This weekend, I dared to clean out the storage space where all things non-essential have accumulated lo the last several years. In particular, to parse through my neglected cassette tapes. As a sullen teenager on a budget, I was an early proponent of the Walkman. (I loved my turntable, too, but it didn’t help block out the taunts of my classmates in the halls quite as well.) Consequently, I amassed a vast collection of tapes over the last quarter-century, and while many of them have gone the way of the pet rock, three big boxes full had not.
Actually, three boxes and a little extra. See, back in the fall of 1985, I set off for college with the carrying case picture above. I bought it special for this momentous occasion. Even made a side trip to the record store to purchase decorative stickers of Siouxsie, Echo & the Bunnymen, The Smiths, et al. It holds 60 cassettes, which formed the core of my music library for that first year away from home.
Most of the tapes that lived in that case showcased mixes compiled by friends. To my delight, the majority have stuck with me through my adult life, even as the medium as gone out of vogue. Not that I need to listen to them anymore to feel their impact. I look at a tape like the one labeled “KICKING THE DOG… suburbs are very sinister places, contrary to what most people imagine,” made by the older brother of a classmate from Chicago, and see how it clearly mapped my tastes: The Slits, Scritti Politti, Wire, Pere Ubu, The Electric Prunes. All acts that would crop up in my DJ sets a lifetime later.
But what really thrilled me about my excavation were the handwritten track listings. Steve’s childlike scrawl on that homemade Julian Cope anthology. The C-90 full of extended disco and club hits (“It’s Raining Men,” “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)”) bearing Robert’s neat-as-a-pin, all capitals block lettering. Michael’s tall, spidery script, unfurling names as disparate as the Durutti Column and Billie Holiday on the same tape. All these mixes are great — but I have the songs committed to memory. More so than the musical components, it was seeing everyone’s distinct handwriting again that made me appreciate just how much thought and time and effort had gone into each one of these gems.
My friends and I still exchange mixes, but now we all use CDs and podcasts. Those are compiled with care, too. But they give me no information about the penmanship of some of my dearest pals. The advent of the computers and text messaging and cheap printers have virtually eliminated the labor-intensive personal touches from making a mix. Not to belittle the unpleasantness of carpel tunnel syndrome, but I don’t think clicking and dragging a bunch of sound files and changing font sizes reflects the same commitment as hunching over a pause button for hours, or getting a hand cramp from trying to squeeze all the pertinent info about thirty selections between the narrow lines of a tape insert.
Of course, somewhere out there is a retirement-age colleague with an attic full of player piano rolls, or souvenir transcription discs made at arcades to send to loved ones during wartime, who thinks cassettes were a lazy man’s medium. To each generation their own. But me? Well, let’s just say that for all my purging this weekend, I still hung on to more tapes than that ragged carrying case can hold.
DJ El Toro is the host of the overnight show In Between Sleep & Reason, Wednesday mornings from 1 AM to 6 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org.