The first person to make me a mixtape was my stepfather, and even by the standards of the time it was a hell of an effort. He bought about twenty 45’s of songs I liked (mostly oldies and doo-wop because that’s the kind of nerd I was), then went through them one at a time, pausing the cassette tape while he switched records and un-pausing it in time to catch the tune. I can’t remember much about that tape, but I do remember the little hiss of the dirt on the record needle in that half second before ‘Rockin Robin’ or ‘Come and Go With Me’ kicked in. I’m pretty sure the mixtape was a birthday present, but what stands out in my memory isn’t the tape itself, but the time he took to make it for me.
I tried making my own tapes for a while by recording songs off the radio, and I assure you all that you would have been impressed with my dedication. I’d hold my finger over the pause button, waiting to hear the DJ announce an upcoming track I wanted to hear, or the first notes of the song I just had to have right that second, and once I knew it was something I needed, the pause button came off and the tape pulled the sound out of the air like magic. Where are you now, sixth grade mixtape, with your five different recordings of ‘You Can’t Touch This,’ with the first few seconds lopped off each time?
The breakthrough for me came when I got a boombox with a CD player and a cassette player. I’d sit in front of that miraculous machine like it was my own private laboratory, mixing and matching the sounds of whatever CD’s I’d forced my mother to buy. Know what the transition from ‘Life is a Highway’ by Tom Cochrane to ‘Tennessee’ by Arrested Development sounds like? I do. How about from Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ to Verdi’s ‘Anvil Chorus’? Or what about that inspired day that I recorded a whole mixtape of Muddy Waters songs which was not the same as the CD I’ll have you know because I recorded the songs in a new order no one ever thought of before because I was an artist.
If I liked a girl, I made her a mixtape. If I liked a friend, I made them a mixtape. If I was taking a roadtrip (this is later) I made several mixtapes and gave them names as brilliant as “Interstate 10” and “Cruisin” without a “G” because apparently my road trips didn’t have time for letters I wasn’t going to pronounce.
As cassettes went the way of the dodo and CD players became standard issue in everything from cars to computers, I switched up my game. But I still thought of my CD’s as mixtapes. There’s something about the word that always appealed to me. Maybe it reminded me of the compact nature of the cassette itself, with that hard plastic case and the cardboard paper folded inside where you could write your own personal liner notes. CD’s, with their sleeves you manipulated around the four plastic tabs, just felt flimsy by comparison. You could carry a cassette tape in your back pocket and still look cool. You could slip it in your jacket like a pocket bible. And there was the satisfying click of the cassette sliding into the player, the Rube Goldberg machinations of the cassette deck itself as its levers slid into place and pulled the tape through, hopefully without mangling it. CD’s, and the high pitched whirr as the laser looked for the groove, were too futuristic, too far outside my comprehension.
But I did come to love CD’s, and to miss them, as well. I miss things like liner notes. I miss unfolding the list of songs of a playlist someone made special for me. Seeing their handwriting right there, plain as their voice. I miss receiving that, but I miss giving that to someone else even more.
So that’s why I’m making all of you a mixtape.
* * *
Playing music for people has always been a favorite pastime of mine, and I suspect that was because so much music was played for me when I was growing up and growing into my own tastes. My mother would put the stereo on the second she got home. My father would put one cassette after another into the tape deck in his car. My grandparents would hear a fragment of a song and immediately begin singing it together, and more often than not my grandfather would then slide over to the piano and begin to play.
There’s such inherent generosity in music. It’s designed to be shared, and frequently collaborated on. At its best it feels, to me, like a meal everyone in the room helped prepare. But there’s something even more powerful about the way people exchange music. You’re telling someone something about yourself and your taste, but you’re also sharing the enthusiasm you have for someone else’s work. There’s a lovely and connected humanity in that—the pride we take in the achievements of others.
The songs I’m going to play for you on this tape are going to come with notes. Lots of them. Some of those notes will be about the songs and how they were made, the stories of the musicians behind them, and so on. I suspect a fair chunk of these notes are going to be about my own life, my own relation to the songs, because I don’t think I can avoid that and I don’t think I want to. I’ll try not to get too navel-gazey with that, but I never made a mixtape where I wasn’t trying to say something about myself (even if it was just how I felt about the person I made it for). I don’t imagine anyone else has, either.
I also want to acknowledge one of my sources for this exercise: Nick Hornby, particularly his lovely book 31 Songs. I’m acknowledging this partly because he writes so wonderfully about how music makes us tick, but mostly because I’m very afraid of imitating him in this series. I want to bring my own flavor to this project, and because Hornby did such a good job with his version of this, I’m afraid of imitating him, which I’ll almost certainly do anyway. At least in the beginning.
But the desire to charge ahead comes with accepting that having someone else’s work as fuel for your own engine is how art is supposed to work. Any influence has a trace of imitation (covers of great songs can be great as well), and I’ll do the best I can to not be too blatant with it. As I go forward, I’ll probably ease into my own voice. I’ll sound less like someone attempting a project someone else did and more like myself. And the songs are certainly going to be different. This is my mixtape, after all.
But I want it to be yours, too. What I love about music is also what I love about books. I love what each of us brings to the work. I love that the movie that plays in my head when I read Hemingway is different than the movie that plays in your head. Everyone looks different, has different expressions, different voices. And if the songs I love resonate with you, they’ll probably hit you for different reasons than they hit me. You’ll hear the same notes, but different ones will stand out. I’m also pretty confident that you’ll like the songs I like, which is why I’m playing them for you.
Some will be familiar and some won’t. Some might not even be great songs, or the best example of their genre. But that’s a great thing about music. It doesn’t need great lyrics, or any lyrics. It doesn’t need great musicianship, or even instruments. If it moves us—whether it draws tears, rocks the party or gets us righteously pissed—then it did the job. I can admire a great work of art. I can see why it’s great. But in the end, I’m going to return to what might be considered a lesser work of art if its capacity to move me is higher.
Over the past couple years, I’ve served as the music editor at Waxwing Literary Journal, and I want to thank the folks over there for that opportunity. It’s taught me that I could write about music in the first place, and had I not been with them the last few years I wouldn’t have the confidence to start this project now. I think this project is, in part, an offshoot of the piece I wrote for them about A Tribe Called Quest’s final album. I got a chance to weave, hesitantly, my own story into that one, and the idea of this mixtape has been germinating ever since. This is going to be personal. I also suspect it’s going to be a lot of fun.
My goal is one song every two weeks, though I might shorten it to every week if I’m hyped up. I’ll kick off next week with (a la Nick Hornby and ‘Thunder Road’) the song I’ve played more than any other in my life—the first song I loved, and one that’s never had a dip in its appeal to me. I’m getting it cued up now.
I hope you enjoy. I hope this goes for a while. There’s a lot to listen to.
I’m pressing play.