What Am I Hearing?

by James Wallace Harris, 12/4/21

I got the new Adele album on CD on the day it came out. It’s called 30, but evidently, her face is so famous she needs neither her name nor the album title on the cover. The songs are beautiful, different, and produced and engineered with tremendous sound quality. 30 is not 25, or 19. Adele is exploring new musical territory.

However, this isn’t a review of Adele’s new album. Nor is it a review of the four audio systems I used to play that album. It’s about a quest to hear everything possible in a sound recording. And I mean more than just frequency response. I struggle to pull everything I possibly can out of this album.

We think we listen with our ears. Audiophiles are on a never-ending quest to improve their playback systems. In this regard, I’m only a cheap-ass audiophile. The Holy Grail for audiophiles seems to be reproducing the sound the producers heard when making the record. Is that even possible? Didn’t the producers and sound engineers add magic we’d never hear live in the studio?

I’ve been watching Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back on Apple TV+. It’s a 3-part, 468 minute documentary about watching the Beatles create music. My takeaway is the Fab Four sound a lot different from what we hear on their albums. What I’m hearing when listening to 30 is probably a far cry from what it would be like to stand in the studio and listen to Adele sing.

I’m also listening to at least four works of art at once. We have Adele’s voice, we have the musicians, we have the producer’s creation of those two works, and we have the lyrics that we decode with our experience and emotions. And this album is full of emotion, especially about the breakdown of her marriage.

All your expectations of my love are impossible
Surely, you know that I'm not easy to hold
It's so sad how incapable of learning to grow I am
My heart speaks in puzzle and codes
I've been trying my whole life to solve
God only knows how I've cried
I can't take another defeat
A next time would be the ending of me
Now that I see
   --- "Love is a Game"

I'm having a bad day, I'm having a very anxious day
I feel very paranoid, I feel very stressed
Um, I have a hangover, which never helps, but
I feel like today is the first day since I left him that I feel lonely
And I never feel lonely, I love being on my own
I always preferred being on my own than being with people
And I feel like maybe I've been, like, overcompensating
And being out and stuff like that to keep my mind off of him
And I feel like today, I'm home and I wanna be at home
I just wanna watch TV and curl up in a ball and
Be in my sweats and stuff like that, but I just feel really lonely
I feel a bit frightened that I might feel like this a lot
   --- "My Little Love"

When I play 30 on my four different systems the songs sound slightly different, and each makes me feel different. 30 also makes me feel different depending on which room I’m listening in, and how loud I’m playing it. If I play “My Little Love” in the den, my largest listening room, on my Bluesound Powernode 2i with Klipsch RP-5000F speakers at a loud volume I feel surrounded by music and singing. It feels closest to what I imagine hearing Adele in a small club might sound like. It also has the greatest emotional impact. And this is just streaming the song via Spotify. I believe part of this experience is due to the acoustics of the room and partly due to the Klipsch speakers, which seem particularly good for vocals.

When I play the CD in my computer room, which is probably 12×20, using the Bose 301-V speakers connected to a Yamaha WXA-50 amplifier/DAC and Pioneer DV-563A CD player it sounds almost as good, but has a much less emotional impact. The soundstage is good, but I have to keep the speakers up high on top of Billy bookcases from Ikea. I hear more bass, probably because of the 8″ woofers, and the speakers being close to the wall. It’s a really good sound, and I hear different things in the recordings that I don’t notice in the den.

I also have another system in the computer room, an Arylic A50+ streaming amplifier with Sony SSCS-5 speakers. It has a brighter sound, still surprisingly pleasing for such a low-cost system and 30 makes me feel different listening to it. Finally, I have two paired Echo Studios in my bedroom. If I play them loud enough, I hear a slightly different sound, where I notice even other details, especially since I listen to these speakers as I fall to sleep and often wake up hearing music in a dreamy state.

In all four systems, I sometimes focus on the music, sometimes on Adele’s voice, and sometimes on Adele’s words. Sometimes I even think about how the song sounds compared to other music eras.

When I listen to music I concentrate on it with the same intensity I concentrate on a movie at the theater. If I’m in the right mood, I achieve a kind of reverie where I forget my body and that heightens my thoughts and senses. I can’t get any of my friends to listen to music with me. They all like listening to music when they are doing something, and think it’s weird I want to zone out. I remember when I was young, I’d listen with other people and we’d all space out like we were in an opium den. Of course, we were smoking dope back then. (I remember getting one older guy high who loved music and he claimed he heard things he never noticed before. But wasn’t it always there? Isn’t it just a matter of paying attention?)

I’m sure we all hear music differently. But I keep wanting to hear more as if my current equipment is leaving out sounds I should be hearing. Listening to audiophile reviewers makes me wonder how much I’m missing. I keep thinking my experience would be greater if I only bought more expensive equipment. But that might be me fooling myself.

I keep telling myself I will find more if I just listen with a greater focus on the equipment I already have. I keep telling myself I will hear more if I read and study how the music was put together. I keep telling myself I will hear more if I keep asking “What am I hearing?” I spend too much time watching reviewers of stereo equipment when I should be watching videos or reading books by people who study the music. That what I hear will be improved by upgrading my brain with training. That what I’m hearing is mostly determined in my brain.

(Yet, I yearn for a Cambridge EVO 150 and Klipsch Cornwall IV speakers.)

JWH

Do You Remember This Album?

Memory is a funny thing, mainly because they’re completely unreliable. And it’s quite easy to have false memories. My memories for the Gypsy album tells me I bought it in the early 1970s, and when I was dating my wife in 1977, I went through her records and found a copy of it. I have a memory of saying, “Hey, you like this album too?” I thought it was cool we both loved an obscure record. I asked Susan this morning of her memory about the album, and she says she owned it before we met. That’s confirmation, but read on. We both might be fooling ourselves.

You can listen to the album while you read on. And if you owned this album please leave a comment. I’ve never met anyone else who loved this album.

All this dredging of memories came about because I got out my CD of Gypsy the other day and played it. I thought, “Wow, what a wonderful album, why wasn’t it famous? What happened to the group? Should I buy their other albums?” Checking Spotify showed they didn’t exist in that worldwide form of collective memory. Nor are their albums available to buy on Amazon. I then checked YouTube, which is becoming our digital attic, and found copies of their albums to play. That made me even more curious about what happened to the band. Then that night, while browsing new YouTube offerings on my TV, YouTube listed a documentary about the group Gypsy in my to watch feed. I know people complain about digital companies tracking our interests, but I was quite thankful for this intrusion. The 2016 documentary Gypsy: Rock and Roll Nomads answered most of my questions.

But when I started checking facts, I’m not sure I can support Susan’s and my memories. Gypsy by Gypsy came out in 1970, and according to the documentary, bombed because Metromedia Records did not promote it. Now I bought a lot of albums simply because of their covers, and this was one – I’m positive. But then this is a story about faulty memories. I could have bought it in late 1970, but I can’t remember that. I don’t have a memory for when and where I bought it. All I remember was loving the cover, buying it, and then loving the album when I played it. I played it for weeks, and then put it away. That’s what my memory tells me. That could have happened from 1970-1977 before I met Susan. However, because the album was so poorly promoted, I probably needed to have bought it right after it was first released in 1970. I have no memory of buying it that early. How long does an album hang around in record stores?

The information I found at Discogs implies it got better support than the documentary suggested since it was released on LP, cassette, 8-track, and reel-to-real, and it was also published in eight countries outside the U.S.

Now the Discogs information gives me a second theory, one that conflicts with Susan’s and my memories. The album was rereleased in 1979 on LP, the year after we got married. I could have bought it then, at Peaches, and we discovered we loved it together. Later on we both gave ourselves false memories that we had discovered it by ourselves. Unfortunately, we got rid of our LPs as we bought CDs, so I don’t have any physical proof of which pressings we owned.

Sometime after 1990 I bought Gypsy again on CD (AJK Music A 862-1). It’s a fantastic album, but no one we know is familiar with it. When I played the CD the day before yesterday, I played it loud, and it sounded amazingly great. I just can’t believe it’s not a classic rock album everyone knows. Watching the documentary explained why the band failed. It was the typical story of we could have been contenders, we were almost famous, we were at all the right places, had all the right opportunities, performed with all the other great bands, but we just didn’t make it.

But I had one last unanswered question. Why isn’t this great album on Spotify? I think I found an answer to that question too. Spotify doesn’t pay much and some bands won’t release their albums through streaming music services. From the documentary I learned that James Walsh keeps the band going and sells CDs online. He is the only original member of the band still trying to keep the band’s memory alive. All four of Gypsy’s albums are available from their website as a 4-pack for $60, as well as histories of the band. The site was updated 3/4/21, but there are no new concerts scheduled. I have a feeling the site was created to promote the CDs and documentary, but concerts are rare.

I wonder how many CDs Walsh still sells? I know streaming pays poorly but it does keep the music alive, and it’s worldwide distribution. I don’t know about the second, third, and fourth albums, but the first album, Gypsy, really needs to be out there for people to discover. Keeping it off Spotify is a big mistake, like when whey went with Metromedia instead of Atlantic.

JWH

The Albums I Didn’t Buy in 1971

by James Wallace Harris, 8/30/21

[The above photograph is the only one I have of myself from 1971.]

I’m old enough that every year I live is also the 50th anniversary of a year I remember. This year, I keep seeing remembrances of 1971, especially lists of albums that claim to be the best of 1971.

This got me to thinking. How many great 1971 albums did I buy when they first came out? Then how many 1971 albums did I buy on LP or CD before switching to streaming music? Then how many albums have I discovered since having streaming music? Finally, how many albums from 1971 do I still need to play? Spotify has turned out to be a wonderful time machine.

It’s kind of overwhelming the number of memorable albums that came out in one year. The number is impressive, and it’s taken me fifty years of listening to find most these albums, and I’m still not done. Thanks to Spotify I’m still at it.

Albums I Bought When They Came Out

These two albums by Marvin Gaye and The Allman Brothers Band are among my lifetime favorites. I’ve never stopped playing them. I’ve bought them on CD, and even got the Fillmore East on SACD, and they are still repackaging those concerts, and I’ve bought them too. One thing that’s very special in my memories, is I got to see the Allman Brothers in concert in 1971 before Duane was killed.

These next three were major albums for me, and I played them for years, but I eventually got tired of them. I did buy them again when CDs came out, and I play them once every couple of years. Most of the albums listed below held my attention for just a short while. Many I only played once. A great record buy was one I’d play for a couple weeks straight. A very good record would hold my attention for days. Maybe the best albums are the ones we keep playing for the rest of our lives.

Back in 1971 I loved going to record stores. I’d usually visit two or three a week. I didn’t have much money then, so I didn’t buy that many albums in the year 1971 – I’d guess less than fifty, and most of those were from earlier years. Mostly I flipped past albums I wished I could buy. I used to have a fantasy of robbing Peaches back in the late 1970s. It was the biggest record store I had ever seen up to that time, maybe since. Having streaming music is like owning the biggest record store ever.

Eventually I did buy over a hundred albums that came out in 1971. I’d love if I could remember when and where for each one, but I can’t. I also wish I could remember those I bought on LPs in the 1970s and early 1980s, and which ones I bought when they were reissued on CDs, but I can’t do that either. Over the years I’ve gotten rid of my LPs, and most of my CDs. Here’s the list of 1971 albums I owned at one time or another. I’ll bolded the albums I still own (I think). I saved about 500 CDs, but I seldom play them. I’ve forgotten what I own. I bought thousands of LPs and CDs, but I moved around a lot, and sold my collections. There are many albums I bought more than once when I got money to rebuild my collection.

Here are the albums from 1971 that I bought after 1971. I’d say most of them were bought before 1980. It’s funny how a year in pop culture can linger. By the way, I got to see many of these acts in concert.

  1. Tapestry – Carole King
  2. L. A. Woman – Doors
  3. Every Picture Tells a Story – Rod Stewart
  4. American Pie – Don McLean
  5. Crazy Horse – Crazy Horse
  6. The Concert for Bangladesh – George Harrison & Friends
  7. 4 Way Street – Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young
  8. Chicago III
  9. Quicksilver – Quicksilver Messenger Service
  10. Bob Dylan’s Great Hits Vol. II – Boy Dylan
  11. Anticipation – Carly Simon
  12. Rough & Ready – The Jeff Beck Group
  13. Byrdmaniax – The Byrds
  14. Farther Along – The Byrds
  15. Electric Warrior – T-Rex
  16. If I Could Only Remember My Name – David Crosby
  17. Santana
  18. The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys – Traffic
  19. 4 Way Street – Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young
  20. Tarkus – Emerson, Lake & Palmer
  21. Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren – Todd Rundgren
  22. Deuce – Rory Gallagher
  23. In Search of Space – Hawkwin
  24. Nantucket Sleighride – Mountain
  25. John Prine – John Prine
  26. Rory Gallagher – Rory Gallagher
  27. America – America
  28. Who’s Next – The Who
  29. Hunky Dory – David Bowie
  30. Aqualung – Jethro Tull
  31. Imagine – John Lennon
  32. Ram – Paul & Linda McCartney
  33. The Yes Album – Yes
  34. Pearl – Janis Joplin
  35. Madman Across the Water – Elton John
  36. The Inner Mountain Flame – The Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin
  37. Songs for Beginners – Graham Nash
  38. Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon – James Taylor
  39. Pictures at An Exhibition
  40. The Electric Light Orchestra – Electric Light Orchestra
  41. A Space in Time – Ten Years After
  42. Every Good Boy Deserves Favour – The Moody Blues
  43. Cold Spring Harbor
  44. Little Feat – Little Feat
  45. Deuce – Rory Gallagher
  46. Osibisa – Osibisa
  47. Osibisa – Woyaya
  48. Free Live! – Free
  49. Future Games – Fleetwood Mac
  50. Broken Barricades
  51. Link Wray – Link Wray
  52. Live in Cook County Jail – B. B. King
  53. Gonna Take a Miracle – Laurya Nyro & Labelle
  54. Welcome to the Canteen – Traffic
  55. 11-17-70 – Elton John
  56. All Day Music – War
  57. Music – Carole King
  58. Sittin’ In – Loggins & Messina
  59. Stephen Stills 2 – Stephen Stills
  60. New Riders of the Purple Sage – New Riders of the Purple Sage
  61. Gather Me – Melanie
  62. ZZ Top’s First Album – ZZ Top
  63. A Clockwork Orange – Various Artists
  64. Survival – Grand Funk Railroad
  65. Flying Burrito Brothers – The Flying Burrito Brothers
  66. Bonnie Raitt – Bonnie Raitt
  67. Cahoots – The Band
  68. Album II – Loudon Wainwright III
  69. Other Voices – The Doors
  70. If Not for You – Olivia Newton-John
  71. Linda Ronstadt – Linda Ronstadt
  72. Street Corner Talking – Savoy Brown
  73. Stoney End – Barbra Streisand
  74. Carly Simon – Carly Simon
  75. In The Garden – Gypsy
  76. Barbra Joan Streisand – Barbra Streisand
  77. Thirds – James Gang
  78. Edgar Winter’s White Trash – Edgar Winter’s White Trash
  79. I Don’t Know How to Love Him – Helen Reddy
  80. Leon Russel and the Shelter People – Leon Russell
  81. Moments – Boz Scaggs
  82. Collaboration – Shawn Phillips
  83. Boz Scaggs & Band – Boz Scaggs
  84. Meddle – Pink Floyd
  85. Blue – Joni Mitchell
  86. Teaser and the Firecat – Cat Stevens
  87. The Cry of Love – Jimi Hendrix
  88. White Light – Gene Clark
  89. Carpenters – Carpenters
  90. Weather Report – Weather Report
  91. The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions – Howlin’ Wolf

This puts me just under a hundred albums I remember owning. To trigger my memory I had to look at the list of Top 1000 albums sold in 1971. I’m pretty sure I owned more albums from 1971 because their covers look very familiar. I think I owned them, but I’m not sure, so I’ve added them to the to stream soon list.

Albums Streamed Recently

These are the albums I remember streaming in the past couple of years. I’m sure there were more, but I just don’t remember. Maggot Brain and Pieces of a Man are albums I wished I had discovered in 1971. They are classics. I’ve added them to my most played play list.

  1. Melting Pot – Booker T. & The MG’s
  2. Maggot Brain – Funkadelic
  3. Surf’s Up – The Beach Boys
  4. Nilsson Schmilsson – Harry Nilsson
  5. A Nod is a Good as a Wink… To a Blind Horse – Faces
  6. Coat of Many Colors – Dolly Parton
  7. Black Moses – Isaac Hayes
  8. Shaft – Isaac Hayes
  9. Pieces of a Man – Gil Scott-Heron
  10. Roots – Curtis Mayfield
  11. Al Green Gets Next to You – Al Green
  12. All Day Music – War

Albums I Plan to Stream Soon

  1. Performance Rockin’ The Fillmore – Humble Pie
  2. McDonald and Giles
  3. Man in Black – Johnny Cash
  4. The Bill Evans Album – Bill Evans
  5. Randy Newman Live – Randy Newman
  6. Earth Wind and Fire – Earth Wind & Fire
  7. Yesterday’s Wine – Willie Nelson
  8. Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old) – Elvis Presley
  9. Where I’m Coming From – Stevie Wonder
  10. The Sun, Moon and Herbs – Dr. John
  11. Live Johnny Winter And – Johnny Winter
  12. Super Bad – James Brown
  13. Distant Light – The Hollies
  14. Wildlife – Mott the Hoople
  15. Sugar – Stanley Turrentine
  16. Church of Anthrax – John Cale & Terry Riley
  17. Nose Roses – Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band
  18. Givin’ It Back – The Isley Brothers
  19. Where’s the Money? – Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks
  20. Nick Drake – Nick Drake
  21. Seven Tears – Golden Earring
  22. Fillmore East – June 1971 – The Mothers
  23. A Message to the People – Buddy Miles
  24. Back to the Roots – John Mayall
  25. Alone at Last – Gary Burton
  26. So Long, Bannatyne – The Guess Who
  27. The Doobie Brothers – The Doobie Brothers
  28. Manna – Bread
  29. Doctor Hook – Dr.Hook and the Medicine Show
  30. Sunwheel Dance – Bruce Cockburn
  31. Patchwork – Bobbie Gentry
  32. Rock Love – Steve Miller Band
  33. Rudy the Fifth – Rick Nelson
  34. Someday We’ll Look Back – Merle Haggard & the Strangers
  35. From the Inside – Poco
  36. Merry Clayton – Merry Clayton
  37. Nancy & Lee Again – Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood
  38. Lovejoy – Albert King
  39. Gypsies, Tramps, & Thieves – Cher
  40. Ruby – Buck Owens & His Buckaroos
  41. Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream – Mason Proffit
  42. Elegy – The Nice
  43. Rita Coolidge – Rita Coolidge
  44. David Bromberg – David Bromberg
  45. Sunfighter – Paul Kantner & Grace Slick
  46. Take Heart – Mimi Farina and Tom Jans
  47. Dave Mason & Cass Elliot – Dave Mason & Cass Elliot
  48. 1969 – Julie Driscoll
  49. Nice Feelin’ – Rita Coolidge
  50. Garden in the City – Melanie
  51. Can I Have My Money Back? – Gerry Rafferty
  52. Me & Bobby McGee – Kris Kristofferson

Lists Used to Remember

JWH

Don’t Let Apple Lossless Music Confuse You

by James Wallace Harris, 6/19/21

I’m afraid I totally confused my friend Annie when she asked me to help her upgrade her music system to play her iTunes playlists simultaneously in multiple rooms. I made the mistake of excitedly telling her about Apple’s new Lossless Music. Explaining Hi-Res Music to your friends won’t be easy. Later, I realized I had forced poor Annie down a rabbit hole of abstraction and technology standards she really didn’t want to know.

All Annie wanted was to buy speakers that would work in a whole house configuration, and she thought she wanted them made by Bose. The speaker she loved was a Bose dock for her first iPhone. Regrettably, it became useless a few years ago when she upgraded her iPhone with a lightning connector. She still laments its loss. Her son bought her a bluetooth soundbar. It actually sounds better than her old Bose dock, but connecting to it hasn’t always been smooth. She had seen an ad for Bose speakers that could be bought for each room of the house and would play in unison, which became her dream music goal.

I should have said, “Sure, go get those Bose 300 or 500 speakers.” Instead I told her they wouldn’t work with Apple’s new Lossless Music. “Why is that?” she ask. I tried to tell her. I even demoed bluetooth, AirPlay, Spotify Connect, and Tidal Connect to illustrate the different ways to stream music and how they would be used. I also demoed compressed, lossless, and Hi-Res music. She was impressed with what she heard, and said she wanted to get a whole house speaker system that could do Hi-Res.

I really should have said right then, forget Hi-Res Music and just buy the Bose or Sonos speakers. Her son recommended Sonos. I like Bose and have a pair of 301s for my computer room, and Rtings.com gives the Bose 300 a slight edge over the Sonos One. See their recommendations for all home speakers. In this group they prefer the Sonos Move first, and Bose 500 second.

That’s when we fell into Alice’s Wonderland of configuring a Lossless system that she could play from her iPhone. I had to explain why bluetooth was out, and at a minimum she’d need equipment that supports AirPlay2, and even then it would only be CD quality at best, that the higher levels of Hi-Res and Dolby Atmos wouldn’t be possible with Bose or Sonos currently.

I also realized I might have falsely advertised what she could hear when I demoed everything on my Bluesound Powernode 2i and Klipsch floorstanding speakers. So I got my Amazon Echo Studio from my bedroom to show how it compared to the Klipsch/Bluesound performance. The Sonos One and Echo Studio are roughly comparable, although most reviewers rate the Sonos better. I bought the Echo Studio to try out Hi-Res and 3D music. I told Annie the Echo Studio with Amazon Music HD could play Hi-Res and 3D spatial music if she subscribe to Amazon Music Unlimited ($7.99 since she’s a Prime Member), and it would work in a whole house configuration with other Echo speakers. But again, this might be a distraction.

Actually, I was surprised by how well the Echo Studio sounded in my den. In my bedroom it sounds pretty good, especially paired with a second Echo Studio, but not nearly as great as a single Echo Studio in the den. Evidently, the den has great acoustics. Annie was very impressed with the Echo Studio.

It was here that I tried to explain that speakers sound different according to placement. And there’s a good chance she and I (we both turn 70 this year) won’t be able to hear the difference between MP3, CD, and Hi-Res music files. I, myself, have been chasing the Hi-Res dream for years, always thinking I’d find that Nirvana where Hi-Res music sounded as different as night and day over CD sound quality. I’ve never found this audio El Dorado. There have been times when I listened very intently and thought I was hearing things on SACD or with MQA that I hadn’t heard before, but I’ve never been sure if I wasn’t just hearing things I never previously heard because I hadn’t paid attention to it before.

I’m trying to convince Annie that the things that count are subscribing to a streaming music service, getting good speakers, finding the best place to put them, and playing music loud enough to hear the details. I believe Spotify is a better deal right now than Apple Music, Tidal, or Amazon HD because it’s interface is better, because of Spotify Connect, and Spotify is used so widely that articles about music often link to Spotify playlists. Plus selfishly, I want my friends to have Spotify so we can share our playlists. Spotify Connect support is almost universal, and that does away with the whole iPhone to music system connecting protocols like bluetooth and AirPlay. I have three streaming music systems in my house, and all three work with Spotify Connect. Only two work with AirPlay, and just one with MQA.

On the other hand, Annie has many years of songs purchased on iTunes. To switch to Spotify would require rebuilding all her playlists, and committing to $9.99 a month. I pointed out that the Amazon Echo Studios would work with Spotify, or if she wanted get Amazon Music Unlimited for $7.99 a month. However, iTunes doesn’t work with the Echo Studio.

Probably, the best thing for Annie would be the Bose 300 or 500 like she thought she wanted at first, or the Sonos. Then if she wanted now or later, subscribe to Apple Music for $9.99 a month. I’m guessing Apple will eventually offer something like Apple Connect, or AirPlay Connect and Sonos and other speaker makers will support Apple Lossless, but that means waiting to buy future products, or replacing her sound system again. And I think that’s probably a chimera now and in the future.

Apple Lossless Music is a great deal since it’s free with Apple Music, but only for people who have the DACs to support it. For most people, buying a portable DAC like a Audioquest Dragonfly or Helm Bolt DAC/AMP and a pair of good open back headphones would be the cheapest route to testing Hi-Res music. Many audiophiles already have this equipment, but for newbies, moving to Hi-Res Music will require a lot effort and money, and I’m not sure it’s worth it.

[Sorry, Annie, for all the confusion I caused.]

JWH

How Will We Remember the 1960s?

by James Wallace Harris, 5/16/21

Anyone who knows me, or reads my blog, knows I’m obsessed with memory. Even before my memory access speeds began declining I’ve always felt a desperation to hang onto what I learned even though I know most of it slips naturally away. I guess all those tests in school gave me a complex about poor recall.

Memory has many fascinating aspects, especially all the ways our memories fool us. We believe things are true because our memories tell us they’re true. Even when confronted with conclusive evidence, we often prefer what our memories tell us to external facts. All through my sixties I’ve been examining what I thought I remembered from growing up in the 1960s. Too often, the impressions I’ve maintained have proved wrong.

Because of an online discussion about science fiction in the 1960s my instant recall told me there must have been several hundred great science fiction novels published during that decade. However, as the discussion progressed my memory had trouble dredging up all those great titles.

My memory gave me the illusion there were enough wonderful science fiction novels published in the 1960s to fill a huge bookcase. Where did that impression come from? I assumed because my memories told me I read hundreds of science fiction novels I loved while growing up. Were those memories true? Thinking about it now I realized there are a number of ways to double check my brain’s records:

  • Look up the actual number of successful SF books published in the 1960s
  • Recall and list all the books I remember reading in the 1960s
  • Recall and list all the SF books from the 1960s I read in later decades
  • Research the memories of my contemporizes about what they read
  • Find out what books young science fiction fans read today from the 1960s
  • Read what literary scholars studying the 1960s consider the best SF books

I realized that my initial reaction to the online discussion was I wanted young people to replicated what I found great in the 1960s. That’s a typical old person hope, but it’s completely unrealistic. Newer generations are busy consuming all the books coming out in their own decade. What they read from past decades is always very minimal.

In other words, younger generations and scholars get a distillation of the past. Not only that, but they are going to interpret the past by current day mindsets. The chances of them experiencing what I remember is very small. So why do geezers want their cherished past persevered? Is it to validate their own memories? Is it the hope of keeping the things they loved alive across time?

For whatever reason, I want the essential aspects of the 1960s remembered accurately by history. The trouble is I’m not sure I correctly remember the 1960s myself. I’m probably not. Maybe what I’m doing is trying to write my own correct history now that I’m older and working on my wisdom skills.

For the purpose of this essay I’m using science fiction novels as one tiny test case of remembering the 1960s. I have a model in my head built from memories of what the 1960s were like. I’m interested in the mental models people are constructing today about that decade. Even focusing on this one microscopic piece of pop culture leaves many problems regarding memory to consider.

Is my white male American viewpoint of the 1960s science fiction too limiting? Do my contemporaries who were women and minorities remember 1960s science fiction differently? Bookworms growing up in Russia, China, Brazil, Vietnam, etc. will have experienced a much different decade than I did. For the purpose of this essay, I’ll focus on the U.S., however Great Britain plays a large role in my memory too. I also read fanzines back then where readers from around the world, including countries where English wasn’t the standard language, reviewed books. But this only provided hints of what science fiction was being published in foreign countries.

The online discussion I mentioned above got started because we read a link to “An Uneven Showcase of 1960s SF,” a 2019 review from The Los Angeles Review of Books covering The Library of America’s two volume set American Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s, which remembers these eight novels:

  • Poul Anderson, The High Crusade (1960)
  • Clifford D. Simak, Way Station (1963)
  • Roger Zelazny, … And Call Me Conrad (This Immortal) (1965)
  • Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon (1966)
  • R. A. Lafferty, Past Master (1968)
  • Joanna Russ, Picnic on Paradise (1968)
  • Samuel R. Delany, Nova (1968)
  • Jack Vance, Emphyrio (1969)

Our group was asking: Are these books really how literary history will remember 1960s science fiction? Personally, I don’t believe any of them will make it to the long term pop culture memory of 2050. However, Library of America does give us a clue with their other published science fiction books. That’s because their famous uniform volumes focus on authors and not works. So far they have published sets on these SF writers:

PKD also produced significant work in the 1950s and 1970s, but it seems his 1960s novels are the most remembered. Le Guin’s career covered decades but her most famous science fiction came out in the 1960s and 1970s. Vonnegut is also mostly remembered for his 1960s novels. Bradbury was mainly famous for his work in the 1950s, and Butler for work in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Library of America will not be the sole arbiter of who remembers science fiction from the 1960s, but I do believe they have made good guesses so far, at least for American Sci-Fi. But using Library of America and the SF authors they favor, are these then the science fiction novels future readers will remember 1960s science fiction by:

  • The Man in the High Castle (1962) by Philip K. Dick
  • A Wrinkle in Time (1962) Madeleine L’Engle
  • Cat’s Cradle (1963) by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Martian Time-Slip (1964) by Philip K. Dick
  • Rocannon’s World (1966) Ursula K. Le Guin
  • The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) by Philip K. Dick
  • Planet of Exile (1966) by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • City of Illusions (1967) by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) by Philip K. Dick
  • The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Ubik (1969) by Philip K. Dick

Of course this leaves out works by the most famous science fiction writers working in the 1960s, the so called Big Three of SF:

  • A Fall of Moondust (1961) by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Fantastic Voyage (1966) by Isaac Asimov
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) by Robert A. Heinlein
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by Arthur C. Clarke

Actually, The Big Three of SF writers were more famous for their work in the 1950s. Probably the single most remembered work of science fiction from the 1960s is Dune by Frank Herbert, and that’s because of all the movie versions. But growing up in the 1960s the two most famous new writers were Delany and Zelazny. Will any of their most famous novels be remembered? They each got an entry in the LoA set, but what about their other 1960s novels?

  • The Dream Master (1966) by Roger Zelazny
  • Empire Star (1966) by Samuel R. Delany
  • Babel-17 (1966) by Samuel R. Delany
  • The Einstein Intersection (1967) by Samuel R. Delany
  • Lord of Light (1967) by Roger Zelazny
  • Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny

There were many novels I loved or remember reading great reviews from back in the 1960s that were missed by the Library of America set. I’m not sure how famous they are today, or if they are still worthy of reading:

  • A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) by Walter M. Miller Jr.
  • Flesh (1960) by Philip Jose Farmer
  • Rogue Moon (1960) by Algis Budrys
  • Venus Plus X (1960) by Theodore Sturgeon
  • Catseye (1961) by Andre Norton
  • Dark Universe (1961) by Daniel F. Galouye
  • Time is the Simplest Thing (1961) by Clifford Simak
  • Little Fuzzy (1962) by H. Beam Piper
  • The Dragon Masters (1963) by Jack Vance
  • Lords of the Psychon (1963) by Daniel F. Galouye
  • The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963) by Walter Tevis
  • Davy (1964) by Edgar Pangborn
  • Simulacron-3 (1964) by Daniel F. Galouye
  • The Wanderer (1964) by Fritz Leiber
  • All Flesh is Grass (1965) by Clifford Simak
  • Bill, the Galactic Hero (1965) by Harry Harrison
  • Destination: Void (1965) by Frank Herbert
  • The Genocides (1965) by Thomas M. Disch
  • The Age of the Pussyfoot (1966) by Frederik Pohl
  • Earthblood (1966) by Keith Laumer and Rosel George Brown
  • Make Room, Make Room (1966) by Harry Harrison
  • Mindswap (1966) by Robert Sheckley
  • The Witches of Karres (1966) by James H. Schmitz
  • The World of the Ptavvs (1966) by Larry Niven
  • The Butterfly Kid (1967) by Chester Anderson
  • Camp Concentration (1967) by Thomas M. Disch
  • Chthon (1967) by Piers Anthony
  • Lords of the Starship (1967) by Mark S. Geston
  • Restoree (1967) by Anne McCaffrey
  • Soldier, Ask Not (1967) by Gordon R. Dickson
  • Those Who Watch (1967) by Robert Silverberg
  • Why Call Them Back From Heaven? (1967) by Clifford Simak
  • Dimension of Miracles (1968) by Robert Sheckley
  • Dragonflight (1968) by Anne McCaffrey
  • Hawksbill Station (1968) by Robert Silverberg
  • The Last Starship From Earth (1968) by John Boyd
  • The Masks of Time (1968) by Robert Silverberg
  • Of Men and Monsters (1968) by William Tenn
  • Past Master (1968) by R. A. Lafferty
  • Rite of Passage (1968) by Alexei Panshin
  • The Andromeda Strain (1969) by Michael Crichton
  • Bug Jack Barron (1969) by Norman Spinrad
  • Fourth Mansions (1969) by R. A. Lafferty
  • Macroscope (1969) by Piers Anthony
  • The Pollinators of Eden (1969) by John Boyd
  • The Ship Who Sang (1969) by Anne McCaffrey
  • A Specter is Haunting Texas (1969) by Fritz Leiber
  • Up the Line (1969) by Robert Silverberg

And what about British invasion SF writers who made such a big impact on the genre in the 1960s:

  • The Trouble with Lichen (1960) by John Wyndham
  • The Wind from Nowhere (1961) by J. G. Ballard
  • A Clockwork Orange (1962) by Anthony Burgess
  • The Drowned World (1962) by J. G. Ballard
  • Hothouse (1962) by Brian Aldiss
  • Greybeard (1964) by Brian Aldiss
  • The Dark Light Years (1964) by Brian Aldiss
  • The Whole Man (1964) by John Brunner
  • The Squares of the City (1965) by John Brunner
  • Colossus (1966) D. F. Jones
  • The Crystal World (1966) by J. G. Ballard
  • Earthworks (1966) by Brian Aldiss
  • The Watch Below (1966) by James White
  • Chocky (1968) by John Wyndham
  • The Final Programme (1968) by Michael Moorcock
  • Pavane (1968) by Keith Roberts
  • Report on Probability A (1968) by Brian Aldiss
  • Stand on Zanzibar (1968) by John Brunner
  • Barefoot in the Head (1969) by Brian Aldiss
  • Behold the Man (1969) Michael Morecock
  • The Jagged Orbit (1969) by John Brunner

Or from the rest of the world

  • Solaris (1961) by Stanislaw Lem
  • Planet of the Apes (1963) by Pierre Boulle
  • Hard to Be a God (1964) by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
  • The Second Invasion from Mars (1967) by Arkady and Boris Strgatsky
  • His Master’s Voice (1968) by Stanislaw Lem

If you were born after the 1960s, especially after the year 2000, how many of these novels have you read, or have even heard about? Years ago, I wrote an essay about what I thought might be the defining science fiction novels of the 1960s. At the time I guessed these dozen would be remembered:

  1. Solaris by Stanislaw Lem (1961)
  2. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein (1961)
  3. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)
  4. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962)
  5. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1963)
  6. Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)
  7. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (1966)
  8. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein (1966)
  9. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1968)
  10. Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner (1968)
  11. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1969)
  12. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)

I stand by these twelve for now, but I believe in the long run, only a few, if any, will be remembered by the reading public in the 2060s. Dune has the best chance of being remembered, but will it really go the distance? It was #35 on PBS’s The Great American Read, the only 1960s SF novel on the list, so that’s one indicator.

Do we remember the pop culture of the past because of the artists or their works? We remember books by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen from the 1800s, but did their stories stick to us first, or was it something about Dickens and Austen that make us read their work? I believe “Eleanor Rigby” survives because we can’t forget The Beatles. That Baby Boomers love of The Beatles was passed on to their children and grand children.

Even with one hit wonders like Little Women (#8 on the PBS list), I believe Louisa May Alcott is why we remember her book. Somehow her powerful personality anchored her in time. Ditto for literature of the 1920s. Don’t we really remember the novels of the 1920s because of our fascination with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Lawrence, and Joyce? Or do their biographical reputations grow as more readers consume their books?

My guess is the current public’s sense of 1960s science fiction comes down to Philip K. Dick and all the biographical attention he’s getting, and because so many of his stories have been filmed. Back in the 1960s, Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke were the Big Three of SF, mainly because of their successes in the 1950s. Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress are still remembered today, getting special editions and new readers, but my hunch is Heinlein’s appeal is fading, and as a teenager in the 1960s he was my J. K. Rowling. In other words, my cherish memories will not be how literary historians remembers science fiction the 1960s.

I just don’t see modern bookworms hanging onto to most 1960s SF writers today. In terms of literary cults, I’d say Ray Bradbury might be next after PKD, and possibly Ursula K. Le Guin. Dune is the major SF novel from the 1960s, but there seems to be little interest in Frank Herbert. Look how Tolkien has become legendary as a figure of literary interest. I consider that a clue to future literary remembrances. If the public doesn’t also take an interest in an author, I think it’s less likely their books will be remembered.

At the last World Con a Hugo award was given to a speech that’s erasing John W. Campbell’s reputation. Will Heinlein and Asimov be next? As much as my memories tell me that Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke were great, I’m not sure the collective pop culture memory feels the same way. This makes me sad, but I’ve got to come to terms with it.

When I take the time to think about what I actually remember, and compare those memories to external data, I realized I did read hundreds of SF during the 1960s, but the vast majority of them were first published in the 1950s. I joined the Science Fiction Book Club in March of 1967 and often got its two main selections. At best that could have been 60 new titles, but sometimes the main selections were 1950s reprints, so I figure the number was smaller, and I didn’t read every book. Thinking about things, I read many 1960s SF novels after the 1960s, in fact I’m still reading for the first time SF books from the 1960s. But even with all them, I could not assemble a list of hundreds of great SF books from the 1960s.

My memory was mostly wrong. I was able to find just under a hundred titles for this essay. I’d bet that between 1,000-2,000 SF novels were published during the 1960s, which sounds like an impossible lot, but it takes only two years nowadays to publish that many SF titles.

Memory has always been a distillation process. Each night we forget most of what happened the previous day. I don’t think the Library of America picked the most memorable eight SF novels to remember the 1960s. But then every science fiction fan who lived through the sixties will recall a different eight titles. And it would be unfair for me to want my eight favorites to be the ones remembered. However, I’d really love to know what eight SF novels from the 1960s will be remembered and read in the 2060s. Who will be the Jules Verne and H. G. Wells of the 20th century?

Update: 5/25/21

Because of a comment below by my old friend Jim Connell I realized asking a 15-year-old SF fan today about 1960s is like asking me back in 1965 what I thought about science fiction from the 1910s. At the time I had not even read A Princess of Mars or Tarzan of the Apes, or even The Skylark of Space. Over the next fifty-five years I would eventually read several novels, both literary and science fiction from the 1910s, but I can’t say I’m intimate with the pop culture of that decade. I’ve read 9 of the 70 books listed here for the 1910s, and know of several more from movies and reading about them.

Thus my memory of science fiction from the 1910s gives me roughly an idea of what younger people might know about science fiction from the 1960s.

JWH

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