For a lot of people my age, the boombox was as much a part of Flint life as Boone's Farm and Halo Burger. Since our family car didn't have a tape deck and our house didn't have a stereo unless my older brother was home from college, my boombox and the accompanying cassette tapes were pretty much my only source of music for a long time.
NPR — in their typically earnest way — had a nice eulogy for the ghetto blaster last week, complete with videos and some great interviews:
Back in the day, you could take your music with you and play it loud, even if people didn't want to hear it. Fifty decibels of power-packed bass blasted out on street corners from New York City to Topeka. Starting in the mid-'70s, boomboxes were available everywhere, and they weren't too expensive. Young inner-city kids lugged them around, and kids in the suburbs kept them in their cars.
They weren't just portable tape players with the speakers built in. You could record off the radio, and most had double cassette decks, so if you were walking down the street and you heard something you liked, you could go up to the kid and ask to dub a copy.
The only cassette-tape mementos I have left are decidedly uncool, but they do reflect the musical dichotomy that defined my listening habits for a chunk of high school: B-52's, Agent Orange, Tom Tom Club, Dead Kennedys, English Beat (or just The Beat if you were trying to be elitist and show you knew the band's real name in England). One of my most schizophrenic mixtapes — featuring Fear, Prince, The Vapors, Crass and ABC — was too worn to survive the scanner. My endless cassettes of WDZZ taped from the radio have disappeared.
As NPR points out, boomboxes have now passed into the realm of collectibles:
These days, you don't see or hear many boomboxes, except at Lyle Owerko's house. He collects them. He keeps most of them in storage, taped up in bubble wrap to, as he says, preserve the domestic bliss. His favorite is the GF9696.
"It's absolutely my most mint box," Owerko says. "It's incredibly shiny; it's 40 watts. The speaker grilles detach, which makes it look really mean."
Owerko's collection of 40 boxes includes Lasonics and Sanyos, JVCs and Crowns. He photographs them and blows the prints up to make the boxes look even bigger than they are in real life.
My last boombox interaction happened a few years back when I went to see the Flaming Lips Boombox Experiment with my niece at Bimbo's in San Francisco. It was a fitting orchestral farewell.
Thanks to Jim Holbel for pointing this story out via Facebook.