Prior to 1977

When did I know that I loved music? There was no revelation. Quite the reverse. The first encounter with music that I remember was when I, alone in a class of at least 20 first graders, was excluded from singing in the school Christmas concert. That probably would not happen now as parents might intervene to protest that such exclusion would negatively impact their child. I do remember being deeply hurt and actually puzzled because I loved singing. Apparently my voice was too booming and not quite in tune.


rawdon
My six year old self (in the blue)

This slight followed on from a catastrophic incident that had already happened that first Fall of elementary school. There was a math problem to solve on the blackboard. None of the children who were called to the board to try and solve it could. But I KNEW THE ANSWER. I was probably jumping up and down in my seat with my hand up. Eventually after several student failures to produce the right answer, the teacher called on me. By then, I was so frustrated that I wrote my answer in little, bitty numbers on the chalk board. That did not compel the teacher - who not enamoured of me anyway - to give me the praise I felt I deserved. Instead, I spent the rest of the year sitting at a special table  for the learning challenged. There I started to colour everything in red and black to show how angry I was about my banishment. So the expulsion from the Christmas choir was not a real surprise.

The next musical incident I recall was when I was about 7. I heard the Beatles  playing I want to hold your hand on the car radio. I remember thinking that their voices and the music sounded a little tinny and frail. Not in those words but that approximate sentiment. I actually recall wondering why the band was so popular. This music thing wasn't going well.

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With my beloved Grandfather on a camping trip (one of many). My little sister Hedda on the right.

Our family took quite a few road trips in the 1960s to go to Baha'i summer schools as well as zillions of camping trips. During those long drives, my Mom and Dad would sing songs from their youth like "Don't fence me in" and "Good night Irene". That was when the musical apartheid in our family was  implemented. My parents agreed that Hedda (my slightly younger sister) and I were poor singers (true enough) so we were instructed to listen but not sing along. I didn't really care because I loved hearing my parents sing together in the front seat. As the 60s rolled along, my parents started to listen to Pete Seeger and Joan Baez as well as Paul Robeson and Harry Belefonte.  I never got tired of Paul Robeson sonorous sadness. And it was considered fair game to sing along with any musician belting it out through the record player.


With Dad 1967
With Dad and my younger sister and brother 1967. I think my Mom cut our hair.

Both my Mom and Dad loved music, though I  would not say it was a passion yet. My Dad played the flute and, from time to time, he would take out his silver flute and play from sheet music that he set up on a music stand. I loved those evenings  and marvelled at his talent. In grade 7, when the students in Band were told to choose an instrument, I chose the flute. My accomplishments in that department were insubstantial and I am fairly certain that everyone in my family was relieved when we moved to a new town and a new school and my flute playing ended.

By my tweens, it was fairly confirmed that I completely lacked musical talent of any description.  But I did not lack an ear for music or sensitivity  to its effects on emotions. When I was 11 or 12, my Dad came home from work in the city one day with a small portable record player for me alone to listen to in my room. My allowance was 25¢ per week and double if I mowed our full acre of grass. I scrimped to buy two 45 rpm records including one by Elton John called
Daniel. That song has recently been covered by Susto and is still evocative for me. The other was "Drift Away" by Dobie Gray -  recently covered by Uncle Kracker.  I listened to them on repeat (I only had the two 45s). A year later, when we were in a new house in another new town, I lay in bed endlessly listening to Olivia Newton John sing If you love me, let me know and Helen Reddy cover Tanya Tucker's Delta Dawn. 

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The family in 1976

I do remember that my grandfather - who was the closest man to me in my young life  - was critical of pop music lyrics. So were my Mom and Dad. No problem with swing hits from the 1950s but 1970s music was simple and lacking in depth. By then, my parents had started a wholesale turn into classical and opera which sustained them for the second half of their lives. I was already an expert in shame (too fat, too boyish, too loud, too clumsy) so adding "base taste" in music to my list of internalized attributes was not hard. It took me years to fully embrace that I am a fan of alt.country and alt.indie as they are now called. Basically music with roots in Americana. Or Canadiana because my all time favourite song
writers include Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot as well as Gord Downie.

I didn't know then that music pulls emotions out of us, that it connects them to what is really going on within us. I just knew that my sadness and frustration were offset when I listened to music. And I was less lonely. By the time I turned 13, we had moved 9 times. Any friends I might have made at one of those way stops was long gone. Plus I was an unpopular geek, the sort of kid whom the whole playground gangs up on and torments. Which was a  regular occurrence. During the time that Dad bought me that record player and I was playing
Daniel everyday, the entire school yard made big sucking noises every time I walked by. During one gym class, filled with a mix of self-hate and longing to have a friend, I threw a baseball at another girl. This resulted in a private visit with the Vice-Principal who lectured me on Christian virtues - which I clearly lacked.

Drugs and music 1977 to 1984
Was I ever  a druggie? Not really, just the normal dope smoking and a couple of years of LSD. But no alcohol; it  made me sick. Lucky for me, I discovered my problem with alcohol when I was about 16 years old. That spared me damage -- and gave the drugs room to expand. When I was seventeen, during the summer that I finished high school, I had a boyfriend named John who persuaded me to drop a tab of acid. We didn't listen to music on that first trip but did on others. John played in a band and we spent a lot of time in his apartment where he jammed with his band with me lying around as their sole groupie. That relationship was definitely going nowhere but he taught me to hear all of the individual instruments in a song, how to pull them apart but keep them all together at the same time. He gave me ears to hear. Drugs  gave me the inner calm to  experience the music and allow my response to music to unfold in parallel. We went to an outdoors Eagles concert toward the end of our shortish relationship and I could hear the music in a new way. I was thinking
I don't really like the Eagles  but man they can play.

I did go to university  eventually, after a bout with Mono which kept me at home for an extra semester. My new boyfriend, Mark, and I made our way to Memorial University in January of 1979. In my tiny dorm room, I started seriously listening for long periods to Pink Floyd, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen and other rock n roll favourites as well as early techno like Mother Focus and blues from Muddy Waters. There in the foul weather of St. John's amidst the tumult of relationships and family illness,  I was on my own music trip which offered me a new way into old problems and a way out of my various miseries which included my little brother being very ill and a profound depression (they were related phenomena and documented
here)

Later, I lived closer to downtown and, for a while, on Military Road. I used to walk to Memorial (University of Newfoundland) through the rain, snow, wind, whatever the atmosphere of that island in the North Atlantic threw at me. Anyone who has spent time in Newfoundland in any month of the year but August knows what I am talking about with respect to the weather. On my pedestrian commutes, I was often totally alone despite being in a small city and I would sing Joni Mitchell’s album Blue to myself. I literally had “The last night I saw Richard was Detroit in 68 and he told me: all romantics meet the same fate... “ on repeat in my head.

Just before I left Newfoundland to migrate to BC for my first go at graduate school, I had a girlfriend who had a reel to reel music player. If you are not yet in middle age,  you will not recognize this beast. Reel to reel players were enormous, heavy but sounded like heaven. I would lie on the floor of her house, mildly high and just listen. Listened to every instrument, the full frequency range of vocals, the feeling of being encompassed by music, by having it live in your heart. This was not mechanical listening and clicking off frequency responses, it was emotional. Reel to reel players were masters of audio art. Years later, it was the memory of the reel to reel sound that led me to my the search for the analogue sound of the 1980s.

reeltoreel
A reel to reel; they were not compact

It is important for anyone younger than Gen Xers to know that in the 1970s and 1980s in Canada, almost every household had some version of what is now considered high end audio equipment. I was reminded of this by Vilip and Adrian of the Audio Excellence YouTube channel who described walking down Young Street in Toronto or Sparks Street in Ottawa in the 1970s. There was a stereo store on almost every block. Hearing them recount this reminded me of the disconnect between  the tinny sound of digital audio (often delivered via lossy bluetooth) and the rich warmth and detail of analogue. Back then, just the combination of a record player and later cassette players hooked up via an amp to speakers ensured a more faithful reproduction, more power (via the amp) and a bigger soundstage.

Poverty epoch and the Sony Walkman 1985 to 1992
In 1985, I moved to Vancouver where I promptly dropped out of grad school and entered an epoch of miserable poverty. My Mom was working as a teacher in Nova Scotia, not making a lot but enough to send me money to buy a Sony Walkman. I know that she didn’t really understand why I wanted a Walkman so badly. Honestly I didn’t either but I just had a feeling that the yellow Walkman in the aisles of London Drugs would make my life better. It did. I had it for several years and literally wore it out. I would make cassette playlists and copies of other peoples albums  and wore that stiff plastic headset of the Walkman everywhere I walked or ran. Later when I started working at a design firm (KARO), I could afford a big boom box with two cassette players which helped me make more copies of  tapes for new generations of Walkmans.

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As a pimply 20 something

I remember in particular running along a dirt road somewhere in BC listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival holding with that bulky Walkman in my hand. It felt like the barrier between me and the misery of my 20s.

The Mission Speakers and  Harmon Kardon amp
Just before I went back to graduate school in 1993, I was walking around the Granville Market area in Vancouver and saw a sign advertising a stereo equipment sale at The Sound Room. If there was one defining characteristic of my somewhat misspent youth, it was poverty. But this was irresistible and I borrowed money to buy a pair of Mission speakers and a Harmon Kardon amp and cassette deck. Which were transformative. It was not as soul moving as the reel to reel with the superlative speakers that I had experienced in St. John’s but it took my listening to a new level.

I did some of my Masters research in Lytton BC - a First Nations town at the confluence of two enormous rivers (the Thompson and the Fraser) - where I lived in a crazy cheap hotel that featured regular fist fights in the bar and all around the perimeter of the building at the centre of town. Driving up the Fraser Canyon regularly in my 20 year old Buick sedan, I set up tiny  little wired speakers that I attached to the massive dashboard with duct tape. I was in a Tragically Hip and Everything But The Girl (EBTG) phase - a strange duo of bands that carried me into the beginning of the rest of my life.

Soundtrack of  lowly grad student to tenure track job 1993 to 2005
A lot happened in my professional and personal life from 1993 to 2005. I went from the poorest of poor MA students to an Associate Professor. Single to being in a ten year relationship that ended in a massive, nervous-breakdown inducing breakup and a new relationship (that I am still in). But let’s stick with the musical journey. I amassed about 1000 CDs which I trucked around with me. That stereo system and the cassettes and CDs were my accumulation of personal wealth - which partly explains why no one should ever come to me for financial advice.

Around 2004, digital music started to be a thing. I was an early adopter and an accumulator of iPods. Suddenly I was making playlists and distributing them to friends by burning CDs from Apple iTunes. My first one was called “Girl Tunes”, followed by “Girl Tunes 2” and then “Canada Playing.” It was harder to find out about new music then. Back in the day, you found new music by listening to the radio. Now, Tidal or Spotify find new tunes using algorithms. The early 2000s were somewhere in between. But magically, I found old Gram Parsons tunes, discovered Sarah Harmer and Sarah MacLachlan. Joni Mitchell, Blue Rodeo, EBTG, The Indigo Girls, Natalie Merchant, the beloved Cowboy Junkies (and others) filled out my musical playlist.

just before our love got lost
Just before our love got lost [I was as lonesome as a northern star]

During the transition from my ten year relationship with Jen to being with  Lynne, I moved out of the house that we had lived in Port Moody for 5 years. I was depressed, anxious and on the edge of a total loss of coherence. I remember the movers had taken my personal belongings out of the house - which were quite few as I left most of the furniture with Jen - and only the stereo was left. I looked at those much loved Mission speakers and the three Harmon Kardon components and asked the two movers “would you like a stereo system?”. The answer was affirmative and they loaded the stereo into a separate section of their small truck and that was the last proper stereo system that I had for 16 years.

2005 to 2020: digital music decline
Apple Music was my new refuge and I started ripping my vast CD collection onto the cloud. At the time, I was unaware of how primitive those early digital files were. Worse, a few years later, I gave away all of those CDs so that I could never re-rip them at a higher bit-rate. I was vaguely conscious that music didn’t sound as good as it used to. But I didn’t have words to express the difference. I still loved listening to music, it was still the soundtrack of my life but there was a flatness to the quality that I just acccepted. I do remember seeing an advertisement for an early digital to audio amplifier made by Peachtree Audio. You could attach an iPod to the amp and it had a Digital to Audio Converter (DAC) and then you could connect the amp to speakers. The amp alone cost over $2000 and then you had to add speakers. By now, fully digital in my music sources, such a big equipment burden seemed expensive, space consuming and kind of old-fashioned.

Still, I wasn’t really happy with the sound I was getting from my various mini speakers so I splurged on a set of desktop speakers with a big old subwoofer from Future Shop.  Like the much higher end PeachTree Audio amp, you could plug in an iPod and voilà. They  were not great speakers but I developed an appreciation for the lower bass sounds that only a subwoofer can deliver. Most speakers only kick in at about 40 Hz but a subwoofer fills in that gap from about 10 Hz to 40Hz. Even a guitar played with no drums has frequencies below 40Hz and hearing them is like hearing a missing dimension.

So now, I trucked around my mediocre speakers with the subwoofer. But they were not pretty and wired connections to big hunks of metal seemed so passé. When Lynne and I moved to Squamish, those speakers were relegated to the crawl space and after a while, once again, I gave them away - this time to a friend.

In the interim, I bought two wired speakers from Marshall (I knew Bluetooth was lossy) and positioned them in different part of our house so that I could connect my phone - which was filled to the brim with music from Spotify - to the speaker. And while running, I used those cheap but not terrible  $39 Apple Earbuds. And 5 years or so went by, a great 5 years in terms of musical discovery - if not delivery. Through Apple Music and later Spotify, I started to find new music that changed the way I thought about Country and Country rock music.

My parents had strong opinions about good and bad - which extended to music. They had transitioned from folk music to classical —  a natural progression for them as they came from the school of “classical music is superior.” There was only one clearly inferior genre: Country. I drank the Kool Aid that Country music was the enemy of real music. I do not believe that my parents were deliberately snobs about music but they did draw that particular  line in the sand. I was staunchly on their side and would tell people that the only music I can't abide is Country. And would happily recite anti-Country jokes like “three chords and the truth.” But every once in a while, I heard a song like Jolene or Poncho and Lefty or even something by Emmy Lou Harris (whom I defended as folk not country) and thought “hey there is really something here.”

Ken Burns has made some great documentaries about wars (i.e. the Civil War, the Vietnam War, WWII) but he also made one about Country Music (carve out about 20 hours to watch). Watching it, I finally realized that Country is good because it is musically complex, that it draws from “Race” music and Bluegrass and that it has some amazing singers and songwriters. Plus folk is just country music for the politically correct. I was on a music discovery journey, but still didn’t have sound quality dialled.

One day, I was telling a Grad student about reel to reel players and recounting how much better music was in the 1970s and 1980s before digital sound. He matter of factly told me that I probably wasn’t using a very good DAC. Since I wasn’t using one at all (except those built into Apple equipment), he was right. And that was the beginning of my late middle age odyssey back into analogue sound.

Headphones are the gateway drug of Audio: 2018 to 2020
Once David, my savvy PhD student, alerted me to the existence of DACS and the possibility of re-finding soul shifting sound, I dove headlong into a short headphone journey. First I researched and bought a medium quality DAC (IFI micro DSD black label), then the Shure 1540 closed back headphones, followed by Sennheiser 650 HD cans, and finally Beyerdynamic  DT 1990 pros. I still love the Shures the best and those various headphones gave me back the complexity and dimension of music as it was recorded and meant to be listened to. There was still a long way to go on my journey towards SQ. For one thing, I was still using Spotify to stream music. With only 320 kps, my source was limited. And listening to music with metal cans over your ears has its own limitations.

In 2019, before Covid hit, my friend Ilse and her partner were visiting us from Germany. I played them a song from Spotify on my wired ($500) Marshall speaker. I registered that they gave each other a meaningful glance. But I was completely befuddled as to why they clearly did not enjoy the song. Later I learned that they were ahead of me in the musical sound quality journey and had bought "the system."

All the way baby: Analogue  is the real thing
When Covid hit, Lynne and I took a bet on the future of work and moved to Powell River (http://thirdfromlast.run/lifestories/why_we_moved/). Selling our house in Squamish freed up a little cash and I decided to splash out on a real amplifier and speakers. I really did not know much  about buying audio equipment but YouTube came to the rescue especially the Darko videos as well as those by Andrew Robinson the "recovered audiophile."

It was through watching YouTube vids that I realized that Spotify literally could not deliver high resolution digital sound. Tidal was the answer. The first time I listened to a MQA through my headphones, using a tiny usb DAC, I almost wept at the improvement in sound quality.

The rest of the story of equipment acquisition story is mundane - except to highlight two things. First, after I had spent months researching and spent well over $15K, realized that I still needed a music streamer and a better DAC (even than the DAC of the amazing Hegel H390 amp). Lynne (who is decidedly not an audiophile but a loving partner) bought me a brilliant music streamer with a DAC that lights music on fire (Lumin T2). Second, music is transformed by audio equipment. Subwoofers followed. The stereo components you listen to are utterly transformative, but that is one of those things you cannot know until you take the journey.

When I listen to music now in the dead zone of the afternoons after work or after a long run, it feels like each instrument is unfolding in front of me separately yet totally in sync. Vocals are lush and vibrate in my body. I feel the kick drum in my body. I have always loved music but now it has a new resonance. Drugs not required (but okay).