[Previously unpublished. This now stands as a melancholy monument to the stereo system in question, which was stolen about a year later ... and I went back to a boom-box (not even my own!).]
I have a decent stereo system for the first time in my thirty years on the planet. The sax solo in "Brown Sugar" no longer sounds like a madman playing a kazoo.
It's been a long road to the summit. In my early years, I made do with a portable record-player that Dad picked up for $20 at an auction. It came equipped with two knobs, tone and volume. One knob made the music sound alternately shrill and leaden. The other summoned my parents from the living room and, turned the other way, mollified them for a while.
It wasn't much, that stereo. The needle was well-worn to start with, and I never got around to replacing it in ten years or so of obsessive groove-gouging. But set against the thrill of musical discovery, fidelity faded into insignificance. The first LP I ever owned, Led Zeppelin IV, was passed on to me in such awesomely poor condition that "Stairway to Heaven" sounded like someone singing while he made popcorn. I don't recall loving it any the less for that.
After all, at age 14 you could ascend to guitar-god heaven just by leaping around the bedroom, riffing your fingers raw on an old tennis racket, basking in the adulation of 20,000 fans out there beyond the chest of drawers. To lose yourself in fantasy, in the raw, shocking noise -- that was catharsis enough.
On one immortal occasion, those racket-strangling sessions graduated to the level of true performance. My friend Larry and I gathered close relatives together in our basement and serenaded them for two solid hours, fighting to be heard above the records we sang along with.
My letter-perfect rendition of the Beatles' "All My Loving" brought tears to my grandma's eyes. Our P.A. system was that same $20 clunker, operated behind the scenes by Craig, my dutiful younger brother. He was also our lighting man, which is how the Mother of All Flashlights came to be dropped on my cherished copy of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road moments after we took the stage.
Craig now works at a recording studio and makes more money than I do. But the point is, considerations of professionalism and purity evaporated in the face of the sheer potency of sound. However sloppily mediated, rock tapped something elemental in us. Even on a crummy car radio, it turned mild-mannered folk into dashboard Keith Moons.
It can't have been much different for listeners of the first mass-market records. In the '20s, they had absurd devices with huge styluses that scratched tunes from brittle vinyl and blew them through a speaker twisted like an ear-trumpet. From what I remember of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novels, those technical limitations didn't keep the jazz generation from dancing up a storm.
I was taking it slowly, you see, befitting a grad student who has to budget for Kraft Dinner as well as more conspicuous consumption. First came the boom-box, with its digital tuner and primitive Dolby. Then a good pair of headphones. Then the Boxing Day-sale Technics SL-PC505 CD multi-player: a sleek machine that lets me change discs even when one's playing!
This was the decisive plunge. As many of you have probably discovered to your cost, sinking $300 into a CD player is just the beginning. You then have to acquire a critical mass of listening material to go with your new toy.
That means squandering birthday money from your grandmother on the Led Zeppelin CD box set. (Some things don't change. The generous grandma is that hardy survivor of my basement serenade. And -- lo and behold! -- there's "Stairway to Heaven," sweetly sneaking its way into the Zep box set, free forever of its popcorn fusillade.)
After falling into CD's cool digital embrace, it was only a matter of time until a rare surplus in my bank account coincided with a retailer's seductive payment plan. A paltry pledge of twelve hundred bucks, and two more components, a Technics SA-GX350 amp and RS-TR333 double cassette-deck, landed on my stereo rack. Both are black as blackest night. Their liquid crystal displays glow like radar screens.
Rounding out the package is a pair of Profiles bookshelf speakers about half a metre tall. When I was growing up, speakers that size would have cardboard woofers, and a life expectancy of about two years before the glue crumbled. (You'd keep blasting them anyway, of course.)
By comparison, these new speakers are as a Jaguar to my beat-up Toyota. For one thing, they don't make distracting knocking noises every time I turn up the volume, though sometimes the neighbours do. And they resonate. Yesterday I discovered a whole new low-frequency range in rap music. So did my neighbours.
My personal great leap forward seems more like a natural progression. I don't get the urge to strum a tennis racket much anymore. Today, the richness of sonic textures captivates me, coexisting comfortably with rock's primal shriek.
And a richly-textured shriek is truly a thing of beauty.
Created by Adam Jones, 1998. No copyright claimed for non-commercial use if source is acknowledged and notified.
Last updated: 12 October 2000.