I can still remember my mate coming up to me, pushing two earphones in my ears, standing back and pressing “Play”. All of a sudden Phil Collin’s Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now) came out of the small box he was holding. I closed my eyes and swayed from side to side whilst rooted to the spot.
That was my first encounter with a Walkman. It was pure heaven.
This wasn’t the tail of the 70s but the mid-90s. The above scene didn’t take place in New York, London or Tokyo but on 5th Avenue, Miramar, Havana. And the protagonists were not two western youngsters but two Cubans in their early 20s who were keen on Anglophone pop and rock. My friend (I’ll call him “Walkman friend”) was into the music of U2, Peter Gabriel (post Genesis) and INSX. I had just left my metal phase behind (well, partially) and had begun to delve into the world of jazz and the likes of Coltrane and Fitzgerald. Walkman friend and I had just read Henry Miller’s trilogy Nexus, Plexus and Sexus (I can’t remember now if that was the right order) and just become acquainted with the “beat” writers. We also used to go to the Rampa or Charles Chaplin cinémathèque to watch old films from Germany, France or the former socialist bloc. We were “arts brothers in arms”.
But the minuscule equipment he held in his hand that day was magic of a different type. Suddenly I had the realisation that I could take my favourite music with me wherever I went.
Walkmans (or is it Walkmen? Please, help!) were not a product you could just buy from any shop in Havana. Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the re-introduction of capitalism in Cuba (which had never really left but let’s not go into that now) the first tourist shops carried very few technological gadgets. Walkman friend let me have a listen on his personal stereo every now and then (the sound was exquisite. Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond never sounded better). Yet I longed for a Walkman of my own.
That moment arrived in ’96 when I was asked to work as an interpreter for a French guy who’d been invited by the Cuban Communist Youth League. He was interested in the work we did at the University of Havana’s Folkloric Ensemble and I was happy to help him out. We struck up a good friendship even if that meant I had to put up with his impromptu “Vive la Révolution/Vive Fidel” utterances every now and then (to which, by the way, I used to respond in silence: “Yes, long live Fidel and the revolution, but may they long live far away!”). Before returning to France, Monsieur F… left me his Walkman and a couple of educational French tapes. Very useful they were, indeed, especially as I was still studying the language. But what his present also did was open the way to a whole new listening experience.
The person responsible for this trip down memory lane is Paul Morley who, in a recent article for New Statesman, wrote about his first encounter with a Sony Walkman. Paul is a music journalist who started his career at the New Musical Express, or NME as it is better known. His occasional columns in The Guardian’s Friday Film and Music section have always been welcomed by yours truly.
Paul’s description of the first few times he went on the Tube with his “fabulously cool new Walkman” (a present from his girlfriend when she came back from Tokyo where she’d been working) resonated with me. I had a similar experience when I began to go to the gym wearing my earphones and playing music of my own choosing. M People and Annie Lennox (with and without Euryhtmics), amongst other artists, became my new companions in my regular workout.
Of course for each technological invention there’s a downside. One I was able to see straight away with Walkmans (or Walkmen, you see? I’m still struggling) was that they encouraged individualism. Before the advent of double earphones jack splitters, listening to a Walkman was a solitary activity. It was a way of building your own musical island and keeping bystanders guessing what the songs on your little device were. As Walkmans (I’ll settle on this term for now) muted into portable CD players, then into mp3 players, then into iPods and finally into ad hoc in-built parts of our mobile phones, we never let go of that individualistic streak. Even if nowadays we play music to the whole carriage when on the Tube or the overground.
Paul Morley’s essay is an extract from his book Earthbound, which is part of the new Penguin Lines series, inspired by the 150th anniversary of the London Underground. In the article Paul tries to remember the first song he heard on his Walkman. On browsing his memory’s archives he revisits many of the great records of the era such as Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division, Lodger by David Bowie and Fear of Music by Talking Heads. He even has time to name-check Pink Floyd’s timeless Dark Side of the Moon. I still remember playing that tape on my Walkman and being blown away by the quality of the sound (The lunatic is in my head/the lunatic is in my head/You raise the blade, you make the change/You re-arrange me 'till I'm sane/You lock the door/And throw away the key/There's someone in my head but it's not me. Bonkers and yet so beautiful!). However, the first record Morley reckons he played on his Walkman was by one of the German groups that were derisively known as Krautrock. Maybe it was Kraftwerk, Popol Vuh or Can.
How about you, fellow blogger/reader? Did you also have a first-cassette-in-Walkman experience? If so, what was it?
Next Post: “Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana”, to be published on Wednesday 20th March at 11:59pm (GMT)