Monday, April 27, 2009

Boombox Redux

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.


  1. Your mention of NPR reminds me I'm puzzled by UOM's failure to mention FUM radio when they killed the Flint TV. The station break still includes the Flint outlet. Their Grand Rapids transmitter puts a very poor signal over here in Muskegon, only 35 or 40 miles away.

  2. Yeah, I still have all my tapes.

    About 8 years ago, I bought a cassette player to install into my PC. I just installed it this past year, and I still haven't converted anything. I made some pretty good mix tapes back then.

    Ever since CDs and digital, I haven't been able to make them as well.

  3. I still have my old boombox and it still works...thanks for a great story and you have awesome taste in music Gordie...all my favorites!


    PS I even have a Flint punk rck tape of House of Mirth recorded on a now lost boombox...

  4. I still have my old boombox in storage in Ann Arbor. In the tape player on the left there is still a bootleg Sisters of Mercy tape that jammed while I was packing to leave the country. I was too rushed to get the last of my stuff in storage and to the airport to try and salvage it, so I just put another tape in the other deck - Soundgarden - it's still in there, too. I found the box years before on the back of the toilet in the shower in a house I'd lived in in East Lansing. I needed a stereo and had no cash, so it was the somewhat imperfect but workable solution. Every so often when I'm in the US I go to the storage unit to get something or weed things out - but I just can't part with that piece of plastic history or who knows how many cassettes.

  5. So... did you get your boombox at Highland or Fretter's?

  6. I had a wicked yamaha boom box, where I recorded live concerts galore and the WFBE radio shows. If you haven't caught to the wicked awesome site , it has a treasure trove of local flint recordings, including many a live boom-box bootleg....

  7. I preferred a Panasonic boombox, but I just don't remember where I picked it up. I still think Panasonic has the best bass sound. And OH, the mixtapes I made! Thing is, my friends were all too -?what?- to listen to another person's idea of good music. Or was that me?

    In any case, for Christmas one year, I mailed to all and sundry a =collection= of cassettes, containing the "best" music of each year, 1977 to 1989. I did months of research in Trouser Press books, determined that my tapes were going to be definitive. At least I know that two good friends really enjoyed them. What a lot of work.

    It's true, back in 'the day' you could easily adjust levels, fade when you felt like it, create mixes that were utterly personal. It drives me nuts now, when a song has three minutes of spoken-word nonsense at the end, and a digital player prefers to duplicate every ridiculous syllable.

  8. Yeah, Sarah, I agree... you could adjust the levels better. Perhaps I just don't have the digital know-how to get into that at present. My digital mixes are all over the volume map.

    I think I also like that (word here) consecutiveness? of listening to a tape. There's no easy way to jump around, so a mix tape was truly something that someone experienced, rather than flipped through. Sort of like a radio program.

    Now, if I get impatient with a song, I can just skip it easily, but then, I usually listened to it, and sometimes those were the songs I grew to like the most.

    I had a JVC boombox. It was cheap, but it was perfect. I bought it at Highland.

  9. I'm definitely not listening to entire albums the way I used to. And, as you point out, the chance to grow to like songs is gone. I find myself listening to songs I like on first listen a lot more.

    And although I like being able to make iPod playlists with ease, I still hate digital tuning and mixing. Knobs and slider adjustments seem so much better.

  10. Luddites? You drink from a pewter chalice.


Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at