I have been a lifelong admirer of analog music. My love for this kind of music was inspired by my dad, who started his vinyl collection back in ’73 when he bought Al Green’s Call Me album—a personal favorite of mine. He still has it to this day, and we must have listened to it hundreds of times by now. The cover is completely worn out and the years have left a few scuffs and scratches on the legendary disc, but we don’t mind the record’s imperfections that have accumulated with time.
Given my longtime affinity for music, particularly records, I decided it was time that I venture to Allston to explore one of Boston’s hidden gems—Looney Tunes Record Store. I walked downstairs and opened the door to find a room full of stacks upon stacks of vinyl albums, cassette tapes, books, films, and guitars. Scanning beyond the piles of records, the walls are lined with a series of posters, ranging from Muhammad Ali to Louis Armstrong to Jimi Hendrix. George Harrison’s “Living In The Material World” played in the background, and met with this sensory overload, I had never seen anything like it before. While I’m sure there is some kind of organizational system, for the most part, it was just a glorious mess of music.
Pat McGrath, a man who claims he has been willed into existence by music, is the proud owner of this house of music. The store was originally located on Boylston St. for over three decades, but it recently moved to Harvard Ave. in the last few years. McGrath said he has a simple approach to the records business: If it moves you, it’s yours.
There is something particularly nostalgic about walking into an old record shop and embarking on the search for the needle in a haystack you’ve been hoping to add to your collection. The exquisite artwork on the sleeves of the disks makes you feel like you are walking around a museum. Walking into a store like this, where there are albums both old and new, you inevitably take on the role of an archeologist carefully searching through stacks of records. It is an extraordinary experience to imagine who owned a particular album at one time—and to think about how that record may have inspired a previous owner at some point or another.
Looney Tunes is a place of stories. A constant stream of stories from some of the most brilliant writers of our time come through the speakers as the store’s visitors converse with one another over records. McGrath, who described listening to a vinyl album as a sort of “religious experience,” has a unique way of making people want to share their stories. I would guess that almost everyone who comes into Looney Tunes leaves as a friend. Shops like this do an incredible thing by bringing strangers scattered around town together and uniting them through their love for music.
“If you want music to serve its purpose, which is to free your mind from the tyranny of conscious thought, there is no way better in the home than through a turntable,” McGrath said.
There is a certain warmth and richness to a vinyl album that cannot be replicated. The experience of listening to a vinyl is not solely for the music elitists. Listening to one becomes a sensory experience anyone can engage in as you slowly take the disc out of the sleeve, blow the dust off the needle, carefully place the record on the turntable, and read the lyrics on the jacket cover like poetry while listening to the splendid sound coming from the speakers. McGrath said this is an experience that “nurtures the soul.”
Part of what makes record shops special is the characters that come into them day to day. There are the regulars, the vinyl devotees that keep places like this in business. They either come in search of the perfect album to add to their extensive collections or they just pop in for a chat about the wonders of music and of life. Then there are the newcomers, the vinyl novices who immediately head toward the classics as they begin their collections. They’ll go for The Beatles’ Abbey Road, U2’s The Joshua Tree, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, and Nirvana’s Nevermind. I love to see what everyone picks out as they come into these stores—a person’s musical taste speaks wonders about them.
Technology has clearly driven the masses toward convenience as we have moved from albums to tapes to compact discs to streaming services. During this progression, we have lost the appreciation for the true art that is a vinyl album. We have given up the authenticity, nuance, and nostalgia that comes with a vinyl album. We have also lost this brilliant opportunity to sit and listen to an album from beginning to end and to witness the vivid poetry the author has created for us.
Listening to music in a digital format is the equivalent to only reading the first few chapters of a book. It doesn’t tell the full story. The imperfections of the individual records mirror the imperfections of life. There are scratches on tapes just as there are challenges in life. No two albums are identical, just as no two people are exactly the same.
It isn’t that vinyl enthusiasts resist contemporary technology, they just have a greater appreciation for the genuine sound of an album and the magical experience of shopping in a store like Looney Tunes.
As I took the T back to campus, I looked around at the people sitting near me and I realized this crowded train car is a lot like the shop, each of us packed in like the albums on the shelves. Everyone has a unique story to tell, you just have to put it on the turntable and give it a listen to find out what it is.
Graphic by Meegan Minahan / Heights Editor