Play That Song Again | On Technology and Music: It’s The Drug, Not the Needle

Posted in Blogs, Music

BY ERIK CHRISTENSEN
October 3, 2014

Back in the summer of 1978 (a GREAT year for music, according to your trusty correspondent here) I spent a great deal of time riding around in an old Ford F-150 pickup. My girlfriend’s brother had rigged up two six-inch Delco speakers in the roof, one directly over the head of the driver, the other over the head of the passenger. My girlfriend sat in the middle as he drove us two 15-year-old, non-licensed teenagers around our small California town.

Along with the exposed wires, road noise and AM-only radio in the dashboard, he had horrible, horrible taste in music. He was kind of a big, scary guy, and he was driving, so I never had the guts to point it out. But every once in a while, some magic would happen. In his wave of his Top 40 dreck and bad dance music, something clear and resonant shone through—maybe some early Fleetwood Mac or The Emotions singing “Best of My Love.”

Doesn’t take much to make me happy
And make me smile with glee

Never, never will I feel discouraged
‘Cause our love’s no mystery

Album Cover for The Emotions "Best of My Love"  (image provided by the author)

Album Cover for The Emotions “Best of My Love” (image provided by the author)

I don’t remember much about that time—I think the truck was two-tone green and white, and I vaguely remember those times with my girlfriend. I’m not even sure of her brother’s name—Robert, I think. Richard? No, Robert. Must have been Robert—but I can still sing those lyrics and feel the sound from those tinny speakers right above my head. The sound quality was pretty weak, but it was delivered—as all good music is—from right overhead to the base of my spine.

Did music ever sound any better than it did at age 15? Catchy bubblegum music, R&B horns, windows down and the open invitation to sing along?

Whoa-oo, you’ve got the best of my love….

This got me thinking: all the advances in technology, all the changes in musical format, and all the gear I’ve bought…and I still seem to be chasing the feeling of that cheesy music through that lo-fi system in a noisy pickup truck. Without being one of those vinyl record fetishists, or the guy at the party in the tweed jacket who talks about low frequency MHz in his all-tube, hand-made German stereo receiver, I do appreciate good sounding music reproduction.

But…

As they say in certain circles, it’s not the delivery system, it’s the content. It’s the drug, not the needle. Where do the lines of music and technology cross? Examples?

One of my dearest possessions is a clear cassette tape, with my faded scrawl on both sides: “Bruce Springsteen, Live at The Agora, Cleveland, 8/9/78.” Taped off an FM radio broadcast on a cheap stereo, that’s the music I always return to—the stuff that epitomizes everything I love about music and poetry.

Tommy Lee Jones in the sci-fi comedy “Men In Black”—when looking at a table full of new information technology gadgets—said, “Well, looks like I have to buy “The White Album” again.”

Tommy Lee Jones (right) with Will Smith in a scene fro the sci-fi comedy “Men In Black”  (image provided by the author)

Tommy Lee Jones (right) with Will Smith in a scene fro the sci-fi comedy “Men In Black” (image provided by the author)

I get it. I have—and I’m embarrassed enough to wish it wasn’t true—28,302 songs on my iPod. In my lifetime, I think I’ve bought “My Aim Is True” on vinyl, cassette and CD.

Comedian Patton Oswalt does a wonderful comedy bit about how you wouldn’t need to travel very far back in time to freak people out with your music technology; he travels back in time from 2009 and talks to himself from 1999.

“Wow, that’s my old Walkman! OK, take the cassette out, snap it in half, and that’s how big the device is you’ll use to listen to music.”

“How many songs does it hold?”

“EVERY SONG YOU’VE EVER HEARD OR EVER WILL BE WRITTEN!”

“Whoa, those must cost, like, a million dollars, right?”

“Shoot, no, they’re cheap; they GIVE these things away.”

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Want the definition of a perfect day? When the newfangled “Compact Discs” came out in the late ‘80s, one of my first purchases was The Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” My college roommate, good friend and fellow music nerd Eric spent a long afternoon in my parent’s living room listening to “Sgt. Pepper’s” (on crystal clear CD!) all the way through—first through one speaker, then moving the “balance” button all the way over and listening again through the other speaker. In those early days of asymmetrical music mixes and mono recordings, you might have all the vocals on one side and the instruments on the other. Throw in all the sound effects and production gimmicks on that record, and it seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

Album Cover for The Beatles "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"  (image provided by the author)

Album Cover for The Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (image provided by the author)

But again, the gimmick was new, clear sound; we didn’t listen to Molly Hatchet, INXS, or .38 Special—or any other terrible 80s band. The attraction was the classic album that we both grew up with and held so dear. A new, better format was just icing on the cake. Does the technology really matter, or is it the feeling the music itself brings?

I’ll let my older brother have the last word: In the rolling hills and shade tree autumn that is life in California’s Napa Valley, we stopped by to visit a close family friend who was about halfway done building his dream house. Our friend Roger had finished the roof and exterior walls; we found him inside, sitting down on a stack of sheetrock that had yet to be put up on the framed-in interior walls. The walls were to be done after he had finished the electrical wiring—heating, centrally controlled lights and a state of the art, speakers-in-every-room, satellite radio-equipped sound system.

Roger was tired, covered in sawdust, and a tangle of electrical wiring and relay switches was strewn across the unfinished floorboards. He was, admittedly, sick of reading plans and splicing wires, so he was drinking a beer and listening to an old Hank Williams song on a small Sony cassette boombox. The haunting, minimalist country twang echoed around the empty space and unfinished cement foundation. Afternoon sunlight filtered in through uncovered window frames.

“It’s never really gonna get any better than this, is it?” my brother joked, looking around at the thousands of dollars of sound gear. “Beer, Hank Williams, cassette deck…do you really need any of this other stuff?”

Erik Christensen teaches at Oak Harbor High School, writes songs and poetry and longs for the days of making cassette mix-tapes.

Erik Christensen Band plays at Mo’s Pub in Langley on Oct. 22, Blooms Winery in Bayview on Nov. 16 and Front Street Grill in Coupeville on Dec. 3. He also plays with the Jacobs Road band; info can be found at www.jacobsrd.com.

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