Stuff. Like putting your leg in a bear trap....

Thought I should tackle the idea of stuff, just enough stuff, and too much stuff. I suppose I started thinking about this when I ventured over to Mike Johnston's blog this morning and read the 45 comments from mostly middle-aged men gushing and reminiscing about various esoteric audio components; mostly sourced during the golden age of audio-philia.

The entire exercise of falling in love with gear is not necessarily foreign to me. Let me explain (As I listen to Bare Naked Ladies on the earbuds that came standard with my iPhone XR):

It all started when my frugal parents bought my brother and I a joint Christmas gift of a stereo record player and....the Beatles White Album. They also had the foresight to buy us a set of (cheap but serviceable) headphones. Once bitten by the idea of being able to endlessly listen to my favorites songs on demand I started diving deeper and deeper into "audio." I bought and tried to fix old reel-to-reel tape recorders and built a Heathkit stereo receiver which actually worked. By the time I graduated from high school I'd decided to go off to the university and study electrical engineering with the idea of designing and building various audio components.

Once ensconced in my cheap, un-air conditioned dorm room I embarked on building all sorts of stuff. I put together a Dynaco Stereo 70 amplifier, scrounged up a pair of AR3a speakers and finally bought a decent turntable. The flaw in all of this was that my parents were putting all three kids through the university at the same time and were NOT disposed to financially support what they very clearly saw as nothing more than an expensive and distracting hobby. I needed to find a part time job to support my hobby...

Of course, the logical thing to do was to find a great "hi-fi" store within walking distance (no car) of campus and present myself as a knowledgable stereophile who would be capable of actually explaining and thereby selling equipment to customers. Just at the edge of campus was a tall residence tower with two stories of retail at the bottom. One of the shops was called, Audio Concepts. The store was filled to the brim with many esoteric brands I'd never heard of before as well as the rank and file stuff from companies like, Kenwood, Yamaha and Pioneer.

The stars must have lined up just right on that day back in the middle of the 1970s because the manager, a really cool guy just a couple of years older than me, hired me for 20 hours a week at a bit more than minimum wage. There was also a small commission they'd be willing to pay me for system sales. I was in heaven. Swim practice in the early morning, followed by classes at UT, followed by a late afternoon/early evening demo-ing audio gear for eager audiophiles. Sleep was just an incidental concern...

Working in an audio shop was fun. We carried Crown, Audio Research, Thiel, Dahlquist, Phase Linear, Lux, Denon, Magnaplanar, Klipsch, ADS, Stax, and so much more. I was a dutiful study. I memorized every spec sheet and paid rapt attention to every sales training session I could attend (also, the reps brought pizza for us and I was in perilous straights half the time having routinely spent my food allowance on a really cool tonearm or moving coil cartridge. We spent hours in our "listening room" at the store training ourselves to hear the tiny differences between the products. The sales staff was really good. We loved the gear but we also were well motivated to sell. In fact, at one point I was whisked off to Minnesota to do a two day interview with Magnaplanar; they were looking for a marketing person with some technical knowledge.  (I declined their offer because it was 17 degrees when I stepped off the airplane at the beginning of September. It was 90 in Texas the day I left...).

So, when I was at work, and in my dorm room, I spent a lot of time listening to the gear. I'd choose music based on how well it was recorded and how well it showed off the best parts of my system. It was almost exactly like photographers who shoot images only to test their lenses but who never get around to finding a style or subject matter than really compels them to go out and photograph for the sake of photography.

But I was smart enough to understand that there was a "gold list" of composers and artists that all "sophisticated" audio enthusiasts were supposed to appreciate and enjoy. Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane for Jazz. Joni Mitchell and Pete Seeger for folk. Anything Mozart, Beethoven, Berlios, Rachmaninoff, Debussy or Ravel. Everyone had a copy of "The Planets" composed by Gustav Holst, and a copy of "The Four Seasons" by Vivaldi. And no audiophile's collection was complete without a good copy of "Carmina Burana." Yeah. I bought all the vinyl I could find and listened to the coolest parts. Because they made my speakers sound great. Even better through a set of Stax electrostatic headphones.

But then something odd happened. I started dating a concert cellist. An avowed music lover. Someone who didn't give a crap about the "quality of the recording" or the "amazing low bass" of a music system. Her favorite set of records was the "Bach Suites for Solo Cello" which was scratchy and recorded with a lot of noise/hiss, and even grunting and moaning from Pablo Casals as he played. To her the audio quality was totally immaterial. Didn't count. Not on the radar. But every once in a while she'd hear a note so sweet a tear would fall down her face.

If you date a cellist you ARE going to go out a lot to hear live music. Not just classical music but all kinds of music. The same girlfriend who played hauntingly beautiful cello was also the bass player for a punk band that performed in clubs around Austin. For her the appreciation of music was saved for composition and execution and not at all for the mechanical reproduction. We sat through all of her friends' recitals and every concert that students could get discounted tickets for. At some point in time something in my own brain clicked in and I realized that no matter how great the gear might have been it was much more thrilling and much BETTER to hear the music live; in performance, contemporaneously. Three different music history classes at UT convinced me of this as well. I was lucky that two of my classes were taught by a famous concert pianist who would discuss a piece of music and then sit down at a Bosendorfer grand piano and proceed to play the composition we were studying. What a great way to learn music!

At that point in time it was as if someone reached into my mental process and turned off the switch to the circuit that made the idea of buying more and more gear seem fun. Now the gear was a weak and very secondary substitute for the REAL thing; which was the live, performed music. And, of course, at that time in Austin we probably had as many live music venues as all of New York City and we had the Armadillo World Headquarters, Austin's spiritual center for live music.  From country to hard rock. From Willie Nelson to the Talking Heads and Devo. And UT did their part with performances by Paul Olefsky and Janos Starker (cellists).

I started parting out and selling off the audio gear. When would I have had time to sit in an easy chair and listen to....an unchanging and always the same...album? And why would I spend time listening to a copy of the experience when it was so easy and enjoyable to go out and see the real thing in real time?
Should I put on my slippers and smoke my meerschaum pipe or get out to a club and see Clifton Chenier? Easy answer there....

My collection of LPs sits in a closet in one of the unused bedrooms now. I no longer have a turntable and we don't have any audio components in the house. Just a Tivoli Stereo Radio in the studio and an all-in-one, rosewood cabineted, CD playing, FM stereo on a bookshelf in the living room. Total expenditure about $300.

There are two places where I routinely listen to recorded music. One is in the car when driving for more than twenty or thirty minutes. The other is when I'm writing fiction. And in the case of writing I can only listen to music without vocals. When I do sit and write I like to do so in coffee shops (temporarily on hold) and I use music through my phone's earbuds more to cut out the ambient noise and distraction than anything else.

I still live in Austin. There's still live music everywhere (but temporarily on hold lately). When we have shows in the main theater at Zach Theatre there is always someone performing beautiful music in the lobby before the shows. It's always top notch; always live. And most of the shows which are musicals are almost always done with a live band or orchestra. The Theatre never uses canned music. We're lucky in one regard; we can hear good live music all the time in Austin. Even during the pandemic people are hiring UT music students to come and perform at backyard (socially distanced) happy hours for small groups or families. No one would think about piping in recorded stuff. Not when we can hear the real thing...

I subscribed to Amazon Prime and I sometimes pipe in streamed music when I'm sweeping the floor or doing planks or filling out tax forms. But, as a rule, Belinda and I seem to be immune to the charms of dedicating time to listening to pre-recorded music, other than a brief splash of something from our past during an anniversary celebration or something of that nature.

My lifestyle tends to be one of constant movement and so the value to me of thousands and thousands of dollars of audio gear, locked into one place in one room, only to be enjoyed in repose, is incomprehensible. I think I realized early on that one could (and some did) spend tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars on audio gear to chase what will be an always imperfect replica of the real thing = live music. And every hour spent sitting motionless in front of big wood boxes, listening to the same collection over and over again, was an hour lost to the pursuit of enjoying the REAL THING.

Mike posted images of his basement, littered with obsolete and aging gear from his past audio pursuits. It was a reminded to me to keep moving stuff out the door as soon as I decide to move on to the next iteration.

But what does all this have to do with photography? Well.... It's all disturbingly similar. For many of us the gear seems to be the thing of great interest while the photographs seem like nothing more than a proving mechanism of just how good the gear is. Almost as color accurate as real life. Almost as sharp as seeing something amazing with your own eyes. Almost as much fun as the act itself. As a group with most photographers there is an inclination to pursue photo gear for the sake of owning and testing said photo gear. The minute something comes out that promises a more accurate rendering we rush to buy it. And I'd wager that I'm not the only one with too many cameras and not enough finished work of my own.

If I follow the same progression I did with audio I'd end up with one small point-and-shoot camera and a hundred more stamps on my passport. One thousand more portraits. A multitude of human engagements. Because, while it is so true that the camera captures memories, you have to create or witness the memories in order to capture them. You have to have interesting things happen in front of the camera to imbue it with relevance. You have to meet interesting people and get to know them in order to get interesting portraits. You have to fall in love over and over again to get great portraits.

The stuff itself is like an anchor which ties you to it. Like a sad elephant chained at the ankle to a post. You want to go out and create a great image but first you need to acquire more stuff and then optimize it. In the meantime more stuff comes out and now you are convinced that you need to take a break to learn which new stuff to buy and how to use it so you can  REALLY create great photographs. In the end, if you follow this path you'll have memorized every owner's manual, masterfully mapped functions to every button and figured out exactly what focused distance works best for each lens in your system but you won't have invested the time in actually photographing much of anything more than a glorified test chart.

If you follow the same path but with audio gear you will have surrounded yourself with expensive, glorified record players and components but you will have anchored yourself to a room, cut off human contact, and taken up precious time and money that could have been spent actually HEARING AND EXPERIENCING real, live music. The kind where every performance is different, nuanced and irreplaceable.

There were a couple huge benefits for me in reading all the comments about audio gear that were appended to Mike's original post. First, it reflected back to me my own weaknesses in photography, where I (sadly, routinely) let my desire for new gear overshadow my desire for new images and new experiences. It also showed me that it's the desire itself that is the issue; the thing that kills our happiness within our chosen hobbies and passions.

I remember back to the late 1960's when my friends and I camped out in little pup tents in our backyard. We each had our own little transistor radios. They ran on those rectangular 9V batteries. I lay down on my Boy Scout sleeping bag and looked up at the Summer stars and then a song by Donovan which had hit the "Top 40" came on the radio station. It was "Sunshine Superman." Nothing has ever sounded as good as that did in that moment.

I remember when I took my first real black and white photograph. It was of my high school girlfriend who was as patient with me as she was beautiful. I used an old, zone focusing 126mm camera (Argus) and I barely understood even the basics. But when those deckled edge prints came back from the drug store processor I was irrevocably hooked. Mike's column, and the responses, reminded me of where the real magic lays and how much the "stuff" insulates us from the joy of the moment. 

I'm not sure that's what he intended.....

right now I'm listening to "Sunshine Superman" with some earbuds connected by white wires to my phone. I can tell you the music is as powerful as anything coming out of $$$$$$ stuff.

Nice. Thanks Mike for the Instant Satori that came packaged in that blog.

Now, where did I put that magic Argus?