So again I sit here with a cup of green tea at Pushcart Coffee in the Chelsea district of Manhattan, oh, NYC, The Capital swarming with people trading in, and are consumed by, Das Kapital. I am not going to get on a Marxian (or in our era, Piketty-esque) pulpit to preach about inequality in the distribution of wealth: because I can’t. My day job involves my zealous participation in the marketplace (*cough* sellout *cough cough*), and this is my morning respite, a routine before I head into the belly of Monstro. Given my schedule, this moment here – hot green tea in a white paper cup, a slant of sunlight, a glimpse of passersby walking their dogs – is the moment when I feel most keenly blessed by the simple extravagance of life. In my ears, now, as if on cue: a soundtrack marking my good fortune, courtesy of my pedestrian Sony SBH-80 bluetooth earbuds and Alina Ibragimova’s violin cresting along the swelling lines of Ysaÿe through my decidedly non-audiophile Galaxy Note 4. The heart fills at the small, perfected fragment of this life.
Last year, I wrote a post in The High Fidelity Report to detail a crisis I’d undergone in 2010, when following a bar fight, I suffered a skull fracture and promptly entered into coma for a few days. When I emerged out of the coma, the brain clot miraculously having resolved itself, my brush with death seemed not only an ostensible life v. death crisis, but a more fundamental call to change: to get rid of all that was superfluous to my life. I’d especially felt ashamed about my obsession with audio gear, and had promptly sold off most of my gear. Still, there were pieces I couldn’t bear to part with, my Leben CS600 integrated amplifier, various phono cartridges, tonearms and my record collection (a silly vanity to hold on to these, as I sold off my pretty pretty turntable, the OMA La Platine Verdier which my friend Jonathan Weiss had crafted into a sonic and visual object of art nonpareil).
Something wonderful happened in terms of my listening life following my fire sale. I learned simplicity. Listening to music again without a second thought to the audio machina had the paradoxical effect of better defining what my preferences are, in terms of how I hear. Gone, also, was the mild background anxiety which attends nearly anyone following the state and trend of audio gear. When the need naturally arose to finally acquire loudspeakers again, it happened organically through friendship, via an old gentleman named Bob from Indiana. Bob was a retired engineer for a college radio station, WBAA, a public radio station run by Purdue University. He and I had kept up a routine email correspondence over the previous few months about vintage RCA loudspeakers. He had sold his RCA LC1As in original cabinets from the 50s, which Art Dudley incidentally listed in his Listening column as one of the 5 vintage loudspeakers to hear before you die, but the winning e-Bay bidder from Russia reneged on paying, and Bob asked if I was interested in buying the speakers. I told him I couldn’t pay anywhere near the winning bid, but he told me that it was okay, he’d rather have me take them since he didn’t want to sell to a hoarding collector, sold them to me at a ridiculously low price.
Bob, well in his 70s, had both his hips replaced with titanium counterparts. But despite his age and health issues, he insisted on driving the speakers in himself rather than trusting the asshats at UPS, who’d damage the antique cabinets, no doubt. So he drove the speakers all the way from Indiana to my apartment in Manhattan with his grandson, the LC1As and cabinets in the back of his Honda CRV. He had thin white hair, sparsely populated on his head. Pale but red skin, a permanent smile on his face. He hobbled around in his surgically repaired hips. When he saw me in person, he was startled because he’d assumed all along from our correspondences that I was white. He told me that he liked Chinese food and Japanese teppan but detested how the Thai people use peanuts in their cuisine. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was Korean-American. Bob wasn’t a racist by any means, however, was in fact beautifully open-hearted. He told me stories about the days when he used to be an elevator technician (immediately hearkening to my mind: Colson Whitehead’s fantastic first novel, The Intuitionist), and shared with me anecdotes about his uncle who had worked in a crew that had built the Lincoln Tunnel. I insisted on buying him and his grandson dinner, but he had to leave before dusk and darkness set in, so that he could read his TomTom GPS gadget well enough to navigate out of the city. Before leaving, he left me a DVD and a bible promulgating the faith of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and told me to call him, to let him know what I thought. Then he left, enough light in the day remaining, the horizon line not yet crimson.
So this is how I have been listening to music for the past five years. My sweet Leben CS600 driving Bob’s RCA LC1As. Music is fed from a scratched-up iPod Classic, frankenstein’d as iMod by the redoubtable wizardry of Vinnie Rossi (which I carried with me to the office to hook up to the wonderful but now out-of-production ALO Audio Amphora headphone amplifier so that I could listen to Schubert when I’m analyzing hostile takeovers). This is all. Yet this humble set-up allows me so much music filled with surfeit of incandescence and stunning inner light. Moreover,each listening moment allows memories to breathe, recalls moments when I spoke about the Leben with John Devore or Jonathan Halpern, or the wonderful generosity of spirit and mad scientist audio geekery that infected anything Vinnie Rossi or Ken Ball ever said. And every time I listen to music in my living room, I’ll think of Bob, the retired radio station engineer from Indiana whose uncle worked on the Lincoln Tunnel, even long after the day when he finally passes away, though of course I wish he could live for a grateful long while.
This, in the end, is what I’m trying to tell you: during a long hiatus from audio, I’ve learned to listen to music again with equanimity, only after I learned that audio, at least for me, is just a record of a personal history. Of relationships. That there is a reason why my LC1As are named Bob. That whatever I write in this space will only and merely be a continuation of this narrative. That if I happen to write about a piece of gear in this space, I do so in the spirit of feuilletonist writing his ephemeral impressions on a flimsy palimpsest of history. The good Lord knows there are already many proper audio reviewers who write proper gear reviews, so at the very least, I can promise you that you won’t be reading the phrase “toe-tapping” here nor a “best XXX ever” proclamation proclaimed in this space ad nauseum. I only wish to speak about what I love and hear, in mere human language and devotion, regardless of any good taste or sense, without judgment as to what should be the Standard or the Reference. When discussing the German painter Gerhard Richter’s “duplication” of Titian’s Annunciation, art historian Robert Storr asked Richter why, in the midst of painting abstracts, he began to copy Titian of all people. Richter replied, that it was for the assertion of freedom, and continued –
Why shouldn’t I paint like this and who could tell me not to? And then the affirmation was naturally there, the wish to paint paintings as beautiful as those by Caspar David Friedrich, to claim that this time is not lost but possible, that we need it, and that it is good. And it was a polemic against modern art, against tin art, against “wild art” and for freedom, that I could do whatever I wanted to.
This much, I believe. See you around.