Thursday, May 18, 2017

Random Access Memory

In the 1970's, there were no such things as iTunes Radio, Pandora or Spotify. The concept of digitally stored, streaming music was unimagined. Besides, computers hardly seemed an appropriate delivery mechanism for music -- they were used for things like sending people to the moon and back. Those of us who liked to browse music just for the sake of the auditory experience had to use turntables or tape players.

One day, way before I was old enough to drive, my mom took me to the downtown branch of the Memphis Public Library. I can't recall exactly what prompted this trip, but that's how we were, striking out every now and then on a mini-adventure. My parents had always encouraged me to read, so I was a regular at the library's Randolph Branch, within walking distance of my house, and the Highland Branch, a favorite of mine owing to its tall, dark shelves and the overarching scent of old books which permeated the place. But on this one particular afternoon, my mom and I headed to the Main Library at McLean and Peabody for a little something different.

The downtown library was quite large compared to the one in my neighborhood, and after we finished selecting a few books to check out, I happened to look through this one doorway and found something I hadn't expected: a music room that was absolutely chock full of LP's. There were walls of them, and a card catalog which helped to locate the album you were looking for. I felt like I had found a pot of gold.

I had studied piano since I was eight years old, but I'd always played only the pieces given to me by my teacher, and I hadn't had the chance to broaden my horizons that much, so when I discovered this vast repository of music, I was enthralled. It's hard to understand today, given our ability to invoke random access to anything at any time, but finding all this music in one place was actually somewhat overwhelming. I browsed for a while, then selected a couple of albums to take home for a listen. Two weeks later, I brought those back and checked out more, and the process continued.

Before long, I was driving, and together with my friends Tim and Lewis, fellow school band members since seventh grade, I would head to the now newly remodeled Main Library and its large, quiet music listening room, which now housed all those earlier albums and more. For its day, the music room was well outfitted and featured rows of study carrels for private listening. You would select an album, then take it to your carrel, where you would play it on a individual turntable through headphones which were massive by today's standards. You could listen to any album in the room, of which there were thousands, at random. It was very much like today's music streaming services, except that you had the added bonus of holding a physical album cover and reading the liner notes while the music was playing.

In the next few years, Tim, Lewis and I made excursions to the Main Library a regular part of our city explorations, and in this way, we expanded our listening habits in a way that I suppose otherwise would have been impossible. For me, I think those early days set the precedent for how I would later seek out new and unfamiliar music while still maintaining respect and love for the old stuff.

Today, streaming makes almost any form of music readily accessible. I can only imagine what would have happened had we had these kinds of services in the 70's. I probably would have become permanently attached to headphones and would never have left the house, except to go down to the coffee shop. Wait...we didn't have those back then either. Come to think of it, how did I make it this far anyway?

Happy listening, friends.