My Heart on Cassette

Warning: this will not be a knitting post. I wanted to put it somewhere public, but not as connected to my professional self as my academic blog, so here it is. Originally I’d planned that this blog would have non-knitting personal content, but this is the first time I’ve really gotten around to doing that. So if you can deal with the lack of pictures of yarn, then please stick around. I promise to be charming! But I’m going to hide the post under a cut-tag, because it’s incredibly long and incredibly self-indulgent.

Yesterday, I informed you that my car’s 1997 cassette-only stereo had been fried, and I was forced, forced I tell you, to replace it with a spiffy new CD and mp3-ready model. I shed a few perfunctory verbal tears for my cassette collection then, but later that evening when I got home from work and actually unloaded all the cassettes from my car, I kind of had to take a moment. Would I throw them out? I couldn’t bear to, and I theoretically have a cassette-playing walkman around this apartment somewhere. But for all intents and purposes, these little guys are kaput. I found myself wanting to honor them in some way, for all their many years of service, and for their role in making me who I am today. So I’ve selected the best of the best, the cassettes most near and dear to my heart, and I have arranged them here for you:

tapes

Well, that’s the first batch of them at any rate. My actual cassette collection is at least three times this large, and there will be another photo of some more recent acquisitions at the end of this post. But these are the tapes that turned me into who I am, from grade school to grad school, and I am now going to tell you a little bit about each and every one of them in rough chronological order. The reason I’m doing this, apart from my own nostalgia, is that this is a kind of history that simply won’t be writable anymore in the digital age; more and more we live in a world where our music is unconnected to physical objects — and the physical limits of the cassette (in terms of how much music you could put on it), as well as the journey of the object through the physical world are the things that shape the stories I’m about to tell here.

Nirvana, Unplugged in New York : The actual first cassette I ever bought was Wilson Phillips’ self-titled album, when I was in third grade, because I had a really weird music teacher that year who, in addition to having us analyze the use of music in Star Wars (which was unbelievably amazing to a mini-dork like I was), had us analyze some songs by Wilson Phillips, and I loved them, and I listened to that tape six million billion times and can still sing every single lyric when, for example, “Release Me” comes on at the grocery store. (This happened just last week.) But I don’t seem to have Wilson Phillips here in California — it’s probably still in my old room at my parents’ house in New Jersey — and the next most important cassette to my early development was Nirvana’s unplugged album, which I bought immediately upon its release when I was in fifth grade. I had been listening to pop radio for a year or two at that point, and I’d heard some Nirvana songs, and they sounded like noise to me. I mean hey, I was a Wilson Phillips fan. So when I heard that the grungestastic noise gods were going to make an unplugged album, with like cellos and stuff, I thought it would be hilarious. But in fact it was great. It was really great, and with this album my tastes swung from the bubblegum pop of the 80s to the legitimately more interesting grunge and alternative music of the 90s.

Melissa Etheridge, Yes I Am: I remember thinking that “Come to My Window” was overplayed as all get-out; I think I bought this album for “I’m the Only One,” which I still do a badass karaoke version of. I came to love most of the tracks on this album, including and especially some of the ones that never got any radioplay: the pathos of “Silent Legacy,” which I realized was probably about being gay but I identified with anyway because I was raised in a family where talking about your emotions was basically not okay, the longing of “I Will Never Be the Same” (not that I’d even had a chance to love and lose yet), the affirmation of “Yes I Am,” the playful defiance of “Resist.” This is also one of the albums that basically taught me to sing in middle school; I would put it on when my family wasn’t around and practice belting my little heart out.

Elastica, s/t: This is hard to see in the picture, because the case is long gone; it’s in what looks like an empty spot underneath Melissa Etheridge. I won my middle school’s costume contest in the category of “most creative” in 8th grade, for a costume I’d made myself that was half devil and half angel — complete with a wing, a horn, and half a halo. The prize was a cassette or CD of my choosing, and my family didn’t have a CD player yet, so I asked for Elastica’s album on the strength of (1) the single I’d heard on the radio and (2) how cool the band looked in their interview with Seventeen magazine. It remains one of my favorite albums ever, which is more than I can say for Wilson Phillips or even Melissa Etheridge, frankly.

Miss Saigon: I was never big into musicals, but my friends Catherine and Liz were, and they sold me on this one on a trip to Liz’s family’s vacation house. I liked its seedy anti-glamor, I suppose, and its melodrama. When left home alone, I would sing schizophrenic versions of my favorite songs, playing all the parts. The summer after 8th grade, I used a song from it to try out for my first a capella group. (Don’t get too worried; I was only in one other one.) Making the group was pretty significant for me; I’d never had any kind of outside validation of my singing talent before. Nor had I ever sung in front of anyone but other characters played by myself, for that matter.

Indigo Girls, Strange Fire / Rites of Passage: Liz made me this tape and I loved the hell out of it. When I taught myself to play guitar in sophomore year of high school, some of the first tabs I looked up on the nascent internet were “Strange Fire,” “You Left it Up to Me,” and “Land of Canaan.” “You Left it Up to Me” is still very much in my repertoire; I play it almost every time I practice (which is admittedly rarely). As a girl who broke up with a lot of boys in high school and college, I frequently found myself needing to sing things like “you don’t need my hands / to help you understand / you don’t need to hear my voice / you have no choice.”

Aryeh Frankfurter, Lest the Harp Strings Unravel: I was visiting San Francisco with my family in 10th grade or so, and we came across this guy playing the harp and selling tapes, so I bought one. My room at home had a window seat, and I would sit in it and listen to this beautiful, ethereal harp music while writing poetry and contemplating the trees outside. In college, I went back to San Francisco and found that the Cannery, where I’d originally seen Frankfurter, had been remodeled into condos and I wondered what had become of him. In early grad school, fully 10 years after I originally saw him, I was visiting San Francisco with my parents again, and we started to hear harp music at a street fair, and I said to myself “oh, well there he is.” And we followed the music, and there he was. I bought another tape and told him my story, which blew his mind.

Christine Lavin, Flashlight on the Moon / Don McLean, American Pie: This tape was made for me by Catherine. I think I’d heard Christine Lavin at one of our chemistry study-sessions in sophomore year and was intrigued. And I was interested in Don McLean because “American Pie” was the signature song of the nerd camp I attended, but I ended up kind of loving the whole album, especially “Vincent.” Christine Lavin is ultimately pretty frivolous, but I saw her in concert in college (all by myself, because none of my friends knew or cared about her), and afterwards she painted my nails. Seriously! That is apparently a fan meet-and-greet thing that she does with some regularity.

Teletubbies, The Album: I bought this at FAO Schwartz in Manhattan on my friend Max’s deadpan recommendation, and it’s actually kind of great if you are into weirdness, whimsy and/or hallucinogenic drugs. When I eventually got my driver’s license, I would gleefully cruise downtown with my windows rolled down blasting songs like “Dipsy’s Fancy Hat.”

Sixteen Candles: This was a mix tape made for my 16th birthday by my friend Joe, and is probably my most-played mix of all time. It’s a damn good doo-wop mix, and its entertainment value has not diminished in the slightest over the years.

Simon and Garfunkel: This compilation was made for me by Catherine; it starts with their greatest hits album, and then has the songs from Bridge Over Troubled Water and Bookends that were not included on the greatest hits album. She made it for me painstakingly from her parents’ LPs, for which I was very appreciative. It’s to this tape that I owe my knowledge of such excellent songs as “The Only Living Boy in New York” and “Keep the Customer Satisfied.”

Jeff Buckley, Grace / Live at Sin-E: When Catherine made me this tape, I instantly fell in love with Jeff Buckley sight unseen. That voice, those beautiful complicated songs! I was all set to propose marriage when his picture appeared in the New York Times informing me that he had died, tragically, by drowning. And that was how I learned that in addition to making music that made me want to marry him, he was gorgeous. So that sucked. In 11th grade when we had to write imitations of the epitaph poems in Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, I wrote mine about Tim and Jeff Buckley.

The Pastabilities, s/t: The Pastabilities were a ska band that contained approximately twelve million of my friends in high school. (This was possible, of course, because ska bands have horn sections.) I went to a bunch of their shows, and the fact that they recorded a professional-looking and -sounding cassette was pretty awe-inspiring, especially in those days when digital home recording was not possible in the same way it is today. They actually had to buy studio time and everything. I was so into hearing my friends on a real live album that I listened to it about a million times. I can only hope that you guys are doing the same with your Heaps CDs now. You are, right? Right?

80’s Music: This uncreatively named mixtape was made by my friend Jessie, who had been a much bigger listener to 80s pop than I had, at least in the sense of buying actual albums rather than relying on the radio. She made copies of this for a bunch of us when we all were nostalgically drooling over her, like, Debbie Gibson albums in 10th or 11th grade. But like Joe’s Sixteen Candles mix, it’s been a staple of my collection because it provides a broad but handpicked survey of a particular musical period.

Dar Williams, Mortal City / The Honesty Room: Dar hit a place that was more serious than Christine Lavin but still whimsical at times, and I loved her for it. I remember singing the snowy verses of “February” to myself under my breath at marching band practices in the bitter cold on November nights. Other favorites include “Iowa,” “The Ocean,” “When I Was a Boy,” and, of course, “Southern California Wants to Be Western New York,” which became especially poignant later in life when I was moving from Ithaca to Irvine.

Ben Folds Five / Fog: The Ben Folds stuff was ultimately not as important to me as Fog, which was another band featuring friends of mine. (Though I did love “The Last Polka” a whole lot.) The Pastabilities got a lot of the limelight, but Fog was a collaboration between two much quieter and much more literary friends of mine, and they wrote some truly impressive songs that I’m not sure ever really saw the light of day.

“Like” Song / FOiL / Billie Holiday: This was a bunch of unrelated stuff that I happened to record from various friends of mine. What I love about tapes was that this was possible, and your weird set of unrelated interests at a given moment could be captured in a finite physical object (as opposed to your iTunes library, which erases all temporal distinctions). In fact, the medium often forced you to make these juxtapositions, because you didn’t want any space on your tape to go to waste. “Oh hell, let’s put that on too,” you’d often find yourself saying. I have no idea who recorded the “like” song or what its real name is; it’s a comedy-folk song that Catherine came across when we were trying to rid ourselves of the habit of saying “like” all the time (we failed). FOiL was another ska band containing some other friends of mine; the song of theirs that has always stuck with me is “Don’t Smoke (in the Bathrooms at School).” And this was apparently also the period when I first discovered Billie Holiday; somewhere at my parents house are the other 8 volumes of her complete collection that I painstakingly copied from my friend Amalia.

Joni Mitchell, Blue / Randy Newman, Sail Away: I am pleased to report that I have never, ever listened to the Randy Newman side of this cassette. But the Joni Mitchell side alone makes this the best 25 cents I ever spent — I picked this up at a garage sale, having vaguely heard of Joni Mitchell before, and I was blown away.

A Step to the Left: Folk Joke Toke: I bought this for another 25 cents at the same garage sale; it’s a mixtape made by some stranger for some other stranger and it features some Grateful Dead tunes, some Phil Ochs tunes, and a bunch of miscellaneous folk & protest songs. This tape is most notable for introducing me to Phil Ochs; I was already well aware of the Dead due to my fine upbringing.

Justin’s Depressed and Despondent Sides: This is all that remains of a two-cassette-long mix that also included Justin’s Deranged and Disturbed Sides, which was made for Catherine by her older-and-wiser boyfriend. She made copies of it for Liz and me, and we all were schooled in the awesomeness of acts like Primus and Tom Waits. Speaking of whom…

Tom Waits, Frank’s Wild Years / Rain Dogs: Justin had put a track from Nighthawks at the Diner on his mix, one of the drunken monologues, and Catherine and Liz and I found it so amusing that Catherine went out and bought these two albums and copied them for us. And holy crap, was it a revelation. Later, when I arrived at college, as I was unpacking my room I heard scary circus music coming from down the hall and I ran down there and exclaimed “you know Tom Waits!!?? Nobody knows Tom Waits!!” — and I made a friend. It was not, of course, true that nobody at college knew Tom Waits. But damn if nobody at high school did.

Bruce Springsteen, Greatest Hits: I grew up in New Jersey and have always loved The Boss, but I didn’t bond with him in a very serious way until my senior year of high school. I had a boyfriend from the wrong side of town who my parents hated, and suddenly every Bruce song was talking directly to me. “They scream your name at night in the streets / your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet,” etc.

His Name is Alive, Always Stay Sweet / Hooverphonic, Blue Wonder Power Milk: This tape was made for me in my senior year of high school by my friend Mike, who I’d known since I was six but who was rapidly becoming my best friend because we both felt kind of alienated from our friends and families by our choice of partners. (Mike had recently come out of the closet, and my friends weren’t much more fond of my boyfriend than my parents were.) This was one of my first points of exposure to this sort of smooth, dreamy electronic music, though I definitely had a Massive Attack CD or two already.

Janis Joplin, Cheap Thrills / Kosmic Blues / Pearl: When I went away to college, I copied a bunch of my parents’ old vinyl records onto tapes to take with me. Janis was of course important to my vocal development and general sense of self; my favorite Janis song that nobody knows is “Turtle Blues.” Other tapes I made from their records include a bunch of Doors albums and a bunch of early Beatles albums — I had most of the later ones on CD at this point.

Lama Surya Das, Natural Perfection: I was gifted two tapes in this series by the stepmother of one of my college boyfriends; they’re guided Dzogchen meditation sessions, which is basically skygazing meditation on emptiness. I was super grateful, because I was starting to get really into Buddhism, but I never got around to listening to them until many years later when, hobbled by blisters at Burning Man, I decided one night that rather than trying to go out and have an adventure, I would use our camp’s boom box to play the tapes and I would lie down and look at the stars and meditate. And I did, and it was awesome, and the next day I was much more able to get around.

What is Language For?: In my senior year of college, I got it into my head to make a mixtape and offer it to any of my blog readers that cared to provide me with their addresses. I ended up sending out at least twenty of them. It included Ella Fitzgerald, Ornette Coleman, and Beethoven. The title came from some interview audio that I had on a conceptual poetry CD (Leslie Scalapino, I’m pretty sure) where somebody (maybe her?) was asking a bunch of random people that question. So I included some of their answers throughout the mix — it may well be the most pretentious mixtape ever made.

Patsy Cline, Greatest Hits: I’m pretty sure I stole this from my mother. Patsy Cline is another huge influence on my singing, and this album was super important to my senior year of college.

A Mix Against Music: My friend Nechama made this for me for my birthday in my senior year of college, and I loved it more than I had ever loved any mixtape ever. Knowing that I was into all things meta, Nechama assembled this mix of songs about music — and in fact, most of them are, as the title promises, actually kind of anti-music. Highlights include “Heaven” by the Talking Heads, “All My Little Words” by the Magnetic Fields, “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” by Sleater-Kinney, “Rock and Roll” by the Velvet Underground, and many more. I listened to it on repeat on a five-hour spur-of-the-moment busride down to New York City to see a boy, so it’s still imbued with a pretty magical aura. Later that summer I lost it (and my whole cassette walkman, which was a huge bummer) on a plane, but Nechama was magically able to make me another copy, which I cherish to this day.

Erin’s Awesome B-Day Experience: When I got to grad school and bought that car with the tape deck, as I wrote in my last entry, I asked my friends to make me tapes and my friend Adam was one of the people who took me up on it. It has a ton of great music on it, including three Yo La Tengo songs, but it’s perhaps most notable for introducing me to an incredibly early Bob Dylan song that I’d never heard before and now love: “Rambler, Gambler.”

Revolution Summer: A Birthday Mix: That same birthday, my friend Robert made me this, which is beautiful and fun. I was already well aware of the Talking Heads, but this is the tape that made me sit down and pay attention to “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” which instantly became my favorite of their songs (barely edging out “Heaven”). It also introduced me to The Evens.

And now for the tapes Pat has made me:

tapesfrompat

Don’t worry; I’m not going to talk about all of these individually. This isn’t even all of them, but I suppose it’s about 2/3 of them. When I came to grad school, I left behind my old stereo and hence lost the ability to make new tapes — but Pat’s family had the equipment to do so at their house, which is only about an hour from here, so when we started dating Pat got in the habit of going to his parents’ house when I was out of town and presenting me with several tapes upon my return. The first of these is the very first tape at the top there, babyheart, which is named after a conversation we’d had about how weird it would be if you physically lost your “baby” heart like you lose your baby teeth, and had to wait for a new one to grow in as you got older. He made this for me when we’d only been dating about two months, and while I wouldn’t say the whole tape is a loveletter or anything, it’s certainly got some sweet songs which reflect that fact. My favorite of them is “Whole Fucking World on a String” by a band called The Hate Fuck Trio, off of an album called Ol’ Blue Eyes which, as Pat later explained, is a Denver punk band who recorded an album loosely based on Frank Sinatra songs which they had clearly not listened to in a very long time. “I’ve got the whole fucking world sitting on a rainbow” … “So I guess I give a fuck ’cause I’m in love” etc. Aww. The following summer he made me another mix in which the two sides featured the same bands in the same order but with very different songs, which was pretty interesting. Most of the rest of that stuff is all music he handpicked for my car-listening enjoyment, including a bunch of female rockabilly singers (yesssss) and, at the bottom, a bunch of rap cassettes that he made for himself in high school but hadn’t listened to in years. These are sort of amazing documents, because many of them begin with handmade mashups that a young Pat produced simply by hitting “record” and “stop” at the right moments.

At this moment of sitting down and taking stock of my life via my cassette collection, it seems fitting to discover that the man who’s given me the most tapes by an order of magnitude over anyone else is the man that I love. Sure, we can still make mixes for people in the digital age, but there was something about laboring over the physical object — hitting “record” and “stop” and trying hard to do it quickly so there wasn’t too much blank space between songs, getting up to find the next tape or CD, handwriting the tracklist insert and accidentally smudging it because you’d always picked the wrong kind of pen for its slick surface — that reflected the kind of care that digital mixes just don’t show. I guess this is always the complaint about the the digital age, that it doesn’t carry enough resonance with physical experience. And physicality definitely has its disadvantages; my tapes have all been somewhat warped by the years they’ve spent in my car in the hot California sun, for one thing. I’m not sure that all of them would play, even if I could find that walkman. They’ll be relegated to the storage closet, but I’m keeping them. How could I throw out so much history?

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