I am not an audiophile, or an expert on music. I don’t like being labelled. But I do love most musical genres. I fell in love with music when I was nine. “That’s a young age to fall in love for the first time!” I hear some of you saying. It is. But by nine I knew music intimately, or at least I thought I did. At the beginning, I would hear it playing constantly in the background of my parents’ get-togethers with their friends, or in the car on our family trips.
A bit of backstory: August 16, 1977. It’s about 10 pm. Due to a health problem my mother suffered, our vacation on the East Coast of the U.S. comes to an abrupt end. We’re back home in record time. My brother and sister are sound asleep. The rain is beating down loudly. I can’t get myself to fall into the arms of Morpheus.
It seems like every AM and FM radio station is playing Elvis Presley songs following worldwide reports of his death. When Blue Moon of Kentucky comes on, it sounds unlike anything I’ve heard. It’s fascinating. It hits me, but hard. I can’t make out the lyrics, but it doesn’t matter. It’s the music. The music! I want to hear and learn more about it. To relive that emotion. After a little goading, my parents buy me my first portable turntable system with the speakers built in.
I mention emotion, but the power of music can also be physical. I always seek the sensation of hearing real music, whether it’s a live event or from the studio.
Autumn, 1979. My mother and I visit my aunt. My cousin Luc is in the basement. He shows me his new stereo. He raises the volume. It’s Electric Light Orchestra’s Don’t Bring me Down. It hits me right away. A new wow moment.
The experience prompts me to buy my first stereo system. It consists of an automatic turntable, a receiver equipped with an 8-track tape machine (that’s right, folks), and Camden speakers, all for $350.00, an amount I can afford thanks to the money I saved from delivering the daily paper.
I’m telling you these stories because I feel they relate to Fran Lebowitz’s comments in the Martin Scorsese documentary “Pretend it’s a City” (available, as of this writing, on Netflix):
“I have seen films of huge concerts and popular musicians. You have all these cameras, and you see all these faces. And when I see this I’m very interested by the audience. You see how happy and grateful the people are… It’s “Don’t you remember when we went on our first date?”. This is centrally important to people and they love the person who gave this to them… No one is loved like musicians. They’re really loved because they allow people to express their emotions and their memories. There’s no other form that does that. Like Motown music when I was a teenager. Whenever I hear it, I instantly become happier. There’s no question it makes me happier. Now this is true of almost nothing. Now, do I think Motown was the greatest music ever made? I don’t. But the second I hear it, it makes me happier. It’s a very important thing for human beings… It’s like a drug that doesn’t kill you.”
As a teenager, trying to find ways to heighten my emotional connection to music wasn’t without its challenges. Thankfully, I had help along the way, from magazines that specialized in audio gear I could occasionally afford, audio stores that offered sound advice, and friends who shared musical discoveries with me passed down to them by a record store employee or big brother.
The audio landscape has since changed and gotten more daunting. The number of brick-and-mortar audio stores has dwindled, and ways to describe audio playback has become more confusing for the average person; NAS, FLAC, WAV, BITS, DSD, MQA, ect.
And yet there is more information about audio and ways to enjoy listening to music in good sound than ever before. So why is it that I still see mostly grey-haired men in audio stores, at audio shows, or who write for audio publications?
I don’t have the answer, but I have thoughts about it all I’d like to share with you in future columns. Feel free to share yours.