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The Quest For Perfection, In Perpetuity

What do the New York Audio Show; the closing of landmark record store Bleeker Bob's; the semi-annual Crossroads Guitar Festival; $68,000 speakers; a Bowie/Jagger test pressing; and Nineties pop-punk act Too Much Joy have in common? They're each in their own way part of the quest for musical nirvana.

Everyone, no matter what kind of music they prefer, has a favorite act that was good enough to get on a major label, but which never quite grabbed hold of the brass ring, never had that breakthrough that leads to the Truly Big Time.

For me, that act was an early ’90s pop-punk band called Too Much Joy, and while most of their music was loud, funny and too smart for its own good, the group had one wildly uncharacteristic, earnest ballad, “In Perpetuity” (See? Too smart for their own good—you’d never hear a title like that on the radio). Disguised as a love song, “In Perpetuity” was actually about their terrible record contract—and experiencing music that truly moves you.

The track starts with the narrator being astounded as he hears a man perform a wonderful song, and by the end, he’s mulling the fact that he’s heard the song many times since but would do pretty much anything to hear it “for the first time, just one more time.” No matter how good later performances might be, they’ll never have the emotional impact of that first moment of musical enlightenment.

I had a musical first impression one Saturday in April when I visited the New York Audio Show at the New York Palace Hotel. As a pro-audio trade magazine, Pro Sound News doesn’t typically cover the audiophile market—the one-percent of consumer electronics, if you will—but with the lines forever blurring, I thought it’d be interesting to visit as an observer. And it did not disappoint. It was the kind of event where one overheard conversation went, “So what’s the price tag on these speakers?” “$68,000.” And no one batted an eye, or even chuckled when the salesman added, “But that gets you two of them.” I think that second part was a joke.

One highlight was producer/engineer/NYU professor/former AES president Jim Anderson presenting his recent surround mix of a Patricia Barber album he recorded, Modern Cool. Playing the Blu-Ray of the lush album through a passel of PMC speakers, Anderson explained some of the miking choices he’d made when recording it in the late 1990s. Anticipating that there’d be opportunities to remix it for surround someday in the future, his initial mic placements were made to provide himself with more mixing options down the road. That foresight paid off earlier this year when Modern Cool won Best Surround Album at the 2013 Grammy awards.

Leaving the Audio Show, I was struck by how amazing some of the audiophile systems sounded; how unlikely it was that I would ever arrive at a point where $68,000 for a pair of home speakers would seem reasonable, much less affordable; and perhaps most despairingly, how those audibly gorgeous systems would simply be wasted on my relatively lo-fi tastes in music anyway. 

The next stop on my journey was a last visit to Bleeker Bob’s, the famed New York City record store in Greenwich Village, which was closing its doors that day after 40-plus years. A local institution known as much for its cantankerous namesake as for its endless selection of rock, punk, new wave, jazz and alternative rarities, Bleeker Bob’s was such a quintessential part of the city that it earned two of the most privileged of New York honors—appearances on Seinfeld and the opening credits to Saturday Night Live.

Standing aside my fellow record nerds, I dug through dozens of boxes of dusty vinyl relics, musing how one play through some of the grubby $1 specials would probably destroy the impeccably machined needles uptown at the Audio Show. After rooting around for an hour and picking up a few bargains (the best being a test pressing of David Bowie and Mick Jagger’s “Dancing In The Streets” 45), I took a final gaze at the store I’d visited countless times over the last few decades and walked out for the last time.

Waiting (forever) for the subway, I stood next to two people who were heading up to Madison Square Garden to catch the second night of the Crossroads Guitar Festival 2013. One of them had gone the previous night as well, and was now regaling his buddy with every detail of the first show, starting off with how it was the best-sounding concert he’d ever heard at MSG (so kudos to Clair, the sound reinforcement provider for the event). He related how Eric Clapton had kicked off the show in a chair, simply strumming away; how the Allman Brothers had played everything you’d expect them to play; how John Mayer was on his game after having dropped out of the public eye for a few years; and how Buddy Guy had the best rapport with the audience.

But what he really raved about—what he was amazed by—was Quinn Sullivan, a 14-year-old blues guitarist mentored by Guy. He raved about the teen’s intuition and soulfulness and all the rest of those terms we trot out when we are truly taken and shaken by something. “I hope they have the kid tonight, too,” he finished.

That’s what got me thinking about Too Much Joy’s “In Perpetuity.” Here was a music fan who, just as the song said, had heard someone play a song for the first time and was now hungering to experience that initial moment of musical perfection again.

And wasn’t musical perfection what the audiophiles at the New York Audio Show were looking to find in those ultra high-end systems?

Wasn’t musical perfection what Jim Anderson was looking forward to achieving someday when he placed mics in the ’90s for surround mix technologies that didn’t exist yet?

Wasn’t musical perfection what I’d been digging for in the grit-covered remnants of Bleeker Bob’s?

We’re all looking to return to our own personal, transcendent musical moments, whether experienced in the sweet spot of exquisite Blu-Ray surround mixes, the last hours of a dying record store or in an arena surrounded by thousands of others sharing in a moment of revelation. It doesn’t matter if your wallet affords you $68,000 speakers, a $150 concert ticket or a $12 test pressing; regardless of the path we choose or the genre we love, we’re all moving forward in the same musical direction—yet looking backwards—in perpetuity.