Retro dreams

Retro dreams

Clash of cultures ensues when our columnist introduces niece to magical spinning disc

Regular readers may know that I have a Thai niece whom I have brought up since birth. She is now 22 years old in her final year at university. That in itself makes me feel old, but wait -- there is more that is about to poke sticks at my mortal coil.

We'll call her Nong Dear. I am aware that Thai nicknames these days must be derived from Japanese cartoon characters, Korean cuisine or English vocabulary related to the acquisition of money. Nevertheless since this column is about being retro I'm going to opt for one of the more old-fashioned nicknames, popular back in the 1990s, a more innocent time when Thai kids were all "Lek" and "Yai" and … "Dear".

Last month Nong Dear revealed she was seeing a young man. Upon enquiring as to which bubble tea establishment she had met this young man, she answered Tinder, which broke a little twig in my heart. My little girl was all grown up, and using apps that I would have to rush to delete for fear of overlap.

I did what all good fathers would do; I invited him to dinner. And so, last Saturday night, I was introduced to Gregory, not his real name, but being a suitor I have used an English version of Rasputin's first name as a pseudonym.

The first thing that endeared me to Gregory was his admiration for my record collection. These days they are called vinyl, but I am not one for revisionist history unless it puts me in the right.

I'm an avid collector of records. As we speak I am converting my old home office into a retro 70s room with shag pile carpet, lava lamps and a framed Rocky Horror Picture Show poster. The real reason is to have a place to house my records. I have this vision of getting home at night and plopping into a bean bag, mixing myself an orange juice, pulling out Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti and putting it on the turntable.

(The only problem with that vision is I don't have a copy of that album. It's the one with all the holes where the tenement building windows should be and if any reader would like to donate/sell it to me, he or she will get a special mention -- along with a few orange juices at the bar of your choice.)

For the moment, until my dream room is realised, my record collection is neatly stacked on a counter right alongside the dining room table.

"I just want to say how amazing your vinyl collection is," said Gregory, endearing him to me immediately, despite the improper use of the word "vinyl". Gregory liked jazz so I chose Dave Brubek's Take Five as dinner music, and the evening progressed nicely.

It was towards the end of dinner that the conversation got back to all those records. I explained that my turntable had been out of order for a week as I waited for a new stylus to arrive from the United States.

Nong Dear had no idea what a stylus was. She gets full marks for owning up to not knowing an English word while trying to impress a native English speaker with her cooking.

The young gentleman didn't know either.

"It's a needle," I said. "It's used to play records."

I passed one of the two needles I'd received that week over to Gregory and Dear. They cradled it as they would an alien object.

It was clear they had no idea what it was used for.

If this were a movie, the table we were sitting at would elongate. Dear and Gregory would remain at one end and there, half-a-kilometre away at the other, was solitary me and my elongated past.

Could it be two young people -- one 22, the other 25 -- had no idea how a record player worked?

The answer is -- why would they? Once before in this column I told the tale of my 19-year-old staff member who asked me how a vinyl platter could possibly play music. That was four years ago. Nong Dear and Greg belong to the same generation and have grown up on instant music from hand-held devices. They never had the joy of rushing to a record store with money saved from mowing lawns or tossing newspapers into front yards.

Upon purchasing that record you would rush home and tear off the plastic covering. Carefully you'd take the record out of its sleeve, paying attention not to touch the grooves with your fingers for fear of scratching it, and place it on the turntable. You brought the arm of the record player over and plopped it on the very outside. That initial connect between needle and vinyl, through the speakers, is a sound that to this day brings me great joy.

While it was playing you would pore over the album cover, scrutinising every detail of the photographs, reading the names of all the people involved and singing along to the printed lyrics. Then the music would run out and you'd flip the record over.

Music seemed to have so much more value. It was an investment; an album didn't come cheap, and you treated that record with affection. They were things to be fondled and caressed, a tactile experience Nong Dear and Gregory would never have … not that Saturday night, anyway, while I was in the room. Needles had to be replaced and records had to be wiped clean. And they had to be stored.

I remember as a child being absolutely thrilled to receive, for Christmas, a K-Tel Record Selector. K-Tel was the company that brought out albums with names like 22 Explosive Hits and Mind Bender and Super Bad. Then they came out with the Record Selector: "Find your favourite music in seconds!" It was a holder for 24 albums with a "space-age design" -- it could flip through your albums at different speeds and could even automatically stop!

It turned out to be a cheap plastic rack that flipped "at different speeds" according to the weight of your records, and "automatically stopped" when your hand intervened in the flipping process. Oh well. A life lesson on anticipation and reality.

Let's return to 2019, and the looks of confusion on the faces of my niece and her gentleman caller, as they cradled that little needle.

"Come with me. I have something to show you," I said to them. I took them to my turntable where I showed them where the needle went. Then I pointed to the Brubeck disc and explained how the record was one long continuous groove, and how the needle reverberated against the grooves, causing sound that was pumped through the speakers, and how you could flip the record over and there was a whole other side of music. And look, see that button for 33 and 45? That's the revolutions per minute!

They were goggle-eyed with amazement.

No, they were not pretending to be interested in an effort to be nice. At least I don't think they were. And I did cut my National Geographic speech short since it was time for Nong Dear to bring out her dessert, and for me, after dessert, to excuse myself as I had my thesis to write upstairs and I wouldn't be coming down to the living room again for any reason whatsoever for the rest of the evening. Best to leave the young ones to themselves and their hand-held devices.

Andrew Biggs

Regular Freelance Writer

Email : info@andrewbiggs.com


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