Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Smashed up old fuddy-duddy guys

When I was about 22 my dream date and I ended making love on the balcony of a friend’s beach house on a balmy evening with a very high end stereo playing Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks at reasonable volume.

It even happened a few times.

My dream material goods were not fast cars (never been a rev-head) or an iphone (they didn’t exist) or even a mobile phone.  No – it was a high-end stereo – probably a beautiful Scottish turntable like a Linn - and a beautiful pair of Italian speakers (I still own my Sonus Fabers – and they cost a couple of thousand dollars then – probably five thousand in today’s money).  

That was a long time ago.  

Today’s 22 year old wants 5000 songs in his pocket (or 20 thousand), has probably never heard of Astral Weeks, can’t possibly afford a beach shack on the New South Wales coast (they used to be the playthings of the middle class – they now cost millions and are the play things for the super-rich) and wouldn’t give a damn about my Sonus Faber speakers.

Small, portable.  Who would have thought that Bob Dylan (of all people!) would wind up squealing about the declining sound quality of modern music.  He is right: the sound quality that made Astral Weeks so special is gone.  Even the sound of Bob Dylan howling out a pre-Animals version of House of the Rising Sun) is just missing on an iPod.  

Which leads me to how much you can stuff up an investment thesis.  

If you had told me in 1998 that (a) houses would get bigger, (b) the upper middle class would grow like topsy, (c) the middle class would borrow to finance houses and lifestyles like the upper middle class then I would have thought that high-end stereos would just have a great time.

I would have thought the middle class would continue to have such dreams – and that music – especially at high fidelity (and possibly high volume) would remain key to social lives (or even making love on the balcony).  

If I had known how the macroeconomic outcomes were going to look I would purchased Tweeter stock with glee.  Tweeter was a chain of big-box stores that sold at a price/quality point above Best-Buy or Circuit City.  It was a place where I could fantasize about my favourite consumer goods.  Ok – my Sonus Faber speakers might have been a step above Tweeter – but that was sort of the idea.

Well the world that I dreamed about has been smashed up – and I am just another smashed up fuddy-duddy middle aged guy.  (Get used to it John.) 

Tweeter is being liquidated.  John, say goodbye to your once dreams of material goods.

But for the moment I want to leave you with a promo from Tweeter’s liquidation sale.

I guess it tells you what to short.  All of this is so yesterday.  Like your blogger.


PS.  The Animals ruined House of the Rising Sun forever.  The first person in the song that Bob Dylan sung was a woman – and it wasn’t her father that was the gambling man – it was her sweetheart.  The pain in the lyrics is far more intense that way.  I gather the Dylan version is quite close to a version sung by Leadbelly – but I have never heard the Leadbelly version.

Anyway - even if you loathe Bob Dylan (and plenty of people do) listen to this gem.  Then buy the CD next time you see it in the discount bin - but only if you too are a fuddy-duddy like me.

PPS.  If you are really interested in the anticedents of the house of the rising sun - here is a Joan Baez version from 1960.  Obviously this pre-dates either Dylan or the Animals.  Baez has a truly stunning voice but Bob Dylan changes the lyrics for the better (much better).  If anyone can fine the version of the lyrics either Woodie Guthrie or Leadbelly sung I would be interested.  

I think the lyrics were refined to sheer elegance by Bob Dylan and stuffed by the animals.


Anonymous said...

Great post.
I'm in between worlds. Back in my high school and college days I invested what was then a small fortune in my stereo, and traded up equipment regularly.

But these days that system is sitting in my basement, and I carry around an iPod filled with tens of thousands of songs (it took me weeks to digitize my CD collection).

Realities of life mean that I don't get the opportunity to listen to loud music at home any more (or the time to listen to CDs properly, from beginning to end), so convenience wins.

Truth be told, I miss the ceremony of playing records, and even CDs for that matter. Nowadays I mostly tell my ipod to "shuffle albums" and listen to whatever comes up.

And oh yeah, I have Astral Weeks on my ipod, if that counts for anything.

John Hempton said...

It doesn't count for much that you have Astral Weeks on the iPod - unless you have ventured in the slipstream lately (between the viaducts of your dreams).

Ok - that was an insider line - but to remind me how old I am Van played Astral Weeks live at the Hollywood Bowl a few weeks ago. I was in LA a few days later and went look for a gig to go to - and woe - discovered I had missed it. I would have travelled the Pacific (13 hour flight) for that.

He also did it again in NYC - but I did not have the ability to get there.


babar ganesh said...

yes, kids today don't listen to music, they just listen to structured sound products. music producers were once faithful intermediaries and now have the role of the 'structurer'.

let's declare aesthetic bankruptcy and start making music based on fundamentals again.

Anonymous said...

Also covered by Doc Watson--though I'm not sure when. . .

Ron Bass said...

Bob Dylan "borrowed" his version of "House of the Rising Sun" from Dave Van Ronk, a long time fixture of the West Village folk scene who also recorded in the 1970s fronting his band Dave Van Ronk & the Hudson Dusters.

Anonymous said...


Could you comment on the economic stimulus plans for Australia?

Anonymous said...

John, I am 26, not a fuddy duddy, but I have been a fan of Astral Weeks since I was 19. Some things are ageless and that album is one of them. I have listened to it maybe 200 times, and each time I listen to it I find a layer of subtlety I did not find before.

I always knew I liked your blog, but the Astral Weeks reference only confirmed it further.

Also, you have another shot to see Van, he is coming to NYC February 27th and 28th to MSG Theater (I have seen Van in 5+ different venues and MSG Theater was by far the best sound quality of the lot). He will be playing Astral Weeks in sequence.

For those of you intrigued to find out more about Astral Weeks from John's post, check out Lester Bangs wonderful, ispirational article on the album.

Great post,

Anonymous said...

This book has the history of "The House of the Rising Sun"


Aig said...

A bit suprising post ... sounds like mid-life crisis ... well, you're not alone ... it comes and it goes ... at 60+ the optimism is back all the way to 80+ ... have seen it on several persons ...

As for audiophiles, don't worry. You're not alone. When looking for something to attach to my computer to enjoy music while working, I had no choice but to settle for $2000+ solution. It has 34Hz to 100kH troughput from soundcard to amplifier and speakers and is a pure enjoyment to listen to. Got SACD player on top of it, but put it away fairly soon -- frankly, I couldn't tell the difference between SACD and 320kbps bitrate or FLAC digital files when playing in stereo mode. And stereo is still the best way to play music ...

I still have an idea about $75k Linn or MBL and, if times turn splendid again, definately will go for it ...

iPod is fairly poor device for listening music. I was looking for hi-fi mp3 player, but couldn't find one. B&O seems to be only marketing, not quality ... Maybe Sony, but all those have frequency responce of just 20-20k, not even talking about something so inferior as Nokia N95 phone mp3 player ...

However, iPod is a splendid device for listening podcasts when running or in car ... that's it.

As for youngsters, what is important to them is basically the structure of the music and bass ... I was no different ... and mp3 players are great invention to them ... listen on the road, while skateboarding and plug it in as usb in amplifier when at home ... It's all perfect ...

If you go for a really good sound, what you discover that there is extremely limited choise of SACD or DVD Audio music and that the CD itself is the factor that limits sound quality ...

Anonymous said...

Tweeters never sold high-end audio. Mid-fi, sure, but not high end. The names in the ad sold decent power receivers in the 70's but in the 80's and 90's, you wouldn't have found real audiophiles at a Tweeters. And I am not saying that you can't find audiophile components at Tweeters' prices. It just takes effort and time to separate out the chrome crap from that which sounds really good.

That said, it is a mystery to me that fewer people seem capable of distinguishing between worse and better sound reproduction. Hell, even at high bit-rate settings, MP3s aren't so bad, but almost no one uses lossless compression or the high variable bit-rates. Quantity trumps quality. Strange.

- Into the Mystic

Nat said...

I got here from Kevin Drum via your insolvency post and have churned through shark attacks to Circuit City to Astral Weeks. You are bookmarked now.

FWIW, Circuit City never had the density of BB or Fry's. BBs were bigger than CC as well, but Fry's are truly huge. My kids would sometimes get gift cards for CC and were not as happy as with BB.

Tweeters was fairly pretentious mid-fi and I was not surprised at its passing. I found it a tweener sort of place, neither fish nor foul, best suited for the new malls next to the new housing developments. Sort of for those folks wanting something a bit better for the new McMansion, instantly. Best Buy and Fry's have lots of dreck a bit lower in the hifi food chain, but it is all disposable (as is Tweeter gear for that matter.)

You have to hunt these days for the modern equivalent of your LP12, and you are probably better off buying the vintage original off of the web. No Ipod for me but I understand the attraction.

Anonymous said...

John, I DID cross the Pacific (from Adelaide) to see and hear Astral Weeks live at the Hollywood Bowl, both nights and let me tell you, it was worth it - without question the highlight of my life as far as music listening is concerned. Astral Weeks comprised the second set each night (followed by an encore of Listen to the Lion both nights) while the first sets prior to interval were also amazing - over 2 nights we were treated to Saint Dominic's Preview, And The Healing Has Begun, Moondance, Caravan, Summertime in England, Wavelength, All in the Game, Angeliou, among others. He still has some dates booked in the States which are billed as Astral Weeks concerts, so you could still be in luck, if you can make it. If you can, do!

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