HIS MASTER'S VOICE
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
When my mother sold the house on Seven Mile Road I lost my precious Hi-Fi set. And I knew, then, that it could never be replaced. But I could dream. In the eight years that followed, the technology changed. High Fidelity became passé, and Stereo was all the rage. Now, one Klipsch Corner Horn wouldn’t do; Stereo required two. And big speakers were becoming obsolete. With every passing year, the hope of ever recapturing the sound I knew as a teen was drifting farther out of reach.
Meanwhile, a firm called Acoustic Research, in Cambridge Mass, developed a new speaker technology and theory. They invented and manufactured small affordable bookshelf speakers that were promoted as being capable of creating deep bass in a small space, at a low price. The company set up a demonstration booth in Grand Central Station. Whenever I was passing through, I never failed to stop and listen, trying, in vain, to convince myself that these modest bookshelf speakers might, someday, be the answer to my dream.
One day, I was in an upscale audio store in Mid-Manhattan, browsing through an impressive wall of stereo equipotent, and auditioning the AR speakers, once again. Try as I might, I simply couldn’t fool myself into believing that these mediocre speakers that I might soon be able to afford produced music even remotely close to the sweet sound that I adored, in days of yore. Depressed, I left the store.
This reminds me of a story: A man, visiting a facility for the mentally impaired notices an inmate in the garden, raking leaves. He asks him why he’s there. The gardener replies, “I haven’t got the slightest idea. As you can see, there’s really nothing wrong with me.” The visitor agrees that the inmate seems perfectly sensible to him, and as he’s on his way to speak with the director, he promises to put in a good word for the man, who thanks him profusely. As the visitor is walking away, a brick hits him in the back of the head. He turns around, and the inmate says, “Don’t forget!”
As I was going out the door, a sudden blast of music hit me in the back of my head, with all the impact of a ton of bricks! My God! That was IT, the unforgettably delicious sound of my long-lost Hi-Fi set! Even after all those years, I’d have known it anywhere! I turned around, and rushed back in!
It seems the salesman, thinking he was about to be alone, had put a favorite recording on the turntable, and for his own enjoyment, turned up the volume, and commenced to play it, through what he considered to be the best equipment in the store. This turned out to be a pair of JBL floor standing studio monitors with 16” woofers, and horn midrange speakers. They were the closest thing made in 1964 to what the Klipsch Corner Horn used to be in 1953. The elegant teakwood cabinetry with intricately carved grill added greatly to the price, which was way out of my league. And there was a powerful digital amplifier built right inside. It was also then, I realized that one of the reasons that this stereo sounded so much like my long lost Hi-Fi was because the cartridge that he happened to be using was a Pickering, the same as mine had been. The salesman also informed me that the identical studio monitors could be ordered in plain unfinished wooden boxes at a considerably lower price. And so, I found it, the future stereo of my dreams, a stereo, worth waiting for, a goal, worth working for, and one that a few years later, I would achieve.
Until then, I would do without. I have never been able to quite figure out if that philosophy, the willingness to wait until I could acquire what I perceived to be the best, and in the meantime, do without, is that of a perfectionist, or a spoiled child. To me, it was just logical. I could a wait until I saved enough to acquire the only stereo I’d ever need or want. Or I could spend a lesser amount on something mediocre, now, and distance myself just that much further from my goal.
And so, I waited two more years! Meanwhile, my involvement with Harry Kislevitz and Colorforms was taking up much of my time and energy. Boutique Fantastique was continuing, and the stained glass ornaments were selling fairly well. I divided my creative energy, between developing new items for Boutique Fantastique, and thinking up toy products, on which to speculate with Harry. Comic Character antiquities were just beginning to turn up in a couple of shops and shows around the city. And thus, without an avalanche of Mickeys to tempt me, I managed to put together enough money to finally order the New Stereo.
Because the pair of James B Lansing (JBL) studio monitors I chose were of the no frills variety, they had to be built to order for me, and thus, there was a wait of several weeks. But when, at last, my spectacular stereo arrived, it was everything I hoped and dreamed that it would be: Acoustical Nirvana!
I might also mention that the turntable was the latest one, in which the platter floated in space on a frictionless cushion of reverse magnetic energy. I was floating in space as well. And the cartridge was a Pickering!
I placed the speakers in front of the rear windows on either side of the gas radiator, and carefully positioned the massive barber chair as the third point in the triangle, fifteen feet away from each. And that’s where we remained, for several weeks, the barber chair and me. I left the loft occasionally to sleep, and visit Sam Goody’s to buy stereo LPs. I had never owned one, for up to then, there was no need.
In the weeks that followed I spent so much time in the New Loft, listening to the New Stereo that Eunice and I both began to wonder if we’d ever meet again. The short answer is: We did! The longer answer is: On December 28th 1967, Eunice gave birth to our second daughter, “Alexandra Toots.”
Soon after that, Harry made me an offer: If I would set Boutique Fantastique aside, and invent toys for Colorforms full time, he would advance me the amount of $200 a week. This sum would be a sort of loan, against a 5% royalty. In the event that one of my items sold, I would first pay Colorforms back, and anything beyond that would be mine.
This offer arrived at an interesting time. I had allowed the pursuit of awesome audio to become all important to me. It symbolized something very deep, and deeply rooted in my past, with a significance far more complex than I would care, or dare to analyze. Ironically, once this goal had been achieved, I lost all drive and need to continue Boutique Fantastique. Therefore, the decision to tie my destiny to Colorforms, instead, became an easy one for me.
Anyone who grew up in England or America during the Twentieth Century must surely be familiar with the charismatic image of a dog named, Nipper, sitting before the cone shaped speaker of an RCA Victor record player, better known as a “Victrola.” With his head cocked to one side, he is mesmerized, listening in adoration, puzzlement, and rapt attention to “His Master’s Voice.” Throughout my teenage years, I was that dog!
Whenever I was not doing homework, or artwork, and had even a few moments of time free, I would not be watching TV, or God forbid, outdoors, playing sports. You could find me in the rumpus room instead, lapping up the tidal wave of music that poured forth from my glorious Klipsch Corner Horn! From the moment I got home from school, until it was time for bed, chances were I would be sitting there, in one of my father’s comfortable rotating chairs that I used to spin in as a kid. There were four of them, situated around a coffee table. I favored one in the far corner, which I could turn to face the towering blond mahogany facade of the world’s most awesome Hi-Fi speaker.
The rumpus room, as we called it, was not actually inside the house. Being separated from the interior by a brick wall, it was not part of the house at all. This poorly heated, but well air conditioned, add-on that began life as a screened in porch had been transformed into a soaring room for rumpusing that, for me, became a concert hall. And, because this magnificent isolation booth was relatively sound proof, I could turn the volume up to levels that would raise the roof and shake the windows, without annoying my relatives. When the door to the rumpus room was closed, I could do anything I chose, for I was utterly alone.
I realize that I’m painting a picture of a life that would appear to be quite lonely, but it didn’t seem that way to me. I had, early on in my brief history, learned to enjoy my own company. Me, myself, and I, got along just fine, and we were never at a loss for topics to discuss, or things to do. Most of all, we liked to sit out in the rumpus room, and set sail upon a sea of melody. In a world that seemed crushingly ordinary, the ocean of sound that emanated from my incredible Hi-Fi set was a lifesaving beacon to me. It reassured me that, somewhere beyond the limits of the Motor City, there was a world of art and beauty, waiting for me to explore, and repeatedly offered evidence that there was more to life than dull reality.
Some of my fondest memories are of cold winter nights, when for both pleasure and necessity, I’d build a fire in the fireplace, and sit before it in the darkened rumpus room, enjoying an entire opera, a boxed set of three LPs, while following the libretto, illuminated by the roaring fire’s glow. The flickering flames sent waves of light and shadow, dancing across the printed pages in unison with the music. This made them somewhat difficult to read, but also brought the words to life. I remember one particularly delightful night in mid-December. The fire had burnt down to its final embers, as Méphistophélès escorted Faust into the jaws of Hell, and Marguerite ascended into Heaven in a rhapsodic blaze of sonic glory. It was a most exquisite moment, perfectly timed. Just as the opera ended, the fire flickered out and died. I sat there in the silent darkness, a long time.
The crazy thing about all this, was the absurd fact that I was not the least bit musical. I carried around 260 pounds of fat, with ease, throughout my life, but I could not carry a tune. Nonetheless, I tried. When I was sixteen, my Cousin Janet loaned me her classical guitar, and I proceeded to take lessons. For weeks, I practiced religiously, toiling over this sensitive instrument for several hours after school. It was sheer agony. Day by day, the guitar grew increasingly more out of tune. I couldn’t tell! Finally, one day, my guitar teacher said to me, “Mel, I feel I must advise you to give up the guitar. It’s an instrument for which you have no aptitude. You’re, essentially, paying me to tune it for you every week.” I was relieved.
Music was a total mystery to me, a world of beauty, well beyond my understanding. Therefore, I listened, awestruck, with almost religious fervor. And, over time, I came to realize that I really was like Nipper, a humble dog who is both confounded and enthralled by the mysterious and awesome sound he loves, but cannot hope to comprehend, His Master’s Voice.
This is yours truly at age eighteen, a freshman at the University of Michigan, with my then current girlfriend, Lois Malzman, and the love of my life, standing in the corner, the glorious Klipsch Corner Horn. In an attempt to please my parents, it is disguised in a kitschy cabinet of blonde mahogany, manufactured by a company called, Electro-Voice. Its official name was “The Electro-Voice Georgian 4-Way Speaker System.” And, for over sixty years now, I have had Georgian on my mind.