In 1958, I was five years old and I bought my first record. Actually, I forced my mother to buy it for me. My mother loved the Strauss waltzes, the Mendelsohn Violin Concerto as played by Yehudi Menuhin, and anything sung by the American coloratura Roberta Peters, especially her duet with Robert Merrill from Kiss Me Kate. We still had a number of 78s in the house, but they were slowly being replaced by LPs. I remember being fascinated by the Angel, RCA Victor, and Decca labels as the disks spun around and around on the record player. Die Fledermaus with von Karajan conducting. Excerpts from Donizetti. "Tales from the Vienna Woods."
My father was not a fan of vocal music. His idol was Artur Rubinstein. "You should see the strength in his hands, he can rip a phone book in half." Playing Chopin, of course. And the Beethoven sonatas. Like his father before him, my father also played the piano, tumultuously, with little regard for a composer's indicated dynamics. It was frightening and somewhat otherworldly to see him grimly set his jaw, then launch an attack on Chopin's Valse in G Flat, Opus 70. This was ¾ time with a vengeance. A girl once told me I get my expressiveness from him.
Our record player - it wasn't a stereo - had three speeds: 78, 45, and 33 ⅓ and sat in a big wooden cabinet we kept near the front door. The same cabinet that contained the record player also held a big vacuum tube radio tuner. Always tuned to WQXR or WNYC except when I was allowed to play with it. I liked songs the way Ray Charles sang them. I also liked loud drumming, The Coasters, and Lloyd Price. To their credit, my parents weren't fazed when their little blonde kid started gyrating around the living room to the sound of "I Got a Woman."
Still, my mother wouldn't get me the Ray Charles record I wanted. "Once in while on the radio is all right, but I won't have that music in my house on a permanent basis."
The Coasters were okay, though, with novelty numbers like "Yakety-Yak" and "Riot in Cell Block #9." You might say that our ignorance was so white. My mother and I bought that first record together at the Woolworth's up on Hempstead Turnpike. Keep Rockin' With The Coasters, an extended play 45, a Leiber-Stoller production, featuring four songs: "Yakety-Yak" (of course), "Framed," "Riot in Cell Block #9," and "Loop de Loop Mambo."
It's worth about two hundred bucks now. So what? You think I'd part with a fetish object like that for money? Since 1958 I've listened to music in many different formats -- LPs, EPs, 45s, cassettes, eight-track tapes, reel-to-reel tapes, microcassettes, quadraphonic vinyl, laser discs, CDs, minidiscs, and DVDs. Some of them were better than others, clearer, less fragile, easier to store, more or less complicated, cheaper, conferring greater status, whatever. Each demanded its own lingo and its own equipment, thereby requiring yet another switch in gear. In the end, though, it was the effin music that was important to me -- who cared if Bo Diddley was coming through an 8-track in a VW Hatchback, or Helen Merrill off a vinyl record through a Conrad-Johnson preamp and $5,000 speakers, or Dinu Lipatti on a CD reissue of an old 78? All of it was music, beautiful music. Sure, the format thing was kind of cool, but you knew it wasn't the main thing. The main thing was to listen and be moved, to come to your senses in a world of nonsense. No matter how.
Now, in addition to all the old formats I can't bring myself to let go of, I've got more than 10 gigabytes of music on my laptop. Including a 1.8 Mb file of the less-than-two minute song "Yakety Yak." Which still makes me shimmy and shake, even while seated, reading stories about the death of the printed book and the joys of electronic screens and how digitized text is gonna liberate us from the constraints of print. I think to myself, okay guys, don't get too hung up on format, leave that to The Free Market Boys. Listen to some music instead, and remember that true and beautiful language will outlive any format you dress it in.