Jim Anderson plays selected cuts from Patricia Barber's Modern Cool at the New York Audio Show.
No matter what kind of music you prefer, we all have that one favorite act that was good enough to get on the major label merry-go-round, but for whatever reason, never quite grabbed hold of the brass ring, never had that breakthrough that leads to the Truly Big Time.
For me, that act was an early '90s pop-punk band called Too Much Joy, and while most of their music was loud, funny and too smart for its own good, the group had one wildly uncharacteristic, earnest ballad, “In Perpetuity” (See? Too smart for their own good—like you’d ever hear a title like that on the radio). Disguised as a love song, it was actually about their terrible record contract—and experiencing music that truly moves you.
The track starts with the narrator being astounded as he hears a man perform a wonderful song, and by the end, he’s mulling the fact that he’s heard the song many times since but would do pretty much anything to hear it “for the first time, just one more time.” No matter how good the later performances might be, they’ll never have the impact of that first moment of musical enlightenment.
I had a musical first impression one Saturday in April when I visited the New York Audio Show, held over three days at the New York Palace Hotel. As a pro audio trade magazine, Pro Sound News doesn’t typically cover the audiophile market—the one-percenters of consumer electronics, if you will—but with the lines forever blurring, I thought it’d be interesting to visit as an observer. And it did not disappoint. Held in ballrooms and bedrooms across five floors, the well-run event offered seminars, workshops, presentations and countless opportunities to experience truly opulent, high-end listening. It was the kind of event where one overheard conversation went, “So what’s the price tag on these speakers?” “$68,000.” And no one batted an eye, or even chuckled when the salesman added, “But that gets you two of them.” I think that second part was a joke.
Vinyl guru Michael Fremer (who's been known to show up in the comments section of this blog) held a SRO ballroom audience rapt for an hour with a fascinating workshop on setting up a turntable (yes, that is possible). Elsewhere, producer/engineer/NYU professor/former AES president Jim Anderson presented cuts from his recent surround mix of a Patricia Barber album he recorded, Modern Cool. Playing the Blu-Ray of the lush album through a passel of PMC speakers, Anderson explained some of the miking choices he’d made when recording it for a standard stereo release in the late 1990s. Anticipating that there’d be opportunities to remix it for surround someday in the future, his initial mic placements were made very much with the intention of providing himself with more mixing options down the road. Clearly that foresight paid off earlier this year when Modern Cool won Best Surround Album at the 2013 Grammy awards.
Leaving the Audio Show, I was struck by how amazing some of the systems on-site sounded; how unlikely it was that I would ever arrive at a point where $68,000 for a pair of home speakers would seem reasonable, much less affordable; and perhaps most despairingly, how those visually and audibly gorgeous systems would simply be wasted on my relatively lo-fi tastes in music anyway.
The late Bleeker Bob's
The next stop on my journey was a last visit to Bleeker Bob’s, the famed New York City record store in Greenwich Village, which was closing its doors that day after 40-plus years. A local institution known as much for its cantankerous namesake as for its endless selection of rock, punk, new wave, jazz and alternative rarities, Bleeker Bob’s was enough of a landmark that it earned two of the most privileged of New York honors—appearances onSeinfeld and the opening credits to Saturday Night Live.
Standing aside my fellow record nerds, I dug through dozens of boxes of dusty vinyl relics, musing how one play through some of the grubby $1 specials might well destroy the impeccably machined needles being displayed uptown at the Audio Show. After rooting around for an hour and picking up a few bargains (the best being a test pressing of David Bowie and Mick Jagger's "Dancing In The Streets" 45), I took one final gaze at the store I’d visited countless times over the last few decades and walked out for the last time.
Waiting (forever) for the subway, I stood next to two people who were heading up to Madison Square Garden for the evening, in order to catch the second night of the two-part Crossroads Guitar Festival 2013. One of them had gone the previous night as well, and was now regaling his buddy with every detail of the first show, starting off with how it was the best-sounding concert he’d ever heard at MSG (so kudos to Clair, the sound reinforcement provider for the event). He related how Eric Clapton had kicked off the show in a chair, simply strumming away; how the Allman Brothers had played everything you’d expect them to play; how John Mayer was on his game after having dropped out of the public eye for a few years; and how Buddy Guy had the best rapport with the audience.
But what he really raved about—what he was amazed by—was Quinn Sullivan, a 14-year-old blues guitarist mentored by Guy. He raved about the teen’s intuition and soulfulness and all the rest of those terms we trot out when we are truly taken and shaken by something. “I hope they have the kid tonight, too,” he finished.
And that’s what got me thinking about Too Much Joy’s “In Perpetuity.” Here was a music fan who, just as the song said, had heard someone play a song for the first time and was now hungering to experience that initial moment of musical perfection again. And wasn’t musical perfection what the audiophiles at the New York Audio Show were looking to find once again in those ultra-high-end systems? Wasn't musical perfection what Jim Anderson was looking forward to achieving someday when he placed mics in the '90s for surround mix technologies that didn't exist yet? Wasn’t musical perfection what I'd been digging in search of in the grit-covered remnants of Bleeker Bob’s?
We’re all looking to return to our own personal, transcendent musical moments, whether experienced in the sweet spot of exquisite Blu-Ray surround mixes, the last hours of a dying record store or in an arena surrounded by thousands of others sharing in a moment of revelation. It doesn’t matter if your wallet affords you a $20,000 home audio system, a $150 concert ticket or a $12 test pressing; regardless of the path we choose or the genre we love, we’re all moving forward in the same musical direction, yet looking backwards, in perpetuity.