[SoundStage!]Paradise with James Saxon
Back Issue Article
October 1999

The Adventures of Ampy

Once upon a time there was a squat little amplifier named Ampy whose purpose in life was to sing. Actually, he was designed to take a tiny music signal and convert it into a perfect copy at the cone of a loudspeaker (maybe not quite perfect, but close enough, kids). Each morning Ampy’s stern owner, Old Zog, would poke the amplifier’s belly button and Ampy would wake up, check all his vital parts and then idle patiently until Zog had his morning coffee and read every available news source on the Internet. Following that lengthy ordeal, Ampy would play music from 8 in the morning until 8 at night for anyone who cared to listen.

When Ampy first arrived at Old Zog’s place, everybody loved him. But after a while, he was joined by a couple of siblings who stole the spotlight. One brother was bigger and stronger, and captured the hearts of people sporting tattoos, including several women. The other brother was smaller and cuter, and tickled the fancy of music lovers who pressed their noses against Old Zog’s window. Eventually, Ampy became an outcast. Exasperated by Ampy’s unpopularity, Old Zog wrestled him onto a throw rug and dragged him out of the listening room. For six months Ampy was confined to a dark, dank closet with a bunch of other misfits, including burned-up surge protectors and last year’s favorite power cords. Ampy gathered dust. His crevices grew spider webs.

In time, Ampy’s brothers left for greener pastures, and Ampy once again took center-stage at Old Zog’s. Unfortunately, a heavy-metal aficionado took a liking to him and bought him on the installment plan. This hearing-impaired personality made the amp drive a pair of Peavey loudspeakers to block-busting levels. After a few months of incessant hard labor, poor Ampy blew a resistor making his owner extremely unhappy. The rocker canceled his installment payments and returned Ampy to Zog’s store in exchange for a used Canadian amplifier with a lifetime warranty. The only problem was that by now Old Zog had a new amplifier that sounded silkier than Ampy. Once again, Ampy was sent to the closet.

Over time, the children in Old Zog’s neighborhood heard of Ampy’s confinement. One of them got the bright idea to make placards and picket in front of Zog’s store. The signs read "Free Ampy." Zog called the police who disbursed the children with fire hoses. After that, Ampy became a celebrity cell-mate in Zog’s closet. However, his role as closet-king ended when Zog sliced open a shin on Ampy’s razor-sharp heat sinks while groping for a power cord in his underwear. After that faux pas, Ampy was relegated to a flatbed cart in Zog’s garage.

No doubt Ampy would have disappeared into the glass-and-iron compost heap next to Zog’s car had it not been for an accident of fate. A Kindly Gentleman from a Faraway Land came to Paradise to bird-watch, as he told his next-of-kin. Tiring of all the "birds," he decided to take a break at Zog’s place. Knowing of Ampy’s reputation for competent music-making, he was shocked to see the amplifier going to seed in Zog’s carport.

"What are your plans for Ampy? " the Kindly Gentleman inquired.

"He came from the earth, and he shall return to the earth," said Old Zog, mixing metallurgy with biblical studies.

"Would you sell him to me?" the KG asked.

Quicker than one can say "Michael Corleone," Zog made the kindly gentleman an offer he couldn’t refuse. There was only one catch. The KG wanted to test Ampy in his own system before he would agree to the deal. This presented a series of problems for Old Zog. First, the Faraway Land was really freakin’ far away, and Ampy had a shipping weight of 150 pounds. Secondly, Old Zog couldn’t find Ampy’s original shipping carton. Finally, there was the problem of dust, dirt and grime. Ampy looked like a hobo. Would he clean up enough to ship?

Zog was nothing if not greedy to make a sale. He assigned his loyal maid Monica to attack Ampy’s orifices with alcohol and Q-tips. Zog himself cleaned Ampy’s dirty feet, a chore which even a lumberjack would find daunting. After a cotton cloth rubdown and a few shots of canned air, Ampy looked presentable if a bit shopworn. But then, even a beat-up old Mercedes is better than a shiny new Hyundai. Next, Zog purloined the packing materials from Ampy’s smaller replacement and wedged him into the box good and tight. Then came the shipping problem. The local robber barons who controlled transport into and out of Paradise wanted a king’s ransom to deliver Ampy out of Paradise. Resorting to all the import/export tricks he knew and failing miserably, Zog finally bribed a steamship operator into giving Ampy a place in steerage on a slow boat to San Jose, California, where the Kindly Gentleman lived. And so off went Ampy, never to return to Old Zog’s place.

At least, that was the plan. A month went by and the KG sent e-mail asking of Ampy’s whereabouts. Old Zog was shocked and dismayed. Since Ampy’s departure was undocumented, odds were he wasn’t traceable. Zog called a pal at Interpol who told him to forget it. Ampy was history.

Then, just as Zog and the KG had given up on ever seeing Ampy again, a strange thing happened. A large box appeared at Zog’s door with a sheaf of papers attached. Examining the papers, Zog realized that an untoward but not unknown event had taken place. Ampy had gone to San Jose, California only to be re-routed back to San Jose, Costa Rica. Ampy was home after a trip of 3000 miles to nowhere.

Old Zog was beside himself with joy and frustration. Eyeing the dog-eared, split, and reeking box, he was almost afraid to look inside. Miraculously, he found that Ampy was unscathed by the long, tough journey. Zog called to give the Kindly Gentleman the good news. The KG was cool. How did he know Zog wasn’t playing some kind of trick on him, stalling around for some reason? "Honest aborigine," said Zog. "Ampy has been to San Jose twice -- first, your San Jose and then my San Jose."

Between the two of them, Zog and the Kindly Gentleman decided to pool funds for a first-class ticket on the next legitimate cargo flight to the San Jose, California airport. Ampy was relieved at the news. Despite being almost terminally seasick, he wanted to get away from Zog as soon as possible. The thought of going back into Zog’s garage, or worse his closet, inspired Ampy to suck it up and get on an airplane. Zog wound a roll of duct tape around the battered box and the next day Ampy was winging his way out of Paradise.

All parties concerned kept their fingers crossed (except Ampy, who doesn’t have any fingers, silly). A few days later, the telephone rang.

"Where’s that damn Ampy?" It was the Kindly Gentleman, sounding less than gentlemanly.

"He’s not with you?" whined Zog.

"No, he’s not," said the Kindly Gentleman.

"I shipped him out of here three days ago. He’s got to be in your San Jose for sure, this time."

"Maybe he was amp-napped?" said the KG.

"I wouldn’t want to meet the person who could steal Ampy," said Zog. "He weighs 150 and his heat sinks are sharp as knives."

"Give me his ticket information," said the KG. "Maybe he got lost at the airport."

The next day, the Kindly Gentleman called with news of Ampy. He had been found wandering around the conveyor belt at San Jose International. Apparently, during the plane ride, Ampy had met a sleek preamp with whom he had spent a lost weekend doing unspeakable things. Finally, after he had run out of booze, money and perseverance, she had thrown him out where he was picked clean by the local hoods. Ampy didn’t even have a quarter for a phone call. Although the Kindly Gentleman was happy to find Ampy, he was shocked by his condition and worried that he might bring something home with him. Zog agreed to quarantine the amplifier with a local San Jose audio dealer who tested him to make sure he was fit for a domestic setting.

When the Kindly Gentleman took Ampy home, he gave him 24 hours to recharge his capacitors. On the first day of making music, Ampy sounded cold, congested and rough. The KG was not amused. He threatened to send Ampy back to Old Zog on the next slow boat. Ampy was never so scared in his life. He cleared his throat and belted out Jackson Browne’s "The Pretender," but sounded depressingly like Tom Waits. Amid the sound of gargled razor blades, the Kindly Gentleman detected a note or two of sweet pathos. Since he wasn’t called the Kindly Gentleman for nothing, the man told Ampy to relax for a few more days in order to let his lungs heal in the dry California air. Meanwhile, he sent a stern e-mail to Old Zog telling him the deal was off.

Old Zog replied in the only way he knew how. "Up yours," Zog wrote back. "I never said Ampy could sing. He’s meant for sound reinforcement, the same as your rotten loudspeakers."

These words threatened an audiophile version of World War III. The Gentleman’s strong reaction to Zog’s insult, which included breaking a chair against the wall, signaled to Ampy that he was in deep trouble. The next day upon entering the listening room, the Kindly Gentleman was deathly calm. As he fired Ampy up, his eyes had the infantryman’s thousand-yard stare. The moment of truth had arrived. It was now or never for our battered hero.

Ampy filled his lungs with fresh air, sucked in a steady voltage from the wall plug, and adjusted his bias to suit the big four-way speakers he was assigned to drive. The Kindly Gentleman was giving Ampy one last chance to perform. He placed The Best of Jackson Browne in the CD player and pressed play. "Doctor My Eyes" was definitely better than the day before. "These Days" brought a further improvement in the sound. During the course of "Fountain of Sorrow," a glimpse of greatness appeared, and the Kindly Gentleman eased back in his chair.

"I’m just one or two years and a couple of changes behind you," sang Ampy though the big speakers. The KG smiled at the irony of the lyrics. He too had been scuffed up by life and had even lost his way once. He had turned out OK; so might Ampy. "You’ve had to hide sometime," Ampy went on, and the Kindly Gentleman knew that experience as well. "It’s good to see your smiling face tonight," sang Ampy. "Good to see yours, too," said the Kindly Gentleman. Upon hearing a friendly response, Ampy surged with fellow feeling for his new owner:

You’ve had to struggle, you’ve had to fight

To keep understanding and compassion in sight,

You could be laughing at me, you’ve got the right….

The Kindly Gentleman tilted his gray head. He had, indeed, struggled to maintain compassion. "I’m not laughing at you, now, Ampy," he said. "Sing, big boy. Sing." And at that moment, a bond arose between the man and the amplifier. The Kindly Gentleman didn’t focus on the still-raspy high notes or the bashful bass notes. Instead, he listened for Ampy’s noble soul, and by the time album ended, he had found it. The Kindly Gentleman realized that Ampy was a first-class troubadour, even if his tux was a bit tattered. Whatever Ampy may have lacked in finesse, he made up for in truth of feeling. He knew how to touch the Kindly Gentleman’s heart by opening his own. This was the sort of emotional directness the Kindly Gentleman loved, since he was somewhat devious himself. When the listening session was over that night, the Kindly Gentleman gave Ampy a reassuring pat and said he’d see him in the morning. After a life of early promise, followed by a few bad breaks and a rapid decline into idleness, Ampy was given a second chance at success. Isn’t that all any of us can ask ?

Well, kids, I am happy to say the Kindly Gentleman wired Old Zog the money to pay for Ampy. At least for now, the amplifier is a fixture in the Gentleman’s stereo system. Someday Ampy will be forced to move on, which is the fate of all amps great and small, but that day is still away in the future. In the meantime, if you’re ever in Northern California, stop by the Kindly Gentleman’s house and ask to hear Ampy perform. Just don’t tell him Zog sent you.

...James Saxon


[SoundStage!]All Contents
Copyright 1999 SoundStage!
All Rights Reserved