The best music gift I've been given

21:57, Mar 20 2012

A year ago to the day I wrote about how I had to see B.B. King live. The context - and by all means click on that link - was his upcoming Auckland show. And I went on to talk about my all-time favourite B.B. King album, Live in Cook County Jail. I love Live at the Regal too - but Cook County is the one for me. It always has been. So I wrote, then, about how that album makes me feel. About how I get goosebumps, every time - every time - B.B. delivers the line "I gave you seven children and now you want to give them back" and there's a moment where it all comes to together: he spits out the end of the line, the drum fill links the song back to the audience - there's a huge cheer and the audience bonds with the song once again while applauding the performance.

It's probably my all-time favourite live album. There's just something about it - that introduction where the prison warden is thanked and the mood turns sour, the audience booing (because it is a group of prisoners being asked to applaud their captor). The mood, at every step of the way on this album, is palpable.

Now, you can think what you want, of course - no one is going to stop you there - but one of the huge pulls of vinyl, for me, is feeling a connection to the music, interacting, experiencing the music on a level that goes beyond click and drag; that goes beyond headphones in, world-at-large off.

My father enjoys the record player in our house as a novelty when he visits. It used to be the way he listened to music - he knew no different. But years of CDs in cars and now an iPod connected to the main stereo making his CD collection obsolete has ruined any of that appreciation for him. He laughs that just as you are "getting into" an album you "have to turn it over". I'm really not sure that's such an arduous task.

My record player continues to turn at the end of a side, there's no automatic-return on the arm. So after 18 minutes or less (sometimes a bit longer) you have to get up from your seat and turn the record over, you have to interact with the music. It is not a huge task. And one that I happily engage with - because it has me engaging with the music.

That's one of the reasons I've become very enthused with vinyl.


There is a certain fetishism - sure. But it's not snobbery on any level. I have records that have cost me $65 and records that have cost 20c. I love them (almost) equally. I've been annoyed with $50 records and elated with $1 records.

The idea that you can hold something - and hold on to something - while listening to the music; the idea that in this busy Facebooking/microblogging world you can sit down and let the world go by for 18 minutes or so and sit with a record - that appeals to me greatly. Music has given me so much in this lifetime already. I'm more than happy to make a little time - when I can - for it.

So, when I have a favourite album, a favourite set of songs, I do, where possible, seek it out on vinyl. I have albums that I've only been able to obtain via iTunes, or a mixtape that a friend has made. I don't think less of them - but I don't consider files to be part of my actual collection. Saying you own several hundred/thousand Mp3s is, to me, a bit like claiming ownership over the grains of sand that make up your favourite spot on the beach. Fine if it works for you. It doesn't work for me.

Some of my favourite albums exist only on CD - and that doesn't mean I don't play them. But if a vinyl version is to be had I'm usually keen.

So, that's me. It might not be you. And it's probably cheaper for you to not be like that. So be happy with that knowledge.

Anyway, I was reading this article just yesterday - and I agree with most of it; the idea I just traced around that I can't feel comfortable considering files to be a part of my actual collection. Music collecting, being a music fan, to me it is, on some level, about what you have to show for the time/money that you've invested. It might not be any different to collecting model trains or stamps in fact. We can kid ourselves that it is cooler, but each to their own.

I've been very fortunate to receive some lovely gifts - including, in recent times, some records that are really special to me. Music vouchers are an amazing gift too. (Take note, you ever want to buy me something I'll value, get me a music voucher. I know you were all wondering, just waiting to ask of course...)

So, back to Live in Cook County Jail by B.B. King. I might have even referred to it as the Holy Grail for me in terms of record-collecting; one that I was after, one I really wanted/needed to have. I used to have a CD version, I could get that again no worries, but for the last few years all I had were the files. I wanted to one day be a proud owner of the LP.

Yesterday I got my copy of Live in Cook County Jail - the vinyl. I have it for my collection now. Last night we blasted it while bathing the baby. He isn't yet five months old but he wriggled with excitement, he got that bop and sway that babies get, his mouth was open wide with excitement. He knew, on some level, that his father was pretty pleased to have this music - via this format - in his life. And, well, it made bathtime fun. A side of an LP is part of the bathtime ritual in our house these days. (Yes, racy stuff, I know!)

So where did this come from, this version of the album I craved? I didn't bid on Cook County Jail via an online auction; I didn't spy it at a garage sale or in a secondhand store. I didn't import an expensive new version of it (I'm not sure such a thing exists, you see).

No, I was the lucky recipient of what I consider the greatest musical gift I've ever been given.

A guy who I do not know - in the real-world sense - bought the album for me. He is a friend via Twitter and Facebook, he is an occasional blog-reader, he is a fellow music-obsessive. He knows the feeling of finding the perfect record, of how it feels to (finally) have the record you were after.

He bought the album in America, where he lives. In fact I believe it can be said he purchased this copy of Live in Cook County Jail in Cook County in fact (given he's based in Chicago).

Travelling to New Zealand to visit friends and family, he carried the album with him, and then from Auckland down to Wellington. The world got too busy momentarily, as it does, for us to actually meet. But he left the record at my friendly collection-point (Slow Boat Records). And yesterday, a year to the day after gushing about Live in Cook County Jail as one of the key reasons I need to see B.B. King, I now have my own copy of the album on vinyl.

The price for all of this? A beer the next time he's in town, when we do actually meet up. My shout, naturally.

So I'm holding my son who is cavorting and wriggling in my arms, we have the LP turned up. We will start our own (new) stories with an album that has already, presumably, given at least one other person some pleasure. That will always mean more to me than the files you click, drag and snag.

Thanks Owen. You've made a happy man feel very old.

So what was the greatest musical gift you've ever been given? What album means the most to you for the way it came into your life?

Here, once again, the version of How Blue Can You Get that blows me away every time and the introduction featuring the booing. Take in side one of the album here. Make 15 minutes of spare time when you can.

Postscript: I did make it to B.B. King last year. It was very special.

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