A piece of junk mail from Belk came my way last week promoting a Father’s Day sale. On the cover was a tabletop version of the classic Wurlitzer. For $169.99 you can buy one, plug it in, dock your iPod in it, and behold, you have the iJuke. Rock on.
This marriage of the latest music technology with the classic Wurlitzer set me to thinking. Music and music technology sure have changed. I was just 15 when music technology impressed me the first time. My cousin showed me his car, a used Mercedes. The fact that it was a Mercedes didn’t impress me. No, what impressed me was the fact that his car had a record player in it. It sat in the dash where a floating turntable played 45 RPMs. How it played jouncing along a washboard dirt lane baffles me to this day. I suspect that player scratched many a record.
I have listened to music over vastly different technologies. First came a crystal radio I made myself. A copper wire stretched out my window to a tree: that was the antenna. The tuner was nothing more than the tube from a spent roll of toilet tissue coiled in copper wire over which I slid a narrow strip of copper. I listened through a small ear piece. Heard my first Beatles song that way. Around 2:03 a.m. one cold night clear channel WLS in Chicago, a blowtorch in the words of deejays, blew “I Want To Hold Your Hand” my way clear and strong.
About that time I bought my first transistor radio, an Arvin encased in tan cowhide. Plastic wasn’t vogue yet. I bought it for $10 from Wells Oil Company, a local tire and gas place. Soon Dad bought a stereo player at Western Auto that stood on four legs and played 33 RPMs and 45 RPMs, if you used the adapter.
Somewhere in the mid 1960s, music technology leapt forward. The eight-track player arrived. I had one mounted in my car. I had no air conditioning but I had music. The cartridges were huge, clunky things but it didn’t matter. All the hits from the British Invasion could now ride along with me.
Next came the cassette player. Tapes were easier to store and played without the click/pause that bedeviled eight tracks. Tell a kid today that you listen to cassettes and they’ll laugh at you. (Ha, we actually get the last laugh, as you’ll see.)
In the early 1970s, I bought a huge sound system with speakers encased in wooden boxes. The age of miniaturization had yet to arrive and a good sound system back then took up a wall. I remember hearing Neil Young’s “Southern Man” above all other tunes for some reason on that system. Later, when I moved to Athens again, I played Led Zeppelin albums on it. Technology hit a lull but the arrival of computerized circuits began to change the landscape dramatically.
In the summer of 1979, Sony gave us the Walkman. No longer did you see hip guys walking down a street with a boom box on their shoulder. Now you could listen to Larry Munson at the game, seeing the action firsthand and getting updates on injuries and scores. You could also slip a cassette in it and hear your favorite artists.
The 1980s weren’t bad at all. Groups like Genesis, the Police, and the Eagles turned out classic hits, and the technology got better and better. CDs, compact discs read by lasers, came along in 1985. Suddenly the sound quality was free of hisses and the degrading sound that plagued audiotape. The technology could get no better I thought but of course it did. The mid to late 1980s saw the arrival of the personal computer and that set a tsunami of change in motion.
In the 1990s, the Internet, digital audio, and the era of the MP3 arrived. Now you could download compressed files from the Internet and easily share them with others. Suddenly you didn’t have to buy the music, much to the artists’ dismay.
Today we have the iPod, Pandora Internet radio, and an abundance of devices that play music along with videos of the artists. As I write this column I’m listening to Pandora play the songs and artists I prefer over a MackBook Pro laptop in my local Barnes & Noble.
In the words of The Who, “I’m Mobile.”
When I drive, satellite radio rides along with me. I have hundreds of stations to choose from, and I listen to a high-quality signal that never fades in and out. Via satellite, I drift back to the music that defined my generation, groups like the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, Moody Blues, Led Zeppelin, the Who, and Animals among others. And Motown: Marvin Gaye, David Ruffin, the Supremes, the Four Tops, and Martha Reeves & the Vandellas who gave us dancing in the streets.
Somewhere in the 1990s, though, the music began to lose its way and it’s still lost. If only music had kept up with the technology. Like a lot of boomers I find myself using my digital library and Pandora Radio and XM satellite radio to replay the classic catalogs. I keep company with proven artists who passed the test of time in flying colors. No flash in the pan for me.
What can you say about music today? Not much, I’m afraid. A lot of younger folks these days listen to some of the worst music ever recorded on some of the best technology ever. A lot of so-called hip songs today are filled with obscenities and lyrics that advocate killing people. Nothing like abusing freedom of speech ye so-called artists. Being able to sing, by the way, is no longer essential in our watered-down culture. And for some unexplainable reason, a lot of young males think that cruising the streets with a deep bass beat rattling your ribs and knocking your windows out is music. That insightful quote from George Bernard Shaw, “Youth is wasted on the young” might as well be “Music technology is wasted on the young.”
I seriously doubt today’s younger folks will return to the rubbish they listen today as they grow older and hence, I suspect, wiser. It’s not timeless. It’s just trendy. Kind of like dance crazes. They come and go. Remember the Macarena?
The beautiful thing about great music is that it’s timeless regardless of what technology records or plays it. I offer as proof none other than one Robert Johnson, an African-American blues singer out of the Mississippi Delta with an eye for women. Born in 1911, he died in 1938, poisoned by a jealous husband some think. Dead nonetheless. Not long before he died, two men, thank Heavens, set up a temporary studio in a hotel in 1936 in San Antonio, Texas, and a shy Johnson recorded several songs facing the wall. A few scratchy, hard-to-hear, legendary songs survive. Those songs changed music forever, giving rise to rock and roll in England, which then came back to us here in the States as the British Invasion.
One such song is “Crossroads.” You’ve heard Eric Clapton’s version of it. Perhaps you’ve heard Led Zeppelin’s version of “Traveling Riverside Blues.” Robert Johnson wrote and performed it too. We sure could use another Robert Johnson and his classic compositions today couldn’t we?
The technology got better and better, but the music? Well, you just can’t say the same about it. I’d rather listen to an eight-track of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” or Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” than hear most of today’s so-called music on an iPod with noise-reducing Sony headphones. And I haven’t mentioned country music for a simple reason: today’s country music suffers from what I call the Xerox Syndrome. Copycats galore and voices that all sound alike.
In 1972, the Doobie Brothers recorded a big hit, “Listen To The Music.” Well if my choice is to listen to some middling, uninspired music from today or hear nothing at all … that’s an easy decision. I’m olden, and silence … you guessed it … is golden.