This week, we detour from musing on The Music to reflecting on how we listen to it.
I was never what such sound snobs would call an audiophile, not being able to afford the really high-end stereo equipment. But from the 1970s on, I owned what could be classified as decent turntables, receivers, speakers and reel-to-reel and cassette tape decks.
I still own that stuff, but nowadays almost all of my listening is done in one of three ways: through a nice set of wireless headphones connected to my computer — the music sometimes coming from iTunes, more often from sat radio — over the factory stereo in my Dakota pickup or via earbuds connected to my latest-generation iPod Touch. Still not an audiophile — I know, vinyl made a comeback, maybe two or three — but it’s hard to beat the flexibility of digital music.
Hard to beat the portability, either. My iPod packs music from boxes full of CDs, LPs, reel-to-reel and cassette tapes and Internet purchases into something that can fit in a pocket.
You have to be careful which pocket, though, and learning that lesson the hard way is why I have a new Touch, a Christmas present from my family. The screen of its predecessor — also a late-model, 64-gig Touch — was a case (and it was in one) study of what happens when you put your iPod in front of your wallet in the front pocket of too-tight blue jeans (hey, what would you expect a the author of this sort of blog to wear?) and you kneel to take a photo. The glass does not wrap well around even a wallet as light as mine.
There are services that replace iPod screens, and places you can buy replacement screens and do it yourself. But the former cost a good chunk of the price of a new ’Pod, and the latter involves gambling $100 or so on your DIY skills. My ’Pod’s battery had started acting a bit spacky, and those apparently cannot be replaced, so Caitlin and Jeanne came to my rescue.
That was the second such rescue, as the predecessor to my previous unit (which now takes up residence in the Dakota) also had a shattered screen — from the more typical cause, an interaction between gravity and the Earth’s surface. (That ’Pod was a 32-gig, and I was in the process of blowing through its upper limit anyway.)
My current iteration of this miracle device is a Gen 5 Touch, but is my sixth iPod. The first was one of the early, thumb-wheel units; it was reanimated once with a battery transplant, back when you could still do that. I thought it held a lot of music — I remember barely getting through a global, all-song shuffle on a two-plus-hour flight — but it was ancient tech, compared to what I carry now.
Its replacement was an early Mini, I think of smaller capacity but lower price. Alas, it was too mini — it stayed in the pocket of a shirt that went into the washer, and never played again.
Next came an early Touch — the screen of which, mirable dictu, is still intact. I think it would still work, but its capacity was only 16 GB; even a decade or so ago, I was running out of room.
At some point in that progression, my family got me an iPhone, with the plan being that I could have my music and communicative capabilities on one device. But the iPhones with the capacity I had come to need were prohibitively expensive, so I am usually carrying a share or two of Apple stock in a pocket or two. (Not the front, with the wallet, though.)
Even my ’Pods’ predecessors, the home stereo systems, had predecessors, of course. The first electronic musical device in my life was the floor-model radio — I think it was a Philco, and had AM, shortwave and a foldout record player — that was the family entertainment system, before the Thomsons got their first television, probably 1953-ish. I think I remember hearing the radio shows my mother listened to, but my ability to quote Molly’s “McGee … don’t open that closet” probably comes from later exposure, not non-repressed memories.
After the first TV arrived, the Philco’s audio functions were replaced by an Emerson tabletop radio — again with AM and shortwave, but with the record player in the top, under a hinged lid. Like the Philco, the “new” unit played 78 rpm records — and this player literally wore out one of the those discs, the one with a children’s ditty called “Silly Liesl.” My older brother and I insisted that the song — apparently recorded in 1949, the year I was born, by one Warren Galjour — be played continuously, repeatedly; if that didn’t drive Mom around the bend, then nothing that would follow in our childhood years would, either.
The tabletop unit was where Jim and I got our first taste of the rock and roll, via WLS-AM out of Chicago. I think the Emerson would play the 45 rpm singles we heard thereon, with the use of some adapter or those little plastic inserts. But I don’t remember if being 33 rpm-capable, and it was eventually replaced by a monaural record player that would handle the LPs. That’s where the singles and early Beatles’ albums we got — mostly as Christmas presents — were played.
After I left home the first time, I got my first (not very good) component stereo system. About that time, I heard my first eight-track tape — in my friend Mark’s Mustang GT, playing Iron Butterfly.
(No one who survived that phase of audio evolution will ever forget the sound of the eight-track changing tracks, ka-thunk. Or the sight of a failed eighter, tossed in frustration onto the shoulder of the road, it’s tape pulled out and fluttering in the wind.)
I never owned a car eight-track, but did get a component deck for my stereo system, as part of one of those dreadful tape-of-the-month clubs. My first car unit was a cheap cassette player; I don’t think I had a complete, add-on/drop-in car stereo until my first Vega, in the late ’70s.
I got an Akai reel-to-reel as a reward for flying over the handlebars of my 10-speed and into the hood of a Ford Bronco, with part of the settlement I received from the insurer of the driver who hadn’t signaled his intentions. Part of the plan in getting that deck was to make comedy recordings, inspired by my obsession with the Firesign Theatre, but I also taped music off friends’ albums and Radio Free Madison.
My stereo system was progressively upgraded and updated over the years, finally to a matched set of Onkyo components. The exceptions to the match were the Sony turntable I had bought a decade earlier, which soon gave way to a multi-disc CD player, and the speakers.
There probably was a Walkman or clone of same back there in the late ’80s, too, something Jeanne owned, but I don’t think I used it much. For a time I listened to a Discman, mostly run through a car stereo, before we got our first vehicle with a built-in CD.
The home audio system sits mostly unused these days, except for playing Christmas music in season. Dozens of feet of wires used to run through the basement to outdoor speakers on the deck, but now it’s easier and quicker to just run my ’Pod through a couple Jam Bluetooth speakers.
I do still use a turntable, but only to digitize the LPs and tapes that end up in my iTunes. Which brings us full circle to that digital portable thing — a miracle, not-so-rare device.
And if you don’t get the callback there, and in the title of this blog post, unlike yours truly, you weren’t a lit major, and don’t know your Coleridge from a hole in the middle of a disk.