Thursday, April 5, 2012

Conversations/April - Signals of Spring

There's a word in Spanish, Italian, and German
In sign language, Morse Code, semaphore and gibberish...

"Pidgin English", Elvis Costello

Samuel Morse was born into a world, in April 1791, whose best long-distance communication motif was semaphores or smoke signals, or possibly mirror manipulations on a sunny day. He probably had no sense, as a child, of the possibility that two people could communicate over a distance; his developing artistic sense was probably what he thought of as an efficient communication approach. But forty years later, most people were probably aware that there was an impending revolution based on beeps being transmitted over a wire.

In the Spring of 1959, twenty years after the first TV broadcast, when not in school, I was likely to be lodged in front of a built-in 45-rpm player, marching repeatedly through my sister's singles, which were dominated by Elvis. I mastered his phrasing, albeit an octave higher, and memorized all of the lyrics of many of the most popular songs of the era. I had begun to be aware the year before that the guy on the radio, whoever he was, seemed to be listening to the same stuff I was, but wasn't sure what to make of it - did my sister talk to him, or he to her? Was he more of a record, or was he somehow yelling somewhere in a way that got to me through that radio?

When Morse died in an April in the 1870's, Guglielmo Marconi hadn't yet begun trying to figure out how to take the wire out of the telegraphy equation - he would not be born until an April two years later. And the Pony Express was only a memory ten years distant. But if wires produced communication scenarios previously unthought, beeps through the air broadened in a way that must have been unimaginable the logistics of the proposition; you could be just sitting out in the desert, or on a boat, and if you had a box full of a certain kind of electronic stuff, you could find a way to converse with someone a long ways away - in real time. For the people of the world before 1900, that sort of proposition must have had much the same sense of mystery that the radio did for me in the late fifties.

It's likely that most boys of that era - the fifties, that is - sooner or later, as they looked at comic books, became enamored of something sold on full pages crowded with Wonders to Behold - X-Ray Specs! Black Eye telescopes! Transfer tattoos! And though most were deceptively marketed and overrated, one which I ordered, even with its limitations, was a true wonder. It was a germanium diode radio. The user simply had to go out, as I did in Alleghany, CA, to find any expanse of metal of reasonable size, a cyclone fence, some corrugated steel, and attach the alligator clip of the device to that metal, put the earphone into your ear, turn the dial, and - wow! - you could hear KXOA playing the Byrds' "I'll Probably Feel a Whole Lot Better."

Did you have any interesting tales of emerging awareness of communications? Do you have any thoughts about what the relationship between our assumption of TV and our kids' assumption of continuous availability of texting might be?

Fuller: My father was an electronics nerd and worked in the field for years. He built a television set in the early 50's and was often glued to his ham radio. The first big time awareness I had of a communications device was a record "recorder" he also built. It was about the size of a medium turntable, but instead of playing records, it recorded sound onto acetate "platters", one at a time. I'm not sure how many of these things he made, but I don't think there were too many; he wasn't interested so much in WHAT was recorded as he was in HOW it was actually accomplished, so cutting a few of these would probably have sated his appetite for this sort of thing. He played the guitar and piano, but didn't record "songs" per se; his recordings were more the "slice of life" stuff you might get from a home movie. So the only remaining recording I have, which was put on cd by my sister about six years ago, is of her and me and him and my mother, and I think a couple of relatives, jibber jabbering on, perhaps, Mothers Day. I think my sister and I must have been around seven or eight? I may have sung The Ballad of Davy Crockett (acappella), and he may have accompanied himself on guitar singing "On Top of Old Smokey"? Perhaps this early foray into recording is what set me on my wayward path thru life attempting to duplicate it, albeit in a little more refined way? And of course I was more interested in the "what" rather than the "how". When was the first time you actually were recorded and heard yourself? Was it a "big deal"?

Spence: The first time I was recorded - and remembered it! - was probably around 1959. My father had acquired an RCA portable reel-to-reel machine, and at the point I remember, had apparently had it for awhile, it looked used. The two reels spinning were of interest to an 8-year-old regardless of the audio capabilities, and I'm sure it took me awhile to realize that it was capable of "remembering" sounds.

He recorded us all talking, as I recall, perhaps to send the recorded reel to his father in Massachusetts, perhaps to just stow away for posterity, I don't recall what might have become of the immortalization. But on the heels of that, I had him, or perhaps my brother, show me how to thread the tape and begin recording. Not long after the conversation recording, to which I had paid little attention at the time, I set about recording myself singing an Elvis song, perhaps "Good Luck Charm", which I was taken with for awhile. 

I threaded the tape identified by someone as erasable, got it properly hugged around the take-up reel's hub, plugged in the stubby microphone, and pressed the button to record. I remember being somewhat hypnotized by the spinning reels for a second or two, then started singing. I figured just the chorus would be good, not very long, but long enough to get a sense of what the machine did.

I pressed the stop button, then the rewind button; of course I went too far, and the tape came to the end and the tail flapped on the full reel - I don't think they had a mechanism to detect that the tension was released and stop the motor. But I wasn't frustrated; I enjoyed the idea that I had figured out how make the machine yield up its secrets. I again threaded the tape, snugged it on the take-up, and pressed the play button.

- and was greeted by an absolute horror. I understood that I was doing a creditable job of imitating The King, but what came out of the recorder's speakers was a ridiculous representation of some little kid trying to sing "Good Luck Charm". I went in high dudgeon to the first person who would listen, though memory doesn't serve as to who the lucky soul was. I complained that the machine was broken, it had to be playing at the wrong speed, like when I used to forget to change the speed when I went between 78'a and 45's on the record player. And I suspect that it was no mean feat to finally convince me that what I was hearing, however unfairly, represented in fact what I sounded like.

At some point not too much later, there was an occasion when a microphone was plugged into a P.A. system, it may have been at a party, or at school, and someone encouraged me to speak into it. I was having none of it; it was bad enough to know how bad I sounded without broadcasting it.

I managed to resign myself to my spoken voice while deejaying in college, figuring that the point was sharing music after all. And the voice in the headphones then was somehow not as trauma-inducing as what came though that player's grille all those years before.