The Art of Listening to 45s
Inheriting my mom’s childhood record collection has given me a whole new way to appreciate sound
When I was a kid, my parents had a huge record collection. Some of them, they bought together as adults, but most were from my mother’s childhood collection. She had drawn hearts around Jackie Wilson’s picture on the cover of his LP, kept her James Brown records in perfect condition, and loved her Marvin Gaye. One year, she bought a trunk to hold them all, with some space leftover for 45s. One look at the collection told their story — the 45s were decidedly more well-loved.
My mom told me she used to play her 45s most of all. The ones that were dinged around the edges made a shush-scrape sound as the needle searched for the grooves, worn thin from being played again and again. The LPs she got mostly when she was older, but the 45s were her childhood — as well as her timer. Long-distance phone calls were expensive back then, and my grandma wasn’t interested in spending her hard-earned money on teenage romances. You want to call that boyfriend of yours? You got three minutes. Three minutes to tell your story. Three minutes to swoon, laugh, love, and be young. Three minutes is about the length of one side of a 45, so she’d play her record, dropping the needle just as he said hello, and as the last notes faded out, she’d say her goodbyes.
These days, long-distance calls like the kind my mom had to make aren’t a thing for me. I don’t need to use records to mark the passage of time, or search for a way to be myself within their confines, but I have hundreds of them anyway. I find their presence comforting; tiny pieces of history, aural stories, bits of the past. I like the way I have to participate in the listening process, in ways that don’t happen much these days.
Sound is ever-present. I truly don’t remember the last time I was in silence. At best, there’s always some sort of humming, a soft whir of life. And at worst, well, there’s honking and yelling and movies and music and sound and sound and sound. Even the sounds I choose are sometimes strictly passive. I’ll turn the TV on to keep the room from approaching silence, and keep my mind from approaching chaos. Or I’ll play music I have no intention of giving my full attention to. But a 45 won’t…