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Mix tape Masterpiece
An ode to the lost art of the mix
By John Hubner
Fort Wayne Reader
I recently acquired my parents old Sanyo dual cassette deck for the purpose of listening to some Debt of Nature cassettes that I happily received in the mail a couple of months ago. Since they hit the mail box I have listened to a couple in the family van, as that 2004 relic still has a factory-installed cassette player. For me though, I much prefer the comforts of my own home while enjoying music, so last weekend my mom and dad allowed me to bring their dual cassette player home for an unspecified amount of time and use it as I see fit. They haven't used the thing in probably over 15 years, so they won't miss it. Nice thing is that it looks brand new. I cleaned the dust off of it and wiped the heads down with some alcohol and it looks like I just unboxed the thing.
After thoroughly enjoying those Debt of Nature cassettes I started reminiscing about my high school years and of all the mix tapes I'd made back then. The mix tape was the calling card of any music aficionado back in the 80s and early 90s. I couldn't hold a conversation and talk about feelings and emotions and all that sort of stuff, but give me a couple of hours, a stack of Maxell 90 min blank cassettes, and my Soundesign dual tape deck and I could give you my whole life story. Yes, the mix tape was for me a gateway into my soul. It was a means of getting a point across by way of my favorite tunes. If I was bummed out I'd make a mix of incredibly sad and dour music, title it "empty", and I would somehow feel instantly better. The Beatles, Adrian Belew, and Jellyfish always made it onto the sad sack mixes. After the last song was dubbed I'd flip the tape over and hit play. It was like a slideshow of my sadness. It was a way to come at my feelings head on and yet somehow pull myself out of the situation and deal with it. Same goes for a good mood. Make a mix titled "take me higher" and pile on the good vibes for 90 minutes. Fishbone, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and maybe even some Guess Who always made the uplift mofo party mix extra bouncy. The mix "h8 it" was a 90 minute deluge of Death Angel, Megadeth, Suicidal Tendencies, and Savatage.
You get the gist.
It wasn't enough to just dub an entire album by one artist. Making a mix tape was a way to curate a musical conversation with many voices, not just one. And making a mix for myself was great, but the true magic of a mix was what it conveyed to someone else. One of my best friends in high school and I were the mix tape masters. There was an unspoken competition between the two of us when it came to our mix tape skills. A mutual respect and just a touch of animosity when one outdid the other. Coming up with just the right mingling of sounds and ideas, especially when you weren't going for a specific theme. Theme mixes are pretty easy. If you're going for longing and mildly weepy then you know that Cocteau Twins work, but Metallica won't. With the random mix, if you know what you're doing "Wax and Wane" and "Battery" can fit comfortably on the same tape. You're creating an aural sampler platter for someone. I remember the first mix tape I made for my then girlfriend (now wife) back in 1991. She loved it and played it for three months straight until the tape player in her Mazda 626 ate it (I attempted to replicate the mix, but it just wasn't the same.) You know you've found "the one" when they totally dig that mix tape you made for them, and my lady dug it. If she hadn't, well I think things would've turned out differently for both of us.
If you've succeeded in your mix tape skills then that person you made it for will walk away from that first listen wanting to go out and buy three or four albums. If it ends up collecting dust in their bedroom, or worse, forgotten under the front seat of their 1984 Chrysler New Yorker next to some spare change, a pen cap, and a hamburger wrapper you have succeeded in nothing but wasting a good blank tape.
Over the years I never stopped making mixes. They just went from cassettes to CDs. I bought a standalone dual CD player/burner in early 2000. The reason I bought said CD burner was so I could record my own music on it. Having a CD with my own pop songs on it seemed like the coolest thing in the world, so after whining to the wife about it for a couple months she relented and let me buy this Phillips CD burner. It was great. I could burn my songs from Minidisc to good old regular CD. I felt like a real man about town with that burner. Then I started making CD mixes with it, and a whole new obsession began. I was making CD mixes for everyone. Even if they didn't want one they got one. "Happy Birthday dad! I made you a blues mix!", or "Hey bro, here's a mix of Can tunes I think you'll dig", to "Happy Valentine's Day honey. Who needs candy and flowers when you've got a triple mix of love songs from John Lennon and Harry Nilsson called 'The Lost Weekend Chronicles'?"
Of course then as time went on everyone had a CD burner on their PC and mixes turned into saved playlists in iTunes. It was still great making those playlists, but there was no real art in it. No time constraints or fear of throwing a song in the middle of that mix that turned out to not really work well. If you did that with an iTunes mix you just pulled that song from the playlist. No big deal. There was no going out on a limb with those mixes, man. The art of the mix was gone. No intricately designed tape case, or carefully written song titles. A monkey can make a mix in iTunes. A monkey can't cover a blank tape insert with masking tape and then redesign said tape insert with love and care.
So after years of computer-based mixes and Spotify playlists I've gone native. I'm making old school tape mixes and I love it. I started my first tape mix in over 15 years on Sunday. The first mix is titled "The Horror"(thanks Col. Kurtz), a collection of some choice creepy cuts from my Death Waltz/Mondo horror scores. I just finished it yesterday afternoon. Not too bad, though the recording level seems a tad hot. I'll lower that level down a bit for the next mix and we should be just fine. Not sure what that next mix will be just yet. Could be another collection of horror cuts. Who knows? I'm just having fun with this. That's what really matters.
As I'm getting older I'm finding that these little activities I'm finding for myself have become quite therapeutic. Collecting graphic novels, vinyl, Criterion Collection Blu Rays, fine coffee and craft beer,...these are all little distractions that pull me away from everyday life. The wife and I binge watching Nurse Jackie on a Sunday afternoon, or my son and I spinning records downstairs while playing Rally X, Pole Position, and Galaga on the PS2; these are those little distractions in life that help to keep us leveled out. I've gone too long in my life where I couldn't do that. Not that people weren't letting me do that, but that I wouldn't let myself unplug and unwind.
Well times are a changin', folks. Our time here is relatively short, so why not make the most of it? If you want to spend five hours on a Saturday afternoon making homemade cards in your basement by God do it. If you're still in your pajamas at 3pm on a Sunday and you've just finished your 7th episode of Supernatural, then you might as well go for episode number 8. And if you feel like making a mix tape for no one in particular, then what are you waiting for? Go snag some blank cassettes at Radio Shack or Amazon. Pick up a secondhand dual cassette deck, grab a pen and a stack of CDs or vinyl and get to it.