Fifty years late, my first real stereo
I can’t recall what prompted Ray Graf – the host of Vox Pop, WAMC’s afternoon call in show, news anchor, and resident humorist – to take pity on me. Or more accurately to take pity on the haggard state of my stereophonic life. Perhaps I wrote something about it or just mentioned in passing my futile efforts to get my venerable 1968 KLH Model 11 portable record player repaired.
For those who are unfamiliar with the model, and there’s no good reason why you should be, it produced decent enough sound considering its size. And not just the size of the speakers but the fact that the system folded into something resembling a Samsonite attaché case. I developed a deep affection for it. Unfortunately my wife didn’t, criticizing its sound quality and insisting I turn it down, if not off, in her presence.
I thought it sounded just fine until it grew lethargic in late middle age. It’s amazing how a turntable rotating at just a fraction of a revolution too slow can affect your listening pleasure. And nobody seemed able to fix it, even as they took my money and claimed they had.
Enter Ray, a connoisseur of both music and its acoustical possibilities. Ray thought that it was high time I graduated to an authentic stereo and announced that he knew just the one. He had the Onkyo speakers lying around – “Speakers,” he stated magnanimously, “I collect like pocket lint.” He also had a spare turntable and receiver. He’d bought them for his father-in-law who no longer needed them.
Perhaps a bit of my personal relationship to recorded music in general and rock and roll in particular would be beneficial. Despite the era when I came of age – the late Sixties and early Seventies – I was an outlier. I owned hardly any records. I’d bought a 45 of “Wipeout” by the Surfaris and “A Well Respected Man” by the Kinks because I’d heard them played at summer camp in the mid-Sixties. My next purchase was James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” released in 1970.
I can’t really explain why I was so deeply out of step with my generation. But I eventually caught up and came to appreciate its music; to the extent that I now pity my children because they didn’t grow up in the golden era of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Doors, Donovan, The Mamas and the Papas; the list goes on. I fortuitously also discovered rock n’roll just as vinyl records were being phased out and replaced by CDs. Friends and relatives no longer had use for their LPs and bequeathed them to me. A special shout-out to my cousin George who gifted me Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush. I’ve probably played it roughly a thousand times since then.
Over the years I’ve accumulated a respectable record collection. Not just rock but also classical and Broadway cast albums. Ray Graf refused to accept compensation of any sort for his stunning generosity. “This is my sacrifice to the great Hi-Fi gods,” he told me.
I wish I could report that the moment the living room filled with melody was a spiritual event. But it took me the better part of a weekend – make that a week – in fits and starts to hook everything up and produce sound. Now that I have it’s glorious. I’ve finally reached those stereophonic heights that my college dormmates, with their state-of-the-art sound systems, achieved half a century earlier and took as their birthright.
The equipment and its acoustic opportunities – nobody is more thrilled than my long-suffering spouse – also provoked me to edit my motely record collection. That process raised more philosophical questions than I’d anticipated. Here are just a few that I’ve been wrestling with: Do you file classical music under composer or conductor if the conductor is himself a star, such as Leonard Bernstein or Herbert Von Karajan? How many copies of the original cast album of Cabaret, or Court and Spark, for that matter, do I really need?
Should I toss – or rather donate to the Kinderhook Memorial Library’s autumn sale – records that I’ll only play in the unlikely event that we throw a Fifties dance party. I’m thinking of Lester Lanin and His Trio. Or Bossa Nova by Tito Puente. And under what category does President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address go? Or Meet the Staff of Mad, starring “The Editor, the Publisher, And All The Idiots”; the exercise written, produced and directed by Alfred E. Neuman. Pressed on cardboard it must have been included in some dearly departed issue of the humor magazine.
I did cull a few albums only to have my wife pluck them from the donation box. Who knew she was such a fan of Parisian music? One thing’s for certain. I’ll need to start treating my records with more respect, especially those that don’t yet skip or have stereophonically disfiguring scratches. I’m even giving serious consideration to investing in an anti-static cleaning cloth.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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