High Fidelity

From A to B and back again: this is your correspondent, running out of mix tapes

Recently, I made my girlfriend a 100-song mix for her iPod. It was my first non-cassette mix of substance: I paid attention to between-song call-and-response, but missed the ability to connect Side A to Side B via a long fade-out or a vocal loop. It felt like learning to walk again.

In the early '90s I put together so many mix tapes it became second nature: introductory flourish followed by Crispin Glover spoken word or teen-movie dialogue and then My Bloody Valentine's "Soft as Snow (but Warm Inside)," Flying Saucer Attack's take on Wire, an extended drone courtesy of Magic Hour, and then some Pavement. Why not end with a sample from Slacker—"And remember: The passion for destruction is also a creative passion"?

Friends had patterns too. I currently own two dozen cassettes wrapped in autopsy drawings and including the same Scissor Girls tracks courtesy of a guy in Chicago. There were tapes that attempted not to repeat the same band twice and obsessive projects that repeated endlessly, like Swans Song, wherein I looped Swans' "Goddamn the Sun" for 90 minutes. I also tried cassettes without song titles listed, so the person didn't need to worry about what was what and could experience the tape as a whole. I reworked tapes ad infinitum on loose-leaf, but despite these sessions, beauty emerged with chance, enabling you to discover something new about a song you thought you understood simply by placing it next to something else. There was a cassette, 1/2 David Bowie and 1/2 Einstürzende Neubauten, that made me imagine Bowie had a German accent, and a pop-punk cassette whose songs fell into a pattern that made me hate every single track.

photo: Thurston Moore/Universe Publishing/Rizzoli International Publications

Once I raided the trash at the Rutgers journalism school and found a pile of Encyclopaedia Britannica "Investigating Matter" cassettes. My friend broke a case apart, took the tape out, and inserted it backward, then put the case back together with duct tape. I often used this as a way to tie A and B into one long around-the-corner loop.

You can't do this on a CD. A mix on an iPod or a CD-R is a different monster. I don't own an iPod (or DVD player . . . or cell phone), though, so maybe I'm biased. But I'm not a throwback or cynic: It's an aesthetic. I'm not concerned with the economic issues Negativland raise in "Shiny, Aluminum, Plastic, and Digital," and I don't care if the music industry rips me off, because, really, that sort of snow job's expected.

I'm not usually so fixated, but Thurston Moore's new book Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture (Universe) has me in nostalgia mode. It includes track listings and anecdotes for various mixes by everyone from Richard Kern to

Elizabeth Peyton to Kill Rock Stars honcho Slim Moon. It's an antidote to the iTunes celebrity playlists and saccharine quips. It makes good reading beside Nick Hornby's High Fidelity or Rick Moody's story "Wilkie Ridgeway Fahnstock: The Boxed Set," which sets up a soundtrack for life's unraveling.

Moore cites a 1978 Voice piece Robert Christgau wrote about "his favorite Clash record, which just happened to be one he made himself: a tape of all the non-LP b-sides by the band" as hipping him to mix tapes. What struck him most was that the Dean "had made his own personalized Clash record and was handing it out as a memento to his rock 'n' roll devotion." (If you're intrigued by other people's playlists, check out artofthemix.org, which Moore mentions.)

You can view the book as a collection of recipes or as insight into the taste of your favorite conceptual artist. But is it like Pierre Menard's Quixote? If I re-create what I see here will it be different because of the personal baggage I bring to each track? When I was in high school, I made my sister In Praise of Sha Na Na, titled after one of my favorite Dead Milkmen songs. She was into heavy metal, so the mix offered new musical territory. She didn't comment on Sonic Youth, the Descendents, or the Replacements but did tell me she dug Dinosaur Jr.'s "Freak Scene" because J. Mascis's drawl reminded her of Axl Rose, who she thought was not only talented, but also really hot. The next time I heard the "Where do we go now?" breakdown in "Sweet Child O' Mine," the connection was apparent.

Cassettes make things weightier. When else have you spent so much time analyzing a song, wondering if the inclusion of Jawbreaker's "Chesterfield King" meant (a) he/she loved you or (b) he/she equated you with the old lady in the parking lot who the song's hero encounters at the climactic moment? And when a cassette arrives in the mail with New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle" featured prominently, plan to spend upward of six months wondering whether or not there's a third party you should be hunting down. IPods exist without souls. That's why they look so clean and perfect. Cassettes offer tactility: You collapse the tabs to ensure work isn't erased, but can bridge the indentations again with tape or crumbled paper to reuse. With its inherent noise, a cassette is a ready-made palimpsest.

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