Not long after my father died, my mother bought a brand-new bright-red Toyota Celica GT. She also started exercising regularly—a mile a day in the pool—and spent more time shopping for clothes. At the time we were renting a small flat in a working-class neighborhood on Milwaukee's South Side. The way my mother tells it, the other women on the block were kind to her at first, she being a young, recently widowed single mother. But then, out of the blue, they turned cold and unfriendly. When my mother finally asked what had caused the change in tenor, she was sternly told that it had been decided—as if by committee—that she was enjoying herself too much, that it didn’t seem like she was actually mourning the loss of her husband. In short, they felt she was too happy.
Freud called the near-universal human experience of not being able to retrieve any piece of episodic memory before a certain stage of cognitive development (generally ages 2-4) childhood amnesia. Because of this neurological quirk, my earliest memories are not of my father’s battle with cancer or his subsequent death, but rather the period of time that followed. As much as I wish I had more vivid memories of my father, it’s sort of a veiled blessing that my brain didn’t hit the metaphorical RECORD button until after the potentially traumatizing events had passed.
And so, my earliest memories are of that period on the South Side, after my father died, when I was four or five. These are the fuzzy, filmic memories of the early childhood sort. I remember, for example, the sound of my mother crying through the bathroom door. I remember trying to make her laugh to stop her from crying, and then not being able to tell if she was laughing or crying and asking, “are you laughing or crying?”
I also remember the Celica. I remember the sunroof and the tape deck and the speakers. I remember driving to the health club. Driving to department stores. Driving to the lake. Driving to the houses of relatives out in the county. It was a fast car and my mother was not a slow driver. I have more than a couple memories of being pulled over. More than a couple where she explains our situation to the cop, begins to sob, and then, like magic, we’re let off with just a warning. Then we’re driving again, tears dry, a tape blasting through the stereo, cutting across the vast flatness of the glaciated upper Midwest in that beautiful red machine.
After college, my then girlfriend (now wife), Zoe, and I sold most of our things, packed our camping gear into a corroding 1995 Toyota Corolla, and set out on an indefinite roadtrip. We drove down the California coast. We traced a big loop through the Southwest. We cut a straight West-East vector across Texas and the Deep South that terminated at US-1, which we then followed all the way down the Florida Keys archipelago, until we reached the literal end of the road, Mile Marker 0, on the weird little tropical island, Key West. Our car only played cassettes, and so we spent the whole trip collecting tapes. At ten cents a pop, you can afford to buy an album for just one song or just one listen. We would buy a tape at a thrift shop in one town and, when we got sick of it, donate it to a different thrift shop in a different town and replace it with something new.
I don’t remember where exactly we found Tracy Chapman’s eponymous debut. It could have been anywhere. The album sold over a million copies within two weeks of its release in 1988, which was just about the peak of the compact cassette’s dominance. This is to say that the odds of finding Tracy Chapman on the cassette shelf of any given thrift store are pretty good. I bought the album because it was the soundtrack to my mom’s Celica, because my earliest memory of a cassette is holding the case and trying to marry the picture of Chapman’s face to the rich voice playing from the car’s speakers.
I spent a recent afternoon at Portland’s central library, reeling through microfilm, trying to find a review of the Nakamichi RX-505, the tape deck that I’ve been using for the last few years. I specifically wanted to see how the unidirectional auto reverse mechanism was originally received. This is how the July, 1984, issue of Audio describes the mechanism in question:
The big difference between other decks is that the transport does not reverse direction, instead the cassette drawer moves out, the carrier rotates 180°, and the drawer moves back in, seating the cassette for playing or recording its other side. It’s really a mechanism of what the user usually does, taking the tape out and turning it around to use the other side.
I am not going to weigh in on the Analog v. Digital Debate. Not now, at least. I will say, though, that I am partial to two-sided media. An album, regardless of format, is a collection of songs, but LPs and cassettes necessarily divide an album into two separate groups, two distinct movements. The advent of auto reverse eliminated the need to remove the cassette and flip it over, but it also eliminated the experience of the physical delineation between Side A and Side B. From a technical perspective, the conventional auto reverse mechanism also compromised audio fidelity, causing subtle azimuth misalignments that could introduce distortion. The 505’s complex flipper mechanism was an attempt to introduce the convenience of auto reverse without compromising sound quality. It’s hubristic, maybe even absurd, but it’s also kind of wonderful.
To me its fundamental idea suggests an ethos of better living through consumer technology that feels very much of its time (the 1980s) and of its country of origin (Japan).The flipside is that the sort of consumerism that spawned this class of luxury electronics seemed to have had no foresight. This sort of device seems to blatantly ignore one of the more obvious implications of entropy: things wear out, stuff breaks, especially if there are a lot of moving parts.
I found my RX-505 at a rummage sale near Lake Tahoe while I was on vacation a few years ago. It was broken, and there was no price tag on it, so I offered $5 to the lady with the cash box, and she reluctantly accepted. The motorized carrier drawer was stuck open, and when I got it back to the vacation rental and opened it up, I saw that all of the belts were snapped. It was a pain, but I managed to get the unit back home to Washington in one piece, only to find out that the RX-505, with its complicated flipper mechanism, is the sort of thing that can only really be repaired by an experienced professional, who, as I found out, are pretty fucking hard to find.
In Anne Carson’s beautiful and strange meditation “Essay on What I Think About The Most,” she, in free verse, elucidates Aristotle’s theory of metaphor as mistake:
Aristotle says that metaphor causes the mind to experience itself
in the act of making a mistake.
He pictures the mind moving along a plain surface of ordinary language
when suddenly that surface breaks or complicates.
At first it looks odd, contradictory or wrong.
Then it makes sense.
Carson believes in the paradoxical idea of a “true mistake.”
We talk about audio equipment in terms of precise scientific metrics: frequency response, signal-to-noise ratio, sampling rate, wow, flutter, etc., but the actual listening experience is well with within the realm of metaphysics. The signal chain works like this: information (stored as an analog or digital recording) is converted into an electrical signal via your playback device, which is then augmented through an amplifier and converted into mechanical energy (sound) via speakers. All of this, of course, is in service to our perception. It is all for the sort of magic that happens in our minds when the sound vibrates our eardrums and our auditory nerves subsequently send impulses to our brains.
This information-to-eardrum delivery system is called a hi-fi, an abbreviation of the phrase “high fidelity.” The word fidelity comes from the latin fides, which means faith. What is immediately striking to me is that the fidelity or faith lies in the equipment, the inanimate stuff. As a metaphor, I think this is one of those Aristotelian true mistakes. Music is a sort of secular religion—ineffable, ephemeral, sublime. We need icons, temples, idols, and physical relics to embody our faith.
It took months of weekly phone calls to an audio service technician named John before he finally agreed to fix my Nakamichi. “I’ve been fighting with those decks for years,” he told me. “Call back next week. I don’t have time right now.” His shop was on the outskirts of Seattle, a two-hour drive from my apartment. From the outside, you would think that Northwest Audio Service had gone out of business a long time ago. The storefront is sandwiched between a wheelchair rental store and a shop called “The Purple Store,” and the only signage is a piece paper taped to the inside of the window and some sad vinyl letters. The inside is like a cross between a museum and a junk yard. Top-of-the-line tube amps sit unassumingly beside bottom-of-the-line all-in-one CD systems.
John is the sort of person my parents would call a “real character.” I would guess he is in his 60s. He wears coke-bottle glasses and tells long rambling stories that take strange free-associative turns and make it nearly impossible to have any sort of interaction with him in less than a half hour. When he finally agreed to take my RX-505, it sat on his bench untouched for months. I called every week to check in, and every week we would talk for no less than 30 minutes about something unrelated to my tape deck and then he’d tell me to call back next week.
I finally told him with all the sternness I could muster that it had been long enough, that I was driving down to Seattle in a couple days, and would he please, please have it done by then. “I’ll try,” he said. When the day came, I spent the afternoon running errands around town, more or less killing time, and when he finally called in the early evening I was in disbelief. “It’s ready,” he said with uncharacteristic brevity. “Come and get it.”
“Fast Car,” the most successful single on Tracy Chapman (and Chapman’s most successful single to date) follows a young woman from adolescence through adulthood. In the first verse, she is abandoned by her mother, and forced by circumstance to drop out of school and support her alcoholic father. She saves her money and dreams of escaping to the city with her lover. The second verse finds her with a better job, and though her lover is still unemployed, she is confident that things will get better. By the third verse, she has a job that “pays all our bills” but laments to her lover, “You stay out drinking late at the bar/see more of your friends than you do of your kids.” Between each verse, the song’s refrain is an ode to the lover’s fast car—it’s a big and celebratory chorus and has a sort of euphoria that stands out in striking contrast to the song’s larger narrative arc.
When my wife and I recently listened to Tracy Chapman on our Nakamichi RX-505, we were struck by the brilliant harmony between content and form in “Fast Car.” The syllabic meter of the chorus begins slowly then builds to rapid-fire lyrics (“city lights lay out before us/and your arm felt nice wrapped ‘round my shoulder”) that are reminiscent of the accelerating chug of an engine revving. That steady acceleration creates a sort of tension, but also builds inertia, and the inertial energy is then channeled into a simple one-letter, one-syllable word, I, which floats across a full bar, hits three notes, and affects a sort of weightlessness.
While “Fast Car” reminds us of the weightlessness of movement, it also reminds us that sadness has weight. The word sadness itself comes from the Old English, sæd, meaning “sated, weary,” or “heavy, dense.” Similarly (and more intuitively), depression comes from the Latin depremire, which means to press down. This is related antithetically, I think, to the pleasure that can be brought on by movement, the transcendence it can bring in the face of overwhelming sadness.
I wonder if the engineers at Nakamichi had this pleasure in mind when they were designing the RX-505, or if it was something that emerged unexpectedly in their pursuit of fidelity. Either way, when Side A ends, the carrier drawer pops open, the tape flips swiftly to Side B, and the drawer retracts. It’s all in a flash of movement, a light and tiny thrill.