The walls are bare, the cupboards empty. The rooms of the smallish garage apartment are in various stages of disrepair and neglect, depending upon whom you ask, and of whether or not his daughters are around to scold and appeal to his sense of shame…
Two small photos of the girls, the loves of his life, sit precariously atop a barstool, repurposed for the time being as “end table.” On any given night you could and probably will find the lone occupant, unshaved, undressed, and otherwise unkempt, sitting on the floor, mumbling neurotically to no one in particular, arms akimbo, sweat dripping from every pore.
He is surrounded by audio detritus: Gutted speaker cabinets, pieces of wire insulation, soldering irons, multimeters, books with Alan Dower Blumlein on the cover, crumpled schematic PDFs, bare copper wire, speaker drivers, half-assed crossovers, and doomed capacitors and resistors splayed across the carpet as if ripped from the breadboard by a cyclone. I imagine that some, if not most, human beings would when presented with this frantic-piddling-astride-mounds-of-junk display think “well this sonofabitch is losing it” or “what sort of drugs is he on,” or “where did he go wrong,” etc. I would not fault them for doing so, but for me it is quite natural. I just want to hear the music better.
The passage of time has had an enormous impact on my ability to recollect key moments in my life. Memories come through muted/transmogrified as faint outlines in the white static-hiss of nostalgia, yet my first “HiFi” experience and the circumstances surrounding it are vivid and palpable, and as fresh in my mind as if they had taken place yesterday.
I was six years old, my father had just started his career as a lineman for Brunswick Electric Membership Corporation, having left his job as a meter-reader at Southern Bell six months prior. The new job provided a much-needed boost in income and with it a sense of hope, of financial security, and all that implied. The upgrade in income allowed us, among, other things, to have the financial wherewithal to move into a new home. Our FIRST home.
My memories of that place are vivid and emotional – I was home with my mother when the kitchen caught fire and the house burned to the ground. Yet when I find myself thinking of it, one moment in time stands out above all the rest. It was the first time I heard a record, Christmas, 1982. It was the first time music stopped being “that thing I hear in Kmart when mom carries me to the store” and became an integral part of my life.
That Christmas Eve found me more restless than usual, I was excited for Santa’s arrival, and, thanks to the horror movie I caught a glimpse of earlier in the day, more than a little worried that clowns would come drag me out of the room to some white faced grinning hell. I spent that night being a colossal pain the ass to mom and dad. They spent most of the night pleading with me to fall asleep, their weary voices degrading into exhausted disinterest, bouncing lazily across the hardwood floor.
I finally went unconscious several hours later, not by force of will or mind, but sheer exhaustion. At around 6-7 AM I woke up screaming, sweaty and terrified, the pain of nightmares violently shaking my hands. My dad, in spite of his fatigue and frayed nerves, smiled, bear hugged me and asked, “Do you know what day it is, son?” with a big grin. Mom went along, trumpeting the old “I think I heard reindeer hooves on the roof” routine as all moms do, I imagine. This snapped me out of my horror, and into a polar opposite state: terror became joy, cries turned to giggles as I scurried out of the bedroom and into the den, guided by the lights of the Christmas tree, perched like the patron saint of all children, glowing majestic in the predawn light of the living-room window.
Dad let me go through my stocking, which was an actual stocking, full of Brazil nuts, chocolate, gum, and so on, before taking my hand to guide me into the kitchen. In that moment, I saw before me the strong lines of the wood-and-metal Realistic lab 400 turntable, resting majestically atop a shining silver Kenwood receiver, flanked on either side by a pair of enormous (to me) Realistic Mach-1 speakers. I had no idea what any of these things were, nor for what purpose Santa could have possibly left them.
After a few minutes of explaining what the items were even though none of the info made any sense to me, after all I was six years old, my father walked over to the turntable, toggled the cue switch, and waited. I have no words to describe the impact of what happened next.
I heard, floating in the air between the two speakers, the voices of children at play, laughing, talking, and singing. The sound was so realistic, so “there” that I immediately started looking around the room, a smile breaking across my face, in a futile attempt to find those to whom the voices belonged. Shortly thereafter, a soft barrage of guitars and synthesizers faded in, to my left and right, joined quickly by the THWACK-BOOM BA BOOM BAP of a drum kit. The roaring of a four on the floor beat from *dead* center, marking time, was the heartbeat of this phantom band. From that moment onward, I was addicted.
The music made me forget everything that troubled me. Joy filled my heart and head, bubbling up from a place that I could (and can) only describe as my “soul.” By changing records, my father was able to transport me to different places; the manger in Bethlehem, the set of sesame street, St. Paul’s Cathedral, sitting front and center in front of the Vienna Boy’s choir. Dad and I must have spent 4 hours that day listening to records, laughing like fools. It was truly the happiest day of my life.
When people ask me “why” In reference to this audio hobby of mine I often give them some half-assed answer (well, I don’t drink or drug anymore, I’ve gotta do something with my hands, heh, heh, heh, – I’m a nerd – I dunno, I guess I just like collecting and fixing junk, are my usual set of replies. But the truth of the matter is I just want to capture how I felt that Christmas day, amazed by music, awestruck by sound, all sadness forgotten, laughing with my dad in front of stacks of dusty old records. I hope the search never ends…