RIP Steve Jobs
I moved to New York City at the beginning of the 21st Century. I was poor, a singer-songwriter coming to the same place millions like me had come before to do the same thing I was coming to do: make music, make a living, not lose myself entirely. I moved into a sublet in West Harlem for the summer of ’01 and became acquainted with the city during early morning subway rides between there and Washington Square Park.
In high school, I’d dreamed of attending the Tisch conservatory and studying music, so I knew the 1/2/3/9 stopped at NYU, and I knew how to get from that stop to Washington Square. I was in luck when those were the same trains that stopped near my Harlem apartment at 139th and Amsterdam. So began my New York City life. On the train. Early morning. Cup of coffee from the bodega, my Sony Discman, and a backpack to hold my journal, a pen, and a sizable stack of CDs.
Those early months, I was living off what savings I had, seeing how far I could stretch it, supplementing it by playing gigs or living off the free drinks I could score from sympathetic bartenders, and the $2 pizza slices or hotdogs. (Anyone who thinks trying to make a living in the arts is glamorous, think again.)
But, since I wasn’t working a “day job” yet, I poured my brain into writing – prose and music. I had an idea for a non-fiction book, was polishing off a novel I’d started in Portland before I moved. That bag full of journal, pen, Discman, and CDs went with me everywhere.
It was heavy, but it was necessary. The music that fed into my ears came out my pen as brand new creations. Like the way eating food produces energy in our bodies.
Fast-forward half a decade to Seattle, and I’m on a bus headed to my day job at the University of Washington, where I worked as a web editor in the marketing department. In the evenings, I worked with a band called Betamax on songs I’d been writing. We were starting to get enough gigs that I could count on usually having a couple on the calendar to look ahead to. But still, as a writer, I needed to have those plugs in my ears, the music coming in. Only now, there was a little device in my pocket that weighed next to nothing. A little screen I could scroll through on my 40-minute commute to switch my mood from Alison Krauss to Rebirth Brass Band. Just like that, I was wide awake and grooving. When I got home, I plugged it into my laptop and synchronized it with some stuff my girlfriend had downloaded while I was away. The next day, I could discover Electric Birds on my way to work. When my friend Alli visited from New York, she transfered a couple hundred files from her hard drive to mine, filling my iTunes with new bands – Moloko, Kings of Convenience, Johnny Cash. Suddenly all this could fit on my little device too.
A couple years later, I left the University of Washington and started working full-time as a contractor, a music reporter. Most of my jobs were online, tying me to a computer for often 12-13 hours a day, seven days a week. I sat alone in my dark apartment (I was single then) at the back of a building on Seattle’s First Hill for those long days and weeks, plugging away at copy, answering emails, listening to music from the speakers on my computer, via iTunes. I finally caved and bought an iPhone, and suddenly my life was portable again. I could travel around the city, book interviews in Ballard (another 40-minute bus ride), take a kayaking break and check in with my email and what was happening on No Depression while I floated in Lake Union, in some secret canopied corner of the Arboretum. I started to discover what people mean when they say “work-life balance.” I could leave my “office” (apartment) and work from anywhere, even as the plugs were in my ears pulling music from the same device which allowed me to check in with work from wherever I’d hiked to.
Yesterday, while driving across Asheville, NC, where I’ve moved to write a book about groundbreaking pioneer teacher/activist/musicologist Zilphia Horton, I listened to a recording of Zilphia teaching a workshop in Montana in the 1940s. The recording had originally been made to autograph, but the folks at the Tennessee State Archive happily commuted it to CD for me. I’d taken it back to my hotel, uploaded it into my iTunes, synced it with my phone, and now for the past 7 months, I’ve been able to pull it up anytime, anywhere I am. Without the option of sitting down with Zilphia herself, being able to access these files of her talking, teaching, and singing has been invaluable for the progress of thinking through this story which has accompanied the past year of my research project.
The proposal for the book, by the way, includes a section about how it will present on a digital reader (a Kindle or an iPad), and various multimedia options – ways to link these recordings and some film she shot to the story people are reading as they progress through the book.
Yes, people will be able to listen to Zilphia talk about what music can do in the world as a force, as they read about her. On the same device. Then they can hop over to another window on the same device and send me a message about what they see and hear if they want, and then immediately go back to reading.
The entire story I just typed out may have happened had Steve Jobs never lived, but it would have been more time consuming and arduous to be sure.
Our world has changed dramatically, our lives made easier, our sanity more accessible and ever-ready because of the work Steve Jobs did. Even I recognize that, and I’m a PC.