Music Memory Zero

I’m starting out with something of a lie if you’re going solely on the title here, since what follows doesn’t come anywhere close to my first memory of music. For me, “music memory zero” launched a new type of listening that forever changed the way I engaged and interacted with music.

A trip to New York in February 2008 found me at a friend of a friend’s apartment in Brooklyn. His was the kind of apartment you dreamed about renting if life were to bring you to New York and all its enclaves, and one you might’ve actually been able to afford in early 2008. It was perched on the third floor of a newly renovated building in Williamsburg, which was nearing the end of a resurgence first begun earlier that decade. Rent prices were astronomical, but hadn’t yet reached that unattainable quality which eventually became “$1100 buys me a place in a two ‘bedroom’ apartment that I’ll share with three other people.”

The host in question (whose name I’ve long since forgotten) lived with a roommate in a true two-bedroom apartment that was small yet still sizable. Their combined living room/kitchen had full floor-to-ceiling windows, which led out to the most minuscule of balconies, but boasted a killer view of the Manhattan skyline. A “wipe the drool off the floor, you’re embarrassing yourself” kind of view.

We opened a bottle of red wine, and as our conversation carried on past Brooklyn rental prices, the flurry that defines working in New York, and sustaining a livable life while being employed in the arts, he took out Cat Power’s Jukebox and dropped the needle on the opening track. Power’s restructured “New York” came to life, the sound reverberating against the view and back again.

“What in holy hell is this?” I thought, my brain not giving my mouth purchase to run with the question just yet.

Hearing “New York” come through the speakers, I was struck by the overall difference in sound. Having never heard the album before, I thought it was some trick the engineers had dreamed up. And it was, in part, but little did I know the real truth lay in the listening medium.

Audiophiles may spat to this day about whether records really do sound better, but, in that instance, I’d never heard anything so good come through any kind of music player I owned. The drums took on this extra-life quality, punctuating Power’s slow, smoky tone in a way that made it seem as if they existed in that very room. Add to that confluence the organ strolling along on the entire track, and I was hooked. No one said an addictive personality need always experiment with the riskier side of substances. Music can be just as habit-forming.

I made our host play it again. After I asked a second time, he offered me his headphones and the experience became entirely my own. The subtle echo that exists on Power’s voice especially (but really on the entire track) filled my ears. I felt as though I stood in a massive theatre hall, absorbing an onstage performance, rather than before a record player in Brooklyn.

When I got back to Tallahassee, I purchased the album digitally, playing it and replaying it on my iPod, but it didn’t have the same “oomph” it held for me in Brooklyn. I say “oomph” because I can think of no better way to describe the sound’s quality. It  contained a physicality I hadn’t heard before, not in all my years of boomboxes, computer speakers, earbuds, and car stereos.

I started researching what it would take for me to purchase my own record player, so I, too, could collect the kind of sound I’d heard that night. As it turned out: a lot. More money than I certainly had saved at that moment. I put aside the immediacy of my desire, and began plotting out ways to save what little I earned as a poor grad student, so that I could one day bring this format into my life. I couldn’t explain then and still can’t explain now why I was so hooked on the idea. I’d had my fair share of “I want!” and “I need!” moments, which I’d managed to slink off as the idea grew less tempting past the instantaneity in which it arose, but this concept of owning a record player didn’t go away so easily.

What came next changed the game. My dad, who was the proud owner of a 1970s Pioneer SA-1000 amp and Dual 721 turntable, flat out gave me his system. It was the very system he’d owned as a teenager in Canada, later sold, and then eventually repurchased thanks to a crafty little site called eBay. When I asked him why he’d so selflessly given up something I knew he enjoyed having in his home, he told me how he’d felt deep down inside that I needed it more than he did.

Life comes down, in many ways, to timing. Perhaps I would’ve one day reached a place where I naturally grew into a deeper interest in music, and where that interest sparked a pursuit of music writing that in turn engendered a deeper exploration of sorts. But I’m not sure. In that moment, my dad gave me a way to access a creative part of myself that, if left untapped, might not have resurfaced so easily down the line.

One of the first albums I purchased for my newly acquired stereo was, of course, Cat Power’s Jukebox. And there it was, exactly as I’d heard it in Brooklyn, the sound. It’s the physical presence of an art form that has lingered with me ever since, as I continue listening to record after record. Though, perhaps in that first moment “New York” burst through the speakers, the music was all the more special for being on my dad’s and now my own stereo.

From there, my path with music was set. I haven’t stopped listening since.