At Large

Sounds of Age

By Published On: September 28th, 2023

Somehow, “spring cleaning” got passed over this year. Perhaps it was the end of a strange New England winter and the slide into a rainy summer season that let the annual rite of purging slide by, unfulfilled. So, we decided to institute another annual tradition – fall cleaning.  

Closets are always a great place to start. Hidden in their dark recesses may be a shirt that has frayed at the collar or a pair of jeans that picked up the odd splash of paint or a knee tear that is simply not worth mending. 

Our children, or in some cases our grandchildren, may find this ritual a bit silly. Perhaps they have become “minimalists” who prefer to rent rather than own … to borrow rather than buy. As Sly and the Family Stone assured us in 1968 there are “different strokes for different folks.” We are all “Everyday People.”

With a warm feeling of accomplishment, we move to the home office to inspect drawers and shelves. There’s the magazine article we tore out, then forgot about. In the back of a drawer lurks the odd key to a lock long ago misplaced, ticket stubs from a summer block buster, a few pens that simply refuse to work. Then, there are the bookcases that have become overrun with the mementos of all the music we’ve collected over the years.  

Downloaded delivery systems

Depending on our ages, we’ve experienced a wide range of technology focused on preserving sound. Although there is an entire generation that knows only the download as the delivery system for selected songs, stepping back year by year, some of us have experienced, and collected, quite a range of recording media. This is where the collective art and artistry of musical generations – poets and performers – live on.

Certainly, the 78 RPM (revolutions per minute) recordings that were produced until the early 1950s are only a distant memory. Replaced by either the 45 RPM single or the 33 1/3 RPM long-play vinyl records played on the family turntable those were the staples of family entertainment. In 1967, the 8-track tape took flimsy recording tape, wound it into a single unit, and found its way into gaping slots in the dashboards of our cars. The cassette tape followed in 1972, followed by the ubiquitous CD (compact disc) in 1985. We waited almost 20 years for the MP3 (a digital format) to begin the rapid journey to downloads, digital stations bounced off satellites, playlists assembled for us by artificial intelligence … and here we are.

So, on the bookshelves of the spare room are the relics of the sound revolution. Is it finally time to relegate formats no longer viable to the landfill? Can we bear to part with the 1956 single of Hound Dog by Elvis? Will the surviving 1963 vintage 8-track of the Beach Boys Surfer Girl remain in the cardboard box with the cassettes of the Beatles and Neil Diamond, or is it finally time?

Encounters for the ears

Decisions like this are best reserved for rainy days when there are moments that can be dedicated to reminiscing and, when possible, playing the rediscovered albums and becoming surrounded by the intangibles of art. These are not paintings or sculpture or photographs that freeze a moment. This is art for the ears.

Reaching into the slumping stack of LP’s, we find a face that was familiar in 1967 but has faded from memory in the intervening years: Jake Holmes. The carboard album sleeve is still in decent shape. Holmes looks furtively at us with the album title, The Above Ground Sound, punctuating his appearance.

As chance would have it, there’s still a turntable over in the corner and we gingerly remove the vinyl from the sleeve and place it on the machine. We engage the motor, gently lower the needle on the record, and are greeted by a voice that now seems like that of an old, long forgotten friend.

“I get scared when people drive too fast

And, I’m reading closer to the page

It’s the second time around for most of my mistakes

Think I’m showing signs of age.”

We shudder. The record collection isn’t the only thing growing older. Reminded by a searingly poignant song recorded 55 years ago, the slow drift down memory lane reinforces the fact that our attitudes may be painful reminders of how things used to seem … but no longer are.  

The perspective of age is bittersweet. On one hand, as we age we can catalog and recall more experiences that altered the trajectory of our lives, made us laugh, made us cry, made us wonder, and provided the basis for the conviction we needed to move on.

On the flip side (an old record term) is the emotional sense that seems like being in an un-tethered boat that is slowly drifting away from the dock as the activity recedes and we are simply out of reach … and out of touch.

Much has been said, lauded, satirized, and criticized about this past summer’s giant film hit Barbie. It is, in fact, a work of art – a movie that is so textured that its impact spanned the age range of the ample audiences that filled eagerly accepting theaters.  As the film moved toward its finale, one line of dialog has caused some conversation, even some controversy.  It’s a line about aging and perspective that can be very reassuring – from both ends of the process.  

“We mothers stand still so our daughters can look back and see how far they’ve come.”

A sign of age? We can plod through closets and drawers, freeing up memories that are no longer relevant, or we can look forward to engaging with the next generations and enjoying the view. It’s quite likely that our children and grandchildren will have no use for the assembled detritus that has punctuated moments in our lives. The view, however, can be very reassuring to them. And, if they don’t think they’ve come far, have them try to find a player for an 8-track tape. •