It’s a 1926 flat-top cabinet unit with a winding crank on the right side. The case is mahogany veneer with four spindle legs and two lower record compartments. The horn is mounted between them beneath the turntable, hidden behind a cloth grill. You replace the steel needle after playing a record once, adjusting volume by choosing a light or heavy needle. There are no electronics involved in the sound reproduction, only a nickel-plated brass horn, a mica diaphragm, and a 78 RPM one-sided shellac disc holding about three minutes of music. The original purchase price was $150. That’s roughly $1,830.17 in 2008 dollars.

Flipping through the platters that Dad found with this machine when he helped move my great aunt’s effects, I began to understand why people used to talk about “playing records” as an activity. Winding a turntable and swapping out discs is user-intensive. Deciding what to play next when no track simply follows takes some thinking. Even when I was spinning LPs down in the basement of App’s Outdoor Programs, cleaning and sorting gear to the sound of old U2 or Dire Straits, this wasn’t the case; each side of an album was good for thirty minutes of effort-free play. And back at home my parents lack iPods, but have owned a cd changer for years under the premise “What could be better than plugging in your music, hitting shuffle and then forgeting about it for the next five hours?”

Well, really listening to your music, for one thing. The recordings of Jascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman, and Enrico Caruso I found in that cabinet are some of the lowest fidelity, noisiest records I’ve ever heard. And I listened to them more closely than I’ve listened to anything since I studied Oistrakh’s recording of the Kabalevsky Violin Concerto a year and a half ago. Because the Victrola demands so much effort to play even one track, you listen to that track for all its worth. And thus you find more musicality and passion in that one quavery, scratchy record than you previously noticed in a multitude of new recordings which were forgettably superior, ignorably perfect. And when you rewind the spring and put on a foxtrot instead, the urgency of the music is irresistible. You have three minutes to grab your girl (or guy) and dance, and then it’s over. Three minutes to make something happen before you have to pick up the needle, rewind the spring, find another disc and decide on another tune.

Why does this seem more romantic? I really don’t know. Maybe because you two, the dancers, have to trust one another. There’s no time to be bashful or worry about whether you’ll step on each other’s toes. You can’t question whether the timing is right. You have to grasp and live the moment without hesitation. And I’ll ask you this: would ice cream be better if it didn’t melt?

I’m not saying all music should be limited to three minute glosses. As a result of the time constraint, Dvorak’s Humoresque is the only significant piece of repertoire included in the recordings I found in the cabinet. Most concerto movements would be too long, and any sizable symphony would take stack of single-sided 78s a foot high. But I’m grateful for the Victrola’s reminder of how to listen to a record, grateful for the reminder of how marvelous the whole recorded-sound thing is. And wistful for a time when people couldn’t wait for “just one more song” to get up and ask that pretty girl to dance.

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