Cholera in the time of love
I was recently reunited with an old friend from high school. My best friend from high school, in fact. Our families got together, everyone got along, and as the dust of conversation settled toward the rug of companionable silence, talk turned to work. And when the inevitable happened, and my old friend and his wifeclassical-music lovers bothasked how much a person had to spend these days in order to get a good music system, I answered their question with a questiona question that, crazily enough, just popped into my head:
"Do you want an appliance that'll get the job done, or do you have faith that a good system can transform listening into something special?"
My friend looked at me as if I'd just asked, "Shall we play Trivial Pursuit, or would it be more fun to shoot up and have tantric sex with each other's wives?" (The reader is free to answer that rhetorical question for himself.) He cleared his throat and gave me his answer, variations on which all Stereophile readers have heard in such situations:
"I don't need anything that good. I just want to hear my CDs."
Heroin sounds better and better, doesn't it?
That evening was when I finally put my finger on the quality that separates me from the non-audiophile: faith. I believe. Like Frankie Laine and the Buzzcocks and Saint Anthony, I believe. For no good reason, I believe.
Some audiophiles say they got that way because, at a crucial point in their young lives, they heard their father's, neighbor's, or uncle's hi-fi system, and then always wanted to re-create that experience. That's cool. That might even be enviable. But that wasn't my trip. I simply had faith that there must be a better way to listen to records than on a Webcor record playerjust as some people come away from their first trip to the theater or their first cigar or their first glass of wine and think: That was all right, but there must be something better.
I'm a person of faith in the more traditional sense, and sometimes I'm called on to defend that, too. As a non-evangelistic Catholic who shares the concern of many that the governors of my religion have a lot to answer for in terms of hoarding obscene wealth, covering up obscene crimes, and wearing ridiculous outfits (footnote 1), I don't bring a great deal of vigor to those debates. Rather, when asked by nonbelievers how an intelligent, well-educated person could possibly believe in something that is not demonstrably true, I quietly and calmly and happily reply: "That's why it's called faith: If I could prove any of this shit, it would be no more mysterious than driver's ed."
Faith, of course, comes with a degree of ritual. I criticize my church's stewards, but I also love themand their silly hatsbecause they give me the ritual that I need. So it goes with audio. Is it foolish to spend $10,000 on an amplifier, or to stay up until 2am adjusting speaker toe-in, or to waste a day comparing three different brands of the same vacuum tube, or to own five different pressings of the same record? Of course it is. And I love those things the way I love the smell of the incense or the feel of well-worn pews or the look of stained glass or that silly sit-stand-kneel routine, about which no sane God could possibly care. But that's okay, because those are all rituals that I love and I need.
Here's my definition of a ritual: It's merely a splint to which one binds the fragile bones of one's life. It doesn't matter what the splint is made of or what it looks like or even how little or (especially) how much it costs. To be effective, a ritual need only be loved.
When you get right down to it, and in spite of all my carping to the contrary, I love being an audiophile.
It used to be like this: Someone and his wife would ask how much a person had to spend these days to get a good music system, and I would say: "Let me tell you about the Rega Planar 3 turntable . . . " Now I suspect that the best any of us can do is to let the world see, at every opportunity, how recorded music has made us happy in an otherwise unhappy world: not choleric, not unsatisfied, not acquisitive, and not covetous. Just happy, and at peace with the things we've chosen to enrich our lives.
Can faith be contagious? Damned if I know.
Footnote 1: I feel no more charitable about other religions, and distinctly less so about one or two.