Last month, my stereo died. This might not seem like such a big deal. But when the pilot lamp in the receiver flickered and went out, an era ended.
Kids today don't understand how important to a man a stereo once was. In the 1950s, furniture-sized record players moved into the corner where the Victrola used to be, but it wasn't until the 1960s and '70s that the stereo really came into its own. Systems grew from one-piece jobs that looked like hat boxes to Stonehenge-type monuments that required union labor to move.
And they quickly surpassed--or at least challenged--the automobile as the ultimate teenage kingmaker. There were no personal computers or boom boxes in those days, and we weren't so flush with MiniDiscs, Walkmen and 800 channels that a stereo was just another electronic accouterment. A dude's system reflected his soul. A guy could be 40 years old, have acne scars, buck teeth and live with his mother, but if he had a system that shook your fillings loose, he was cool. The high point of a Saturday night was sitting in your room with your buddies, eardrums bleeding, trying to guess how long it would take before the neighbors called the cops.
That's the way it was in 1979, when I bought the behemoth that would change my life. I had worked all summer as a bag boy at Safeway, and blew it all in one trip to Circuit City. None of that yuppie all-in-one mini-system garbage for me. My stereo was a basic four-component system, the kind God intended us to listen to: two waist-high speakers, a turntable and a 40-watts-per-channel amplifier. The amp had no radio; back then radio was the pits, man, 'cause it was nothing but disco.
I spent all afternoon hooking up the speaker wires and balancing the tone arm just right. And at the end of the day, surrounded by empty boxes and Styrofoam packaging, I slowly lowered the needle on the smooth edge of a shiny vinyl album--Blondie's "Eat to the Beat."
Suddenly, everything else in my life evaporated--the female rejections, the awkward adolescent struggles to fit in, the crummy summer jobs. Blondie was in my room. The drums rattled the soda cans on my dresser and the guitars drove the squirrels off the roof. Debbie Harry was crooning in my ear. I had become a man.
Over the years, that stereo meant as much to me as any human being. It was the friend I spent my afternoons with after school. It was the soundtrack to my first crush. (I still think of her when I hear Culture Club.) Through high school and college, it withstood relentless abuse: beer assaults, cigarette burns, blown circuits. Only from my friends, of course, not me. I always treated my system like a lady. I carefully picked dust out of the amp, kept replacement fuses handy, polished the speaker cabinets. When I had to move, it was like bringing quadruplets home from the hospital: I would carefully wedge the speakers between the car's front and back seats, gently place the amp on the floor and nestle the fragile turntable on the front seat beside me.
My stereo introduced me to the bands that would influence me the most: the Replacements, the Who, the Church, New Order. It went to college with me in the 1980s, and made the transition when I discovered jazz in the '90s. By then electronic downsizing had begun, but despite the advent of the microchip and the Walkman, I refused to trade in my old reliable. She stayed by my side, a defiant colossus among Lilliputians. I did add a CD player a few years ago, but that was my only major concession to progress.
Then last month I was playing Duke Ellington when the dot of green light in the amplifier dimmed, then vanished. The sound died, and there was the stench of burnt metal in the air. I knew instantly that this was it. I was surprised that the stereo hadn't kicked during the assault of AC/DC or Metallica--that she had chosen to quietly drift off during one of Duke's ballads. But then I was filled with admiration. What a classy way to go.
When I began shopping for a new system, I quickly learned that the Big Stereo Age had ended. Sure, you can still get speakers tall enough to go on the rides at King's Dominion, but they don't dominate the stores the way they used to. Now everything is small. It seems that Americans have acquired so much high-tech stuff--DVD players, theater-vision screens, computers, hand-held games--that the stereo has become an afterthought. There's no space for it.
Eventually I ordered a Bose mini-system--you know, one of those units about the size of a shoe box. Just looking at it made me depressed. But I didn't have it in me to get another monster system, spend all afternoon connecting it, then have to hire workers every time I had to move it. I was just too tired, and I wasn't even sure I'd understand the new technical language when I tried to assemble the thing.
There has been a lot written the past few years about the "feminization" of everything--work, home, school, America itself. Movies like "Fight Club" depict a world of emasculated males so cut off from their primal instincts that they have to beat each other senseless to feel something. That's the world I felt I was entering when the tiny new "system" arrived. I was trading in my pile-driving Humvee for a moped.
But then something funny happened. I plugged it in and popped in John Coltrane's "Blue Train," and it sounded incredible. It had been 20 years since I'd bought a stereo, and more than 10 since I had really listened to a new system (my friends had given up woofers for diapers). I had heard that the industry was doing remarkable things getting sound out of small objects. But this was amazing. It sounded as good as Blondie had in 1979.
Suddenly, I felt a surge of optimism. So what if I wasn't young anymore? Maybe, like the new white unit on my dresser, I was just becoming sleeker and more stylish, less ostentatious but with more depth. After all, what has more spiritual and sensual richness--Mtley Cre or Miles Davis?
Besides, this time around--and at the decibel level of good jazz--I don't have to worry about people calling the cops.
Mark Gauvreau Judge, a contributing writer to New York Press, is the author of the forthcoming "The Home of Happy Feet: Swing and American Culture" (Spence).