The life electronic

At this very moment, Mara is falling asleep to a Gordon Bok album being played on a 1980s vintage CD player and amplified by a Realistic amp/tuner made and sold by Radio Shack in about 1978. Angela and I brought these items into our marriage, like cats.

The CD player was Angela’s, given to her used by her brother-in-law before I knew her. Its LED display sometimes declines to come on and show you the track number, and the eject button broke about ten years ago so that we’ve always had to stick a pinky into its hole and touch a little protrusion back there, like a uvula, which creates a kind of gag reflex in the player and makes it barf up the disk, except when it starts shuddering loudly instead, which it does every time now, come to think of it, and at which point we have learned we must gently touch the left side of the disk tray to release whatever is hung up and make the horror stop. Mara has grown up understanding that she must stick her finger in the hole and then instantly tap the left side of the tray to get a CD out.

Arthritic and falling apart, maybe, but they don't make 'em like this anymore.

The amp/tuner was mine, part of a suite of stereo components that comprised my earliest sound system. I cannot adequately verbalize my awe that it has lasted so long. The only thing wrong with it is the volume knob, which, being turned, now causes one speaker to be intermittently mute, so that you have to find one of the acceptable sweet spots, which may not be precisely the volume you wanted.

Another piece in my teenage stereo set-up was my treasured Sony turntable, which I bought in about 1978 or 1979 and which was one of the finest pieces of stereo equipment ever manufactured on this earth. Sometime in the late 1990s it began to have trouble with playback speed, but there was no belt to get loose — it was direct drive, meaning that the motor was centered beneath and directly drove the platter table — so I could only surmise that the motor itself was slowly croaking. I once unscrewed the screws holding down the platter table and removed it, then unscrewed and removed the cover over the motor and looked inside, hoping I might find a “loose wire” or something. I felt like Indiana Jones stumbling into some ancient temple of shining and indescribable beauty and splendor: there were three large coils of glistening red wire in there, arranged like the petals of a flower, with smaller coils attached symmetrically, and no dust nor light nor eyes of men had ever violated that sacred chamber from the time its cover was first secured until that moment. Seeing that I would determine nothing by peering at at and by messing with it would only bring doom and destruction to this crypt of late-twentieth-century Japanese stereo engineering I buttoned it up toot sweet and got out of there. But that glimpse of its inner beauty made me unwilling to part with the increasingly useless turntable. Such a marvel! They didn’t make them like this anymore. Back then Sony developed a reputation, in fact, for building things to last too long. This was one of those things.

For almost twenty years, my amp/tuner and turntable were accompanied everywhere they went by a Technics tape deck, a really good one also from the late 1970s, which would probably still be working had I not come home one summer evening in the mid-90s to find that my roommates had recorded some vocals at demonic levels in order to achieve maximum distortion of the sound, which I could hear before I got to the driveway as I walked up the street. It had recorded and played flawlessly before that, and afterwards one channel did not record properly. Still, I kept it for years because it was just such a well-built machine.

Below this platter table...workings of unspeakable beauty. The PS-X50 on the last day I owned it.

The picture I’m trying to paint for you here is that while neither Angela or I is a technological early adopter, we have always bought (or accepted as gifts) quality electronics and have thereafter not been technological frequent exchangers. If we can still use the old, we tend to not covet the new o’ermuch.

Nevertheless, new electronics equipment accumulates. I insisted on recording the music from my vinyl platters onto tape cassettes well after the “mass of men” had given up on analog and migrated to CDs, even after the final failure of my Technics tape deck and after my Sony turntable took ill. Thus, besides these well-made relics that I could not bring myself to get rid of I also have housed over the years an assortment of lesser turntables, tape decks and speakers and other items I picked up here and there to feed my analog habit.

I also have one of my dad’s old tube radios, a short-wave radio that picked up high-frequency broadcasts from all over the world, and the front dial pane has Cairo and Ecuador and “USSR” and a bunch of other cities and countries printed right on it so you can find them quickly. It made that staticky whistling whirr when you were tuning it, dropping in pitch when you got near a station and then rising again if you went beyond it. My dad said he’d got it running and gave it to me because he knew I loved the old battleship, but it didn’t work when I tried to fire it up and we never got around to checking into it. Still, I have fond memories of listening to announcers speaking crisply in foreign languages on that radio when I was a kid.

We should have replaced our CD player and amp/tuner long ago, and I guess we’ve always meant to, but other things have taken up our time, money and drool. And the sad fact is, the old thing is always built better than the new thing you replace it with. We finally bought our first VHS video tape recorder/player (Toshiba) in 2002 and it only lasted until about 2007, when I had to pry a rented tape out of it with hammer claws. Compared to my steel-fronted and metal-knobbed stereo components from the 1970s, the Toshiba was a piece of flimsy plastic garbage. Its malfunction and subsequent mangling propelled us into the world of DVDs, which we had thitherto resisted because, well…our VHS machine was still working and the VHS videos at the movie rental place had not yet completely vanished from the shelves. We bought a DVD player, which is still working at this write, but it is nothing like the solid pieces of equipment I saved up my money for in the late ’70s.

Radio Bangladesh, anyone? The old Hallicrafters tube radio my Dad built in the 1960s, I think from a kit.

So this moment came, or this moment assembled itself over time in my consciousness, when I realized that the pace of technological advancement in consumer electronics has sped up to such a degree, and the lifespan of any given electronic “good” has concomitantly shrunk to such a brief period, that to buy a piece of equipment these days for playing back music on or viewing a movie on is to risk being very soon stuck with a piece of junk no one will want for money and no one will let you get rid of for free.

And because you cannot now legally throw these things into a hole in the Earth the way you did when I was a lad — what great fun we had in those golden days, hurling truckfuls of toxic nonbiodegradables into the soil without so much as wincing — these things go in the garage in a stack, and every time you look at them you feel that particularly Western feeling of being owned and enslaved by your possessions, a feeling that you live in your own plastic midden, your useless crap piling up around you. Try getting rid of a broken or even an unwanted vacuum cleaner. We have had two sitting in our garage because no one wants them, not even for parts, and in Seattle you have to pay $35 apiece to leave them at the Dump. I mean the Transfer Station. (See? I still refer to it as the Dump, which was a happy term of endearment when I was a kid.)

So when Angela told me about the Free Electronics Recycling Event going on at a church parking lot in Crown Hill a few weekends ago, I opened the hatch of the Subaru with glee and made to load up. The process engendered mixed emotions for me. One of the two turntables I threw in the back of the car was part of a plastic mid-90s amp/tuner-tapedeck-turntable combo stack “not worth the powder to blow it to hell” that I had picked up at a garage sale for a couple bucks. But the other was my beloved old Sony PS-X50. This was like loading up a ’57 Chevy to give to the Goodwill. I figured it was time to quit pretending I was ever going to have the time or money to get it fixed. I tried once, spent some money to have someone make the motor run right, but it started speeding up and slowing down again almost immediately.

A trip backward in time. The back of the tube radio.

The crazy part is, I still have one more turntable, a decent made one that still works well enough to play the old vinyl which, oh, I forgot to mention, I still have much of. Especially noteworthy among the old platters are some kids’ records, which I played for Mara once on a turntable and she loved. I was going to throw away even this last turntable but Mara complained. I reminded her that we now had digital versions of those old stories that we could listen to on my computer, and she said “the computer’s not the same!” Inwardly I smiled, glad that she has a little Luddite in her.

The annual recycling event is hosted by Windermere and the recycling company is 1 Green Planet. (They’re open — and free — year round if you don’t want to wait for the annual do.)  They were nice people. We drove up into the church parking lot. They smiled at us, unloaded all the electronics carcasses, thanked us, and charged us nothing (we donated a small sum to the church for a missions project). The Sony PS-X50 turntable was carried off before I had a chance to tell them what a rare and wondrous piece of equipment it was, and I doubt they would have known by looking at it (though possibly its weight might have alerted them to the fact that it was not of this era). Every person there was younger than it. I don’t know if anyone will have looked it over to see if it could be fixed or if it just got thrown onto a heap of turntables and tape decks and DVD players. I can’t really bear to consider its fate. It served me so well.

I could not bear to part with Dad’s old short-wave radio. Not now. It’s been in the get-rid-of pile for a long time, since it never worked right since I’ve owned it and I never had any clue how to fix such a thing, but when I look in the back I see sawdust from my dad’s shop, a shop bulldozed half a decade ago, sawdust that got in there when he was using his radial arm saw years before he gave it to me and I never bothered to clean out. The vacuum tubes stand like rigid, pointy-helmeted sentinels from a ghost army, guarding against a rear attack on the open-backed casing. Well, they didn’t see transistors coming, did they? Still, they are as marvelous to me as the coils I glimpsed in the PS-X50 that time. How can it be that there is no longer any place in the world for these things?


16 Responses to “The life electronic”

  1. 1 Janet September 26, 2011 at 07:11

    I too went to the recycling van at Crown Hill. Was greeted by cheery faces who were simply lifters and throwers of metal cherished by others – namely me. In our case it was the old Dublin computer – not cherished for its beauty but for all those secrets which it once contained. As you say, the organizers of the event were all young people but they had just arranged for the official van. But I think that they, along with the lifters and throwers, had no personal feeling for the beauty and complexity of the items being brought to them.

    • 2 Matt September 26, 2011 at 15:20

      Yes, they made startlingly quick work of it, didn’t they? I really hope someone might have spotted that turntable and grabbed it, some audiophile with the time and resources to fix it up. Personally, though, even though I feel a little sad letting go of an old treasure like that, I feel liberated.

  2. 3 marni September 26, 2011 at 22:18

    We have a free “e-cycle” place behind the bookstore, so next time you have an electronic-dumping need combine it with some fine literature browsing! I just unloaded 3 tv’s (you would be correct about the whole they-don’t-make-’em-like-they-used-to thing), a printer, a DVD player, and the barely 1 year old dvr machine that I replaced last January (and behind which DirecTV stunningly did not stand; in fact, they only warranty them for 3 months, a fact which made me utter the phrase, “you must be so proud”, with a fair amount of irony that was not perceived). I wish I had anything near as cool and ancient-relicy as your stuff, but alas- I am that dreaded consumer of whom you are fond in spite of it all.

    • 4 Matt September 27, 2011 at 08:02

      Marni, I’m laughing because I can so picture you uttering that sardonic phrase. (I use “sardonic” because it’s a word I learned from you many years ago.). And you have remembered to flash your free pass that whisks you, as a personal friend, past all my pronouncements and judgments as though on a V.I.P. red carpet. By the way, it’s no fun being a snooty, self-righteous critic of modern consumer culture if you don’t have friends who will loan you all those things you wouldn’t soil your life with by outright purchase. The hypocrisy emerges…

  3. 5 Jana September 27, 2011 at 06:56

    Love it. My husband built some electronics back in the late 70’s (Crutchfield kits?) – speakers and maybe a receiver. Of course it was hard to part with them – the speakers were relegated to our garage stereo system for a while – gigantic boxes big enough that we could have turned them into tables. But even the garage system got an upgrade. We still have our turntable (I still love to listen to my parent’s Julie Andrews Christmas album – scritchy and all every December) – I remember the last vinyl we bought was in about 1990! And an audio cassette in the early 90’s. We must have got our first CD player about 1991. I couldn’t even switch to digital photography until 2006.

    My college graduate son is working at Best Buy until a career job becomes available. He’s able to purchase decent electronics but don’t really know if these pieces will be remembered as fondly as what we made last.

    A vague memory that often pops in my head for some reason is going with my Dad to Safeway(?!) I think – there was a waist high box/booth that I seem to recall had various size and shaped inputs – he brought tubes/bulbs I think from our TV to see if they worked. My dad is still alive so I should ask him about this but do you remember if TVs in the mid to late 60’s had replaceable tubes? Or any idea what this electronic related memory of mine might be?

    • 6 Matt September 27, 2011 at 07:53

      Jana, wow, I hadn’t seen or thought of one of those tube testers in donkeys ears, but your recollection jars my own. Yes, it was for testing various sized tubes, and yes, I believe TV sets as late as the late 60s still had replaceable tubes. I can’t imagine a grocery store these days yielding any space for something as community-service oriented as tube testing. Boy, the mid-century was an odd and lovely bubble, wasn’t it? Hmmm, you’ve given me an idea…

  4. 7 Mom September 27, 2011 at 21:25

    Son, next time you come remind me to show you something sitting in the shop you might be interested in.


  5. 9 Kip September 28, 2011 at 04:49

    I remember when I realized my radio Shack turntable would work no more. It was a very sad day, and I think it took years before i finally let it go. I still have my tape deck, the dual variety, but don’t use it much at all. And I still have my old Radio shack tuner and speakers…use the speakers every day, and occasionally try to tune in a radio station on the old analog tuner. Oh, I have 2 turntables at this point, both sound great when I have time to spin them up!

    • 10 Matt September 28, 2011 at 08:11

      I wasn’t going to point fingers, but now you mention it I thought you might be the one person I know that has held onto more good, solid, non-working un-let-go-of-able electronics equipment than I.

  6. 11 Kip September 28, 2011 at 12:31

    And I didn’t mention the old Magnavox Hi-Fi in the garage that was my maternal grandfather’s that I still have, so the pointing is not without merrit! I don’t know where I can get tubes for it…although I am sure one of the engineers at work can tell me. If I found tubes, then I’d want to plug it in and turn it on, and I’m not sure if there is a place for it in the house. Oh, did I mention my wife’s original-type wind up victrola? Yes, it still works!

  7. 13 Louis September 28, 2011 at 15:13

    Anybody remember the Radio Shack battery club? My father and I often bonded at the Radio Shack. We too had a shortwave radio we loved to listen to…However, these days, with the internet, there is no longer the thrill of hunting down and pulling in a distant signal.

    This post conjures up memories of my years working in the hi-fi business. I worked at Pacific Stereo for five years, then two years at Northwest Auto Sound. I remember the PSX-50. It was one of the more high-end Sony turntables. I still have my Technics SL-1600MKII turntable (albeit in storage in Vancouver). They were such well-built machines. But today you have your iPod, which you can hook up to a stereo system. And you can dance to the music without ever skipping the record…what record?

    Going to the dump. I loved going there as a child. My oldest brother once went to the dump and he took me (4-5 years old) along with him. I brought my toy rifle and police car as they were my favorite toys at the time. When we arrived at the transfer station, my brother told me not to get out of the station wagon as it was dangerous what with that big pit-o-garbage down below. My brother backed the station wagon close to the pit, got out and began unloading the trash. As the trash made its way to the pit, I made my way to the back of the station wagon. I was amazed by all the activity. People lining the pit, emptying their vehicles of trash. Everything falling into this huge pit with a bulldozer in it!! I couldn’t help myself. I had to do it. Without hesitation, I hurled both my rifle and police car into the pit. My brother looked at me incredulously, “What are you doing?” I said nothing. “I can’t get that, you know.” I shrugged. The entertainment value was too great. I had no regrets.

    • 14 Matt September 28, 2011 at 21:54

      Lou, what a hoot of a story that is! I loved it. Total surprise ending. Yes I remember — and was a member of — the Battery Club. One free battery every month of the year. My friend Jim used to joke that he was a member but never attended the meetings.

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