One might be quick to say that an mp3, mp4, or mp79, or some other digital music file, is the equivalent of an old-time audio cassette (“tape”), or compact disc (“CD”). And one would be wrong, because the computer file lacks something that tapes and CDs always had—and not just a $17 price tag, or price tag at all. A purchaser of tapes or CDs got something other than two good songs, maybe one halfway decent song, and a bunch of drek. Tapes and CDs came with liner notes, and liner notes made the price tag totally worth it.
Liner notes were glossy booklets that contained notes about the artists and the production of the album, photographs of the artists performing live and smoking cigarettes, and sometimes the lyrics to the songs. Knowing all of the words to a song was like knowing a secret incantation, that when said would release the demons that gave the band members their talent and ability to play with sweaty strings of hair in their faces. I was never more impressed than when I saw a good friend sing along perfectly to “Back off B*tch [Explicit]” off of Use Your Illusion: Disc 1 from Guns ‘n’ Roses. He must have studied the liner notes for hours to catch each nuance of the piece.
But what I remember the most about liner notes—more than the lyrics, more than the photographs, more than the artwork, more than even the music itself—was the smell. That clean, sterile, plasticky, glossy smell that told my twelve-year-old brain that good times lay ahead. That smell would hit me the moment I pried open the jewel case, even though I never knew why it was called a jewel case, and that it certainly did not contain any jewels, unless you bought a CD by the artist known as Jewel, which I never did, and even if I did would never admit. Even now, years after I had to throw out all my jewel cases in the Great Scolding of 2005, I can close my eyes and imagine the smell of liner notes.
One time a friend caught me smelling the liner notes of one of his CDs. He had gotten up to go to the bathroom and I thought he was going to be gone longer than he was. When he returned I had my snout in the middle of the booklet to his copy of Metallica’s black album, which we just called Metallica Metallica.
“Hey man, what are you doing?”
“Were you…smelling my Metallica Metallica liner notes?”
“What? Smelling your liner notes? No, man. That would be weird. I was just taking a closer look. Oh, wow, you know I never knew that Lars Ulrich uses Zildjian cymbals. The print on these things is so tiny!”
As my nose became accustomed to the smell, my eyes would drink in the images. And drinking is an apt metaphor. Because no matter how many assemblies they made sit through in school, where adults used every approach short of mass hypnosis to persuade us that drinking and doing drugs was not cool, the photographs and original artwork of the liner notes told a different story.
The other day I was my parents’ home, cleaning out that week’s “mystery box from high school,” when I came across my collection of liner notes, stripped of their jewel cases but otherwise in perfect working order. I removed the hardened rubber band and flipped through the liner notes one by one, stopping every now and again to explore a particular booklet, and all the while breathing in the essence of ‘80s, ‘90s, and today. And I rolled around on the floor, reliving the magic, my mother walked in and said, “Did you know that the original liner notes came with records.” She paused and smiled. “Remember those?
Thanks to Patrick Champ for the topic.