Friday, June 22, 2007

You are what you read?

Of late I have been cruising through Rob Sheffield's Love is a Mix Tape and getting misty-eyed at the notion of infatuation, geek fetish, and indie rock all colliding into one romantic endeavor. It has made me think about all of my mix-making and I must say, my forays into this realm have been impressively lame.

Like a lot of people, the first time I began recording music onto cassettes was off of the radio. My first radio (and I do mean radio rather than stereo) was a one speaker boombox with a tape deck which I received for Christmas as a 5-year-old living in Germany. When not listening to Walt Disney and Hans Christian Anderson stories on tape, the radio was permanently tuned to the one Armed Forces Radio station we could pick up on base. The two ubiquitous songs at the time were "Saturday Night" by the Bay City Rollers and Joan Jett's cover of "I Love Rock 'n Roll." The year was 1982 and those were definitely groovy days in Stuttgart. Admittedly I wasn't recording anything back then however I wanted to provide some context as to how bad ass I was at that age with my cords, Catholic Jewfro, and ghetto blaster.

So fast forward a couple of years and I am back stateside with my first bedroom I didn't have to share and the world's oldest Panasonic "hi-fi" with both AM and FM as well as a single tape deck. This miracle of 1970's solid state engineering, which currently resides in perfect working order in my parents' garage, is what my mother describes as "the only thing your father had before he had me." By the time we left Germany dad had upgraded to a 100W Pioneer monstrosity and thus the old Panasonic was handed down to me...I was in Heaven.

This was before I hit my growth spurt so the stereo was bigger than me. It had a big black tuning knob and I had to memorize where my favorite radio stations fell on the dial. The capacitors were so far out of spec that 105.1 FM, for example, usually lined up at about 103.7. But the tape deck was even worse. Resistant to change and not wanting to be bothered to do its job, it fought back like a prize fighter whenever you tried to manipulate it. The deck itself required a ton of force to get the cassette to stay seated. You had to slam your tape in there otherwise it would spit back out like Ravage ejecting from Soundwave's chest. And for whatever reason, the rewind and fast forward buttons did not stay down on their own (whether by design or default) which meant you had to stand in front of the damn thing holding a button down if you wanted to hear something again or skip something lame. Like the deck, the buttons required maximum force and I vividly recall crossing my middle finger on top of my index finger, hooking them onto one of the buttons, and practically hanging my entire body weight on the stereo in order to engage the damn thing. But I loved it.

This was when I first began taping the radio. I spent a lot time back then watching MTV and listening to the radio. At some point I had this revelation that if I recorded the radio, I could listen to the songs I like when their videos weren't on. So I stole some of my dad's blank cassettes and started recording whatever station it was I listened to in St. Louis at the time. At first I would just keep it handy and run over to the stereo and hit record when something I liked came on. Unfortunately I wasn't too quick on the draw so I had these tapes with "Jump" from the guitar solo on or the second verse of Scandal's "The Warrior." I was a pretty uptight kid so only having a portion of a song drove me nuts. I switched up my game and would just leave the tape recording for 45 straight minutes. This didn't work out too well either because it seemed like I never had anything but commercials and DJ chatter. I eventually gave up for a few years.

High school was when I graduated from making radio tapes to making dubs. My first CD player was a Christmas gift in 8th grade and to this day it is the only "stereo" I have in my home. It is a Panasonic CD player boombox with a single tape deck and (at last) a digital radio tuner. As soon as I got it I began buying my first CD's and dubbing them onto tapes I could listen to in my yellow Sony Sports Walkman. I was so anal retentive; I would only put one album on a cassette no matter the length. The stereo has a program function where you can program whatever tracks you wanted to play from a CD. Want to listen to "Love & Affection" four times in a row? No problem. I would put in a blank cassette and begin programming CD tracks, in order, until I got as close to 45 minutes as possible without going over. I would record that, flip the tape, program the remainder of the album, and finish it off. Many albums are barely (if even) over 45 minutes so I had all of these tapes with only one or two songs on side B (man, I miss "sides"). I never put anything else on those tapes. My dubs had to be clean. It was weird and unromantic and in retrospect, I fucked up.

Technology had to catch up with me and when I at last had access to a R/W CD drive, I began burning "mix tapes" sourced from my collection. And that was key, My Collection. If I am going to make a mix then it should be, no matter the theme, culled from my personal library (with some exceptions of course depending upon the occasion). My CD collection is a big part of my material existence, those things I own which in fact own me. It is something I take great pride in and, sadly, enjoy just staring at from time to time. It is not huge. My collection is substantive, but not yet significant. I enjoy Substance, but I crave Significance. I am not sure what it will one day take to qualify it as being significant but I do know that I am not yet there. I guess it's about the journey...whatever. One thing I do take solace in is that I believe I have achieved a healthy equilibrium between quality and quantity. There are enough to impress the sort of people who are impressed by that sort of thing, and yet not a lot of regrettable missteps from the past. I never participated in any of those Columbia House scams, never collected monthly CMJ compilations, and never plundered the back stacks at a college radio station.

So now I am tight. I have all the tools I need to make the mixes that score my roadtrips, make tolerable my workouts, please my friends, impress my acquaintances, and maybe someday dupe some poor unsuspecting girl into falling in love with me...or completely creep her the fuck out.


At 6/22/2007 3:18 PM, Blogger dara said...

This was a little like looking back into my own childhood -- especially the part about running across the room to press record and missing the first verse.

I am a mixtape afficionado. I still have every mixtape (or mix CD) anyone's ever made me. And when I made mixes, I always kept a copy for myself, for posterity.

When I was in college (and later in grad school), I used to make study mixtapes, to take with me to the library when prepping for finals. Even now, a couple of times a year, I'll make myself a mix CD for a roadtrip or a long flight, just to put myself in the right frame of mind.

At 6/22/2007 4:47 PM, Blogger Hey Pretty said...

"The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don't wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules." -High Fidelity


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