It may be too early to tell, but I think that Cassette From My Ex: Stories and Soundtracks of Lost Loves is going to be the gift book of the season. For any music lovers and lovers who share music who have ever been spun around by the magic of giving a mix-tape or gotten one, the 60 writers in this fun, cute hardcover will be picking it off the coffee table through holidays and into 2010. If you received a mix that changed your life or at least your listening habits, and dreamed of those days when we used to have time to “sequence” the small but wondrous relational statements, dancing between the “Rewind” and “Fast Forward” to the “Play” and “Record” buttons with a stubborn sense of mission and vested passion, buy this book.
From the website of the same name edited by Jason Bitner (also a FOUND magazine co-creator), CFME squeezes a wide spectrum of beloved personal compilation tales from scribes such as Rolling Stone/Blender editor Joe Levy (“The World’s A Mess, It’s In My Kiss,” because his ex dug X and grew him up a little), to Claudia Gonson of the Magnetic Fields, whose “‘John’ Tape, Circa 1986” tells how she was squeezed between a certain Stephin and a teenage friend named John who helped her distinguish “the difference between the Rain Parade, The Raincoats, and Rainy Day.”
MTV2 VJ Jancee Dunn has a classic yarn all about drinking beer and really discovering classic rock, whilst punk academic and feminist Anne Elizabeth Moore ties in illness and a strange synchronicity with Jeff Buckley’s demise. There is a wonderful aesthetic-romantic dialogue between fiction writers Rock Moody and Stacey Richter, and Love Is A Mixtape author Rob Sheffield recaptures a portion of his deeply touching full-length autobiography on the subject.
There are kids fighting about what’s “punk” and “not punk,” straight edge pranksters finding their dopplegangers and having a hard time letting each other go, getting lucky with a hot ex-cheerleader in college who disappoints by filling her entire gift with Pearl Jam, Goths impressing indie kids with sonic “gravitas,” doomed Winona-worship being healed by a new lover’s soul pop, the corny affections of an activist first love, and girls learning hard to avoid zine boys who get their romantic ideations from Lou Barlow.
The bigger story here isn’t the music itself, but the stories behind the recording and receiving of it: How barely-noted obscure anthologies sparked on-and-off relationships, lustily helped seduce objects of desire, turned people on to whole new cultures in song lists both never heard of or heard, or structured in new ways, or tossing both types together. It probably goes without saying that a lot of these writers are journalists and musicians and artists working successfully in various fields today; as it’s implied, mix tape makers “know how to give love,” not just talk about it.
Along the way and among the dazzling, tightly edited narratives are practical recommendations for how to fix a messed up tape (invest in a small Phillips head screwdriver), for transferring old cassette contents into your iPod, and for the various assortments of mix tapes to make: “Crush Tapes,” “Audio Postcard Tapes,” featuring the voice of the mix tape maker along with a selection of tracks, which isn’t done as much these days, “Era-Defining Tapes,” and yes, even the rare “Breakup Tapes” — among other types.
A whole volume to each category would have more than enough material (I made hundreds myself for all the different reasons, often combined), but I have the feeling the great punk rock dubs from pals at live shows and such haven’t been as prized and put away as the ones from lovers, mentors, best friends, and inspirations.
My favorite aspects of reading through the book though are seeing how certain artists and styles are ubiquitous in the world of exchanged personal soundtracks (the Velvet Underground, Bowie, bouncy romantic rap, Weezer, Nick Cave, Mos Def, etc.); how random many of the assortments are, blending lo-fi indie songs with the Beatles; or specifically expansive, as in New Yorker editor Ben Greenman’s excellent memoir, where she put the Cocteau Twins’ entire much-beloved full length “Blue Bell Knoll” on the second side of a C-90. I couldn’t help but compare these sequences to all the ones I made, and the ones I received, especially in the years mostly chronicled here (the 80s, but there are definitely emo lists and ones from non-pop eras as well). In the interests of full disclosure (blowing my own horn actually), I think my mix holds up pretty well in the story about a tape I sent someone — which is reassuring, as that cassette had many of my own favorite songs on it and was very significant to me personally.
Back to the practical matters, though — if you want to check out some adored shared music from the past, and get at least a glimpse of why it mattered so much to those who played it for each other, this also makes Cassettes From My Ex perfect as another musical research source for your own beloved collection (and hopefully mixes as well).
Chris Estey is a freelance writer who lives in Seattle and contributes to the KEXP Blog, The Stranger, and Three Imaginary Girls.