Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Confessions of a Musical Philistine

Recently a Facebook friend of mine posted a letter she had written in which she extolls the virtues of vinyl records—their longevity, their physicality, their ability to evoke the times and places in which they were listened to. Along with the text, she also posted photos of herself holding up various LPs she was giving away to a young man as a Bar Mitzvah gift. Merely by looking through the photos, I got a taste of the pleasures she was describing in her eloquent letter.

Though I spend a sizable portion of my own leisure time listening to music, however, and have a constant mental soundtrack playing in my head most of the time, I've never been a vinyl guy. In my earliest memories, I can recall listening to a couple of my parents' records: the soundtrack from Grease, the Steve Martin album with the King Tut song on it. I had quite a few read-along records, 45-rpm sized, but that's about it.

When I first started listening to music in earnest, it was on tapes. I didn't get a CD player until I was a senior in high school; and now, mostly, I listen to music on my iPod and my computer. I don't have a particularly nice speaker system. I rarely patronize record stores anymore (particularly since there's virtually none within the city limits)—I buy music from Amazon. In these ways, then, I am anathema to audiophiles, a gauche consumer of tunes without the refined habits of the connoisseur.

Yet, in my own perhaps debased way, I have had something of the experience my FB friend describes. I thought of it a few months ago when R.E.M. announced their final dissolution, and I was moved to pull down from the closet shelf all my old R.E.M. tapes. I took a photo of them and thought of writing a blog post about what R.E.M. had meant to me., but I never got around to it.

Looking at these tape covers, holding the little plastic boxes, I do recall all the time I spent listening to them—working on math homework at my desk down in the basement of the house I grew up in, or hooked into headphones in the back seat of my family's van as we drove somewhere. I remember going to the Streetside Records on Watson Road to buy many of these.

Let's face it, though: tapes aren't the same as vinyl LPs. The cover art is shrunken; the recording material is not as durable; the listening experience is less sensual, and less convenient as well—it's harder to go directly to the song you want to hear.

So maybe it's not surprising that I've become a musical philistine. I never had much of a chance, coming of age in a world of tapes, never having had that formative emotional experience with vinyl. As Huck Finn says, "it warn't no use for me to try to learn to do right; a body that don't get started right when he's little ain't got no show—when the pinch comes there ain't nothing to back him up."

It may be that eventually all my CDs will deteriorate and my MP3s get corrupted. I certainly won't have fond memories of the fleeting moments I spent buying music online (or downloading my free weekly songs legally from the library). I know that I'm settling for a less beautiful life as a music listener. But, honestly, I don't envision ever changing my ways.

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