Joseph E Bird

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Mark Helprin


Electronic vacuum tube

“…for in my radio with all its static I could hear, over and above Beethoven, the progress of a lightning storm a thousand miles away.” – from Prelude, by Mark Helprin.

Do you remember listening to the radio, late at night, and hearing that intermittent crackling?

Things have changed, of course, especially when it comes to how we listen to music.

Back in the day, my dad would occasionally tinker with our old-school television set when it would act up.  Televisons used to be big consoles that sat on the floor, and you would pull on a knob to turn it on, then wait while the vacuum tubes and the cathode ray tube (the tv screen) warmed up. Radios used to be like that, too, until the invention of the transistor. The glowing tubes went away.

Well, they’re back.

So are vinyl records and turntables. Audiophiles (if you play music using a turntable, you’re an audiophile) use words like “warmer” and “richer” to describe the musical experience they claim to hear.

I grew up listening to records on turntables, ranging from the cheap turntable in a cardboard suitcase that we played Beatles 45s on, to my college turntable that I bought after extensive research at all of the high fidelity stores that used to abound. As kids, we’d play a record so much that it would start sticking. So we taped pennies to the tone arm to hold the needle down so it wouldn’t jump the grooves in the record.

Of course with my high-end Yamaha turntable, the needle was referred to as a stylus and there was great debate over the merits of direct drive versus belt drive. I chose belt drive and was surprised to learn that the belt was little more than a rubber band. I wiped each record clean before and after playing with a special record cleaning pad and record cleaning solution, allowed a suitable amount of time between playing to allow the grooves to cool, and never, ever taped a penny to the tone arm.

Then along comes the CD. Digital music. Clear and perfect every time. No scratching from an overplayed record. If I wanted to play a song repeatedly, no problem. It was just as good as the first time.

Next, we started downloading music over the internet. But in order to keep files manageable, they need to be compressed. Some music quality is lost. This is when the audiophiles start to sing the blues.

Now we’ve come full circle in the quest for the ultimate stereo experience. Records, turntables, and vacuum tubes are back. And if I weren’t so cheap, I’d jump on the bandwagon, if for no other reason, than the fun of it.

But I can’t help but think that you’ll hear some crackle and pop from the stylus rumbling over the vinyl grooves, just like we used to, no matter how much you take care of your records.

I was reminded of all of this today as I was reading  Mark Helprin. His character was lamenting the bludgeoning march of progress and its effects on the simple things in life, and he says this:

“…for in my radio with all its static I could hear, over and above Beethoven, the progress of a lightning storm a thousand miles away.”

Maybe there’s truth in that.

Maybe a life is richer with a little static. And scratches. And imperfections.

Maybe perfect is too good.

photo credit: iStock Photography




True North

This is from Mark Helprin’s In Sunlight and In Shadow.  Make of it what you will.

“Since his arrival in the city on his first leave, he had used a compass, which enabled him to avoid the illusory paths worn by others.  You might walk west along a street or road that after gradually bending would point you north or east.  Things often did not run as they promised, go where they announced, or stay constant as one believed.”

Another good line.

“I was found in a shoebox, brought up by welders, and educated by wolves. Then I went to Harvard.”

Harry Copeland, from the novel In Sunlight and In Shadow, by Mark Helprin.

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