We should get one thing straight right away: I don¹t know crap.
Oh sure, I've been a stereo hobbyist on-and-off for about 35 years and even spent a decade in the business long ago, but neither of those things make my opinions worth any more than the average 6moons reader. The good news, however, is that I'm not here to offer product opinions, particularly since my reviews are usually, "Good", or "Not good".
Oh, I might have a better-than-average idea of what sells in this industry, thanks to my experience in it. And friends regularly seek or offer my opinions to folks trying to build a music system. On the other hand, I've never had a conversation about capacitors and couldn't tell an F-sharp from a B-flat if doing so got me a reprieve from six convicts brandishing the business end of an F-broom.
I do know one thing, though: This is a cool hobby. I mean, what hobby is cooler than fooling around with products that make music? And I'm living proof you don't have to be an engineer or a musician to appreciate it (and I have the cancelled checks to confirm it).
I'm also a huge football fan, but after the game's over, there's nothing left to do but argue - and 50 is way too old to start a bar fight. Fishing's fun, but I rarely catch anything other than a buzz. I also like to cook (truth be told, I probably cook better than I do anything else), but after the repertoire passes 300 extrees, it becomes a little mechanical. With stereo, though, there's always a new product to get the juices flowing and new music to discover - even for a guy with tastes as pedestrian as mine (my standard line: There are approximately 286 songs I like and a quarter of those are by Billy Joel).
If not to review products, then what the hell am I doing here? Well, some kind folks have said I tell a decent story - something I did for newspapers large and small, from coast to coast, for about a dozen years. And in recent years, I finally wrote a book. It's a collection of short stories thinly veiled as fiction so I could tell my life story in small bites without putting my friends in the difficult position of having to explain their connection to an old drug-addict atheist like me. (That's your warning that shameless book plugs will be forthcoming.)
So if I take two parts writing ability and one part stereo hobbyist, maybe I've got something to offer 6moons readers. (Please notice: a] I lack the self-control to pass on a cheap metaphor from my cooking hobby; and b] that's the second time I've avoided the word audiophile - not that it's improper, but just that I'm not comfortable with it; kinda like the Paul Reiser character in "Diner" wasn't comfortable with nuance.)
Much to my shock, 6moons publisher Srajan Ebaen agreed to give me a shot. And how have we defined my niche? Well, we really haven't, other than to try and entertain readers with stories that have some kind of connection to the audio and music world.
Admittedly, I may not be able to stop myself from an opinion or two along the way, although my audio vocabulary isn't great. I usually skip the technical information in reviews and I still don't know what the heck "etch" is - in fact, the only time I can remember writing the word was on the front end of "-a-Sketch".
I guess I could talk about my own system, but not on the first date. I'll just say for now that I like to bi-amp so I can have tubes on top and solid state on bottom, which means I've either: a) pleased half of you; b) ticked-off half of you; or c) proven my opening line correct to all of you. So I'll save the other system details because maybe I can get a story out of it when one is due and I'm out of ideas.
I could weigh in on the old vinyl vs. digital debate, but I'd have to admit that I'd be just as excited about advances in CD packaging as in the CDs themselves. 20 years later I still have trouble getting the damn things open. Plus, my view there is a little colored from my days as eastern regional product specialist for dbx (that title sounds far more important a job than it was - or what I made of it; take your pick).
For those too young to remember, dbx made their bones in professional recording equipment. I got a job in their consumer division after it was bought by BSR, which made low-end turntables and also owned the ADC brand of phono cartridges and home equalizers.
dbx (all lower case by way of trademark; all lower case to me by way of experience) had two product categories in the consumer division, which were: 1) Noise reduction alternatives to Dolby, for eliminating tape hiss in home recordings. It blew away Dolby, but it didn't succeed on the consumer level because you had to have the dbx circuit for playback too - and how many car stereos have you ever seen with dbx noise reduction? 2) Dynamic range expanders that lowered the noise floor and improved transient reproduction. These sold pretty well, but do you know why? Because records were so poor. When compact discs became available, there was no need for more dynamic range on playback and the consumer division of dbx went out of business.
So perhaps now you know why I have a hard time agreeing with vinyl proponents (said with a chuckle because I really don't care what people like to listen to; I like CDs - so sue me). Sonics aside, though, debates like CD vs. vinyl bring up a point that may be critical as to whether I can succeed here at 6moons. The Internet has given us great riches in discovering new products. It used to be that folks like us had to rely on monthly print magazines, sales flyers and awkward "No thanks, I¹m just looking" trips to stereo shops, just to feed our habit. Heck, some of us took jobs at stereo shops just to have a leg up on such things (which I say looking around the room like someone trying to avert responsibility for passing wind).
But with the easy access to new product afforded us by the likes of 6moons, Positive Feedback Online, Stereo Times, Audiophilia, Stereophile etc., there has also come some testy discord among those sharing opinions. And this hobby is far too much fun -- and therefore, far too important to us when you consider the need for fun in today's world -- to sully itself with Internet screaming matches between guys with Keyboard Cajones.
I've noticed that a lot of these arguments center around what is or isn't accurate. I avoid these arguments because I don't really care what's accurate. I mean, what's my reference for accuracy? Live music? My ratio of listening to recorded music vs. live music is probably somewhere in the range of 10,000 hours to one.
I care about what a stereo sounds like to me and I think I made quite a few customers happy in my time by encouraging them to buy what sounds good to them. And if we took this "listen-and-let-listen" approach, maybe we could stop some of the silliness I've seen on audio forums (none of which I've joined - color me kinky, but I'd rather listen to my stereo than talk/argue about it).
I'm no Nelson Mandela. I'm not aiming to win the Saul Marantz Award for Harmony Amongst Hobbyists. I'm just a decent storyteller with an occupational history strange enough to weave tales that feature audio threads. And yeah, I might throw an opinion or two in there -- particularly if it helps tell the story -- but I started this maiden piece as I did so you'd know I don't take my stereo opinions seriously. If this were religion or politics, it would be a different story (pun intended), but this is stereo - let's have some fun.
As for other promises, let's see: I suck at making stuff up (other than using the phone book for aliases when writing my book), so what I write will be brutally honest. You might have noticed that I slipped in the fact I'm a drug addict. I am. But it's been 15 years since I dragged myself off the floor of a Las Vegas crack house and what I went through to survive it is an achievement I'll never top. Never.
Other people may be ashamed of it, but I'm not - although I do realize we live in an unenlightened society when it comes to such things, so I don't usually start job interviews with a discussion of it. That said, writing a story about selling stereo in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1970s and not talking about the pervasive use of drugs would be like re-writing "Moby Dick" with Ahab as a catfish farmer.
If such things turn you off, you might not like the story that follows this introduction. Sorry, but I'm newspaper trained and I can only make stories compelling by writing what I saw and what I did.
To that end, my first offering is a story lifted from my book, "Beyond the Sea: A Life in Short Stories", which is available only at my website because I had a crazy idea: I wrote the book, I paid to print it, I paid to promote it and I have the temerity to think that maybe I should keep the profits instead of letting Amazon keep half the selling price. I've rewritten this one story about my early stereo-selling days for publication here at 6moons, so that it would make more sense as a stand-alone piece without the context of my book wrapped around it. Also, I don't need to explain the basics of hi-fi to you folks.
Maybe down the road, when you trust me more, I might be able to offer a theory about how clinging to vinyl is costing high-end audio a wider customer base. Or maybe we can talk about naked truths, such as the fact that most consumers buy with their eyes - and yet, their money is just as green. I'd offer these opinions because I really do want to see high-end flourish, but not until I'm sure we wouldn't sully whatever relationship we can build through the intimacy of having a few laughs first.
So for now, I hope you enjoy what is to follow and maybe visit my website (where the book's first story is also free). I'll return in a few weeks or so. Please feel free stay in touch and always remember: I don't know crap.
"I take three - sir."
Here's a recipe for disaster: Take one prodigal New York sportswriter, move him to California and allow him to take a job selling stereos in the 1970s. Shake and stand back.
Of course, back when it happened, I had little idea what I was giving up - or what I was getting into. All I knew on my 21st birthday was that achieving my childhood dream of being a sportswriter -- although admirable, given I did so after only one year of college -- made me think about the good times I missed by being so focused on that goal.
So when I moved to the Bay Area in 1977, I was willing to trade a surefire newspaper career for some fun. And when I set a goal ... well, there isn't much that can stop me regardless of how detrimental that goal may be.
Upon arriving, I was close to broke. I needed a job right away and got one with Stereo West, a ten-store electronics chain. They put me in their San Francisco store and I was ready to rock on roll.
Selling stereo wasn't going to be a reach, I thought. I had an affinity for audio gear since early in my teenage years. Shortly after getting my first professional job as a sports editor for a chain of weeklies in and around my hometown of Maplewood, N.J., the second thing I bought -- a Fiat 128 being first -- was a good stereo system.
The system came with me when I landed a job at a daily newspaper in upstate New York and that Sansui 881 receiver, Thorens TD-160 turntable and Altec speakers with outboard equalizer were what I strapped to the Fiat's roof on my cross-country trip. (I'm a bit embarrassed that I can't remember the Altec model number, but I promised honesty in these stories so I won't Google it; the honest truth is that with my scrambled brains, Jack Bauer couldn't make me remember.)
I had bought that stereo from a guy with more sales flair than any I had ever met. Arnold Drucker was a goateed, white-haired owner of a newsstand in the lobby of the Raymond Commerce Building in downtown Newark (a.k.a. "Outdoorsman's Paradise"). Arnold would sell stereo from his stand - without the benefit of actually having equipment on display. He would make his sales pitch using only brochures, convince people to buy and then scrounge for the gear from various connections throughout the country.
I figured if I could be half as good as Arnold, I'd have no problem. But when I started at the Stereo West in San Francisco I was ill-prepared for what lay ahead. There was no training and when I asked the manager about prices, his reply was, "How larcenous are you?"
Shortly, I came to learn the salespeople decided the pricing based upon selecting a profit margin above wholesale cost. The higher the profit, the higher the commission - but too high and the customer may not buy. I floundered through the first few weeks, trying to sell through discussion of equipment specifications. When it came time to close a deal, though, I wasn't used to convincing people to buy. In other words: It wasn't the way my father did it in his modest paint store, back in New Jersey.
After a few weeks of poor performance, the store manager -- a drug-addled nut case named Kenny John -- said he no longer wanted me in his store. I was sent back to the Stereo West main office where the owners wanted to keep a nice, All-American boy like me. They assigned me to their Santa Clara store, which was located on a block known as "Stereo Row."
There were seven stereo stores within those few city blocks and the competition was ferocious. The manager there was an ambitious, all-too-enthusiastic cheerleader type named Rick Hoyt. Hoyt didn't like Kenny John and figured if he could make me into a success, it would put him one-up on the Stereo West food chain. Hoyt got his wish, but it wasn't because of his efforts. It was because of a guy named John Powers.
Powers was the northern California factory representative for ESS loudspeakers, Stereo West's No. 1 speaker line. Shortly after my transfer to the Santa Clara store, he conducted a one-hour training seminar. I had already been to a couple of training seminars, which were conducted on Saturday mornings, since everybody worked Saturdays. Instead of filling our heads with all sorts of technical information about the product he represented, though, Powers instead gave us general advice on how to be better salesmen.
One thing to remember: It was 1977 and the first thing every ex-hippie with a job wanted to buy was a new stereo system. And Powers knew the secret. "When a guy comes in and asks how much distortion that receiver has, the last thing he wants to know is how much distortion that receiver has," Powers said in a statement I'll never forget. "What he really wants to know is whether .05 percent will get him laid any better than .1 percent."
Light bulb on: Sales success lay in appealing to the senses.
From that moment on, I never approached customers with an armful of specifications. I just talked to them in a conversational and sometimes humorous tone, and then let them play with the equipment and listen to music, convincing them they needed music too.
The month after hearing Powers' advice, I was the top salesman in the entire chain - a chain with 52 salespeople. And my performance continued at or near the top for several months. I was well rewarded for my efforts, despite me thinking this was like collecting welfare when compared to newspaper work. Just look at my average day: Go to work, listen to music all day -- maybe jump off the end-table-like JBL L-300s while playing air-guitar -- and show people what they were missing. After a few months, it was like Julia Child making an apple pie.
And the cast of characters was downright hilarious. We had Bo Newton, who used to dance and wiggle throughout the day even while writing sales orders and collecting money. I swore he had St. Vitus' dance. I once saw Bo sell a cassette deck to a customer based upon it having Dolby noise reduction. What's so funny about that? Every cassette deck had Dolby noise reduction. It was like selling a television based upon its ability to receive a variety of channels.
We had Jim Tracy, the most unscrupulous salesman I ever met, but as ruthless as he was, he could sell cancer. I saw him one day with a young kid who came in. The kid said he wanted a stereo and Tracy asked him how much money he had. The kid said $200, but Tracy said he didn¹t believe him and wanted to see it. When the kid pulled out a wad of twenties, Tracy grabbed them, started counting as he walked up to the sales counter and then looked at the kid and said, "Go home, get another $100 and you'll have a stereo."
Tracy had never showed him one piece of equipment or even told the kid what stereo he could buy - and yet, the kid followed Tracy's instructions and a sale was made.
We also had Kid Monroe. Kid had moved to California from Georgia when he was six years old, but somehow, he still had a southern accent in his 20s. And he used his accent to his sales advantage, entertaining customers with sales pitches chock-full of southern homilies. One time, I saw Kid make what remains to this day the most stunning sales pitch I've ever seen. We had just received shipment of a new, computerized cassette deck by Optonica, a division of Sharp Electronics.
Although it would be considered outdated today, at that time it was an electronic wonder. It had a computer chip that allowed timer recording and other computerized functions. Believe me: In 1977, there was nothing else like it on the market.
On a slow day with no customers in the store -- and only Kid and me on the sales floor -- we saw a guy was about to enter the store. Kid quickly said to me, "Rods (my lifelong nickname), make believe you¹re a customer." I complied as Kid took me over to the new Optonica deck and started pitching it like a wild man. He never acknowledged the real customer's presence, keeping his eyes fixed on me as he waved his arms and raised his voice in excitement over this new wonderment of electronics.
Naturally, the customer was drawn to Kid's sales pitch and stood a few feet in back of me to hear it. Kid still kept his eyes on me until the very end and asked, "So, how many blank tapes would you like with it?" I deadpanned back, "Three." Then Kid acknowledged the real customer's existence for the first time, shifting his eyes to the customer and asking, "And how many tapes do you want with yours?" The customer was stunned but said, "I'll take three too."
Kid walked us both to the counter, got two decks from the warehouse, wrote both orders and helped us to our cars with the boxes. I drove around the block and came back in hysterical laughter as Kid voided the fake sales order and gave me back the check I wrote.
Hell, I'd have paid Stereo West just to work with these guys instead of the other way around. And as a spinoff to my success, Kenny John was made to look like an idiot for having given up on me. I didn't mind that Hoyt looked like a hero because he took good care of me as well - allowing me the days off I wanted and other perks.
Within a few months, I was Stereo West's shining star. Further, I was having a great time, living exactly the life I intended when I moved; a life of carefree joy to compensate for the fun I missed while being so goal-oriented in high school. A few months after starting this new chapter in my life, I was made assistant manager at the Stereo West store in Mountain View; about 20 miles up the road from Santa Clara.
Salesmen with longer tenure were a bit annoyed at my quick escalation. But the Stereo West owners knew they had a motivated, honest and organized individual who could handle paperwork and monetary deposits with the same ease as selling gear. The owners even went one step further, arranging a loan for a new customized van. The Fiat had bit the dust and I didn't have a significant credit history.
I bought a brand new van and had the inside outfitted like a small apartment. It had a refrigerator, bar, shag carpeting, elaborate alarm system, sofa bed, curtains and of course, a carefully selected home stereo with 12-volt capability. Remember: This was before the days of high-end car stereo so I used the old Advent 300 pre-amp/tuner, a wedge-shaped Yamaha cassette deck, Polk Audio mini monitors and a home-made amp from a technician I met. It was several light years beyond cool, especially with its custom installation in a cabinet over the bar.
The other salesmen called it "The Fuck Truck", given I had become somewhat adept in that area. (I know, I know: There's no accounting for taste.)
One of the salesmen in Mountain View who felt passed over by my promotion was a burly, long-haired and bearded guy named Bob Dart. He took an immediate dislike to me - and I returned the favor, given he looked like the hippies I despised in high school. But after a few weeks, we hit it off when we realized both of us were big sports fans with obstinate opinions. Sports became the initial bond for a lifelong friendship and we became surrogate brothers.
The store had two other funny guys, as well. One was Tim Perez, an affable fellow of Mexican descent whose only experience was selling stereos at the San Jose flea market. As a result, Tim was only comfortable selling the cheapest gear. About a month into working with him, I nicknamed him "Low-Fi", a name that stuck for the rest of his tenure and beyond.
Another was Todd Jones, who was actually a gifted artist, selling stereo to pay the bills. Todd was hilarious because his sales pitch was often insulting of the customers, making fun of their product selections. I would often hear Todd tell a customer, "I think you will foster a long and close relationship with a service technician as a result of your purchasing decision." Then he'd take the customer's money, help him to his car with the gear and return to the store, calling the customer every derogatory name in the book.
But since both Tim and Todd were effective salespeople, I didn't try to change their style. I guess that's where I first developed a knack for supervising others. I learned that sometimes the most effective supervision is no supervision. Everything was just fun and games and I was having the time of my life. Then came the company Christmas party and something that changed my life forever. And it was probably the last thing any of my boyhood pals would have thought of me.
In high school, I was one of the most anti-drug people in school. I often suggested putting all the drug dealers on the auditorium stage during an assembly and shooting them. Oh, I drank my share of beer. But marijuana was where I drew the line, and although it cost me in social standing, there was no way I was going to indulge in drug use. Not me; uh-uh, no way.
The Stereo West Christmas party, though, was a big deal. The company rented a big ballroom at the San Jose Holiday Inn and a floor of rooms so employees wouldn¹t drive home drunk. Before the party, several of us gathered at the home of Gary Nello, my boss at the Mountain View store, for a little pre-party revelry. I soon noticed every one of the half dozen or so people were gathered in Gary's bedroom.
Curious, I went in and saw Gary cutting lines of cocaine, for use by his salesmen. As the straw was passed around, it finally came to me and I said, "What the hell." Part of the reason I was so anti-pot was that it involved smoking. And since my parents smoked -- something I despised -- I never indulged in marijuana. But this was different; this was snorting, no smoking involved.
Now, to tell you the truth, I had no idea what cocaine was. I knew about pot and heroin, but I never knew anything about cocaine - hell, I don't think I had ever heard of it. And since all the others seemed to be enjoying themselves, I snorted a line too.
Hunter Thompson once described cocaine as being like flying to Paris for breakfast. I can't beat that line (pun intended), but I can tell you it made me feel like leaping tall buildings in a single bound. The feeling was like nothing I had ever experienced and I quickly reasoned that anything that made you feel this good had to have, at least, some merit.
Later at the Christmas party, when everyone adjourned to the upstairs rooms, people were drawn to one room in particular. A friend of Bo Newton's had taken the mirrored closet door off its hinges and laid it down on the bed. He was laying out humongous lines and everyone was waiting their turn. When my turn came, I did the whole line in one fell swoop.
Unbeknownst to me, one of the Stereo West owners -- a nice fellow named Paul Meyerson -- was watching all his salesmen indulge. And after my turn, he looked at one of the company's salesmen and said, "You guys really like this stuff, huh?" The salesman, a sharp guy named Jimmy Valentine, just nodded with a smile. I guess Paul realized that even his young, shining, All-American employee (that would be me) was subject to the California drug culture.
That night put me in a different world; a world I never knew existed. I had found a drug that would make me part of the crowd and make me feel like I could conquer anything. Bob Dart and I pooled our money and bought enough to last the night. We snorted, talked endlessly and enjoyed every second.
I was on top of the world. The fact I had climbed that far on an illegal and dangerous ladder really didn¹t enter my mind. In retrospect, I only got high once. It just lasted 13 years.
Mike Rodman is a journalist and author who lives on the shores of Beaver Lake, in Northwest Arkansas. His book, "Beyond the Sea: A Life in Short Stories" is available at: http://www.mikerodman.com