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.
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.
Moore also discusses this materiality. Looking at the "cold kiss" of a CD, he says, "A cassette rocking at normal bias will bring healing analog tones to the ear-heart." It's true. The more you play it, the more scars it accrues. You can learn to love its bruises: A warp in a track ingrains itself in your head so deeply you begin to think that's the way it was meant to sound.
There are anecdotes about Moore obtaining a ghetto blaster for a mid-'80s Sonic Youth tour, another about a shouting match he witnesses between M. Gira and Lydia Lunch. Moore even gets philosophical, asking, "Do you pretty much just love yourself?" of someone who makes a tape with tracks only they like. He considers ex-Minuteman Mike Watt admirable for willing to sacrifice and "make a tape with songs [his] loved one likes." Conversely, Jim O'Rourke gets down on himself for including a The The song he didn't like on a tape he made when he was 15 simply because he wanted to impress a girl.
The most interesting aspect of the book is the way in which participants affix various approaches and opinions to their mixes. Dodie Bellamy nervously analyzes the collaged cover of a tape given to her by a younger friend, Camden Joy notes the subtle diss of an Elvis Costello song cut short, and Matias Viegener drops a brief manifesto positing "The mix tape as a form of American Folk Art," bringing to mind the work of Geoffrey O'Brien in his book Sonata for Jukebox.
Prior to Avery templates, artwork tended toward collage: clippings from old encyclopedias and Uta Barth photos (shadowy corners, odd vantage points). A friend released a cassette about his ex, including a razor blade with each copy. Radio Shock's cassette came packaged in a Radio Shack bag. I photocopied a Dada woodcut 30 times and chopped each one into pieces, creating a moveable cover consisting of dark puzzle pieces.
One thing Moore doesn't look at is homegrown music labels that only put out cassettes. My most extended foray into the cassette realm came via these labels and a weekly four-hour college radio show I hosted consisting entirely of cassette-only releases by labels like Shrimper, Union Pole, Catsup Plate, Blue Tounge (sic), Cactus Gum, Eldest Son, etc. Favorite cassette label moment: ordering a
Shrimper tape that was recorded incorrectly and included a full-length set by Al Green instead of Lou Barlow. Worst cassette label moment: running out of good stuff to play on the show after five months. I had my own label, Sweet Baboo, which I ran with the guy who made me the Bowie-Neubauten mix (who also mixed De La Soul and Fugazi). We eventually did a couple seven-inches, but my favorite projects by far were the cassettes, especially Will You Please Be Quiet Please, a compilation that grew murkier as we redubbed it on our shitty equipment. Perhaps grabbing Raymond Carver seems coy or ponderous. We also read through John Barth, netting Another Version of the Old Prison Joke. Then came the Pynchon-inspired subtitles . . .
Digging through my closet, I couldn't find the majority of the tapes mentioned. Pretty lame for such a cassette snob. I guess the loss goes along with dissolving relationships. Maybe, as Daniella Meeker hints in her piece about a breakup mix, when the person who made it is no longer around, its scarcity becomes your own act of self-preservation. A mix tape can be the most personal thing someone gives you: When that person's gone and songs take on new shadows, string the insides through the trees around your house, and let their latent sounds provide nests for birds.
Brandon Stosuy is a staff writer at Pitchfork. His anthology of Downtown New York literature will be published by NYU Press in 2006.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.