Magnetos & Compass Points

At my brother's garage I see a circular piece of what I assume to be cast iron or steel with bent pieces of metal radiating out from a central core. Next to it is a magnetic compass he bought at a camping store. The woman at the register said, "you know, there's an app on your phone that's easier and probably more accurate than this thing." My brother said it wasn't for finding his way. It's to help him work on one of his Model-T Fords. The bent pieces radiating from the core are magnets each with opposite polarity from the ones next to it. To know what's what, he uses the compass. I picked up the compass and watched the needle swing north to south as I moved from one magnet to the next. I smiled and kept moving back and forth around that circle, the act of it delighting and pulling me.

We were at my brother's garage because my 2010 Prius had gone 6,500 miles since I had bought it and I've no idea when it last had the oil changed. Synthetic oil lasts 10,000 miles but I hate leaving things up to chance and don't at all trust that the dealer (ugh, the dealer) changed the oil when I bought it. At 6,500 miles, it was close to time and now I get to do things right.

I could have taken it to an oil change place or, God forbid, the dealer, but I dislike paying upwards of ninety dollars for an oil change when my brother has a full-service garage complete with a lift. We bought five quarts of synthetic and a filter on sale for thirty-three dollars and drove to his garage, talking about this and that as we tend to do.

Driving the car onto the lift, figuring out where the filter might be and how to remove it, lifting the car and draining the oil, all these things were tactile, physical, literally within reach and we did them together. The oil warmed and stained my hands. The filter cover had to be persuaded with a hammer and punch worked carefully so as to loosen but not damage the thing. We stood beneath the car, a lead-lamp on a cord lighting the way for our failing eyes, fetching tools for one another, figuring things out. We kept talking too.

My father came up in the conversation often, as he does in the garage he loved and where his cars still reside. Banging with a hammer sounded like him. The oil smelled like him. The place is inhabited by his friendly, invisible, silent ghost. And there were my brother and me, imitations of the old man, newer models working with his tools and in his ways.

After we lowered the lift, refilled the oil, ran the engine, and checked the levels, my brother wanted to move cars around to line up his Model-T Fords and have access to the cars he was likely to drive over the next few weeks. We moved cars out of the garage, rolled the un-engined frame of a Model-T by pushing it around, and parked things where he wanted them to go. The whole thing was an exercise in joy, the simple kind that most people call contentment but which was, for me, too filled with wonder to leave with such a bland name. Afterward we stood talking and admiring the garage, the cars, the work of a garage.

As we made to leave, I took another look at the magnets and the compass. I touched a magnet as if to discern the direction of its pull. No such luck, but it exerted a whole other kind of pull on me, into the past, sure, but also forward, leading me where I'm meant to go. At least that's exactly how it felt.

Ways Of Hearing, Damon Krukowski

A quick book deserves at least a quick post. Damon Krukowski's brief Ways Of Hearing is the companion to the podcast of the same name which I should get around to hearing. But here's the thing: I don't like sitting still for podcasts. I'll sit and read, but for a podcast I need a commute or other ride and, for better and worse, I have none. If I could get my podcasts on paper, that would be just ducky.

As to the matter of the book ("Words, words, words."), it begins this way:

The first record I made was all analog. It wasn't a choice — that's just how it was done in the 80s. My friends and I lived in an all-analog world. There were no computers in our lives.

And it ends like this: (Spoilers! No, not really.)

...my aim has been to call attention to aspects of sound we may not always think about. You might say, I've been trying to highlight different parts of the noise around us.

And that's because it's my hope that by listening to a wider swath of noise, we might discover more about what is meaningful signal for each of us. And how we might best share those signals with one another.

Between all that is a discussion of how digital eliminates all that analog noise and strips much of the experience of living from the world. If you remember using an old phone, probably hung on the wall of your kitchen, you'll grok this easily. Recall how on that old phone you never wondered if someone was still on the line. You heard their dog's bark, music playing on their radio, a truck passing their open window, and maybe their breathing (especially if it was a late-night call was to your love).

Now switch to your iPhone or Android. None of that noise comes through because it was decided that we only want the signal. Noise was all filtered out such that at the slightest pause in conversation, we wonder, is anyone still there?

Noise is necessary. Noise is good. It's part of what appeals about records. It's why a handwritten note beats the hell out of an email. It's why we go out to dinner with friends. In the noise is humanity. The real world is analog noise much more than it is digital signal.

At that dinner party with friends, you're paying attention to the friend speaking to you. All the other conversations at the table and across the restaurant are noise. You've chosen to focus, to make this one person the signal in all that noise.

Then your wife, husband, daughter, or son, catches your eye. Their signal rises to the top of your attention, the rest becomes noise. That person you love leans in and says something low, a signal only for you, a joke the two of you share. You smile. More signal chosen amidst all the noise. Even when you turn to some other signal, the noise of love permeates your spectacular analog world.

That's the way I want to go about hearing.

Oh, and Krukowski's previous book The New Analog is perhaps even better. The guy is brilliant. Go get 'em.

Western Stars, Bruce Springsteen

For a while it has been mostly used vinyl, old records, that I've been after. Then a couple months ago my friend and I went to Albany for a show, stopped into Last Vestige Records, and I went through every record in the rock and jazz sections twice but couldn't find a single one to buy. Some of that is due to luck — there's no telling what I'll find on any given day — but a lot of it has to do with having built out my collection to the point at which the used albums I might want are too pricey and rare. There's just not that many old albums I need right away. Sure, I'll find some time to time as I have since that trip to Last Vestige, but I've reached a kind of tipping point.

This morning I'm listening to Bruce Springsteen's Western Stars on my turntable and thinking that it is one of several newly-released albums I've bought lately. There was Brad Mehldau's spectacular Finding Gabriel (which seems to have been mastered much better for vinyl and CD than it was for streaming), and I've preordered Mehldau's Live In Tokyo which is one of my top five desert island albums. There have been others and more are on the way. This is the way to listen to new music.

I stream these albums too. Or at least, I do until I buy the records and they come with an MP3 download. Then I copy the MP3 to my computer, spare hard drive, and phone so that I'm listening to something I bought. (I'll stream them too just to make the streaming company pay the artist a cent and a half or so, but I prefer to play the copy I own.) Streaming is fine. I'm not going to complain about something so convenient, but today I walked into The Sound Garden, grabbed Springsteen's Western Stars out of a display right up front, talked with the clerk about the album, drove home, put the album on the turntable and sat down to listen. My daughter rode with me to the record store and looked at stickers and t-shirts while I paid for Bruce's album. We talked about prom and stopped for coffee. Streaming's fine, but doesn't touch this kind of experience.

I just finished side D of Western Stars, pulled the album from the turntable and put side A back on. I'll listen again and again and again because it sounds and feels so good. Anyone who isn't raving about this album isn't listening. Or maybe they're listening to the stream and just aren't paying attention. Digital can have that effect on a person. Even as I'm typing this, I pause and savor what's playing. It's so good I have to stop writing now and go listen. I'm curious: What album will be next? Will it be old or new? Who is it going to be and where will I be when I find it? How will I be feeling when I let it spin for the first time? I wonder all these things, but for now this album is about all I need and answers all the questions I need to ask.

Digital Lost & Analog Found

I'm listening to Glen Campbell. Yes, Glen Campbell. Yes, I'm old. Yes, it's good, good stuff. And yes, it's on a vinyl record I bought, own outright, and, if you have a turntable, live nearby, and seem trustworthy, I can loan it to you without any corporation knowing about it. No breaches of privacy. No question about the format remaining compatible or the company going out of business. No user agreement forcing me into binding arbitration if I share the thing. Oh, and I paid for it once and never will again. Crazy stuff, really it is.

This week there was a report about a fire destroying a bunch of old recordings and master tapes. Depressing. Losing art saddens to me. My record collection could go that way if disaster strikes our house. My old record collection suffered the disaster of the CD, Napster, iTunes, streaming, and me selling all of them for a pittance at a garage sale. I wasn't playing them then and hadn't in years. These things happen. I'm not beating myself up. And I'm hoping the house won't catch fire.

I've been thinking about old writing files I've stored in the cloud or on hard drives. I still have things I typed at Clarkson University in 1987. They were written in an editor that saved things as text files. I can still open those with almost anything. By 1988 I was writing with an IBM word processor and, unless I'm willing to do a ton of work or pay some money, those files are gone forever. Paper is bulky and can catch fire, but it's a format that doesn't go out of style no matter how much the electronics industry has been trying to make it go away. There are reasons to hang onto the old ways of doing things.

Sometimes it's not disaster or the march of progress that ruins things. MySpace deleted millions of files from their service. All that music is gone. Corporate decision making, something we can always count on to do what's best and right. Yep.

This weekend I tried resurrecting an old iPod using iTunes. I found out that some of the songs I "bought" from Apple aren't playable without my Apple ID, something I deleted a few years ago. Oh well. I thought I owned those things. Not so much. Is it any wonder I buy records now?

This weekend I downloaded a non-streaming music app for my phone. It only plays music I own, downloaded to the phone. I like it so far. It works whether or not I'm connected to a data stream and doesn't tell anyone what I've listened to so I can be hit with ads. It's no turntable and amp, but those things are pretty tough to carry on a walk or play in the car.

Everything for sale seems only to be for rent. I don't like renting. Sure, ownership is a pain when things break down. Our house needs a roof, my amp has to be repaired, the car needs new tires. Still, these things are mine andhave more value to me than if they were rented or owned by someone else whom I pay in money, data, and the abdication of my privacy.

One of the computers belonging to a member of the band Radiohead was hacked and the bastards stole demo tapes the band had made. The thieves set a ransom and the band responded by releasing the tapes for a small fee they are donating to charity. Good for them and screw those thieves. I don't care if Radiohead has a lot of money. They probably do and I'm happy for artists to make that kind of money. They don't need to be punished for it. The thieves on the other hand should be drowned in a deep part of the ocean. And we should be wary of the progress around us. Nothing is safe online. Nothing stored online is private. Sigh.

Networks can always be hacked. File systems go out of date. Electronic storage breaks down. Just last weekend Google's servers failed on the East Coast. If Google can come as close to melt down as Nine Mile Point, how far are we from Chernobyl?

My records wouldn't survive a fire, but they survive time and the whimsy of the next new thing. Just like Glen Campbell. I swear, this guy still sounds just absolutely great. He's gentle as hell on my mind. Come on over. I'll lend you the album.