From the very first moment I opened the box in which it lay cozily packed within, it was a thing of wonder to me.
I purchased it on an auction website at a price much cheaper than for what I had seen it advertised in the local shops. Nonetheless, it was still a significant financial outlay, and I approached the letterbox daily with a mixture of trepidation and expectation until, postmarked ‘Hong Kong’, the parcel arrived. It was not much larger than a cigarette packet. In an instant I had it unwrapped. Too impatient to bother with the detailed instruction card, I had plugged my new iPod in to my computer and was downloading music files onto it before the postman had even turned the corner at the bottom of my street.
Over the best part of two decades my cd player had provided stoic and unwavering service, living well beyond the manufacturers’ intended built-in obsolescence, until it expired – presumably exhausted – while halfway through Dark Side of the Moon. It was ironic that The Great Gig In The Sky was to be its eulogy. The cd player’s final protest was to force me to prise open its tray with a screwdriver and retrieve the Pink Floyd disc. I packed away the broken pieces of the machine into a box and consigned it to the hard waste collection, and replaced it immediately with the shiny new digital music player.
Initially, I had downloaded thirty or so of my favourite albums onto the still unfamiliar gadget. And although we were still getting to know each other, my favourite discovery had been the ‘shuffle’ option, which continually played songs at random. This function both transformed the music player into my personal jukebox, and removed from me the burden of choosing which music I might want to listen to at any given moment.
When I plugged it into the amp, pushed the “Shuffle Songs” button for that very first time and the opening chords of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here wafted through the speakers, the fact that my new device might have sarcastically been bidding farewell to my old cd-playing friend did not even register with me. After all, it was not such a coincidence, for it only had roughly 300 tracks to choose from. But that day, it was sending a missive my way, and the realisation would soon dawn on me that my iPod had a mind of its own.
With music having always been an integral element of my everyday life, my iPod Classic soon became irreplaceable. It was accessible and portable. Where I travelled, it travelled. We were inseparable. And all the while, I was continuing to download songs onto its 160-gigabyte hard-drive. But as well as merely playing music, I became aware that this iPod had a habit of playing games with me when in ‘shuffle’ mode. Teasing me; testing my musical knowledge.
How else to explain it randomly choosing Bob Dylan’s Tangled Up In Blue followed by Jimi Hendrix’s All Along The Watchtower (also penned by Dylan).
It once played Elvis Costello’s Watching the Detectives and The Pogues’ Dirty Old Town in succession, almost with a nod and a wink to acknowledge that it too knew Costello had produced the latter song. What was the logical explanation for it unfailingly throwing in a track by Springsteen, my wife’s all-time favourite artist, any time she happened to be listening? Its most regular trick was to play around with the Finn brothers: perhaps Tim Finn’s Staring At The Embers followed by a Crowded House tune like Weather With You, or maybe Six Months In A Leaky Boat by Split Enz with an ensuing Paul Kelly and Neil Finn duet. It was a little freaky, but harmless fun all the same.
The relationship with my “portable media player” began to fracture when my sons introduced me to the convenience of on-line music streaming. I saw the dependence on my iPod weakening before my eyes. Just as I had abandoned my trusty and much-loved turntable for the wonder of the now-discarded compact-disc player many years previously, the manner in which I listened to music was evolving once again. When I discovered that the Spotify app on my phone could stream music via Bluetooth through my car stereo, the iPod and its cumbersome connector cord’s days were numbered. Now I had over 30 million tracks at my fingertips. Merely eight years old, the music player was consigned to a shelf amongst the hundreds of compact discs I no longer played; each was a small reminder of how my music-listening preferences had changed.
But for reasons mostly unknown to me, the immediacy of streaming could never quite replace the satisfaction of buying, owning, and holding music in my hands. And the streaming service’s omnipresent “Daily Mix” – chosen especially for me – was not so much spookily playful as downright nefarious, with the accompanying emails bordering on harassment. Dis-satisfied with these intrusions, I decided to rescue the iPod from its abandonment on the shelf. Turning it on, I noticed that some of the pixels on its screen were lost forever. We were both showing signs of ageing. I connected it to the amp and, with my forefinger, I spun the click wheel around to the “shuffle songs” option. Would my old friend excuse me for the months of neglect?
Of course it would! As if slipping comfortably back into an easy conversation that had been rudely interrupted, the familiar opening bars of Crowded House’s Weather With You burst through the speakers. I chuckled to myself. And I knew that all was forgiven.
Smokie Dawson will be part of our final show for 2017: Newport Bowls Club, Saturday evening 25 November.