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01.02.07

iPod

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My major present this Christmas was a new iPod, paid for by my wife and her family, to replace my old iPod, which was demoted to back-up status for the sin of being simply too small. I'm sitting writing this in an almost hundred-year-old building, at a scarred old table about as old, wearing cotton flannel pyjamas that would look at home in my grandfather's wardrobe, looking out at a clear blue sky notably absent of flying cars or interplanetary commuter shuttles. Explaining the size difference between my two iPods, however, is one thing that seems appropriate to the early 21st century, however.

the auld iPodBoth my old 10 gig iPod and the new 80 gig model are about the same size as a well-stuffed card wallet. The only real difference between the two would be the four extra buttons on the older model, the colour screen on the new one, and a slight thickening that does nothing to explain how eight times more music has been shoehorned into the thing - that is, if you're looking at them with the eyes of some relic of the late 20th century.

I bought my first iPod four years ago, when it became obvious that I would be spending at least two hours a day commuting to work in the suburbs. I craved entry to that world where - as one professionally querulous pundit has put it - "the serendipity of meeting a new stranger, hearing a piece of music we would never choose for ourselves or an opinion that might force us to change our mind about something are all effectively banished."

I spent the next two years in a happy cocoon, shuffling through playlists named "country," "seventies," "eighties," "soul," "recent," "classical," "easy" and "punk."  The only serendipity I knew was discovering old punk singles I downloaded from mp3 blogs, records I either couldn't afford to buy when I was a teenage punk, or simply never saw, as the thousand copies pressed never made it out of Ohio, the Tri-State area, or past the Rough Trade shop on Kensington Road in Notting Hill, far across the sea. I learned - am still learning - that you can have a punk rock playlist that will play continuously for two days without repeating itself, built entirely out of the Adverts, the Bags, Brian Eno, the Controllers, the Demics, the Electric Eels, the Freeze, the Germs, Human League, (Impatient) Youth, Jilted John, Kaos, the Leyton Buzzards, Metal Urbain, the Nuns, the Only Ones, Penetration, Razar, Section 25, Television, the Urinals, multiple Victims (several different bands have the same name, in fact - it's very confusing), the Weirdos, X (the Californian X is more famous than the Australian X, but I have them both, in addition to two singles by X-X), the Young Canadians and the Zero Boys. There are only two Sex Pistols tracks. ("Holidays In The Sun" and "Did You No Wrong." I don't know why. I have more songs by the Ruts and Theoretical Girls.)

Right now, my punk playlist is almost 900 songs long and takes up nearly 3 gigs of my new iPod. There are over 60 new tracks waiting to be added when I have the time, and every week I discover new ones. A purist might accuse me of padding - in addition to Eno, there are tracks by Bowie, Kraftwerk, Iggy Pop, Elvis Costello, Squeeze, the Modern Lovers, Robert Fripp (the title track of Exposure), several Two Tone bands, and even Slade, but that was what you heard back then, on clubs and on CFNY, the "new wave" radio station that was my daily soundtrack during the acne years.

It's partially an exercise of nostalgia, I suppose, recreating the perfect radio station or endless mix tape that brings me back to the first and last time that music was a white hot emotional charge. I spent years clinging to that feeling, as it melted like an iceberg drifting south, slowly at first, then with alarming speed - alarming because I made part of my living writing about music that I was discovering I cared less and less about every day. I got out just in time.

Last year, my bosses decided that I would serve the paper better working from home, and I was no longer - as the querulous pundit put it - one of those "Stepford commuters staring into mid-space as if anaesthetized by technology." Thank God for anaesthetizing technology - it kept me sane for two and a half years of commuting by streetcar, subway and bus. I'm sure there might have been some transformative encounter waiting out there that I blithely missed, white earbuds jammed into my skull, but on balance I think the hour or two of cushioned private time in the middle of a day devoted to either work or the raising of small children was a gift to my sanity. I escaped into Radio Rick with an enthusiasm I hadn't associated with music in years.

Now a telecommuter, my 10 gig iPod gathered dust until I was given a dock last Christmas to attach it to the living room stereo, complete with a tiny white remote control that looks easier to lose than an insurance salesman's business card. My playlists continued to grow, however, as I came to favor the iTunes software on my computer to provide the soundtrack for my working day, instead of the bookshelf stereo a few feet away, next to the hundreds of CDs I'd been carrying from apartment to apartment, once again shelved and organized.

The shuffle feature gave a midly thrilling randomness to the experience of listening to music that had been, for years, wedded to an album's track listing. Even putting a CD on shuffle play only offered a narrow range of possible options; I wanted to get away from albums entirely, if only to escape the encumbering physical - and psychic - weight that I'd come to associate with record collecting.

A few years ago, a friend of mine made a movie called Vinyl, about obsessive record collectors. He was one, I was one, and most of my social circle, composed largely of ex-music critics and musicians, were collectors, of records and often much, much more. It's become a bit of a cult film - Alan says its about to come out on DVD - and the main argument was that, no matter how they might protest that "it's just about the music, man," these collectors were obsessed with the physical heft, the presence and displacement, that their record collections exerted on their lives. It was about the thing, as much as it was about the music, and I think Alan made a pretty convincing case.

I was bugged for years afterward, though, by the idea that I'd made the thing more important than what it contained, especially after moving the thing - or rather, boxes and boxes of things - a few times. The last move was the worst - dozens and dozens of boxes of books, for instance, that sat in a hallway for a year until we were able to buy or build shelves. In the end, we had far too few shelves for the books, so several long nights after the girls were in bed were spent culling. Thirty boxes - boxes that we wouldn't have had to move if we'd only done this earlier - were sold, earning just enough money to buy something we really needed: a really good vacuum cleaner.

I made space for the CDs, but resented them for it, even as the iPod was making the idea of storing an archive of music seem not only strenuous, but pointless, since I hardly played anything on those shelves anymore. I'd stopped buying CDs in favour of downloads - at first "illegal" ones from Kazaa and Limewire, then legal ones from the iTunes store. Sometime this year my playlists became too big for the old 10 gig iPod, and I decided to upgrade. 80 gigs would be, I calculated, enough for the forseeable future; the way the price of memory was falling, I was confident that a $400 iPod would always be bigger than anything I needed to store on it.

I've begun ripping my CDs to digital files with a vengeance; I put all the Velvet Underground discs in one playlist called, imaginatively, "velvets," and the Brian Eno discs have been segregated into "eno/pop" and "eno/ambient." Leonard Cohen has been packed into a playlist called "cohen," since I didn't want to confuse him with the one devoted to Lenny Bruce. The whole of Nick Drake's recorded output has been distilled into "nick," the Beach Boys have been boiled down to 278.1 megabytes called "beach," while my jazz collection - shelves and shelves of discs, assiduously sourced and collected over years - has been packed into playlists called "bop," "bebop," "miles," "mingus," "cool," "evans," "guitar," "west" and "52nd st."

I've almost filled two boxes with discs to sell, with the hope of turning four shelves of CDs into one of these; I reviewed it for the paper just before Christmas and knew I had to have it from the moment I unpacked the box. I'm eyeing the shelves of old blues and R&B discs, the half shelf of techno discs, the handful of minimalist classical music (dare I call that playlist "minimal"? Oh, what the hell.) and the makings of a really great gospel playlist.

By this time next year, they could all be turned into digital ether, stored on a little box that, sole among all my posessions, looks like it could be a prop from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Never mind that the future didn't end up looking like an endless Eero Saarinen TWA Terminal full of hipless women in unisex unitards and men dressed like FBI agents relaxing with a drink after a long day of wiretapping Yippies. Six years after the real 2001, the world we live in might be an anxiety-inducing mess, but I, for one, am grateful that my iPods are the only thing that might fit Kubrick's wholly depressing vision of the future. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to download some Strauss waltzes.


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© 2007 rick mcginnis all rights reserved
WHO

i'm a dad in my forties with two daughters, a conservative catholic, a professional photographer, tv and movie critic, and ten years ago i would have told you that this was impossible. then i would have taken a swing at you. i might have been drunk. i look nothing like william powell.

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