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A long time ago, back when I still wore clothes made of linsey woolsey, I walked around while listening to cassette tapes I played on a quaint, hand-woven device called the Walkman. I thought those days had vanished long ago, along with clipper ships and penny candy, so imagine my surprise when I read only this week that Sony just shipped its last cassette-playing Walkman. It was like reading an announcement from Ford that the last Model T had just rolled off the assembly lines. 

Anyway, years ago my tapes gave way to compact discs and now the compact disc is stepping aside for the MP3 and the iTune. All this passing of once-dominant musical formats reminds me of the movie The Hunger, where Catherine Deneuve played a vampire blessed with eternal youth. Her lovers were not so lucky. They were immortal but they kept aging. Eventually Deneuve had to haul each poor, decrepit ex-boyfriend up to her attic and leave him there amongst the ones who came before, making the place look like a slumber party at Larry King’s.

That’s like me and my music formats. I have my CDs in the sun room. Down in the family room I have a closet full of vinyl records. Way down in the basement, in the far corner of the furnace room, I had a box full of cassette tapes.

A few weeks ago something spurred me to descend into the basement, fight my way through the piles of junk in the furnace room—leaving a trail of bread crumbs so I could find my way back out—and retrieve my tapes. Back upstairs I blew off the dust and rummaged through the box. I realized I had a lot of good music in there, things like the Woodentops, O Positive, the Christians, Muddy Waters, Jonathan Richman, Roxy Music, the Church, the soundtrack from Bachelor Party, the Blasters, the Bongos, Marti Jones, Don Dixon, Willy Nelson, Ray Charles, U2 . . . the list goes on and on.  There were tapes that friends had made for me years ago and compilations I had made to pull together favorite songs from disparate sources. One great tape included an EP by the band What Is This? and a bunch of singles and favorite songs from like Fishbone, the New Marines, Shoes, the Records and the Fall. I rediscovered tapes I made in 1996 and 1997 when WXPN played their listeners’ choices for the top 50 albums in their entirety at the end of the year, so I’ve been listening to stuff like Kim Richey, Van Morrison (The Healing Game), and the Wallflowers, all interrupted at some point by the voice of a DJ from the past. I found some old mix tapes—brilliantly conceived and executed thematic tapes like” Girls, Girls, Girls” (songs with girls’ names as titles, everything from Marshall Crenshaw’s “Maryanne” to Richard Thompson’s “Valerie”) and the Saturday tape that my late friend Harold and I put together. It is, natch, all songs with Saturday in the title.

But the real delight with playing the old cassettes was discovering what lay at the end of each side. Vinyl albums were always shorter than cassettes so you needed to add something extra to fill the emptiness at the end. The filler had to be a good fit with the rest of the album. For me the ideal was to find an orphaned track by the same artist—maybe something from a compilation or a soundtrack—but a similar-sounding band worked too. I was delighted to discover, at the end of a Woodentops tape, a song by a Scottish band I had long forgotten, the Bluebells.

The perfect filler also had to be just the right length. The only thing worse than ending up with several minutes of dead space was having the tape run out in the middle of a song, especially a good song. It could give you mental whiplash for years to come. It took me a long time to stop flinching when the horns began kicking in on Sinatra’s “All or Nothing At All” (from Strangers in the Night)  because I once put that at the end of a tape I listened to a lot on a cross-country drive. To avoid such things when adding filler you had to take the cassette out of the deck, peer into the little window to see how much tape you had left, and estimate how much time remained. Make enough cassettes and you could get pretty good at it.

There was one other rule to making a cassette from an album. You never, ever, captured the sound of the needle touching down or lifting off. That was the audio equivalent of finding a bone in your chicken soup. You had to wait until the needle touched the album and had settled comfortably into the groove before releasing the pause button. And you made sure to hit the pause button before the needle left the groove, skidded crazily toward the album’s center, lifted up with an audible clunk. That required vigilance and sometimes meant a mad dash across the room to reach the tape deck just in time. Otherwise you’d have to rewind and tape over the incriminating needle sound, which was kind of a pain in the ass.

I can’t imagine how many hours I invested in those cassettes. Not just the 45 minutes (and later 50) it took to record each side, but also the endless hours spent writing down the track lists on the paper sleeves that slipped inside the plastic cases. I would curse artists who came up with long song titles and praise those that didn’t. “Run” by New Order was a good song title. “March of the Cosmetic Surgeons: Act 1, Scene 2, The Clinic of Dr. Krikstein. On a podium, Center, MRS. RIPSTOCK-GEDDES is posing as Aphrodite, complete with water jug. Enter Left DR. KRIKSTEIN, followed by his STUDENTS, marching Indian file to the rhythm of the music” by French, Frith, Kaiser and Thompson, was not. Of course, I never wrote that entire title down. At one point I even abandoned the idea of writing down the song titles at all. Occasionally I do have occasion to regret my laziness when I can’t remember a song title.

 But it’s all different now. Burning a CD is not quite the same. For one thing, I recorded tapes in real time. You could sit and listen to the album or CD as you taped it. With a CD it’s more clinical, like the difference between something store-bought and something handmade. But I guess that’s the modern world for you.



October 2010
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