THERE are songs that you know by heart because you’ve played them through the decades across various formats. The first ever physical media or cassette tape I ever bought was in an Odyssey record store in what is now that BPO hub in Pasig Crossing. That place used to be market with a mall in the late 80s and I remember it was in 1987 and I was in grade four.
Like every adolescent yet to discover his own identity, I had to borrow my elder brother’s cool persona. He strutted to Michael Jackson at first and did the metallic gigolo but good thing he, together with his army brat peers, soon discovered the pioneering radio station DWXB 102.7 and started to listen to bands like U2, New Order, and The Cure in the mid 80s. It was through him that I was initiated to music as an identity marker. Not everyone knew about this kind of subversive music and those who did were the cool kids that I wanted to be part of.
So when I purchased my first ever cassette tape, which happened to be U2’s The Joshua Tree album from that store in Pasig Crossing together with a Top 40 shirt of Bono and the Edge in that trademark Anton Corbijn poses, it was an attempt to outdo my elder brother in terms of coolness - an achievement I believed I secured when not for long, I would be the one to initiate him and his friends to cutting edge music. It was the start of a long education on the origins of punk and the postpunk movement as well as the politics that spawned this cultural movement. Learning about U2 writing songs on the troubles of Ireland or The Smiths fey rendition of the spirit of England’s disaffected youth under Thatcher were my first lessons in Sociology, but that journey is another story.
I would like to write about a parallel journey in my quest as an aspiring audiophile involving the equipment that allowed us to listen to music. What is probably lost to millennials nowadays is that physical media such as cassette tapes or the vinyl record required special equipment in order to unpack the information that are pressed or imprinted on them whereas today’s music files can be played in their smartphones and computers.
For a child of lower middle class parents who did not have the income for such expensive audio equipment, the closest thing to a hifi setup we had as a family was a Sanyo boombox converted haphazardly by the company into a karaoke machine.
It was all the rage then in the late 80s for every household to have one, where your father, your uncle, and other male neighbours took turns singing “My Way.” So U2’s Joshua Tree tape had to compete for airtime with my parent’s minus one collection that included the Matt Monroe classic and the backing track to “How much is that doggie in the window” together with other similar tunes of their generation. I also discovered that the upright design of the karaoke box could be transformed into the boombox format with the speakers on the sides when you destroyed the feable plywood encasement.
Soon, that first hifi setup of the family would suffer from my tinkering during weekends trying to extend the life of the machine. I cleaned the tape heads with the nails on my fingers and was obsessive compulsive about the tape head alignment too that the tape deck covers had to go. I added external tweeters with capacitors when I was not so happy with their murky sound until the machine, which by now looked like Frankenstein, finally gave up the ghost.
The Sony walkman was the easy solution to the problems of a heavy and dedicated music machine that broke down too often. The Walkmans, though made of ABS plastic, were built like tanks and lasted for years. By the time I was in college, it was my preferred audio listening device because you can take it during long commutes and the boring walk towards the classroom inside the campus.
They all basically sounded the same, with Sony being the most reliable brand. It was a serious upgrade, however, if you paired your Walkman with a good pair of earphones such as the one produced by the German brand Sennheiser. Later on, when it became affordable, I had a Sony CD walkman that not only played CD audio but also mp3 files burned on a recordable disc. I remember that the anti-skip system of the unit was so good that I brought the large circular Walkman when I jogged around the campus oval as an aspiring fitness fiend. But there are sacrifices in terms of audio fidelity with these portable systems. Their circuits are small, they run on low voltage, and rely on the small drivers of these teeny weeny earbuds to deliver the music.
Over the years, I have always been developing on the side a serious audio setup wherever I was based that began with CDs and then progressed to vinyl and it has been a decades-old adventure of hits and misses. It has been seemingly an endless process of saving and spending, of endless trips to Raon, Quiapo and also to Akihabara in Tokyo in a number of occasions to test and buy old and new audio equipment with very little returns it seemed. But just this week, a work-related trip to Davao gave me the opportunity to pick up a 43-year old Pioneer receiver and it was the missing jigsaw piece to my lifelong audio puzzle.
A good friend of mine was generous enough to loan me her 180 gram vinyl record of U2’s The Joshua Tree album from the US many years ago for safekeeping and I have played it in my older systems always feeling underwhelmed by the sound. But now, I know I have come full circle and have unlocked an achievement level in my audiophile quest when I put on the record and, for the first time, heard the Edge’s chiming but full-bodied guitar lead in “With or Without You” as it was meant to be listened to by Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, renowned producers of the classic record. It was a special hair-raising moment that finally justified the mania and frustration of all those years. There might even be a tear there, or two.