Friday, March 16, 2007

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: CONFESSIONS OF A MIDDLE-AGED iPOD NERD

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
March 16, 2007


A couple of years ago when I went through a Rodney Dangerfield/Back to School phase and took a political science class at The University of New Mexico, I noticed that about half the college kids I saw were strolling around the campus in blissful little worlds of their own, iPod buds in their ears, white wires swaying. The other half were yakking on cellphones.

At the time I looked down my middle-aged nose at them. Thinking back to my own UNM years 30-some years before, I huffed, “When I was a lad, we didn’t need any electronic device to walk around campus in a glassy-eyed daze.”

But now I’m one of them.

Although I thought all those pod people walking around campus seemed like zombies, I did feel a bit of jealousy while riding the parking shuttle. Looking at the blissful iPod kids on the bus, I realized that one of those contraptions would allow me to listen to Howlin’ Wolf or Tom Waits or Soundgarden instead of the Top 40 and “hot new country” radio that the bus drivers, bless their hearts, always seemed to be playing.

I started thinking about getting one, though I was pretty good about arguing with myself against the idea.

Although I like album art, liner notes, and good CD booklets as much as the next music fanatic, in recent years I’ve become a fan of MP3s. Through eMusic, ripping my favorite CDs and other sources (I’ve heard of a notorious MP3-swapping ring in the Roundhouse, but my investigation is inconclusive), I’ve begun to amass a good little digital-music collection.

In fact, most of the music I listen to at home these days is not on CDs; it’s digital music I have stored on a 160-gigabyte external hard drive and played through my computer, which is hooked up to my old-fashioned stereo system.

But at first I was reluctant to spend a couple of hundred bucks on a gadget the size of a pack of cigarettes. (I’m usually reluctant to spend a couple of hundred dollars on anything.) And I just couldn’t envision myself walking around with those stupid ear buds, lost in my own little world of music.

But my resistance began to soften. I remembered that it was a little device not much bigger than an iPod — a transistor radio — that led me to become a music freak back in grade school. I fell asleep almost every night with the music of the Shirelles and Sam Cooke and Bruce “Hey Baby” Channel coming through the little (monaural) earphone.

On a recent work trip to Nevada, looking around at my fellow airline passengers, I noticed a lot of happy faces with iPod wires hanging from their ears. Then came the realization that the state income-tax refund I’d just received was close to the price of a 30 GB iPod.

The first major challenge was deciding just what to load on the pod. I could have automatically synchronized it with the iTunes program on my computer. However, I have more than twice the music on my iTunes program than my little 30 gigger can hold, so the only option I had was to load it manually — choosing each song, each album. Some might consider that a big hassle. I consider it a labor of love.

I first loaded the basics. All my Johnny Cash, Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Ramones. Every MP3 I have of Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Frank Zappa, George Jones, NRBQ, and The Cramps. I decided to load everything — about 14 hours’ worth of music — from a self-created genre I call (with a tip of the hat to Greil Marcus) “Old Weird America” music. It consists of old blues, hillbilly, gospel, and jazz records, plus field recordings by the Lomaxes and their ilk.

My iPod probably has more Butterbeans & Susie than any other in town.

I began to realize that some of my favorite CDs had yet to be converted into MP3s. How could any self-respecting Steve Terrell iPod be without Astral Weeks or Smile or the Waco Brothers’ Cowboy in Flames or The Pogues’ Rum, Sodomy & The Lash?

So this new purchase has accelerated my project of converting all my favorite CDs. Almost every night after work I find myself rifling through my CDs to find more must-haves to digitalize and zipping up and down my iTunes finding more and more songs to add to the iPod.

(As I’m writing this, I’m ripping Elvis Is Back, the second of four Presley CDs that should be on the pod soon.)

I’ve found I almost always have my iPod on shuffle mode. Perhaps it’s because of my fondness for the good old days of free-form radio or because I like to be surprised.

I just love an Uncle Dave Macon song bouncing off something by the Pixies. And it makes the drive to work a little easier hearing Bo Diddley seem to answer some mystical call by The Bonzo Dog Band. With more than 3,200 songs — eight days’ worth of music — on the device (I’ve not quite filled it halfway), some pretty interesting combinations can be heard.

And yes, there have been a few times that the song was especially good, and I’ve been seen walking around the state Capitol with those idiot wires hanging from my ears. I’ve become one of them. I’ve become a 53-year-old iPod nerd.

Songs shuffling on my iPod one recent afternoon (when I couldn’t listen anymore to the state House of Representatives being piped into the Capitol press room) in the actual order:

“I’d Have to Be Crazy” by Willie Nelson
“Dagger Moon” by Dead Moon
“Saran Wrap” by Dengue Fever
“Adios Hermanos” by Paul Simon
“Rock ’n’ Roll” by Lou Reed
“Kentucky Gambler” by Merle Haggard
“Man Whose Head Expanded” by The Fall
“Say No to the Devil” by the Rev. Gary Davis
“The Man From Harlem” by Cab Calloway
“Devil in Her Heart” by The Beatles (Two devil songs out of the last three! Is my iPod sending me satanic messages?)
“Complete Control” by The Clash
“Long Haired Doney” by R.L. Burnside
“Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)” by John Fred & His Playboy Band

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