My iPod isn’t always a subject for philosophical contemplation. More often it’s merely a calming talisman in my battle against airplane claustrophobia and tedium. But recent experiences have made me think about it as more thought-provoking than a twentieth-century version of the transistor radio and cassette player of my past.
It began when I unintentionally erased not only the contents of my iPod but also my iTunes library. How that happened is not a subject for this blog, but I erased eight thousand tracks. (Or, to use “the male passive,” I could write “eight thousand tracks had been erased,” but no matter.) Preparing to go off on vacation far from my CD collection, I began to stuff compact discs into my iTunes library. This, as readers will know, is a nuisance, and at times I wished for a youthful niece or nephew to whom I could say, “Want a hundred dollars? Put each of the CDs in that bookcase into iTunes for me, will you?” The computer did its job well, but it required me to check on it every six or seven minutes. I began with the tail end of my collection — that’s Lester Young, the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, Ben Webster, Lee Wiley, and so on, and worked my way back to the Allens, Harry and Henry Red, in the space of ten days.
And a King — Joe Oliver, pictured top left.
This combination of obsessiveness and diligence resulted in an iPod with more than fifteen thousand tracks on it — the Hot Fives and Sevens, the Basie Deccas, the Lester Verves, the Billie Vocalions, the Teddy Wilson School for Pianists, the Blue Note Jazzmen, Fats Waller from 1922 to 1935, Mel Powell on Vanguard, Ruby Braff and Ellis Larkins . . . all I could desire, more than a hundred full days of music.
But I kept silently asking myself, “What do you need all this music for, knowing that you couldn’t listen to it all in the space of the next twelve months?”
Another King kept insisting that I pay attention to him. He didn’t play cornet; he would have been out of place at the Lincoln Gardens. I had taught a course in Shakepearian tragedy this summer, and ended it with KING LEAR — adding a few scenes from the 1982 Granada television presentation with Sir Laurence Olivier.
Early in the play, when Lear still thinks he has imperial powers (even though he has renounced the throne), he bargains with his daughters about whose house he shall stay at first, casually letting them know that he will arrive with a hundred knights. Although Goneril and Regan are cruelly inhuman, I always feel for them at this point, as they ask their father, with some irritable reasonableness, why he, no longer King, needs a retinue. Lear responds:
O reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is as cheap as beast’s.
In the most commonsensical way, I take these lines to suggest that the difference between a reasonably privileged person and a Maltese terrier is that the person, when the impulse strikes, can go to the kitchen cabinet and have another cookie or pretzel. Choice is at work here, unlike the dog who has to wait for the owner to fill his bowl. “Need” is constricting; luxury is the freedom to transcend mere needs. Or, in other terms, to have merely “enough” — the spiritual equivalent of eight hundred calories a day — is emotionally insufficient.
I knew that I didn’t “have to have” Ella Fitzgerald singing MY MELANCHOLY BABY (Teddy Wilson, Frank Newton, Benny Morton, 1936) in the same way I need food and drink. I could capably replay most of that performance in my mind. But not having it accessible provokes feelings of inadequacy, of being separated from my music. To some, this will seem like an exercise in superfluity: I know there are people in other countries who don’t have clean water, let alone alternate takes of the Albert Ammons Commodores, and I feel for them, but the sensation of having more music than I can possibly listen to is luxuriant bliss. It means that if, upon awaking, I really NEED to hear Dicky Wells and Bill Coleman play SWEET SUE . . . there it is.
Which leads me to the most brilliant feature of the iPod — not the ability to reproduce album cover artwork (!) but the ability to shuffle songs. I plugged it in here and started it up . . . so that Dizzy Gillespie followed Mamie Smith who followed the West Jesmond Rhythm Kings who followed Hawkins . . . . a floating Blindfold Test, full of surprises and gratifications. And no worrying about the hundred knights drinking up all the milk in the refrigerator.
Olivier and Oliver, in perfect harmony.