Unlike a lot of people my age who seem to struggle with the ever shifting world of technology and constantly live in the past, left behind, lost in the times, I partake and often overuse the convenience and technology that surrounds me, which is at the root of the conflict I often feel between things I miss from the past, and my willing acceptance and complicit participation in the conveniences that buried my past and rendered it to a position of nostalgia.
Back in the day, a phrase that I find both detestable and fitting at the same time, I loved nothing more than putting together a well crafted mixtape. The term mixtape has been broadened, hijacked as I like to call it, to encompass other meanings and connotations, and the mixtape has also become somewhat of a cliché on its way to the iconic, and almost insufferably nostalgic in nature, status that it holds in pop culture today. I suppose I’m just as guilty as anyone.
All of us in our group of friends made mixtapes for ourselves and for each other, but I guess I was the one in particular that took a real shine to the whole process and often made tapes for a variety of special occasions. If it was someone’s birthday, I made them a mixtape. If it was Halloween, I made a mixtape. If we were taking a road trip or if there was a party or get-together, I made a mixtape. If we were going to take a different type of a trip, well, that was my favorite kind of mixtape to make.
I loved the process. The fact was, the only way to make your music portable, as stone age as that sounds now to the youngsters, was to put your music on a cassette tape. Records just didn’t play well in cars; they tended to skip a lot, and those turntables took up so much room on the front seat. Plus, if you wanted to hear a variety of different bands, it was really hard changing records while you were trying to drive, especially in traffic. It just made a lot more sense to take some of your favorite songs, ninety minutes worth to be exact, forty-five minutes a side, and put them on a cassette.
The main challenge in making a mixtape was the process of whittling down your choices to those precious ninety minutes. One had to figure that one could get anywhere from eighteen to twenty two songs on a tape on average. Of course, if it was good old hardcore tunes, all about one to two minutes, you could get a good forty tunes packed on that cassette. Add a bunch of Black Sabbath or Pink Floyd, and your number is going to dwindle. Add a Rush song (alright, I would never do that, so I can’t relate, but I’m trying to throw out some hypotheticals here to paint a better picture, so give me a break), and you could really limit your songs to a few on that particular side of the cassette. Another complicating factor was your access to music beyond your own collection. You were limited by the boundaries of your own personal collection, of course, combined with what you could borrow from friends, thereby expanding your selection only based on the good musical tastes of your friends, not including their willingness to let you borrow their records. Add to this the fact that one might be working with a theme or concept, and one really had to narrow down one’s options and choose wisely.
And don’t fool yourself, there was always some additional pressure involved if you were the one bringing the mixtape, if you were the one responsible for the music. No one, and I mean no one, wanted to be the one that brought the crappy, boring, or even worse yet, buzz killing or unsettling mix of tunes to the gathering or event. With the added pressure came experimentation and a surge in creativity. After a while, it wasn’t just about the songs on the tape, it was all of the cool, weird, funny, and crazy stuff I would put in between the songs. I would record bits and pieces of things on the radio, strange broadcasts, interviews, and sermons, brief clips from old children’s records of cowboy songs, I would record Battalion of Saints feedback backwards by spinning the record backwards on the turntable, and my crowning achievement was taking every Tom Araya scream (for the uninitiated, I’m talking about Tom Araya’s, singer of Slayer, high pitched scream) from Show No Mercy, Hell Awaits, and Reign in Blood and splicing them end to end, seamlessly in one long FrankenScream. Priceless.
The covers and cases of the mixtapes themselves became works of art. I worked hard on my penmanship when writing on cassette covers and practiced writing very small, so as to fit more writing on the cassette. After all, you were giving a gift, you were creating something and passing it on. A snapshot of the moment, of your connection to that moment, your connection to your friends, the understanding of the connection of the two, etc.; all that energy plus synergy kind of stuff. I always gave the cassette away. That is why I don’t have any of my mixtapes any longer. If I had been more forward thinking, I would have made copies of all of those tapes before I gave them away. I guess, at the time, it just didn’t seem necessary or important. It’s impossible in those youthful, zealous, and short-sighted times to ever think that something like that would be useful.
I couldn’t tell you the last time I made someone a mixtape, or any tape for that matter. I haven’t owned a tape deck in a several years (it hasn’t been necessary because the only cassettes I have anymore are all old demos and live rarities and stuff like that, which I have already converted into WAV files). It has probably been fifteen or twenty years since I have made someone a mixtape. I miss it. But burning people a CD just never gave me the same feeling and I didn’t have the same freedom, short of investing in DJ equipment and recording equipment to mixdown multiple tracks, to create little snippets and oddities in between the tracks in the same fashion I did before. It just didn’t give me the same feeling. So we move on.
I am, as much as anyone, a slave to the convenience I often loath and struggle with, always wondering if Ray Bradbury is rolling over in his grave. I have almost eight thousand songs on my drive, and I also subscribe to Spotify, I use Pandora regularly, as well as a variety of other music sources and providers. All I mean to say is that I have access to a disgusting, gluttonous amount of music, all at my fingertips at all times of the day and night, and in all places.
Yet, with all of this music at my fingertips, I realized that I hadn’t made a “playlist,” the new version of the mixtape, for anyone else much either. No Mix CDs and only a couple of playlists over a couple of decades. Every time I try to make a playlist, for a friend or for a special occasion, anything of the sort, I always give up, fade out, trail off, fizzle out, pffft. That’s it. I never really finish. Oh, I might get a good selection of songs, but I never really get far enough to put them in a proper, well-thought-out order, a working progression, because in the end I always just think, Hell, you can always just put it on shuffle and mix it up. Lazy, I know, but what can I say? That is reality. And I am a complete failure when it comes to selecting songs anymore, as far as narrowing down the selections to the most important and relevant tunes. I just pick anything in the realm of what might work. Can’t decide between three songs by The Smiths. Who cares, put on all three. It’s not like there isn’t enough space. Why not? In the past, availability and space limited one’s selections and one was forced to pick a certain number of songs. But now? I tried making a playlist of tunes from my college years, and it ended up over a hundred songs long! I just couldn’t pick a few, I had access to any band or album I wanted to put on it, and there was nothing stopping me from picking just about everything I wanted. And it is a great collection of songs, but there is nothing special about it beyond that. And how, exactly, does one come up with a song order for one hundred songs. It’s called select random play.
I don’t really see the point of even making a playlist very often. If I want to hear some hardcore, I can hear just about anything now. And if I get too lazy to pick, I can always just put on Pandora and dial in my station to a handful of specific bands, and I get a great mix of stuff I might not have thought to put on. If I’m in the mood for old hardcore, I can start a Black Flag station, then have it focus on Dead Kennedys, Germs, Battalion of Saints, Minor Threat, Social Distortion, Scratch Acid, and the Butthole Surfers, and I’m all set. Why do I need to make a mixtape, CD, or even bother with a playlist? I can do the same for any artist or genre of music.
But still, it’s not the same. Don’t get me wrong, the past is the past, and I am too far committed to the future to turn back if I wanted to, but there is something I miss about that moment of inspiration, that moment when I used to decide I was going to make a tape. I miss flipping through my records and pulling out possible choices, all the time thinking about a good order, or a good theme to use. I miss thinking, what songs would Keltie like to hear, or David or maybe even you? I miss going down the hall to O’s room and borrowing some records I need for the perfect mix, and then making something, hopefully something special, something from me to you. A gift.