Distance in Alaska has been described many different ways:
- It’s not the end of the world but you can see it from here.
- It’s as far as you can go without a passport.
- It’s so far north I can see Russia from my front porch.
…and while she was mercilessly mocked for that third comment, Sarah Palin wasn’t all that off the mark. While stationed at FT Richardson, we experienced more than one incident of real-world jamming by our counterparts stationed in the Far Eastern Military district of the Soviet Union.
Distance to family and friends living in the Lower 48 often seemed insurmountable, and that distance cut in both directions. We were far away from extended family, but we were also at the end of a four thousand mile cultural pipeline that delayed the timely spread of music, books, television and movies, and while I was fascinated by the world of popular music my only readily available source of information was the local newspaper, national magazines, and liner notes on the covers of the albums themselves…which in some instances was pretty sparse.
After wasting a Sunday afternoon trying to figure out who was who on the Déjà Vu cover, I borrowed copies of Retrospective: The Best of Buffalo Springfield, and the seminal Crosby, Stills & Nash album, then by comparing/contrasting cover photos I was able to finally distinguish David Crosby from Stephen Stills from Graham Nash and Neil Young. In addition to satisfying my curiosity, the knowledge helped me with a minor budgetary dilemma as the four of them had all recently released solo albums, and the money I’d been given as graduation gifts was burning a hole in my pocket. I started with the first name in the group and picked up Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name…and in the last fifty years I’ve never stopped playing it. Over the years I’ve jumped on every1 technological bandwagon to roll down the musical highway, moving from records to cassettes to CDs to MP3s, and I’ve had a copy of (and eventually wore out) that album in each one of those formats.
I played through it several times last week when I heard the news that Mr. Crosby passed. From what I’ve read, given the way our outlooks on life were so diametrically opposed2 we wouldn’t have made good buddies, but golly-bob-howdy could that man sing. Like most rock vocalists he was a tenor, but there was a quality, a richness, and resonance that is difficult to describe, though Canadian comic Mike Myers’ penchant for describing Barbara Streisand’s voice as being ‘like butter’ comes close
(I prefer the label ‘vocal umami’ 3 )
Seventies trends in recording only added to the effect of Crosby’s voice. Before Walkman technology pushed everyone into their personal ear-pod existence, engineers would use more imagination in the way music was laid down; the first track on If Only I Could Remember My Name being a good example. Rather than just a straightforward recording the sound moves around – the point of origin for the introductory acoustic guitar work on the song entitled Music is Love seemingly originates in your left ear, then moves to your right ear, before moving back and roosting in the middle of your head…an effect that (at the risk of sounding contradictory/ ironic) sounds even better when heard via earphones.
But his work is much more than a collection of engineering tricks. Despite a chaotic life filled with tragedy and self-destructive behavior2 he produced five decades worth of wonderful music that was as important for its content as its quality. Subject matter ranged from politics to social issues and again while much of it is diametrically opposed to my own values and world view4 it always comes across as potent and well-thought out.
Because of that philosophical depth I’d like to think that he’d have been equally successful in any era but the times had as much to do with his success as his talent. Management by committee didn’t have quite the death grip in creative industries then, and in our New Millennium it’s much easier to get airtime if a song fits the 2:45 format and appeals to the lowest common denominator5.
…but for geezers like me there is also the vinyl dimension that holds my heart. The introduction off compact discs in the Eighties came close to putting a stake in the heart of the phonograph record format. Audiophiles have been stating in recent years that the hiss, hum, skip and pop adds a warmth and subtle dimension to music from records in the same way that soft oil glazes lent the gentle smoky sfumato effect to the Mona Lisa, but for me the appeal of vinyl has what I call the ‘musical time machine effect’.
Once it’s been created, a digital tune is moved around & stored electronically, and there is a point where you have to wonder if there’s anything left of the original music.6 The copy of Music is Love found on my hard-drive had its origin in a CD that I bought in the late nineties and exists as a series of 1s and 0s that transforms into music only with the addition of electricity, and I have to wonder if it’s the same song as the one I ripped from that disc thirty years ago. Sound on a vinyl record is produced when a needle moves along the undulating path or groove made from the artist actual singing and playing which means the music from a record is only one step away from the musician(s) themselves. It also means that music from lines inscribed on the surface of a record can even be heard (with some effort) if you spin the record by hand.
…and when I listen to that original vinyl record the sound is coming from the same source as the first time I heard the album in my attic loft bedroom in 1971. It’s almost like I am reaching back through time to something precious…and as I am closing in on my ‘three score and ten’ mile-marker, that is a comforting thought indeed.
- Except eight-track tapes.
- He was a heavy drug user and would often say that “If you say you remember the Sixties you weren’t there!”
- Umami: A Japanese culinary concept only recently adopted in the western world. A fifth savory ‘taste’ which in addition to sweet, salty, sour, and bitter can be found in foods.
- …including an uncomfortable fixation on threesomes in the bedroom.
- Songs on this album range from standard length to almost nine minutes long.
- Bringing to mind Dr. McCoy’s aversion to beaming between a planet’s surface and the USS Enterprise via transporter.