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.