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Car stereos I have loved

Driving to the Harris-Teeter, lost again. I'm in Smart Wife's little economical Honda Civic with Bob Dylan crooning "You Left Me Standing in the Doorway" from Time Out of Mind.

Time has necessarily gone out of my mind on this ever-lengthening ride, since I can't remember what street the Harris-Teeter was located on. I've lived in Durham for two and a half years now and there are some landmarks that I could not tell you how to find. My regular grocery is a Kroger by I-85, but any other supermarkets are consigned to a messy mental void that encompasses the diverse byways of University Highway, Hillsborough Street and Guess Road. We're not talking about a massive city when we speak of Durham; it's under three hundred square miles in area. I'm just slow on the uptake of learning anything other than the simple routes I use to get to a couple regular destinations. My wife will not be able to tell when I start having senior moments, as it won't be much different from the way I am now.

At least there's a stereo in the car. I've had so many cars over the years, and the few that didn't have at least a push button radio were the ones I transferred a giant requisite dislike to. It was hard to be among all that silence, combined with the clattery of my own mind.

I mentioned the Olds Delmont 88 convertible a couple posts ago, and it had the standard Delco AM radio with a big old boomy speaker in the middle of the back seat; now it would probably seem inaudible next to one of today's subwoofin' jeepin' SUVs and king cabs at the intersection.

My dad's Volkswagen was violated with a cheap 8-track player in 1973. One of my co-workers at Reznick's installed it beneath the ashtray, and he hooked up the speakers in the little luggage boot behind the back seat. I had so many 8-tracks. You could find the weird shit, like the first NRBQ or the alternate version of Runt by Todd Rundgren (different songs) for next to nothing. Nice, seamless records like Ummagumma and A Wizard, A True Star were broken into noisy chunks, punctuated by the ca-chunga of switching tracks. Double-tracking was another little annoyance, when the heads would play two channels at a time making an unholy medley. "They" said you could fix it with a head cleaning cartridge and adjusting of the heads with the dial under the tape slot, but it was never for long.

The first car I ever had that had FM radio was a 1977 Datsun 200SX that my Chapel Hill friends may remember. Over the years, the shape of the 200SX modified itself right out of distinction, but the debut year was pretty groovy. Bought new (which was part of a bigger and more horrible story, perhaps for a later time) the yellow Buck-Rogers-ray-gun shaped car was wonderful! Everything worked, at least when I got it; considering the 1972 Toyota Corona that I'd had to back through town in the dead of night to get it to a transmission repairman, functionality was a big bonus. And in Chapel Hill in 1977, you needed FM radio, to get WXYC and WQDR (back when it was the rock station), as opposed to stodgy old WCHL.

The 1968 Pontiac station wagon that took me to Memphis when I quit school had the same Delco operation that the Olds had had, so I was not without tunes on that long run with a loaded-down car, fortunately. AM was still marginally acceptible, but not for much longer.

The years in New York? Who owned a car in New York at that point? The single day I did was the day I left for Los Angeles. Finding a simple place to park near my 14th Street apartment was breakdown material for a guy who just wanted to pack his stuff and go.

The unparkable car was, in this case, a 1963 Rambler American coupe with a pushbutton overdrive that jolted me past Corvettes like I was the guy in "Beep Beep" by the Playmates. It also had its original AM radio that I augmented with a boombox covered in dog stickers, named Lassie which I did to all my boomboxes at that point in my life. On my cross-country trek, I was given a tape made from the new-technology CD of the first two Big Star records. Even on Lassie, the difference was apparent. The future was at hand. I was going to be stuck with as many cassettes as I had been 8-tracks.

My mid-life crisis auto was a bright red '65 Plymouth Barracuda. There was a cassette player in the car, but the engine was often louder than I could get the stereo. One day, as I pulled up to a Continental Drifters' acoustic rehearsal, the clutch spring shot out and clipped my collarbone and fortunately not my eyeball. Otherwise, a pretty cool ride.

Fast forward past the Ford F-150 pickup and a few Volvo 240's. I drove a Chevy van that had only one side of the tape deck working. That was actually sort of fantastic, especially with the hard-panned Beatle stereo mixes and various Booker T. and the singular MG tracks I played. "Talk Talk" by the Music Machine was a big favorite, vocals and really loud tambourine on the one side, everyone else on the other. In a car, I think that kind of mixing makes sense, but it's probably less listenable in the home stereo stiuation.

The Subaru Legacy wagon we bought in a rush in Pennsylvania after Katrina drove us northward had a CD player in it, but it never worked so we listened only to the radio; one of the things we never got around to doing was going back and having a word with the guy who sold us the car. Smart Wife's VW Diesel Rabbit had cassette and radio, however we didn't own any cassettes anymore so we never were able to be sure if that part worked.

Now we have the Eurovan, into which we had installed a new-fangled CD/radio which also allows us to play our iPods through a short cord. That's pretty great, I must say, although the price of gas and the Euro's fuelhoggishness has made driving the VW more of a liability (not to mention that it needs a few tweaks mechanically and a current inspection sticker).

Which also brings us back to the Civic. The cord that connects the radio is broken, so we're just listening to CDs. In this time of economic uncertainty, malevolance on the campaign trail and general bad news, maybe being backed into the single, non-updatable sound source is a handy form of enforced mental relaxation on the part of the anxious driver.

Then again, maybe that's why I'm lost, searching for Harris-Teeter.


Hi Peter;
Your writing is really entertaining (good).
You have to be a good writer to get somebody to read about your old car stereos. I read the whole thing and liked it. Maybe someone would pay you for this stuff.
Again I enjoyed your reading from Ann's book and the songs. The one about Sam was right on the mark for all of us that hung out at Sam's Guitar Shop. It was like Floyd's barbershop. The new one was cool. I could relate to it. Congrads on freeing yourself from face space.
Donna Lethal said…
Dammit you had a Barracuda?!
Anonymous said…
The Carolina Blue VW bug was the the "Little Medicine Droppers" that the Bobbitt's delivery boys used.
hee hee
Jeff Hart said…
the barracuda is definitely an eye catcher. no "big black truck"?

nice to see you never had to resort to an fm converter like i did with my '71 chevy impala. that's the car i was driving the night john lennon was shot. the converter wasn't working, and a.m. radio held no interest for me, so i went to bed that night not knowing about the bad news.
spadamchrist said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Donna Lethal said…
i was just responding to that comment above but i lost my train of thought.

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