Can I Just Say….
For a moment, I’ve put down my smart phone and its apps so as better to type on my regular ol’ laptop on this ye olde blog thing. The inspiration for such a retro act (apart from the evening’s first two microbrews) was the appearance of Billy Joel’s Glass Houses album — yes, album — in the rotation of old vinyl records to which I’ve been listening nights and weekends for some months when I’m in my office/basement, which may be among the final locales in the Northeast with a functional record player.
The evidence for that possibility derives from the very fact that I’ve got so many albums that I haven’t managed to get through them all in that amount of time. As the generation of my family to which I belong approaches the next in line for the grave (in a certain way of looking at things), several shelves full of the 12 1/2″ x 12 1/2″ cardboard sleeves have worked their way to me. Lessons discoverable by listening to a century of the albums apt to make it into the inheritable collection of a relatively normal family, I’ll leave for another day. For the time being, the notion on my mind is that medium matters.
The peculiarity of Glass Houses on the list is that it’s one of just a few that I purchased myself. I recall finding it among the tables of a street vendor during a day trip into Manhattan with my grandparents and cousin. At the time, it joined several other works of the same artist that I owned on cassette tape, and through mere circumstance (as opposed to unusual affection) I’ve owned and listened to the album in every popular music medium to hit the market in the past fifty years. Album, cassette tape, CD, mp3, and I’m pretty sure — when bought a used 1970s Oldsmobile 98 in my late teens — 8-track, as well.
As it happens, I’m listening to the record on the very same stereo system that has carried me through all of those changes. It was state of the art when I won it in a mail-in contest hosted by a little-known-and-short-lived magazine operated by an acquaintance of one of my eighth grade teachers. Thus did luck squared bring me the still-new technology of the compact disc.
Among the first of my collection of those smaller, shinier discs was Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever, which drew some notice for a message played in the middle of the recording (from memory): “Hello CD listeners. We have now reached the point in this album that those listening on record or cassette will have to stand up or sit down to turn over the record or cassette. In fairness to those listeners, we will now take a moment before starting side two. Thank you. Here’s side two.” In an MTV interview, Petty spoke glowingly of the old vinyl as more of an experience. It meant something to purchase and take home those large sleeves, with their poster-sized covers and broad sheets of pictures and lyrics.
It’s somehow different to watch the music being played, as the disc rotates and the needle works its way toward the label. The necessity of turning the album over after 15 minutes is actually more conducive to simply sitting and listening, which is something that I’ve noticed even my traditionalist self to be less inclined to do with mp3s.
Just so has Glass Houses proven. Every now and then, its songs will come up in the eclectic, ponderous shuffle that I love so much on my mp3 player, but it’s not the same. The classic record brings one somehow closer to the music. You can touch the record, slow it down, make it skip, force it to rotate backwards. Sometimes, you can just about hear it playing with no speakers at all. I wonder what the experience of listening to music is like, and will be like, for generations that have no experience whatsoever with tangible technologies.
I’ve thought the same of reading, in this season of gifted Nooks, Kindles, and iPads. Looking for a particular book of poetry, I strolled into the relatively large Barnes & Nobles in Middletown almost literally stunned by the shrinking shelf space left for actual books. In Best Buy, I knew immediately that a specific documentary would not be among the DVDs, which are allotted a mere fraction of the space they once claimed.
The media stores are shifting from sales of content to sales of content delivery devices. What, one wonders, are we buying? It’s obscure enough to own a recording in electric flashes on a computer drive. What they’re pushing us toward — they, the pushers — is this insidious cloud, wherein we’ll own only rights (conditional rights) to content housed on their drives, which they can track and change and rescind. Will such rights be inheritable?
Along with the boxes of records came boxes (and boxes and boxes) of books, some no doubt that my grandfather received as inheritance. A better statement of the tangibility and durability of knowledge cannot be made than by a dictionary and “home reference library,” bound with flat-head screw bolts, that could double as a coffee table.
Among these boxes is a woven-covered copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, published in 1940 by Doubleday Doran, “Printed in the United States of America.”
This Edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was planned by Richard Ellis and produced under his direction. The illustrations by Lewis C. Daniel were reproduced in Similetone and Intaprint by the Zeese-Wilkinson Company of Long Island City. The paper was specially made for this new edition by the P. H. Glatfeller Company of Spring Grove, Pennsylvania. The Composition, Printing and Binding by The Haddon Craftsmen of Camden, New Jersey.
For sheer intrigue and mystery and pursuit of luck’s evidence of the profound, I stick my hand randomly into the pages and (not surprisingly) find it in the midst of “Song of Myself”:
I help myself to material and immaterial,
No guard can shut me off, no law prevent me.
How much longer? When we forget the stuffness of things, how much longer?