Monday, November 24, 2014

Music Made Me #3: Birth of a Mix Tape

1935: The German electronics company AEG (Aus Erfahrung Gut) invents the first reel-to-reel magnetic tape recorder. They call it the Magnetophon.

1958: RCA Victor introduces the first quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape cartridges.  But almost nobody buys them because they're bulky and expensive.

1963: The Dutch electronic company Philips introduces the first "compact cassette" for audio recording. 

1966: The first music albums are released on cassette in the U.S. by the Mercury Record Company, including Eartha Kitt's If You Go Away, Nina Simone's Wild is the Wind, and John Mathis's The Shadow of Your Smile

Early 1970s: In-car cassette decks are a boon for the new format.  This is the beginning of the time-honored tradition of "road testing" new albums, and it revolutionizes the way people listen to music. 

Late 1970s: Re-recordable cassettes arrive, followed by the ubiquitous Sony Walkman (in the year of my birth -- coincidence?).  DJ Grandmaster Flash pioneers the making of "party tapes" (a.k.a. "mixtapes"). 

1987: Alan Sugar develops the first twin-cassette deck for the mass market, infuriating record labels and ushering in the dawn of the mix tape phenomenon.

1988: This was the year my family moved to a new town and I discovered MTV.  It was also the year I realized that love is a mix tape.  I used to sit up late at night listening to a local radio station's "all request hour": an endless stream of popular songs requested by teenage listeners and dedicated to their current flame or recent breakup.  The songs were predictable (Aerosmith's "Angel," Van Halen's "When It's Love," Def Leppard's "Love Bites,"  INXS's "Never Tear Us Apart"), but the on-air dedications were heartfelt... and that sometimes changed the way I heard a song.   

1991: The peak year of cassette culture.  My family moved again and, on my first day at a new school, I became infatuated with a girl in my seventh grade homeroom.  In my old town, I could have professed my love on the all-request hour... but that didn't seem to be a thing in my new town.   So I became friends with her friends, to learn more about her.  (It would have been too obvious to befriend her directly, right?)  Then, by some glorious stroke of luck or fate, I was paired up with her for a science project.  I spent every single minute of our time together trying to make her laugh.  Her friends told me they'd never seen her laugh that much, and encouraged me to ask her out.  But, of course, that would have been too risky...

I waited for the middle school dance.  I knew that music would help me make my case.  Once the dance was underway, it was just a matter of waiting for the right song.  The right song, as it turned out, was Metallica's "Nothing Else Matters."  I summoned my nerve to leave the safety of the wallflowers corner.  I asked her to dance.  We slow danced.  All was right with the world.  Then the song ended, and I returned to my corner.  Sometime later, one of her friends approacheded told me that I should go ask for another dance.  "If you ask her," the friend said, "she'll say yes."  I decided to wait.

The last song of every dance was always "Stairway to Heaven."  That was the song every lovestruck guy in my middle school waited for, whether you liked Led Zeppelin or not, because it was the longest song that would get played all night (at least, until GNR's "November Rain" was released as a single).  It represented eight full minutes of potential bliss with the girl of your dreams.  So I waited.  And waited.  Finally, I heard the world's most familiar opening chord progression.  And I started across the dance floor.

I was stopped short by a girl from my art class who asked me to dance.  The next eight minutes were excruciating.  I tried to slow dance, but I was just too busy kicking myself.

That failure strengthened my resolve, at least briefly.  I bought a dozen roses, and I brought them to school early one morning, before anyone else had arrived.  I didn't have the nerve to present them directly, so my plan was to put them on her chair in homeroom, and hope that she would figure out who they were from.  (It's official.  I am an idiot.)  But I couldn't do it that first day, because I almost had an anxiety attack just getting the flowers to my locker.  One step at a time, folks.  And I couldn't do it the second day, because, well... you know, people might see me.  A week passed, and the roses started to wither inside my locker.  Then I couldn't give them to her at all, because who the hell declares their love with a dozen dead roses?  So I had to come to school early again one morning, and throw the roses away before anyone saw them.

The only person who ever even knew they existed -- and this is the really embarrassing part -- was my mother.  Of course, my mother thought it was all very sweet.  But I knew better.  Who the hell declares their love with roses anyway?  Might as well write her a sonnet.  That's so archaic.  I needed something subtler.  Something cooler.  Something that could convey the exact emotions I wanted to convey in a way that I couldn't possibly express in words.

1992: My friend Anne introduced me to the art of mix tape.  I don't remember what prompted that glorious gift.  One day, she just handed me a Memorex cassette of her favorite songs.  The song titles were written on the label in purple ink, but most of the names didn't mean anything to me at first.  After a few listens, I was pretty much infatuated with Anne.

Mind you, I didn't fall for Anne because of her taste in music or her ability to make a perfect mix tape.  Actually, that first mix tape was kind of schizophrenic.  It got off to a rocky start with a couple of country songs.  Anne was convinced that I didn't like country music because I hadn't heard the right country songs.  The truth is that I grew up in the mountains of Virginia and I'd already heard far more country songs than I ever wanted to.  

But there were some surprising gems on the tape, like Otis Redding's "Dreams to Remember" (which I had somehow never heard before), Jimmy Soul's infectiously silly "If You Want to Be Happy" (which was an ironic song for a really pretty girl to put on a mix tape) and The Rolling Stones' "Almost Hear You Sigh" (which is not a great song... until a really pretty girl puts it on a mix tape for you).  The best part was the way the tape ended, with back-to-back arena rock ballads: Journey's "Open Arms" and REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight This Feeling."  There was something so stupidly romantic about those two songs that I couldn't help wishing that the tape represented some kind of implied intimacy. The B-side ended abruptly, halfway through the last song, which was annoying (and more accurately symbolic of the level of implied intimacy encoded in that tape)... but it left me wanting more.  And, lucky for me, Anne kept making tapes that got better and better.  Her third mix tape introduced me to Oasis ("Wonderwall") and Sarah McLachlan ("Hold On" - the alternate version on the 1993 No Alternative compilation).

I reciprocated, of course.  My first attempt at a mix tape wasn't anything worth writing about -- check out the Billboard End of Year Charts for 1991 and 1992 and you'll have some idea of how bad it was -- but, hey, I was just getting started.

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