This column was published January 6, 2024 in the Manhattan Mercury.
As I write this column, I’m listening to Steely Dan’s “Aja” (pronounced “Asia”) album and it’s sending me back in time.
My best friend in high school introduced me to Aja in the fall of 1977 and it opened my eyes, ears, and as it turned out, my mind. Right out of high school, we shared an apartment, where his knowledge and experience became mine.
He was among the first in our crowd to build a stereo, constructed of multiple components. The receiver, which pulled in terrestrial AM and FM radio stations, cassette deck, turntable with a bronze Plexiglas cover hinged at the back, and the pièce de résistance: the Marantz 1090 integrated amplifier.
Separate, stand-alone electronic components with transistors, diodes, and integrated circuits—no vacuum tubes or solid-state components that don’t move. Alone, they were worthless. But ensembled, they created audible art. Something beautiful.
He was the only friend of whom I could ask basic questions – the essence of learning – and not be held up to teenage ridicule. From him I learned the amplifier receives the input signal from one of the other sources and makes the signal bigger.
More than sheer volume, a fullness of sound.
Twin JBL speakers, each with a foam rubber checkerboard grill affixed with Velcro, strategically positioned to fill our living space with full sound. Woofers for the bass lines and other low notes, midrange drivers bringing the middle frequencies, and tweeters ensuring the high frequencies were not lost.
Mine was an all-components-in-one, off-the-shelf stereo, from a discount department store. He once told me it was a rip-off, and the first time I heard his ultramodern system, I could not argue. Twist the knob on his receiver, and it spun up and down the AM/FM frequency range and didn’t stop until the kinetic energy dissipated. But twist the corresponding knob on my stereo and it went only as far as the applied fingertip torque.
His taste in music mirrored his knowledge of electronics. Everybody listened to the Eagles, Doobies and Fleetwood Mac, he argued. The really cool kids listen to Steely Dan, Average White Band and The Alan Parsons Project. Like our friendship, the sensibilities of truly genuine contemporary music aficionados ran a strata deeper.
I first met him in Drafting 1, sophomore year in high school. My first impression was this guy seemed sullen, almost sad. Later I was to learn he was fatherless.
His old man owned a coin shop in downtown Wichita, where he trafficked in rare coins, mystery, and intrigue. On the day he vanished, he was seen at the Wichita airport and downtown post office, signing for shipments of rare coins. The cops found signs of foul play at his shop, which led the family to assume the worst. My friend eventually came to suspect his father was involved in shady business with shady characters and dealt with accordingly.
Sullen and sad. No wonder.
In my best friend, just beneath the sadness, was a newly developing layer of confidence that I sought to emulate. In addition to rock music and the electronics that allowed for its consumption, he was fluent in other ways of the world, including the three specific ways that consistently rose to the top of our shared list of things in which to invest time and energy: Girls, cars and beer. In its own way, the music added value to each.
The narrow bandwidth of our less than two decades of life experience made the finite list of priorities seem urgent, constantly in motion.
Lately, I’ve been ranking the top five singles from some of my favorite artists from back in the day and sharing them on social media. Purely subjective, they’re my opinions and it gives others a chance to reminisce and chime in.
You can’t go back in time, but you can rediscover the soundtrack and reflect on how much it has impacted your life.
And those who turned you on to it.
Mike Matson’s most recent book chronicles his addiction-fueled young adult life. “It’s about having close friends but lacking the skills to keep them when you need them most.” Click on the “Books” tab.