Sunday, January 16, 2011

Living in Stereo

The space that would contain all of the audio equipment I’ve owned in my life would look like the back row of a deeply unpopular Salvation Army store. Stuff that was dirt cheap to begin with and can’t be given away now. There would be few hidden gems of audio history (think Sony Walkman cassette players) in that pile, but not many. The department-store stereos and such, I surely got years of use from each. Over use. Abuse.

And I was slightly too young to buy into the “stereo as furniture” systems. Brother M had that in the basement back in the 70s. I can’t recall if he bought that system, or if it was simply passed on from our parents. A hulking wooden bureau/cabinet with a lid that opened onto a turntable/radio/eight-track component, with the speakers taking u
p the bulk of the cabinet on each end. The thing was enormous and weighed a ton – people often had “entertainment systems” along these lines, with both a TV set and the stereo system noted above. And sometimes even a wet bar! (For some reason, my best stereo/furniture memory: going to the Scanlon brothers house, who lived just up the block, and them playing “Theme from Jaws” on it with the lights off, while their Dad mixed a Rob Roy on the other end of the stereo and laughed at us for being so frightened by the music.)

If one of my records went down to the basement stereo, fuck it, it was gone. Either literally gone or scratched to hell. We all took terrible care of our records back then. The mammoth 45 collection Brother M had was kept in a cardboard barrel next to his chair in front of the stereo … I was thunderstruck when Mom threw them all out at some point in the 80s. It felt like my past had been junked as that sort of campy 70s fluff was not being reissued at the time. Little did I know I’d end up replacing all those scratched 45s
eventually, thanks to magnificent reissues series like Rhino’s Have A Nice Day 25-volume set of 70s Top 40 hits. (If you want the truth of what it was to be a kid in the '70s, find these songs. Brutally honest stuff that imparts exactly how it felt to me then, along with all the other more respectable stuff we reference to demonstrate how great the 70s were.)

I’m n
oting all this because the other day, I had to buy a new CD player. In this day and age? Talk about a wild-goose chase. The five-disc changer I’ve had for the past six years simply stopped working – it would grab a disc to play and then not let go, thus jamming the system for any other type of use. There were so many superfluous features of that changer to begin with: AM/FM radio and a cassette deck (!) on top. I bought that thing in 2004 or 05 and remember being shocked at the time that I couldn’t buy a dual MP3 dock/CD player, but they weren’t being mass-manufactured at the time.

I eventually settled on a DVD player (all of them play CDs, too), for around $60, because it was that, or really low-end CD players ordered online, or $300+ high-end equipment that I don’t need, as I now buy about a dozen discs a year and will use a player more for other mixes people forward to me. I’ve been moving with the audio times since the late 1990s, but this felt like a bit of a shock, to see how hard it was
to find basic audio components these days. Everything now seems geared towards massive “home entertainment” systems that are built for movies and video games.

Shit, I’ve neve
r been into that much audio rigmarole. The first system I could call my own, bought specifically for me for Christmas around 1976 or so, was a Soundesign compact stereo. Oh, God, a quick web search found almost the exact same model. The one I've posted here has a cassette, which is what I would “step up” to in the early 80s and college. The same model in the 70s had an eight-track cassette player. (I’m heartened to see that seller on the website I pulled this image from is asking $25.00 for this – that sounds about right! I think it originally cost at least $80, which was a lot of money at the time.) If I’m not mistaken, this exact same stereo is in the basement back in PA, sitting on a refrigerator, covered in coal dust, and still works! At least it did when I worked out down there a few years ago.

Soundesign meant working-class, at best. Much like Sparkomatic. Just the most basic, no-frills, shitbag audio systems you could buy. That was my reality as a kid growing up in rural PA. Not just mine – most of my friends, too. Some kids with a more moneyed background would have good-to-great audio systems, but most of us were Soundesign by class design. This is probably why I’ve never been an audiophile – it’s simply my heritage to have no-frills audio systems. Never had anything against audio guys, save the neurotic collectors’ mentality s
o many of them had. (Check out Steve Hoffman’s Music Forum for a current sampling: give these guys credit, they know they’re weird and have learned to live with it.)

I would cling to that all-in-one stereo design for a long time thereafter, simply based on economics. As a teenager and through college, I simply couldn’t afford to buy separate audio components. It occurs to me now, the best records I’ve listened to in my life, the best of 60s and 70s rock, 60s soul, 50s rock … all this essential music, I absorbed on the shittiest stereos possible! And I also had many thunderstruck moments in cars, hearin
g what would be hit songs for the first time, on choppy AM/FM reception that faded in and out from tinny speakers. I still recall being so blown away the first time I heard “Every Breath You Take” by The Police that I had to pull the car over and just listen.

Out of college, move to NYC, and it felt like time to step up to audio components. Brother J had already done so with a pretty nice receiver/cassette/turntable system … that he still has, collecting dust in my old bedroom. I followed his lead and bought lower-cost Technics and Pioneer components. Nothing special, but there it was, my first big rack of equipment, one component stacked on top of the other, turning that thing on was like switching on the controls of a jet airliner.

At the time, New York was rotten with electronics stores: Crazy Eddie’s and The Wiz stand out the most, but there were dozens of others, packed with myriad choices for components, anywhere from $100 to thousands. And each had the same: that really cool “back room” you’d take a special door into, like the Western swinging doors leading to the porno section of video stores, that you’d enter to sample the truly high-end audio equipment. (I rarely went back there … the audio room, not the porno section.)

Oddly enough, the best audio equipment I ever had was found in the garbage. My friend Jose lived in an apartment building on the Upper West Side for which his father was the super. A lot of people in NYC have had the experience of finding cool,
usable stuff in the garbage that other people haul out and leave on the curb, thinking, “If the garbage truck doesn’t take it, someone else will.” I’d wager that in Jose’s building, which was upscale, some of the stuff left out for garbage was in great condition, being replaced only because people wanted to upgrade.

Well, one day, someone left out a Technics receiver, just a magnificent piece of equipment, built like a tank, as all those great 70s stereo components were. And a pair of floor model Yamaha speakers with monster cable. Jose already had a dynamite stereo, so he called me up and sold it to me for $50 or so, and drove it up to the Bronx himself. I already had a linear tracking turntable (over-rated), a very good Pioneer cassette player, and a fairly standard Sony CD player, which still felt like an exotic piece of audio equipment in 1990. (I had already bought a few long-box CDs by that point, after holding out for years on buying a player as I hated seeing how vinyl had been phased out in the mid-80s. First one: Let Love Rule by Lenny Kravitz … still not a bad album.)

That system took me straight up to the year 2000 or so, surely the longest I had any single audio set-up. By which time, I had already downsized, losing the turntable in the early 90s, then the cassette deck in the mid-90s. It occurred to me after awhile that I was only using the receiver and
the CD player … and the computer more and more as time went on, which seemed alien at first (but is now second nature). The power switch on the receiver was broke. The CD player was routinely jamming. One of the woofers wasn’t working.

And that’s when I chuck
ed it all and switched over to “bookshelf” stereos with their compact design and speakers. I already had my first MP3 player (the brick that was called Neo 25, literally the size of a brick). I still remember the head of I.T. at the investment bank I was working at laughing his ass off when I showed him the player later that year … as he had just bought the first iPod model to come out, which he slipped out of his pocket to show me. I immediately felt like a teenage girl with a bouffant at a Grateful Dead concert in 1969.

That crappy 5-disc changer was the last straw for me and any sort of stereo equipment. I was hardly using it before it broke. Dumped their clunky speakers and bought a nice pair of Creative desktop speakers that sound great. I’m down to that, the new CD/DVD player, my laptop and a small iPod dock/charger (that I love using as well). Compared to the four-foot high audio rack and speakers to match, it feels good to have so little. Sound quality surely isn’t at the same level, but it isn’t bad either. I’d wager that aside from the audio-component set-up I had, this rates a close second. If people can truly tell the difference between MP3s burned at a high rate, CDs and vinyl, God bless them, because I can’t, and am perfectly happy with the way things have gone digitally.

Besides which, it looks to me like we’re going to go on for awhile with all these audio options (MP3s, CDs, vinyl) openly available, depending on personal preference. I’m still pretty fond of CDs, was blown away by that development, got behind it 100% eventually, as did anyone who recalled hundreds of scratched records. While that wonderful sensory vibe of opening a vinyl album (the tearing of the plastic wrapper, that new album smell wafting out, the opening of the gate fold, the reading of the liner notes and lyrics …) was gone, compact discs played the same every time and didn’t get anywhere near as scratched up as my old vinyl.

I’ll say this: I’m no longer as well-versed as a fan as a result. With albums, I would read everything that came with the album. I became familiar with musicians, who played what, which session musicians, producers and engineers found their ways onto so many albums, the strange connections you could sense between artists based on this, all those little historical things that became lost to me with CDs, and are surely kaput with MP3 files. I don’t “know” the musicians the way I once did. Which is fine, because I shouldn’t have to depend on whatever feigned or real personal connection I feel to a musician: it’s the music that matters most. That's a major change for older fans like me, forfeiting the massive culture we had erected around the music and focusing only on the music itself. I'm not sure I like this -- I thought I would -- but it also seems to devalue the music somehow without that same cultural weight that was once attached to it.

So, now I’m sitting here, watching a Nat Geo documentary about pot smoking with the sound off, while I listen to the new Cake album on this DVD/CD player that looks like a George Forman grill, and frankly, it sounds great. Same way that ELO album did in ’78 with the Soundesign turd and my trusty pair of Radio Shack Nova 40s. Time marches on, and I’m still listening, same as always. The difference? Well, nothing in the experience itself. But a friend forwarded me a DVD+R containing every album Elvis Presley ever put out, and I still have to listen to a massive collection of Motown acapella mixes that have been floating around the web the past few years that I downloaded earlier. Those last two things sure as hell didn’t happen and were inconceivable in 1978. Life is good!

No comments: