Aging, Changing, Technology, and Music

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, May 3, 2017

For someone whose childhood began in 1951, the year 2017 is the far fucking future. Sorry about the inappropriate word, but hey, that’s part of the relentless pace of change. We’re now allowed to use “bad words” in print.

I don’t think young people today can even imagine what a horrendous social offense it was to say fuck in the 1950s, much less write it down. If you could understand you might know what this essay is all about.

It Happened One Night

Last night I watch It Happened One Night with my friend Annie. I told her this 1934 picture was considered very risqué when it came out in 1934. After watching a while she asked why? By modern standards its so squeaky-clean it’s hard to spot the naughty bits. Even as a kid seeing it for the first time in the early 1960s, that old film still had its titillating parts. That changed after Midnight Cowboy.

I started listening to music in the 1950s on my father’s car radio when me and my sister could still stand in the front seat. This was before seat belts. It was his car and his music, but that’s how the times were back then.

For Christmas 1962 I got a AM clock radio. I played my music on that radio from 1962-1968. I turned it on when I got home from school and turned it off each morning when I left for school. I listened rock and roll while I slept, burning songs like “Rhythm of the Rain” into my unconscious mind. I grew up in Miami and loved WQAM and WFUN – the two competing AM Top 40 stations that played rock and roll.

My father had a second job bartending and would bring me and my sister 45rpm records that were pulled from the jukeboxes. In 1962 when I got the clock radio my sister had gotten a portable record player. I envied her that. (I might have stolen it.)

In 1963 an airman left his console stereo and LPs with my father was he was stationed overseas. That was my first introduction to LP albums. The airman left mostly folk music.

Our Man Flint soundtrack 

Eventually I got a little transistor radio to carry around. Then I got my own portable stereo record player when I started buying LPs in 1966. My first LP was the soundtrack to Our Man Flint. I would join the Columbia and Capital music clubs to mass collect albums. Joining, completing my fulfillments, quitting, and rejoining to keep getting those intro bundles.

When I started driving in 1967 I had a car radio. In 1968 I bought a console stereo system. It was my first use of credit, and I was only 16. The console introduced me to FM radio.

Just in the 1960s I went from AM to FM, and from mono to stereo. From tubes to solid state. In the 1970s I got a much larger console, started seriously collecting records, stopped listening to commercial radio, and eventually got into component stereo systems.

In the 1980s I switched to compact discs. I also tried different tape systems. As the decades past I used MP3 players and iPods, and even got into SACD audio for a while. For the last decade I’ve mostly been listening to subscription streaming music. I never got into Napster thievery. I guess I was too old fashioned to steal.

So in the course of half a century I went from listening to music on various physical media to listening to invisible streams of ones and zeros. In 1970 we were warned about Future Shock. Reading about what the future will do to us and living into the future are two different things. The future is both dazzling and tiring.

My point is the technology keeps changing. So does the music. So do the genres of music. I’ve bought some of my favorite albums many times, on LP, CD, cassette, SACD, and digital file (I was briefly into 24bit lossless).

The long playing (LP) record album came out in 1948, but it took a while to catch on. Because of streaming music, the concept of an album is fading. Not only have I outlived many technological changes, I’ve outlived an artistic concept.

And you know what? I’m tired. I’m fucking tired of change. I’m weary of the constant barrage of new technology. And I was a computer geek starting in 1971. Just read all those changes in computer tools I’ve used.

I’m happy with streaming music. Can’t we stick with it for a while? At least a quarter century, I hope. Give me 25 years and I’ll die on you, and the world can change as much and as fast as it wants after that.

ItsAMadPoster

JWH

When I Was a Remote Control

If the remote control had been invented before 1951 I’m not sure my parents would have had me and my sister Becky.  As toddlers, my parents taught us how to change the channels on our Sears black and white TV, so they could laze on the couch smoking their Camels and Winstons and drink Seagram 7 and Canada Dry ginger ale while we twirled the knob to locate Topper or Have Gun Will Travel.

tv-1950s

Kids born today come out of the womb with giant IQs, able to handle hundreds of stations and dozens of gadgets.  I wonder if my four-year old self from 1955 could have competed with a 2012 four year old at all?  If my parents were still alive, I wonder if they’d long for the days when things were simple without all these goddamn gadgets.  Life was easier with a Kid Channel Flipper, or the Rug Rat Reciting TV Guide.  Oh yeah, that was another childhood duty – to memorize the TV schedule and let my folks know when their favorite shows were on.  It’s also why my parent’s generation had so many kids.  We baby boomers were conceived to manage TV technology for the Greatest Generation, or the radio generation.

Today, anyone with a finger can change the channel, and onscreen guides have made the Rug Rat Reciting TV Guide go the way of the Bad Child Switch Fetcher.  If political correctness had been invented before 1951 and my parents told that kid herding couldn’t involve belts and switches, they’d definitely been willing to get off their Brooks Brothers covered butts and do their own TV knob twirling.

I’ve seen some real cultural and social changes in my lifetime due to fantastic inventions like the TV clicker and screen guide.  Young people really have no idea how hard life was back in the 1950s.   Toddlers today are whizzes at iPads, but could they have dialed a rotary phone?  OK, I admit they could – modern tot nerds would beat wee baby boomers at any kind of pre-school smack down.  We never had any of those fancy Sesame Street advantages, but we did have to work harder for less rewards, which us boomers like to brag is character building.

TV was dinosaur primitive back then, with small low-rez screens that frequently got out of adjustment so you had to fine tune the vertical and horizontal hold knobs just right to see a steady, but grainy black and white picture.  And that picture had visible scan lines.   There was an array of other knob-less adjustment dials inconveniently located on the back of the set that required a screw driver to twist and mirror to see the results.  If you were too lazy to get the dressing mirror off the back of the closet door you could try to talk someone into describing the picture while subtly adjusting the settings from verbal clues.  What a lost art!

Also, TVs had vacuum tubes instead of solid state devices, and when a tube blew you had to get dad to drive you to the 7 Eleven. While he waited drinking his Schlitz in the Pontiac, you dashed inside to run the tube tester and hopeful find the arcane coded replacement in the test cabinet.  All this just to see some show call Huckleberry Hound that was so moronic you’d poke your eyes to avoid seeing it today but your seven year old self thought state of Eisenhower era pop art brilliance.

But back to the future – or our present.  Even though today’s TV pictures are rock solid, hi-rez, and huge, the show selection takes more brain power to select than that famous wild hair guy figuring out general relativity.

Now this brings us to the greatest invention in television history:  Netflix streaming.  It’s not perfect, but it’s almost as easy as Samantha’s twitch of her cute magical nose.  If they could only combine Siri with the Netflix interface, and we could sit in our recliners like Captain Picard and tell the HDTV what show we wanted and then say the words, “Make it so” we’d all reach video nirvana.

Recently I had to anxiously wait for Netflix to send me Blu-ray discs of Season 3 of Glee after watching Season 1 and Season 2 via their streaming service.  Don’t get me wrong, a Blu-ray picture and sound is Breaking Bad better than the current state of Netflix best streaming resolution, but the convenience of clicking to Glee on the Roku is Friday Night Lights goodness.

What a philosophical conundrum!  Fantastic picture versus fat-ass lazy highness.  Well, you know which one we’ll always choose, don’t you?

Music on iTunes iPhones is 5 transistor* radio crappy, but it’s what people prefer over the pain-in-the-ass fetch the CD and put it in the player hard work.

Streaming video and music is going to kill off the CD, DVD and BD disc.  So it goes, as Mr. Vonnegut used to say.  Vinyl, formerly known as the LP, is making a technological comeback, even through it requires the physical effort of storing albums, cleaning them, and playing them on mechanical players.  I’m sure it’s a passing fad.

If you pay attention to technology there are two consistent trends.  First, the evolution towards fewer moving parts.  Second, the evolution of ease of use.  We’re all heading to a future of moronic simplicity and slothfulness.

I love the CD and Blu-ray disc for their wonderful high resolution music and video, but they are goners.  Resting on my big motionless butt enjoying the brilliance of streaming music and video will always overcome the theoretical desire for high fidelity and high definition.

My wife and I never had children.  We never needed them.  We grew up with the remote control.  If you charted this essay on a graph, it would show the decline of civilization.  Well, like I said before, so it goes.  If you don’t believe we’re actually devolving with all this technological evolution, just picture this:  The Victorians had to play their own musical instruments if they wanted to hear music.  Even cavemen could drum like crazy man.  Imagine what Spotify would have done to the British Empire.

Stream with the flow.  Make it so.

JWH – 10/22/12

* When I was a kid, the cutting edge technology of portable sound was the transistor radio.  They came with a single mono earplug, and you listened to AM radio.  Of course 1961-1968 AM radio was the peak of musical genius in the 20th century.  These transistor radios were about the size of a iPhone (which by the way have millions of transistors) and  a tinny sound.  50 years later, I think portable sound still sounds tiny and tinny.   Listening to The Beatles on an iPhones makes them sound like they are five inches tall.