by carl wilson

Cassette Mythos: Elegy


The thing I like most about today's column is that the imaginary mix - made only in my head as I wrote - seems totally plausible to me (though I'm not sure about the running times). I'll have to whip up a copy soon and see if it really pans out.

Visit the cassette graveyard.


Ode to the yearning, churning mix tape

The Globe & Mail
Saturday, June 4, 2005

The bell tolls for the tape. Patented in 1964, selling by the billions by the 1980s, cassettes are now down to less than 0.2 per cent of music sales. While few would sentimentalize the ugly, damnably damageable commercial tape, the homemade cassette mix is another story. Today, a mix tape in memory of mix tapes. [...]

(Side A)

1. Big Yellow Taxi (Bob Dylan, covering Joni Mitchell, 1973): "You don't know what you got till it's gone." In a fast-forward age, the lost paradise is represented by obsolete media: From typewriter to Atari game, low-tech fetish objects murmur of a clunky tactile past seemingly more solid, warmer than the intangible, digital present.

2. Hey Joni (Sonic Youth, 1988): The tape's latest doting tribute is a white slab of a book edited by indie godfather Thurston Moore of New York's Sonic Youth. Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture is a scrapbook where some 50 contributors (from fellow musicians such as Mike Watt to author Mary Gaitskill to designer Kate Spade) paste in track lists, artwork and anecdotes around the totemic mixes of their lives. Like a lot of mix tapes, it's self-congratulatory, but flush with charm.

3. My Little Corner of the World (Yo La Tengo, 1997): In his book Sonata for Jukebox, essayist Geoffrey O'Brien calls the mix tape "the most widely practised American art form," a folkway that serves "as self-portrait, gesture of friendship, prescription for an ideal party, or simply as an environment consisting solely of what is most ardently loved."

4. I'm Confessin' (That I Love You) (Willie Nelson version, 1981): And I'm no exception. For years I made mix tapes to sway romances, friendships and all points between. I learned to finesse transitions: same key, new speed; same tempo, new key; startling counterpoint; found-sound bridge; chill-down; epic climax; quick comic coda.

5. I Cover the Waterfront (Billie Holiday, 1941): I would build narrative arcs, Socratic dialogues between, say, Billie Holiday and the Pixies, triggering a track with one hand while the other eased up the pause button. I'd guesstimate the seconds till the fatal transparent leader tape would end the side and fill them from a compilation I'd bought of songs under a minute each.

6. I Can't Forget (Pixies, covering Leonard Cohen, 1991): I struggled with the etiquette of recycling previously used songs for new recipients, after the title of an early relationship tape, "Once in a Lifetime," proved naive. (Fortunately.) Were the sentiments in fact the same, or was it that new feelings, fresh varieties of love, changed the meanings of the songs?

7. We Have the Technology (Pere Ubu, 1988): In any case, it seemed enchanted to manipulate magnetic tape, the very stuff of real studios, as if you were the next step after producer and engineer and mastering. Somehow, your little black plastic envoy conveyed that churning thing you meant. Track titles became inside jokes with friends. The girl on the answering machine said, softly: "I played that Richard Buckner song all night."

8. Mud (Richard Buckner, 1995): The worst follows after; the songs have said more than you realized. "Be careful where you lie down, boy/ In this bed of roses."

9. Epistrophy (Thelonious Monk, 1948): CDs and iPods can't match the Proustian pungency of the cassette - Dolby hiss, Crayola scent, brittle weight in hand, paper, marker, glue. But I wouldn't trust one to the gnashing gears of my ancient tape deck now. Would you?

10. Computer Love (Kraftwerk, 1981): File sharing, burned CDs and iPods supply the portability of tape without its frailty, so they democratize sonic mixology, beyond the fanatics' club, to casual listeners.

(Side B)

11. Mix Tape (soundtrack, Avenue Q, 2003): Tilting toward extinction since the mid-1990s, mix tapes increasingly turn up as subcultural markers in novels and movies such as Morvern Callar and High Fidelity, even an episode of Friends. Then there's this hit off-Broadway musical where slacker-puppet Kate Monster tries to decode a mix from boy-puppet Princeton: "Sometimes when someone has a crush on you/ They'll make you a mix tape to give you a clue." But why oh why has Princeton segued from My Cherie Amour to Fat-Bottomed Girls?

12. Professor Booty (Beastie Boys, 1992): Meanwhile, the commercial "mix tape" (now usually on CD), the professional hip-hop DJ mix, has become an ever-more-established promo device. "Life ain't nothin' but a good groove/ A good mix tape to put you in the right mood."

13. That's Entertainment (the Jam, 1981): Boutique shops such as Starbucks and Pottery Barn produce CDs that are "like a mix tape made for you" by celebrities such as Sheryl Crow or Moby. Bacardi liquor and Request Jeans put out their own hip-hop-style mixes. "It's an unbelievable branding tool and revenue generator," Errin Cecil-Smith, director of marketing for And 1 footwear, tells Brandweek magazine.

14. One Step Inside Doesn't Mean You Understand (the Notwist, 2002): All of which only makes music fanatics snootier. They find mix CDs inherently inferior because the process is too quick, too easy, fostering thoughtless tune-dumping. To be fair, some rite of passage, of hard-won knowledge passing from hand to hand, genuinely is lost.

15. Love Story (Randy Newman, 1968): For instance, in April The New York Times reported that the leading party favour handed out to guests at weddings in 2005 is the mix CD, generally a lame one because it is aimed at a big crowd, on a clichéd subject, not at particular ears. Said one repeat marriage-mix recipient, "It's like, who cares that In Your Eyes is their song?"

16. Cloudbusting (Kate Bush, 1985): But must knowledge be so hard to come by? MP3 trading can be a more open, fluid pastime, scouring the byways for blissful windfalls (legal or not).

17. I Am a DJ (David Bowie, 1979): "MP3 blogs" where Internet music fans post tunes and commentary daily are like a slow-motion mix, a mash note to readers (legal or not).

18. Most People Are DJs (the Hold Steady, 2004): Sites such as Art of the Mix and Tiny Mix Tapes have members share and compete with each other's mixes, on standard themes - romance, breakup, friendship, intro-to-genre-X, road-trip or party mixes - and more outlandish categories, such as songs whose "titles would make awesome T-shirt slogans," like this one.

19. Mixtape=Love (Viva Voce, 2004): The mix CD may permit laziness, but it doesn't require it. I spent as many hours on a mix CD for my wife while she was away this winter as I ever have on a tape, sifting hundreds of tracks for strands on separation and return, on time's conveyances. Her response was as tender as to any cassette. (But handwrite the track listing: Modernity has its limits.)

20. C30, C60, C90, Go! (Bow Wow Wow, 1980): Whatever the medium, the message is that people want to personalize music, as not just a consumer experience (à la iPod) but a channel from their ears to other minds. If, as this song would have it, that makes the mix "a bazooka" against the music business, so be it. As Thurston Moore puts it in his Mix Tape book: "Trying to control sharing through music is like trying to control an affair of the heart - nothing will stop it."

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, June 04 at 1:56 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)



Thanks, folx - although, Lisa, if you read the piece, didn't you notice that it actually talks about that book?

Posted by zoilus on June 7, 2005 1:45 PM



Great column! In the category of "If you like ________ you'll like _______, check out Thurston Moore's new book Mix Tape : The Art of Cassette Culture.

Posted by Lisa on June 7, 2005 11:53 AM



I remember, at age 14, peeling off the cellophane, flipping the box open and loving that "new cassette smell." Excellent column, Carl.

Posted by Nadia on June 7, 2005 11:45 AM



Great mix tape.

Ahhh 6 hours of recording, shuffling records, and trying to write legibly in that damn small space on the cassette. Then the tape pinches and you have brown spaghetti.

Now I write on the disc with a Sharpie. Clicking and draging is a comparative breeze, beside you can always go shuffle and get a new mix each time!!

Posted by bp on June 4, 2005 8:55 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson