Wraparound Sound

I WISH I could remember the first cassette I slipped into my brother’s Sony Walkman with the bright orange earphones. Most likely, it was one of his. Something with lots of past-the-speed-limit guitars, some liquid bass. What I was most struck by was just how “inside” sound one could get. It was different from listening on the floor, head near the speakers, feeling the bass quake. That was a way to let music enter your body, but it wasn’t like this. Really, the Walkman let you live inside it.

This past week, Sony announced that it would stop making the cassette Walkman in Japan, there are plans to continue manufacturing them in the States, but for how long, it is uncertain. That’s made me pause.

My brother, now a musician, was/is an early adapter. He’s always quick to pick up the new electronic passkey. CD player, iPod, etc. would follow. But the Walkman is significant in that it did change our relationship — not just his and mine, but the world’s really — to listening to music — in that it became more private than you could have ever imagined. There have been a flood of studies, articles, essays written about the effects of all of this: how the Walkman has damaged our ears; made us anti-social; has shifted the way we communicate in public. All true. But there is something about dropping into a deep pool of sound, where you could for the first time hear sighs, whispers, chuckles along that bass-line quake.Erroll Garner growling with his piano, Glenn Gould’s half moans, the back-and-forths between musicians on Stevie Wonder opuses. Like you were in the room with them. It was a different way to *hear* music, the notes, the pauses and the interaction — a different sort of socializing, as it were. You could carry your world with you and not have to impose your mixtape tastes — or rather obsessions — on others. But mostly, it brought new meaning to floating on a song.


MY FRIEND, the insightful photographer Anne Fishbein, has a nice little show going up tonight at Track 16 at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica. “The Secret Lives of Stiffs” (up until November 23rd). This series of work looks at how mannequins can be mirrors of us:

“Mannequins can be headless or missing a limb, but we humans are undiscouraged by these limitations,” writes Fishbein in her artist statement, “At times, we walk past these working stiffs without a second glance–their presence is so familiar that we don’t question their odd existence. But sometimes a mannequin’s outstretched hand, its fingertips seemingly reaching for some kind of connection, give us pause. We search for signs of humanity behind their blank-vessel expressions.”

Fernando Ruelas, 60

FERNANDO RUELAS, founder and president of Duke’s So. Cal, the oldest lowrider car club in existence (and the standard-bearer of the art), passed away this morning.
I interviewed Fernando several times while working on a couple of stories for the L.A. Times about car culture and a feature on the Dukes in particular. Sitting in the shop’s yard in South L.A. with Fernando his brothers Ernie and Julio and best friend, Chivo, was like a way-back-machine ride to not just another time, but another sense of L.A. as a place. No one told a story like Fernando. No one. They were long winding tales spiked with iridescent color and blue humor and of course the R&B oldies that drifted over the worn-out boom box in the backspace. Each fender, gear-shift knob, hubcap inspired an anecdote of some memory of a night or afternoon under the hood or gliding down wide boulevards of south and later east Los Angeles.
As serendipity would have it, it turned out my mother taught both Fernando and Ernie when they attended junior high school here in L.A. L.A. is full of intersections and connections, sometimes though, we don’t bother to pay attention to them. Fernando made sure to. Always.

Here’s my favorite moment of the story — a conversation with Chivo, Fernando and elder brother Juilio — at the shop on Long Beach Avenue.

The friction back then, Fernando says, was mostly territorial, not like the black-brown blowups he’s been keeping tabs on at his alma mater, Jefferson High. “There were a lot of African Americans that were across the tracks, and they would not dare cross into 38 territory, except for the ones who grew up in the neighborhood. They knew Spanish and everything. Remember Eunice and the whole clan?” Fernando glances at Chivo.


“I forgot their last name–but them. Bobby Pratt. All those guys, they’d come by . . . ”

Of those brave enough to cross, the Ruelases found that some, just like them, were into tricking out their bikes. They were into custom cars too. That was the glue. And, Chivo adds, “let’s not forget the music, our African American musical artists. . . . We had the pleasure of meeting Don Julian and going to his dances.”

“There was Cleve Duncan and the Penguins. Vernon Green and the Medallions. Brenton Wood.”

“Yeah, Bren Wood . . . ”

“Barry White. He was in the Businessmen, you know. He lived around here.”

“Barry White got caught stealing tires,” says Julio. “That’s when he got into music . . . ”

“Johnny Flamingo.”

“Richard Berry.”

“And my favorite–what’s her name?” Chivo asks.

“Etta James.”

“Etta James! Tony says she lost a lot of weight.”

“She did. She had a bypass. She’s as skinny as that pole over there.”

“She can really sing.”

“It was our way of life,” Fernando says with much more than simple wistfulness in his voice. “The car, the girl, the music . . . ”

Ride in peace, Fernando, Earth Brother.
I know there will be quite the line-up.