July 22, 2010

Things that matter: Mixtapes

There was a time, an era if you will when mixtapes were a big thing.

I'm sure the mixtape era lasted longer than I remember it - people clearly had cassette tapes and recorders before 1990, but I didn't start making mixtapes until I was in high school, until The Girl came into my romantic world.  Before that, I'd been content to play music in whatever order had been prescribed to me by a DJ in Louisville or by an artist in some distant land, sequencing their own songs in whatever way they wanted me to listen to them.

And then came dating...I needed to say something...I didn't entirely know what that something was, but it was definitely something, and I needed to say it.  Only I didn't know how, so I searched for songs that already said it for me.  Then I started making mixtapes.  I don't know that I had codified the rules quite as well as Nick Hornby's Rob ever did, but I knew that the song choice mattered but so did the order of the songs.  There had to be a flow, a rhythm, a sequence that somehow added to whatever it was that I needed to say.

So I made mixtapes, keeping notebooks of possible songs, sequencing them in my head, playing them through on my little portable stereo, on my parents' larger stereo, recording a song, recording another, rewinding and rerecording something else because the flow wasn't right, the something wasn't being said correctly by the songs in that order.  Things had to be switched.  Songs had to be taped in the other way because otherwise that something wouldn't get across with the listening.

There had to be enough songs already known to resonate with The Girl - things that she knew and loved but that said that thing well enough, songs would tell her that I was cool enough to recognize the music she already liked, that would put me into the group of people who already got the good music.  But there also had to be songs that she'd never heard before because I couldn't just parrot her tastes right back to her.  I wanted to be able to introduce her to new music that she would love, that we could come to enjoy together.   The lists of possible songs kept growing and growing, longer and longer, only rarely with songs getting crossed off because either they ended up saying the wrong something or because they'd been chosen to step up to the big leagues and be used on a tape.

But then, when, the mixtape was as perfect as it could be, it would become finalized.  The songs would be patiently written on the tape cover in pen - pencil was too temporary for something of this import.  Pen was the only way to go, and the penmanship had to be at its finest and most mistake-free.

When the mixtape was given isn't something that I remember.  I don't remember ever passing mixtapes in the halls, but I'm guessing that it wasn't something handed over in any momentous ceremony, either.  The mixtape was supposed to be something given casually, as though it didn't take any effort to make, no biggie, just something I threw together without any subtext of needing it to say that something that I couldn't manage in my own words.

Whatever I needed those first mixtapes to say, they must have said well enough because there were more mixtapes after that first one.  There were the ones that I made for The Girl...

There were the ones that she made for me...

You'll notice that most of the mixtapes have picture covers.  That's something that I'm thinking The Girl came up with.  I might've been the first there, but I doubt it.  It meant that each tape had a name - Knitting Girl, Fleas Navidog, Booster Gold, Licking Dog, Golden Star, whatever, and each would be referred to by name.  We would be talking on the phone and would ask what the other was listening to - "Oh, Knitting Girl right now."  It was an easy connection across whatever divide there was - three blocks back in The Hometown or a couple hours drive between Crawfordsville and Bloomington.

The mixtapes faded, of course, as did the use of cassette tapes - pretty much at about the same time.  I haven't played any of the tapes in a few years now, only pulling them out from time to time for nostalgic reasons.  I don't know that I would go back into a burning building to save them, but I do know that it somehow reassures me to know that they're around, that I could listen to them, that I could play them again to know where I first learned about "Wholly Humble Heart" and why "Crimson and Clover" is supposed to follow it every time.

When the first post-college computers showed up, I made a cd mixtape for The Girl, but it just wasn't the same.  It was too easy to rearrange the songs, too nice and tidy to print up a cd cover, and I didn't need to say that something any more.  We were living together.  I'd said it.

To give you an idea of what a mixtape was, here are the playlists from a few of the ones in the photos...

Knitting Girl...from her to me...
  • "Hound Dog" by Willie Mae Thorton
  • "Shake a Little" by Bonnie Raitt
  • "If I Had a Boat" by Lyle Lovett
  • "The Sweater" by Meryn Cadell
  • "Wholly Humble Heart" by Martin Stephenson
  • "Crimson and Clover" by Tommy James & the Shondells
  • "Angel" by Jimi Hendrix
  • "The Violin" by Brian Dewan
  • "What'll I Do" by Nat King Cole
  • "Boom Boom" by John Lee Hooker
  • "Blood in My Eyes" by Bob Dylan
  • "Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand" by the Beatles
  • "Skinny Dip" by Garrison Keilor (the beginning of side B)
  • "Fields of Gold" by Sting
  • "Thank You" by Led Zeppelin
  • "Crash Into You" by Dave Matthews Band
  • "Sugar, Sugar" by The Archies
  • "Her First Mistake" by Lyle Lovett
  • "I've Been Loving You So Long" by Otis Redding
  • "East of the Sun" by Billie Holliday
  • "Lover Lay Down" by Dave Matthews Band
So many of those are specific memories for me...listening to A Prairie Home Companion on Saturday evenings in her apartment...her taking an entire three-credit class on the Beatles at IU... her introducing me to Lyle Lovett...her beginning to mix in older songs thanks to her two three-credit History of Rock courses...

Booster Gold...from me to her
  • "Since You Been Gone" by Weird Al Yankowicz
  • "Love Me Do" by the Beatles
  • "Nobody Like You To Me" by Harry Connick
  • "Stand By Your Man" by Lyle Lovett
  • "Killkelly" by Mick Moloney
  • "Memories are Made of This" by Johnny Cash
  • "Morning Song" by Jewel
  • "Emotionally Yours" by the O'Jays
  • "Tangled Up in You" by Bob Dylan
  • "Happy Christmas" by the Pogues
  • "Freakers' Ball" by Bunion
  • "Close to You" by Stevie Ray Vaughn
  • "Cruel Spell" by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (starting side 2)
  • "If God Sends His Angels" by U2
  • "Emotionally Yours/Winterlong" by Bob Dylan
  • "Where You Lead" by Carol King
  • "I'm a Believer" by the Monkees
  • "Save Your Kisses for Me" by the Brotherhood of Man
  • "Satellite" by Dave Matthews Band
  • "Meet You on Monday" by Carrie Newcomer
  • "Never Mind the Strangers" by the Saw Doctors
  • "Eight Days a Week" by the Beatles
Clearly - to me, anyway - this was made after I'd gotten back from Scotland...I first heard "Killkelly" with The Girl at a Celtic concert at Wabash and was in tears by the end of Mick Moloney's performance of the song, balling my eyes out in Wabash's new performing arts center...we saw Jewel opening for Neil Young in one of our first concerts together after my return...Bunion was a cover band that I heard a number of times when I was in Scotland...Big Bad Voodoo Daddy was one of the many nuvo-swing groups that were popular at the time...

I want to try to get all of these songs digitally so I can make a couple of 8tracks playlists for myself.  Sometime, perhaps...

There was one other person with whom I traded mixtapes, a friend with whom I never had any romantic connection.  This was the other Kristin that I met in Scotland, Kristin Reichow - now Kristin Butler.  She and I became fast friends in Scotland and continued to correspond and visit each other while she was in the Midwest - at Kenyon College in initially and then visiting the flyover states a couple of times - but have since lost touch.  While we were still in contact, however, she and I traded mixtapes back and forth. 

These weren't quite so fraught with emotion as I was only trying to come up with music that I thought my friend would enjoy not music that would say that something.  Here are the mixtapes that came my way from Kristin the Red...

The one in the bottom middle was a collection of U2 rarities that she made for me.  The one to the left of that was a recording of the aforementioned Bunion, a band that played at our favorite bar in Scotland.  I see three others there that were all Celtic music, a love that she had before going to Scotland and one that I developed while I was there.  The other two are true mixtapes, jumbled and unsequenced in everyway.  I love them all.

And they all matter to me...


joey said...


By the time i was old enough to come up with the idea of making a mixtape I don't think they were even called mixtapes anymore. Just mixes. Probably since they were all on CDs and not cassettes.

Either way, while making a mix on a CD is definitely far easier, I can relate 100% on the work that goes in to song selection and the - in my opinion even more important - order. CD decoration, and for the really important ones cover design, was also key. Nothing felt better than seeing that final product and handing off a little piece of my soul to someone else.

What will the kids of today do? Borrow someone's iPod to throw some songs on a playlist? Just pass a note in class with a list of songs and maybe some cool doodles?

Mixtapes are one thing that I think may eventually go (or have already gone) the way of the dinosaurs. Not the concept of it, but the poignancy. In a selfish way I'm OK with that. They can come up with some newfangled doohickey, I'll keep my list of "mix bait."

joey said...

summary: great post. i got all emotional and stuff

DanEcht said...

I haven't made a mix in a while, but I agree: the thought and effort that go into a CD mix are the same, even if the media makes it easier.

Also, Rob Sheffield's book is beautiful.

Ame said...

By the way... you forgot one person you made mixtapes for... your mom was playing one just the other night.

PHSChemGuy said...

Joey - I don't know what replaces the mixtpe with the next musical generation. A playlist doesn't carry the same gravitas to me because it's so transitory. It's too easy with a playlist to just delete a song a week later because it didn't feel right. With the mixtape (or the cd-r), there was a feeling of permanence to the things. At some point, art has to be let go to sink or swim on its own. Thanks for the kind words, by the way.

DanEcht - Love is a Mixtape is absolutely, heart-achingly gorgeous. I shed tears a number of times.

Ame - Yeah, but making a tape for my mom of some songs I like that I think she might like isn't exactly the same thing here.