Sony Killed My Ears
On the Christmas of 1996 (the first year I spent in New York), I got a Sony Walkman. I had asked for one. I'd decided that for all the time I spent walking around the city and waiting for subway trains to arrive, I should have an ongoing soundtrack.
It was the yellow "sports" Walkman, remember those? I don't know what made it "sporty" -- was it waterproof? Did it hold up better during raquetball matches? Who knows. It fell off my person many times and never shattered on the sidewalk, so maybe that owed to its rugged sportiness.
I didn't care for the bright yellow, so I painted it with black nail varnish ("I see a Walkman and I want it painted black..."). I clipped it to the waistline of whatever I was wearing and went storming out into the city with the volume maxed, every time I left the apartment. I never left home without that thing for at least seven years.
Ok, I'm exaggerating, it wasn't the same Walkman for all that time. Eventually I wore the first one out and had to replace it. I usually went to a video rental/electronics store on 1st Avenue. I can't estimate how many walkmen (I'm using the lower case now because the machines weren't necessarily Sony) I went through -- oh hell, I'll estimate. Maybe a dozen, or 20.
I made stacks of mix tapes, which still cover a wall of my apartment. They're great time capsules. They always represented whichever albums I was into at the time, plus bits from compilation CDs, scraps gathered randomly from the radio (in the middle of some tape from '98, there's a snippet from the Howard Stern Show's news segment -- about some poor soul whose lower intestine was sucked out of his body in a jacuzzi -- that still makes me clench my teeth when I hear it).
The tapes had weird names and random inserts -- sometimes my own artwork, sometimes magazine clippings. Sometimes the songs were listed on the liner but more often, they were not. To me, it was more fun not knowing what was on the tape. When I pressed play, it was a surprise. When I listen to those tapes now, my favorite bits are all the forgotten songs, the greatest hits of long-ago traded-in discs (think Machines of Loving Grace, No Doubt, Lard, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, the Fugees). So many of those songs belong solely to their respective time periods. Hearing them in context is pretty powerful and highly nostalgic.
Some of the tapes had themes; I'd made tapes of strictly dance music, strictly metal, strictly goth, strictly punk rock. Some were just fall music, some were just spring music. Some were just one band. I've got mix tapes devoted exclusively to Van Halen, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Queen, Big Audio Dynamite, KMFDM, King's X, Gene Loves Jezebel, The Damned, Madonna, Led Zeppelin, piL, Slayer, The Cure, The Cars, Eleven. I've got at least six Motorhead mix tapes and they're all completely different.
I made tapes for cloudy days, tapes for early summer, tapes for Halloween, tapes only to be heard in December. Tapes for my birthday, tapes for road trips, tapes for sleeping. I have three volumes of Social Terrorism, which is all metal and techno mixed together. I have six volumes of Fall Back, which is all music from autumn.
But above all, the mix tapes were made for the walkman. I never left the house without it. The tapes were for subway rides, for my jaunts around the East Village hanging flyers, or en route to clubs, for trips out of town. If you ever saw me between '96 and '03, chances are, I had the 'phones on.
New York is a noisy place. The 'man had to be cranked to be heard. On the streets and especially the subway, if the volume wasn't pushing into the red, you weren't hearing the tunes.
After two years of this, I discovered I had full-on tinnitus. For those who aren't familiar, tinnitus is a chronic condition wherein one's ears ring 24 hours a day. It's not hearing loss per se, just a constant ringing. You notice it especially in quiet rooms. Some folks who suffer from tinnitus keep the television on at night when they go to sleep, to drown out that dreadful sound. It's been said to drive some to suicide. I don't let it bother me that badly but I must say, when I find myself in a really quiet place (like my parents' house in Pennsylvania at bedtime), the loudness of it is pretty scary.
Anyway, after a certain point I decided to end all walkman use. For one thing I got tired of the tape players' heads wearing out, of the earphones going bad, and yes, I got tired of the feeling that I was constantly MAKING THAT RINGING IN MY EARS LOUDER. I figured I should quit while I'm behind, for my ears' sake.
Around 2003 I bought my last walkman. After its motor wore out I threw it into the kitchen garbage can along with the coffee grounds and banana peels -- and put my vast catalogue of mixtapes into dusty retirement.
These days I read books to keep me entertained on subway platforms. I never got into ipods and still don't own one. So, I'm now susceptible to all the idiotic conversation, insults, dumb quips thrown from passing cars and every other type of noise pollution that rents the city air day after day. I'm actually engaged in the real world.
Now I've been off walkmen for five years. My mix tape production ground to a screeching halt at the same time that I stopped using. Oh sure, I still make the occasional mix CD, just to mark the passing of a season, but it's mainly for posterity. No longer are the songs of my todays burned inextricably into experiences of running down cold avenues in Manhattan, or lingering in sweltering train stations, or drifting through canopies of spring buds on Brooklyn side streets, or riding the J train into the lower east side on impeccable and steely autumn afternoons. For me music is now mainly consumed at home. Songs are no longer associated with individual events, just with my kitchen.
But that ringing, that infernal ringing, is the soundtrack to every waking moment, no matter where I am.