Last Waltz: Elegy for the iPod Classic

Twenty-three thousand songs, one muso's dying refrain
Associated Press

Recent news about Apple discontinuing the iPod Classic was cause for some mild nostalgia among longtime users. Inevitably, massive music storage devices like the Classic (which held about 160GB) were outmoded by the likes of the Nano and the Shuffle, but rendered even more obsolete thanks to streaming services like Pandora and Spotify. I mean, who wants to bother downloading music and then switching it to a portable device and all of that?

Answer? Me. The Apple news actually coincided with my own personal end-of-an-iPod experience. About five years ago I loaded a Classic with music from my computer. I don’t know how many discs were transferred, but the iPod took exactly 23,813 songs — nowhere near the potential 40,000 that Apple always claimed.

The point is that I actually listened to the entire contents of my Classic, all 23,813 tunes. As near as I can figure it took me more than five years of walking, jogging, driving and flying with my iPod to fulfill this objective, but I finally got through it all just as the Classic was discontinued.

My method: I chose the “songs” category and went forward alphabetically, starting with “A-11” by Johnny Paycheck all the way to “Zweet Zunday” by Duke Ellington, as well as the hundred-odd tunes with number titles starting with ‘0 Street” by Liam Hayes all the way up to “3744 James Road” by the Groundhogs. I diligently absorbed my random-yet-personal selection of 20th Century music including all manifestations of rock, R&B, funk, soul, electronica, folk, blues, bluegrass, jazz, hip-hop, experimental, reggae, Americana, country and a little classical.

One benefit in listening to songs alphabetically was that it gave me the semblance and relief of a shuffle mode, but I could also track my progress, backtrack or diverge, and then be able to pick up wherever I’d left off in order to continue going through everything on the iPod, in order. Ever the devout musicologist, I dutifully plodded through the playlist track by track, fairly strict about my objective, and attained plenty of insights and worthwhile listening choices I would never have made on my own.

The education gained was hard-fought but I hung tough, finding value in tunes from forgotten bands, obscure singers and gifted songwriters as well as obtuse psychedelia, century-old murder ballads, world music, arcane Krautrock, prog-fusion, punk and overlooked gems by old favorites. This included unnecessarily deep catalogs by heritage artists like Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Keith Jarrett and John Lee Hooker.

I certainly relied on the experience of others, drawing on well-considered anthologies, movie and TV soundtracks, and all sorts of great DJ compilations — belated art forms and thoroughly modern music made by folks from all walks of life, rural and urban — places, races and faces from the last 100 years. I even repeated segments missed while sleeping on an airplane or whatever — which would send me searching for the exact point where I’d drifted off — not an ideal project for someone with obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

So yeah, it took me five years to get through everything, maybe longer. I really can’t remember, it feels like I’ve always been doing it. This allowed me to avoid listening to the radio, and I’ve never even considered using a streaming service. It was a unique and fascinating flux of contents and contexts — providing plenty of thoughtful music appreciation.

Earlier this year, I finally noticed the end was in sight. I even got a little melancholy upon realizing I had fewer than 1,000 tracks to go. Most of these tunes were by people who had devoted their lives to music and I was only starting to connect the dots. Suddenly it felt like things were moving way too fast and it was all going to be over — all that learning, those cool connections and great references. All those songs, all those artists — the end of an era! I was just getting a decent grasp on this wealth of sonic expressions and then … it was done.

I’ve continued listening to my Classic but now it’s set on random and I’m skipping tracks all the time. I could always clear out the entire contents, but to be honest I’d rather give the whole iPod to some other ambitious music lover. Any takers?

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