Ages on, my audio cassette player still works, even as my CD player and mp3 player have both bit the dust. The poorest of the poor in audio fidelity, yet still it doggedly survives.
Listening to cassettes, I always feel like I’m listening to something happening in the next room. I don’t feel present in the sound; the sound is happening somewhere close by, just beyond my reach. It makes me feel voyeuristic, like I live one room away from a fancy illegal jazz club and hear Ella Fitzgerald by pressing my ear against a hole drilled in the wall by my walkman.
It may only play when I press the button, but a cassette never felt like it was playing for me. I’m not sure if it feels like it’s for someone else, exactly—maybe collective others.
Perhaps my cassette plays for an audience whose presence I feel but can never quite see.
And as the tape degrades, over long years and long plays—slowly losing its magnetic sense—it feels like the echo. I only ever heard the echo, not the voice. It drifts slightly farther away with each play, and though I can hear it I know that it has a death. The echo of it is dying.
For a little while, because I’m in the right place, and hold in my hands a yellow 1982 Sport Mega-Travel XXB portable audio cassette player, I am able to hear a dying voice.
I never felt the same way about mp3s. They always reminded me of someone in the same room, but talking much too close to you.
Being so close, I recognize the flatness of the sound, like the close-talker is only two-inches thick. But listening is a personal experience, and leaves its own imprints. No one else needs to be around for you to listen to your mp3 player, and have someone sit in your room with you, on the edge of your bed, and sing you to sleep. It’s up to you to supply the imagined space.
For me, a big part of that was always the radio. Anything the radio plays, that’s what we hear. I remember going to bed early as a child (I was so cool and popular!) only to sit in the darkness and listen to the radio.
It’s not entirely truthful to say I was visualizing what I heard, trying to conjure images from sound. What I heard existed on the cusp of image, but stretched out fully on the horizon of an audioscape. I needed to appreciate something somewhere just beyond understanding. I didn’t have the words for it then, and I’m only closer now.
What inspired me was this: unlike recorded material, the radio was a living thing. The voice on the other end was talking from somewhere, actively, only seconds delayed and a few miles distant.
This had nothing to do with audio fidelity, and perhaps the distinction was only relevant in my own mind, but when the radio reported snow days, it was this day.
When the radio says a dog is missing, they are out there somewhere. When the radio says there has been a death, it is now that someone has died. Recorded music can be the very echo of the dead, the same capture mimetically decaying gradually to silence. But live radio lives. That is ours; ours among the living; ours to hear and know in the present.
Enjoy sound; it’s always coming. You could sit in the middle of the orchestra of a vinyl record, yourself only a visiting phantom.
Or, you could listen to the music from the taboo jazz club next door on cassette deck.
Or, you could turn on your radio to your own Trent Radio, 92.7 FM, and listen to all the silly mistakes and quiet wonders made by listeners doing radio.
These are the fabulous weirdoes given a microphone for a little while, to be recklessly beautiful and living.
Ages on it will still work, even when recordings have turned to fuzz and silence.