Confessions of a Reluctant Luddite

On those rare occasions when I manage to accomplish something even marginally technological (or even technical), like finding the on/off button on a computer or the switch on a lamp, my wife Anne starts belting out the opening theme from Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, used at the beginning of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (DUUMMM, DUUMMM, DUUMMM, DADUUMMM—BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM…repeat). While I consider this unnecessarily rude, I can’t blame her. I’ve often used the word “Luddite” to describe myself, but have recently discovered that a modern-day Luddite is someone who dislikes new technology, and for me that couldn’t be further from the truth: I just simply can’t keep up with it!

There were halcyon days when I was a young, cutting edge fellow, on top of all the new gizmos, whatsits, thingamajigs and doohickeys. As a child, I marveled at the ingenious 8-track tapes my grandparents had in abundance, and remember hearing for the first time two songs from their Hits of the ’40s 8-track that I fell in love with: “I Had the Craziest Dream” and Pee Wee Hunt’s version of “Twelfth Street Rag.” The 8-track was fine for three-minute pop tunes but was less successful when it came to longer classical pieces. After a certain time one track would have to switch to another, so if you were listening to the choral section of the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, you might hear:

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Freude schöner Götterfunken
Tochter aus Elysium
Wir betreten feuer
fade out
Hisssssssssss
ka-KONK<
———
buh-SHPLONK
Hisssssssssss
fade in
trunken
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum

Somehow the magic was diminished. Something had to be better, although the 8-track was a step up from the 33 LP regarding portability; there were 8-track players in automobiles from the late ’60s to their peak of popularity in the early and mid-’70s. One noble earlier attempt to place a more personal choice of music in cars (radio stations had limited range—both regarding distance and repertoire) had been something called “Peter Goldmark’s ‘Highway Hi-Fi,’” a vinyl record option in your new ride. This often resulted in:

Freude schön {skip} funk {skip} Toch {skip} Elysium
{skip} ten feuer {skip} Himmli {skip} Heili {skip}

Listen to Angela Verbrugge: Love for Connoisseurs

and so on, making a bumpy two mile trip to the grocery store (yes, readers younger than 30, people once actually did make trips to collect their provisions themselves) seem like an eternity.

The apex of my technological prowess

As the ’70s gave way to the ’80s, audio cassette tapes replaced the 8-track in popularity; they were less bulky and allowed for a longer playing time on the Side A and Side B of their construct. Two innovations made me feel really hip (put a sock in it, ageists!): the portable tape machine (mine was a Sony Walkman) with big ol’ headphones, and the tape recorder! It was a bright day when my Pop-pop lent me his Radio Shack tape recorder—the earliest models had a red light that would illuminate when the “record” button was pressed, just like a recording studio! I immediately ran around with a blank TDK tape recording everything I could find: traffic noise, the sound of the ocean, Mom’s snores, my sister’s gastric expulsions; everything was fair game. After the novelty of being an aural rebel faded, I began to tape-record music. Some of it was live—an outdoor concert-on-the-green perhaps; some was from the television; some was music I created at the piano with Pop-pop duetting on the organ. I still have those old tapes tucked safely away in a shoebox at the back of our office closet.

Soon thereafter, stereo systems began to include tape decks along with the turntables. I was thus able to record my favorite records and would subsequently tape any new LPs I purchased onto cassette to preserve my favorite vinyl releases. I spent my college years driving to gigs across New England listening to the hundreds of recordings I’d made in the tape deck I had installed immediately after I’d purchased my 1978 Chevy Malibu in 1985. My friend, tubist Art Hovey, for five dollars or a couple of replacement tapes, would provide me with his tape recordings of live sessions at the Millpond Tavern by the Galvanized Jazz Band whenever I requested—I still possess five years’ worth of Sunday night sessions with the GJB on cassette.

My greatest coup was during my college years; I attended CT College in New London, CT and worked for (and illicitly recorded almost the entire jazz holdings of) the Greer Music Library. The library has the honor of curating the Richard C. Shelley Jazz Collection, which consists of over 2,000 vinyl recordings of jazz and blues. I spent many nights in sonic bliss while my pals keg-partied away and loved every second of my efforts to transfer the music on those LPs to audio cassette. I was a real scholar of this medium; I knew my Maxell from my Memorex; my 60-minute from my 90- or 120-minute lengths; my ferric (normal) from my chrome to my ferrichrome from my metal tapes. I was truly ultramodern.

Then, the unthinkable occurred; my college friend Matt had a vast LP collection of classical music from every era and had decided to replace it with the newest thing, so he made CD (?!?) purchases of the music he already possessed. He invited me to buy his collection for $2 an LP and, $400 later, I had (and have to this day) a terrific vinyl collection of music I really hadn’t yet explored. I was in anorak ecstasy.

But by 1986, I was wondering what was up with this new compact disc whoozie. I had heard the sound was magnificent (“like being in the orchestra or band”) due in part to the new digital method of capturing new sounds or releasing remastered analog versions of vintage material recorded on analog gear (anybody remember the little box on the back of the CD jewel cases advertising “AAD,” “ADD,” or, the mecca acronym, “DDD?”). I started searching for CDs of traditional, New Orleans, and/or Dixieland Jazz: the music I loved. In the ocean of CD releases in the mid-‘80’s, early jazz CDs were as scarce as honest politicians. I finally found two relevant CDs, one by The Trafalgar Squares and one with Paul Whiteman material, paid $16.99 apiece for them, and almost wore them out.

Nothing lasts forever

I was content for decades with my 2,500 LPs, 5,000 cassettes and 3,000+ CDs, and then everything went fake (OK, virtual, streamlined…I guess using thatF” word proves me the Luddite I protest I am not). I have since been spiraling slowly but inexorably into irrelevance as well as an inability to adapt. The number of recordings I own of others’ music is about the same as the number I own of music I’ve recorded that I’m hoping one day to sell. As the recently featured TST subject (and good friend) Dan Levinson sums up the current situation onstage when he invites audiences to peruse his recorded merchandise, they’re not available in any stores because “there aren’t any record stores anymore!”

I am not complaining; as things move ever further away from my technological comfortability level, I’m aware that I can make the choice to “get with the times.” I think if I were in my 20s rather than my 50s I’d be more concerned about my reluctance to “reboot,” as it were. I was happily immersed in my 20th century universe (concrete, tangible artifacts of recorded music, physical books you can hold with pages you can turn) when the enforced “virus vacation” struck the world. I’ll explore how that changed things for me next month.

Until then, I invite those of you who still have turntables to search out LP or 78 offerings by current labels and bands. Classic Jazz artists such as Andy Schumm and Colin Hancock have independently (or through sympathetic labels like Rivermont) released recordings on these antediluvian methods of distribution. Purists avow the only thing that sounds better than an LP is a live concert (provided the sound person is competent…ANOTHER future column).

What’s been your experience?

Jeff Barnhart is an internationally renowned pianist, vocalist, arranger, bandleader, recording artist, ASCAP composer, educator and entertainer. Visit him online at www.jeffbarnhart.com. Email: [email protected]

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