Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Rewinding My Past; Ode to the Mixed Tape

This mixed tape has lasted longer than the car whose purchase it was made to celebrate

In the back of my closet, past the shoes I don't wear any more but can't quite bring myself to throw out because they still fit, there is a blue New Jersey Nets gym bag full of time portals.

It's old technology, these time portals, but they still work and they never fail to take me back.

Granted, their power is limited. They can't take me back beyond the 52 years I've walked this earth, but that's still reason enough to keep them around.

They are mixed cassette tapes I made, mostly while in my mid-20s, that inevitably evoke memories of the reason for making them; something that happened while they were being made or something that happened when they were played.

Like Christmas ornaments whose purchase or unwrapping you remember when you put them on the tree each year, these tapes hold recorded memories as much as they hold recorded music.

And hey, before you get any ideas, I was making mix tapes before the director of "Guardians of the Galaxy" was even born.

Just sayin'.

Those of you who know me personally may have a hard time picturing me as a Valentino, and that's because I wasn't a very good one, but like any bar-hopper worth my salt in those days, I had a tape meant to seduce any girl gullible enough to agree to come home and listen to my mixed tape collection.

Many had a purpose or theme.

One, titled "And You Thought We Should Stay in the Kitchen" featured all female artists.

Another, titled "Just for the Record," was made up entirely of recordings I culled from my very voluminous vinyl record collection. Some were my own mix of favorite and rarely played songs by a particular artist. Some were made to be heard over the vacuum player while cleaning.

I had a friend in college who had a mix named "Newish-Type Songs," who we teased pretty mercilessly for his poor tape-titling skills.
Coming up with the right title for your mixed tape is as 

important as deciding which songs to include.

Being poor and spending too much of my meager income on aforementioned bar-hopping, I also made mixed tapes for friends as gifts.

One such tape was the one shown above, made for my girlfriend at the time, now my wife of 23 years, on the occasion of the purchase of her first-ever brand new car.

It was a Honda Accord, selected after much research and settled upon after I pointed out to her that perhaps the reason she saw so many of them on the road is that they were a good value.

Unfortunately, given that we were not married yet and had no fore-thought of the difficulties presented by settling infants into children's car seats without a rear door, she settled on a white, sporty two-door coupe.

That car was a tank and we drove it into the ground.

It survived through two accidents, snow storms and heat waves and ultimately gave up the ghost near 200,000 miles only when the guys at Milt's Auto Repair, who had grudgingly agreed to weld steel plates to the car and spray paint them white to cover the rust, finally said nothing more they could do would make it pass inspection.

At the car dealer, they laughed at us when we tried to trade it in.

Amazingly for a technology known for becoming tangled or accidentally erased, the tape -- "Vive' Le Honda" -- outlived its namesake.

I listened to it this morning while in the shower.

As you might expect, it is jam packed with driving songs, or songs with what I considered to be driving beats.
Thelma and Louise we were not.

It boasts obvious ones like Little Feat's "Let it Roll," Red Barchetta" by Rush, "Drive My Car" by The Beatles and The Grateful Dead's "New Speedway Boogie."

And what driving tape would be complete without "Born to Be Wild," "Midnight Rambler" or "Join Together?"

Even so, whenever I listen to the mixes, I still catch myself wishing I had made a different choice here or there. But unlike a digital mix, you can't just yank one song and substitute another. With a mix tape, you can only make it once.

The last car we owned with a cassette player, the demise of the Honda -- nicknamed "Frankencar" thanks to its bolted metal plates -- means I can no longer listen to this tape in the car to put me into hyper-driving mode.

Some of you will recognize this as the state of mind one needs to be in while navigating high-speed, high-traffic situations. I persevered through one of those just this weekend, driving solo out to the end of Long Island for a poetry reading by my father.

The Belt Parkway is not for fainthearted drivers.
In my experience, there are few things that require a hightened state of driving awareness quite like Brooklyn's Belt Parkway in the early afternoon.

Its an old road, designed for slower speeds, with dips and sharp turns and alarmingly narrow lanes, but now crammed with cabs and SUVs frantically trying to get to where they need to go before the "real" and ironically-named rush hour begins at 3 p.m.

Luckily, my teenage son introduced me to the The Black Keys and their album, "El Toro."

Played just a little too loud for comfort, it lasts just long enough and keeps you pumped long enough to get from the Verazzano to the Southern State Parkway so long as you don't get tangled in the traffic near JFK.

It works, but it's not the same.

I know younger people who accomplish the same function as a mix-tape by burning their own CD mixes or, more recently, building mixes on iTunes, or in "the Cloud."

To me is seems both a little too easy and a little too complicated.

There was attentiveness required when making a mix tape and the skills required were more more about dexterity and experience than about platforms and bandwidth.

You had to:
  • Make sure the levels from different albums were consistent on the tape, so volume didn't vary
    Good timing on the "pause" button was crucial to a mixed tape.
    too much from one song to another upon playback; 
  • Wait, poised to release the "Pause" button at the last possible second before the song on the LP started in order to reduce awkward silences between songs; and be willing to go back to do it again and again to get it just right;
  • Watch the tape roll out and know what songs in your library are short enough, but still in keeping with the theme, to fit on what tape was left.
It was an evening's entertainment and a way to re-experience and re-imagine your music collection.

Also, I admit to being a bit of a Luddite, mostly because I always feel like someone is selling me something when the newest thing comes along.

And all too often, I have seen the "new thing" turn out to be a flop. Remember "Beta-Max" and "mini-CDs?"

Me neither.

I resist the notion that something is preferable simply because it's new.

I still have my LPs, (although the stereo receiver no longer works), my tapes and my CDs. I even have an original Sony Walkman that plays tapes that I bought at a yard sale just to be stubborn.

"Why should I buy my favorite albums all over again when this works fine?" I always ask in my best grumpy old man voice as my son and wife roll their eyes at me and put in their ear buds.

But my time portals may be living on borrowed time.

Enjoying the tapes depends upon another aging technology, an old Fischer boom box which long ago stopped playing CDs, but still plays the tapes just fine -- at least for now.

When it finally craps out, I may have to concede that time has indeed caught up with me and my music mixes.
Yes young ones, this is what we used pencils for.

The last mixed tape I made was in the very late 1990s; a Christmas mix I made on an old stereo unit owned by former Mercury Business Editor Michelle Karas during her first of two stints with The Mercury.

We got pretty tipsy making it, but it was sadly short-lived by comparison. I played it so much at holiday time that the boom box ate it up and spit it out.

I'm not sure why some of the others have lasted so long.

They were certainly not recorded on top quality tape stock. Perhaps I am keeping them working by sheer force of will, a strategy doomed to be eroded by the passing years.

Nothing lasts forever but a fruitcake and rainbow sprinkles.

The closing of those portals is as inevitable as the death of silent pictures. I have resolved to enjoy them while they last and let them go when their time comes.

But until then, Vive La Mixed Tape!

No comments:

Post a Comment