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The Bad Sleep Well: An Audiophile Love Story

How a chance encounter, Sam Cooke record, and vengeful ex-wife changed the course of my life. The bad sleep well.

The Bad Sleep Well 1960

The life of an audiophile can be a lonely one. I certainly know what that feels like. Having been married twice and gone through a messy divorce that cost me $75,000 worth of high-end equipment, much resentment did I once feel about the entire escapade. Before the dark times. Before quiet quitting. The bad sleep well — or in my case for the better part of 3 years, not at all.

Mitch Anderson and I discussed our personal struggles with bipolar disorder on last week’s live broadcast of Black Circle Radio and after I went to bed that night, my mind took me back almost two decades to a very strange and life altering week.

The night after I left my wife, I lay in bed, alone, and for the first time in many years I listened to music. Truth be told, her inherent dislike of music pushed me into becoming a hermit; an existence where I locked the door, worked, studied, reviewed, and listened alone in boring solitude.

Audio was verboten in the bedroom and it made me a “bad” person to fall asleep to music. “Normal people don’t fall asleep listening to music,” I was told. Repeatedly. Normal people don’t consider Garth Brooks music either. So great was my sense of freedom, that I moved whatever bedroom furniture I felt was in the way and set up my office system, including my second turntable. The emotional release I felt when I lowered the stylus into the grooves of Peter Gabriel’s Passion was quite embarrassing.

Listening to one of Toronto’s late night jazz programs would have sufficed, but the ability to actually play a record in my bedroom and listen to it over and over reduced me to tears. Dr. Melfi would call that progress and charge you $250. Divorce lawyers call that self-pity, before they smile and present you with a $4,600 bill.

Pour Me Another One Silvio…

A week later I found myself unloading years worth of pent up audio rage on my understanding psychiatrist and it proved to be a harbinger of catharsis yet to unfold.

“I dislike audiophiles, and they dislike me.”

“Why do you say that?” He asked with that annoying shrink voice that always makes you feel as if you drowned a bag of puppies.

“It is not them per se that I dislike — okay, that’s a lie, I do dislike them. I guess I can’t relate anymore to their obsessive behavior, their compulsion to move from system to system, even though there is nothing wrong with the one that they just replaced. You should read the e-mails that I receive. These people are totally demented. One guy wrote me to ask if I thought replacing his already expensive cables with newer ones that were $3,000 a pair was going to pay off.”

“What was your response?”

“I told him to keep what he had, send me the $3,000 and I would make sure that it went to a good charity.”

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“You actually asked him for the money and he sent it?”

“Hey, you didn’t hear anything from me when I saw you pull up in that new Volvo, so don’t kvetch about where I get the money to pay your fees.”

“You can spend $3,000 on audio cables?” He asked incredulously.

“My point Dr. Crane is that I am no longer sure that my lack of faith enables me to continue with my reviewing duties. For the first time in many years I am actually having problems listening critically to equipment. I can’t listen to gear anymore for how well it reproduces the soundstage, or for that last smidgen of air in the treble,” I replied.

“While I can appreciate how that might pose a professional problem, I would suggest that perhaps all of this is a reaction to your separation which we would both agree has been quite stressful.”

“Doc, I’ve spent the better part of five years playing with carbon fiber cones, CD polishing creams, record cleaning fluid, and enough is enough. I want to enjoy music again. More importantly, I want to meet someone who enjoys it as much as I do.”

“Well, I think that is up to. We’re going to have to stop now.”

For those who have never been to a psychiatrist, all conversations end this way. I was moments away from spilling my guts and suddenly I had to make room for some hippie-looking lunatic sitting outside flipping through three year-old copies of Runner’s World.

The “Passion”

I have no doubt that G-d was testing my faith when he situated me forty floors above the best record store in Chicago, and 1.2 miles from Joe’s Record Paradise in Rockville. The temptation to spend was certainly strong, but I had always limited my vinyl shopping excursions to only the really bad days when I needed another copy of A Love Supreme.

As I drove home, a little voice went off in my head.

“Joe’s got a copy of Sam Cooke’s Night Beat that isn’t warped like a Dunlop Max 200G left out in the rain.”

“How do you know?” I asked. Told you I need therapy.

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“He got it in yesterday from Japan and someone else already called him about it.”

Fifteen minutes later I pulled into the first available parking spot and said a prayer before entering.

Before running behind the counter to look for an album I had coveted for three years (all the really good jazz is on the floor behind the counter), I did a walk-about just in case the “other” person was lurking in R&B. As I made my way to the back of the store, I noticed that a rather attractive woman was standing next to the “New Arrivals” box and eyeing me suspiciously.

I intentionally ignored R&B and walked until I reached the movie soundtracks, which still gave me a good vantage point to observe what this stranger was doing. As I flipped through endless copies of the Eddie and the Cruisers soundtrack, I noticed that the young lady was sorting through the “C’s” which raised alarm bells. If Sam Cooke was there, I was out of luck.

She must have noticed that I was flipping the same records because she began to move closer to the front desk and flashed a smile that could have bent a million styli.

Sensing defeat was only a few seconds away, I mad a surprise dash for the counter hoping to catch her asleep at the tonearm lift. I had expected her to stick her leg out once she realized that she was dealing with a very desperate man, but she just stood there and watched as my two hundred pound frame tripped and caught the edge of the Polka bin sending me crashing to the ground.

She casually stepped over me, walked behind the counter and exclaimed “Oh wow, a mint-condition copy of Sam Cooke’s Night Beat. I have been looking for this for at least a month.”

Sam Cooke Night Beat Vinyl Album 1963

A Lousy Stinking Month

The stinging sensation in my shoulder was starting to become a bigger priority than the record, but I lifted myself off of the carpet and followed my victorious tormentor out into the parking lot.

“How much do you want for the record?” I asked, pulling a wad of 20s from my wallet.

“More than you can afford,” she replied, flashing her almost perfect teeth and making me feel like an ass chasing a woman for a record.

“Come on, I am going through a divorce and this record would really make me feel better,” I replied pathetically.

She paused momentarily, pulled back her jean jacket so that I could lose my train of thought and smiled. “I’ll tell you what. I have to meet a friend of mine at home in about twenty minutes so that he can fix my system but I might let you come over and listen to the record.”

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“But I could be Charles Manson.”

“Based on that little display of agility inside, you are most certainly only a threat to small dogs and phono cartridges,” she replied.

I nodded in agreement.

“I’m Judith.”

“Idiot-Boy. Pleased to meet you”

As I followed her into Northwest D.C., I began to wonder if I was being set-up by a gang of amateur pornographers who were going to hit me from behind, drug me, and take incriminating photographs. It just seemed so odd that such a pretty girl was hanging out in a dingy Rockville record store looking for a Sam Cooke album.

Still, other than losing my wallet or my life, it seemed like a harmless opportunity to meet some fellow vinyl nuts.

If she was a psychotic seducer of vulnerable men, she certainly had excellent taste in living accommodations. Her apartment was a top-floor unit in a pre-war building on Connecticut Avenue — dark hardwood floors, twelve-foot ceilings, furnished by Design Within Reach. I had one of their throw pillows.

She threw her coat down, motioned that I follow, and walked through a set of heavy oak doors into music heaven. Her living room was certainly set-up for entertaining guests with a number of love seats and smaller chairs, but my eyes were fixated on what appeared to be an entire wall of records. Never had my eyes seen anything so beautiful before. Adrian Monk had nothing on this girl.

“How many?” I stuttered.

“11,568 not including what I picked up today,” she replied.

“You’re sicker than me,” I responded and began to laugh.

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“Before you ask, I do not lend anything out.”

“Me neither.”

Suddenly, this potential serial killer was starting to look like a male version of Harvey Pekar — just with breasts and really good taste in music.

“Are they all in order?” I asked.

“By genre, artist, release date, best pressing,” she replied enthusiastically.

“You are sick. My ex-wife would have killed you.”

“Do you know anything about system set-up?”

“I know a thing or two,” I replied, unsure of how I was going to mask my disappointment when she rolled out some ten year-old Rega P3 connected to a NAD integrated and pair of B&Ws.

“It is over here inside this wall unit that I had built.”

Her P3 turned out to be a Well-Tempered Classic with a high-output version of the Van Den Hul Frog. The NAD integrated was a Naim NAP 250 power amplifier, NAC 72 pre-amplifier with Hi-Cap, Graham Slee Era Gold MK V phono stage, and the speakers were Spendor SP2/3s.

“I do not own a CD player in case you were wondering,” she replied before I could even catch the drool that was already reaching my belt.

“So what is wrong with it?”

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“I bought the olive Hi-Cap on eBay, but I have no idea where to connect it because it came with no instructions.”

I bit my lip to avoid being a male audiophile know-it-all and played it cool. “I think I can figure it out.”

In less than three minutes, I had the Hi-Cap positioned so that it didn’t interfere with the rest of the equipment, plugged it in, and asked her to give her system a few minutes to warm-up.

As we were waiting to spin some vinyl, her buddy “Jack” showed up. Jack was your typical solid-state loving audiophile with an ever expanding gut and receding hairline. He seemed less than impressed to see Judith with a new male friend.

“So, you guys know each other long?”

“Actually, Judith and I met only this morning. She beat me to a record that I was desperately seeking,” I replied.

“Which one?”

“Sam Cooke, Night Beat.”

“Don’t know it. Judith, do you have anymore of that organic, almond honey butter?” Jack responded in an attempt to change the subject.

As the two of us began to size one another up, Judith emerged from the bedroom in a satin vest and blue jeans, exposing her rather muscular, yet still feminine arms.

“Anyone of you tough guys want to arm wrestle?”

“Ian does!” replied Jack in a transparent attempt at distracting me while he messed with the tracking of her tonearm.

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“What are we wrestling for?”

“For ownership of that Sam Cooke album,” I replied.

“I like it,” Judith replied as she flexed showing off her muscles.

It was an epic struggle of man versus woman. Our eyes never left one another for a second as we tried to muscle the other down. As much as I wanted that record, I realized that sometimes when you lose, you most certainly win.

“Best 16 out of 30?”

“Only if you promise not to adjust my VTA.”

Jack was quiet as a semi-conductor as he made his way to the door. As Judith and I began to dance to Sam, I looked over and whispered.

“Tell Doctor Crane that you can have my slot next week if you want it. Jack —Runner’s World? At least pick something believable if you are going to hide a stereo magazine inside of it.”

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