Volume two of the Monumental five-volume set of Bob Dylan's The Genuine Basement Tapes reaches an emotional climax with a plaintive song called "I'm Not There" — no mean feat after the brilliant "Going to Acapulco" and three takes of "Tears of Rage," one in waltz time. "I'm Not There" has appeared before, on The Great White Wonder and on Volume One of The Newly Discovered Basement Tapes on Surprise Records (the latter credited to Blind Boy Grunt and The Hawks), and while the version on The Genuine Basement Tapes is the best sounding of the bunch, you still wouldn't mistake it for anything other than a bootleg. About a third of the words are unintelligible, and as if that weren't enough of an obstacle, the recording begins in mid-verse, with no clue as to how much had been played before the tape started rolling. No way for technology to fix that, I guess.
I was listening to it this morning, and midway through the song I found myself standing next to one of the speakers with my head bent toward the tweeter cone, trying to make out the missing words, and trying even harder to soak up as much of the feeling and atmosphere as I possibly could. I didn't remember getting up out of my seat, but there I was. And I wondered: Was this how people listened to music on the radio and the phonograph when those things were new?
That may sound like a drag to some, but not me. I like to imagine how it might have been to have every listening experience so... charged. Whether it was The Monroe Brothers' singing "What Would You Give in Exchange" or Josef Hofmann playing the Mendelssohn Scherzo in E minor, early reproduced music was something that people had to go out of their way for, something they strained their ears and imaginations to absorb. It may have been canned, but it was never background music: It was foreground music.
This is the mystery at the heart of our hobby. Its not about "inventing a language" to describe what we hear from our loudspeakers, and it isn't about identifying new ways to measure new distortions so we can buy new black boxes to cure them. It's about the way the technology of sound reproduction motivates and impacts our relationship with the art of music.
As recently as the 1930s — a time when, for most Americans, the opportunity to hear recorded music was rarer than the opportunity to hear the real thing — listeners acted accordingly. Everything else stopped: work, play, and, especially, conversation. It was not uncommon to lean forward a little.
That relationship has flip-flopped, and nowadays canned music is not only not special anymore: It's inescapable. Consciously or not, most modern humans have developed elaborate strategies for ignoring recorded music.
What can we do to make the experience special again? What strategies have we as audiophiles developed for re-inventing our relationship with recorded music, in an effort to keep it fresh? We change. Arid those changes are the sorts of things that enthusiast magazines are all about. If all of you stayed the same for the rest of your lives, I'd be out of a job.
The commonest kind of change in this hobby is to buy something new and get rid of something old. And that can be a perfectly fine thing to do. But I like to think that what sets Listener apart is that we give equal time to the notion of buying something old and getting rid of something new. Or, in a more general sense, buying or even making something simple and getting rid of something that's monstrous and overwrought.
Even more to the point: We change by getting something that's right and getting rid of something that's wrong.
A few months ago, when we were getting ready to drop our first "Special Mono Issue" on an unsuspecting audience, I didn't know what to expect. I'm beyond delighted to tell you that the response was better than I ever imagined. We received a grand total of one letter of complaint from Jeff Puha, which appears on page ii), and everyone else who wrote to us seemed more or less tickled. In terms of sheer volume of reader mail, our "Special Mono Issue" was our most successful by far.
What does that say? Well, for one thing, I know what it doesn't say. It doesn't say that mono is the answer to everyone's listening conundrum. If I thought the specifics were that important, I'd he busy right now connecting a fuzzbox in-line with my preamp so I could get that scratchy, bootleggy, lean-a-little-closer thing going with all my records. Hell, even I know that's stupid.
What it does mean is that we must never take our relationship with recorded music for granted—even as technology is encouraging us to do just that. Our relationship with music is probably more like our spousal relationships than we ever imagined: We have to work at it. Constantly. But said work is best approached with a sense of wonder and a sense of fun.
I think mono is fun. I think lists are fun. So is old stuff — and a lot of new stuff, too. And five years from now it might be something else. I wouldn't even rule Out surround-sound. Tastes change, too. I have no interest in a hobby — any hobby — that would consider itself immune to style.
Again, the specifics don't really matter. For one married couple, reading poetry out loud to each other is the key to keeping their relationship fresh, and for another it's handcuffs and edible panties. Different strategies, similar outcome.
I wish you a satisfying and endlessly thrilling relationship with music. I wish you the freedom to accomplish this by whatever means seem reasonable, and even a few that don't. I wish you enough money that you can buy what you want at least a little of the time. I wish you enough flexibility so that you'll try something totally out of the ordinary from time to time, but not so much that you'll abandon the taste and judgment and sense of style that drew you to your favorite music in the first place. And I presume you'll never look down your nose at the people who do things differently. Because they are no less likely than you to get the same good results.