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The Sound of Shellac

The man credited with convincing the global consumers that it is worth the effort and money and environmental degradation to condense their music libraries onto a matchbook-sized (or somewhat larger) gadget has announced his retirement. While Facebook has made it common practice to make privacy and the confessional mode semi- or fully-public, iPods have conversely exported the pleasure of listening privately to recorded music into the public sphere. The casual hello and exchange of pleasantries; an alertness to oncoming steps and the ability to wait politely for a person to pass by; an awareness of the sounds of the city or the country: for many, or quaint and tiresome, even though they can sometimes be useful for survival. A report in the Sydney Morning Herald from September of last year bracingly sums up one ubiquitous aspect of Jobs’ legacy:

“Death by iPod is being blamed as a contributing factor to the 25 per cent rise in the number of pedestrian fatalities in New South Wales. The “iPod zombie trance” people get in when walking, driving or pedaling around listening to their mobile devices is being blamed for an increase in collisions and even deaths in Europe and the US. The issue has been highlighted in Sydney by the death of a 46-year-old Glebe woman reportedly wearing headphones when she was knocked down and killed by an ambulance on Saturday night.”

The story does not make clear if the ambulance’s siren was blaring, but here’s betting it was. The Apple God and the members of his cult might reply that iPods don’t kill people, people kill people. Even so, who’ll be surprised if these devices aren’t labeled with warnings in the not–too-distant future.

The solipsistic developments in civic life brought on by the iPods and iPhones and their lesser competitors is perhaps to be expected in an age of rapid decline in the sounds of natural world itself.  Maybe it’s better to block it all out. Recorded music has become less a means of personal uplift and fun, and instead a mode of collective anesthesia.

One notices the iPod mania most blatantly in public transit. In the lines at the airport, where the mix  of boredom and nervousness  are most stifling: one can hardly blame others for for mainlining their audio-narcotics directly into the ears. As for the plane trip itself, during the few minutes at take-off and landing is when everyone including the ear junkies get most nervous, and it is precisely these most nerve-wracking phases of the journey that  must be endured without the numbing effect. Getting home for the airport, it’s clear that most of the kids in the subway are also shooting up.

Many cranks—at least as far back as Plato or those impanelled in the Senate committee hearings of the 1950s that investigated the link between rock music and juvenile delinquency or Tipper Gore’s fright at explicit lyrics—have feared that excessive immersion in music leads to antisocial behavior. Having spent large swaths of my adolescence listening to LPs, I like to think I nonetheless escaped the darkest caves of audio hermit-dom. It is not the listening itself that I’m interested, but rather the question Jobs’ retirement raise: should he be applauded or condemned for getting so many to velcro their music to their person at all times and in all places.

As for portability, it is a relative concept.  Now the largest of instruments, the organ was once a portable tool (hence its name, organum, the Latin word for tool) used for gladiatorial training and combat, and for organizing troops and processions. Libya boasts the richest story of mosaics featuring organists and gladiators. The modern-day successors to those sporting musicians, now working in places as diverse as Shea Stadium and Notre Dame de Paris, hold their breath to hear whether NATO bombs have destroyed these precious images of the noise-makers that later ascended to become the holiest of instruments. Equipped with poles these diminutive tools could be carried by two soldiers, pumped by a third, and played by a fourth. Long before the iPod made it possible to carry the organ’s music out into modern battle or into the rat race, the Romans had done it.

As far as recorded sound, the greatest innovation in portability was, and to my mind still is, the gramophone. In the week before my wife’s birthday some years back, and a few years before the iPod blitzkrieg really got underway, I happened into an antique shop in the small city of Chichester on the South Coast of England. Upstairs I found a restorer of, and dealer in, gramophones. The chic green or red leather-covered models cost around five hundred British pounds. But the classic black version of the HMV 101 I quickly bought as a birthday gift went for only one-hundred-and-fifty—still less than an iPod, and far cheaper than what its inflation-adjusted price-tag had been when it was  made back in 1930. Batteries not included because they’re weren’t needed, and still aren’t.

Along with the gramophone, the dealer allowed me to pick out a selection of 78s from the hundreds, or perhaps thousands, that circled the raised display of players. My first choice, right at the front of one of those rows, was a Dial record from 1947 with Erroll Garner on piano, Red Callender on bass, Doc West, and Cool Blues on the A side. I added to that some Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Stan Getz, and the campy Frank Crumit doing his “A Gay Caballero” from 1928.

The dealer also kitted me out with several hundred needles, with their three thicknesses capable of delivering three levels of loudness—soft, medium, and loud. He said that a new needle should be used with every side played, though I’m sure many over the years, especially during the Depression, economized on that front. Clearly the dealer was a more of an enthusiast than a businessman. (On a trip to Chichester a few years later to get more records, his shop had vanished.) He even threw in record tray that sits on the turntable and in which one can transport five or six 78s when heading out on trip on the bicycle, or in the automobile, for a picnic or a walk or whatever. He’d spotted this tray at a flea market where its owner had no idea what it was, having turned the rare thing upside down to serve as a stand for tiny animal figurines.

My family and I were just beginning a North Sea tour and the gramophone was the perfect hand luggage; almost bulky, but not quite, truly portable and never in need of being recharged.

At Gatwick Airport the slightly-bigger-than-a-breadbox object caused much consternation at the security gate, as the guards remained unconvinced by my explanation that what they were seeing on their screen was the innards of a gramophone from 1930. A higher-up was eventually called, over and with a smile of appreciation at finally having seen something interesting over the course of his long day, waved me and the seemingly by-gone technology through.

It is not only nostalgia that makes the ritual of cranking up the gramophone (the upward-canted crank introduced in 1930 made it possible to wind up the machine without placing it at the end of table) and listening to the gramophone such a pleasure. Yes, there is plenty of scratchiness in the sound, but what always amazes—with every side and every needle—is how present, how alive the music-making reproduced by this non-electric box is. I’m still convinced that it is much more than just sentiment that makes the genius of Charlie Parker seem closer at hand and closer to the ear coming from that gramophone, than from a CD.

There is nothing denser than a 78. Five alone add up to a few pounds weight. It is all the more stunning to hear the gravity-defying invention of Parker’s alto saxophone rocket from the heaviest of spinning audio discs. And to be sure, the gramophone’s portability comes into its own when Parker’s otherworldly flights are lifted from the grooved shellac by metal needles as the Oslo fjord passes by the cabin’s portal long into the endless Norwegian summer twilight.

Many have complained about the cold, inhumane sound of the iPod, and acknowledge its backhanded role in renewing interest in LPs. Long after Jobs’ pods and pads have themselves become museum pieces, and are rendered as bulky by comparison to the chips implanted behind the ear of the beholder  as the HMV 101 now is to its digital descendants, the gramophone will continue giving a far deeper and more gratifying sense not only of musical performance, but also of recorded sound experienced in a space beyond the mind: in a room; under a tree; beside a river. That the gramophone’s devotees must leave home with a half dozen discs and a dozen songs instead of several thousand, makes the choosing and the hearing all the more meaningful memorable. There is nothing better than music, but what Jobs’ innovations prove most clearly is that one of the most unfulfilling feelings of all is that of having far too much of a good thing.

David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. David Yearsley’s latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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