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Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Grace of a Boombox God



Those of us who lived in New York City in the 1970s and 80s can testify to the very serious quality of life issues - graffiti covered subways, vandalism, garbage, crime, noise, drugs. The streets were minefields of dog poop just waiting for the next victim - those unfamiliar with the terrain or seasoned New Yorkers who had a momentary lapse of attention to the sidewalks. It was a very rough time and not the promised land at all. The most common question I was asked at the time about my choice to live in New York City was "Why?"

In hindsight, those times are examined at arms length, analyzed, discussed, debated, romanticized and even missed. A case in point is a recent book reviewed in the New York Times:

Mr. Owerko’s interest grew into a book, “The Boombox Project: The Machines, the Music, and the Urban Underground,” published this month by Abrams Image. It features his lovingly detailed close-up photographs of vintage portable stereos, as well as commentary by Spike Lee, L L Cool J and members of the Beastie Boys and the Fugees about the role the devices played in New York’s street culture from the late 1970s to the mid-’80s.

In shot after full-page shot, Mr. Owerko — best known for his image of the smashed World Trade Center on the cover of Time magazine on Sept. 14, 2001 — venerates an audio technology that, to eyes accustomed to the iPod’s futuristic smoothness, seems practically steampunk: hard, square-edged metal casing; wheel-size speakers protected by silvery-black grilles; lots of clunky knobs and buttons. And at the heart of every boombox is a cassette deck.


Many who bemoan the loss of the edge, grit, authenticity, lack of over gentrification, etc., were either not there or perhaps with selective memory, forget that living in that environment was in numerous ways quite awful. Many of the pleasant memories of that era often have more to do with the youthful enthusiasm and a spirit of reckless abandon and fearless adventure of young urban cowboys than any inherent charm of the city. New York City provided its own flavor of the lawless wild west.

One of the most annoying and dreadful elements of the late 1970s and 1980s was the boombox. This portable party machine could be cranked to deafening levels, even outdoors against the ambient din of the city. At times it felt like there was no escaping it - the ghetto blasters were everywhere to be found including spaces where one expected quiet enjoyment like parks. To make matters worse, the music played was very limited, typically disco, a genre I quickly grew to abhor, or hip hop. You would not hear anything else, certainly not classical, country, blues or classic rock. We prayed for the death of disco and these infernal machines. Our wishes were eventually granted but it was an interminable wait of a decade.

Boomboxes were HEAVY. It was a job to carry them all day. Some required as many as 20 D-cell batteries, which, allowing for continuous play and volumes, would only last the day. The cost of these batteries became major budgetary items for those who carried their boxes daily. They were essentially the Walkmans or iPods of their day, but as a broadcast device, they could hardly be considered personal audio players.

On Monday, while walking on Broadway, I encountered what had to be the largest boombox I have ever seen. A pedestrian nearby commented to me "I feel like its the 90s again." Perhaps he was not aware that if his only experience of boomboxes was the in the 90s, then he had not enjoyed true noise pollution.

The owner was walking very briskly. I fumbled for my camera and ran after him, asking if he would permit a photo. With a pompous attitude and only a side glance, he made a beckoning motion with one hand, indicating I follow him as we both ran through Broadway traffic. He stopped for a second, giving me no time to compose a decent photo. I was a bit frustrated, however, I had to remind myself, that even though it was only for a brief moment, I had gotten a free trip in time and had been granted the Grace of a Boombox God :)

Related Posts: Float Master, Part 1, Too Too New York, Deaf Jam, I've Got a Feeling, 5 Pointz, Columbo, Monk and CSI, Men Making Noise, New York State of Mind

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

And I complain sometimes that my iPod classic is too large for my pocket... look at the industrial handle. Wow!

Beatrice B. said...

It definitely has something religious!!!

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time traveler said...

WOW!! Dude has got to be kidding!!You didn't say if he had it turned on, but if he could hear you I assume he didn't..

Thérèse said...

We are certainly glad you had a wide angle lens!

sara @ lemony snippet said...

I love your blog! I live in London but am considering going to NYC so it's really great to see all these little tidbits of real life in NY.

Citypath said...

great point about the Ipods haha

Leslie said...

They never built boomboxes THIS big in the 90's! WHOA! Most of us gals only see this 'show of feathers' as a sure sign of insecurity...poor guy.

Counter Height Dining Table said...

I've seen this people in the streets and they sing for god.

Goggla said...

That's one of the most impressive boomboxes I've ever seen!

And,you're right - we do romanticize our memories. I was in Tompkins Square recently with another park patron who was sharing his funky boombox music with the rest of us. I thought it was great, but that was just ONE guy. I now remember the clash of music and noise all over when everyone had a boombox turned up at full blast. Totally obnoxious.