I’m sure I’m not the only member of my demographic, the 30-to-45s, who received this book as a gift last Christmas:
Filled with witty insight into the mix tape’s form and social function, packed with personal testimonials and playlists and pictures, Thurston’s love letter to an all but extinct art form will double as an act of historic preservation, a museum. Many of the friends whose memories and tapes he includes are the folks who shaped the culture of our adolescence; it’s fun to see what they gave their friends and why — and of course to witness the same form of mild competition that always accompanies mix exchanges among friends. I made this, the good mix tape says. I dare you to beat it.
Part of the competitiveness among Thurston and his pals has to do with who has the earliest memories of the form. Thurston writes lovingly about his upstairs neighbor Dan Graham’s fancy new Walkman, how his mixtapes consisted mostly of punk 45s he’d transfer to cassette and string into his own unique compilations. He recalls first hearing of the concept in 1978, when Robert Christgau wrote in the Village Voice that his favorite Clash record was the one he had curated on a mixtape of his own. Allison Anders beats these boys by a good five years: she has memories of a roommate who made mixtapes in London in 1973.
Of course it’s fun to see how cool these celebs were at so young an age (Jim O’Rourke was listening to Jack Nitzsche when he was 15!) or to read insights that make me nod my head and think, of course (“I am no mere consumer of pop culture,” Matias Viegener writes of the mixtape’s implicit manifesto, “but also a producer of it”). But more than anything the book made me realize, Damn. I have some friends who could pound them out with the best of them.
I have a couple bags of mixes packed away in the top of a closet. I pulled them down the other night when the topic came up in conversation, and we spent one of the last nice nights of the early autumn listening to some of them — and, I admit, fast forwarding others. The collection I pulled down dates from the early 90s to the summer of 2000. (I have older ones, of course, but they’re buried in Stephanie’s parents’ basement in Washington.) The ones I have with me come mostly from my friends in the Northeast Corridor. Toward the end of the 90s we inaugurated an annual mix exchange, but some of the best tapes I dug out marked other, more personal occasions: birthdays, childbirth (including a lovely mix of lullabies for our daughter, Anna, from our friend Rachel), or the inauguration of a friendship.
Here’s the first one I got from my friend Shelley Turley, who many of us have long recognized as the undisputed queen of the mixtape form:
Though she titled it “Music to Contemplate Suicide By,” I experienced the tape as flirtatious. Those who know Shelley will recognize many of her key elements: Neil Young, Gram Parsons, Bob Dillion (sic), KISS. Years later I know that these are the fundamentals of any good Shelley mix; I also see her violate her own rules, like No Velvets and No Beatles. But the rhyme to “unmade bed” in “Chelsea Hotel,” the opening track? That one said she wanted to be my friend.
We may be ugly, after all, but we have the music. Playing through these old mixes the other night, Shelley’s tapes were still the best ones in the bag. (Sorry to the rest of my friends, but you know it’s true.) Part of it has to do with the fact that she wasn’t bound by the sounds of the moment. Her mixes almost never had new songs on them. Plus, she had the ear of a freeform DJ. She was clearly listening to WFMU long before I was.
Prior to the advent of Napster, which is about when we started making mix CDs instead of tapes, you really were confined to music you legitimately owned. Tapes were organic: you built them one song at a time, listening for the perfect transition, and you had to tape songs sometimes two or three times to get them to fit, or find a new one to finish the mix so they didn’t cut off half way through.
The documents that resulted were like little 90-minute autobiographies. They explained to your friends who you were and where you’d come from. My friend Bacon offers a good illustration:
Even the labels told a story:
Or they could play like arguments — a brief on behalf of a particular band, era, genre, a particular history you wanted to trace, a case for connections where you would least expect them. One year my friends Lane and Adriana submitted a memorable mix: he DJed one side, she the other. For some reason Lane never submitted art or a playlist, but here’s Adriana’s, which ran in some ways like a refutation or rejoinder to Lane’s, and which came with art work of her choice:
I once played this tape while wandering through Central Park on a crisp October afternoon, the sun cutting through still-green leaves with an almost psychedelic glow, and was struck by how many ways the arguments ran: Lane’s side was male, Adriana’s female (in some ways at least); his was about roaming free (the song I remember most from his side is Neil Young’s “Albuquerque”), hers was about reigning it in, avoiding temptation, but still having fun with it, even if it hurt (“High Heel Blues”). The photo on the cover suggests the significance of marriage itself to the conversations the tape contained. Well, that’s how I read it, at least.
Without a doubt, the most important mix of the late 90s for me (and Stephanie too, I’d wager) was this one — the one that, in many ways, saved my life:
This was a birthday mix from my friend Farrell. It had to be from 1998 or 1999. It had several immediate effects: It solidified Built to Spill and Beulah as favorite bands (the latter for our kids, too, who sang “Emma Blowgun” in the back seat of the car throughout that fall). It proved that Farrell’s indie side and his downtempo chill side — and a nostalgic twist of post-punk — were ultimately compatible. But most importantly, it allowed The Clean’s “Anything Could Happen” to enter our lives.
In the fall of 1999 I was scrambling to finish enough of my dissertation that I could make a serious run at the academic job market. I was under, as Stephanie puts it. I could no longer afford to live in Cambridge with two kids in full-time daycare (which was costing us $2K+ per month). And the uncertainty of it all — would there even be a job at the end of the tunnel? — was enough to make me feel like I was trapped in the trash compactor scene in Star Wars, the walls closing in, an underwater creature coiled about my legs trying to pull me down.
Somehow “Anything Could Happen” was the perfect antidote to all of that. At the end of the day I’d pick up Stephanie from work and we’d drive together to pick up the kids from daycare and preschool. We nearly wore that damn tape out, rewinding to play The Clean to New Order sequence again and again and again: “Anything could happen and it could be right now. The choice is yours, so make it somehow,” or something like that, poorly recorded in New Zealand sometime in the early 80s. I think it was originally released on cassette. Years later it hits me the same way. It turns things around. If limited to three songs on a desert island, it would probably be one of them.
Someone stole that mix tape, along with a junky old boombox, from our car one night. I kept the case as a reminder, though, of how it had pulled us through. Me and Steph? Well, we made it to the end of the century. I wound up with a job. And my friends and I stopped making mixtapes in the fall of 2000 — at least that’s when my first mix CDs were distributed: undisciplined, sprawling things, without half the organicism or labor of a tape.
Perhaps the last one I made, though, was for Stephanie, in the spring of 2000, marking my completion of grad school, which felt like a new lease on life. The title refers to our first low-carb diet, which along with the stress of finishing a degree and Stephanie starting a new job caused us somehow to emerge much slimmer than we’d been in years. When I pulled this one out the other night I was struck by how many of its songs overlap with the ones from Farrell’s birthday mix the previous fall; then I realized it must have been to compensate for the theft of the original.
Like the others, this one’s autobiographical, and like Lane and Adriana’s it’s about marriage — about an heroic (and ultimately successful) attempt to keep ours intact. As much as it overlaps with Farrell’s original, it has its own stories, buried between the songs. The Clean track here — “Oddity,” my second favorite of their songs — is less about the possibilities ahead than about the miracle of survival. As much as this mix is about finishing, it’s also about beginnings — and about loops, the way one side rolls into the other when the tape runs out: Click. Auto-reverse.