A boy remembers certain milestones on his path to independence and manhood: his first sports trophy, first girlfriend, first car, first college party and first stereo.
This past weekend marked the 39th anniversary of my first “sound system.” As the youngest of four boys, it came to me like virtually everything else — a hand-me-down, but in a decidedly different fashion.
In the spring of 1979, my brother Paul was finishing his year as a dormitory resident assistant at tiny St. Mary’s College in Maryland. Even at the tender age of 13, I could identify a party school when I saw one. No one would confuse St. Mary’s for Dartmouth. But then, it was the late 1970s. What college wasn’t a party school then?
I can’t recall how this idea came about, but someone in the family proposed that Paul take his little brother to college for the final day and night of that spring semester. Perhaps it was to help him move his stuff out of his dorm the next day.
Like virtually every boy from the 1960s through the 1990s — at least — Paul went to college with a complete stereo system — receiver, turntable, speakers — and no small record collection. By this point, he had maybe amassed a few hundred records. Milk crates were a perfect size for lugging records — until the grocery stores got wise to all their disappearing milk crates and changed the dimensions.
Guys took great pride in their stereos and record collections. Jock, geek, bookworm or pharmaceutical retailer — if you had a killer system and could talk the talk, you had cachet. College dorms were breeding grounds for summer stereo-store salesmen, and the cinder-block walls of those dorm rooms withstood bombardment of sound wave after sound wave.
Now, the less said about the overnight hours in Dorchester Hall, the better. What happens at St. Mary’s stays in St. Mary’s. I’ll say this: The firemen were nice, given the hour, and the sheep was unharmed, and probably even just a rumor. C’mon, it was a college dorm on the final night of the semester! You fill in the details.
The next morning, Paul had the duty of going room-to-room on his floor to make sure everyone had cleared out. As on any move-out day in a college dorm, the halls were filled with trash, broken furniture, clothes, textbooks — and in one room a perfectly intact Panasonic stereo. Finders keepers.
This thing would not have impressed dorm mates, much less woo a coed, which is probably why it was left behind. It had a built-in turntable, small rounded speakers and few gauges or dials. But for a stereoless 13-year-old? It was like Bang and Olufsen, as far as I was concerned. Home it came. I still remember the first song that came out of it: “Roxanne,” by The Police.
Stereos were a rite of passage for boys. Dad even had one downstairs in the rec room, and we all played it far more than he did. Anytime a new stereo came into the house, headphones were not far behind. It wasn’t a big house, and mom and dad made clear they were “not going to listen to that damn racket and boom-boom-boom!”
I loved that little cast-off stereo. It served me well for years until I finally saved up enough money to begin moving up the brand scale: Technics, Pioneer, Yamaha, Bose. Like Paul, I accumulated hundreds of records and tapes — and then an equal number of CDs — for a music collection that rivaled friends’. When I discovered used-CD stores — well, let’s just say things moved to a whole new level.
Today, I have none of it. The CDs, records and tapes are all gone. The Yamaha receiver I invested in a couple of years ago now connects mostly to the Xbox or the Apple TV. The Fluance speakers I bought a few years ago are now a “home theater system.” But if I wanted to stream some Led Zeppelin through those tower speakers? Oh, yeah, I could rack up a noise complaint pretty quick.
The college stereo that could send you tripping on aural splendor without needing pharmaceuticals is mostly a thing of the past. That’s OK. Really, who sits around a room anymore debating the sublime qualities of Ian Anderson’s flute? And for all the attempts on some really amazing stereos, I never ever heard The Beatles utter “Paul is dead” on the album.
Recently, I was on the UNC Chapel Hill campus walking between the iconic Old East and Old West dorms. A good friend of mine has a son in Old East, so I asked him recently: “Do guys still lug their stereos to college?”
Nope. Today, it’s music streaming on a smartphone and a bluetooth speaker — or headphones.
What dorm dude these days wants to hear all that damn racket? He’s got a test to study for.