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29 November 2010

A Shout Out to Thomas Edison

On Thursday, November 29, 1877, Thomas Edison revealed a device that was to fuel all of my adolescent fantasies: the phonograph.

It's difficult for me to imagine what life must have been like before recorded music. I recently completed a novel in which the heroine is a violinist, the hero a composer. In the first scene, she desperately tries to memorize the song she's just heard played. Without a way of recording the music, she had little hope of remembering the piece after only one hearing. Yes, there was sheet music, but it's difficult to recreate an entire symphony when you're looking at one instrument's part at a time.

Parts of a turntable
Edison's first attempt wasn't all that different from the record players I knew and loved during my youth. There was a spinning cylinder, a groove, and a needle; there were speakers.


David Bowie's UK release of Space OddityWhen I was a child, I watched a man walk on the moon for the first time. At school that autumn, I was one of a dozen children in my class who dreamed of becoming an astronaut. The teachers told us that sometime in our lifetime, we'd be living in outer space. A scant four months later, David Bowie released "Space Oddity", and the song became the soundtrack for all my dreams of space flight. (Only as an adult did I catch the double-edged metaphor between Bowie's astronaut and heroin use).

That was the first of many moments of my life that were punctuated by music. I remember where I was standing and what I was wearing the first time I heard The Damned's "New Rose" (arguably the first punk rock record). I met my husband in a record store while Elvis Costello's "Armed Forces" LP spun on the turntable.

In 1983, as my husband and I drove over the Bay Bridge together for the first time to the city where we'd live for more than 27 years, we listened to Bach's Brandenburg Concerto number 2. In a way, this song brought me full circle to my childhood memories of "Space Oddity." Is it any coincidence that this song was chosen to be the first one recorded on the played on the "golden record", a phonograph record containing a broad sample of Earth's common sounds, languages, and music sent into outer space with the two Voyager probes?

It's no wonder I wax nostalgic over vinyl records (no pun intended). They were a huge part of my identity; they were my obsession and the soundtrack of my life. A friend of mine who happens to be a full generation younger than I am came over for Thanksgiving dinner a few days ago. As I spoke of Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, and punk rock, he nodded rather dazedly, like I used to do when my father spoke of World War II or the Great Depression. When he piped up, it was to say that he had never seen a vinyl record! I was sad and amazed, and pulled out one of the thousands in my front parlor. We spent a good portion of the evening listening to some of those old songs -- none of which he'd ever heard. How does one grow to adulthood without having heard "Blue Suede Shoes?"

Today, in honor of the man whose invention gave me so much joy, I lift a glass to Thomas Edison.

Am I alone in having such vivid musical memories? Is this phenomena limited to my generation, or do youngsters have their own modern soundtracks (stored digitally, no doubt) that old fogies like me know nothing about?

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12 Comments:

Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Hey Doreen, I absolutely love vinyl, but it's so hard to replace parts -- styluses, etc. We've been without for a few months now. Gotta go seek out hole-in-the-wall places that sell them.

10:03 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Youngsters still have a soundtrack of their life. Perhaps even more so than we do, since they're very likely to have been attached to an iPod or other music device for almost seminal moment of their life.

When I hear stories like yours, it really makes me marvel at the absurd non-conformity of my siblings and their friends. All in the early to mid-20s, these “kids” don’t seem to be a part of the stunted generation I’m always hearing about. They vote, they cook, they scoff at the list of things “college freshmen don’t know”, they know their Elvis P from their Elvis C . . . my sister and BIL know far more about the punk music of my teen years than I ever did, even though I was the one madly moshing to it, LOL!

They’re the ones going to see 45 Grave next week . . .

12:08 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

How funny you should post on this topic. My nephew (youngest brother's son) is in the process of downloading selections from my and his uncle's (other brother) vinyl collections onto his Ipod. He can't believe his aunt, the opera singer, has original vinyl recordings of Kiss, Alice Cooper, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, etc. Of course I also have 78's of Maria Callas and Enrico Caruso (inherited from my paternal grandmother). Once I persuaded him to listen to my recordings of Robert Johnson and Etta James he became a fan of the blues as well. He offered to burn CD's of my vinyl collection until he saw the floor to ceiling wall to wall depth of my collection. Guess who gets the collection in my will? :)

5:16 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I do remember playing in my high school band and the half-time show in which we broke from marching tradition (late 70's) and played our band director's arrangement of Smoke on the Water. Even now if I happen to hear that song I am transported back to that Friday night and the roar of approval from the student stands.

5:18 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Hee -- Smoke on the Water is the first song my husband taught me to play on his bass guitar. Thanks for the smile.

6:21 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Oh wow, Doreen! I would love to hear you play it. If memory serves (which it does in fits and starts) the bass guitar line was played by our tuba line (15 strong). You could feel the rumble of it in your chest as you marched.

7:31 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Smoke on the Water played by a huge tube line? I so wanna hear that! My best friend from college plays the bassoon, and I'm always ecstatic when I can get her to play for me.

7:50 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I played the bassoon in high school and college. Haven't played for years, but I loved it and I still love the sound of lone bassoon. So plaintive! I played the clarinet in the marching band. Those tuba guys made the ground shake. So cool!

8:10 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

You could have heard those tubas in space!

8:55 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Doreen! I find music is an incredible sense memory trigger. A piece of music can take me back to a particular moment, whether it's a record I played as a child, something I saw performed live, or something I first heard on CD (I still don't have an ipod). It's so hard writing about characters in a pre-recorded music era to wrap one's head round the fact that they could only hear music played live. That people who lived their lives in the country would probably never have the chance to hear a symphony, that family evenings round the pianoforte were the main way a lot of people heard music of any sort.

11:00 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Do any of you remember the scene in the film Bright Star, where the boys and men at a party do a "human orchestra" version of a Mozart Serenade?

Here's a link to a gorgeous youtube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_pqmxsj7NKY, an enactment of our skill in electronic reproduction as well as their lack of it. And the skills they had instead.

8:34 AM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Thanks for sharing that video, Pam. I've not seen the film but that scene makes me want to.

12:33 PM  

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