I noticed it immediately from across the cluttered, musty-smelling room: a Phone-Mate IQ-2845 answering machine.
I was at an estate sale in my hometown at a former bed & breakfast that'd gotten terrible reviews on Yelp -- like, scary-terrible reviews, specifically of the B&B's nosy and cantankerous owner. The owner had died, and I'd come to the estate sale to gawk at the insides of a house I'd read countless stories about solely based on customers' bitter, angry reviews. But when I saw the Phone-Mate, I knew I'd have to buy it, no matter the price. We're talking a circa-1985 answering machine with two cassettes inside, a technology utterly obsolete. Even if it turned out to be $50? Sold.
It was, after all, my family's answering machine when I was growing up.
Not the same exact answering machine, of course. It couldn't be. I wouldn't plug it in and hear my mom's voice saying she'd be home late from running errands; the babysitter I not-so-secretly had a crush on calling about sitting Friday night; my friend Brandon asking how our dirtbike ramp was coming.
Or... would I? A little voice inside my mind whispered: it's possible, right?
Eric Spitznagel's new book, Old Records Never Die, is a nonfiction memoir of Spitznagel's quest, at age 45 and with a wife and son, to find and recapture the records he'd sold off in the mid- to late-'90s. Not just the same titles, mind you, and not just the same pressing of each -- he tries to find the same exact copies of records that he'd once owned.
The Bon Jovi record with his girlfriend's number written on the cover. The Kiss record with a message from his brother scrawled inside the “K” in “Kiss.” The Replacements record that always skipped in the same spot, and every time he's heard a pristine copy since, he's missed the skip.
Spitznagel wants the skip back. But that's not all he wants back.
Old Records Never Die starts somewhat plain, rehashing the familiar scripture of the vinyl collector, the same platitudes for records that you've heard before. Music should be tactile. Imperfections have personality. The digital experience is cold. Past this cursory introduction, we learn about Spitznagel's stupidity in selling off his vinyl collection, his yearning to reclaim certain specific copies, and how his determination to find them is crystallized while talking with the Roots' drummer Questlove. (Spitznagel, a magazine writer now working at Men's Health, has interviewed everyone from Merle Haggard to Ke$ha.)
From there, readers' ability to connect with the book may hinge on one's appetite for sentimentalism, as well as one's personal connection to and/or obsession over the details of records by the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, the Rolling Stones and more.
Spitznagel's adolescence doesn't align exactly with mine; I believe we're 5-7 years apart. But most of the music in Old Records Never Die is timeless anyway, and the way certain records lead him down endless tributaries of memories is a theme that resonates universally.
For example, reading his reasons for wanting to hold his exact same teenage copy of the Replacements' Let it Be immediately brought back every memory I personally have of the album. I remember the cassette tape I owned of Let it Be when I was 18, the brown Volvo where I played Let it Be and only Let it Be on repeat for an entire summer, the phrase “We Don't Wanna Know” that I spraypainted on my bass amp in homage to “Seen Your Video,” the riff I shamelessly stole from “Favorite Thing” for my band's first album, the night I flipped my brown Volvo on the freeway driving back from a show doing 70mph because I fell asleep at the wheel, the fact that Let it Be was still playing on the cassette deck when the car came to a stop in the median, and the very beautiful, mutual way that my girlfriend of 1½ years and I broke up, with no malice or bitterness, the very next day after the crash.
Spitznagel's search for his old records has its ups and downs, but even when he's wildly unsuccessful (testing the patience of his wife, making foolish expensive purchases, chasing down rabbit holes in vain), he starts inching closer to a core understanding about adolescence and the ways we recall it.
Here, about halfway through the book, is when Old Records Never Die really kicks in. When Spitznagel visits his old college frat basement, writes about his father's obsession with Willie Nelson's “Always on My Mind” or reconnects with his first girlfriend High Fidelity-style, it becomes less about the records and more about life itself. A beautiful passage involving Journey's “Don't Stop Believin'” even has the unfathomable ability to pull the reader out of the convoluted sap of the overplayed song and into misty-eyed heartache over love and the passage of time. Really. I'm not kidding.
At times, the details and timing of these scenes seem too perfect, and it's apparent that Spitznagel engages in a dose of creative nonfiction. (Is anyone who grew up in the Midwest in the '80s really unable, like Spitznagel in the book, to immediately recall the title of the Prince song that's about a beret? No.) But while stricter writers will allow the truth to get in the way of a good story, Spitznagel knows that a good story can sometimes lead to a greater truth. After accepting that aspect of Old Records Never Die, the book's conclusion -- an unexpected variation of "you can't go home again" -- is wholly satisfying.
I wish I could say the same for the estate sale's Phone-Mate IQ-2845 answering machine, which, as it turned out, only cost me $3. I brought it home and plugged it in. The series of clicks and buzzes and clacks that followed sounded like an Aphex Twin 12", and it soon became apparent that the outgoing message cassette was thrashed. I tried and tried to fix it, but nothing worked.
But do you remember that girlfriend? The one from the day after the car crash, with the Replacements' Let it Be playing? The one from the mutual breakup? We didn't stay broken up forever. I was sure she'd thought my answering machine escapade insane (not quite as insane as Spitznagel's, granted), but I texted her today about it: