When it comes to the life of the ear, we all have our stories.
Because life tends to send us in circles rather than straight lines, we can sometimes catch glimpses of our earlier selves many years later. Look hard enough, and we see at least some recognizable landmarks that we revisited more often than we might think. It is those kinds of moments that can make it seem like a subject picks its author.
In my case, a pattern emerges early and turns into a persistent interest, a magnetic north, always in sight. A lifelong passion for sound began as one of many adolescent boys in the 1950s who built crystal sets and tried to get a scouting patches for knowing how to send and receive Morse code. It was clear even then that radio rivaled food and water as one of the essentials for sustenance. That first “cat’s whisker” receiver was one of many breadcrumbs dropped over the years, creating a meandering trail that rarely strayed from the peculiar geography of the auditory world. When I did wander off the path–as with a hand-me-down movie projector that rewarded my tinkering with frequent electrocutions–the message to stick to the machinery of sound was clearly received.
Words and music that found their way to the ear always held me in their grip, like the weekend nights spent listening to KOA radio’s live bands from Denver’s old Elitch Gardens. It had to be KOA, the 50,000-watt giant with a tower and building that stood majestic and completely alone out on the flat prairie. At night and under a cloudless sky, it was an Art Deco apparition of glowing amber windows next to its broadcast tower. Lore has it that the fountain in front was also cooling water that circulated through the bowels of the building to keep the huge transmitters from overheating. Fact was then stranger than fiction to know that the high voltage equipment inside came into its own at dusk, sending its clear-channel electrons deep into six other states.
If it wasn’t radio as a subject, it was a one-tube electronics kit purposefully miswired to become a nuisance transmitter sending the sound of 45s as well as a generous dose of interference to the rest the neighborhood. Then there were also a series of shortwave sets attached to a hundred feet of naked copper wire surreptitiously attached to a nearby utility pole. Hearing the BBC from London was one of the rewards.
This was the 1950s. New long-playing records joined the singles on a two-tone portable Symphonic phonograph. Ravel’s tonal fireworks and the Eastman School’s Frederick Fennell were favorites purloined from a modest household collection. A family friend and Fennell’s Mercury recording of Leroy Anderson’s music-Volume 2 combined to rouse an interest in the acoustic mayhem that was possible with drumming. Lessons and an assortment of school and private bands followed, producing a musician good enough to play in a statewide concert band, but one who also made more of a splash falling off a stage mid-performance than with mastery of the forty rudiments.
If I was just an ok percussionist, I was still swept along with the post-war generation that was completely captivated by the many riches of audio recording. Record browsing at Tower Records or Sam Goody was a Friday reward for surviving the week. Bargain label reissues of classical and jazz albums began to accumulate, as did recordings of European organs that puzzled college friends looking through my stash of vinyl for the latest from The Doors. Bach and Buxtehude learned to hang out on the shelf with Basie and Brubeck. It was all stuff that had to be heard, even if the playback equipment was a sorry collection from Radio Shack’s sale table.
I’ve written before about the “sound-centric” person. The label fits, and represents more Americans than we might think. Especially in these times, our easy access to recorded music is such a gift.