Friday, February 22, 2008


It's been over a year since I first received an iPod and I can attest to its influence on my life. I walk a fair amount, even if it's only the well-trodden and not very varied streets that lead into town, and the existence of this lightweight means of trucking a substantial collection of music with me on any given walk has cut considerably into the boredom factor. It's 20-25 minutes on foot from my house to the library area of campus and that makes for a good stretch of the legs and a good stretch of listening. Fun are the times when I'm not walking into town for any particular reason and can immediately turn around and head back, by a slightly different route, without ever breaking stride or stopping the music.

Choice of music has always been a big part of my day anyway. Though usually it's only the choice of what will constitute "background" as I work at my desk. I use the term "background" advisedly -- it would be better to say "what will constitute surroundings," but that might seem an odd idea. Sure, the music is used to drown out any distracting sounds which might annoy me (it doesn't always work, and I live in an area that is, for the most part, remarkably quiet -- or rather it's worth remarking when it isn't quiet), but, more to the point, it's to form a kind of protective mental cocoon of familiar ambience. And I've noticed that the iPod -- thanks to those odd little things called mp3s -- has started to influence the ambience, as it were.

Time was, arranging songs for the purposes of playback was a regular creative activity. I have mix tapes that go back to Feb. 1978 -- 30 years ago this month, it just now occurs to me -- when I first acquired a Teac tape deck and set about to put together collections of songs for nocturnal drives. My neighborhood to Philadelphia was about an hour in those days, and music while covering distance was de rigueur. Eventually, round about that fabled summer of '78, the tapes started to appear autobiographical to their maker, a conceit that I more or less indulged for the next 21 years, till, in the summer of '99 and my 40th birthday, I brought "the saga" to an end. But didn't stop making tapes. By then my tape-making had gone well-beyond my own "story" to include a steady series for my younger brothers and another for my daughter. The tape-making addiction couldn't be satisfied by the exigencies of making tapes for my own listening, since those required a certain "tell it like it is" mentality in picking songs. Tapes for others could be motivated by simply wanting to give someone else certain tunes, but even so, surprising associative packages were sometimes created, 45 minutes -- generally 11 songs -- per side.

I was satisfied with that format. I liked having two "openings" and two "endings," just like the A and B side of "long-playing" (ha!) albums, of roughly 20 minutes a side. Fact was, the brevity of the vinyl LPs made tape-making seem so spacious and "epic" in its sweep. All that was to change with CDs which often were upwards of 60 minutes in length. Couldn't fit on a 45 min. tape side, and thus began the decline in the fortunes of tape. Soon (enough) it was possible to just burn copies of CDs, no need to tape them. But that fact didn't help the tape-making addict -- because burning playlists has precious little in common with the joys of taping a selection of songs, DJ like, in a little performative burst which -- no matter how long it actually takes -- amount to 90-minute movies for your ears. A goodly length, indeed.

My daughter -- who by the time I ended the "saga" was also a fairly dedicated tape-maker, being (I'm proud to say), the only person I've been able to involve regularly in tape trade-offs with me (Some people play chess or backgammon together. We make tapes.) -- was amused by my alteration of the title of Radiohead's landmark CD, Ok, Computer to "Screw U, Computer." Because there's no telling how many discs refused for some reason or other to be burned, or to be ripped, or whatever. And there's no telling how many times the wrong "click" has undone what had been done, or selected what was not meant to be selected. I have enjoyed cracking CDs in half. I have deposited offending discs in my garbage can beneath heaps of coffee grounds with a kind of savage glee. I have pummeled chair cushions rather than stick my fist through the monitor, or, "do like Elvis did and shoot the damn thing out." The monitor is not to blame, surely. But it is vulnerable. Though I do admit to the occasional fantasy of watching -- in slow motion playback -- what a shotgun blast would do to the hard-drive.

All of which is to say that I was the type who would resist iPod. My daughter still doesn't have one, so close does the acorn sometimes drop. But ol' Dad has joined the 21st century because he managed to outlast the 20th with (maybe) about the same amount of years in each, so what the fuck. And mirabile dictu, the length of playlists on iPod are limited only by one's patience in compiling them. My patience so far hasn't extended to trying to tamper with recording levels -- which used to be fairly hands-on in the old magnetic tape days when Nakamichis walked the earth, younglings -- and so I don't feel I have the utter carte blanche freedom tape-making gave -- O for the days when even tape-to-tape duping via Nakamichi and his lesser cousin Yamaha was not only manipulable but resulted in precious little drop in quality to the listening human ear. But the listening ear has grown accustomed to digital sound, just as its owner has grown to accept that the versions of things as provided by computers -- images, information, relationships -- are, if lacking in roundedness and sensuality, here to stay, at least until some "crash" moment not yet to be foreseen.

Which is also to say that the computer, which puts music on my iPod, also lets me compile mp3s on disc which, like the one I'm hearing as I write this, can stretch for nearly 10 hours. This disc is for my god-daughter and charts lots of music from the '80s which she missed out on by not being born till '89. And -- I won't detail the bursts of foul epithets that could be heard while I tried to get my blythe laptop and its minion iTunes to do what I wanted them to do -- while playing it back I had occasion to think what this format indicates:

First of all, when writing I sometimes found that even a 5 disc changer annoyed me by ending when I wanted it to keep going. And the iPod playlists I've made rarely go beyond 2-3 hours, occasionally 4, which is to say, they're generally shorter than 5 CDs played in succession. But mp3 discs can create a surround for all the hours of the day. Continuous. Which might bode well for that next writing project, given that my writing projects, grace à l'ordinateur, tend to just go on endlessly in virtual, computer-constituted reality. Of course, because I refuse to let Ms IBM be my music source (even though it's filling that role today), I'd have to invest in a mp3-playing CD player...

Second of all, think of the ten hour drive or ten hour train-ride or ten hour plane-flight, or even ten hour hike . . .

As the people here grow colder
I turn to my computer
And spend my evenings with it
Like a friend.
--Kate Bush, "Deeper Understanding" (1989)

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