Amplifier

By Chambers, Christopher | The Southern Review, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

Amplifier


Chambers, Christopher, The Southern Review


LISTEN TO THIS. I lower the tone arm carefully, ease the needle down onto the last track on side 2 of Paradise and Lunch. "Ditty Wah Ditty." Listen. That's Earl "Fatha" Hines on the 88s, backing Ry Cooder, circa 1974. Just listen. Now, you can't expect these vinyl-wrapped MDF bookshelf jobs to sound as big or as full as top-of-the-line Bowers & Wilkins, but the little DM601s with the Kevlar drivers sound fine from where I'm sitting. I called yesterday on a Times-Picayune classified advertising a pair of used speakers, keen on an upgrade to something that might better handle the massive amplifier I have shoehorned into a gutted old Victrola cabinet. And here I am sitting in my front room with a stocky, balding truck driver named Jeff.

An hour or so ago he knocked on my door. He was double-parked out front, a battered four-door Taurus, the speakers buckled into the backseat like a couple of toddlers, twins. We shook hands, carried the babies in, and made small talk while I hooked them up to the amplifier. He told me he drives a truck for a living and collects vintage audio gear. Divorced, of course. Turns out we both graduated high school class of '76. He has a room in his house, he said, piled high with audio equipment, working and not, that he buys, fixes, trades, resells, reconfigures, and listens to until he gets bored or happens upon more choice electronics someplace down the road. Like these nice little British speakers he found in a pawnshop in Hattiesburg, listened to for six months, and then listed them for sale.

So there we sat, Jeff and I, and the room filled with the big, clean-talking back-and-forth of piano and guitar, the monster amp's pale-green VU meters barely twitching. That's Earl "Fatha" Hines ...

I slipped another album out of its sleeve and onto the platter. The crackle and hiss of the needle in the groove was a time machine. The first notes of "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" soar into the room, Dickey Betts's ethereal guitar on the Allman Brothers' live album At Fillmore East. I gave the amplifier a little more volume. We sat there, each like the guy in the classic Maxell cassette-tape ad, staring wordlessly across the room into the empty space just beyond the speakers. Grinning like teenagers, grinning as if we were high. My wife looked in on us at some point, eyebrows raised, and then retreated to the back of the house and closed the door. Jeff did seem a little nuts, but relatively harmless, someone carried away by his passion.

I've met guys like him before. I once heard a pair of $10,000 speakers owned by an audiophile, a friend of a friend. You got to hear them to believe them, he said. He lived with his parents, didn't own a car. But he had $10,000 speakers, a roomful of LPs, reel-to-reel tapes (mostly jazz), and a vintage McIntosh tube amp setup. It took him several minutes to put an album on, a whole ritual with vacuums, cleaning fluid, a special cloth, and whatnot. Crazy. It did sound sweet: Dave Brubeck's Time Out, I still recall, has never sounded better.

When my cousin Terry came home from Vietnam in 1971, he brought back a killer Sansui system he'd bought at the Saigon PX. The Sansui was the hi-fi equivalent of a muscle car, not unlike the Z28 Camaro he'd bought with his reenlistment bonus. I was thirteen and just wanted a ride in the Camaro that sat ticking in the driveway, but he said, Wait, you need to hear this. He put on a record by some guitarist named Hendrix and turned it way up. Are You Experienced. My brain circuitry was irrevocably altered through some mysterious process of amplification and stereo phasing.

I started working odd jobs, mowing lawns in the summer, raking leaves in the fall. I saved every dollar I made for a year and then dropped it all on the biggest stereo system it would buy, nothing like my cousin's Sansui but an entry-level little brother to it. I lugged that system around with me through high school and college, across several states, and in and out of a series of cheap apartments. …

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