to the point, why do I so enjoy listening to vinyl records played on a turntable?

The Internet is full of full-throated debates, passionate arguments, and even a few purportedly scientific justifications for why the sound produced by a vinyl record played on a well designed, carefully aligned, balanced, and appropriately amplified sound system might be superior to listening to a digital sound source or file.  That's not what I'm here to discuss, because A) I don't put much stock in any of that, ultimately our ears can only hear and our brains can only decode so much sound; B) I don't listen to music in an attempt to recreate an ideal soundstage or the most-accurate reproduction of the original recording (though I really do like the way my humble system sounds); and C) because, to me, the enjoyment of music is a pure, exhuberant, fully subjective, individual experience, wherein I find personal transcendence, introspection, and peace-of-mind, among other things.  It's not wrong to collect or play records for other reasons, but to me those other reasons just doesn't make a lot of sense. 

So why purchase costly individual vinyl records rather than buy what will ultimately be a much less expensive annual subscription to a high-quality commercial-free digital streaming service that will have absolutely everything, every album, artist, and song I'll ever want to listen to, for the rest of my natural life, abundantly available to me in one place, from anywhere in the world, all in an instant?
Buying records cheers me up
whenever I'm feeling low, too.

Because chasing down and checking-off an ever-growing list of must-have records for your collection is really fun.  Because flipping through crates filled with vintage vinyl in dank used record stores, or racks of mint shrink-wrapped discs in swank new music stores is always entertaining. Because building an eclectic collection of new and old records from multiple genres and eras is certain to expand one's musical, social, and historical horizons.  Because chilling out in your living room for a couple hours in the evening, either alone or with friends or family, playing records on the turntable is good for everyone's individual and collective soul.

At this point you might be expecting me to expound further on the benefits of listening to records.  And, without doubt, I could.  In fact, until a moment ago, I thought I would.  Because there are, indeed, dozens if not hundreds of other valuable and important reasons why seeking, collecting, and playing analog vinyl records is beneficial.  But, for the time-being, I'm not inclined to delve any further into my own reasons for doing so.  Instead, I'd like to be an encouragement to you to give record collecting, and more importantly, record playing a try.  I think you might dig it.  And if you do, and you get into it, and it becomes your groove, a way of life for you as it has for me, if it becomes something that transcends just a simple hobby, and begins to define you as an individul, well then, all the better.

So rather than waxing-on prosaically, I think I'll challenge you to a little exercise in self-awareness and introspection instead.  

You see, there are records and then there are records.  I like to imagine that every record in my collection is a work of art, or at least the original work of an artist... you know, someone who had something burning in their heart, a story, a picture, a set of songs, that they absolutely had to release.  And that record on my shelf, it is the final artistic form that that certain burning something took once it finally bubbled over.  I know this isn't always true.  I know that a lot of music, especially popular music by popular artists, is just so much dreck rushed to market with limited integrity just so someone could make a quick buck.  But, like most record collectors, I think, I'll be the first to tell you: there's not a lot of that sort of garbage in my personal collection.  But there probably is.  I just can't see it that way.  Because I dig it.  Seriously.  I dig every record in my collection.  Every single one.  Won't keep a record that I don't dig.  Won't keep a record that I wouldn't love to listen to, if, say, you came over to my house today and browsed through my collection and said, "Oh, cool! What a great record!  I haven't heard it in forever.  Can we play this one?"  If it's a permanent part of my collection, my answer should always be, "Yes!"

But like I said, there are records, and then there are records.  We've established that all the records in my personal collection are really good.  Many are really really good.  A few are truly outstanding.  Some are even critically important. But only a few of them are perfect.

An therein lies your challenge, dear reader.  I really just want you to find for yourself a few perfect albums, a few rare records that are flawless.  Not so much in terms of their physical condition, that's too easy a thing to assess.  For our purposes, I'm talking about records that contain no dreck, no schlock, no garbage filler, no wasted notes... hell, no wasted moments.  Perfect records aren't necessarily nostalgic records, or best-selling records, or well-reviewed records, however sometimes they are, and being so, or not being so, one way or the other, certainly doesn't exempt them from consideration.  But most of the time, perfect records speak to your heart in ways that are too personal to always fit neatly into one or more of those catagories.   To me, a perfect record must score a 10 on the I Will Listen To It Anytime scale.  And a 10 on the Every Song Is Awesome scale.  And a 10 on the I Will Never Sell It Nor Get Tired Of It scale.  A tall order, for sure.  Fortunately, finding and selecting your perfect albums is totally up to you. No one can pick your perfect records for you.  And the only way to find them is to sit back and listen. 

So, just for good measure, and by way of setting an example for you, here, entirely without comment and in no particular order so as not to introduce any bias, is an ever-growing list of perfect records from my own collection:

AIR - Moon Safari (1997)

Nirvana - Nevermind (1991)

Portishead - Dummy (1994)

Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here (1975)

Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

Kirsty MaColl - Kite (1989)

Led Zeppelin - Led Zeppelin (1969)

Eagles - Hotel California (1976)

Foo Fighters - Foo Fighters (1995)

Norah Jones - Come Away With Me (2002)

Led Zeppelin - untitled (1971)

Radiohead - Amnesiac (2001)

Beck - Sea Change (2002)

Fiona Apple - Tidal (1996)

Keane - Under The Iron Sea (2006)

Radiohead - Hail To The Thief (2003)

Zero 7 - Simple Things (2001)

Cracker - Kerosene Hat (1993)

This Mortal Coil - Blood (1991)

Uncle Tupelo - Anodyne (1993)

Jimi Hendrix - Bamd Of Gypsys (1970)

Neil Young - Harvest Moon (1992)

Radiohead - OK Computer (1997)

Travis - The Man Who (1999)

Camper Van Beethoven - Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart (1988)

Elton John - Tumbleweed Connection (1970)

U2 - The Joshua Tree (1987)

Radiohead - In Rainbows (2007)

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. -- Ed Abbey