The Discussion of Music

Yaaaaan Haaaamah.

Tomorrow was Sunday. I lay on the floor in Mike's dark bedroom, to the right of his large bed. His half-blind golden retriever came in, sniffed my stomach with a wet nose, chuffled, and padded out. Mike laughed. “You aren't what he wanted,” he said.

“No.” Quiet for a moment. “Hey. Thanks for showing me the chapel. You should be proud.”

“It's nice up there, right? I sawed all the boards.”

“You did it really right.”

Pause. “Thanks.”

His stereo lit the room, this gleaming heap of silver and light. The Royal Scam spun on the turntable, clicks each few seconds, scratches. The first side wound down; the tone arm lifted out of the lock groove, leaving behind a distant hum and soft light. “Play that side again,” he said.

I stood and lifted the arm back to the edge, the spiral-in groove, waiting through the moment of smooth drift as the needle found the line of sound and entered the vibrating soul of the vinyl. “You need a CD player. Give me a pillow.”

“I have a CD player.”

“I meant a CD.”

“I have CDs.”

“Of this album.”

“I'm not going to listen to music recorded for vinyl on CD.”

I rolled my eyes and shook my head.

“Last month I'm doing a kitchen,” he said, “and the woman says I could play anything I want on the stereo in the living room, right, it's piped into the kitchen. And I put on After the Gold Rush. And it's a ten thousand dollar stereo, all gold wire, Bose speakers in the kitchen, but it sounds completely dead.”

“But that's a new stereo. See, it would sound better on this one. You need solid state instead of transistors. Or tubes if you want to be crazy.”

“I don't agree with tubes. Tubes have been high-end for a long time. Solid state in the 70s, people had that.”

“Yeah, but tubes sound so warm.”

“But tubes aren't how the album was. It's not how people heard it. That's what I want to hear.”

“What you think is, the right sound for the album is the way that people heard it when it was released?”

“Yeah, because that's when people got into it. That's when the decisions are made, and it began to influence other music. Kids listening to the Dan, right, in the late 70s, they started bands in the 80s. And people heard those bands, and started bands, all the way through to now. When people bought this album they were listening to it on record players, getting up to flip over the sides. That's the way you need to experience it. Otherwise you don't get the scope of things. Like reading a play and seeing a play. I'm over at Chris's and he's into the Nap thing--”


“So he shows me and he's playing me all the Beatles through the stereo, and I feel like. This is awful. It's not music. It's huge pit filled with songs.”

“It's no worse than radio.”

“Exactly. Radio is a terrible way to hear music.”

“But lots of people hear this album for the first time on the radio, and--”

“Right,” he said. “Then you go to the record store, if it matters to you, and you bought it. And you take it home, put it on your record player. And then you share the space inside the musician's head with everyone else who bought the album. You don't share the experience until you have the record. You're home in a safe environment, and you can set the emotional boundaries for the music, and then you put the album on and let the music take over.”

I shook my head, confused. “So what do you do when the vinyl wears out?”

“When it wears out, it's over. I just let go of it.”

“That's bullshit. I see you without Hawks and Doves. Come on. And the Dan, but you weren't alive for this shit. You were 8 when this album came out.”

“Yeah, but I want to get as close to that moment as I can. 1976. And I have stories for albums. Who I am when I listen to it. For this album, right. I'm a guy with a job. I'm in some city and my apartment has a lot of room but not much furniture. And that's the guy I am for the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, too.”

“Hey,” I said. “My friend Paul does that too.”

“Your friend in New York? The Web guy?”

“Same thing, he's got stories for every album, and he's telling me before I left, there's this CD, this jazz thing. `At the Hot Club of France.'”

“Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. It's pretty famous. It's a major influence. See--”

“And he was talking about it, and he said what he does when he listens to it is pretend he was living in the same apartment where he lives now but in the late 30s, and he has a job in an office making 20 bucks a week, rent is 10 of that. And the guy is fascinated with Paris, and it's a really intense time, he's Polish, and he's reading about Hitler in the paper and he knows to be worried. He has a clerk job in Manhattan, and he takes the subway home and gets off and sits in a big, ratty stuffed chair and tries to imagine what it was like to be in Paris and hear Reinhardt play at the Hot Club, and all the French chicks in dresses.” Paul had spun the whole thing out for me.

“So your friend tries to imagine how the album feels for that guy?”

“He's got a lot of album stories. He says he wants to do a book based on it.”

“It's a good idea. It's the same with me. But not for that album. When I listen to the Mahavishnu Orchestra--”

“Please don't take that path.”

Two weeks ago Mike and I went out to walk along the banks of the Brandywine Creek, which runs about a mile from his house. He kept talking about the Mahavishnu Orchestra, which, with Gentle Giant, I regard as one of the worst excesses of a musically excessive era.

“But Ray, John McLaughlin, man, that guy--”

“I don't care. I don't want to hear about freak-out jazz fusion. Noodling. And if you want to say John McLaughlin, I can just say who plays keyboards on those albums.”

“Yeah, but that's unfair; this was before he --”

“Jan Hammer, Mike. Yaaaaan Haaaamah. No, my name isn't Jan, like a girl! My name is Yaaaaaaan, from Check-o-slove-ahk-ee-uh, and play in the Maha-veesh-new Orchestra. And now I strap a keyboard over my shoulder and play it for Miami fucking skinny pastel blue tie pink suit Don Johnson Vice. That is the culmination of the Mahavishnu's artistic ethos.”

“Why would I think to talk about this with you?”

“Mike, I'm totally sympathetic. When we go back to the house, we can put on the Miami Vice soundtrack and I promise I won't say a word. And if you want to play some Glenn Frey, I'll abide. Even Phil Collins.”

“That's insulting. You come to my house and you accuse me of listening to Phil Collins.”

“Because, you know what Mike? I can feel it coming in the air tonight. I can. And you want to be careful there by the water. Don't slip and fall. Because you know what? When you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand. That's right.”


“You can wipe off that grin, Mike. Cuz I know where you've been.”


“It's all been a pack of lies, hasn't it?”

“Please. Stop it.”

A few days later, while he was out of the house, I went through his record collection, and there it was, Phil Collins' flabby mug peering out of Face Value, the album nestled between Blonde on Blonde and the handshake-and-flames cover of Wish You Were Here.

I cued the album on the player and an hour later, when I heard Mike's car pull in over the gravel, I ran into his bedroom. As the door opened, as his tan boots stepped across the wooden threshold, I dropped the needle and the old house shivered with the booming synth-drums, vintage 1981.

He came into the bedroom to see the album in my hands, a possum's grin on my face. I felt sudden shame. He spoke his first profane words of my visit:

“You are an absolute motherfucker.”

“Don't start on Mahavishnu,” I said. “Or I'll put on Face Value. And give me a pillow.”

He threw me a goosefeather pillow which I dropped on the floor. I stretched back over the knit-rag carpet, before his aural hearth, the horns kicking in on the second track of the Dan album.

“So if this album, if the `Caves of Altamira' wears out, you won't buy another one?”

“That's why I don't listen to it more than a few times a year. I get ready and I really feel it through. I listen to a lot of albums in chronological order. I put myself in the time. I figure I can keep that up for about 50 more years before I wear out the collection.”

“There won't be any more turntables.”

“I can fix that one if it goes. There's nothing that complicated in that system. I can take apart a motor. I bought a bunch of needles, too.”

“You've though this through.”


“There's nothing that can get close to the Dan. They beat Radiohead on the Grammies. I was cheering when I heard that.”

“That band is bullshit.”

“Yeah,” I said. “There's too much about them. But they have some good songs. Radiohead can write songs when they want to.”

He didn't say anything. The album spun around the spindle.

“Sometimes I want some weed superbad,” he said. “But it's a bad idea to get started.”

“I understand,” I said.

It was about midnight. Stretched out, within 4 minutes we both became very tired, our schedules synced from living and working together, resonant bodies in a very small tribe. Side one ended and the tone arm rose and returned to its rest.

“That's the first thing that will go,” he said. “The motor that lifts the tone arm.”

“You got 50 years. You'll be able to inject it with AI-based nanotech solution and it'll fix itself.”

“What kind of solution?”

“Sci-fi junk.”

“Oh. You know, Ray, I am very close to done here. Ready for to pass out. You want to get up tomorrow?”

“I think 9:30, few extra hours.” I yawned “I could sleep almost on this rug.”

“You can if you want. My aunt made that rug from scraps.”

“I think I will.” I leaned back, but soon I felt uncomfortable with someone else so close. “You know, I'll make the sofa, I think. Better for my back.”

“Huh. Good night.”

“Wake me up, though,” I said. “Don't let me sleep.”

“I won't,” he said, drifting.




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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.


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© 1974-2011 Paul Ford


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