The Music is Reversible, But Time is Not

Like so many other podunk dirt farmers of their generation, my newlywed parents were eager to leave behind their rural childhoods of chicken beheadings and outhouse hosings and embrace the dream of 1950’s suburbia. They had visions of two-door Frigidaires, multi-speed cuisinarts and full-color Philcos in a ranch-style Levittown castle. There would be backyard barbecues and baseball practice, birthday piƱatas on the patio and late-night cocktail parties with boisterous neighbor couples. This last shindig would require the feature every suburban dweller knew he couldn’t live without: the hi-fi.

This was the golden age of high-fidelity, and any civilized home could only be complete with a console record player, available for only eighteen easy payments. My upwardly-mobile parents opted for the mid-range Magnavox, which, though considerably smaller than many stereo cabinets of the day, was still twice the size of our TV set (which could itself easily have killed one of the children had it become unbalanced). They purchased a few LPs they hoped would set the right mood for cozy get-togethers with their bridge clubs and bowling leagues.

Based on the albums they selected, it was clear, to put it bluntly, that my parents knew dick about music. Their LP collection comprised of records bland enough to make Mitch Miller sneer. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, soothing Mantovani symphonies, generic “Sounds of Hawaii” releases – all of these purchased to impress the neighbors with the stereophonic splendor of dynamic, high-fidelity sound. Mr. and Mrs. envisioned a pristine library of elegant musical selections, delivered through a sophisticated, diamond-needle stereo system, providing classy, adult entertainment for years to come.

The problem with this vision was my parents had kids. And fragile vinyl LPs on delicate diamond-needle record players cannot withstand a child’s passion for music. The family Magnavox arrived in the home just a few short years before I did, and it wasn’t long before Baby Ash was tall enough reach the revolving disc inside the record player, eager to invent modern hip-hop. Al Hirt never again blew a note that wasn’t smothered in skips and scratches. The Jackie Gleason Orchestra sounded like ten pounds of bacon on a skillet at Denny’s. The record collection now belonged to me.

There’s a lot of talk these days among young bearded men about the resurgence of vinyl. They tell you those old LPs had a warmer sound than today’s digitally-compressed, cloud-stored MP3 files. I’m down with these flannelled truth-seekers, but for me, the nostalgic lure of vinyl records isn’t their sound quality, but their tactile interactivity. Oh sure, these days you can download select music tracks and completely remaster them through pirated editing software (finally! I can autotune Dylan!), but can you fling an MP3 across the room at your brother’s head? The hi-fi era showed us what the coming world of digital music would confirm: Give young people the tools to completely ruin high-quality studio productions and they will do so with gusto.

The record players had different speeds, so that was the first bit of creativity applied to any new record purchased (one used to have to “buy” music at what we called a “record store”). “Kung-Fu Fighting” was a completely different song sped up to 78, and it became a tear-jerking ballad when slowed to 33. When this experimentation got old, dropping the needle at random spots in the song could provide an afternoon’s entertainment. Not avant garde enough? How about “MacArthur Park” in only the left speaker? I was mad with God-like power in my Frankensteinian sound lab.

And then there was backwards. No record ever escaped the turntable without being twirled in the opposite direction at least once. My friends and I didn’t need much encouragement to do this, but when conservative hysteria over “backmasking” began to circulate though our Sunday school classes, seeking out backwards messages became imperative. Apparently, rock stars, Satan’s minions one and all, were recording secret, backwards pledges to Beezlebub on their hits singles – communiques designed to subconsciously lure the children to a life of cocaine, loose women and…well, rock stardom, essentially. Depending on the televangelist, a backwards Freddie Mercury was either telling us that Satan was number one or that he loved to smoke marijuana. Either way, the youth of America were more determined than ever to wreck the turntable to find out.

Never fear; my parents’ mighty Magnavox is still in fine working condition. Their records, however, were steadily destroyed by my experimentation. Gone was the dream of perfectly equalized sonic pleasures of the “My Fair Lady” soundtrack. I had been certain Eliza Doolittle was singing backwards allegiance to Satan, and the record was now a mass of static and pops. Soon enough, my parents decided to leave record buying to the children, and the house was filled with skipping Beatles and crackling Sabbath LPs. Every piece of vinyl was damaged. I even let an Olivia Newton John Single warp in the sun to see what it sounded like. (Considerably better, I have to say.)

Eventually, the world of vinyl slipped away from us.  Compact discs became the medium du jour, their crystal-clear reproduction safely locked away from our grubby little fingers as they played. The crackles and pops were gone, and there was no way to spin the disc in the opposite direction to receive our instructions from Hell. It was a shame our parents didn’t have this technology when they were young. Perry Como and Dinah Shore could have remained free of the children’s destructive curiosity.

Naturally, I didn’t care for this transition. The new CDs didn’t even Frisbee across the lawn like the friendly LPs did. I resigned myself to the compromise of better sound quality over hands-on hooliganism. But then one day something miraculous occurred. I heard a CD skipping for the first time, and it was glorious. This was not the old-fashioned, repeating refrain of a vinyl skip, but a hyperdrive meltdown that sounded like an epileptic Cylon Warrior being sucked into a black hole.

I fell deeply in love. I got a magnifying glass, an X-acto knife, and other tools of destruction, and I set out to remake Paul Simon’s “Graceland” in my own image.


JB said...

You can't roll a J on an MP3.

Jeff said...

Ashley - Entertaining and well written as always. Containing several quotable gems. "...sounded like ten pounds of bacon on a skillet at Denny’s." I'm still interested in some sort of convoluted collaboration on these writings. Whenever our schedules allow, lets pow-wow about it - yes?

Ashley Holt said...

"You can't roll a J on an MP3."

But you can be happy if you've a mind to.