Thursday, November 03, 2016

The Ritual of Rituals

This isn’t one of those “The Good Ole Days Were Better” columns.

This is about ritual, and its place in our lives. Ritual is under attack in the modern world, pushed aside by efficiencies, data, and the bottom line. As a writing instructor, I see this when I get essays that were written on iPhones. As an innkeeper, I see this when people tell us they are staying at the Auberge based on “our mix of reviews and price point.”

Ritual doesn’t work well in the modern world because it’s hard to quantify. Ritual is devoid of data, even though the medical profession (which is different from the act of people taking care of each other) tries to tear rituals down to their nanodata, to see into their DNA, to discover the switches and cogs that trip and activate so that they can be identified, classified, and monetized. But ritual is a force of the Universe, and while tinkering with my old turntable the other day, I got a good dose of ritual.

I have an old Pioneer PL-516 turntable, and I was tinkering with it, trying to get it to work—it just stopped spinning one day a couple of years ago, so I shrugged my shoulders and pulled out my iPhone and started streaming Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ, and never gave it a second thought. I de-ritualized myself in the blink of an eye. But ritual, that force of nature, asserted itself on me, and so I found myself working on my turntable, lost in the thought of vinyl records as ritual.

The vinyl experience was ritual for several reasons. Before you could get the vinyl, you had to hear a song on the radio. To try to understand the randomness of radio listening in the 70s it’s important to remember that most cars had only AM radios. Music wasn’t as pervasive as it is today: You didn’t hear music in every story you walked into, every restaurant you ate at, and every device you wore on your wrist. Music was not fully monetized.

So you heard a song, and if you wanted to hear it again, you had to wait. If it was a new song, none of your friends had it yet. You were at the mercy of the program director of whatever radio station your dad liked. So you waited. And you thought about that song, wondering what hooked you. Was it a lyric? A chord progression? A melody? You didn’t know. That was the magic. That was the Universe at work.

While you were waiting, the music percolated in your head, dripping down into your body, infusing you with its smell, its taste. This was your imagination at work. It was busy embellishing the song, mingling parts of you with it, blurring the lines. Real alchemy. You couldn’t wait until Friday night so that you could get together with your friends and talk about it.

Finally the song came out, either as a 45 RPM single, or a cut on a new album. And buying an album itself was a big deal. First, you had to wait for it to be released. Albums were usually released several weeks or several months after singles. This created anticipation. (Many of your know anticipation through her sexy sister, foreplay.) Anticipation and foreplay are difficult to find in a world where bounce rates for web pages are measured in milliseconds. But anticipation and foreplay make people happy because they focus their thoughts and make them pay attention to someone else. When you got the album, sometimes it didn’t live up to the waiting, the anticipation, and the foreplay. Then you were disappointed, and you had to deal with that disappointment, usually by listening to another song. Or eating Twinkies.

Buying an album was not easy. First, you had to have a car, or someone with a car willing to drive you to a record store. If you were me, that record store was called Strawberries, a chain store that was okay for big, national, pop acts. Not so good if you were looking for the Live Full House album by the J. Geils Band. And albums cost seven to ten bucks, a significant investment.

When you got the album, you brought it home the way a dog brings a bone to his secret spot. You played the entire album once, twice. You listened closely. You thought about things like sequencing (the arrangement and order of the tracks) and how much space was between each song’s grooves. You examined the label (not while it was playing, of course) to see who got the songwriting credit, and who the record company was. (Island Records? Chrysalis? I.R.S.?)

Then you turned your attention to the packaging. You read the liner notes. You studied who played what instrument on which track. You memorized the lyrics. You critiqued the artwork, because your friends were sure to ask you about it later, and since you would not walk around with your own music (what a dumb idea), you committed everything to memory. Records that came in a plain, white paper sleeve were a disappointment. (Unless it was a Clash album. Then, fuck you.)

Finally, you went back to your friends, and talked about the album. That cemented the album’s place in the world. If many diverse people felt the same way about the album, you knew that the Universe was at work. Something magical was happening. We didn’t know everything about albums and music instantly. We had to hold on to our thoughts. Knowledge and information were drizzled into us through other human beings who were standing a few feet away, looking into our eyes. And those human beings were usually holding a beer, or a glass of wine, or a cup of coffee, depending on which stage of recovery or denial they were in. And we marveled at the world. We marveled at the ritual.

I think we used to have more rituals in our lives, but I don’t think there’s any technological or modern reason why we can’t have as many now as we did then. There’s nothing about the world we live in today that is any better or any worse than the world of 20, 30, or 50 years ago. The reality is what we make it.

So while I’ve been ritualizing my old turntable, I’ve also been ritualizing my digital music. I recently downloaded a digital file of Bruce Springsteen’s final concert of the year from Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. It was a significant investment for something I couldn’t touch--$15. So I downloaded it onto my iPhone, put the headphones on, closed my eyes, and listened to the music.

“There I was,” Springsteen said, beginning one of his stories that introduce a song.

There I was, leaning back, the sound filling my head. I could hear individual people yelling, screaming, hooting. I could hear Garry Tallent’s fingers plucking the bass strings. I could feel the breeze of Max Weinberg’s drumming. And I could hear the words of the songs begin to lift me away, to disengage me from the now, and take me to a place accessible only through ritual.

Rituals are good. Rituals are good because they honor the process. Rituals aren’t about a payoff, or a goal, or a bottom line victory. Rituals are about the way we do the things we do. If we suffer from anything in the modern world, we suffer from chronic demystification. We know too much about everything, and we are paralyzed by that knowledge. We’ve abandoned the process too easily, and it’s that process that holds all the secrets to our selves. And understanding our selves is what we need now.

I don’t know if I can get this turntable to work. I think the platter is warped, and I don’t want to throw any more money at it. I suppose I could buy a new one, but maybe I’ll look for a used one for sale, one that will require a little more ritual than simply tearing the wrapping off a box.