The Glories of the Grammophone

The iPhone has made universal the paradoxical pleasure of listening privately in public. 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 these stimuli are now often considered quaint or tiresome, even though they can sometimes be useful for survival. The latest Governors Highway Safety Report attributed the 27% growth in pedestrian deaths between 2007 and 2016 in the United States partly to the “dramatic increase in smartphone use.” The number of fatalities among those on foot in the United States is now nearly 6,000 per year.

The decade-long trend is worldwide. A report in the Sydney Morning Herald from September of 2010 (cited in this column at the time) related that

“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 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. Regardless, the high priests and priestesses of the cult connectivity might reply that iPods and iPhone don’t kill people, people kill people. Nonetheless, reason might well demand that these devices be labeled with warnings about immediate dangers to health. Recorded music has become less a means of personal uplift than a mode of collective anesthesia.

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 in the 1980s at explicit lyrics—have feared that excessive immersion in music leads to antisocial behavior. I consider well-spent the large blocks of teenage time spent listening to LPs. But I did so at home. Steve Jobs became a secular saint in part for getting billions of people to shackle their music to their person at all times and in all places.

In the week before my wife’s mid-week birthday some years back, at a time before the iPhone 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 each. But the classic black version of the HMV 101  I bought as a birthday gift went for only one-hundred-and-fifty—less than an iPod then cost, and far cheaper than what the gramophone’s inflation-adjusted price-tag had been when it was  made back in 1930. Batteries were not included because they’re weren’t needed, and still aren’t.

By comparison to the iPhone, the gramophone is a model of sustainability. Since it has no battery, the gramophone does not rely on cobalt mined, say, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The gramophone is powered by hand.

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 on drums, and Cool Blues on the A side. I added to that some Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Stan Getz, and 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 many have economized on that front, especially during the machine’s heyday during the Great Depression. He even threw in a felt-padded chrome tray that sits on the turntable and in which one can transport five or six 78s when heading out on your bicycle or in your car for a picnic. He’d spotted the rare tray at a flea market, turned upside down with porcelain figurines displayed on it.

My family and I were just beginning a trip around the North Sea 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 security the slightly-bigger-than-a-breadbox object caused much consternation. The guards remained unconvinced by my explanation that what they were seeing on their screen were the inner workings of state-of-the-art music-delivery-technology in 1930. A manager was called over and with a smile of appreciation waved me through.

It is not only nostalgia that makes the ritual of cranking up the gramophone and listening to it such a pleasure. There is some scratchiness in the sound, but what always amazes 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 sentimentality that makes the genius of Charlie Parker seem for more present coming from that gramophone than from digital technologies.  After having spent time with this gramophone at home and on the road, I can understand how the audiences filled large auditoriums in the 1920s for promotional events could not tell the difference between Caruso singing live and the recorded version of him playing on the gramophone, man and device both hidden from view behind a scrim. To many audiophiles such judgements will seem ludicrously gullible, but they are not. It all has to do with presence.

There is nothing denser than a 78. A picnic sampler of five discs add up to a few pounds weight. It is all the more exciting to hear the gravity-defying invention of Charlie Parker’s alto saxophone genius rocket upward from the heaviest of spinning audio discs. 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 in the endless Norwegian summer twilight.

Long after iPhones have become museum pieces, rendered as bulky by comparison to the chips implanted behind the ear of 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 can leave home with, at most, half dozen discs and a dozen songs instead of downloading countless thousands of them or having vast stretches of the musical universal available through the Cloud, makes the choosing and the hearing of your 78s all the more meaningful and memorable.

There is nothing better than music, but what connectivity proves ever more clearly is that one of the most unfulfilling feelings of all is that of having far too much of a good thing—especially when crossing the street without first looking both ways.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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