Suppose you've put aside some cash for a new preamp. You survey the field and zero in on the Musical Ecstasy 1000 and the Sonic Nirvana Special. Both got good reviews in all the magazines, they look great, and each will set you back about the same number of mortgage payments. So you visit your dealer and camp out for a weekend or two. You listen, you think, you walk around the store, you listen some more, you recalculate your tax return. You listen some more. Finally, you have a winner. "I want that one," you tell your dealer; "the Sonic Nirvana."
Pollock, Rothko, Amperex, and Sylvania? Last spring I went to a contemporary art show out on Chicago's Navy Pier. I wanted to get away from things with wires and knobs—you know, rub elbows with Chicago's better-dressed, sip some wine, maybe practice talking about artistic creations that I usually don't understand ("It's so brutally honest...yet, somehow, still deceptive"). But there's no rest for the weary, confused audiophile. Along with artists, paintings, and sculptures from all over the world, thousands of vacuum tubes had descended on the Pier.
Back in 1968, nothing sounded better to me than "Penny Lane"—one of my all-time favorite songs—blasting out over my Dad's home-built Eico gear (when no one else was around, of course). For some reason, the various sounds packed into that song grabbed my attention as much as that old integrated amp whose steel case got as hot as the tubes inside—ouch! When the Beatles broke up, I played Magical Mystery Tour over and over for days before I felt I'd paid them sufficient homage. Like everyone else, I heard a lot of the Beatles through the '70s and '80s. (And now, of course, it may as well be the '60s again: if you can stomach another "Magic Carpet Ride" every hour (or so it seems), just tune in your local "classic rock" station and you'll hear lots of "Penny Lane," too.)
Art and commerce are butting heads once again, now that England's popular Brit Awards include a category for classical music. Last month's inaugural nominees included some highbrow names (Rachmaninoff, Bryn Terfel), but leaned heavily on such "crossover" artists as Paul McCartney for his orchestral forays, and classical violinist Kennedy (formerly known as Nigel Kennedy) for The Kennedy Experience, his CD inspired by Jimi Hendrix. Classical sales are still down, and record companies, one suspects, are latching onto quasi-classical popular works to boost the sector's profile. For traditionalists, of course, this shows that classical music is falling further into the cultural black hole of all things Madonna, Spice Girls, and McDonald's. They're pissed—in the American sense, that is.
Everyone knows the story: Isaac Newton got hit on the head by an apple and suddenly discovered the physics of gravitation. Like the one about Archimedes discovering the basics of hydrostatics while taking a bath, this story turns up everywhere. Even Michael Stipe, in R.E.M.'s "Man in the Moon," sings "Newton got beaned by the apple good."
Have you seen that advertisement running on the Arts & Entertainment channel? A girl and her brother are arguing in front of their TV: "Are not." "Are so." "Are not." Etc., etc. Finally, she punts: "Mom! He's calling me a neo-fatalist again!" From off-screen: "Do I have to come in there and demonstrate your free will?"
Metallica's Lars Ulrich and Creed's Scott Sapp don't get it. But Courtney Love understands, and so does Stereophile's Jon Iverson, who pointed out in the October issue's "As We See It" that the dispute between the RIAA and Napster is more important to audiophiles than it might seem. The Napster-MP3 phenomenon is a crack in the dike that controls music distribution. How the water seeps through that crack now will determine how it will flow when the drip turns into a trickle, the trickle into a stream, the stream into a river. Audiophiles and pop-music fans alike will be in the same boat.