Think about the first song that meant something to you.

I don’t mean a song that just had a hummable melody and you knew all the lyrics because it was on the radio incessantly, and you were like “I love this song,” but you meant it like people mean “I love ice cream,” which is just something people feel about ice cream when they’re in the midst of eating it. But ice cream isn’t something you stay up late thinking about. You don’t argue about ice cream’s deeper meanings with your friends. You don’t obsess over ice cream because you feel like ice cream understands you in ways you didn’t think it was possible to be understood. Nobody says, “This is the ice cream I want eaten at my funeral.”

I’m talking about the kind of music that sinks into your pores, that enters your bloodstream and becomes part of your DNA. It’s the song that stuck by you when you felt abandoned or misunderstood, and you’re pretty convinced it was written specifically for you. When you hear people say “I love that song, too,” you just smirk. What do they know of love? Their relationship with the song is a one-night stand—a summer fling at best—but you and this song, you’re soul mates.

When people challenge you with that hypothetical poser, “Which 10 records would you bring with you to a desert island?,” it’s the first song you mention, because you’re pretty sure you could spend the rest of your earthly time listening to it on a constant loop, as you collected firewood and hunted for animals with crudely-made spears and went slowly insane. That song, that particular arrangement of notes and words, would be all the comfort you needed as you died alone on a beach. But you don’t say that. You pretend it’s a difficult question, and it’s the first time you’re considering it, and you’re like, “Hmm, let me think about that.” You try to be all cool and casual about it, pretending that your feelings about the song aren’t a little bit inappropriate, and hearing it doesn’t automatically make you feel less alone in the universe, and if it didn’t exist, something about you would be different somehow.

Think about that song right now. Close your eyes and let those familiar chords drift through your head.

BOOKBADGEIs it there? Can you hear it?

What does it smell like?

Now, for some of you, what I just asked will make no sense. You think I’m talking gibberish. And that’s okay. You’re from a generation that only knows about music as a digital thing. It isn’t something you can be touched or held. It’s not a physical thing. It’s in the ether. It’s on a screen and needs to be bitstream compliant. It’s all about megabytes and gigabytes and compression algorithms. It has to be downloaded or streamed or kept in a cloud.

Not so long ago, there were two audio formats: “That sounds good” and “Nope, sounds like an Alvin and the Chipmunks record.” That was all you needed to know. Now, when you get new music, you have to ask, “Am I going to need a LAME encoder to hear this?” Or “Does it have enough kilobits? Just 128? I accept nothing less than 640!”

MP3s, or M4As or WMAs or AIFFs or OGGs, whatever your digital format of choice, don’t smell like anything. The device that plays your music—your iPod or laptop or whatever—that may smell like something. But it’ll smell like that same thing whether you’re listening to Foo Fighters or Jay-Z. It’s not unique to a particular song or album.

Records are something different. They’re physical objects. Big, bulky, inconvenient, easily damaged objects. Vinyl is like skin that changes, in good and bad ways, over a lifetime. Skin gets damaged, intentionally or by accident—maybe it gets burned, or tattooed, or scarred—but it always retains some of its original character. It’s the same skin, it’s just weathered some life.

Some of these records—the good ones, anyway—have a distinct smell. They might smell like the beach. Or your dad’s cologne. Or when you bought Elton John’s Greatest Hits for $2 in 1977 at a Lion’s Club’s garage sale in a recently renovated building that used to be a cherry processing plant, and even a decade after the fact, the record smells like cherries.

Here’s another one. Billy Joel’s The Stranger. I can’t even look at the album cover without smelling Calvin Klein’s Obsession.

During the mid-80s, my grandmother was diagnosed with gallbladder cancer. My parents flew out to New York for the surgery, and my brother and I were sent to stay with family friends. The family that took me in had a daughter, Debbie, who was about two years older than me, and almost unfairly attractive. A woman who looked like her in a Whitesnake video was one thing, but existing in the world, walking past you in the school hallway, a reminder of how your fantasies can be right in front of you but also a million miles away, was just not cool.

I remember being dropped off at her house, and her parents taking me to her room, and saying, “This is where you’ll be sleeping.” And I sat there, in her room, totally mesmerized. Because Jesus Christ, I was in her bedroom. The place where she slept, maybe in her underwear.

I went immediately to her records, because I just had to know—what does a beautiful women listen to why sitting around her room in sexy underwear? The first record I pulled out was Billy Joel’s The Stranger. I’d never heard of it before, but the cover was amazing. Joel was sitting on a bed, wearing a full suit and no shoes, gazing down at a white theater mask next to him, with a pair of boxing gloves on the wall. Cringingly pretentious, but for a 13 year old boy who still owned all of his original Star Wars action figures, Billy Joel seemed super-complex and deep.

I made a mental note to wear more suits and buy some boxing gloves.

The record had its own unmistakable scent. It smelled like Calvin Klein Obsession. I wasn’t able to put a name to it until decades later, when I was on a blind date and the girl was wearing Obsession. While we were making out, I took a deep breath of her neck and said, “You smell like Billy Joel’s The Stranger.” (It didn’t end well.)

I’m not sure how long I was sitting there, smelling Debbie’s Stranger, when the door burst open and Debbie came charging in.

“Hey,” she said, beaming. “You’re here.”

“Yep,” I said, staring at her like she was a black bear that’d just wandered into my campsite.

She nodded, inching closer to me. “This is going to be so cool,” she said.

I had no idea what she meant by that. I remember thinking, ‘Cool how? What’s so cool about it? And why’s she standing so close to me? Is she waiting for me to do something? Maybe kiss her? Oh Jesus, should I kiss her? Of course I should kiss her! There couldn’t be a more obvious signal. I’m totally going to kiss her.’

I didn’t kiss her. And I never really talked to her again during the entire week I was at her house. It’s possible I missed my opportunity. It’s even more possible that she’d confused me with another boy, and was too polite to say anything when she got close enough to realize it.

I eventually bought my own copy of The Stranger. But it wasn’t the same. The songs sounded generally similar, but something fundamental was missing. It didn’t have that hot girl smell.

There’s another record whose unmistakable odor has become a sort of personal mythology for me. The Replacement’s Let It Be, first released in 1984, first purchased by me in 1986, and my copy eventually sold in 1999. For the vast majority of its existence, the record sleeve was used for more than just a protective envelope for the vinyl. It also served as a sort of safety deposit box for my stash of marijuana.

It’s amazing I ever thought I was getting away with anything. I think my thought process was, if somebody—my parents, DEA agents doing random searches of teenage bedrooms—got the crazy idea that kids were hiding marijuana in record sleeves, they’d look at titles a little more obvious. They’d probably check my Cypress Hill. Or my Grateful Dead. Or my Bob Marley Legend, which I kept in my closet in clear sight specifically as a weed red herring. It’d never cross their minds to looks elsewhere. They’d be, “Oh don’t bother looking for his stash in any of those Mats records. They were into heavy drinking, not weed.” Because obviously, both the DEA and my mother would have done extensive research on the intoxicants of choice of my favorite artists.

I was never busted, and not because Let It Be was such a clever disguise. Obviously nobody cared that I was smoking marijuana.

I haven’t stopped listening to those songs. I’ve owned the album on several formats. I’ve had three CDs of Let It Be, and numerous mp3s of the songs, which I’ve synced to too many iPods, iPads, nanos, minis and shuffles. The notes are the same, the voice sounds familiar, but it doesn’t feel like my music anymore. For one thing, the smell is gone. And the scratches, well, there aren’t scratches anymore. Which isn’t something you’d think you’d miss. But I miss those scratches more than anything.

The scratches matter. They’re not just an imperfection. Something meaningful happens when those scratches are made. Something is etched into the grooves. Something important has become a part of your permanent record. And the song is your witness. It’s borne witness to your milestones, it held your proverbial hand when life got shitty, or gave you a danceable beat when there was something to celebrate. The song, yes, but more significantly, the physical object that was with you, that you touched and held onto and watched spin around and around as you listened to it make the music that felt like it might be the only thing keeping you alive. It wasn’t just the messenger. It was your companion. It was an accomplice.

If you saw it again—that record, that specific record—would you recognize it?

Would you know it was yours?

If it was one of my records, I’d like to think I’d recognize it. Even if it’s been sitting in a damp basement, or stored under a leaky air conditioner. I know where all the scratches are; I put them there myself. I know every pop and hiss. I’d recognize my records like I’m recognize my own flesh and blood.

During the first few months after my dad died in 1999, I had this recurring fantasy that he’d faked a heart attack. Maybe he did it so he could skip town to evade back taxes, or run away with his mistress. Whatever it was, the story was comforting. It was my life raft during his funeral; the thing that kept my head above water so I didn’t suffocate on grief. I imagined him somewhere in New Orleans, with a bad dye job and a mustache, living a gypsy lifestyle as he moves from motel to motel with his Brazilian lover.

Sometimes, when I’m daydreaming, I have this vision of myself wandering through a Mardi Gras parade, and I see him in the distance, sucking back the last of his Hurricane before kissing the neck of… what’s her name? Rosario? Yolanda? And then our eyes meet, and I know that he knows that I know it’s him, and he smiles at me in that weak way that says “I’m sorry, son. I’m sorry that I wasn’t there for you over these past fifteen years, and I’m sorry that I missed so much of your life. I love you more than you can begin to imagine, and I wish I didn’t have to leave, but la vida es corta! You’ll understand someday.”

And then poof, he’s gone, disappeared into the crowdI chase after him, pushing people out of the way, stumbling over revelers in masks and slipping through guys in stilts and knocking drinks out of the hands of tourists and running and running and running, the sound of joyous laughter and music and celebration all around me. I know I’m never going to find him, but somehow it’s okay, just knowing he’s still out there, and he’s still breathing the same humid air that I am, and at least now he realizes that he never fooled me, with his silly “he-had-a-heart-attack-at-60” ruse.

Just like I’d recognize my father’s eyes in a Mardi Gras parade, I’d recognize my copy of The Replacements Let It Be. The one that was with me through puberty and too many girlfriends and years of stomach-clenching  loneliness and an ego that sometimes felt like it was held together with scotch tape and sloppy punk riffs. If I saw it again, I’d know it was mine. And not just because it smells like weed, which I used to store in its sleeve. But okay, that wouldn’t hurt.

Of course I’d recognize it. Assuming I was ever in the same room with it again, it’d be impossible for me not to recognize it. But that’s not the hard part. The hard part would be finding it again since I sold the record when I was still in my 20s. A lot has happened in my life since I let it go. I got married, and had my first meaningful employment, and buried my father, and almost got divorced, and became a parent. It would be almost laughably impossible, but maybe if you looked long enough, and hard enough, and refused to give up, maybe you do find it again. Maybe you find your dead dad in the Mardi Gras parade. The thing you thought was lost forever, that part of yourself that just disappeared, that vanished when you weren’t paying attention, maybe you chased it down and kept running until you cornered it in a back alley and you managed to get it back.

But then what?