6G Needled to Death
November 7, 2007
The history of technology is complex and fascinating, especially as it applies to the reproduction of sound. When CDs began to replace phonographs, my wife and I were happy to stop dealing with phonograph needles, which damaged a record slightly every time we played it, even though we cleaned the record and changed our needles and so on.
Although my wife is much more discriminating in regard to music than I am, CDs are good enough for us. There are, however, audiophiles who believe that the analog technology of the phonograph reproduces music with much more fidelity and warmth than the digital technology of the CD.
When my family moved from Wisconsin back to Rockland, County New York (a suburb of New York City), I was eager to find a copy of Jimmy Giuffre’s Traveling Light album I had only heard once on am radio in the middle of the night. One day my father took me into NYC to visit my aunt Henriette and my uncle-in-law Morton.
I had already called some big record stores in the “City” and located one with a copy of the album. We stopped at the record store, I purchased the album, and brought it with me to Henriette and Morton’s apartment.
Most of my family detested Morton. He didn’t like my family very much, either. I found him a bit supercilious and condescending, but aside from that I got along with him OK.
Both Henriette and Morton were great lovers of the arts. Of course, opera was their greatest love. Clutching my still sealed Jimmy Giuffre album, I was eager to play it as soon as I could. (I was a teenage boy, a type of creature that does not do well with delayed gratification.) It has been over a year since I had heard this album. I wondered: would I still love it?)
Henriette and Morton had no interest in jazz, but they were willing to indulge their nephew. They explained to me that they had a collection of several thousand opera albums. They explained to me that they considered “modern” (at that time, 33 1/3 rpm was considered modern) recordings inferior to classic recordings of such luminaries as Caruso on 78 rpm records. Almost all of their albums were on 78 rpm albums. They explained to me that they used a special phonograph needle, designed to play such old records. They weren’t really sure it would play my 33 1/3 album properly.
Did teenage Random listen? Of course not. I ripped the plastic shrink wrap off the album. Morton placed it on his phonograph. As the music emerged from the speakers, I listened eagerly. It was as wonderful as I remembered, but something was wrong. I am not a person of fast reflexes. I am slow to react in an emergency. The first track was almost finished playing before it dawned on me that the needle was destroying my precious brand-new record.
I had searched for years for this record. One day I found it had been re-issued on CD and was able to surprise her with it.
The story of the Jimmy Giuffre record has a similar happy ending. I spent years searching through used record stores trying to find an undamaged copy of Traveling Light to no avail.
Eventually, there was a modest revival (perhaps too strong a word) of interest in Jimmy Giuffre and several of his albums were reissued on CD, including Traveling Light. It was combined with another old “jazz” album, a recording of jazz singer Mabel Mercer. I listened to her part once. It’s OK, but not of much interest to me. The record company’s thinking in this regard was opaque to me.
You can’t always go home again, but sometimes you can visit a re-issued old abode.
Next: Death and the Calendar