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DECIBEL DIPLOMACY : Apartment Dwellers Must Strike a Balance Between the Neighbors' Noise and Their Own

January 30, 1994|Jonathan Gold

My next-door neighbors have extremely good taste in music: lots of Nat King Cole, old soul guys like Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye, cocktail jazz, Capitol-era Frank Sinatra, the Traveling Wilburys. It's not my sort of stuff, particularly--though I like it when they play their Milt Jackson vibraphone records--but it's kind of user-friendly, fairly boomer-cool.

When you live in an apartment building, you pretty much have to adapt yourself to your neighbors' idea of righteous tunage. Sometimes it's even nicer to listen to the bits of Metropolitan Opera broadcasts that filter down from an upstairs apartment on Saturday mornings than it is to tune in "Turandot" yourself--less responsibility that way, also some vague idea about community. In some buildings in Los Angeles, where few neighbors share a language, thin walls and overheard Cypress Hill records are all that any two tenants share in common.

But sometimes in the morning, when the guy next door, probably on the outside of a good cup of joe, flips on a CD and "My Way" or something whines through the walls . . . bam . . . I grumble out of bed into a chair in the next room, where I sulk for hours. A person's right to blast the Gipsy Kings ends where my ears begin. There is music, and there is space, and there are times one wants to be left alone.

My own record collection includes shelf after shelf of gangsta rap, death metal, Japanese noise music, techno, Italian opera and every record Bikini Kill ever made. My stereo speakers are heavy enough--and bad enough--to have survived two burglary attempts. I try to keep the music down, but I am, no doubt, an annoying guy to live next to. I have deep-house compilations that dentists could use to anesthetize their patients. I have at least half-a-dozen records by Don Ho. I have seen the pained look on the faces of the people who live in another apartment adjoining mine when they halfheartedly assure me that I haven't been playing my stereo too loud. I know how they feel. In the last place I lived, my downstairs neighbors' 4-year-old had only one record of her own--" Vamos a la Playa ," I think it was--and she played it several times a day. I have heard stories about clogs on hardwood floors, and late-night moans, and nightmarish hacking coughs. I have been the sullen teen-ager in the rock band that practices right down the street from where you live.

This is as close to a universal formula for big-city tolerance as exists: I can hear them, but I believe that there's a magical barrier where they can't hear me. Thank goodness it's only music that makes it through the walls here.

Twenty years ago, my dad used to lug his speakers toward his bedroom window and blast Mahler across the driveway when the music from next door got to be too much. I'm sure Mahler seemed like a good idea at the time--it was more or less the noisiest music he could stand to listen to himself--but in retrospect, I doubt that our neighbors could even hear the "Resurrection Symphony" over the Skynrd and Marshall Tucker Band records they always seemed to have cranked. And I'm sure my father never realized the effect that my French-horn practicing must have had on the neighbors, because it was bad enough and loud enough to make even Southern boogie rock sound refreshing in comparison. He would have been pleased.

But I know now that if I were to huff a speaker over to the wall that separates me and the guys who blast the dread Gipsy Kings, then lean 200 watts into the latest grand opus of Pestilence or Napalm Death, I would be nothing but a giant bully, and they would be the ones with a valid grievance. The situation can be compared to the U.S. military presence in Somalia: There is an enormous arsenal on reserve but really no reasonable way to project it without being perceived as the biggest jerk in the world. When it comes to pushing a volume knob, we can all get along.

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