Saturday, July 18, 2015

Vinyl Adventures in Super Mid-Fi

After probably 2 decades of incapacity, I am once again able to play record albums.  This is no small development for someone of my penchant for music.  We are now GO for vinyl in the OnceWereBachelorPad.  My new favorite saying is, "Come on over and let's listen to records!"

Billy Idol's Rebel Yell Spinning, Black Flag's Jealous Again On Deck
For years, I had been browsing Craigslist for a used system, but I couldn't find one complete that didn't smack of too much digitalia or oversensurroundsound.  No thanks.  Two channels, maybe a bank of levels.  Blue lights.  Finally, after driving Bill's MG, I also acquired his stereo receiver and awesome Bose 302 "bookshelf" speakers.  All I needed was a turntable, and for that I finally bit the bullet and simply ordered a basic one online, as well as a separate phono preamp.  If you're at all similarly inclined, stay away from the cheap self contained units that you find everywhere.  They're no better than the crappy plastic players we used to have as kids in the 70s, from Sears or worse.

I tell you all this not because I am a techie audiophile.  Lord no.  My music hardly calls for the highest fidelity.  With records, the journey's the thing, I think.  Besides putting the stereo components together, consider the act of accumulating record albums.  I've already waxed lyrical about sifting through album stacks at Tower Records.  Bringing out my old collection, which I've gathered since I was about 14 years old, the activity is downright autobiographical.  And now that I am again vinyl ready, I get to return to used record shops?  That's just a bonus to having the stereo.

Eames Fiberglass Shell Chair and Record Player
And what of the act of listening to record albums?  With CDs or iTunes or Pandora or Spotify, the experience is disposable.  One can skip past songs, assemble playlists, impose your own aesthetic on the artists whose songs you've downloaded.  It's also portable, in that one often does other things -- walk their dog, work out, read their email -- while listening to their iPod.  Those are not bad capabilities

Music Listening Space
by any means, but consider the alternative.  One occupies the same space as their stereo.  One has to set aside time to listen to the entire record because it isn't as easy to skip songs on an album.  Also, you'll have to listen to the songs in the order that the artist put them in on the record.  Do you think they put thought into that order?  I should think so.  And if you're going to listen to one record, you might as well listen to a bunch of them.  And what do you do while listening?  Maybe you could still clear your email, but just as likely, you could sit down, in your music listening space, and turn your attention to the cool stuff that came with the record album, the lyric sheet, the booklet.  Heck, even the picture on the album cover is reproduced in a stately, full size that lends itself to hours of scrutiny.  Don't think that it only holds the attention of teenagers.  It's happened to me since I got my stereo.

5 LPs of Bruce Springsteen Live, and Collectible Booklet With Lyric Sheet 

Cheap Trick's In Color

Back Cover of Cheap Trick's In Color

Inside Foldout to Cheap Trick's In Color

This Calls For Super Mid Fi

Sunday, June 7, 2015

A Life in a Drive

I can't help but feel a little bit intrusive today.  I was given the privilege of doing something highly personal with another man's dearest.  It's not what you think.  Or, if you hang around here much, it's exactly what you think.

I was granted the high honor of taking a friend's father's classic 1966 MGB Roadster on a Sunday drive.  I have to confess that I all but invited myself to this party, made it seem like it was her idea, but, as I like to coyly admit, "I am not completely without artifice."  Sure she needed help burning off the better part of half a tank of gas before shipping it off to the mainland, but was I just a bit too eager to help?  Did I take advantage of someone who doesn't know how to drive stick?  Again?

Mindful of the intrusion, I made sure I was respectful of its owner, my friend's father.  Bill bought this little British Racing Green roadster, brand new in 1966.  It rolled off the lot in Ann Arbor, Michigan, if there even was a dealer back then.  I doubt it.  It could very well have just been an importer or broker.  Even in its heyday, MG hardly enjoyed much of a market share in the U.S.

This little convertible remained with Bill for the rest of his life, right up until January 2015.  Besides Michigan, Bill and the MGB were on the East Coast, probably Maryland, DC, and Florida.  Eventually, Bill's skill set with the technical aspects of Navy nuclear submarines brought him to Honolulu, HI (and probably explains their time in Virginia Beach and Cape Kennedy as well), and of course, the MGB accompanied him.

As I drove the little roadster today, I made sure to keep Bill respectfully on my mind.  He took great care of this little sports car, and, on my watch, I would too.  I'd never driven such an old foreign car before, and I was ever watchful of the various problems for which these vehicles were known.  Overheating.  Leaking.  Rattling apart.  I made sure on a couple occasions to park the roadster to let it cool in the hot sunday afternoon.  Under the shade of a huge banyan in Waimanalo, we popped the hood and took in the gorgeous little convertible.  But not because we had to.

No gremlins ever appeared, as Bill seems to have left this car in fine fettle.  And his daughter has cared for it lovingly in this difficult time, until she hands it off to Bill's friend in Ohio, who already cares for two other MGs.  While we drove, she shared a few memories of her dad with me.  They were bittersweet, of course, but I hope she enjoyed the drive as much as I did.  She did joke that she was her father's "other child," this car being her more beloved sibling.  No, you weren't, and it wasn't.

I realize I learned very little about Bill, and yet in driving his little MG, I feel I know a lot because I know that, for some people, a car is more than a car.  The clutch was tight and firm, the H-pattern shifter felt like I would guess it was meant to feel.  Perhaps the dash was blemished and shopworn, but the gauges were clear and all appeared to work properly.  The seats, while well used, were firm and supportive and uncharacteristically tear-free.  I felt like I was steering with a hula hoop, but lock to lock, it was solid.  Before ignition, I made sure to inspect things under the hood, and I observed no leaks, and fresh rubber connecting all the oily and sparky bits.  The rear vinyl backlight, despite it's age, was clear.  The engine ran - forgive me for the overused simile - like a sewing machine.  It wasn't very confidence inspiring when I wanted to overtake other traffic, but that wasn't Bill's fault.

It's paint job wasn't perfect by any stretch, but it was most certainly British Racing Green, and it was satisfying to be seen in it.  I caught people on the road admiring us as they passed (rarely did we do the passing).  This was no car show queen.  Appearance was important, but not that important.  This was an engineer's car.  This was a car lover's car.  This was a driver's car.  This was a father's car, a father like me.  This was the car of a man who knew how to enjoy himself.  Bill kept this car to enjoy the drive, and I hope he doesn't mind that I got to enjoy it for myself.

I tried to be, first and foremost, respectful.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

On My Wall: Shy Luchmand's Harley Girl

In 1990, George H.W. Bush was drawing a line in the sand, Twin Peaks was preparing to jump the shark in its second season, and culture was still very much locked in the Eighties.  I had landed in London for my second year of law school, where me and me mates had managed to rent the top two floors of a Clapham row house belonging to an elderly Irish couple who always made it available to Notre Dame students abroad.  One look at the price of burritos in the Taco Bell on Piccadilly and I knew I needed to watch my pounds sterling, at least enough to keep my local willingly pouring pints of Guinness for me between classes.

Of course, this frugality didn't last long, and soon enough I was spending as frivolously as ever.  A poster of a Harley Girl was probably one of the first luxuries I treated myself to.  I found her at the Camden Lock flea market one sunday, so I must've still been trying to pinch my pence a bit.  Nevermind who Shy Luchmand is; apparently he's some photographer, somewhere south of Man Ray, and West of Nagel.  I liked her because, like the Eighties, she radiated style, rebellion, and edge.  Flannel and combat boots was still a good couple of years away.  Leather, chrome, and shades, and studiously tousled locks of blonde were still not ironic.

When I left London, I left her on my wall in Clapham along with an empty bottle of Beaujolais covered with a year's accumulation of candle wax.  If I could find an actual poster sized image of her, instead of this blown up thumbnail, I'd pay the equivalent worth today of what I paid then, on the cobblestones of Camden.

If this is your image, you must be Shy Luchmand.  Please let me continue to use it.  However, if you disapprove, feel free to let me know and I will take it down.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

An Unforgettable Documentary: "The Last African Flying Boat"

I know I don't post as much as I used to anymore, but it's not from disinterest.  Sure I could write more about cars or punk rock or watches, but what's the point.  I'd rather wait and throw on something of substance here, when I happen upon it.

Through a confluence of circumstances, I was reminded of a documentary I saw on the BBC while I was living in London in 1991.  On a whim, and of course following very little effort, I found it on YouTube.  If you have a spare seventy minutes, watch it, especially if anything I've written here ever grabbed your attention.  It's got it all.

"The Last African Flying Boat" was a documentary shot for the BBC in 1989 about an aging twin-engine Catalina flying boat retracing the Southern route of Imperial Airways, an English concern which operated similar aircraft in the pre-war era from Cairo to Mozambique.  Following the Nile River, this journey evidently took weeks to complete.  The purpose of the modern day adventure was to reopen the route for well-heeled tourists.

So much about this story captures my imagination.  Of course, there is the beautiful Consolidated PBY Catalina amphibious plane, with its high wing, twin rotary engines, retractable pontoons, waist gunner blisters converted to observation windows, and an interior which is part luxury yacht and part Orient Express.  Imagine flying at a stately 80 knots below the cloud cover as the African landscape slides past beneath you.  You count crocodiles and hippopotamus while you sip on a perfectly crafted gin and tonic swirling in crystal.

The Cat is flown by a taciturn American with a bird's nest of curly blond hair, forever sporting a pair of American Optical aviator sunglasses with traditional bayonet temples.  We meet "Jim", as he is called, as he is landing the bird on the Nile river with one hand, while flicking the ash of his cigarette out the sliding window of the cockpit.  Aside from being checked out on this aircraft type, Jim is also a certified Cat mechanic, and as the trip progresses, many of his skills are put to the test, airborne, floating, or chocked up.

Our travel companion on the journey is a British travel figure of some renown, Alexander Frater, who, considering this is 1989, isn't above behaving like an imperialist of an earlier generation.  We see him chagrined to learn that there is no bacon to be had at breakfast in the Muslim-run hotel in Cairo; something his predecessors apparently wouldn't have put up with in the old days.  On more than one occasion, we see him seeking out the company of other "colonists," most memorably spending a pleasant evening in the veldt with the descendants of the notorious Happy Valley Set of Kenya, an enclave of Anglo-Irish aristocrats who had gone borneo long ago, but not without keeping up their polo stables, high tea, and African servants.

There are other memorable characters as well, including Bill Cragg, an intrepid expatriate bush pilot who warns Jim of the perils of flying through war torn regions of central Africa.  Another brief search on the internet informs me that, shortly after this film was in the can, Cragg himself was shot down by a Soviet-sold SA-7 surface-to-air-missile over contested territory, launched by Sudanese rebels.

I don't want to spoil the ending for you, but aside from the will-it-or won't-it of a rather difficult take off at elevation, there is very little tension.  Light on drama, but heavy on atmosphere, it remains unclear to me whether this brand of tourism ever returned to the Dark Continent.  If it did, or if it remains, or if it ever does, count me among those wishing I could partake.