The Audio Cynic

Back to Basics

I had a minor-league epiphany, courtesy of Waylon Jennings and my seven-month-old granddaughter.

I sang in choirs and choruses for many years, floating between baritone and bass depending upon the material and the needs of the group. I haven’t done it for a while, and miss both the camaraderie and the vocal exercise: like everything else, singing requires practice and development of one’s body and mind. If you don’t think singing is exercise, try doing “Messiah” from start to finish without building up your chops and your lung capacity. You’ll die.

Maybe not, but it’ll be a severe strain. —Anyway, I digress.

While babysitting granddaughter Nova, I was playing songs on YouTube through the TV. I’ve already found that she reacts well to upbeat, brief pieces of music—with Grandpa singing along. Beatles For Sale has a number of songs that get her bouncing, and I recently discovered she has a different but equally intense reaction to the early Dylan records. She listened raptly to both The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and The Times They Are a-Changin’, staring at the cover images of Dylan on the TV screen. As Dylan’s voice played, she turned between me, singing, and the image of Dylan’s face. Her level of focus was truly striking.

Back in the early, deeply-broke days of marriage, a couple lifetimes ago, most of the new records I got came from winning radio contests. —yes, I was good. One gimme record that we nearly wore out (along with the soundtrack album of FM—bad movie, great soundtrack) was Waylon and Willie. That album led me into the back catalogs of both artists, and one song that has stuck in my head for forty years now is the song, “Luckenbach Texas (Back to the Basics of Love.)”

If you don’t know it, it has Waylon contemplating the complications that success had brought, and how he wanted to get back to the basics of his relationship with his wife. The song could be viewed as sappy, but I think of it more as a wistful expression of sentiment—not sentimentality. I think it stuck with me way back then as it tied into my qualms about the uncertainties of the first year of marriage at a way-too-young age. At 22, I was feeling a little overwhelmed by the newfound complexities of my life, and the theme of the song and Waylon’s strong baritone made a real impression—and obviously, a lasting one.

So I was singing that song along with Waylon on YouTube. Nova was watching my face as I sang, alternately smiling and looking as though she couldn’t quite figure out what I was doing. The phrase, “maybe it’s time to get back to the basics of love” leads into the familiar chorus, “let’s go to Luckenbach, Texas…” which had Nova bouncing up and down in time, slapping the tray of her highchair.

There was an unguarded joy in her reaction that I have never, in forty years of attending such things, seen at an audio show. Or any demo of audio equipment.

I have, however, seen similar reactions from grown-ups at live concerts.

What’s the difference?

I think it’s the distance between us and the music. When stuck in a formal setting where we’re aurally scrutinizing the equipment playing the music, it’s difficult to just—feel. At a concert venue full of excited and expectant fans anticipating, by God, A GOOD TIME, it’s easier to just let go and respond to the music.

Most demos at shows are, let’s face it, inhibiting. You’re surrounded by a pretty buttoned-up group of people, often in settings that are physically uncomfortable, without control over the music, or even your ability to exit if it’s crowded.

I find it inhibiting. If you’re unaffected by those constraints, my hat’s off to you.

Yes, good gear does provide a more immersive listening experience. But emotional connection can come from unexpected gear, in unexpected places. I’ve previously mentioned the decades of enjoyment I’ve gotten from a simple clock radio; well, YouTube through a TV isn’t the ultimate in fidelity, but there we were: singing and yelping as able, smiling and bopping along.

Maybe it’s time to get back to the basics….