Though belated, it was no doubt a break-up gift.
The turntable arrived at my apartment in Cambridge right before my 23rd birthday, an unexpected gesture after a few necessary months of not speaking. It’s not that I didn’t read into it; the petty questions came from all angles as I struggled to rip the packing tape: What message is he trying to send? Is this supposed to make up for everything? How materialistic does he think I am? So now he has the upperhand?
But once I found the perfect spot for it—atop a cabinet that was just the right needle-dropping height—my resentment subsided. After years of collecting decorative vinyl that I could only play at friends' apartments or my parents’ house, I finally had a record player of my own. I texted him thanks, sincerely.
There were a few more steps to audio bliss. I bought brand new speakers, black cinder blocks with neon yellow accents (they were self-amping, so they couldn’t have been that nice). The wiring seemed simple enough: red on red, black on black. But each time I twisted the knob to on, only the left speaker crunched with feedback.
I’d like to think that my sophisticated ear thoughtfully selected an album recorded in stereo so the opening track would split distinctly between two speakers, but I’m sure Moondance just happened to be on the top of the stack of used records collecting dust. “It Stoned Me” served me well: the needle would drop, Van would sing Half a mile from the county fair and the rain came pouring down to my left, and when he reached oooh the water with nothing to the right, I knew immediately that I had to fiddle with the wires again.
After about 30 adjustments, I finally heard crisp horns brimming from the right. It’s alive! It was a marvelous night for a moondance, and I indulged. A few tracks later though, sometime around “Crazy Love,” a sad thought pricked me: would keeping this record player keep my ex in my life? Would I think of him every time I flipped sides, every time I twisted the copper wires the same color as his hair?
Every relationship has its artifacts. There are objects in our apartment that my current boyfriend has no idea came from an ex of mine (though I suspect he’ll start asking more questions after reading this). They’re mostly practical—I certainly don’t think of the guy who gave me the cast iron skillet every time I fry eggs in the morning.
Astral Weeks, the record before Moondance, might have been a more appropriate soundtrack for the moving-on process, as Van Morrison wrote most of it meandering around the very neighborhood outside of Boston where I lived. One of my top five of all time, Astral Weeks is the ultimate staring-at-the-ceiling record; I’ve spent many nights in hypnotized by its strange beauty. But Moondance was the record I needed at 23—energetic, familiar, something I could sing along to. I needed to be grounded. As Ryan H. Walsh recently put it in a review for Pitchfork: “Van the Man was tired of floating in space; it was time to dance.”
Putting on Moondance to test the speakers has become a ritual. I used it to break in the next four apartments I lived in. In new cities and states, I twisted and pressed and re-angled the wires, listening for those triumphant horns that would christen my new home.
Like most people who collect vinyl, I tend to romanticize the analog. When Apple announced that the iPhone 7 would come without a headphone jack, signaling a shift to wireless-only listening, I vowed never to upgrade—even if I was receiving the music digitally, I wanted to be tethered to a concrete object. I needed to feel the connection, to twist the wire in between my fingers. I was scared of floating in space.
As it turns out, a turntable is a perfect break-up gift. Instead of a totem to the past, it was a vehicle for new memories—rocking out and cooling down, wallowing and bouncing back, twisting and shouting. (Though this was not necessarily the intention behind the gift; I think it’s safe to say that none of my exes have ever carried the ulterior motives I subscribed to them). When the time came, about six years and fourscore relationships later, I left the record player on a ledge in the lobby of my apartment building, a note stuck to its cracked plastic cover: “It works!”
My new record player is a multi-functional upgrade; it came with its own slim speakers with red and black wires that clicked right in. Van’s horns rang on the first try. The Bluetooth feature is hard to resist; 23-year-old me would balk at the fact that sometimes we play albums over Spotify that we own on vinyl tucked on a shelf less than 10 feet away. For all the metaphors in fine-tuning and strengthening connections, now I’d rather press play on my phone, staying on the couch beside my love. It seems I don’t need to fiddle with the wires anymore.